The Primacy of Consciousness

(Chapter contributed to The Re-Enchantment of the Cosmos by Ervin Laszlo)

See also video stream of presentation given at Physics of Consciousness conference.


Summary: An argument as to why the ultimate nature of reality is mental not material.

Ervin Laszlo has proposed that the virtual energy field known as the quantum vacuum, or zero-point field, corresponds to what Indian teachings have called Akasha. the source of everything that exists, and in which the memory of the cosmos is encoded. I would like to take his reasoning a step further and suggest that the nature of this ultimate source is consciousness itself, nothing more and nothing less.

Again we find this idea is not new. In the Upanishads, Brahman, the source of the cosmos (literally, "that from which everything grows"), is held to be to Atman ("that which shines"), the essence of consciousness. And in the opening lines of The Dhammapada, the Buddha declares that "All phenomena are preceded by mind, made by mind, and ruled by mind".

Such a view, though widespread in many metaphysical systems, is completely foreign to the current scientific worldview. The world we see is so obviously material in nature; any suggestion that it might have more in common with mind is quickly rejected as having "no basis in reality". However, when we consider this alternative worldview more closely, it turns out that it is not in conflict with any of the findings of modern science—only with its presuppositions. Furthermore, it leads to a picture of the cosmos that is even more enchanted.

All in the Mind

The key to this alternative view is the fact that all our experiences—all our perceptions, sensations, dreams, thoughts and feelings—are forms appearing in consciousness. It doesn't always seem that way. When I see a tree it seems as if I am seeing the tree directly. But science tells us something completely different is happening. Light entering the eye triggers chemical reactions in the retina, these produce electro-chemical impulses which travel along nerve fibers to the brain. The brain analyses the data it receives, and then creates its own picture of what is out there. I then have the experience of seeing a tree. But what I am actually experiencing is not the tree itself, only the image that appears in the mind. This is true of everything I experience. Everything we know, perceive, and imagine, every color, sound, sensation, every thought and every feeling, is a form appearing in the mind. It is all an in-forming of consciousness.

The idea that we never experience the physical world directly has intrigued many philosophers. Most notable was the eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanual Kant, who drew a clear distinction between the form appearing in the mind—what he called the phenomenon (a Greek word meaning "that which appears to be")—and the world that gives rise to this perception, which he called the noumenon (meaning “that which is apprehended"). All we know, Kant insisted, is the phenomenon. The noumenon, the “thing-in-itself,” remains forever beyond our knowing.

Unlike some of his predecessors, Kant was not suggesting that this reality is the only reality. Irish theologian Bishop Berkeley had likewise argued that we know only our perceptions. He then concluded that nothing exists apart from our perceptions, which forced him into the difficult position of having to explain what happened to the world when no one was perceiving it. Kant held that there is an underlying reality, but we never know it directly. All we can ever know of it is the form that appears in the mind—our mental model of what is "out there".

It is sometimes said that our model of reality is an illusion, but that is misleading. It may all be an appearance in the mind, but it is nonetheless real—the only reality we ever know. The illusion comes when we confuse the reality we experience with the physical reality, the thing-in-itself. The Vedantic philosophers of ancient India spoke of this confusion as maya. Often translated as “illusion” (a false perception of the world), maya is better interpreted as “delusion” (a false belief about the world). We suffer a delusion when we believe the images in our minds are the external world. We deceive ourselves when we think that the tree we see is the tree itself.

The tree itself is a physical object, constructed from physical matter—molecules, atoms, sub-atomic particles. But from what is the image in the mind constructed? Clearly it is not constructed from physical matter. A perceptual image is composed of the same "stuff" as our dreams, thoughts, and feelings, and we would not say that these are created from physical atoms or molecules. (There might or might not be a corresponding physical activity in the brain, but what I am concerned with here is the substance of the image itself.) So what is the mental substance from which all our experiences are formed?

The English language does not have a good word for this mental essence. In Sanskrit, the word chitta, often translated as consciousness, carries the meaning of mental substance, and is sometimes translated as "mindstuff". It is that which takes on the mental forms of images, sounds, sensations, thoughts, and feelings. They are made of "mindstuff" rather than "matterstuff".

Mindstuff, or chitta, has the potential to take on the form of every possible experience—everything that I, or anyone else, could possibly experience in life; every experience of every being, on this planet, or any other sentient being, anywhere in the cosmos. In this respect consciousness has infinite potential. In the words of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, "Consciousness is the field of all possibilities".

This aspect of consciousness can be likened to the light from a film projector. The projector shines light onto a screen, modifying the light so as to produce one of an infinity of possible images. These images are like the perceptions, sensations, dreams, memories, thoughts, and feelings that we experience—the forms arising in consciousness. The light itself, without which no images would be possible, corresponds to this ability of consciousness to take on form.

We know all the images on a movie screen are composed of light, but we are not usually aware of the light itself; our attention is caught up in the images that appear and the stories they tell. In much the same way, we know we are conscious, but we are usually aware only of the many different perceptions, thoughts, and feelings that appear in the mind. We are seldom aware of consciousness itself.

All phenomena are projections in the mind.

—The Third Karmapa

No Matter?

Although we may not know the external world directly, we can draw conclusions from our experience as to what it might be like. This, in essence, has been the focus of our scientific endeavors. Scientists have sought to understand the functioning of the world around us, and draw conclusions about its true nature.

To the surprise of many, the world "out there" has turned out to be quite unlike our experience of it. Consider our experience of the color green. In the physical world there is light of a certain frequency, but the light itself is not green. Nor are the electrical impulses that are transmitted from the eye to the brain. No color exists there. The green we see is a quality appearing in the mind in response to this frequency of light. It exists only as a subjective experience in the mind.

The same is true of sound. I hear the music of a violin, but the sound I hear is a quality appearing in the mind. There is no sound as such in the external world, just vibrating air molecules. The smell of a rose does not exist without an experiencing mind, just molecules of a certain shape.

The same is also true of the solidness we experience in matter. Our experience of the world is certainly one of solidness, so we assume that the "thing in itself" must be equally solid. For two thousand years it was believed that atoms were tiny solid balls—a model clearly drawn from everyday experience. Then, as physicists discovered that atoms were composed of more elementary, subatomic particles (electrons, protons, neutrons, and suchlike) the model shifted to one of a central nucleus surrounded by orbiting electrons—again, a model based on experience.

An atom may be small, a mere billionth of an inch across, but subatomic particles are a hundred thousand times smaller still. Imagine the nucleus of an atom magnified to the size of a golf ball. The whole atom would then be the size of a football stadium, and the electrons would be like peas flying round the stands. As the early twentieth-century British physicist Sir Arthur Eddington put it, “Matter is mostly ghostly empty space.” To be more precise, it is 99.9999999% empty space.

With the development of quantum theory, physicists have found that even subatomic particles are far from solid. In fact, they are nothing like matter as we know it. They cannot be pinned down and measured precisely. Much of the time they seem more like waves than particles. They are like fuzzy clouds of potential existence, with no definite location. Whatever matter is, it has little, if any, substance.

Our notion of matter as a solid substance is, like the color green, a quality appearing in consciousness. It is a model of what is "out there", but as with almost every other model, quite unlike what is actually out there.

Even the notion of mass is questionable. In his General Theory of Relativity, Albert Einstein showed that mass and acceleration are indistinguishable. A person in an elevator feels lighter when the elevator accelerates downwards, and heavier when it decelerates to a halt. This is no illusion, scales would also show your weight to have changed. What we experience as mass is the resistance of the ground beneath our feet to our otherwise free fall towards the center of the Earth. According to Einstein, we are being continually decelerated, and interpret that as mass. An astronaut in orbit experiences no mass—until, that is, he bumps into the wall of the spacecraft and experiences a temporary deceleration.

Whatever matter is, it is not made of matter.

—Prof. Hans-Peter Dürr

Spacetime and Action

Einstein's work also revealed that space and time are not absolutes. They vary according to the motion of the observer. If you are moving rapidly past me, and we both measure the distance and time between two events—a car traveling from one end of a street to another, say—then you will observe the car to have traveled less distance in less time than I observe. Conversely, from your point of view, I am moving rapidly past you, and in your frame of reference I will observe less space and time than you do. Weird? Yes. And almost impossible for us to conceive of. Yet numerous experiments have shown it to be true. It is our common sense notions of space and time that are wrong. Once again they are constructs in the mind, and do not perfectly model what is out there.

Kant foresaw this a hundred years before Einstein. He concluded that space and time are the dimensional framework in which the mind constructs its experience. They are built into the perceiving process, and we cannot but think in terms of space and time. But they are not aspects of the objective reality. That reality, according to Einstein, is something else, what he called "spacetime". When observed, spacetime appears as a certain amount of space and a certain amount of time. But how much is perceived as space and how much is perceived as time is not fixed; they depend upon the motion of the observer.

If space, time, and matter have no absolute objective status, what about energy? Physicists have a hard time saying exactly what energy is. It is defined as the potential to do work, that is, to create change. Energy comes in many different forms: potential energy, kinetic energy, chemical energy, electrical energy, heat energy, radiation energy. But we never measure energy as such, only the changes that we attribute to energy.

Energy if often said to be a fundamental quality of the cosmos. But that too turns out to be a mistake. According the Special Theory of Relativity, energy and mass are interchangeable, related by Einstein's famous equation, E=mc2. Observers traveling at different speeds will differ in their measurements of how much energy an object has.

Quantum theory offers further clues as to the nature of energy. The quantum is commonly called a quantum of energy, the smallest possible unit of energy. But that is not strictly correct. The quantum is actually a quantum of action.

What is action? It is another physical quantity like distance, velocity, momentum, force, and others that we meet in physics, but it is not usually given much attention in our basic math or physics

The amount of action in a quantum is exceedingly small, about 0.00000000000000000000000000662618 erg.secs (or 6.62618 x 10 erg.secs in mathematical shorthand)—but it is always exactly the same amount. It as one of the few absolutes in existence, and more fundamental than space, time, matter, or energy. The Zero-Point Field is not therefore a potential energy field—despite the fact it is often referred to as such. It is a potential quantum field, a field of potential action.

A photon is a single quantum of light, but the energy associated with a photon varies enormously. A gamma-ray photon, for example, packs trillions of times more energy than a radio-wave photon. But each and every photon, each and every quantum, is an identical unit of action.

When the photon is absorbed—by the retina of the eye, say—it manifests as a certain amount of energy, measured by the amount of change it is capable of creating. This change is what is conveyed to the brain and then interpreted as color. The amount of change, or energy, is dependent upon the frequency, which is why we say different colors correspond to different frequencies of light.

What is frequency? Again it is another model taken from experience and then imagined to apply to the photon. It is most unlikely that a photon has frequency as we think of it. Indeed, even the idea of a photon is another example of how we have projected our experience on to the external world. We experience particles so imagine light might be a particle. We also have the experience of waves, so imagine light as a wave. Sometimes light seems to fit one description, other times another. It is much more likely that light is neither wave nor particle. For reasons of space, I will not go into the details of the argument here, but the interested reader can find more in my book From Science to God.

To summarize the argument so far: Our whole experience is a construction in the mind, a form appearing in consciousness. These mental forms are composed not of physical substance but of"mindstuff". We imagine that the world out there is like the forms that appear in consciousness, but it turns out, that in nearly every aspect, the external is not at all like the images created in the mind. What appear to us as fundamental dimensions and attributes of the physical world—space, time, matter and energy—are but the fundamental dimensions and attributes of the forms appearing in consciousness.

Matter is derived from mind, not mind from matter.

—The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation

Two Aspects or One?

In Chapter Four, Ervin introduces panpsychism: the hypothesis that consciousness is not unique to human beings, or higher animals, or even creatures with nervous systems. It is in everything. As he is at pains to point out, this is not to imply that simpler systems have thoughts or feelings, or any of the other mental functions that we associate with consciousness, only that the capacity for consciousness is there in some form, however faint. Even a lowly bacterium has a glimmer of the inner light, maybe a billionth of the inner light we know, but not nothing at all.

The current scientific paradigm assumes the exact opposite—that matter itself is completely insentient, it is completely devoid of the capacity for experience. Consciousness only comes into existence with the evolution of complex nervous systems. The problem with this view—David Chalmers', "hard problem"—is explaining how conscious experience could ever emerge from insentient matter. Why doesn't all that neural processing go on "in the dark?"

Ervin argues that the only tenable answer, anathema as it may be to the current scientific worldview, is that the capacity for inner experience does not suddenly appear, as if by magic, once a particular level of complexity has arisen. The potential for inner experience has been there all along.

Panpsychism is usually taken to imply that there are dual aspects to everything. There is the physical aspect, that which we can observe from the outside, and there is a mental aspect, the experiences known from the inside. For a long time I went along with this dual aspect view. But recently I have begun to question it. I have not questioned whether or not there is a mental aspect, which is the question that most people raise. I have come to question whether there is, after all, a physical aspect. I realize this is radical to many, but let me briefly go over the reasons behind this suggestion and the implications.

Every time we try to pin down the physical aspect we come away empty-handed. Every idea we have had of the physical has proven to be wrong, and the notion of materiality seems to be evaporating before our eyes. But our belief in the material world is so deeply engrained—and so powerfully reinforced by our experience—that we cling to our assumption that there must be some physical essence. Like the medieval astronomers who never questioned their assumption that the Earth was the center of the universe, we never question our assumption that the external world is physical in nature. Indeed it was quite startling to me when I realized that the answer might be staring us straight in the face. Maybe there really is nothing there. No "thing" that is. No physical aspect. Maybe there is only a mental aspect to everything.

We would then have to think of the Akashic Field as a field that is entirely mental in nature. Its essence is the essence of mind. It's hard to imagine, I know. In fact all we can imagine are the forms arising in our minds. We cannot imagine consciousness itself. It is the imaginer, that in which images arise. It is probably best not even to try to imagine what a mental field is like, for we would surely be as wrong as when we try to imagine quanta, or spacetime.

All we can say about it is that it is not a uniform field. It must contain distinctions of some kind, for it is these variations that are the origin of our perception of the world. If there were no variations in the field, there would be nothing to observe, nothing to experience.

These variations in the field are the "objects" of our perception. But they are not objects in the sense of a material object. They only become material objects in the mind of the observer. There then appears to be a material "thing" out there. We then assume that the physicality we experience, which seems so intrinsic to the world we know, must also be an intrinsic aspect of the external world.

Even though there may be no physical basis to the external world, the laws of physics still hold true. The only thing that changes is our assumption of what we are measuring. We are not measuring physical particles or such, but perturbations in the Akashic mind-field. The laws of "physics" become the laws governing the unfolding of a mental field, reflections of how perturbations in this field interact.

What we call an elementary particle would correspond to an elementary variation in the field. We might better call it an elementary entity rather than particle. Elementary entities are organized into atoms, molecules, cells and suchlike, just as in the current paradigm. The difference is that we no longer have to think of consciousness sensing matter (with all the difficulties that involves of how the physical influences the mental), consciousness is now sensing consciousness directly.

Interaction might now be thought of as perception—the perception of one region in the mind-field by another. In the current view every interaction is mediated by a quantum of action (an inter-action). In this alternative view, the smallest item would be a unit of perception, a unit of experience. It would be a quantum of consciousness, a quantum of chitta.

In the physical world of our experience we have discovered action to be a fundamental quality. In this alternative view, that still is true. Consciousness acts as it takes form. A quantum of action is a quantum of experience, a quantum of chitta.

We can now begin to understand why the material world appears to be devoid of consciousness. The qualities that appear in the mind—the color, sound, smell, substance, or whatever—become objects of perception, "the material world". But there is no sign of consciousness itself in the images of matter that appear in the mind. Just as when we watch a movie, the picture on the screen may be composed of light, but there is no evidence in the unfolding story that this is the case. The forms that arise in the mind give no hint in themselves that they are all manifestations of mindstuff. They appear to be other than consciousness. And so we assume that the stuff of the world "out there"—the matterstuff—is insentient.

Physics is the study of the structure of consciousness.
The "stuff" of the world is mindstuff.

—Sir Arthur Eddington

The Hard Question Revisited

The hard question of how insentient matter could ever give rise to conscious experience is now turned inside-out. There is no insentient matter—apart from that appearing in the mind. The question now becomes: How does mind take on all these qualities that we experience, including that of matter?

That question is best answered by direct awareness; by turning the light of consciousness in upon itself, and observing the nature of mind first-hand. Those who have chosen this path are the great mystics, yogis, seers, saints, rishis, and roshis who are found dotted throughout human history.

Despite the differences in time and culture, they have come to remarkably similar conclusions. These conclusions do not, however, make much sense to the contemporary Western mind. In most cases they seem to be so a odds with the current scientific worldview that they are rejected out of hand—and with them any credibility there may be for spirituality in general.

Consider, for instance, the statement by Baba Muktananda that "You are the entire universe. You are in all, and all is in you. Sun, moon, and stars revolve within you." Most people would be puzzled, if not confused. It clearly goes against the contemporary worldview in which I am a small point at the center of my universe, around which everything else revolves. Muktananda appears to be saying the exact opposite. Possibly, we might surmise, a mind deranged by too much meditation.

However, if we see it in terms of an intimate personal acquaintance with the arising of mental phenomena, and hence of our whole world, it makes much more sense. Every experience, every thing we ever know, is taking place within us.

Likewise, when we read such peoples' accounts of creation, we are likely to interpret them in terms of how the physical world was created. In a sense they are. But they are talking of the physical world as it appears in the mind—how that is being continually created.

The Ashtavakra Gita, a highly venerated Indian text, says: "The Universe produced phenomenally in me, is pervaded by me. . . From me the world is born, in me it exists, in me it dissolves." Hardly comprehensible, until we consider it from the point of view of consciousness.

"In the beginning was Logos." Often translated as "The Word", logos also means "thought, or essence." In the beginning was the mental essence, chitta.

"Be still and know that I am God" is not necessarily an injunction to stop moving around and recognize that the person speaking is the creator of the entire cosmos; it is much more likely an encouragement to still the mind—in the words of the great yogi Patanjali, "let the manifesting of chitta die down"—and discover through direct knowing, that "I", that ever-present, never-changing, innermost essence of your own mind, is the essence of everything.

It is in this that I find a personal reenchantment of the cosmos. If our own essence is divine, and the essence of consciousness is to be found in everything, everywhere, then everything is divine. Panpsychism becomes pantheism. It doesn't matter whether we call it Universal Mind, Allah, God, Jehovah, the Great Spirit, or the Quantum Vacuum Field, we are all of that same essence.

This raises my level of awe for the world in which I live, or seem to live. When I consider that—despite all appearances to the contrary—this world is, in the final analysis, of the same essence as my own being, I am filled with wonder. Every thing is enchanted anew.

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