[God] has a primordial nature and a consequent nature. The consequent nature of God is conscious; and it is the realization of the actual world in the unity of his nature, and through the transformation of his wisdom.
– Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (1929)
What is the ultimate nature of reality? And how does it interact with each of us?
My last column introduced the idea of “twin ultimates,” the notion that there are two types of divinity worthy of our consideration. The first, the more fundamental type of divinity, may be referred to as the ground of being, the Source, God’s “primordial” nature (as in the Whitehead quote above), or any of a number of other names from various philosophical, scientific or spiritual traditions. The ground of being is the metaphysical soil from which all actuality grows.
The other ultimate, the Summit, lies at the opposite end of the spectrum of being and becoming. The Summit is closer to traditional western notions of God and God is as good a name as any other for this ultimate.
This essay will explore the Summit in more detail and compare Source and Summit. As with all of my essays, I appeal both to science and spirituality in my explanations. This is the case because I don’t believe there is any fundamental distinction between science, philosophy and spirituality. To be sure, there are differences in current practice and focus, but in terms of conceptual structures, if not all their methods, these endeavors should be essentially the same (“should” being the essential word here). By this I mean that the “deep science” (to use Ken Wilber’s term) that meshes science, philosophy and spirituality together relies on logic, intuition, faith and facts – recognizing that all human endeavors are a mix of these tools.
The deep science that reconciles science and spirit doesn’t ignore inconvenient facts, nor does it elevate reason above all other tools as the only source of legitimate knowledge. Deep science recognizes that all our attempts at understanding should be empirically based as much as possible, but it also recognizes that some sources of knowledge lie beyond empiricism and even beyond logic. Defining the contours of where facts and reason should give way to intuition and faith is an entirely personal matter. I tend to the intellectual and rational approach in my own explanations (particularly in these essays), while acknowledging that logic has limits; but I have no independent basis for preferring this prioritization. It’s entirely personal.
We are predisposed in thinking about the nature of solidity to think of the stuff around us as far more solid than it really is. Though it is commonly known now that we are each comprised of massive numbers of molecules and atoms, and what we think of as solid molecules and atoms are in fact extremely sparsely populated regions of space, this truth has not reverberated as far as it should. We are mostly empty space, and when I say mostly, I mean 99.999999% or more. We, as human beings, are mostly vast voids of emptiness, with tiny isolated specks of matter dispersed at distant intervals.
Moreover, we don’t even know what matter “really is.” As I wrote in an earlier essay, the mind-body problem presupposes that we’ve solved the “body problem” (the nature of matter) – but we haven’t. Is matter really condensed energy (Heisenberg) or really fields (Einstein) or tiny vibrating strings, as modern string theory suggests?
Or is matter really a projection of an underlying neutral substrate, the ground, as I argued in my last column? This means that matter arises as quantum fluctuations from the ground of being and these quantum fluctuations constitute matter but also mind. That is, each unit of nature has dual aspects of both mind and matter. The process that produces each quantum fluctuation leads, as the hierarchy of complexity is scaled, to more complex structures like gnats, rats, bats, cats and eventually humans.
This process does not, however, have to stop at the human level. Clearly there are physical structures in the universe far larger than us, such as planets, stars, galaxies, superclusters, etc., and possibly infinite universes beyond our own that comprise the grandest scale of all: the multiverse (see Brian Greene’s latest book, The Hidden Reality). Tradition suggests that there is no mind present in such supra-human organizations; they consist of mindless matter, as do sub-human levels of complexity. But this is an unjustified prejudice that results from basic philosophical mistakes at the beginning of the modern era. When we recognize that the better solution to the mind-body problem acknowledges that all matter has some type of mind attached, we recognize also that supra-human levels of organization may also have some type of mind attached.
Can the entire universe have a mind? Could the universe itself, with its vast swaths of empty space be akin to the structure of humans with our own vast swaths of empty space? I don’t know, but I do know that the conceptual structure that best explains the human level of mind does not in any way preclude the possibility of a universal mind. Let me explain in more detail.
Mind at its most basic level consists of a subject, an object and a link between the two. Consciousness necessarily implies “consciousness of.” That is, each subject must have at least one object to be a subject. And there must be some causal link between subject and object to have any such relation. At the human level, we call this causal link perception and we can explain it in purely physical terms as the transmission of information about the world around us through our senses into our internal theater, which is transformed into a picture of the world unique to each of us.
This process is not, however, limited to humans. What we call perception can legitimately be applied to an electron. The electron perceives its environment insofar as it responds to physical forces, such as gravity and electromagnetism. Why is this not normally called perception? Because “perception” implies the presence of a mind. But in the panpsychist view of the universe there is no qualitative difference between an electron’s reception of information from its environment and a human’s perception of information from her environment because each has some type of mind. The mind in both consists of the same process: a subject receiving/perceiving information from its environment. These processes are surely very different in the degree of consciousness present with such perception but the idea is that both share the same quality of a subject (however simple) receiving/perceiving the world around it.
Freeman Dyson, the Princeton physicist, stated succinctly: “[M]ind is already inherent in every electron, and the processes of human consciousness differ only in degree but not in kind from the processes of choice between quantum states which we call ‘chance’ when made by electrons.” Dyson recognized also that the process that creates mind need not stop at the human level, stating in his 1979 book, Infinite in All Directions: “I do not make any clear distinction between mind and God. God is what mind becomes when it has passed beyond the scale of our comprehension.”
God is, then, what we call mind at the level far beyond the human level. Universal mind surely deserves the name of God. This is the Summit in the system I am describing here. It is made conceptually possible due to the recognition that causality itself, which is the link between subject and object, has no limitation to the human level. Does universal consciousness operate at the same timeframe as humans? I don’t know. Does it interact with us in any significant way? I don’t know.
Perhaps this universal consciousness, if it exists, operates at a vastly slower pace. Perhaps it cares not a whit about humans or other life on other far-flung planets. But perhaps it does. Perhaps it’s not even here yet and perhaps it’s our role to bring the Summit into existence, a collective co-creation of God. I have no personal evidence of God as Summit so I remain agnostic about its existence. My key point here is to show that there is nothing particularly irrational about the idea of conscious beings at levels far higher than the human level.
Unconscious Source, Conscious Summit
It seems that the Source is itself unconscious. The Summit must, however, be conscious given the framework I’ve sketched here.
The Rig Veda, the oldest Hindu texts, supports the notion of the Source (Brahman) as unconscious:
Neither death nor immortality was there then [in the very beginning],
No sign of night or day.
That One breathed, windless, by its own energy:
Nought else existed then
In the beginning this [One] evolved,
Became desire, first seed of mind.
Wise seers, searching within their hearts,
Found the bond of Being in Not-being.
I think of the Source as pure potentiality. It is only when matter/mind bubbles up into actuality from the depths of pure potentiality that consciousness arises. Reality consists, then, in a spectrum from pure potentiality to complete actuality. This conceptual structure allows us to respect Occam’s Razor – explanations should be as simple as possible – while also explaining how complexity and consciousness arise from simplicity and non-conscious processes.
A Consistent Vision Of Science & Spirituality
Beyond the purely intellectual understanding of the Source and Summit, we should, as thinking and feeling beings, ponder what good this understanding achieves? The highest good it can achieve is a different type of knowledge than purely intellectual understanding, what can be described as gnosis. I use this Greek term, typically associated with the Gnostic sects of early Christianity and pre-Christianity, because it best typifies what West and East share in terms of a deeply emotional and spiritual understanding of the nature of God. Other terms for gnosis include satori, Samadhi, moksha, nirvana, enlightenment, or simply “awakening.”
Erwin Schrödinger, perhaps the most spiritually attuned of the major 20th Century physicists, is worth quoting at length on gnosis.
From “The I That Is God”:
I – I in the widest meaning of the word, that is to say, every conscious mind that has ever said or felt ‘I’ – am the person who controls the motion of the atoms according to the Laws of Nature…the insight is not new. The earliest records, to my knowledge, date back some 2500 years or more. From the early great Upanishads the recognition Atman = Brahman (the personal self equals the omnipresent)… was in Indian thought considered to represent the quintessence of deepest insight into the happenings of the world… Again, the mystics of many centuries, independently, yet in perfect harmony with each other (somewhat like the particles in an ideal gas) have described, each of them, the unique experience of his or her life in terms that can be condensed in the phrase: Deus factus sum (I have become God).
Looking and thinking in that manner you may suddenly come to see, in a flash, the profound rightness of the basic conviction in the Vedanta…. [I]nconceivable as it seems to ordinary reason, you – and all other conscious beings as such – are all in all. Hence this life of yours which you are living is not merely a piece of the entire existence, but is, in a certain sense, the whole…This, as we know, is what the Brahmins express in that sacred, mystic formula which is yet really so simple and clear: Tat tvam asi, this is you… ‘I am in the east and in the west, I am below and above, I am this whole world.’