The Creative Principle in Science
1. The Twin-Gods of Science
Akhbar the Great, the 16th Century Moghul emperor of India, had a wise minister named Birbal with whom he frequently conversed and sparred on matters of state. On one occasion Akhbar boasted with pride to his minister how all aspects of the Holy Koran are practiced by the subjects of his kingdom and he illustrated by reference to the subordinate role which married women have rightfully accepted in relation to their husbands. Birbal’s challenged this assertion, so Akhbar asked him to justify his disbelief. Birbal, therefore, instructed the general of the army to assemble all of the married men of the city before the palace gates, so that he could ascertain from them directly whether their wives were properly obedient and submissive to their husbands. When all the husbands were assembled, Birbal instructed them to form two lines in front of the gate, one line for all those who ruled as masters of their own households and another for those who were subject to the dictates of their wives. To Akhbar’s great surprise and annoyance, all but one of the men joined the second line with their heads lowered, confessing their subordinate position at home. A single man stood in the line reserved for husbands whose rule at home. The emperor tried to find some hope in this dismal situation by eulogizing the manliness of this one strong soul who ruled the domestic roost. Birbal, who had stood silently trying to suppress all signs of superior wisdom, stepped forward and asked the sole hero why he was standing in that particular line. The man responded, ‘My wife told me to.’
This story illustrates the age-old quest of humankind to discover the real determinants in life. As Akhbar found in this instance, the real answers can sometimes be surprising and unsettling to our conventional view of things. During the 20th Century, the quest for fundamental determinants has preoccupied the minds of great scientists in many fields. In physics, relativity theory and quantum theory emerged as very powerful conceptual and predictive tools, so powerful that the formulation of a single theory that could unify the four fundamental physical forces seems to be within reach. In biology, the unraveling of the genetic code has led some to believe that the secret of life will soon to be deciphered. In neuro-medicine, advances in understanding of the brain and nervous system have convinced some scientists that the mystery of consciousness itself is almost resolved.
These achievements have been so impressive and the hope of arriving at ultimate answers regarding the nature of matter, life and mind is so exciting that there has been a tendency to overlook the fact that all these current theories are only superstructures built on the common foundation of a more fundamental theory of determinism in the material universe. Much like Akhbar’s stylized view of marriage relations, this theory of determinism is unquestioningly accepted by most as established truth and rarely re-examined in the light of new ideas and further discoveries to reconfirm its validity. Yet unless the foundation is confirmed to be both fully rational and fully valid in practice, there is no firm edifice on which a final theories of matter, life and mind can be constructed.
Current scientific thought is based on a dualistic theory of creation implicit in all its formulations. The theory can be briefly summarized in the following manner:
All phenomena in the universe are the result of the interaction of two factors, Necessity and Chance, a factor which determines the orderly fixed pattern of things and a factor which results in apparently random variations in those determinations. Necessity is responsible for the laws of Nature discoverable by science as well as the characteristic properties of energy, matter and life forms. Chance is responsible for the apparent randomness and variation, for the evolutionary mutations and differences found within each category of occurrence. Science lives in a world in which things are rigidly determined, yet in some manner are free to vary randomly from those rigid patterns.
Although efforts have been made from time to time to formulate a monism of Necessity based on Natural Law or a monism of Chance based on pure randomness, neither by itself has proved satisfactory to explain the diversity of natural phenomenon. The compulsions of natural law are quite suitable to explain the immutable sameness in Nature, the limited number and type of material forces, atomic elements, chemical molecules, and biological species, their uniformity of design and characteristic patterns of behaviour. But this Necessity, whatever its source or power, fails to explain the enormous variation we find within each group of phenomenon down to the uncertain movements of subatomic particles and the infinite variation in the facial characteristics, fingerprints and personality traits of human beings. Chance easily explains the variations and individuality of phenomenon, but fails to account for the commonality of types and categories, be they types of molecular structures, categories of star clusters, genus of the same animal species or distinct types of human personality. Although it convincingly accounts for differences within groups, Chance fails to explain the evolutionary direction apparent in Nature, the continuous unfolding of higher, more complex and adaptive forms. Why does randomness result in a progressive evolution of complexity rather than a progressive slide into chaos? Chance fails also to explain how the long evolutionary spiral of life on earth should result in the manifestation of the human mind, whose natural propensity is for order, classification and organization. Only when they are both taken together can science hope to account for both the apparent orderliness and the apparent randomness of nature.
Chance and Necessity, according to this implicit view of science, are the twin Gods which have given rise to all material energy and substance, life forms and varieties of conscious experience in the universe. A combination of quantum mechanics and uncertainty characterizes the behaviour of subatomic particles. A Darwinian principle of survival of the fittest augmented by a neo-Darwinian principle of random mutation of DNA molecules characterizes the mechanism for the evolution of all species of living things. The random impact of sensory and physiological stimuli on the electrical circuitry of the human nervous system and its computer-like brain account for all mental activity. The interaction of inherited propensities with random environmental impacts determines the character of human personality. All properties are derived from these twin gods as well as all variations from those properties. Stated philosophically, all things appear to be governed by a set of fundamental determinates, yet possess some degree of freedom or indeterminate quality that accounts for variations within a common pattern and evolution from one pattern to another.
These twin hypotheses rarely comes up for scrutiny, despite the fact that fundamental questions remain unanswered regarding the adequacy of the underlying assumptions. Thus accepted, science perceives its primary task is the discovery, cataloguing and elucidation of laws, qualities and properties, their variations and exceptions, and the mechanisms through which randomness introduces new variations. The most fundamental question is, of course, that of the religionist who asks, “What is it that determines the nature of the determinates?” Science responds by insisting that such a question cannot be answered and therefore need not be asked. The laws of nature and properties of energy and substance are simply the given conditions from which the universe has arisen. They are what they are. But this answer is unsatisfactory. Science does not know the given conditions from which the universe arose. It knows or theorizes only about the conditions that may have existed sometime more than 10 or 15 billion years ago shortly after the Big Bang from which our present universe was born. It knows in those first few instants of the universe, neither matter nor energy as we know it today existed. There were no atomic elements, no molecular structures, and certainly no life forms or conscious beings. Scientists may surmise the temperature, energy and other properties of that primordial existence, which is the material origin of all that has since manifested. But how can it be said that all the properties, laws, qualities and characteristics of what has since manifested are somehow contained in that primordial existence?
If the types and classes of phenomenon in nature are somehow determined, we are forced to postulate that the laws governing the combination of oxygen and hydrogen to form water as well as the individual and resultant properties of these substances were somehow present or determined before either their separate elemental or their combined molecular forms existed in the universe. More troubling, we are forced to conclude that the characteristics of living forms, including the various species of plants and animal are also implicitly governed by determinates that existed before the first appearance of life in the universe. Taken still further, it would mean that the pollination rituals of bees, the imprinting behaviour of baby geese, the hunting instincts of the lion and the common behavioural characteristics of human beings such as anger, greed, ambition, aspiration, affection, loyalty and courage are all the results of determinates implicit at the time of the Big Bang.
Alternatively, we may say, that such determinates were not present and existent at that time, but have arisen over time on the basis of earlier determinates. But this explanation only aggravates the problem, for its supposes that higher order, more complex laws of nature somehow spontaneously emerged from lower order, less complex laws. It is one thing to say that an animal is composed of cells which are constructed from organic molecules which themselves consist of chains of atoms composed of whirling units of subatomic particles. It is quite another to state that all the characteristics of the animal, including its size, shape, and instincts are somehow predetermined by properties inherent in the primordial subatomic particles and their resultant combinations.
The emergence of higher order, more specific determinates from lower order, more general determinates presents a serious problem to the rational mind which cannot be readily addressed by resort to science’s second God, Chance. For chance may adequately explain variations from a given pattern, but how can it explain higher order patterns that are not implicit in the lower order phenomenon from which they arise? Chance may explain why one person’s hair is blond and another’s is black, but how can it explain the instinctive sexual attraction of either colour hair among animal species or the aesthetic value which human beings accord to the length, shape and color of hair, which represent higher order behaviours, not just variations in color? What combination of primordial chance and necessity can account for the symbiotic relationship between bees and flowers?
The same difficulty arises in explaining the emergence of the forms of the tree, fruit and flower from the seed. Science may trace the process by which that primordial single cell divides and multiplies. It may detect the mechanisms by which it synthesizes various chemicals and differentiates into stem cells, root cells, flower and leaf cells. But when we strive to understand what determines that process of differentiation and what makes it occur in an orderly manner, we come back to the same phenomenon of lower order general determinates in the seed giving rise to higher order, specific determinates in the leaf, fruit and flower. We are forced once again to call in the God of randomness to explain the process of differentiation to higher order forms. The fact that we can reproduce this process under certain conditions in the laboratory only proves that such differentiation does occur, but does not explain the underlying process of determination that makes it possible. Again we risk mistaking knowledge of the process and its mechanism for a discovery of their ultimate source. We fall back on the gods of Necessity and Chance to explain how such a marvellous mechanism and capacity have manifested. We have uncovered the extrinsic how without getting any closer to the intrinsic how or why that determine it. We know the formula but we do not know how it was determined.
The problem of determination pervades all fields and aspects of science, yet it is often cloaked by confusion between the description of processes and the explanation of causes. Science has acquired profound insight into many of the processes of nature. It knows precisely how atoms of oxygen and hydrogen gas bond to form molecules of liquid water, yet that description does not adequately explain why water possesses properties and qualities that are not found in either of its parent elements. This question is of much more than mere academic interest. Take, for instance, this observation by a distinguished scientist about some of the fortuitous but inexplicable properties of matter.
The fact that ice floats is utterly bizarre. Most liquids shrink in volume and increase in density when they are cooled. If it did not float, the oceans would freeze from the bottom up and probably never unfreeze and life would not be possible. Because it floats, the ice on the surface captures and retains heat in the water. This property of water is due to the nature of the hydrogen bond, the weak attraction caused by the unprotected proton in the hydrogen nucleus (unprotected because its one orbiting electron cannot fully neutralize its attraction) for an orbiting electron in oxygen creates a weak bond that makes water molecules ‘sticky’. They tend to cling together rather than vibrate freely, so when water is heated, it retains its liquid state at much higher temperatures than other liquids and it forms an open lattice crystalline structure when cooled.
The categorization of the properties of the elements in the periodic table adequately describes there common and divergent characteristics, but does not explain why these and not some other characteristics are the result of their differences in subatomic structure. Often such a description passes for an adequate explanation. For example, the excited quantum energy state (resonance state) of an electron in carbon and oxygen are just right for the creation of stable carbon atoms needed for the creation of stars and life on earth. Minor changes in the excited energy state of beryllium and of alpha particles by even one percent would mean that no carbon or heavy metals ever form in the universe, because there would be no resonance to make carbon stable. Resonance enables the electrons of carbon to absorb the extra energy of an incoming alpha particle without bursting apart until it subsides into its normal energy state. If the excited energy level of oxygen were one percent higher, all carbon would be converted to oxygen. There would be no stable organic molecules or life forms as we know them in the universe.
So too, there is no apparent reason why the force of gravity is not very different from what it is. If the force of gravity were 10 billion times stronger, it would still be only 10‑28 the power of the electric force. But in this case, the density of stars would be much different and they would burn out within one year.
What determined the precise value of these constants? Can it be adequately explained as chance?
The emergence of life forms poses a more serious challenge to this world view. For we are forced along with the scientist to conclude that all life forms are simply mechanical assemblies of physical parts that have spontaneously assembled themselves and commenced operating in such a manner as to sustain the integrity of their structure, nurture its growth, reproduction and adaption. Biology with the help of genetics has discovered the entire list of material ingredients needed to create life forms as well as the overt mechanism for reproduction and evolution by mutation, but what combination of chance and necessity could possibly account for the ingenious complexity of such a mechanism? As yet there is also no substantial evidence that a combination of material ingredients mixed ever so long could possibly constitute itself as a living organism.
Science knows the ingredients, but not the recipe for life. It has placed itself in a position like that of a fictitious space traveller who is the first to arrive on a barren planet void of life and discovers a TV and VCR powered by solar cells playing the movie Gone with the Wind. Confident that no space craft or life form had ever visited the planet in the past and that no TV could pass through the planet’s atmosphere without self-destructing, the traveller pulls out his computer and writes a program to calculate the probability that the TV, VCR, solar cells and film could have spontaneously constituted themselves out of the material stuff of the planet and its atmosphere and commenced playing. Unsurprisingly, he finds that such an event is so unlikely that it could have occurred spontaneously only once or twice in 10 billion plus years since the Big Bang. Undismayed, our traveller recognizes that this is approximately the same probability that has been estimated for the spontaneous emergence of life and conscious life forms in the universe that are capable of constructing scientific theories and producing romantic historical films, a similar improbability that has already acquired acceptance as scientific dogma.
The challenges posed by extending the materialist formula to life forms has spurred the search for a third factor that could account for the orderliness, adaptation and capacity for evolution so apparent in Nature. This search has led to examination of the capacity of material energy for self-organization. Systems science sees all matter, living and nonliving, as fundamentally ordered and organized. It explains the emergence of life forms out of inanimate matter by showing that what we regard as ‘living’ is actually a self-generating network, a self-organizing open physical system in active relationship both with the components of which it is the whole as well as the environment of which it is itself a part. All the order we witness in life is the result of spontaneous thermodynamic processes. It views all living systems, be they living organisms, ecosystems or social systems, as integrated wholes whose properties cannot be reduced to those of smaller parts. Systems theory attributes the characteristics of living organisms to self-organizing properties inherent within them and to their capacity to respond and adapt to the context in which they are placed.
Yet systems theory still leaves us to ponder unsatisfied over the question which is insufficiently addressed by more mechanistic theories. How are these systems so determined or constituted in the first place? We find ourselves forced to resort back to the original Gods of Necessity and Chance. Nor does its explanation of all creativity as the spontaneous emergence of bifurcation points resolve the issue. The theory merely describes an apparent characteristic of material systems without revealing the underlying determinate that makes it so. Systems theory is an admirable attempt to show that the evolution of complexity does not follow a pre-established plan and need not result from the intervention of a conscious will in Nature.
Still more troubling are those questions pertaining to the emergence of consciousness out of an inconscient and inanimate energy and substance. Consciousness, according to the prevalent current view, is a mere extension and elaboration of sensation, sensation a product of energy transmission and chemical reaction triggered by impact of inconscient energy from the environment on inanimate material substance in our bodies. Granted that such an explanation may prove adequate to explain a simple electrical circuit with sensors, what determined the formation of the circuit or the sensors in the first place. And assuming it did somehow occur spontaneously, still we must enquire by what properties of material energy and substance do higher mental faculties such as perception, symbolic language, abstract thinking, association, judgement, memory, values and imagination arise, which only by a far stretch of that imagination can be reduced to electrical circuitry? By what combination of chance, necessity and self-organization do human minds synthesize the grandeur of Beethoven’s symphonies, the illuminating insights of Einstein, or the dramatic poetry of King Lear? What inherent determinates in material energy and substance account for these creative faculties?
Taken individually and together, these difficulties must compel rational minds to explore alternative hypotheses in the search for more satisfactory explanations. Rather than striving to fit everything within the ill-fitting formulas of material necessity and chance, we are compelled to ask whether there is any alternative hypothesis that will more adequately account for both the fixed patterns and infinite variation in Nature. Thus far, religion and philosophy, those allied fields of humanity’s quest for knowledge, may have failed to project a rational hypothesis worthy of contention, but that is no reason to stop the search. Chance and necessity may be relegated to the realm of philosophy by practical and experimental scientists fascinated by the power of technology and the predictive power of its theories. But no one in search of ultimate answers and rational understanding of the universe can afford to dispense with an inquiry into the soundness of the theological basis for modern science.
2. Infinity as the Creator
According to current scientific thought, chance, necessity, and self-organizing systems acting independently, in combination or in synergy are the fundamental determinants of material existence, life and consciousness. Yet these God-like powers imply the existence of something else from which they have arisen and on the basis of which they act in the universe. Chance, necessity and self-organization are merely principles to explain the apparent order and variation in the world. They are principles of action or creation that may satisfactorily or unsatisfactorily explain the evolution of complexity in the universe, but they cannot explain the origin of the universe itself or of those many trillions of forms and forces of which it is constituted and populated. By all accounts, both material and spiritual, we are forced to posit an infinite existence or at least an infinite potential as the basis for all that exists. The true god of both science and religion is Infinity.
No matter how far we are able to trace back the origin of the present universe in time or how far we are able to project our imaginations into the future, we are unable to conceive of either a beginning or an end to temporal existence. Our universe may have been born, but if so, it was born of some prior condition, however unknowable or indescribable it may be by the methods of modern science. It may be that this is the first and only universe or, as some now suspect, one of perhaps millions of real or possible, successful or unviable universes that have been or will be born. Our universe may be presently confined and expanding within a limited sphere, but if it continues to expand indefinitely as recent evidence suggests, it is impossible to conceive of any spatial end or limit to its possible expansion. Even if it does reach a spatial limit or begin to contract, that in no way places a limit on the real or potential spatial expansion of other universes existing before, after or conterminous with our own. An Infinity of space and an Eternity of Time appear as the origin and foundation for all that has, does and will exist in future.
This infinite existence is not confined to mere spatial and temporal characteristics. For from it also have emerged the countless numbers and varieties of energy vibrations, particles, elements, molecules, stars, planets, forms, shapes, designs, and patterns that populate our universe. The numbers of each may be very large yet finite, but the potential number that might have existed, may exist now or may come in to existence can in no conceivable way be limited. So too, the number and variety of life forms with their infinite mutations cannot be subject to any limits. Nor the number and variety of elements of conscious human experiences – impulses, sensations, feeling, emotions, sentiments, attitudes, beliefs, values, thoughts, ideas. All these have arisen from something. We may not be able to say that it is or how they have arisen, but we are forced to conclude that it cannot be limited to any finite characteristics in space, time, number, property or quality. Science implicitly accepts this infinite foundation as the source and basis for all the materials out of which inconscient, inanimate chance, necessity and self-organizing complexity weave the warp and weft of universal existence.
What more can we say than this about the origin? Logic compels us to also conclude that all that has emerged or manifested as material existence, life form or conscious experience, all the energy, substance, forms, properties, qualities, designs and patterns must in some way pre-exist in potential in that origin, for if no such potential existed, they could not have emerged from it. They must be inherent characteristics or inherent potentialities of the Infinite. This Infinite must in some manner of speaking be or have the potential to create living conscious beings. How can something evolve out of something else unless it pre-exists at least as potential in that from which it has emerged?
If this line of thought is rational, then we are forced to reconsider not only the nature of the origin but also the nature of the instruments of chance and necessity through which it appears to effectuate an evolution of its involved potentialities. If life and consciousness are inherent characteristics or potentials of this infinite, then they may also be inherent characteristics of the forces or instruments through which this infinite manifests its potentialities. Such a line of reasoning ultimately runs up against the contradictory evidence of our senses and our science. To our experience, chance is only our way of describing the random acts of an inconscient material energy. Necessity is only our way of describing the fixity of inanimate automatic mechanism. We find not grounds for attributing life or consciousness to either, other than the fact that complex order, perfect precision, flawless design, mathematical architecture, intelligent adaptation, vibrant life and evolving consciousness apparently emerge by the actions of these instruments. The world is so precisely perfect in so many ways that it is easy to attribute, as countless civilizations and ages have done, intelligence and conscious intention to its creator .
The religious conception of an all-knowing, conscious divine will that creates and directs all things to fulfil its own intentions does not satisfy the modern scientific mind, for science does not find sufficient evidence in material nature to conclude that such a conscious will exists or intervenes in material or life processes. It observes complex works of nature that might well be the acts of a conscious will, but sees no glimpse of such a creator. On the contrary, it finds the universe populated by an infinite number and variety of apparently inconscient forces and forms contacting, interacting and evolving by their own motive force and according to their own inherent propensities without need of any intervention by a conscious being. Life emerges only millions of years after the first appearance of inconscient matter and conscious experience follows millions of years after that. Still we are left contemplating the mystery of how an inconscient, inanimate material force can ultimately give rise to living, conscious beings.
One way out is to assert, as science presently strives to do, that life and consciousness are merely complex expressions of material force and substance that have evolved through the inherent tendency of material systems to adapt and grow more complex. There is undoubtedly much in the behaviour of living beings that is so closely allied to physical processes and mechanisms that it is difficult to distinguish from action of physical energy. The response of Pavlov’s dog to the bell exemplifies the type of automatic and repeatable phenomenon widely observed in material nature, if only we ignore the fact that the dog’s response is learned and not innate. But an alternative hypothesis is possible that provides a more satisfying way out of this dilemma, which has not yet received sufficient consideration.
According to Sri Aurobindo, who presented this alternative hypothesis in its most complete and satisfying formulation in his magnum opus The Life Divine, the origin from which all matter, life and mind emerge is not an inconscient Infinite, but rather a Conscious Infinite. Life and mentality are higher order levels or planes of conscious existence that emerge out of material energy and substance because they are previously involved and inherent in all material energy and substance.
This alternative hypothesis fully explains the apparently inconscient, inanimate nature of material force as well as its capacity to give rise to the evolution of living beings and conscious experience. Rather than depicting life and mind as more evolved mechanisms or systems of material form and energy, it conceives matter as a less evolved form of conscious energy and substance in which life and mind are involved. Instead of reducing life and mind to complex mechanisms of matter, it elevates matter to the status of a simpler, less overt form of conscious existence which does not give full expression to its own inherent characteristics. The materialist hypothesis views matter as the first starting point for evolution of life and mind out of matter. The alternative hypothesis views matter as the final step of a complex creative process of involution of life and mind in matter. It is in this process of involution that it differs most strikingly from both the materialist hypothesis adopted by science and the hypotheses adopted by religions that affirm a conscious being as creator of the world.
It will be apparent from a review of the difficulties confronting the materialist hypothesis that no such problems arise when the origin is conceived of as a conscious infinite. The orderliness, extraordinary precision, architectural symmetry, beauty of design, purposeful interaction and interdependence of things and beings are easily explained when we concede the existence of a conscious creator. So also, the infinite variation, evolution and increasing complexity of things would be equally intelligible, since creativity is an inherent characteristic of conscious will and an infinite conscious should be capable of infinite creativity. The emergence of animate life and conscious mind would also be readily explained.
The real difficulty in accepting this alternative hypothesis lies not in explaining how life, consciousness, and complexity can arise out of an apparently inconscient energy but rather how an inconscient material energy and substance can arise out of a conscious infinite so very different from it in their apparent nature. The problem then would not be how to explain a conscious world built from inconscient materials, but how to explain finite, inconscient energy as the first expression and instrument of a conscious Infinite. It is this process which Sri Aurobindo describes as involution. He explains by it not only the origin and true nature of material energy but also the appearance of those ‘moral’ elements in earthly existence which are so inconsistent with our concept of divine will –wastefulness, ignorance, suffering, falsehood, and evil.
The scientist raised in the empirical tradition of Francis Bacon, the mathematical certainty of Descartes, and the experimental philosophy of Isaac Newton may hasten to dismiss such a hypothesis on the same grounds that science dismisses all metaphysical and religious views as essentially untestable, unmeasurable and therefore outside the realm of science. But these attributes apply with equal or greater validity to the hypotheses currently in vogue which assert that life arose spontaneously some time in the distant past on earth or in outer space by a fortuitous combination, assembly and activation of organic compounds; or to the current hypothesis in psychology which asserts that all mental activity and conscious experience are simply chemical and electrical activity in material substance; or to the recent quest for a grand unified theory in physics based on the concept of superstrings, which postulates the existence of a vibrating resonance 100 billion billion times smaller than a proton and which depends for its theoretical consistency on the existence of a material universe consisting of a minimum of 10 physical dimensions.
None of these propositions can be tested or proven valid. Superstring theory postulates a reality that is smaller than the necessary minimum size for physical measurement as defined by the Planck constant, and is, therefore, untestable. Even if we succeed in creating the most primitive form of viral organisms out of chemical compounds in a laboratory, we cannot thereby prove that the same process is sufficient for the creation of unicellular and higher forms of life or that all these higher forms have evolved spontaneously from that primitive species. Even if we succeed in fully mapping the neural centers in the brain that are associated with various mental faculties, we cannot prove that those centers are the source of those faculties, anymore than we can prove that the radio is the source of the soundwaves that it receives and broadcasts by discovering the function of each of its parts. All that we will have shown is that the different states of consciousness are correlated with different brain functions.
Despite these limitations, science does not hasten to dismiss these apparently untestable and unscientific hypotheses, because while the hypotheses themselves may ultimately be discarded, they stimulate fruitful exploration of uncharted territories in biology, psychology and physics. By the same token, Sri Aurobindo’s hypothesis of involution can not only explain countless experiences and experimental observations inconsistent with or unexplained by current theories, but also generate a vast range of fruitful inquiry and experimentation in the fields of matter, life and mental experience. Whether or not it can ever be tested is a subject we will examine later in this paper.
Scientists, when they study really fundamental problems, expects to find beautiful answers, answers worthy of descriptions such as elegance, simplicity, symmetry, logical completeness and inevitability . By all of these parameters, Sri Aurobindo’s hypothesis far excels current contenders for a final theory.
3. Sri Aurobindo’s Hypothesis
According to Sri Aurobindo’s hypothesis, an infinite, omnipresent, omniscient consciousness-force is the creator of the universe and all that is in it. The universe is not a creation by the creator of something outside and other than itself, but a progressive and evolutionary manifestation by the Infinite of that which it contains within itself as unmanifest potential. The universe and all it contains is a portion, expression and manifestation of an infinity that is not limited to or confined by this manifest field, which is both a spatial infinity and a temporal eternity. That Infinite is also a formless infinity and timeless eternity that transcends all relative conceptions and experiences of space and time. This conception of the Infinite appears compatible with the speculation of Superstring theorists regarding a vacuum or void from which everything can emerge. But in the case of the alternative hypothesis it is quite clear that this ultimate source is not a physical plane of existence as normally conceived. It is something more subtle and undetectable by physical instrumentation.
Science is making a concerted effort to unify our conceptions of matter, life and mind by representing that all three are expressions of material energy-substance, be that energy the wave particles of quantum theory or the vibrating strings of Superstring theory. These theories split matter into its tiniest measurable or conceptual parts to arrive at an intangible energy-substance and then construct the entire material, living and conscious universe out of this basic ingredient. The reality of matter is so compelling real to our senses that long after physicists have exploded the myth of a solid and stable material substance, there is still a compelling urge to explain all life, mind and conscious experience in material terms, no matter how radically our experience as living and conscious beings may differ from our experience of inanimate matter.
Sri Aurobindo also presents a unifying conception of matter, life and mind by representing that all three are expressions of a common energy-substance. Here too, the constituting energy-substance is intangible, yet forms the basis for all sensual, perceptual and conceptual experience. But in this case that energy-substance is not inanimate or inconscient. This pure fundamental reality is what he terms Consciousness-Force, which is itself an expression of a more subtle reality he refers to as Self-conscious Being or Pure Existence. While some scientists would have us believe that all life and consciousness can be reduced to inconscient energy-substance, Sri Aurobindo asserts that all matter, life and mental experience are limited or veiled expressions of this fundamental Consciousness-Force. In his view, we are not compelled to reduce our deepest emotions, highest ideals and self-awareness to electrical impulses. As our mental activity may be reflected as electrical impulses by the oscillating waves on an electroencephalograph without revealing the actual content of our thoughts, the observable impulses of matter, life and mind which we experience are superficial expressions of a more fundamental reality that possesses the inherent characteristics of consciousness, will and being.
According to Sri Aurobindo, Conscious-Force manifests as mind, life and matter through the process of involution. According to current scientific theory, material energy has an inherent capacity to take on the behavioural characteristics that we associate with life and mental consciousness, characteristics not only very different but even contrary in nature to the inherent qualities of inconscient, inanimate material energy-substance. This is possible according to current theory because life and mind are merely more complex expressions of material energy-substance with no unique characteristics or separate existence of their own. According to Sri Aurobindo, Consciousness-Force has the inherent capacity to take on the behavioural characteristics that we associate with inanimate, inconscient material energy-substance. This is made possible by an involution of the inherent properties of consciousness-force so that it assumes the appearance to our sense experience of inconscient material energy-substance, subconscious life and conscious mentality.
Why, we may ask, this dual terminology of consciousness-force? According to Sri Aurobindo, the capacity to be aware and the capacity to will represent two complementary aspects of a single power, consciousness-force. We tend to think of consciousness as a power of awareness or knowledge, not as a power of action. We reserve a separate term, will or choice or decision, to denote the power of consciousness to exert itself in a particular direction. This division of knowledge and will results from the fact that in the normal human mind, the capacity to know and the capacity to will coexist but appear as separate faculties. We are capable of knowing without the capacity to will or willing without the capacity to know. But this is not the case either when human consciousness rises above the normal level or when we examine the consciousness of animals as it expresses in subconscious instinct. Both above and below the normal level of human mentality, awareness and will for action are unified as a single capacity. The animal does not reflect on his sensations as humans do and then decide to act in a particular manner. The reception of the sensation and the will for action are one and inseparable. In fact, the act of a mediating consciousness between the sensation and the action is barely perceptible, because the awareness of sensation is itself involved or subconscious. Sri Aurobindo maintains that even our normal human consciousness is an involved state of the conscious-force of pure existence. It is involved in the sense that it possesses only very limited knowledge and negligible power in comparison with the knowledge and power inherent in pure consciousness-force. This is analogous to the fact that the kinetic energy of physical forms is infinitesimal in comparison with the power involved in atomic structure. Even the energy released by nuclear reactions represents only a tiny portion of the total energy involved in matter. In the subconscious instinct of the animal, we see the play of a severely limited (involved) but almost infallible knowledge expressing with a decisive power uncharacteristic of human beings. Note that, at the same time, animals possess a power of vitality not found in mentalized human beings, in whom that energy is absorbed as mental consciousness. In higher mental states, the knowledge component is much greater than normal and it is unified with a self-effectuating will. In the thinking mind, the knowledge or consciousness component is primary, the force is secondary; while in life, force is primary and knowledge has become subconsciousness.
The Process of Involution
While science wants us to believe that all our conscious experience can be reduced to characteristics of minerals and electricity, Sri Aurobindo’s hypothesis only requires us to extend to matter and lower forms of life known capacities of consciousness validated by our own experience, the capacities for self-limitation and self-absorption, which are two of the three essential powers responsible for involution.
We know from our own experience that when we concentrate our attention on a particular object – be it a thought, a feeling, sensation, external object or event – our attention is simultaneously drawn away from other fields of perception so that we may not display the normal awareness of what is going on around us and we may not respond to external stimuli as we do in a normal waking state. We know that this apparent lack of awareness and responsiveness are the result of a conscious self-limitation or concentration of our attention on a particular field. Concentration or self-limitation is an inherent power of consciousness.
We know also from our own experience that when we are in dream sleep, we may be very actively aware and intensely responding to stimuli occurring within the dream, yet totally unaware and unresponsive to stimuli from the physical environment. Our motionless state of self-absorbed dream sleep may appear to a second person as an inanimate, inconscient state of death. Self-absorption of consciousness-force so that it is not at all manifest in surface behaviour is also an inherent power of consciousness.
We know too that our bodies possess a capacity for self-awareness that far exceeds the limits of our conscious mental activity. Psychology tell us that the body is capable of acting in direct opposition to our conscious will to express subconscious urges or tendencies. In times of emergency it may act so instinctively to preserve itself that our conscious mind cannot recollect its actions after the fact. The instantaneous reflex responses of the professional athlete have this character. Without our conscious awareness, the body routinely senses and responds to physiological conditions within its organs and systems, issuing chemical and electrical messages to support continuous respiration, metabolism, and countless other functions. While biology may wish to reduce all these subconscious functions to mere physical feedback systems, they possess characteristics of awareness similar to those found in conscious mentality, while differing in the extreme from mere physical processes in nature. Our bodies as well as those of other animal and plant species possess, so long as they are ‘alive’, a subconscious awareness and subconscious capacity for response arising from the fact that what we term ‘life’ is actually a partially involved status of Consciousness-Force.
As quantum theory, relativity theory and superstring theory have radically altered our conception of matter and material energy, Sri Aurobindo’s hypothesis requires a radical change in our conception of consciousness. In normal parlance consciousness is an attribute of self-awareness and mental activity associated with human beings. Although higher animals demonstrate awareness of their environment, we have no evidence that they are self-conscious. Plants also demonstrate ‘sensory awareness’ of their environment, in the sense that they can detect and move toward light and water, which science attributes to purely chemical processes rather than conscious awareness in the plant. With regard to material substance, we conceive of it as completely lacking even in the most physical capacity of sensation. Neurophysiology is striving to prove that the sensory perception of the plant, the instinctive behaviour of the animal, the conscious as well as the subconscious perceptions and activities of human beings are all of a type, being expressions of electrical and chemical processes. Sri Aurobindo concurs that all these manifestations of consciousness are fundamentally expressions of a single process, and therefore correlations between physical, vital and mental activities are to be expected, since they all have a common foundation and are closely interwoven in their development. But in his view that single process is a process of consciousness, not a material process. Although it certainly does manifest as exchange of electrical and chemical energy, these are only material expressions of a subtle process that are perceptible on the surface. He goes even further by concluding that even material substance itself possesses an intrinsic consciousness, but it is so fully involved or self-absorbed as to be undetectable on the surface. In material forms, the consciousness is unperceptible and the force expresses as inconscient energy moving in fixed patterns that are also unperceptible to our senses. As life is partially involved, subconscious status of Consciousness-Force, matter is a fully involved, inconscient status in which the Consciousness-Force takes on the appearance of inconscient and inanimate energy-substance.
Our primary concern here must be with the lower and purely material end of the spectrum, where we observe no visible signs of consciousness at all. For if consciousness is the very stuff of our existence, we have no difficulty in conceding that mental consciousness is an expression of that fundamental nature. We may even concede that the awareness and responsiveness observed in higher animals is a more limited expression of the same consciousness. But when it comes to material substance, we have difficulty associating its properties with the quality of consciousness. Here is where Sri Aurobindo’s conception of involution comes in, for it explains the process by which pure consciousness through its capacities for self-limitation and self-absorption can take on the form and appearance of inconscient material substance-force.
In matter, both the awareness and the will are so deeply involved and imperceptible on the surface that Sri Aurobindo adopts the term inconscient to describe them. By inconscient he means not a complete absence of consciousness, but rather a complete absence of consciousness as manifest on the surface as reception of sensation or response to sensation. As we go down the ladder from mentality to vitality to physicality, consciousness becomes more involved and concealed, while energy becomes more evolved and manifest; but since the consciousness associated with that energy is involved and acting behind the scenes, the more manifest the energy, the less conscious it appears.
An analogy from physics may make this proposition more intelligible than it initially appears to our sense-laden mind. Through the senses we view matter as solid, stable, inanimate substance, although we know since early in the last century that actually our perception is only an appearance. What we perceive as solid, stable matter actually consists of millions of atoms whirling around in constant motion at high velocity with huge interstitial spaces separating the particles from each other. Yet on the surface, neither the empty spaces nor the movement are perceptible. One could say that the energy is involved, in the sense that it is self-absorbed in maintaining what appears as the stable form of matter. Quantum theory goes even further, telling us that actually the atom itself consists of much smaller particles moving in stable orbits at high speed around a central cluster and that vast amounts of energy are so absorbed in this orbital movement, but not normally free to escape from their captive movement. This energy too is involved and normally unmanifest on the surface. Similarly, we know that the nucleus of the atom contains much greater amounts of energy locked within the structure of each atom.
According to Sri Aurobindo, what physics has discovered is true of energy is also true of consciousness-force. In fact, the energy detected and measured by science is itself a partial expression of that consciousness-force, partial because we perceive only the force and not the will that determines the direction of that force. Proving that matter is only energy form of consciousness may appear as formidable as the challenge of science to prove that consciousness is only action of material energy-substance. Because we are grounded in the physical body and can directly perceive material energy-substance with our senses, we are prepared to extend by inference our direct sensory experience of matter to interpret the nature of our experience as living, thinking beings. To understand Sri Aurobindo’s hypothesis, we must apply the same logic in reverse. We should extend our experience as living, conscious beings to understand matter. Certainly it requires a leap of faith, but no greater in magnitude than that which the materialist hypothesis requires of the mentally-awakened thinker or artist who vividly experiences the reality of pure thought and higher varieties of inspiration.
4. Three Planes
At this point the most patient and open-minded of scientists may concede, as one distinguished physicist generously acknowledged, that Sri Aurobinodo’s hypothesis possesses equal logic and internal consistency as the fundamental theories of reality posed by modern physics and, one might add, far greater beauty, simplicity and symmetry. Assuming that this conception is rational and internally consistent as a philosophical statement, scientists may with equal sincerity question whether there are any means by which the validity of the hypothesis can be tested. They may also question whether there is any likelihood that a theory based on so insubstantial a basis as consciousness can ever be productive of useful scientific findings when compared with the high productivity of quantum and relativity theory. After all, science seeks not only pure knowledge but also practical utility.
While it is certainly reasonable to create a standard for comparison, before applying a measure we must ensure that our measure is objective. Let us first consider the view that practical utility is a criterion for scientific validity. Science in its essence is the pursuit of knowledge. That knowledge when applied may result in technological, social, organizational and psychological development, but practicality cannot be considered a criteria for evaluating the validity of knowledge. For most practical purposes, it does not matter whether the sun rotates around our stationary planet or vice versa or whether both are in relative motion; but it matters very much for the advancement of scientific truth and bears on the development not only of technology but also of our social and psychological conceptions of ourselves and the universe. Public interest and investment in science may very well be skewed toward that which has the greatest practical application, but it is not always so. The billions of dollars invested to discover the nature of black holes, the existence of dark matter, the origin of the universe, vibrating strings, and unification of the four forces of material nature are undertaken in a quest for knowledge, not out of assurance that they will result in practical technologies. To confuse knowledge with practicality is to confuse science with technology, a common enough error in these days in which the scientist is confused with the scientific technician.
In these heady days of phenomenal technological advancement when our instrumentation is piercing into distant, prehistoric corners of the universe and unravelling each tiny segment of our genetic code, it is difficult to adopt an impartial view of the productivity of science in terms of pure knowledge. Indeed, to state that our success has been severely limited and decidedly skewed toward the most material end of natural phenomenon may outrage the biologist and neurologist who believe they are so close to unravelling the ultimate mysteries of life and consciousness. But an impartial examination will confirm this limitation. In fact, due to the severe constraints which the scientific method places on verification, science has consciously or unconsciously adopted a definition of life and consciousness in terms that are suited to physical methods of scientific inquiry. We are looking for life and consciousness within specific parameters because these are the only parameters to which our methods give us access. From a practical point of view, it is understandable. From a theoretical point of view, it is unjustifiable.
Even granting that practical application is a valid criteria for scientific inquiry and that the limits of the scientific method are a valid criteria for defining scientific hypotheses, we should not be in too great haste to dismiss Sri Aurobindo’s hypothesis as a valid basis for scientific exploration, even in the purely material field of matter and energy and in the biological field of the physical body and nervous system. Even here, this hypothesis has the potential of vastly extending both the theoretical knowledge and practical utility of science.
Science, as he saw it, is approaching the frontiers of the physical plane where it begins to shade off into the subtle. The knowledge of science is at many places the closest to the truth at points where it has ventured the furthest from the secure assumptions and foundations from which it began and on which it still claims to insist. The spontaneous appearance and disappearance of vibrating strings of energy out of apparent nothingness, the unaccountable gaps in biological evolution, the physical inheritance of psychological characteristics, and countless other problems of science become explicable when the full implications of Sri Aurobindo’s hypothesis are understood.
The scientist is much like a man staring into a mirror trying to see what is on the other side. Much of what he sees is only a reflection of himself, of his own a priori assumptions about the nature of reality and of his own methods of investigation. Much else of what he looks at is opaque and impenetrable to his vision, such as the inner workings of a lover’s emotions, a thinker’s genius, and a mystic’s inspiration. It is not surprising that when he tries to analyze life and mind with physical instruments that he concludes life and mind are simply electrical and chemical processes of material energy and substance. That conclusion inevitably follows from his methodology and instrumentation.
But should the scientist come around to the other side of the mirror and examine the perspective from that vantage point, he would discover what had been reflective or opaque to his penetration becomes transparent and revealing. Instead of concluding that life and mind are merely mechanisms and systems processes of material energy, he will find that life and mind are fields of subtle forms and forces in contact, conflict and cooperation with each other. Each has its own energy-substance. Ideas come in contact, clash, merge and mutate with other ideas, feelings and material conditions, destroying old conceptions, creating new ones, and evolving higher orders of conception and understanding in the process. Feelings come in contact, clash, merge, and mutate with other feelings, ideas and material conditions, releasing into action powerful energies for accomplishment and destruction, creating and evolving higher orders of social and psychological forms. In the planes of life and mind also, every action has a reaction, energy is conserved, forms evolve and substance is a repository of tremendous latent energy.
The Science of Life
Based on the criteria of practical utility, we may still feel justified in clinging to the narrow materialist formula, since this approach has resulted in fruitful discoveries of immense value to humanity. But at the same time we must acknowledge that our progress in unravelling the secrets of matter has been accompanied by only modest gains in the fields of life and consciousness. Even after we have completely mapped the human genetic code and are able to manipulate it to correct physical defects in the body, we would understand nothing fundamentally more about the wider field of Life. Life as presently defined and pursued by science is confined to the physiological mechanism in matter. But Life as lived by human beings is a far vaster field of vital existence. It is a field of form and force like the material plane – a field of energy, action, reaction and result. The military commander who strives to anticipate the actions of enemy forces and the impact of unpredictable weather conditions on a battle, the entrepreneur and manager who strive to anticipate the actions of competitors and unexpressed needs of customers, the politician who tries to glimpse the unsatisfied aspirations and unaddressed anxieties of the electorate, the statesman striving to prevent war and promote peace, the householder trying to support a family and maintain harmony between the generations—all these people, all of us, confront in our daily ‘lives’ aspects of life that are very far removed and only distantly related to the physiological functions of the body, but these too are central aspects of Life.
As lay readers struggle with the physicist’s conception of fields, wave-particles and the like, those unfamiliar with Sri Aurobindo’s thought may initially find it difficult to grasp what he means by the term ‘life’, for indeed our science has no term to describe an equivalent field of existence. To the biologist life is associated with a group of physiological functions, reproduction, respiration, and metabolism. The presence or absence of these functions in biological forms denotes the presences or absence of life. To each of us as individual living beings, the term is commonly applied to a much broader field than the physiological. We apply it with reference to the entire span of our existence, to all the actions and experiences that occur and all the people and objects it involves. We also commonly speak of the life of organizations, social movements, communities and societies, in which we include all the activities and institutions associated with them. Beyond these, all cultures recognize that life is a plane of existence and experience subject to its own characteristic laws or ways of functioning, no matter how enigmatic they may often appear, as connoted in phrases such as “Life is like that.”
What do all these varied definitions have in common? They all denote a field of existence in which energy and action are primary, while form of substance and form of thought are secondary. What does the materialist hypothesis tell us about this field? If we apply the materialist’s determinants to Life, we must conclude that results in this plane too are a product of chance (also referred to as luck or misfortune) and necessity (also referred to as destiny or fate), yet as with respect to the material plane we are unable to determine what it is that determines that necessity or governs its interplay with chance. There is no room in the materialist formulation of Life for notions such as choice and free will, no matter how real these principles may be to our personal experience. The conscious formulation of new individual and collective actions, the conscious evolutionary development of complexity within individuals and social groupings would have to be regarded, according to the materialist hypothesis, as mere action of material energy. While some biologists and neurophysiologists may feel comfortable explaining their own existence based on this mechanistic formula, most of us will feel that it leaves a wide and unsatisfying gap in our knowledge and our power for mastery in life. Their principles may be valid for life science, but not for a science of life. Moreover, it casts serious doubts on the claim of scientists to be anywhere near a final theory that unites and reconciles all the forces of nature, except in the very narrowest and most material definition of nature.
Because science lacks an adequate and unambiguous term to refer to this wider field of life, Sri Aurobindo refers to it as the vital plane of existence. And his thought takes us further into realms heretofore unexplored by science. This vital plane of life exhibits characteristic patterns of functioning on a parallel to the characteristic patterns of functioning of the physical plane which science refers to as universal laws. Life has a character. It has a capacity to respond, and the nature of that response is a direct function of the consciousness of the individuals or groups involved in the action. As physics observes and catalogues the characteristic properties of material substances and the interactions of material energies, seeks to understand their origin and to discover the laws that govern them, a true science of life must carefully observe and catalogue the characteristic patterns of action and response in life. This is the truth behind the much maligned and misunderstood concept of karma, whose essential meaning is that every action in life releases a particular vibration or quality of energy that evokes a response from the same vibratory quality of life in the world around. Violence begets violence, one good turn deserves another, and countless other commonplace phrases reflect shades of this profound truth, but the complexity of life energies and events is so great that simplistic formulas such as these will fail to satisfy empirically unless founded upon a deep and systematic study of life events and consequences. That is precisely what science can bring to the study of life, once it consents to impartially examine an alternative hypothesis.
Every successful farmer, business leader, politician and statesman—all those whose primary objective is accomplishment in social life, rather than being confined to work on material substances or mental formulations—intuitively discover these truths. Great writers of fiction, of whom Shakespeare is the pre-eminent example, intuitively reflect them in the words and actions of their characters and the consequences of those actions. The sudden attack by a pirate ship which enables Hamlet to escape the plot for his execution in England appears at first glance to be appropriately described by the materialists’ concept of chance or luck, until the underlying determinants and governing principles of life are better known. Critics have studied many such patterns of action and consequence in great literary works, usually without realizing that they were dealing with universal laws of action and reaction that are the basis of a fully rational and verifiable science of life. Not just literature, but also history and biography are replete with instances that point to a deeper level of causality in life. That an inexplicable order by Hitler on May 24, 1940 stopping the advance of Nazi troops to Dunkirk, coupled with the sudden onset of heavy fog along the coast, made possible the near miraculous evacuation of 350,000 allied troops with minimum casualties mocks at simplistic notions of chance and necessity in life. Traditional wisdom in all cultures is rich with insights into truths of life, though it usually fails to organize and present the theoretical basis for its conclusions in a manner understandable or acceptable to the rational mind.
Who has not had less complex and dramatic, but nevertheless striking instances in their own life? You think or speak of a particular person and a moment later a letter or phone call arrives from that person or he arrives at your door. If there is a causal relationship between your action and the result, it is obviously not material. You become interested in a particular subject for the first time and suddenly find life inundating you with information about it that you have not even sought. You think of a word or passage and open a book spontaneously to just that topic. You notice that both good and bad news seems to often comes in streams, one good thing following another or a crop of bad news all coming to harvest at the same time, even when the sources and causes of events appear causally unrelated.
Life as human beings live it is a field in which forms and forces interact to produce results. However, in this case the forms are not forms of material substance, they are forms of action. As the basic building block of material forms is the atom, the basic building block of life forms is the individual act. In both instances, the real foundation for the form is energy in constant movement. As atoms combine together to constitute larger inorganic forms ranging in size from the molecule to the planet, solar system and galaxy and more complex organic forms ranging in complexity from single cells, to organs, organisms and species; so too, individual acts combine to form larger, more complex activities, systems, organizations, communities and societies. Composing a letter, conceiving a child, establishing a business, and founding a country are acts. Farming, shopping, manufacturing and researching are complex recurring chains of activity. Social habits, customs, procedures, and laws are complex systems of acts. Like the atom, each of these acts and systems can be broken down into smaller constituent parts ad infinitum, to discern the minutest sensations, impulses, thoughts and movements of which they are constituted. Each is itself part of a longer chain or larger system of actions. Like the expansive movements of stars and galaxies, each act can be traced back to its origins in the distant past and to its explicit or subtle consequences in the distant future. The key to this evolution of complexity in life is tersely explained by Sri Aurobindo. “It (life) evolves through growth of consciousness even as consciousness evolves through greater organization and perfection of life.” A progressive emergence of a previously involved consciousness and a progressive organization of the consciousness that emerges are the twin principles of evolution in all planes of existence, material, social, psychological and even spiritual.
The forces that act in our lives include forces of material nature such as weather and gravity, but also social forces such as political power, social status and peer pressure, and psychological forces such as the power of ideas, ideals, opinions, beliefs, emotions, sensations, impulses, desires and aspirations. All these forces meet and interact in the cauldron of life to influence the course of the acts, activities, systems and organizations. When Martin Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg in 1517 to launch the Reformation, when Roosevelt halted the banking crisis in 1932 by appealing to the American people over the radio, when Churchill single-handedly inspired the British people to resist Nazi aggression at a time when all of Europe had capitulated, when Gandhi stirred the Indian masses to cast off two centuries of British imperial rule, when Gorbachev unilaterally dismantled the iron structure of communist authoritarianism that ended the Cold War – their acts expressed and mobilised forces of tremendous intensity to confront opposing forces and destroy or alter entrenched forms of social organization. The fields in which they acted, variously term economic, religious, political, social, psychological, are fields for scientific inquiry – arguably far more central and important fields than any that absorbs the attention of astrophysicists or evolutionary biologists. The material, technological, organization, social and psychological forces they wielded and unleashed are also proper subject for scientific study. The forms they created, altered or destroyed, be they forms of governance, law and social organization or forms of social attitude and mental understanding, are very much objects for scientific investigation.
As science studies the structure and functioning of material substance to discover its composition, the processes through which it undergoes change, and the rules governing its interactions with other substances, so also, both for the purposes of pure and applied knowledge, it needs to study the structure of acts to discover their composition, motive power, sequence and interactions with other acts. Scientific knowledge of matter generates the power to create new and improved materials and to produce more efficient material processes with less expenditure of physical energy. Scientific knowledge of Life will generate the power to create new and more effective acts and organizations of act, to accomplish far greater results with less expenditure of human energy. As the study of physics holds a key to understanding the process of material creation, the study of these life processes holds the key to the process of human accomplishment in all fields of life, which is creation of a higher, more complex order.
It should be evident that the relevance of the material hypothesis of physical science to these fields has been severely limited. The most useful of social scientific theories reveals little correlation to the material hypothesis. Most of what we know and practice in Life is drawn from other types of knowledge – the insights of great thinkers, the life experience of great achievers, even the intuitions of the mystic. We look to these sources and draw inspiration from them because we find the revelations of science insufficient to explain and insufficient to ensure our success. With regard to life, the scientist is like a visitor from another planet who views the earth from high above and draws a map outlining all its contours and variations in colour, pinpointing its settlements, tracking the movement of lights and objects below, but never placing foot on the earth, never hearing the sound of waves crashing, never experiencing the variety of its wildlife, never knowing of the joys, strivings and sufferings of its people. He mistakes the map, a symbolic representation of physical attributes, for the reality and thinks he knows all there is no know. But that is not Life.
According to Sri Aurobindo’s hypothesis, there are objective, universal laws that govern actions, reactions and results in life, but these laws are not the laws codified by material science, they are laws of consciousness. He goes even further to argue that the fundamental principles of consciousness governing these phenomena are in essence the same as those governing material fields, forces and forms, only the fields of action, the forms and the forces are subtle, not material. He, too, quests for an ultimate unifying theory. But it becomes evident that by ultimate unification he means something far more encompassing and also far more relevant to human existence than the unification of the four fundamental forces of material nature long sought after by physics. Both by the criterion of knowledge and the criterion of utility, we find science wanting in this domain that is so very central to our existence and so very much more relevant than the action of dark matter or the existence of parallel universes. This is not intended to disparage the pursuit for integrative theories in physics or any other field. It is only intended to place in relative perspective their overall contributions to knowledge and human existence and to offer an approach that achieves internal consistency and external efficacy in all the planes of our existence.
The Field of Mind
A 70 year old retired agricultural instructor in South India was admitted into the emergency room of the local hospital in coma and diagnosed by the attending physicians to be in the last throes of his mortal existence. All his vital signs were failing rapidly. The patient’s advanced age, poorly nourished body and hard life left both the family and the physicians without any hope for his recovery. The patient’s son, himself a school teacher, conveyed the news to a close friend, who accompanied the son to the hospital to pay his last respects. The old man lay in coma, unresponsive to the gathering of people around him, patiently waiting for the end to come. To his son’s dismay, his friend approached the patient and called out his name loudly. There was no response. Again he called out to the dying man, saying “What are you doing there? You have to build your house.” Again no response. The friend repeated his question about what he knew to be the old man’s lifelong unfulfilled aspiration. An eyelid fluttered and eventually opened. Again he asked, “What about the house? How can you build it lying in bed?” The patient’s head moved. His lips began trembled. Moments later he mumbled a feeble reply, “What house?” The friend promptly responded, “The house you can build with the money your son promises to give by tutoring students before and after school.” The friend explained his plan in detail and made the son acknowledge his willingness to the father. The old man lay motionless but fully attentive. Moments later he was sitting up. Within an hour he was demanding release from the hospital. The same day he was discharged. The same year he built the house and lived on to enjoy it for more than a decade.
As this incident illustrates, Matter and Life do not constitute the whole of our existence. There is also Mind. We human beings are mentally conscious and capable of a vast range of psychological experiences. Daily we experience sensations, urges, feelings, emotions, perceptions, sentiments, attitudes, beliefs, opinions, thoughts, ideas, aspirations, inspirations, convictions, faith, will, decision, commitment, determination, enthusiasm, fear, anger, hatred, jealousy, and the like. And these experiences do not exist in a vacuum. They directly act upon and interact with physical and vital processes. How far does science enlighten us regarding these intimate personal experiences? The lack of scientific progress is signified by the fact that although we intuitively distinguish between all these various experiences, there is no satisfactory lexicon of scientific terms to define them.
It should first be recognized that, although these experiences are so central and relevant and directly real to our minds, to scientists nurtured in the materialist tradition, they are abstractions that can only be studied in terms of anatomical structures, physiological processes, and physical behaviour, because the assumptions and methodology of science are adapted only to the physical plane. Aided by remarkable advances in technology, medical science can performed near miraculous feats of surgery on the brain and nervous system; but theoretical knowledge regarding the nature of mental consciousness, conscious experience and personality remains in its infancy. These impressive advances in applied bio and neuro-technology are akin to the practical knowledge of the primitive who discovered how to make and use fire for cooking and metallurgy but had very little understanding of the underlying chemical and physical principles at play, principles which have subsequently enabled science to analyze the burning of the stars and harness the power of the atom. The utilitarian achievement, no matter how impressive and serviceable, should not distract us from a more profound inquiry into the nature of consciousness that will unveil far greater wonders than the life cycle of the stars and make available far greater power than that concealed in the atom. For, if Sri Aurobindo’s hypothesis is correct, consciousness is the ultimate source of all energy and force in the universe. It would also provide us with the knowledge required to utilize that power more constructively than we have heretofore wielded each extension of human capacity.
Neuro-science has significantly advanced our ability to treat physical ailments and to understand the nervous system and brain disorders arising from anatomical damage and disease to the body. But in terms of theoretical knowledge and practical utility, the contribution of neuro-science to our understanding of human psychology and consciousness has been severely limited. Medicine remains perplexed by phenomena such as the psychosomatic origins of much, or perhaps even most, diseases. It can observe but not explain the countless remarkable expressions of the placebo effect, which demonstrates that the mind can both produce and cure diseases based on its faith in the treatment administered. Like the old man’s dramatic recovery narrated above, these phenomena dramatically exemplify the action of consciousness on material substance and energy. Practitioners confront these phenomena every day, but without a valid theoretical basis for explaining them. It is not surprising then that mainstream medical science tends to disregard or discredit more far-reaching fields of consciousness research ranging from dreams and hypnosis to extrasensory perception, the curative power of prayer, meditation and mystical experience, precisely those fields in which the non-material nature of consciousness is most apparent and directly observable.
Even after we have mapped all the areas and functions of the brain and are able to cure all neurological disorders, we will still understand little more about the wider field of consciousness and conscious experience. We will know only the impact or expression of consciousness in and on the physical nervous system, because, like the proverbial villager who sees a radio or TV for the first time, we mistakenly conclude that the instrument is the source of the broadcast and disassemble the radio to discover the human being inside the box. There is equal likelihood that a minute dissection of the brain will ever reveal the origin and nature of mental experience and the psychological sense of self. We have yet to discover that, in Sri Aurobindo’s words, “the force is anterior, not the physical instrument.”
Like matter and life, mind is a field of experience in which forms and forces act and interact for creation, destruction and evolution. Science has discovered that material substance actually consists of bundles of material energy that present to our sense perception as stable, solid forms. So too, according to Sri Aurobindo, the vital substance which constitutes forms in the plane of life actually consists of impulses of vital energy presented to our nervous sense perception as vibrations of vital substance (desires, feelings, emotions, fear, lust, anger, desire, love, joy and so forth); only in the case of life the energy content of the substance is far more perceptible than in matter, because it is less involved, more on the surface. Similarly, we can discover that the forms of mental substance are waves of mental energy presented to our cognitive faculties as thought-forms (mental sounds and images, conceptions, mental perceptions, ideas, and the like). In mind, the consciousness or knowledge content of the energy is quite apparent, its energy content less so. We normally perceive thoughts as bits of data rather than as energy waves. But like the physicists at the beginning of the 20th Century who found their cherished concepts about matter, energy, space and time shattered by their own discoveries, when our formed thought patterns are disrupted, we find that they release enormous amounts of mental energy that can be harnessed for fresh creation. It is noteworthy that physicist David Bohm came to regard thought processes as a more appropriate analogy for the nature of the physical universe than the analogy of a machine.
The basic unit of material substance is the atom. Atoms combine to form all the larger units of material substance observable in the universe. When we delve into the nature of particles smaller than the atom, we discover a microcosm in which particles resolve into vibrations of energy whose properties and location defy specification in terms common to discrete objects and reveal themselves somehow connected and in active relationship to their environment, pointing to a deeper plane of causality.
The basic unit of vital substance is the individual discrete act. Acts combine to form all the larger units of activity observable in life. When we delve into the nature of an act, we find it too consists of a microcosm of smaller components—thoughts, sensations and impulses—which are themselves energy vibrations. We find also that our perception of discrete separateness between living things gives way before a complex web of interactions and interdependencies with the wider field of Life and with other points of action, resulting in correspondences and consequences that defy a materialist understanding of contact and causality, phenomena we can catagorized by the expression ‘life response’. As in the case of matter, we discover non-linear patterns of correlation and correspondence which point to a deeper plane of causality.
The basic unit of mind is the individual thought. Like atoms and acts, thoughts combine to form larger, more complex structures variously termed concepts, ideas, theories, etc. When we delve into the nature of the individual thought, we find that the substance of thought resolves into energy waves. In mind we are able to more clearly identify the underlying property of relationship detected in matter and life, which links apparently separate forms. Here it is evident that no thought exists in isolation from a complex fabric of sensations, perceptions and conceptions, and that a slight modification in a single piece of data or a simple thought can have significant impact on a much wider structure of understanding. The activities of cognition, thinking, conception, perception, understanding, and imagination constitute a single web or fabric of mental consciousness. Unravel any single thread, ever so tiny, and eventually it will modify the entire mental formation which we variously refer to as understanding, thinking or knowing, as Darwin’s insight into evolution so profoundly modified thought in such diverse fields as astrophysics, embryology, economics, philosophy and religion.
In matter and life, we find it difficult to delve behind the energy to determine the nature of that deeper plane of causality which holds everything in mutual relationship and determines the behaviour of energy on the surface. Even in mind it is difficult to do so due to the constant whirling vibratory activity of mental substance, which so resembles in its restlessness the continuous movement of subatomic particles, vital sensations and impulses. But with practice, Sri Aurobindo explains, human beings can develop the capacity to still the chaotic activity of mental energy, so that the mind becomes a silent, contentless field of conscious awareness with greatly enhanced powers of perception and knowledge. Such experiences lend themselves to scientific investigation and verification, provided that the methods, measures and instruments are appropriate to the plane of mind. As in quantum and relativity theory, here too the artificial and fictitious barrier raised by Descartes between the observer and the object of investigation completely breaks down and the scientist himself becomes the object of his own investigation, but the scientific criteria of repeatability and rational analysis remain intact.
As in superstring theory, in the plane of mind we seem forced to postulate that vibrations of thought energy may spontaneously appear and disappear out of ‘nothing’, yet we are still unable to discern what it is that determines either their content or their action. Sri Aurobindo explains that to discover the underlying source and determinants of mental formations, we need to develop latent faculties of consciousness beyond those of our normal mentality and he charts out a path to do so. But while urging us to an exploration of higher faculties, he devotes equal attention to enhancing our understanding of the thinking mind and its functioning, which has its own complex, multi-tiered structure and functioning. His insights into the nature of mind are particularly interesting and relevant because they make fully intelligible the reasons for both the striking achievements and blinding limitations of modern science. The structure of our science is a product of the structure and functioning of our minds. The progress of that science reflects a gradual but progressive development and evolution of mental consciousness.
While the dominant characteristic of matter is form and the dominant characteristic of life is energy, the dominant characteristic of mind is knowledge. But as form and energy exist on all planes, so knowledge too is a function of all planes. The physical knows through reception of sense data, sensations, that arise from within the body, are generated by our thought processes, or impinge on us from outside. The vital knows through direct, subconscious perception of vital energies that arise from the body or the mind or impinge on us from outside, such as the subtle sensibility that people may refer to as a hunch or gut feeling. So too, the mind knows through formulation of thoughts, reception of thoughts arising from the subconscious physical and vital, descending from higher levels, or impinging on us from outside.
We are concerned here particularly with the nature of mental knowing. The physical and vital ‘know’ things directly as a recognized contact with vibratory energy, without need for the intermediacy of thought. But for mental knowledge, the vibratory impact needs normally to be translated into thought forms intelligible to the mental understanding. Therefore the nature of those thought forms and the process of their generation have a profound impact on mental forms of knowing. As a result, the act of knowing by thinking mind has two very pronounced characteristics. First, it is a linear process that moves from one thought-form to the next and finds it extremely difficult to handle higher order concepts consisting of complex interrelations interacting in multiple dimensions. We think very much as we speak and write, one word and sentence following the other, one subject and action at a time. Therefore, we tend to think in linear sequences from action to result, from cause to effect. When we encounter complex situations in which multiple factors act simultaneously both on the same object and on each other in both directions, we find the phenomenon difficult either to conceptualise or to represent in language. This limitation has profound impact on the way we understand cause and effect in the material and, especially, the vital plane, and is one of the primary reasons why patterns of action and reaction in life, based as they are on complex interrelationships, are so difficult for the rational mind to perceive and decipher.
According to Sri Aurobindo, the second pronounced characteristic of mind is that it knows by a process of division and aggregation. The mind studies and knows things by distinguishing them from other things. It understands a visual form by first distinguishing the visual boundaries of that form from its surrounding environment, the way an artist begins drawing a picture by sketching its outline on a blank canvas. Mind knows by distinguishing one line, shape, form, color, sensation, thought and idea from others. It recognizes dog as different from cat and further distinguishes the features of a collie from those of a German shepherd. In other words, mind treats each object of its contemplation as a whole and then proceeds to subdivide it into smaller parts and component characteristics. It dissects and analyzes by comparison and contrast. This characteristic directly accounts for the preoccupation of science with categorizing material elements, molecular types, biological life forms, social activities, academic subjects, etc. It results in a continuous process of division and subdivision of each whole into smaller parts and each part into still smaller subunits that are regarded as wholes for the purpose of further division. This accounts for the multiplication of scientific disciplines related to living species from the original common subject of zoology into botany, physiology, anatomy, genetics, microbiology, pharmacology, neurology and a continuously growing number of more esoteric subdivisions. This accounts for the endless subdivision of matter in nuclear physics from the atom and elementary particles down to the level of strings, which are as small in relation to the atom as the atom is in relation to the entire solar system.
Mind’s capacity for endless subdivision is complemented by its capacity for continuous aggregation. Mind has the ability to combine any number of smaller wholes and view them as the parts of larger wholes. Thus, electrons, protons and neutrons combine to form atoms, atoms combine to form molecules, molecules unit to constitute organelles, cells, organs and living organisms. Thus, individuals, families, communities, castes, classes, professions, sexes, ethnic and religious groups combine to form nations and the international community. We contruct organizations along the same pattern, be they the organizations for governance, business, education or even religion. Our very conception of society as a group of separate individuals makes it difficult for us to recognize that the social collective as well as its members possessess all the characteristics of a living organism. Our conception of our lives is thus reduced to an endless number of people, objects, and events, with only a vague perception of some underlying being or force or conception which encompasses them all, yet which is not fully defined by the sum of its parts.
From these characteristics arise the atomistic and mechanistic view that dominated physics until early in the 20th Century and still dominates thought processes in most other fields of science and human knowledge. So natural and inevitable is this tendency of mind, that it is difficult for us to even conceive of a different way of perceiving reality, while it blinds us to the limitations of a world view based on division and aggregation. Yet, the very fact that science is challenging the limits of the linear, atomic and mechanistic view of reality suggests not only greater knowledge lies in a more synthetic way of knowing but also that the human mind has the capacity, if not yet the developed propensity, to think and know in a different manner.
Systems thinking is an admirable attempt to transcend these mental limitations, but because it relies on the very same mental instrument and faculties, its power of synthesis is severely constrained. More importantly, it lacks the power to penetrate to the deeper layers of causality which hold the key to determinations in material nature, human life and mind. For Sri Aurobindo tells us that, if our quest is to discover the ultimate determinants of energy and force in the universe which are presently involved in material, vital and mental energy-substance, we need to acquire a faculty of knowledge that can pierce the veil of inconscient matter, subconscious life and dividing mind.
Recognizing the inherent obstacles that mind poses to a true understanding of relationships and wholes, we need to re-examine and highlight some aspects of our earlier discussion to emphasize a point that both language and thought may otherwise tend to obscure. For purposes of clarity we have been considering each of the three planes of matter, life and mind separately as if they acted independently of each other. But this is a vast oversimplification resulting from the limitations imposed by our faculties for thinking and communication. The forms, substance and energy of the material, vital and mental planes do not exist independently of each other. The hypothesis Sri Aurobindo presents is at once more synthetic and complex than such an atomistic conception. Physical energy-substance, vital energy-substance and mental-energy substance represent three different expressions, or one might say vibratory frequencies, of a more fundamental energy-substance termed consciousness-force. According to science, only the material substance and energy exist, therefore all vital and mental activity is nothing other than action of material process. But for Sri Aurobindo, although the three are distinct and different planes of existence with their own distinct forms and forces, they do not exist in isolation from each other. All three are in constant contact and interaction. All matter is instinct with life and mentality. All life is encased in a material substance and has at least a rudimentary consciousness. All mentality manifests in life in a material body.
Sri Aurobindo’s hypothesis enables us to understand the precise relationships and means of interaction between these three cohabitant expressions of consciousness-force, for all three adhere to the same principles of consciousness. In social life we know that vague, intangible, immaterial ideas can lead to immense and inexplicable consequences. The insightful concept expressed in a term paper by a young MBA student named Fred Smith evolved by such a process into $20 billion Federal Express. The insubstantial vision of a computer technician at CERNE in Switzerland evolved into the global Internet. The cherished aspirations of a few idealistic freedom fighters unleashed a social movement that swept the British out of India and by a domino effect toppled colonial empires around the world. These too are mysterious marvels of form and force waiting to be deciphered and harnessed for the greater good.
The same principles are applicable in material science. The status and functioning of the material body influences not only our physiological life processes, but our sensations, urges, emotions, sentiments, thoughts, aspirations and dreams. So too, our passions, attitudes, beliefs, faith and ideals act on and can powerfully influence the health, strength and energy of the physical body. In extreme circumstances, we know that life and consciousness can survive during periods in which the body appears to be clinically dead. Medical science has observed these intricate interactions, but has no framework by which to decipher the relationships. To fully understand the nature of our existence as conscious, living physical beings, we need to discover all the principles governing the interaction of these three planes as well as other planes subconscious and superconscious to our normal experience.
In human beings these three planes interact and mutually influence each other and their environment, while simultaneously receiving a continuous stream of inputs from the surrounding world. But since all three derive from a common basis of consciousness-force, we should not be surprised to discover the relationship is even more complex. Not only are the three in active relation, they are also in some way involved, interlaced and interwoven, each within the other. It is not enough to say they are integrated, which implies the weaving together of separate strands. It would be more appropriate to say that while each has distinct properties, they are somehow also parts or aspects of each other. It is not only the mind that ‘thinks’, the vital that ‘feels’ or the body that ‘acts’, all three exhibit each of these capacities in different ways. Along with a thinking mind that deals in abstract concepts, there is a vital component to the human mind which is embued with feeling and is the source of idealist’s sentiments, the poet’s emotional idealism, the artist’s insights into life and reality. There is also a physical mind grounded in sensation that gives us the capacity to understand and organize physical objects and activities, to plan and strategize, to translate abstract theory into practical technology, capacities well developed in the scientist and engineer. So too, there is a mental component in the physical responsible for the body’s capacity to ‘learn’ complex physical skills such as typing, computer game reflexes and piano playing. There is also a mental component in the vital, most pronounced in active social leaders such as the politician and entrepreneur who possess a direct intuitive perceptive of vital-emotional forces in other people and life around them. These complex interrelationships and their expressions are a fruitful area for scientific research.
Not only is there a connectedness between planes of consciousness, there is also a connectedness between all forms and forces on each of these planes. As the physicist have discovered, our experience of ‘things’ as separate, independent realities is a gross distortion of the truth. Relationship and interconnectedness is the rule in each of the three planes of matter, life and mind. Physicists now know that the universe has to be pictured as a single, indivisible, dynamic whole whose parts are essentially interrelated. They know that subatomic particles cannot be simultaneously defined in terms of a finite position in space and a specific velocity of movement. They know that these particles do not possess intrinsic properties independent of their environment. Elementary particles represent relationships in the plane of material energy-substance. They even exhibit the capacity referred to as nonlocal connections, the ability to ‘communicate’ instantaneously with the whole universe. 
The forms of the vital plane have very similar properties to those attributed to elementary particles. Here too, it is not possible to reduce any vital impulse to its ultimate properties separate from the environment in which it acts or from the relationships it has with other acts in the past and future emanating from the same and other sources. Nor is it possible to isolated any single impulse from the world around it. The vibration of an impulse such as joy, anger, lust or impatience itself constitutes an action that can generate consequences irrespective of whether or not the impulse is expressed in physical action. Although not yet recognized or subject to systematic study by scientists, vital forms possess the same capacity for nonlocal connections, acting and generating consequences instantaneously over long distances. This is the phenomenon referred to earlier as “life response.” A decision formulated in the mind or an emotion intensely felt can result in instantaneous response from the environment, without the intervention of any known physical mechanism. An impulse of fear can attract the object of fear. A nervous vibration of impatience or expectation can delay the arrival or completion of that which is impatiently expected. A silent act of determined will can bring about the result willed for without the intermediacy of a physical act. The systematic study of these phenomena will revolutionize our understanding of ourselves and the world and tremendously enhance our capacity to solve the problems that plague humanity.
So strongly steeped is Western civilization in the atomistic tradition that most educated people find it difficult to conceive of themselves as other than distinctly separate individuals. Our very sense of personal identity as individuals is based on this notion. Yet it requires little reflection for us to recognize that there is hardly a single thought, belief, sentiment, habit, attitude or character trait that we can genuinely call our own. All our physical traits derive from a collective biological inheritance that can be traced back to primitive man. All our values, customs, attitudes and beliefs are the product of a collective social inheritance spanning millennium and the entire globe. As individuals we define ourselves so completely in terms of comparisons and interactions with those around us that we risk losing entirely our sense of personal identity if too long confined to social isolation. Though out of the pride of self-reliance and individuality some may resent the fact, the reality is that we are at all times both a product and a part of a greater social whole, subject always to its subconscious influence and conscious interactions. Understanding these relationships between individuals and their social environment will enable us to better comprehend the role and functioning of the ego in the evolution and emergence of individual as a center of consciousness-force in the cosmos.
Relationship is even more apparent when it comes to mental forms and energy. Here we have difficulty even distinguishing discrete thoughts from their environment. Our very language is context-specific. The meaning of the words we employ to express a thought are subject to radical change depending on the context. Each thought finds its fuller and clearer definition only by and through its relationship with a much wider body of thought. According to Sri Aurobindo, we can even observe that much of that we consider as our own ‘thoughts’ actually enter our minds from the mental environment. Here too, the phenomenon of instantaneous nonlocal connection is pronounced and accessible to scientific validation. Understanding these relationships will help us surmount the inherent limitations of mental knowledge and to acquire more powerful faculties of consciousness.
The irreducible reality of relationships is so compelling that it forces us to discard the atomistic and mechanistic view of physical, vital and mental phenomena. More importantly, it compels us to search for a deeper plane of reality in which relationship is fundamental and separate existence is at best a secondary truth. For if all physical, vital and mental phenomena are in relation with themselves and each other, then there must be a common denominator, there must be a plane of existence in which they are unified. While the existence of such a plane is incomprehensible according to the materialist hypothesis, it is the very basis and starting point of Sri Aurobindo’s alternative hypothesis. As we shall discuss subsequently, oneness is the essential condition of all existence. Division and separation of the One into Many is only an appearance.
The interaction between forms and forces on the physical, vital and mental planes calls into question one of the most fundamental assumptions of material science that has been raised to the level of natural law, the assumption that the amount of energy in the universe is constant. The law of conservation of energy states that although energy may change form, it is neither created nor destroyed. Establishing the existence of a vital plane and a mental plane in direct relationship with the material plane would in all likelihood undermine this pillar of physical science. For in that case the material world is in constant contact and interchange with non-material planes of energy, which can convert their energy-substance into energy-substance of matter or absorb material energy to form energy-substance of mind or life. Intuitively, this possibility is confirmed by our own experience. We know that when we are tired and hungry, our mental energy and vital enthusiasm often flag and that taking in the necessary physical rest or sustenance can energize both our mental and emotional centers of consciousness. We know also that the synthesis of structures and substance in the material plane by science requires an enormous investment of energy, not only of the material energy that binds the atoms and molecules of the structure, but also of the mental energy and perseverance of the scientist, inventor or the industrial engineer. Our own personal experience also confirms that by sheer act of mental will we can release greater energy in our minds, our emotions and our bodies, as Henry V’s rallying call at Agincourt spurred his 6000 beleaguered soldiers to conquer a rested French army five times its size, while incurring only 450 casualties to more than 10 times that number among the enemy. Inspiring athletic coaches routinely reenergize their exhausted players to heroic last minute rallies after all their physical energy has been spent. Professional athletes apply the power of their own mind and will to affect a similar result.
Physicists may be understandably reluctant to accept this intuitive experience as valid evidence of a physical fact so contrary to established truth of science. Since physics has no way to objectively measure an increase or decrease in these non-material energies, it has always assumed that these energies are themselves forms of material energy and constitute part of the overall energy in the material universe. If the alternative hypothesis is true, widening the field of inquiry to encompass these planes may lead to some startling discoveries. For according to Sri Aurobindo, the basis and source of all energy-substance in the material, vital and mental planes is an infinite field of consciousness-force manifesting in these planes. That infinite field is a potential source of infinite energy and therefore there cannot be any finite limits to the manifestation of energy in the material or other planes. If Infinity is indeed the source of our universe, infinite energy is a natural corollary. If up to now science has encountered finite limits to the world’s energy, it may be the result of the finite nature of the conceptions through which science has viewed the universe. Change those conceptions and another reality may reveal itself.
As serious as these weaknesses in the materialist hypothesis may be, they may be regarded as secondary, for there is a far more serious objection that challenges the whole edifice of the materialist world view because it undermines the very existence of the observer as a valid party to the debate. For there to be knowledge, three things are required—the knower, the object of knowledge and the act of knowing. Any valid theory of knowledge must first establish the existence and define the nature of the knower. If matter and material energy alone exist and consciousness itself is only a phenomenal appearance of electro-chemical processes, who or what observes those processes and codifies them as science? Who is the witness to the phenomenon of nature? Who is the scientist and what is the validity of his position as observer? Who is asking for proof or evaluation evidence? In the materialist hypothesis, there is room for only the object. The subject and the act have no valid status. Then the question becomes not whether the materialist view is rational, but whether rationality, knowledge and scientific truth have any meaning according to the materialist view.
The source of this dilemma may be traced back to the Cartesian division between mind and body, which resulted in a tendency to reduce all material objects to their smallest parts, all material processes to mechanical operations and all knowledge to mathematics. But Descartes did not abolish the observer. He gave equal status but independent status to the existence of conscious mind. Modern materialism has accepted his construct of body and his belief in reductionism and mathematics, but discarded his construct of mind. Systems theorists have rightly faulty the Cartesian division for obscuring the integrated nature of reality as discussed above. But the error of the materialists is more fundamental. By confusing the insensible with the non-existent, they have also abolished the observer, thereby undermining their own status as scientists as well the status of scientific knowledge itself!
This inconsistency points to a deeper problem with the materialist and mechanistic hypothesis, which systems theory is unable to satisfactorily address—the problem of the individual. Even assuming by a stretch of imagination that material systems can acquire the attributes of living systems and thinking machines, we have still to rationally explain the most fundamental of all human experiences, the sense of self. Even if human beings are only living, responsive systems, they cannot be only that because they possess an inherent self-awareness of their own being as a separate center of consciousness. That self-awareness may be entirely bound by biological, social and psychological conditioning like the multi-tiered programming, operating and application-specific languages of a computer system or the complex programming of the latest anthropoid robot, but in human beings there is something behind that conditioning which can separate itself from all those egoistic forms and observe itself as a pure witness. There is something that can say “I am, I know, I will, I choose, I feel, I sense, I act.” Until the nature of that witness consciousness is explained, nothing fundamental is explained about the nature of knowing and knowledge. To explain that, Sri Aurobindo says, we must discover the truth of conscious individuality and its relationship to the universe and to the Consciousness-force of which both are manifestations. That presents no difficulty for the alternative hypothesis. For it begins with a single, undivided infinite consciousness force and traces how that One manifests itself as the Many—many forms, many forces and many centers of consciousness as well—through a process of self-limitation and self-absorption, a process of creation.
5. Process of Creation
From the criterion of practical utility, science excels in advancing technologies for medicine, computation, communication, military and countless other applications, but it has contributed relatively little of practical value to the fields of Life and Mind as defined here. Yet these are precisely the fields in which Sri Aurobindo’s hypothesis is likely to be most fruitful of knowledge and practical utility. His hypothesis leads to the identification of applicable laws capable of generating practical results in all three planes of human existence. Only that in mind and life, the forms, the forces and the field of action are subtle, not material, and the laws are laws of consciousness, but they are laws that apply with equal validity to all these planes, because as he insists the fundamental process of creation is the same in all planes of existence.
Materially, the process of creation involves the formation of material substance from material energy and the release of that energy from material forms, as in the synthesis of higher order organic molecules in the body by absorption of energy from energy-rich compounds or the release of energy by metabolism of organic compounds or the cracking of the nucleus of a hydrogen atom. Of course, we now know that the distinction we make between matter and energy is linguistic rather than actual, since all matter is only the capturing and repetitive orbiting of energy within a given field and pattern.
In Life, the process of creation involves the formation of social forms (e.g. acts, activities, systems, organizations, laws, customs, etc.) and psychological forms (e.g. habits, urges, desires, attitudes, sentiments, etc.) from vital energy and the release of that energy by modification or breaking of these forms. Social forms are build up over generations by an enormous investment of conscious effort, so that when they are broken the result can be a rapid evolution or violent revolution that revitalises or wrecks the entire social fabric, as it did respectively in England and France at the turn of the 18th Century and is doing today in China and Russia. One has only to attempt changing a personal habit, established behaviour or fixed attitude to discover the enormous force that holds the energy in its repetitive pattern and the burst of freshness released by breaking that pattern.
In Mind, the process of creation involves the formation of mental forms (thoughts, concepts, ideas, ideals and values) from mental energy and the release of that energy by modification or breaking of these forms. We think of thoughts as vague, insubstantial forms of mental substance, but it is the force latent in great thoughts that has wrought the greatest social movements of all time. Thought was the Real-idea that ushered in the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the movement of democratization, and industrialization. A thought gave birth to the Internet. In thought as in matter, the form is apparent, the force concealed but nevertheless laden with power. Thus, the tremendous resistance to radically new thoughts, whether they be the inspirations of a Newton, an Einstein or a Sri Aurobindo. Every true scientist has experienced the mental exhilaration of embracing a new thought that breaks down the barriers between what have hitherto been perceived as unrelated concepts. Every thinker knows the enormous energy required to synthesize higher, more complex systems of thought that integrate more of reality within a unified framework. Thought too is manifestation of consciousness-force in mental substance-energy. The parallel with matter is complete.
The scientific discoveries of evolution over the last two centuries provide us with critical insights into the fundamental process of creation described by Sri Aurobindo, but those discoveries overlook one essential key necessary for unravelling the mystery of that process. The missing key is involution, the involution of consciousness-force as mind, life and matter. A descent of consciousness into inconscience precedes and makes possible the ascent of inconscience back to consciousness. In order to understand how complex material forms, living and conscious beings can emerge from something so insubstantial and ethereal as Consciousness-force, we must first understand the process by which Consciousness-force has involved itself in matter, life and mind. Therefore, we must now ask where, how and in what form is that consciousness involved and by what process does it evolve and create forms, most particularly the material forms of the visible universe?
Science starts with the hypothesis that material energy-substance has somehow emerged from an inconscient Infinity. Material energy emerging or materializing from this inconscient infinity is somehow organized or organizes itself to define forms that manifest to our senses as material substance. Sri Aurobindo begins with the alternative hypothesis that an Infinite Conscious Existence is the source of all energy-substance. The Pure Existent, infinite and eternal, manifests its potentialities through an inherent capacity for self-organization termed Consciousness-Force, and that Consciousness-Force gives rise to all the forms of mental consciousness, life consciousness and material energy-substance in the universe. According to Sri Aurobindo, material energy-substance is nothing other than involved consciousness-force.
How, we wonder, is it possible for a purely immaterial existence-consciousness to give rise to the concrete tangible material forms that populate the universe? It is possible because that Pure Existence is itself substance, but not substance as we experience it materially. It is a subtle spiritual substance. In fact, all form in the universe, including all material substance, is nothing other than involved form of spiritual substance, just as all energy in the universe, including all material energy, is nothing other than involved force of consciousness. What we call matter is only a status of spiritual substance in which its inherent consciousness-force is involved and therefore unperceived. Sri Aurobindo agrees with science that the difference between mind and matter is only perceptual, not because mental form and force resolves into material form and force but because both the mental and material expressions resolve into the more fundamental (subtle) form and force of consciousness.
Sri Aurobindo maintains that the difference between spirit and matter is only a result of the limitation of our instruments for perception. We perceive spiritual substance as material substance through the action of our gross physical senses and sense mind, because these instruments are incapable of perceiving the true nature of that substance. In other words, spiritual substance viewed through the faculty of the sense mind appears as material substance, while the same spiritual substance experienced directly by a higher faculty of direct consciousness reveals as consciousness-force or pure existence. The ultimate, omnipresent reality, by whatever name it is known in the various traditions—be it the Absolute of Western Philosophy, the Judeo-Christian God, the Buddhist void, the Pure Existence of Hinduism, or the string theorist’s nothingness from which vibrating strings spontaneously appear—that reality is not something that exists at some specific location within or outside the universe, for what can exist outside the omnipresent reality or pure existent? That reality exists everywhere because it is everything. All traditions have perceived that ultimate reality in one form or another by one means or another. Sri Aurobindo makes intelligible the process of its manifestation, involution and evolution.
Pure Existence is spiritual substance to its own self-experience, but it appears as material substance to our limited mental consciousness contacting it through the senses. That Pure Existence is an Infinite power of consciousness, in the same manner as Matter can be said to possess within itself infinite power of material energy. That Consciousness-force is both a capacity for knowledge and a force capable of willing results, but, unlike in our own mental consciousness, these two capacities are united and always present together. Because the Consciousness is infinite, the knowledge and the will are infinite, infallible and all-powerful.
An understanding of infinity is critical to grasping the nature of this Pure Existent. Infinity is not merely a huge or indefinable finite or something that contains or gives rise to all finite things. According to this conception, Pure Existent is infinite in its capacity for creation. It can become whatever it wills to become. Not only that, since all that becomes is only form and force of itself, all these forms and forces must too be in their essential nature infinite and capable of infinite creation, for multiply anything, no matter how small, by infinity and the result is infinite. And the infinity Sri Aurobindo speak of is not merely an infinity of number. It is an infinity of quality, property and capacity as well. It is infinite consciousness and infinite force. That is why we find small acts leading to huge consequences, for behind or within every object, act and moment lies infinity.
Self-Conception of Real-Ideas
Earlier we examined two fundamental powers of consciousness by which it can involve itself and assume the form of material energy-substance, its capacity for self-limitation and its capacity for self-absorption. In addition to these, Sri Aurobindo identifies a third fundamental power of consciousness, the power of self-conception. Self-conception is the capacity of consciousness to formulate idea or intention. Idea implies knowledge, intention implies knowledge combined with will to realize or express that knowledge. Our minds have the capacity for self-conception, but often we lack either the will or the means to realize that which we conceive; whereas, the Consciousness-force possesses the full capacity for self-realization, which means to manifest its intentions out of its own spiritual substance.
In order to distinguish this conceptual faculty and the concepts it creates from those of our own limited mentality, Sri Aurobindo refers to this faculty of Consciousness-force as Supermind and the concepts generated by it as Real-ideas. The spiritual energy-substance which is the Pure Existent imparts to this supramental consciousness-force an infinite power for effectuality. The process of creation is the process by which the supermental consciousness-force formulates Real-ideas out of the energy-substance of the Pure Existent and manifests those Real-ideas as forms and forces in the planes of mind, life and matter. Every form and force in the universe is form and expression of Real-idea, partially expressing or fully concealing the secret intention is strives to manifest in nature.
Evolution of Consciousness
Sri Aurobindo goes further to explain the process by which the Real-idea immanent or involved in all energy-substance evolves from its concealed position to progressively manifest its concealed intention. Darwin has rightly observed that each species’ contact, interaction, competition and conflict with other species exerts influence over its future evolution. Sri Aurobindo universalizes the same principle and applies it to all material, life and mental phenomena. Stated philosophically, evolution results from a rhythm and process of the contact between forms of substance, which awakens and releases the latent consciousness-force inherent in each form so that it can more fully express on the surface.
Involution of consciousness-force in and as energy-substance is followed by evolution of conscious-force from the energy-substance. The consciousness-force inherent in the seed as real-idea gives rise by rhythm of contact of substance with substance to the growth of the form of the tree from that seed, differentiating itself into trunk, roots, leaves, fruits and flowers. By a similar process, the consciousness-force latent in the child gives rise by rhythm of contact with people, objects, ideas and life experiences to the growth of conscious awareness and development of the personality of the child, differentiating itself in the process into an individual with characteristics, capacities, propensities and inclinations unique to its own being. By the same process, the power of Real-idea in the call for freedom unleashed an American, French and Russian Revolution. Continuous contact and interaction of that idea with other ideas, institutions, attitudes and values leads to the progressive manifestation of the Real-idea of freedom in the field of human social existence.
In each case, a concealed seed idea with an inherent power for manifestation and self-effectuation brings about by a rhythm and process of contact, interaction and conflict the emergence of a latent potentiality previously unseen and often unimagined. In the material plane, this same process gives rise to an infinite variety of physical substances and biological life forms. Astrophysics has discerned many of the stages of the process leading to the formation of suns, solar systems, galaxies and star clusters. Only the originating consciousness-force that determines the direction and guides the workings under the appearance of chance and necessity remains concealed from its analysis.
Nuclear physics has discerned many of the stages leading to the formation of countless varieties of energy particles, apparently out of nothingness, which is actually an infinite unmanifest potential, but has yet to discover that the forces which hold the atom together are expressions of Real-idea involved in material form. In Sri Aurobindo’s words, “matter is subconscious will.” It is not material chance or necessity that have determined that the strength of the hydrogen bond and the excited energy state of the electron are precisely what is required for the physical stability of larger elements and the sustenance of life in the universe. It is the consciousness-force involved in all material energy-substance that manifests the properties required in these basic building blocks of the material universe.
Biology has discerned the physical mechanism and many of the stages leading to the evolution of complex life forms from primitive forms, but it has yet to discover the concealed force that compels the progressive emergence of higher life forms in forms of matter and higher expressions of consciousness in forms of life. It is not combined force of material chance and necessity that results in this evolutionary direction, but the consciousness-force involved in the lower forms exerting pressure for the emergence of higher order forms more capable of giving expression to that hidden consciousness. The force is anterior to the instrument. The latent consciousness force progressively manifests itself through evolution of higher order forms.
 Cited from John Gribbon, In the Beginning, p.174.
 ibid, p.184.
 The term ‘inconscient’ was coined by Sri Aurobindo 90 years ago. It is used in this article in two distinctly different ways. As used in this sentence, it refers to the implied belief of modern science that the matter lacks the property of consciousness. With reference to Sri Aurobindo’s hypothesis, it refers to the property of matter by which consciousness is fully involved and unmanifest on the surface, yet still possesses an inherent consciousness.
 “It is a truism that one cannot get something for nothing. The interesting question is whether one can get everything for nothing. Clearly, this is a very speculative topic for scientific investigation, and the ultimate answer depends on a sophisticated interpretation of what "nothing" means. The words "nothing," "void," and "vacuum" usually suggest uninteresting empty space. To modern quantum physicists, however, the vacuum has turned out to be rich with complex and unexpected behaviour.” Excerpt from Encyclopaedia Britannica 1998 in an article on Superunification.
 Consciousness as defined by Merriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary: 1. the quality or state of being aware especially of something within oneself. 2. the state or fact of being conscious of an external object, state, or fact: the state of being characterized by sensation, emotion, volition, and thought : mind. 3. the totality of conscious states of an individual. 4. the normal state of conscious life. 5. the upper level of mental life of which the person is aware as contrasted with unconscious processes.
 The Life Divine, p.1018.
 An article in the New York Times documents the placebo effect. It cites a study carried out in Japan on 13 people who were extremely allergic to poison ivy. Each was rubbed on one arm with a harmless leaf but were told it was poison ivy and touched on the other arm with poison ivy and told it was harmless. All 13 broke out in rash where the harmless leaf contacted their skin. Only two reacted to the poison leaves. “Placebos Prove So Powerful Even Experts Are Surprised”, New York Times, October 13, 1998.
 The Life Divine, p. 86.
 “As Niels Bohr wrote, ‘Isolated material particles are abstractions, their properties being definable and observable only through their interactions with other systems.’ Subatomic particles, then, are not ‘things’ but are interconnections between ‘things’ and these ‘things,’ in turn are interconnections between other ‘things,’ and so on.” For an insightful discussion of this theme, see Fritjof Capra, The Turning Point. p.69
 In Sri Aurobindo’s view, a plane of existence is synonymous with an infinite energy field that extends as a continuum between forms with that plane. In the material plane, that energy concentrates itself in the form of detectable material objects and perceptible material energy but also exists in an undetectable form which may be akin the recent hypotheses regarding the existing of huge quantities of dark matter and energy in the universe. The source of the energy of each plane is a more subtle substance, i.e. material, vital or mental substance
| Home |
About Us | Uncommon
Opportunities | Projects |
Development Theory |