What Is Cosmic Consciousness? The Quest for Hidden Reality
Is there such a thing as higher consciousness? For a tiny fraction of the population, who believe they have experienced God directly, this is a spiritual question with a definite answer. But for most people the question is hypothetical. Every spiritual tradition has asserted that there is a hidden reality which can be uncovered through transcending – or going beyond – the five senses. There are elaborate directions for accomplishing this leap, in the form of prayer, meditation, renunciation, and faith – the religious history of humankind has never stopped directing its aspirations to a higher plane. But everyday life consumes our attention, and in a skeptical age the erosion of belief makes higher consciousness seem very far away if not irrelevant.
On a separate track, or so it seems, quantum physics has altered the universe in radical ways. Solid matter has been reduced to invisible waves existing in a field of mathematical probabilities. Time and space form a background in which relativistic quantum fields float, completely different from the reliable time ticked off by clocks, and the space enclosed inside rooms where solid objects find a place. Yet as with the higher dimensions aspired to by religion, quantum space remains hidden from the five senses. For the vast majority of physicists, quantum reality is about intricate mathematical constructs and experiments that validate them using billion-dollar particle accelerators.
Standing back a little, the resulting picture is quite startling. The two most important ways of explaining creation, science and spirituality, both depend on a hidden dimension. Without this dimension there would be no human existence. Shouldn’t that knowledge revolutionize our lives, here and now? Somehow it doesn’t. A missing link needs to be filled in. Otherwise, the world we inhabit will be disconnected from its source, as it largely is right now.
One proposition, which we strongly endorse, is that the missing link is consciousness. Because so many people relegate spirituality to faith, assuming that nothing about God or the soul can be proved, let’s set that aside for the moment. The link has to be scientific. We must thread a path from quantum theory to higher consciousness. This takes some hard thinking, but a huge reward awaits. Hidden reality will reveal itself for what it actually is. Higher consciousness may well become an everyday experience.
To begin, quantum theory, which has been called the most successful scientific theory in history, unequivocally states that we live in a participatory universe - what we consider as an independent, external reality is in fact tied to how we observe it. The late physicist John Wheeler of Princeton and the University of Texas campaigned for the importance of our participation, pushing against the notion that the universe was simply “out there,” like a bakeshop, he said, that we look at with our noses pressed against the window.
Yet how strange to think that when a physicist makes observations and measurements, the quanta that constitute everything in the cosmos change; indeed, it is meaningless to talk of their properties without presupposing an observer. The universe is tied to conscious acts of observation all the way from the most elementary particles to vast galaxies. Moreover, quantum theory assigns a primary role to the quantum vacuum, the emptiness that precedes observable phenomena like atoms and molecules. Unlike the common-sense notion of empty space, the quantum vacuum is abundantly full of dynamic potential. Wheeler, besides coining the term “participatory universe,” also held that the quantum vacuum is primary in all physics, a view that has gained wide acceptance. The quantum vacuum is a vast plenum (fullness) of spacetime “foam,” beyond which time, space – and physics - come to an end.
Cosmology, which is based on the other most successful theory we have, Einstein’s general relativity, states that the universe emerged from this plenum of quantum foam at the time of the Big Bang and has been evolving ever since, for some thirteen and a half billion years. Everything we consider real, either to our senses or to scientific investigation, first passed through the so-called Planck era (a state so minuscule, brief, and turbulent that it cannot be penetrated – it’s a mathematical formulation that describes the limit of what we can know) and entered the phase of general expansion that created matter, energy, stars, galaxies, and biological life.
With a definite limit set on space and time, science has to wrestle with the fact that the human brain operates in space and time. But this doesn’t need to be discouraging. If the universe is in fact participatory, then the human brain must be participating on the quantum level. Why is this so? Because the quantum foam, which is the source of every particle in existence and its oppositely charged anti-particle, must be the brain’s source, too. It isn’t tenable to posit a universe where quantum reality is divorced form everyday reality. The micro and macro worlds derive from the same origin, not just billions of years ago, but at this very minute – reality bubbles up from the quantum vacuum continuously.
The quantum foam allows entangled quanta to emerge from it, while the vast majority of them fall back onto it. Thus the creation, maintenance, and re-absorption of virtual particles occur at all times and at all space points. Our senses force us to see one sunrise at a time, one birthday party at a time, one person at a time. Yet without a doubt reality isn’t confined to linear experience in space and time. One can even say that beyond our confined perceptions, the Big Bang is happening everywhere at once, in an eternal now. Creation is a single process, and we are totally immersed in it.
This is where the missing link is most urgent. Physics needs the quantum vacuum for various reasons, most of them mathematical, but everyday life seems to chug along quite nicely without it. However, since everything in existence depends upon the quantum vacuum, including all living beings, our belief that we live outside it must be false. There’s no logical escape from this fact, so the burden lies with changing our sense of reality – the “going beyond” that supposedly belongs to saints and mystics actually applies to everyone (perhaps saints and mystics are just the ones who caught on first).
Here a subtle point arises. The strangeness of the quantum world, which approaches legendary status, grew out of its contradictions with prevailing theories of long standing. (For example, the accepted idea of cause-and-effect isn’t consistent with the quantum possibility of time and causation going backwards.) Yet no matter what model you use to explain reality, the map is never the territory. Whatever secrets it reveals, reality remains what it is, unanswerable, irrefutable, and inconceivable.
This, too, doesn’t have to be a discouraging thought. It’s liberating to realize that we are part of this inconceivable reality, navigating through it with all kinds of questions yet sustained by it no matter how wrong, limited, or misguided our answers may be. Participating in the quantum field makes a serious difference in how life can be led. For it turns out that all the spooky phenomena in the quantum world are perfectly human and familiar – once you stop comparing them to old, worn-out explanations.
The question at hand is whether there is such a thing as higher consciousness? We are using the term “cosmic consciousness” to denote a state of awareness that knows itself completely, a state of inner silence that is in direct contact with existence. Such a state would be free, without suffering or limitation. If there is such a state, then human evolution has a goal to aim for one that is natural and credible rather than supernatural and faith-based.
As scientific evidence, we began with the quantum vacuum, which is the source of everything that’s deemed “material,” from atoms to galaxies. In everyday usage a vacuum implies total emptiness, but the quantum vacuum is the origin and the end place of our universe, and possibly countless others. In fact, standard quantum field theory gives us an estimate of the mass-energy density of the quantum vacuum: a cubic centimeter of empty space (about the size of the tip of your finger) contains about 10 32 more mass energy-density than all visible matter in the universe! (That’s 1 followed by 32 zeroes, which more energy than all the trillion or so of all luminous galaxies in the observable universe.)
At the source, “quantum foam” is constantly bubbling up to produce everything in creation, here and now. Which means that the quantum revolution that began more than a century ago has effectively overthrown the common-sense notion of matter as something solid, tangible, and reliable. By implication, everything we associate with matter – the sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell of “material” things – has also been overthrown. If that seems radical, quantum theory goes further and dispatches time and space as constant, reliable aspects of reality. They, too, emerge from the “nothingness” of the quantum vacuum.
Why should this matter in everyday life? Because mystics have pointed to a reality that transcends this world, and so does modern physics. It is tantalizing that two worldviews are compatible, both contending that the source of time, space, matter, and energy doesn’t contain time, space, matter, and energy. It lies beyond them, in an inconceivable somewhere that has no location; it’s not a “place” in any common-sense use of the word. Let’s see how deep this agreement goes.
Not only is the quantum vacuum the source and resting place of countless particles (and through them perhaps countless universes). It contains all potentialities of existence, everything we can, and cannot, imagine. The world’s spiritual traditions say the same of God, the Absolute, or what we prefer to call cosmic consciousness. The terminology isn’t important, only the concept of mind preceding matter. Your mind is filled with invisible potential. It contains every word you know and every possible sentence that you might choose to put in words. Even though you speak or think only one word at a time, the number of potential sentences you can make is essentially infinite.
In the quantum model, the space-time continuum contains by far the tiniest of possible energies, since at its foundation resides the quantum foam, where space and time don’t even make sense. The quantum foam contains at least six other dimensions predicted by superstring theory. These emerge but never fully develop into macroscopic scales, as do regular three-dimensional space and one-dimensional time.
Knowing just these scientific facts, it’s clear that as the material world dissolves before our eyes, a more reliable reality must take its place. The new reality isn’t accessible through reductionism, which lies at the core of science as it is now practiced. Reductionism is a bottom-up approach, building the universe from the smallest components of matter and energy. But when the smallest components vanish into the quantum vacuum, and when it’s shown that all the visible matter in the known universe is only 4% of the total (the remaining 96% being formed by “dark” matter and energy that has never been seen or measured), holding out for a bottom-up approach seems doomed. Even dark matter and energy are still much, much less than the zero-point energy of the quantum foam.
The alternative is a top-down approach, which means taking the whole as fundamental before breaking it down into parts. Using a top-down approach is something we do every day. In a crowded department store you don’t search for your six-year-old by breaking down faces into component parts, comparing them, rejecting the ones that statistically are improbable, and then building up your child’s face from the most basic components. You simply recognize your child. In the same top-down way we recognize reality through large-scale intuitive pictures in our heads. Sunlight wasn’t broken down into the colors of the spectrum until Newton, but humans move through a world where “color” is a given. So when John Wheeler says (as we noted in the first post) that all of physics needs to be based on the quantum vacuum, the evidence is mounting that he’s right.
The five senses cannot perceive the quantum world, and yet perception depends upon it. The quantum world is hidden from us the way the operation of the brain is hidden. If you think the word “elephant” and see an image of the animal in your mind’s eye, you aren’t aware of the millions of neurons firing in your brain in order to produce them. Yet those firings – not to mention the invisible cellular operations that keep every part of your body alive – are the foundation of the brain’s abilities.
Just as the image of an elephant is the visible end point of veiled processes, the material world is founded on a veiled reality. Moreover, to produce a single mental image, the whole brain must participate. Specific areas, mainly the visual cortex, produce mental pictures, but they are coordinated with everything else the brain does, such as sustaining the cerebral cortex, which recognizes what an image is, and maintaining a healthy body. This points to two aspects that profoundly link the brain and the cosmos, veiled non-locality and cosmic censorship.
Veiled non-locality describes how the universe - and the human brain - disguises its wholeness in order to produce specific (i.e., local) events. Cosmic censorship, on the other hand, describes the inability of distant observers to directly observe the center of a black hole, or “naked singularity.” The center of the black hole is presumed to be the same as the quantum vacuum. This filtering process allows for specific observations and thoughts in a classical world of everyday experience, while keeping quantum and general relativistic processes out of sight.
As complex as this sounds, the point for everyday life is simple. You are an expression of wholeness, fulfilling the Vedic teaching, Aham Brahmasmi, “I am the universe.” This isn’t mysticism. Your ability to be conscious of anything – the words on this page, the room you are sitting in – depends quite literally on being conscious of the whole universe, even though you don’t know you are. The brain is a reduction to human scale of the quantum vacuum that holds together every event emerging in space-time, and your perceptions are the final filtering of cosmic censorship and veiled non-locality.
Cosmic consciousness tells us that there is one thing – consciousness itself – that underlies the appearance of separate creatures with separate minds. Seeing yourself as separate is a mistake. We don’t make this mistake when someone shows us a diamond. Although the jewel looks separate, we know that one element, carbon, is common to all diamonds, that atoms are common to all the elements in the periodic table, and that quarks and other subatomic particles are common to all atoms. In the same way, even though one person is climbing Mt. Everest and another is asleep in bed in Rangoon, all experiences have mind in common, and mind rests upon a field of consciousness that permeates the universe. This realization delivers the much hoped-for connection between the quantum world and the everyday material world.
Where reductionism, the bottom-up approach, founders on its built-in limitation, a top-down approach flourishes. We’ve suggested how by sketching in some of the scientific implications. In the next post we’ll show how cosmic consciousness can benefit – and perhaps revolutionize – the life of the individual. Without it, the limitations of everyday thought and perception cannot be overcome and, we will argue, society itself might be at risk.
We are so used to assigning consciousness only to human thought that it takes some adjustment to see it as universal, or cosmic, applying at all levels. But the label applied to mystics, saints, and sages, both East and West, really denotes those who have escaped the limitations of everyday perception. Their experiences supply abundant evidence – thousands of years’ worth – that the mind can look at itself and experience what consciousness is.
If you strip away all religious associations, higher consciousness is observational and experiential; the mind looks directly at itself rather than outward at things. Things constitute Maya in the Indian tradition, a word somewhat misleadingly translated as “illusion” but which works better if understood as “appearance” or “distraction.” It also implies impermanence. The world “out there” appears to be self-sustained, distracting us from the truth: Without consciousness, nothing is experienced, either “in here” or “out there.”
Cosmic consciousness, then, isn’t just real – it’s totally necessary. It rescues physics and science in general from a dead end – the total inability to create mind out of matter - and gives it a fresh avenue of investigation. The Higgs boson has gotten us a bit closer to a unified field theory - only a bit - but we are still far away from a full theory of quantum gravity. In many versions of superstring theories, the so-called M-theories, it is deduced that a vast number of parallel universes exist, all forming what is called the multiverse. But the multiverse cannot be an explanation of why this particular universe of ours is what it is. Having a vast number of universes emerging from empty space still does not explain why consciousness is what it is in our universe.
Quantum theory has reached the point where the source of all matter and energy is a vacuum, a nothingness that contains all the possibilities of everything that has ever existed or could exist. These possibilities then emerge as probabilities before “collapsing” into localized quanta, manifesting as the particles in space and time that are the building blocks of atoms and molecules.
Where do they exist? Where is the exquisite mathematics that we have at our disposal to be found? Some sort of “real space”? That of course makes no sense. The probability of an event (even an event like winning the lottery or flying on the day a blizzard strikes) only exists as long as there is someone to ask the question of what may happen and to measure the outcomes when they occur. So probabilities and other mathematical expressions, which are the foundation of modern quantum physics, imply the existence of observation. Countless acts of observation give substance and reality to what would otherwise be ghosts of existence.
Such a conception is made less bizarre once you realize that consciousness operates the same way. Babies are born with the potential to walk, speak, read, and do mathematics. It’s possible to locate which areas of the brain will eventually produce these abilities, but until then, they exist as pure potentials. If you are wedded to materialism, there must be a molecule (DNA) that functions as the source of speaking, walking, reading, and doing mathematics, but such an assumption falls apart very quickly, since: 1) It’s impossible to credit that DNA knows math, which would in essence give it a mind, and 2) Can we really believe that Shakespeare, and all other producers of words, get their inspiration from amino acids, enzymes, and proteins, which is what DNA actually produces?
It is more elegant and far easier to accept as a working hypothesis that sentience exists as a potential at the source of creation, and the strongest evidence has already been put on the table: Everything to be observed in the universe implies consciousness. Some theorists try to rescue materialism by saying that information is encoded into all matter, but “information” is a mental concept, and without the concept, there’s no information in anything, since information by definition must ultimately contain meaning (even if it is a sequence of 0’s and 1’s as in computer language), and only minds grasp meaning. Does a tree falling in the forest make no sound if no one is around to hear it? Obviously not. The crash vibrates air molecules, but sound needs hearing in order for these vibrations to be transformed into perception.
The entire universe is a matter of transformation whereby something is available to be turned into perception. We’ve proposed that consciousness is that something – if there’s another candidate, we’re not aware of one that can pass the acid test: Make it turn into thoughts, feelings, images, and sensations. Science isn’t remotely close to turning the sugar in a sugar bowl into the music of Mozart or the plays of Shakespeare. Randomness will not give you any of that. Your brain converts blood sugar into words and music, not by some trick of the molecules in the brain, since they are in no way special or privileged. Rather, your consciousness is using the brain as a processing device, moving the molecules where they are needed in order to create the sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell of the world.
The old bugbear about subjectivity being too vague, personal, and unreliable in comparison to the objectivity of facts and data needs to be squashed. Why can’t consciousness be precise and organized? It certainly is when the brain, which physically correlates to mind, is examined. Science itself is an activity in consciousness; therefore, degrading consciousness as being beneath science is a self-contradiction, leading nowhere. Another bugbear is the complexity and arcane nature of modern science. As physics stands, we can safely conclude that the universe is gushing out of the quantum vacuum right this moment with mathematical precision as described by the probabilistic rules of quantum field theory and, ultimately, the probabilistic rules of superstring theory and quantum gravity.
If that’s Greek to the lay person, it’s not because consciousness cannot be precise and technical. What’s at fault is simply that physics is highly specialized, and that’s not enough to raise it above everyday experience, which depends on the same mechanics of thought, perception, and transforming raw data into the world around us. The way to comprehend modern physical theory is with advanced mathematics which cannot be easily visualized. In fact, everyday experience has an advantage over advanced physics. The activity of the quantum vacuum and superstrings, the potential for creating a “bubble universe” out of nothing, the existence of a pre-created state that isn’t bound by space and time but can create space and time, the existence of “dark” matter and energy as constituting 96% of post-Big Bang creation – and much else in advanced physics – has been accepted because a set of data (and sometimes not even that) and mathematical theory both imply some hidden truth.
In everyday life, you get to experience the miracle of transformation that causes a three-dimensional spatial world and one-dimensional temporal world to manifest before your very eyes. The great advantage of experience is that it isn’t theoretical. Reality is never wrong, and all of us are embedded in reality, no matter what model we apply to explain it. Reality is waiting for us to creep closer to understanding its mysteries. In the meantime, it won’t falter or come to an end. Reality will remain our home, our source, and the ground state of our being far beyond the lifetime of the foreseeable universe.