Reality and Consciousness: Turning the Superparadigm Inside Out
by Peter Russell
Editor: This is an abridgment of Russell’s book, From Science to God.
Thomas Kuhn coined the term “paradigm” to refer to the beliefs and assumptions that underlie a particular science. But beneath all our scientific paradigms lies an even deeper and more pervasive assumption. It is the belief in the primacy of the material world. When we fully understand the world of space, time and matter, we will, it is held, be able to account for everything in the cosmos. Being the paradigm behind all our scientific paradigms, this worldview has the status of a “superparadigm”. Eminently successful as this model has been at explaining the world around us, it has very little to say about the non-material world of mind.
Nothing in the physical sciences predicts the phenomenon of consciousness. Yet its reality is apparent to each and every one of us. As far as the current superparadigm is concerned consciousness is a great anomaly.
When paradigm anomalies first arise they are usually overlooked or rejected. Or, if they cannot be so easily discarded, they are incorporated in some way, often clumsily, into the existing model. Witness the attempts of medieval astronomers, wedded to Plato’s belief in the perfection of circular motion, trying to explain irregularities in planetary motion with theories of epicycles (circles rolling along circles).
Western science has followed a similar pattern in its approach to consciousness. For the most part it ignored consciousness completely. More recently, as developments across a range of disciplines have shown that consciousness cannot be so easily sidelined, science has made various attempts to account for it. Some have looked to quantum physics, some to information theory, others to neuropsychology. But the failure of these approaches to make any appreciable headway into the problem of consciousness suggests that they may be on the wrong track.
All these approaches assume that consciousness somehow arises from, or is dependent upon, the world of space-time-matter. In one way or another they are trying to accommodate the anomaly of consciousness within the materialist superparadigm. The underlying beliefs are seldom, if ever, questioned.
When Newton proposed his laws of motion, he turned the problem of what made things move into the foundation stone of his new paradigm; objects continued to move unless acted upon by some external force. When Einstein formulated his Special Theory of Relativity, he took the problem of the constancy of the speed of light and made it an axiom of the new model. I believe we need to do the same with the problem of consciousness. Instead of trying to explain consciousness within the current superparadigm, we need to accept that consciousness is as fundamental as matter—in some ways, more fundamental. When we do we find that the key ingredients for a new superparadigm are already in place; all we need to do is put them together.
The key to this new model of reality is an understanding of how we perceive reality. Advances in physics, psychology, and philosophy have shown that reality is not what it seems.Take vision, for example. When I look at a tree, light reflected from its leaves is focused onto cells in the retina of my eye, where it triggers a cascading chemical reaction releasing a flow of electrons. Neurons connected to the cells convey these electrical impulses to the brain’s visual cortex, where the raw data is processed and integrated. Then—in ways that are still a complete mystery—an image of the tree appears in my consciousness. It may seem that I am directly perceiving the tree in the physical world, but what I am actually experiencing is an image generated in my mind.
The same is true of every other experience. All that I see, hear, taste, touch, smell and feel has been created from the data received by my sensory organs. All I ever know of the world around are the mental images constructed from that data. However real and external they may seem, they are all phenomena within my mind.
This simple fact is very hard to grasp; it goes against all our experience. If there is anything about which we feel sure, it is that the world we experience is real. We can see, touch and hear it. We can lift heavy and solid objects; hurt ourselves, if we’re not careful, against their unyielding immobility. It seems undeniable that out there, around us, independent and apart from us, stands a physical world, utterly real, solid and tangible.
But the world of our experience is no more “out there” than are our dreams. When we dream we create a reality in which events happen around us, and in which we perceive other people as individuals separate from us. In the dream it all seems very real. But when we awaken we realize that everything in the dream was actually a creation of our own mind.
The same process of reality generation occurs in waking consciousness. The difference is that now the reality that is created is based on sensory data and bears a closer relationship to what is taking place in the real world. Nevertheless, however real it may seem, it is not actually “the real world”. It is still an image of that world created in the mind.
It is important to distinguish between two ways in which we use the word “reality”. There is the reality we experience, our image of reality; and there is the underlying reality that has given rise to this experience. The underlying reality is the same for all observers. It is an absolute reality. The reality I experience, the reality generated in my mind, is a relative reality. It is relative to my point of view, my past experience, my human senses and my human brain.
The fact that we create our image of reality does not mean, as some people misconstrue, that we are creating the underlying reality. Whatever that reality is, it exists apart from our perception of it. When I see a tree there is something that has given rise to my perception. But I can never directly perceive this something. All I can ever know of it is the image appearing in my mind.
When, two centuries ago, Bishop Berkeley proposed that we know only what we perceive, his contemporaries debated whether or not a tree falling in a forest made a sound if no one was there to hear it. From what we now know of the psychophysiology of perception, we can say the answer is “No”. Sound is not a quality of the underlying reality. There may be movements in the air, but the interpretation of those movements as sound is something that happens in the mind—whether it be the mind of a human being, a dog or a woodpecker.
Similarly with light. Whatever the tree is in physical reality, it is not green. Light of various frequencies is reflected from the tree to the retina of the eye, where cells respond to the amount of light in three frequency ranges (the three primary colors). But all that is passed back to the brain are electro-chemical impulses; there is no color here. The green I see is a quality created in consciousness. It exists only in the mind.
The same is true of our perception of distance. The pattern of light that falls on the retina creates a two-dimensional image of the world. The brain estimates distance by detecting slight differences between data from the left and right eyes, the focus of the eyes, relative movement, and past experience as to the likely size of a tree. From this data it calculates that the tree is fifty feet away. A three-dimensional image of the world is then created with the tree placed “out there” in that world, fifty feet away. Yet, however real it may seem, the quality of space and distance that we experience is created in the mind.
The Kantian Revolution
Long before modern science knew anything about the processes of perception or the structure of matter, the eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant had drawn a clear distinction between our perception of reality and the actual object of perception. He argued that all we ever know is how reality appears to us—what he referred to as the phenomenon of our experience, “that which appears to be”. The underlying reality he called the noumenon, meaning “that which is apprehended”, the thing perceived.
At the time, Kant’s arguments were a watershed in Western thinking. They were, as Kant himself saw, the equivalent of a Copernican Revolution in philosophy. Whereas Copernicus had effectively turned the physical universe inside out, showing that the movements of the stars are determined by the movement of the earth, Kant had turned the epistemological world inside out, putting the self firmly back at the center of things. We are not passive experiencers of the world; we are the creators of the world we experience.
Because all we ever know is the product of the mind operating on the raw sensory data, Kant reasoned that our experience is as much a reflection of the nature of the mind as it is of the physical world. This led him to one of his boldest and, at the time, most astonishing, conclusions of all. Time and space, he argued, are not inherent qualities of the physical world; they are a reflection of the way the mind operates. They are part of the perceptual framework within which our experience of the world is constructed.
It seems absolutely obvious to us that time and space are real and fundamental qualities of the physical world, entirely independent of my or your consciousness—as obvious as it seemed to people five hundred years ago that the sun moves round the earth. This, said Kant, is only because we cannot see the world any other way. The human mind is so constituted that it is forced to impose the framework of space and time on the raw sensory data in order to make any sense of it all.
Strange as Kant’s proposal may have seemed then, and strange as it may still seem to many of us today, contemporary science is proving him right.
The first significant scientific challenge to the assumption that space and time are absolutes came in 1905 with Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity. He showed that what we observe as space and what we observe as time are but two aspects of a more fundamental reality, which he called “the spacetime continuum”. How much of this continuum manifests as space, and how much manifests as time varies from one observer to another, depending on their motion. Space and time may appear to us to be fixed qualities, but that is because we are not traveling at speeds close to that of light. If we did, things would look very different.
Just what the spacetime continuum itself is like we never know. Einstein agreed with Kant; all we ever know of the underlying reality are the ways in which it appears as the two very different qualities of space and time.
Although observers moving at different speeds may disagree on the amounts of time and space separating two events, they do agree, no matter how fast they may be moving, on the amount of spacetime separating them—what Einstein called the “interval”. It is a little like cutting a string in two; cutting it in different places will give pieces of differing lengths, but the total length of string will always be the same. Similarly, any observation divides the spacetime interval into a certain amount of time and a corresponding amount of space, the exact proportions depending on the motion of the observer. (With the difference that the mathematical formula for the combination of space and time is not simple addition; it is more like “space squared minus time squared.”)
In proposing his theory Einstein postulated that the speed of light was a universal constant. However fast you may be traveling, you will always measure the speed of light relative to you to be the same—186,000 miles per second. You can never catch up with light. Even if you were traveling at 185,990 miles per second, light would still pass you by at 186,000 miles per second.
Why should this be so? It seems totally counter-intuitive that the speed of light never varies. But this perplexing behavior takes on a rather different character when we distinguish our image of reality from the underlying reality. Space and time, and hence speed, are aspects of the phenomenal world; they have no meaning, it turns out, for light itself.
According to the equations of Special Relativity, as an observer’s speed increases, time slows down, and length (in the direction of motion) contracts. At the speed of light, time has slowed to a standstill and length contracted to zero. Although no object with mass can ever attain the speed of light (the equations predict that it would then have an infinite mass), light itself does (by definition) travel at the speed of light. From light’s point of view—and this after all must be the most appropriate perspective from which to consider the nature of light, not our matter-bound mode of experience—it travels no distance and takes no time to do so.
This reflects a unique property of light. In the spacetime continuum, the interval between the two ends of a light ray is always zero. How can we interpret this? We probably should not even try to interpret it. Any attempt to do so would make the mistake of applying concepts derived from our image of reality to the underlying reality. All we need to recognize is that, from light’s perspective, this zero interval manifests as zero space and a corresponding amount of zero time.
However, when we in the world of sub-light speeds perceive light, we see a different manifestation of the zero interval. We observe a finite amount of space along with an “equal” amount of time. In our world, the light does travel through space and time. Since the total interval must be zero, the distance covered must exactly balance the time taken—that is, we must always observe 186,000 miles of space for every second of time. This we interpret as the speed of light. But this “speed” is not an intrinsic property of light itself; traveling no distance in no time, light has no need of speed. What we interpret as the speed of light is actually the ratio in which space and time manifest in our perception of reality. It is this ratio that is constant. And this is why all our measurements of the apparent speed of light are constant.
The fact that light itself knows no space or time resolves another difficult conundrum. In our image of reality we observe light traveling across space and time and so observe energy traveling from the point of emission of the light ray to its point of absorption. Naturally, we ask how the energy travels. Is it a wave, or is it a particle?
The answer, it seems, is both. In some situations light behaves as a continuous wave spreading out in space—but, curiously, a wave without a medium. In other situations it behaves as a particle traveling through space—but, equally curiously, a particle without mass. Physicists have accommodated these two strange and seemingly paradoxical conclusions by deciding that light is a “wave-particle.” In certain circumstances it appears as a wave; in others as a particle.
But if we look at things from light’s point of view, the reality is very different. Since it did not travel through space and time, it needed no vehicle or mechanism of travel. Light itself has no need to be either a wave or a particle. From its own frame of reference—which is probably the most appropriate frame of reference from which to consider light—there is no duality, and no paradox.
The physicist’s conundrum appears only when we mistake our image of reality with the “thing in itself”, and try to visualize light in concepts and terms appropriate to our image of reality—that is, waves and particles.
A photon is a single quantum of action. We are all familiar with quantities such as mass, velocity, acceleration, momentum and energy. Action is just another member of this family, but not one that we come across much in ordinary life. It is defined as the product of momentum and distance traveled, or, equivalently, energy and time. Thus the amount of action of speeding bullet is higher than the same bullet traveling more slowly across the same distance. Double the bullet’s mass, and you get twice the action—which accords with our intuitive concepts of action.
To speak of light as pure action is both appropriate and strange, depending upon one’s point of view. In the world we experience, the world in which space and time exist, and light travels great distances at unmatchable speed, light seems to be nothing but action. It never rests; it never slows. From this frame of reference, action seems a most appropriate quality.
From its own frame of reference, however, light never goes anywhere. A photon covers no distance, and knows no time. Nor does it have any mass. Strange then, that something without mass, space or time should be the fundamental unit of action. Strange it may be; nevertheless, that is the nature of the underlying reality. Once again, nothing like what we expected. Nothing like the phenomenon generated in the mind.
Kant argued that space and time are characteristics not of the noumenon, the underlying reality, but of the mind. Quantum theory reveals that the same is true of matter. Matter is not to be found in the underlying reality; atoms turn out to be 99.99999999% empty space, and sub-atomic “particles” dissolve into fuzzy waves. Matter and substance seem, like space and time, to be characteristics of the phenomenon of experience. They are the way in which the mind makes sense of the no-thing-ness of the noumenon.
When we speak of “the material world”, we think we are referring to the underlying reality, the object of our perception. In fact we are only describing our image of reality. The materiality we observe, the solidness we feel, the whole of the “real world” that we know, are, like color, sound, smell, and all the other qualities we experience, qualities manifesting in the mind. This is the startling conclusion we are forced to acknowledge; the “stuff” of our world—the world we know and appear to live within—is not matter, but mind.
The current superparadigm assumes that space, time and matter constitute the basic framework of reality, and consciousness somehow arises from this reality. The truth, it now appears, is the very opposite. As far as the reality we experience is concerned — and this remember is the only reality we ever know — consciousness is primary. Time, space and matter are secondary; they are aspects of the image of reality manifesting in the mind. They exist within consciousness; not the other way around.
Similar claims have often been made in spiritual teachings, particularly Indian philosophy. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra’s, for example, speak of the entire world as chitta vritti, “the modifications of mind-stuff”. When physicists hear statements such as this, and take them to be referring to the physical world, they or are understandably perplexed and perhaps dismissive. But when we understand this to be a statement about the manifestation of our experienced world, it begins to make more sense.
If we consider the reality we experience, then we have to accept that in the final analysis they are correct: Consciousness is the essence of everything—everything in the known universe. It is the medium from which every aspect of our experience manifests. Every form and quality we ever experience in the world is an appearance within consciousness.
The Hard Question
As mentioned at the outset, the very existence of consciousness is an insurmountable anomaly for the current superparadigm. How can something as seemingly unconscious as matter ever lead to something as immaterial as consciousness. The two could not be more radically different. The philosopher David Chalmers has dubbed this the “hard question” facing any science of consciousness. Even if we were to fully understand the workings of the brain, down to the tiniest detail, it would still leave unanswered the question as to why any of it should result in a conscious experience? Why doesn’t it all go on in the dark, without any subjective aspect?
The question that is apparently being asked is: How does the underlying reality ever gives rise to consciousness? But never being able to know the underlying reality directly, we are not really in any position to even ask this question, let alone answer it. Indeed, for all we know, consciousness may be an intrinsic quality of the underlying reality In which case there is no hard question to answer.
The question that is actually being asked is: How does the material world—the world of space, time and matter—give rise to consciousness? But this is trying to account for consciousness in terms that are themselves manifestations of consciousness. Space, time, matter, and all the forms and structures we observe in the world, are aspects of the phenomenon arising in the mind; they are aspects of the image of reality appearing in consciousness.
The question we should be asking is the exact opposite. How is that consciousness, which seems so non-material, can take on the material forms that we experience? How do space, time, color, sound, texture, substance, and the many other qualities that we associate with the material world, emerge in consciousness? What is the process of manifestation within the mind?
But this is not a question that science may ever be able to answer. It is more in the domain of the mystic, and others in the more contemplative traditions, who have chosen to explore the nature of consciousness first hand.
Earlier I said that it was probably impossible not to see the world of our experience as “out there” around us. But it may be that some of those who have devoted themselves to meditation and observation of the arising of experience in the mind have developed sufficient inner clarity to see past appearances. Judging from various spiritual texts, they may have recognized, as a personal experience rather than an intellectual insight, that the entire phenomenal world is creation in the mind, and that consciousness is the primary stuff of their universe.
Such people—enlightened ones, we usually call them—are those who have experienced the new superparadigm. For them “I am That, Thou art That, and all this is That”, as it is put in the Upanishads, or more simply “All is Brahman” (the Sanskrit word which might be translated as the One, or Essence).
In Western traditions, the same sentiments occur in the statement “I am God”. But the word “God” has so many different meanings and associations that such statements are prone to considerable misunderstanding and confusion. To the lay person, the words “I am God” smack of extreme arrogance—particularly if there is the implication that “I”, this particular individual human being, is God. To the more religious person, it sounds heretical, if not blasphemous, and some have burned at the stake for it. While to many scientists, such statements are meaningless, the symptoms of some delusion or pathology.
Science has looked out into deep space, back in “deep time” to the beginning of creation, and down into the “deep structure” of the cosmos, the very essence of matter, and is proud to tell us that it finds no need nor place for God—the Universe seems to work perfectly well without his assistance. But whoever said God is to be found “out there”, in the realm of space, time and matter? This is a very naive and old-fashioned interpretation of God. When spiritual teachings refer to God they are, more often than not, pointing towards the realm of inner experience, not some thing in the physical realm. If we want to find God, we have to look within, into the realm of “deep mind”—a realm that science has yet to explore.
If we look more closely at the statements of those who have explored deep mind, they seem to be saying that the “I”, that innermost essence of ourselves is a universal essence. Whatever we may be conscious of, the faculty of consciousness is something we all share. This consciousness is the one truth we cannot deny. It is the absolute certainty of our existence. It is eternal in that it is always there whatever the contents of our experience. It is the essence of everything we know. And, since every aspect of our experience is a manifestation in the mind, it is the creator of the world we know.
These qualities—truth, absolute, eternal, essence, creator—are amongst those traditionally associated with God. From this perspective, the statement “I am God” is not so puzzling or deluded after all. Although it might be more accurate to say that “I am” is God, or possibly, “God is consciousness”.
The foundation stone of the Copernican Revolution was the realization that the Earth was not still, as had hitherto been supposed, and as daily experience seemed to confirm, but was spinning about its own axis. From this shift in perception was born a radically new model of the cosmos. The foundation stone of this discussion has been the distinction between the reality generated in the mind, and the underlying reality. Most of the time we are not aware of this distinction. We tacitly assume that things are as they appear, and that we are experiencing the world as it is. We think that the tree we see is the tree in itself.
When we realize that they are not the same thing at all, but are very different indeed, a revolutionary new model of reality emerges. Space, time and matter fall from their absolute status, to be replaced by light in the physical realm, and by consciousness (the inner light) in the world of experience. Instead of matter being primary, and the source of everything we know, including mind; consciousness becomes primary, and the source of everything, including matter, as we know it. For a second time, the universe has been turned inside out.
This shift in superparadigm has not happened yet. The existing model runs even deeper than did the geocentric view of the cosmos, and will probably meet even more obstacles than did the Copernican Revolution, (although now, somewhat ironically, it is science not the church that is the establishment, and will be the source of the greatest resistance). Nevertheless, I believe all the pieces are in place, they have only to be put together into a coherent model.
New paradigms stand or fall according to their ability to account for persistent anomalies, and incorporate new findings. The emerging new superparadigm accounts for consciousness—an intractable anomaly for the old model, remember. It offers radically new perspectives on some of the most perplexing problems in contemporary physics. And, most significantly, points towards a resolution of one of the oldest challenges of all—the reconciliation of the scientific worldview with the spiritual.