Universe of Infinite Variety
By H. R. Opdenberg
Ours is an age when various ways of looking upon the world are alive at the same time. Alongside Christian creeds we find an interest in Gnosticism, Eastern religions, and mystic trends from sundry sources, while side by side with the materialism that developed in the 19th century we find far-reaching speculation based on modern physics. One scientific theory describes the universe as chance arrangements of blindly moving particles; another, equally scientific, talks about the universe as a coherent organism, where every part mirrors everything else, just as a fragment of a hologram contains the complete image. The hologram metaphor is new but the idea is old. The philosopher and mathematician Leibniz, like Pythagoras and Plato before him, saw the universe as a product of countless monads, nuclei of conscious energy. Leibniz called them “mathematical points” to emphasize that they are not physical things but centers of action, where even the division between mind and matter has disappeared. Every one of his monads is seen as a living mirror of the others so that in each one lie concealed all the possibilities of the universe. He wrote:
“Each portion of matter may be conceived of as a garden full of plants, and as a pond full of fishes. But each branch of the plant, each member of the animal, each drop of its humors, is also such a garden or such a pond.” — P. P. Wiener, Leibniz-Selections, p. 547
The material universe consists, according to 20th-century physics, not of separate particles in a mechanical system but of a gigantic fabric of mutual relations. Neither energy quanta nor elementary particles are permanent entities but continually change — into other particles, into each other — and are evidently mere phases in a process of interaction. As Heisenberg observed, “the universe is a participatory universe.” Interaction is the key. The properties and structure of all phenomena are determined not by eternally unchanging corpuscles of matter but by intricate interaction in the fabric of events we call nature. It is not surprising that materialism is also rapidly losing ground in scientific circles. As early as the first decade of the 20th century we come across statements presaging the coming trend. Then in The Nature of the Physical World (1927) British physicist and astronomer A. S. Eddington set forth how matter appears to dissolve into energy points, and that it is best characterized as mind-stuff. Mathematician, physicist, and astronomer J. H. Jeans, and Max Planck, author of the quantum theory, both regarded consciousness as fundamental and matter as derivative from consciousness. Teilhard de Chardin sums it up as follows: “Modern physics is no longer sure whether what is left in its hands is pure energy or pure thought.” Many a modern researcher is arriving at the same conclusion as the mystics of all ages.
In the 19th century the idea of an ecosystem was virtually unknown to Western thinking; how greatly the various organisms within a living whole are interdependent and their lives interwoven was not yet recognized. Science had not yet conceived of a “Gaia Hypothesis,” which states that the earth acts like a living, self-adjusting organism (Lynn Margulis and J. E. Lovelock, 1977). Relations, patterns of interaction, determine the identity of each part. Living beings are like whirlpools in a river, continually exchanging molecules and energy with their environment, yet retaining their identity. Internally too, the dynamic symmetry of cells acts in concert: cells are replaced and conditions can change — within limits — still the identity remains. Each such identity appears to have come on stage fully formed, with all its intricate relationships working smoothly right from the start. When T. H. Huxley told Darwin he would defend his forthcoming Origin of Species, he also remarked that portraying the process as slow and gradual would unnecessarily burden the argument. As things turned out, Huxley was right: geological evidence points to new species having developed abruptly. It always takes a complex of variations working together, one such variation by itself being, if anything, a handicap.
On the cellular level it is no different. Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, biochemist and discoverer of vitamin C, compared the idea of random mutations accounting for a living cell’s efficiency and versatility to the idea that one could improve a quality watch by dropping it: “To get a better watch, you must change all the wheels simultaneously to make a good fit again.” The electron microscope reveals a multiplicity of subcellular organs called organelles carrying out complicated chemical processes at precisely the right moment in precisely the right way, with every organelle functioning thanks to the function of all the others. As Lewis Thomas wrote, “My cells . . . are ecosystems more complex than Jamaica Bay.”
In the 19th century chance was thought to provide an adequate explanation for the evolution of the whole complicated texture of systems. At present serious doubts have arisen about this. The holistic view considers mankind as not extraneous to the web of events we call nature. As parts of nature we look at nature: our intelligence understands the intelligent patterns around us. Many people, finding the chance theory insufficient and rejecting the creation theory on logical grounds, come to see that consciousness and intelligence are as much part of the universe as the profusion of forms and conditions of self-expression; and as varied, ranging from the instinctual up to the highest intelligences — if we can speak of a highest.
Today there is still no conclusive definition of life. No longer can we say, this is and that is not an expression of life or consciousness in some form or gradation. In Other Worlds physicist Paul Davies remarks:
“no boundary exists between the living and non-living. Crystals, for example, are highly ordered structures which can reproduce themselves, yet we do not regard them as living. Stars are complex and elaborately organized systems, but are not normally thought of as alive. It could be that we are too narrow-minded in our vision of life.” — p. 147
It could also be that we are surrounded everywhere by forms of life and consciousness, ranging from the most primitive material forms up to the world-soul of a galaxy. Human thinking is no exception but a consequence of universal law, one of its innumerable forms of expression. Mystic and thinker Spinoza wrote:
“As regards the human mind, I believe that it is also a part of nature; for I maintain that there exists in nature an infinite power of thinking . . . Further, I take the human mind to be identical with this said power . . . “– Letter to Henry Oldenburg (1665) #32, van Vloten ed.
To Spinoza mind and matter were parallel attributes of God or Substance, the great essence of the universe sometimes called in theo- sophical literature Svabhavat, primordial nature, mind-substance. Svabhavat (from the Sanskrit sva, “self” and bhu, “to become”) means self-becoming. Nothing can exist other than as an emanation from this primordial nature’s eternal action. Nothing, said Spinoza, can exist except this Substance and the unfolding of its attributes. This being so, “creation” had no beginning and will have no end; all things come forth from the Boundless and will therefore continue forever — theosophical ideas found also in Neoplatonism and Gnosticism.
With Spinoza we find emphasis on the essential unity and continuity of all existence, while Pythagoras, Plato, and Leibniz distinguish countless monads in it, centers of activity in every conceivable grade of self-expression. Combining the monad theory with Spinoza’s philosophy, a worldview emerges remarkably in accord with ideas from the Upanishads, Vedanta, Buddhism, and many a thinker from ancient Greece. We find corresponding ideas in the writings of theoretical physicist David Bohm, who also believed that the distinction between animate and inanimate nature is arbitrary, of use in some contexts but ultimately incorrect. He came to the conclusion that, far from being empty, space is an immense ocean of energy, and matter no more than a superficial ripple on that ocean. Everything lies concealed in an “implicate order” and comes forth from it. To illustrate this idea Bohm used the following experiment: the outer of two concentric cylinders is filled with a viscous fluid, such as glycerin, into which is placed a drop of insoluble ink. When the outer cylinder is rotated very slowly, the ink drop threads out, growing thinner and thinner, and eventually becomes invisible. The dye molecules become distributed among the molecules of the liquid as a grey shade. Rotating the cylinder in the opposite direction yields a surprising result: slender threads appear, growing thicker and thicker until, suddenly, the globule of ink is seen once more. This suggests that out of the “holomovement” of the ocean of energy comes forth the known universe with all that is in it (cf. Wholeness and the Implicate Order, 1980, p. 179 et seq.).
From the “reality of the first order,” or implicate order, issues the explicate order, the world of forms and living things. In this “reality of the second order” these things have a relatively separate existence, as the Gulf Stream and other currents have a relatively separate existence within the Atlantic Ocean. From atoms to galaxies, all the phenomena of nature emerge from the ocean of the implicate order, make their appearance as “relatively autonomous subtotals,” and at the same time are linked with everything else.
Bohm regarded the universe as an undivided whole, a continuously ongoing process whose “ultimate ground of being is entirely unutterable, entirely implicit.” Space is not a nothingness but is in essence this ultimate ground of being. He employed the image of a crystal through which at absolute zero, according to quantum theory, electrons would pass as if it were empty space. The crystal would then be perfectly homogeneous and would seem nonexistent for the electrons, as space seems nonexistent for us. But when the temperature is raised, inhomogeneities appear, scattering the electrons. If one were to focus the electrons with an electron lens to make a picture of the crystal, it “would then appear that the inhomogeneities exist independently and that the main body of the crystal was sheer nothingness” (p. 191). Like the school of Parmenides and Zeno in ancient Greece, Bohm regarded space as a plenum, utter fullness, the ground or substratum of all that exists. The matter that we sense is, like flaws in the crystal, inhomogeneities in space, which is the unity that includes both matter and consciousness.
Another physicist whose work endorsed the interconnectedness of things was John S. Bell. Two particles moving away from each other at the speed of light were thought to have lost contact forever, since no signal from one could overtake and influence the other. In 1964 Bell proposed his theory that particles like these do influence each other all the same and therefore, somehow, never lose contact. The theory was experimentally confirmed for the first time in 1972. Science seems to be overstepping its own boundaries, penetrating a realm where mystics have been long before. Not surprisingly modern thinkers are taking note of ancient ideas with amazement and admiration.
When H. P. Blavatsky published The Secret Doctrine in 1888, she stated that the ideas it contained were neither her own nor new. She sketched in bold strokes once again the existence of infinite Space, ground of countless universes, populated and ensouled by numberless monads: not as unconnected, separate things, but as differentiations within the whole. She spoke of “The fundamental identity of all Souls with the Universal Over-Soul,” and gave a vertiginous panorama of the evolutionary track, not of bodies, forms, but of centers of consciousness, monads, from their differentiation within the Oversoul to their grand consummatum est, the attainment of fully self-conscious realization of cosmic consciousness at the end of the world period. A work like The Secret Doctrine could not fail to cause a commotion in those days; recent developments have paved the way for us better to appreciate these thoughts and subscribe to the fundamental unity of man and universe.
The human mind is not extraneous to the mind of the universe. In fact, nothing is conceivable apart from the fundamental space-energy-mind to which the ancient Vedic poet would not give a name. Names indicate qualities, and so imply limitations because every quality excludes its opposite. So the Vedic sage spoke simply of tat, That. In the subtle logic of Buddhist thinking, the absolute fullness of space is called sunyata, emptiness: all that exists is as ripples in this boundless ocean which cannot be said to have this or that form, and which in that sense is “empty.” With their plenum or pleroma the Gnostics and other ancient Mediterranean thinkers emphasized its “fullness,” which comprises all worlds, our visible as well as numerous invisible ones. These worlds may be symbolized as rungs on the unending “ladder of being.” Whether the inhabitants of realms higher than ours are called aeons, angelic orders, or dhyani-buddhas makes no difference. The world is the interaction of a variety of monads, but not all monads necessarily express themselves on the physical level. Although in essence all monads are aspects of the ultimate ground of being, in their forms of manifestation they are infinitely varied. In their totality they constitute nature, the Jacob’s ladder of evolving beings, conjointly weaving the fabric of visible and invisible worlds, the multiplicity of “parallel universes” modern thinkers are beginning to surmise.
(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 2004; copyright © 2004 Theosophical University Press)