Matter and Consciousness

by Raghavan Iyer @ Theosophy Trust


MATTER AND CONSCIOUSNESS


 Primordial matter is the pure possibility of becoming. Relative matter is anything that can change in form or relation without losing its specific nature. Matter is sometimes identified with material – that out of which things are made. So we say this is good material, it lasts, it holds together. But no one expects it to hold together forever. The vase is alabaster, and alabaster is a compound. Matter approached as material recedes. Reflected on from the standpoint of finite consciousness, it is like a great mirror in which all forms, momentary or lasting, are discerned.

 In Plato's cosmology there is a nature which he refers to as "the mother and receptacle of all created form" and "as never assuming a form like that of the things that enter into her," although "appearing different from time to time by reason of them." It is the ultimate ground of particularity and variability. Without it there would be no becoming. Heraclitus of Ephesus, sometimes called the philosopher of change, does not mention a receptacle. "Everything flows." The universe, "which is the same for all" and "made neither by god nor man," is "an ever-living fire kindled and extinguished according to fixed measures." For Heraclitus the Logos is indwelling. Plato not only speaks of an indwelling Logos – truth and the power of knowing – but also of an unmanifested Logos – Agathon or the Good – which transcends Being and Essence, and without which there would be neither truth nor the power of knowing. Agathon brings unity to the realm of Form, thus making possible the model for the order of becoming. It is as mysterious as space. Plato and Heraclitus indeed provide contrasting models for the analysis of matter.

 Whatever the approach to matter, certain basic questions arise. What is change? What changes, and according to what order? What is potentiality, what is force or power? When we wish to analyze as well as describe change, we think of it as a succession of states. To say that one thing moves faster than another is to say that it is in more places than the other within a given time and metric; each successive position of the one is correlated with, say, one half oscillation of a pendulum, each position of the other with one full oscillation. What then is succession? To describe change is to make use of succession. It is as primitive as the simplest idea.

 Succession is of crucial importance for the analysis of matter. There are two types of succession, temporal and ontological. The first involves simultaneity and changes capable of being timed by clocks or metronomes. The second involves the emergence of new orders of being. As a special case, if there were mutually exclusive space-time systems, such that the spaces of neither would overlap those of the other, yet a continuous consciousness could take them in successively and repeatedly but never simultaneously, then succession, so far as that consciousness was concerned, would also be classified as ontological.

 Hume, a philosopher strong in common sense, regarded succession as intuitively evident. Five notes played on the flute present an adequate idea of it. The notes are distinct impressions. Succession is not a sixth impression but the manner in which the five are disposed. Thus, as a relation, it is primitive. Hume was fascinated by the fact that, within the medium of temporal succession, the description of one event cannot be deduced from that of another which precedes it. To universalize the sequence, to assert for example that every flash is followed by a boom, is simply to compound the mystery. Hume's common sense asserts itself when he claims that our strong expectations, like entrenched habits, provide the only firm basis for the understanding of nature. Experience contains "gentle forces of persuasion." Familiarity through action, not analysis, removes the mystery. Yet familiarity is relative.

 What appeared to Hume as a logical mystery, and was the basis for his metaphysical skepticism, has its analogue in the idea of emanation. For Plotinus, Intellect emanates from the One, and Soul from Intellect. Yet one cannot deduce the emanation from its source. Let us suppose, however, that it is possible to experience something comparable to the process of emanation and its reverse, absorption. If one were to become so expert and devoted to the process that nothing else seemed more familiar, would this then be a mystery? If the mystery is dispelled, one would then have to say, in this case, that it rests on uncommon sense, at least so far as the present state of mankind is concerned. If Hume is right, it is practice rather than theory that wins out.

 Contemporary thought about ontological and temporal succession considers it obvious that the temporal prevails. The model for material change is Heraclitean. An indwelling order or Logos pervades the universe. However, many no longer think about ultimate matters in metaphysical terms. Metaphysics in the traditional sense has come to be equated with dogmatism, as it was with the ancient skeptics. The indwelling Logos is now epistemology or the theory of knowledge. To the extent that convention enters the picture, one might speak of the indwelling epistemologist whose function it is to establish the domain of the human understanding. As with Heraclitus, there is no receptacle, and in contrast with Kant, there is no pure reason to appear either as an unappeasable metaphysical hunger or as an obligation whose necessity can never be decisively realized in conduct. There is no categorical dogmatism to be tolerated, even in the classification of statements into analytic and synthetic. The ever-living fire is now problem-solving, its fuel the cognitive frontier. To ask what is matter is to ask about the ontological commitments of present theorizers – what, in relation to theory, is to be considered an actual entity.

 The modern adaptation of the eternal fire has a tremendous appeal. It seems to balance successfully hopes and fears. It appeals to the love of adventure, the hatred of dogmatism, and the sense of manly virtue in facing realistically problems arising from needs and interests. Devoted to self-criticism, it seems capable of producing any revolution that is required, Copernican or otherwise. There are, however, indications of an energy shortage even in this area. The cognitive frontier operates on the basis of glamour. It holds out the lure of definitive solution when everyone knows that death is essential to becoming. It may appear fortunate to some that our temporal goals are not all realizable simultaneously. Nature, we say, as if to excuse our world view, does not permit it. But nature may very well permit arbitrariness on the part of human beings. The question is whether the epistemological framework of the reigning "fire philosophy" is capable of abdication.

 One must look carefully at scientific method. Theoretical laws, such as Newton's law of inertia and Einstein's E - MC2, are quite different from the ordinary conception of causal connection, where both the cause and the effect are perceivable. It would be more cogent to talk about cause and effect as temporal phases of the pattern of a process ideally conceived. Clicks are clicks, but as theoretically interpreted they may be crucial indicators of a kind of process. Looked at the other way round, the clicks may be means for interpreting a formal or abstract theory in terms of experience. Also, the click is not just a click; it is understood theoretically in terms of the transmission of energy. Counting clicks is an operation. Terms in pure theory come to have operational definitions by means of conventional modes of application to what is observed. In this way the theory acquires an observational interpretation. We are familiar with the difference between abstract geometry and its application. The systematic character of a geometry is independent of its application.

 It is a sobering thought, about the sense world, that even simple objects like cubes are not seen or felt except in terms of their "perspective" appearances. The cube itself, as a whole and in all its parts, inside and outside, is never perceived or imagined. Descartes would have said that it was grasped in its essential nature by pure thought alone. That pure thought should have as its object a thing as it is by itself is something few philosophers since Kant would claim. What is claimed is the phenomenal object, a curious mixture of imprecise perceptual object, relatively precise measurement, and strictly delineated abstract theory. No one has ever observed such an object. Only by definition could one say that one observes such an object, and this would no more establish the existence of the object than Euclid establishes the existence of three-dimensional space. Yet there is a strong inclination to say that what exists, although perhaps not what is thought to exist, is expressible in terms of some abstract theory, that something like what the pure theory intends must exist. But where do we gather this "must," and how do we conceive this likeness? As Plato says in Cratylus, if perfect likeness is what we seek, why not take the original (if one can get it)? The copy can do nothing better for us. But if possession of the original were its actual aim, science would be seeking intuitive knowledge, a knowledge absolute and unprovable, and therefore "unscientific."

 Apart from these considerations, the opinion persists that within the brain, within the cells, within the nuclei of atoms, a beautiful and precise order exists akin to what is suggested by our symbolic systems. What is suggested? Certainly a precise order is intended and symbolically exhibited. The rules constitutive of validity, together with observations precisely controlled, permit us to assert an order in nature relative to the evidence. There is a delicate balance. We are permitted to talk as if the realities were at hand, recognizing at the same time that these realities are not words, not images, not sensations, not logical abstractions. It is as if we had conjured up an object in order to call what is vaguely present to us an appearance. No doubt it is the measurements, the work, and particularly the glittering array of utilitarian products, that are the great contemporary persuaders of entrance into the realm of truth. It would not be rash to say in this connection that "material world" refers not to "material objects" but to that open-ended world-view which is sustained by scientific methodology. This means that the world as understood is phenomenal. It is more art, less matter.

 There is one sort of revision, however, that is not permitted. It involves what was referred to as "ontological succession." It entertains the prospect of ontological as opposed to conceptual revolution. An example too crude in many respects, but reasonably clear, will illustrate the difference. Dreams, as ordinarily understood, are more subjective than toothaches. We shall alter this feature by assuming that a substantial group of individuals enter into each other's dreams in the same way that they enter into each other's waking perceptions. Within what could be described, after their "waking," as a common "dream world," these individuals will remember and predict their "waking" states; the same will hold for them when "awake," in the world. In both worlds there will be "non-travellers," the "once-born," to borrow a phrase. These play a crucial role. They dream and wake in the ordinary ways and respond with derision to the tales brought back by the travellers. For the sake of simplicity it is assumed that the travellers speak the same language and communicate with non-travellers in both locations. There are, perhaps, slight differences in physical appearance, gesture, and manner of speaking. Physical and social environments will differ, but not so much as to make implausible mutual recognition in the separate worlds. The travellers will be strong individuals, very little concerned with their social images. They will have corresponding educations in both worlds but not necessarily the same vocations. Science and knowledge will be approximately the same, but the geography of the planets which house these individuals, and the furniture of the heavens, will be quite different. No one in either world except the travellers will have any independent evidence of the existence of the other world. For the travellers, relations of simultaneity between the two worlds would be theoretically consistent with complete disparity of spaces.

 What is most crucial for such a model of ontological revolution, as well as of succession, is a way of conceiving, in terms of possible experience, the passage from the condition of non-traveller to that of traveller. With this in view, we picture the early childhood of two apparently separate individuals, each in a different world, neither functioning in a fully conscious way at the same time as the other, and both struggling with a growing sense of being a misfit, of not really belonging to his world. At the end of childhood each develops an increasing awareness of the companion alternate life. This is followed by a period of adjustment and eventual maturity in which the two "persons" come to seem like interdependent "personae" to the presiding consciousness in which there is now present even the separate early memories of each person. It is not clearly a case of two persons becoming one, for the early personalities, although unconscious of one another internally, were never simultaneous in their functioning. There is a gradual passage from a consciousness divided between two worlds to an integral consciousnessness spanning both. Thus the passage would be different from a shift within one unified system of space-time. It would be a shift between mutually exclusive systems. Two kinds of existential shift are involved, that from one world to another, and that from a consciousness divided between worlds to an integrated consciousness.

 The principal objection to the real possibility of these suggested ontological developments is implicit in the prevalent conception of validity in science. Prediction and verification on the part of a privileged class of observers, no matter how carefully controlled among themselves, is not held sufficient. Verification must be in principle shareable, which in the case suggested does not seem possible, for "external" evidence is not even in principle transportable. Transportation, either direct or by some process of reproduction, requires a common space. A theory is not experimentally innocent or guilty on the basis of the apparent sincerity of individual witnesses; at least there is a tendency to be hard-headed about this in crucial cases. Two systems of validity would be involved. The non-traveller would insist on the transportability of evidence and reject the pervasiveness of the mysterious witness. On the other hand, the objections of the non-traveller cannot count with the traveller. If he had only one set of non-travellers to cope with, he might be persuaded that he and his companions were subject to a joint hallucination, but with two sets of non-travellers he would not know which to exclude from the hallucination. We assume that the mature traveller's experience does not shatter him. Both traveller and non-traveller can be understood as well supported by Humean "habit" as Hume would have thought the non-traveller to be. Both would experience succession, but the succession is not in each case of the same order.

 There is a curious ambivalence present in entertaining the idea of an "existential framework." If one denies it on the basis of a conception of validity which requires that there cannot be a plurality of such frameworks, then it may be asked why one holds to this conception of validity. To insist on the transportability of evidence is apparently to insist on what is taken to be involved in all conceptual as opposed to existential frameworks. In this case the claim would be a priori in character if not in justification. If, on the other hand, it is claimed as part of a conceptual framework, one ought to be able to conceive of its uselessness in some areas of experience. To insist on the principle, and at the same time make it a part of a conceptual framework in terms of which valid experience is to be determined, and in the face of a plausible alternative possibility, seems to be a clear case of ontological dogmatism. But to use the principle without reservation while claiming that "existential framework" is a meaningless conception is a bit of concealed dogmatism. One wishes to use the principle to delimit all possible experience, since an alternative seems wild and disturbing. One is not willing to be called dogmatic. So one retires to the position of using but not acknowledging the principle. One would like to think of the principle as conceptual while using it as ontological. A gentlemen's agreement suffices.

 We shall not enter into this agreement, but consider rather some of the consequences of multiple existential frameworks. Since the spaces, although not the times, of each are assumed to be mutually exclusive, it is possible within one framework to obtain relative objectivity with respect to another in which one has participated. Viewed from our framework the past, present, and future of the other is as apparently inoperative as is the past of what we take to be our waking world of experience. In our world, as it is normally conceived, we are prisoners of time. For example, thinking of dreams as subjective, we cannot speak in a strict sense of dream experience or dream time, since there is no public order of events there. The dream is not surpassed as yesterday is surpassed by today. We tend to think of it as annihilated. A distinct existential framework, however, would not be annihilated, but merely in abeyance. To a traveller it would be as reidentifiable as the "objects" it contains are to those within it. There would be a novel sense of "object" here, for "objects" in this case would be such only if participated in and transcended. The scientific object is not participated in. It is at most manipulated. The perceiver of both worlds could not fully identify himself with either, much less with some specific object in either one. Neither could he describe the transition from one to the other in terms of either. The "abode of both" does not enter into the example. The example, however, is simply a device for breaking the molds of the one-existential-framework mind.

 Assuming that there is a crack in the habitual framework, what consequences may there be for the conception of matter? We are so used to thinking of matter as some sort of specific material honored at all times and in all places, that the idea of mutually exclusive space-time systems may seem to knock the substance out of the contents of these worlds. We are not in a position to say that either is any more subjective or objective than the other. Although non-travellers will continue to investigate as usual, the traveller may very well conceive that any object capable of being a vehicle of experience could be regarded as matter. Now an existential framework, a world, can be just such a vehicle. First it must be entered into – in the way one "enters into" the waking state; then one can – as one does – act through a body within it. If entering were voluntary, then the sense of world as instrument would be complete. So the particular world could be regarded as material, all except its recollection in transcendence, that is, another world. Then, in so far as one thinks of returning to it, it functions something like a Platonic idea. Except for pure consciousness one could say that all is matter in various worlds and various forms. However, in a relative sense, the indwelling consciousness, whatever its existential framework, is opposed within that framework to its vehicles; in this sense a distinction can be drawn between matter and spirit. Yet never within an existential framework would one find these components in separation.

 If there were an Occam's razor of value, the mere repetition of worlds would be read out of the moral economy. Each one is, forgetting the others, reality, and remembering the others, a fragment of one knows not what. The advantage of Epicurus's space is lacking here. There are the atoms, so to speak – that is, the worlds – but no apparent medium of relationship. It is the comparing consciousness alone which can function as the medium. This leaves unspecified, and metaphysically senseless, the meaning of a plurality of worlds extending beyond consciousness, and, for what remains within consciousness, nothing that in any way appeals to thought. Reason will always search out unity, which it will attempt to articulate.

 Yet unification is not difficult to imagine if one introduces among existential frameworks a hierarchical order. The limit may be designated as that which is never transcended. Thus it differs, ontologically and conceptually, from all other frameworks. In a mathematical sense it would not be strange to say that the limit of a series of frameworks is not itself a framework. The limit of consciousness is then not conscious of itself as an object. Its recollection at various points within the hierarchy could be significant of subordination.

 The asymmetrical relationship constituting the hierarchy may be thought of in terms of what is, and what cannot be, a vehicle. Let us say that intellect is the vehicle of intuitive understanding. Then, since the relationship is conceived as asymmetrical, intellect will be seen and used as the vehicle of intuition but intuition will not be the vehicle of intellect. Intellect will use in its turn a vehicle, of which it cannot itself be the vehicle, provided it remains the vehicle of intuition. Thus the hierarchy is not constituted merely by passage from one state to another. Passage is symmetrical, and "use," in this case, asymmetrical. The lower limit could be defined as that which is a vehicle but does not use a vehicle. One must add that passage up and down the scale can be conceived in terms of the type of cyclic succession described as emanation and absorption. Consonant with this is the idea that one can move up and down the scale without maintaining continuous consciousness of the total process, provided total consciousness is eventually recoverable. What is at first, in fact, a misunderstood continuous conscious process may eventually become a self-consciously continuous one. This provides a way of conceiving of progress.

 With respect to such an order of succession, temporal succession will have to play a subordinate role, both ontologically and in the order of explanation. At the upper limit there is ultimate consciousness. One of its aspects is unresolvable matter, the potentiality of all becoming, all change of form, although not itself becoming. The other aspect is the possibility of indwelling consciousness, although not the act of indwelling. Primordial matter and primordial change do not lose their status in the transforming processes that emanate from them. The limit of the hierarchy may also provide a center for innumerable hierarchies, each like a ray of central fire on whose wheel are countless blazing suns.

 The homogeneous primordial Element is simple and single only on the terrestrial plane of consciousness and sensation, since matter, after all, is nothing else than the sequence of our own states of consciousness, and Spirit an idea of psychic intuition. Even on the next higher plane, that single element which is defined on our earth by current science, as the ultimate undecomposable constituent of some kind of matter, would be pronounced in the world of a higher spiritual perception as something very complex indeed.

The Secret Doctrine


Hermes, July 1975
by Raghavan Iyer