In my newfound interest in non-dualism, which is a derived from Advaita Vedanta but takes its cues from any philosophy that puts infinite consciousness at the center of its experience, I’ve been trying to come to terms with the rejection of materialism which is ardently advocated by the non-dual teachers.
Materialism puts matter at the center of its philosophy and by and large, there is no space for an intelligent God as its driving force. Materialists contend that consciousness is a feature of the brain. This drives non-dualist teachers crazy since they teach that the brain is a feature of consciousness, not the other way around
In the western world, we are virtually all raised in the materialist tradition that puts science on a pedestal and whose view is that all of the universe, nature and man included are the result of a mechanistic process that somehow started a long time ago. The current prevailing theorem for the start of the universe is a random fluctuation in a quantum field.
Most of us are quite convinced by this, surprisingly this includes many of those that believe in God. As Alan Watts puts it, if Christians truly believed that God is the creator and master of it all, they would be taking out full page ads in the daily new papers to assert the gospel. But mostly they don’t because they basically buy into the materialist paradigm and their belief in God is of the “I want to believe” nature. This is not true for all religions; certainly the fundamentalists of any creed stand by their God.
Now, having said all that, non-dual philosophy does reject materialism and subscribes to a central consciousness. Unlike the monist Abrahamic faiths, non-dualists put the experience of consciousness at anyone’s disposal, not just the initiated and hyper-faithful. To put it bluntly, in non-dualism you can try it for yourself, and it works. The love and happiness we all crave for is accessible 24 hours a day. The experience of enlightenment as recounted by the great mystics is accessible to all. And it is wonderful.
But here is the snag: It is not because something works that it is true.
In fact, this is has been the center of the work of all the great philosophers over the millennia: don’t confuse the interpretation of experience with truth.
So I’m faced with two questions:
- Is consciousness the fundamental substance of that what is?
- Is matter a convenient human concept but not fundamental as such?
Strangely enough, the first question is the easy one. Many philosophers – if not most – come to the conclusion that we can only know the world through our senses. We experience the world through sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell. Anything we know of the world is a reconstruction in our mind. We experience the world through a projection in our mind. Since the mind is conscious experience, I’m fine with saying that consciousness is the fundamental substance of my world. That doesn’t mean that consciousness = God quite yet. We’ll get to that.
The second question is one where I struggle. A lot.
I am an engineer first and a mathematician second. I’m also an artist, a businessman and a philosopher but I’m thoroughly grounded in the materialist tradition that matter is the fundamental substance of the universe. I have worked at CERN, the nuclear particle research lab where I co-designed an operated an antimatter particle accelerator. I know firsthand that subatomic particles are real. I have literally, woken, eten and slept with them. I know, as an engineer, how transistors are made and how you can combine them into complex circuitry to create an iPhone or a laptop. Similarly, I know the mathematics behind wing profiles and flight of aircraft. The physics, the math and the engineering is real. No philosopher will ever convince me of the opposite.
Now, non-dual teachers like Deepak Chopra and Rupert Spira don’t deny the reality of iPhones and the jet planes that they board to reach their retreats in beautiful mountain locations, but they insist with utmost certainty that matter does not exist.
You can see my problem. How can physics produce the technology that it produces, based on its understanding of matter and fundamental forces that would not exist?
If I were to accept that materialism and non-dualism are both true – which they appear to be – then how do I square this circle?
Are materialism and non-dualism two sides of the same coin? In other words, could we see non-dualism through the glasses of a materialist and equally, can we see materialism through the mind of a non-dualist?
Nothing precludes the answer from being yes in both cases. Some people speculate that the quantum field is the same as consciousness. Given that our conscious observation of quantum phenomena influences the material outcome of these experiments (refer double slit experiment), there is an indication that such an equivalence might be true.
So I could answer my second question with a, yes, possibly but not unequivocally so.
In non-dualism, consciousness has no dimensions, is not finite, is not in time and has no features at all. Now, the same could possibly be said for the quantum field but I hit a snag before even get there.
If consciousness is dimensionless and outside of space and time, how do I account for the materialist reality that everything we experience and measure and calculate is in space-time? In non-dualism, space and time are said to be features of the human mind. Our minds create space and time in order to make sense the world around us. This implies that the world ‘around’ us is not fundamentally made of space, time and matter. This also implies that physics and mathematics describe the world from the human perspective of space, time and matter but that both physics and mathematics are attributes of the human mind and not of reality itself.
This is not impossible and if you think about it, it actually makes sense. Many of the notions in mathematics are human notions. We count to ten because we have 10 fingers. Similarly we have introduced concepts in mathematics that are anthropocentric, i.e. based on our experience. For example the Cartesian basis of geometry (straight lines and angles), have nothing in common with nature where straight lines don’t exist. Everything has wiggly shapes.
So, with a little more conviction, I can answer the second question with a straight yes, it is possible that matter, and space and time, are a human concept that is not fundamental to reality.
Are we done yet? Have I argued that non-dualism is compatible with materialism?
Not yet. There is a third question. Non-dualists go a step further in their model of reality: consciousness = God. How do we square that with materialism? How does an automated universe that started from a random quantum field fluctuation account for the fact that the consciousness that is the substrate of reality as far as we can know it (this was the first question) leads to that consciousness being intelligent?
Some philosophers say that it is a matter of experience. Others say that it is a matter of faith. Neither are acceptable answers to a materialist.
Let me summarize:
- Consciousness is the fundamental substance of reality as far as honest humans can know.
- Matter, space and time are attributes of the human mind, if you want to see it from that perspective.
- Is the fundamental substance of reality, which is consciousness, intelligent?
So far in this blogpost I have argued point 1 and 2 along the lines that many philosophers have argued them. But the 3rd point is where philosophers often turn to conviction, faith and even premises and axioms.
Instead, I will turn to the world of genetic fractals. As I would, right?!
First, let’s get the human experience of enlightenment out of the way. We can all agree that whatever we experience, it is in the mind. We can also agree that the mind is the best source of hallucination known to man. Everything we experience is a hallucination of the mind. Whether we look at a beautiful flower, whether we dream or whether we are in love, the mind creates the world that we experience. Drugs can cause other hallucinations that often approximate out of the usual mind states. But we don’t need drugs. Just look at a bent mirror or wear red glasses for a while and our mind will completely change the world we live in.
Whether enlightenment (i.e. the experience of being one with God and having awakened to the illusion of the separate self) is real or a hallucination of the mind, we cannot tell. The experience is real, that is all we can say. The fact that enlightenment stories are the same over the ages probably tells us that our minds respond in the same way to the same state from the same triggers.
But we still have to account for the intelligence of the fundamental substrate of consciousness, which is beyond the personal enlightenment experience. How could a random fluctuation of the quantum field at the origin of the materialist reality lead to intelligence?
I think that the answer is a lot simpler than it would appear to advocates of the non-intelligent universe.
Last year I was messing around with randomness. I wrote a piece of computer code that generated random genetic fractals. Genetic fractals are fractals that are generated from an artificial DNA code. I can play around with that artificial DNA code to generate any form I like. But in this case, I created the DNA code randomly.
Most of the generated genetic fractals were just a mess but roughly 1 in 100 was interesting. 1 in a 1000 was beautiful, from a human aesthetic perspective. Although I don’t have the computing power, I would expect that 1 in 10’000 would be stunning, 1 in 100’000 would be approaching beauty and inspiration of a degree that we see in a beautiful flower. 1 in a billion would approximate life. 1 in a trillion would approximate intelligent life.
Now, if you take a space with a trillion random genetic fractals. The bulk of these random forms are pointless, disorganized and destined to fall apart. But a small percentage appears to have form, have some meaning and even display intelligence from the perspective of human interpretation. Then on balance, a random universe of such forms shows form, meaning and intelligence. The point is in a random universe, no-form, no-meaning and no-intelligence is that zero state. Anything that randomly deviates from this leads to non-zero form, non-zero meaning and non-zero intelligence.
To put this bluntly: a random universe can only lead to form, meaning and intelligence. It cannot be otherwise. The magic that has propelled it all is randomness. Intelligence is a feature of randomness.
This post is getting a little long but I have been wrestling with these ideas and questions for many years. I think I am now where I wanted to end up.
From a purely rational perspective, we can understand and explain a non-dual world. A world made of (random) intelligent consciousness where matter, space and time are features of the human mind.
Equally, from a purely non-dual perspective, we can construct a materialist world that is real and is not incompatible with the intelligent conscious substance of this world.
This only leaves one last question: which one is the right view? The materialist view that allows for a (random) intelligent consciousness or an intelligent consciousness that allows for a material universe?
The answer is the easiest of all. You can choose the worldview that you prefer since they really are two sides of the same coin. Personally, I liked the enlightened experience of the non-dual world and I love the mathematical universe of physics and fractals.
but I am sure that there are many more true variations in these world views. Take your pick and enjoy.