“If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is – infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.”
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Nothing Is Forever
Ed.: There is still no clear and commonly accepted explanation for why the universe formed, how consciousness emerged from what appears to be purely physical sources (the “hard question of consciousness”), and what quantum physics is saying about the nature of reality. In short, a “theory of everything” remains elusive, and a reliable bridge between science and religion has yet to be built. Physicist-cosmologist Stephen Hawking’s recent conclusion that “Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing…It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the Universe going” (from his new book The Grand Design) suggests no such bridge but has kept the spotlight on this creative tension. Noetic Now will occasionally offer fresh perspectives that explore this often polarizing quest; the following article is one of them (see also this month’s book excerpt from The Purpose-Driven Universe by Bernard Haisch).
“In the Beginning,” the Bible says, there was nothing — only the primordial void. And then God created the Heaven and the Earth and all manner of things that inhabit the Earth. From nothing sprang everything due to the creative force of spirit. Other cultures and religions have their own creation stories with varying degrees of divine or mythological intervention. Creation stories like these have mostly been associated with religions. But science also has what could be called its own creation story: It starts out with a huge explosion or big bang and explains that the universe has been expanding ever since.1 We have been arguing for centuries about which theory is right, the religious or the scientific. But what if both are true? Finding a common ground between these two great traditions would benefit our understanding of the nature of our existence in several important ways.
Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose, two highly regarded physics theorists, have determined that, based on the behavior of light in the physical universe, a definite beginning for time can be established. This would mean that time itself started at the beginning of our universe.2 So when the universe exploded into being, the dimensions of space and time came into being at that moment as well. If this is true, then before the big bang there would have been no dimensions and thus no time and no space. Before then, there would only have been a nothingness or primordial void. Without any space, the void would have been infinite. And without any time, it would have been eternal.
Further, with no time in a dimensionless void, there would be no time for it to cease to exist. In other words, the void would continue to exist even after the universe had come into being. They would exist together simultaneously. And then presuming that at some point the universe comes to an end, the void would still remain – since it is without time, it can never end. A dimensionless void would therefore exist before, during, after, within, and beyond the physical universe. So what we think of as the primordial void would not have “gone away” when the universe burst onto the scene; rather, it would always exist everywhere, infinitely and eternally.
The creation stories of science and religion are similar in that they both include a void as a precursor, and in both traditions something amazing happened – the universe came into being! This is one of the most important questions we can ponder about the origins of our world: How did nothing that existed before the universe turn into the very large something thatis the entire universe?
The Void of Abundance
As Einstein showed with his eloquent equation, E = MC2, energy and the mass of matter are equivalent to each other.3 Particles of matter can cease to exist by releasing a lot of energy, as uranium 235 does in a nuclear reactor. Conversely, energy can be condensed into particles of matter. Some think that the universe may have started this way, with a quantum fluctuation creating matter where there was none before – basically with matter popping into existence from the nothingness of the void.4
But if matter were created in this way, and assuming that Einstein’s equation applies here, there would have to be a comparable deficit of energy or an amount of negative energyequal to the amount of matter created. In other words, if matter came into being from nothing, then there should be an equal amount of energy that it “borrowed” to do so, expressed as some sort of negative energy.It’s something like getting a loan from a bank: You can end up with a lot of money this way, but you’d still owe a debt to the bank. And there is in fact a huge amount of debt or negative energy that is distributed throughout the universe; it’s called gravity. Gravity is generally regarded by physicists to be a negative energy because when its force is applied, the object it acts upon eventually comes to a state of rest.5
So the universe could have started from a quantum fluctuation within the primordial void, resulting in the creation of all matter, and this would have been equal to the negative energy of all gravity. A universe containing matter and gravity could very well then have been formed from nothing, because when added together, these positive and negative forms of matter and energy would cancel each other out and result in nothing again. The conditions then of the void – even though it was basically nothing – could have caused the universe to begin.
Science has not been able to establish exact parameters for the void, which is sometimes called the zero-point field. It is simply thought of by science as the least that there can possibly be. But this is only one perspective. Eastern philosophies and religions such as Buddhism have a definite idea about the properties of the void. For them, the void is emptiness, or what Buddhists call sunyata. The Sanskrit root of su “includes the concept of being swollen with probabilities.”6 For Eastern philosophies, the void isn’t “nothing” but a non-material “no-thing” that contains the probability or potential for all things.
We have determined that our universe is about 13.7 billion years old, but we don’t really know if there were any other universes that existed before ours. There could have been others that came and went in a cycle of universes living and dying, birthing and rebirthing, just as plants and animals exist in such cycles. But if there were other universes, they would probably not have been like ours. Each universe likely had different physical laws and would therefore have been completely different from one another. As these universes came and went, though, they could have left behind patterns of information about their existence – and this could have affected how the next universe formed.
In this scenario developed by philosopher and systems theorist Ervin Laszlo, any universe by its very existence would affect the next universe that formed. Part of each electromagnetic wave created in a previous universe would persist in the zero-point field existing between universes. The information persisting between universes would have been responsible for the next universe forming in a new and different way. As Laszlo puts it, “The physical laws and constants of progressive universes become tuned to conditions achieved by their predecessors.”7 Laszlo’s idea is that the information of everything that has ever happened is stored eternally within the primordial void. This information would then provide an infinite library of experience or knowledge “collected” from our universe and previous universes. In this theory, the non-dimensional realm that existed before our universe could actually have defined what our universe would become. In short, our universe could be seen as the culmination of an evolutionary process of universes.
Where is Consciousness?
William Blake said that “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is – infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.”8 Like Socrates and Plato, Blakerealized that we do not actually perceive true reality – and if we did recognize reality for what it really is, we would then comprehend its infinite nature. Theancient wisdom of Eastern philosophies and their associated religions such as Hinduism, Jainism, Taoism, and Buddhism have likewise maintained for millennia that consciousness is infinite and eternal, existing in and of itself beyond space and time.
If this is true, then the logical place for consciousness to reside would be in the infinite and eternal void that exists without space and without time. If consciousness existed onlywithin the finite physical realm of space and time, it could never be infinite nor eternal. Modern science has not been able to locate a“seat of consciousness” (although not for lack of trying); everywhere it has looked within space and time has not yielded its location. Perhaps science hasn’t found where consciousness resides because it’s been looking in the wrong places.
If consciousness exists within the timeless void, there would be no time there for consciousness to end. So any consciousness that has ever been must still exist within the timeless realm. And since there is no time in this realm, there would also be no direction. Directional concepts such as the past and the future do not have any meaning where there is no time. In timelessness, everything is experienced in the present tense. Any consciousness that exists in the timeless void must then exist in the eternal present that never began and will never end.
This would mean that consciousness must always have existed. This is why it’s been said that consciousness simply “is.” There is no “not consciousness.” Just as being-ness simply is, there is no “not being.” Consciousness existing in eternal timelessness would therefore have been in existence before the big bang and would pre-date all current material things, meaning the entire physical universe.
It is the very non-structure of the non-dimensional void that allows consciousness to exist outside of the physical structures of space, time, matter, and energy. So if consciousness exists in zero time and is eternal, then consciousness in zero time must be the precursor to our physical world. In this sense, our world of matter and energy, space and time, can be seen as an emergent property of consciousness rather than the other way around. This is in complete agreement with the ancient wisdom of Eastern philosophies, which for millennia have said that consciousness has existed for timeless eons, even before the material world came into being.
In a recent article titled “What Is Consciousness?”, Richard Smoley, editor and columnist for Quest magazine, wrote: “It is very hard to characterize consciousness without some sort of circularity. What’s consciousness? Awareness. What’s awareness? Perception. What’s perception? Consciousness. The circle can be hard to break.”9 He also states that “Consciousness is that which relates self to other.” This is how we normally think of it from our point of view within the physical realm. But from the point of view of oneness, “enlightenment,” or from inside the void, other would be perceived as self. In this state of nonduality, we perceive everything as a part of ourselves. Perhaps the best definition of consciousness would therefore be that which is, knows that it is, and ultimately relates other to self. I agree with Smoley that consciousness pervades all things, including inanimate objects, because if consciousness exists in the timeless void and the void exists within all things, then consciousness must exist within all things. (See the writings of philosopher Christian de Quincey [www.deepspirit.com] for more on the immanence of consciousness.)
It is a widely accepted assumption in physics that every point in the universe must occupy every possible dimension. If there are three dimensions of space and one dimension of time, then every spot in the universe must occupy these four dimensions. And if there is an additional zero dimension, then every spot must likewise occupy this dimension. So an underlying primordial zero-dimensional void would necessarily be occupied by every spot in the universe, and it would therefore be occupied by everything in the universe. Another basic property of zero-dimensionality is that it is essentially a single point. Ironically, because all points in the universe must occupy the “layer” of zero dimensions, all points in the universe must – in that realm – act as if they exist within a single point. In other words, the primordial void is essentially a temporal singularity causing all things to exist together eternally in the present tense.
We humans would likewise occupy the zero dimensional void – not, per se, our physical bodies, but our non-physical consciousness. And the void, being infinite and eternal, would then automatically cause our consciousness to be infinite and eternal. But every consciousness along with everything else throughout the universe would also occupy this infinite and eternal realm of zero dimensions – the void that exists as if it were a single point. This is congruent with the notion of “being at one with all things” – all consciousness and all things existing in one spot in the unifying dynamic of the dimensionless void. This is the oneness which the mystics and ancients of Eastern philosophies speak of as the Tao, Brahman, enlightenment, nirvana, and heaven. It is the single-pointed oneness of the void that allows this spiritual oneness to occur.
And so to summarize, the primordial void is timeless and therefore eternal, exists everywhere, contains all information, and is that which sparked the universe to come into being as it did, thus causing life to form. It provides a place for our consciousness to exist eternally and allows for the experience of spiritual connection and oneness known as enlightenment. The void happens to have the very same characteristics we have historically attributed to a deity or the entity we have called God: eternal, omnipresent, all-knowing, causing the creation of the universe and all physical things and therefore causing all life to develop, being the source of eternal life for our consciousness, forming a connection between all things, and being the source of our spiritual nature. All of these attributes of God exactly match the description of what we’ve been calling the zero-dimensional realm or the primordial void. That which science and religion both call the primordial void – existing before the physical world came into being – is a place where they can find fertile common ground. From the scientific point of view, we can begin to see how two coexisting realms of physical and non-physical reality can have attributes considered to be divine. And from the religious point of view, we can begin to see how a divine presence can be understood asliterally being the entire universe with a scientific basis and understanding.
Embracing the Whole
There is only one world – one cosmos. Call it what you will, it is only one thing. But because we perceive it in two different ways, we’ve been acting as if it’s composed of two completely incompatible things. I’m reminded of the story about the four blind men who encounter an elephant. Each touches one part of the elephant, and each identifies it differently as a snake (the trunk), a rope (the tail), a pillar (a leg), and a fan (an ear). Obviously, there is only one elephant, but its parts are perceived as being different things only because they were not seen as parts of the same thing.
We are like the blind men arguing about an elephant. When we realize that we are perceiving different parts of the elephant – the physical and non-physical aspects of the universe – we will come to understand that such an argument is fruitless. Science has been perceiving and studying the physical matter, energy, space, and time realm of the world, while religion has been perceiving and studying the non-physical, non-space, and non-time realm of the world. Each has been perceiving, studying, and perfecting its understanding of only half of reality, mistakenly thinking that its half-knowledge provides a complete worldview.
The incorporation of zero-dimensionality or timelessness immediately allows the scientific point of view to expand. When science includes timelessness, it can embrace all kinds of things that had previously been thought to be immaterial, metaphysical, or religious. Even ephemeral consciousness can be included without the prerequisite that it must be grounded in physicality because the timeless part of reality is the logical place for it to exist. By incorporating zero dimensions into its theories, science could actually include all things and potentially deliver that elusive “theory of everything.” And in the same manner, once zero dimensionality is recognized, religion has a concrete way to bring itself into the modern world’s scientific view of non-physical reality, while still maintaining its timeless message of meaning, compassion, faith, and humanity.
The strength of science lies in its mastery of the external material world, but it has been deficient in the subjective areas of internal knowledge of self and humanity. The strength of religion is its mastery of the immaterial worlds of internal consciousness and spiritual connection, but it has been deficient in its interpretations of the external physical world. What each of these two great traditions lacks happens to be the greatest strength of the other. They complement each other perfectly. Existing separately, science and religion have both created tension, dissent, war, and countless deaths. Together, however, their combined individual strengths provide a well-balanced whole that can serve the full gamut of human needs in both the objective, scientific, material world of space and time, and the subjective, religious, and immaterial world of non-space and non-time.
Only when we embrace the entire world and all of its parts as one thing can we hope to ourselves become whole. We humans are so fragmented that we do not recognize ourselves for what we truly are. When we don’t acknowledge our various parts, we can’t possibly bring them into harmony, let alone into unity. We do not recognize what is whole or even wholesome. And in living apart from the natural world, we do not recognize that what is good for the natural world will also sustain us and our civilizations. We do not know how to fix the world because we are too busy arguing about which part of the elephant we are perceiving.
The world has two parts,the physical and the non-physical, and we’ve developed two ways to deal with these parts, science and religion. But there is a way to recognize these two realms as being parts of the same thing. If we would realize that the world is one thing, we could start to bring our splintered parts together. Only then will we find ourselves. Only then will we find the truth in wholeness. Only then will we find peace.
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Michael Byrne has 25 years of nonfiction and popular science writing experience, and currently works as a technical writer for Pfizer. His most recent article exploring the relationship between science and spirituality appeared in Quest (Vol. 98, no. 2, 2010) magazine. Michael is also a consulting winemaker to Michigan wineries.
1. Lemaitre, George. “A Homogeneous Universe of Constant Mass and Growing Radius Accounting for the Radial Velocity of Extragalactic Nebulae.” Brussels Soc. Sci., vol. 4, p. 49, April 1927.
2. Hawking, Stephen. Public lecture: http://www.hawking.org.uk/index.php/lectures/publiclectures/62. 1996.
5. Gravitational attraction between two objects decreases as the distance between them increases (F=GM1M2/d2). So objects that are infinitely distant from each other would have zero gravitational attraction or potential energy (PE). .When they get closer to each other, they would have some attraction and the objects would start to move toward each other with some amount of kinetic energy (KE) due to gravity. Energy must be conserved, so the potential energy of gravity is transferred into the kinetic energy of motion. Thus, the original zero potential energy would go down, and going down from zero must be negative. This is the generally accepted basis of gravity being a negative force or energy.