Since consciousness can no longer be ignored, science has moved into the second phase—that of trying to incorporate the anomaly within the existing paradigm. Francis Crick thinks consciousness is all to do with neuropeptides. Some believe the answers will be found in quantum coherence in the tiny microtubules found in nerve cells. Others think it has something to do with chaos and complexity theory. There are lots of interesting theories, but none of them say how any brain activity, quantum or otherwise, could ever give rise to a mental experience.
We are at a stage reminiscent of the medieval astronomers who kept trying to account for planetary movements with ever more cumbersome models, trying to fit them into the exiting paradigm. All our attempts to account for consciousness are doing so within a superparadigm that is essentially materialist in nature. Richard Dawkins, who popularized the idea of the “selfish gene,” reflected this attitude at a recent talk in London when he said, “I cannot explain consciousness. No scientist I know of can explain consciousness. However, I have no doubt that we eventually will be able to explain consciousness.”
I believe we will never be able to explain consciousness— not within the current superparadigm, at least. Eventually science will be forced to adopt a completely different model of reality; one in which consciousness is as fundamental as space, time and matter—perhaps even more fundamental.
Before continuing any further, I should explain what I mean by consciousness. In English, the word consciousness is used in many different ways, leading to a lot of confusion. We talk of someone who is awake as conscious, but not someone who is asleep. Yet a sleeping person may dream, and those dreams are mental experiences— events in consciousness. Some claim that only human beings are conscious, meaning that only human beings have self-consciousness. But a dog surely has experience; it isn’t a biological robot. If we didn’t think dogs had experiences we wouldn’t give them anesthetics during operations.
When I speak of consciousness, I am referring to the faculty of consciousness—the capacity to have mental experiences. This is not something unique to human beings. I believe dogs have this faculty, and so do dolphins, horses, cats and birds. So where do you draw the line? How far down the evolutionary tree does consciousness go? The classic view is that some form of nervous system is necessary. This is because the materialist superparadigm says that consciousness emerges from the world of space, time and matter, and needs some nervous system or something to create it. But if we shift to a model in which consciousness is a universal faculty, then maybe a nervous system is merely a particular amplifier of experience, or helps the experiences to take shape.
I think consciousness goes all the way down—down to simple cells, even to pure, simple atoms. The normal objection to this proposal is that it implies rocks must have experiences, thoughts and feelings like human beings do. But it doesn’t mean that at all. Maybe what goes on in the consciousness of a cell is one billionth of the richness of our experience; if so, then what goes on in the consciousness of a rock may be one billionth times fainter still. Virtually nothing compared to us, but not absolutely nothing.
Now, there are fascinating parallels between consciousness and light. Even in everyday language we speak of the Inner Light, the light of consciousness. St. John spoke of the light which lighteth every mind that came into the world. Just as consciousness is a big anomaly for the current scientific paradigm, so is light. Light moves at the same speed relative to all observers. No matter how fast you go, light will overtake you and go 186,000 miles/second faster. Even if you accelerated yourself to 185,999 miles/second, it would go 186,000 miles/second faster, not 1 mile/second faster. It was this anomaly that led Einstein to his famous Special Theory of Relativity. This predicts that the closer you approach the speed of light, the slower your clocks run, and the shorter your measurements of length. This goes completely against common sense, but it turns out that, in this instance, it is common sense that is wrong. Atomic clocks have been flown around the world, and they do indeed slow down by the predicted amount.
You have probably heard that nothing can ever travel at the speed of light. The reason is that mass increases with speed, and at the speed of light an object’s mass would become infinite, and it would take more than all the energy in the universe to accelerate the object up to light speed. But light travels at the speed of light, by definition, and the reason it can is that it always has zero mass. Einstein’s equations predict that from light’s own point of view time has stopped, and distance has shrunk to zero. So all light knows is now. It doesn’t exist in time and space as we do. Light, somehow, lies beyond the world of space, time and matter. It is not part of the material world.
The same could be said of consciousness. It seems to have no mass. And according to the mystics, who have delved into the nature of their own consciousness, time and space disappear when you get down to the deepest levels of consciousness. Saint Augustine said, “He who knows the Truth knows that Light, and he who knows it knows eternity.” And Emerson said, “Time and space are but the physiological colors which the eye makes, but the soul is light.”
So I think there is more to this than verbal parallels. It seems to me that light is the first level of manifestation, both in the physical realm and the realm of mind.
Immediately the phrase “God is Light” comes to mind. I think there may be more to this than we at first suppose. Mystics the world over have repeatedly claimed two things. First, that the true nature of the self is pure consciousness, the light of consciousness. And second, that the self is also identical with God.
Of course, saying that “I am God” doesn’t go down well in most cultures. When the German mystic Meister Eckhart said, “I am God,” or “I and God are One,” the Vatican told him to recant. You can say you have the experience of God but not that you are God. But when the mystic says, “I am God,” he is not talking of the individual self, not the ego which identifies itself with things like, “I am Peter Russell, I am British, I am male, I think these thoughts, etc., etc.” What they are really saying is that the pure self, the most fundamental level of our being, is God. In other words, God is consciousness—not consciousness of any particular thing, but the very faculty of consciousness that is present in all things. As Ramana Maharshi said, “I Am is the name of God. God is none other than the self.” Or, in the words of a Sufi mystic, “When thou knowest thine own existence, then thou knowest God.”
This is where we end up once we start investigating the true nature of consciousness. Although science doesn’t realize it, once it embarks upon this exploration and begins to delve into deep mind, it is going to find itself confronting the one thing it has avoided and denied for so long—the nature of God.
This article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #32.
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