Who are we? And why are we here? Despite their apparent simplicity, these are perhaps the most important and challenging questions ever asked. “Know thyself,” said the oracle at Delphi, and thinking people have been trying to do so for millennia. Today, at the cutting edge where modern science meets timeless spirituality, we can give answers that are more trustworthy than any of the answers oracles and humans could give before.
We need to start with the basics. Who are we? Are we part of the world in which we live, or are we beings apart from and perhaps above the world? We may possess unique qualities and features, but science assumes that we, as all living things, are part of the world in which we came to be. But what is the true nature of that world? If we are to know who we are, we need to know what the world is. Remarkably, the answer to this query is becoming well founded and reliable—even though it is very different from what most people think it is.
A New Concept of the World
The world, according to cutting-edge science, is not an ensemble of bits and pieces of matter. As astrophysicist James Jeans said over a hundred years ago, the world is more like a big thought than like a big rock.
The concept of a thought-like world is familiar from the history of speculation on fundamental questions. Today, more and more philosophers, scientists and intuitive people from all walks of life are questioning whether the world is what only is presented to our senses. They realize that the classical answer—that the universe would be the arena for the motion of insensible matter in passive space and indifferently flowing time—is not the last word. The old concept, based on Newton’s classical mechanics, has run its course. There is a new concept of what the world truly is. It is not an ensemble of separate bits of matter moving in accordance with mechanistic laws, but an intrinsically whole system where all things are connected in ways that transcend the previously known bounds of space and time.
In the new concept, the things that furnish the world are not pieces of matter. Surprisingly (or perhaps not so surprisingly, because this has been an age-old intuition) they are basically vibration. The vibrations that make up the world we observe are not random but highly ordered: they are coherent. Their order and coherence tell us that they are not the result of mere chance. To use a term suggested by physicist David Bohm, the vibrations are “in-formed.” (Bohm used this term to explain how the deep dimension of the cosmos beyond space and time—he called it “the implicate order”—affects the perceived dimension in space and in time (the “explicate order”.) Everything in the world is spontaneously and effectively in-formed by a deep dimension, ourselves and our brain and mind included. In the last count, we are in-formed clusters of vibration in space and time, interacting and coevolving with other clusters both locally, here and now, and nonlocally, throughout the universe.
In one form or another, the concept of the world as in-formed vibration has been part of the wisdom of the great spiritual traditions. It was present in the Sanskrit concept of Akasha, where it meant the fifth, and deepest, dimension or element of the world, beyond yet encompassing the four elemental dimensions of earth, air, fire, and water. It was sometimes used in the sense of “sky” or “atmosphere.” Later it came to be seen as an ethereal field underlying the observed world.
The intuition of the Akasha was present in the Vedic texts of India as early as 5,000 BCE. In the Vedas its function was identified with shabda, the first vibration, the first ripple that makes up our universe, and also with spanda, described as “vibration/movement of consciousness.” The contemporary Indian scholar I. K. Taimni wrote, “There is… a mysterious integrated state of vibration from which all possible kinds of vibrations can be derived by a process of differentiation. That is called N.da in Sanskrit. It is a vibration in a medium… which may be translated as “space” in English. But… it is not mere empty space but space which, though apparently empty, contains within itself an infinite amount of potential energy.”
This formerly esoteric notion is now sustained and substantiated in science. In quantum physics, observations and calculations reveal that at the ultra-small dimension, space is not empty and smooth. It is “grainy,” filled with waves and vibrations. When physicists descend to the ultra-small dimension, they do not find anything that could be called matter. What they find are waves and clusters of standing or propagating vibrations.
Previously, scientists assumed that it is matter that vibrates. There is a ground substance that vibrates, and that substance consists of matter particles and assemblies of matter particles. The world is material, and vibration is the way matter behaves. But the contrary turned out to be the case. There is no ground substance. The world is a set of variously integrated clusters of vibration, and matter is just the way the vibrations appear to observers.
The great physicist Max Planck said it clearly. In one of his last lectures in Florence he noted, “As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear-headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about atoms this much: There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together.” And, Planck added, behind the force that holds the vibrations of the atomic nucleus together “we must assume the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind.” That intelligence, he said, is the matrix of all matter.
Planck was not alone in reviving the concept of the world as wave and vibration. Two years prior to Planck’s pronouncement, the maverick genius Nicola Tesla advised that if you want to know the secrets of the universe, you should think in terms of energy, frequency, and vibration.
Today we can say clearly and with assurance that the materialist concept of the world is obsolete. The new sciences tell us that it is not from bits of matter but from clusters of highly ordered in-formed vibration that the things we find in space and time are built.
The affirmation that “the world is vibration” begs a further question. If the world is vibration, what is the world the vibration of? What is it that vibrates? It could not be the ground substance of the universe, for we have no independent evidence for the existence of such a substance. It could also not be matter, because we have no independent evidence for the existence of matter either. It could be space. As the classical wisdom schools have maintained, there is more to space than a location free of matter. Space is not empty and passive; it is filled and dynamic. Dynamically filled space could vibrate.
Today we know that what physicists familiarly (but misleadingly) call the quantum vacuum is not a vacuum at all—it is not empty space. It is a plenum, a space filled with vibrations and forces of various kinds, some known, such as the electromagnetic, gravitational, and nuclear fields, and others yet to be defined, including fields and forces associated with dark energy and dark matter. It is a universal subquantum field, the domain this writer called the Akashic field.
The Akashic subquantum field is researched in science under various names. It is the grand unified field of particle physics, the zero point field of electrodynamics, the universal quantum field of quantum mechanics, and the implicate order of David Bohm. Everything that emerges and persists in the world is a cluster of vibration in that field. The human body, and bodies of all shapes and sizes from atoms to galaxies, is comprised of clusters of vibration in the Akashic field of the cosmos.
A New Concept of Consciousness
What about mind? If the world is vibration, is also mind and consciousness a form of vibration? Or on the contrary, are all vibrations, the observed world, a manifestation of mind?
Although it is true that when all is said and done all we know is our consciousness, it is also true that we do not know our own consciousness, not to mention the consciousness of anyone else. We do not know what consciousness really is, or how it is related to the brain. Since our consciousness is the basis of our identity, we do not know who we really are. Are we a body that generates the stream of sensations we call consciousness, or are we a consciousness associated with a body that displays it? Do we have consciousness, or are we consciousness? Consciousness could be a kind of illusion, a set of sensations produced by the workings of our brain. But it could also be that our body is a vehicle, a transmitter of a consciousness that is the basic reality of the world. The world could be material, and mind could be an illusion. Or the world could be consciousness, and the materiality of the world could be the illusion.
Both of these possibilities have been explored in the history of philosophy, and today we are a step closer than before to understanding which of them is true. There are important insights emerging at the expanding frontiers where physical science joins consciousness research.
On the basis of a growing series of observations and experiments, a new consensus is emerging. It is that “my” consciousness is not just my consciousness, meaning the consciousness produced by my brain—any more than a program transmitted over the air would be a program produced by my TV set. Just like a program broadcast over the air continues to exist when my TV set is turned off, my consciousness continues to exist when my brain is turned off.
Consciousness is a real element in the real world. The brain and body do not produce it; they display it. And it does not cease when life in the body does. Consciousness is a reflection, a projection, a manifestation of the intelligence that “in-forms” the world.
Mystics and shamans have known that this is true for millennia, and artists and spiritual people know it to this day. Its rediscovery at the leading edge of science augurs a profound shift in our view of the world. It overcomes the answer the now outdated materialist science gives to the question regarding the nature of mind: the answer according to which consciousness is an epiphenomenon, a product or by-product of the workings of the brain. In that case, the brain would be like an electricity-generating turbine. The turbine is material, while the current it generates is not (or not strictly) material. In the same way, the brain could be material, even if the consciousness it generates proves to be something that is not quite material.
On first sight, this makes good sense. On a second look, however, the materialist concept encounters major problems. First, it encounters a conceptual problem. How could a material brain give rise to a truly immaterial stream of sensations? How could anything that is material produce anything immaterial? In modern consciousness research this is known as the “hard problem.” It has no reasonable answer. As researchers point out, we do not have the slightest idea how “matter” could produce “mind.” One is a measurable entity with properties such as hardness, extension, force, and the like, and the other is an ineffable series of sensations with no definite location in space and an ephemeral presence in time.
Fortunately, the hard problem does not need to be solved: it is not a real problem. There is another possibility: mind is a real element in the real world and is not produced by the brain; it is only manifested and displayed by the brain.
Mind Beyond Brain
If mind is a real element in the real world only manifested rather than produced by the brain, it can also exist without the brain. There is evidence that mind does exist on occasion beyond the brain: surprisingly, conscious experience seems possible in the absence of a functioning brain. There are cases—the near-death experience (NDE) is the paradigm case—where consciousness persists when brain function is impaired, or even halted.
Thousands of observations and experiments show that people whose brain stopped working but then regained normal functioning can experience consciousness during the time they are without a functioning brain. This cannot be accounted for on the premises of the production theory: if there is no working brain, there cannot be consciousness. Yet there are cases of consciousness appearing beyond the living and working brain, and some of these cases are not easy to dismiss as mere imagination.
It appears that consciousness is not, or not entirely, tied to the living brain. In addition to NDEs, there are cases in which consciousness is detached from the brain regardless of its location. In these cases consciousness originates above the eyes and the head, or near the ceiling, or above the roof. These are the out-of-body experiences: OBEs.
There are OBEs where congenitally blind people have visual awareness. They describe their surroundings in considerable detail and with remarkable accuracy. What the blind experience is not restored eyesight, because they are aware of things that are shielded from their eyes or are beyond the range of normal eyesight. Consciousness researcher Kenneth Ring called these experiences “transcendental awareness.”
Visual awareness in the blind joins a growing repertory of experiences collected and researched by Stanislav Grof’s “transcendental experiences.” As Grof found, these beyond-the-brain and beyond-here-and-now experiences are widespread—more widespread than anyone would have suspected even a few years ago.
An In-Formed World
It appears that consciousness is not limited to the individual brain and body; it is a fundamental element in the universe. The universe, as we now know, is not a domain of matter moving in passive space and indifferently flowing time; it is a sea of coherent vibrations. These vibrations give us the phenomena of physical realities such as quanta, atoms, solar systems, and galaxies, and they also give us the phenomena of nonphysical realities, mind and consciousness.
The affirmation that physical vibrations give rise to nonphysical mind phenomena is not just another version of the “hard question” of consciousness research. Clusters of vibration do not produce the phenomena that are associated with them; they merely display them. The cosmos that gave birth to the universe is fundamentally an intelligence and that intelligence is manifest in all its phenomena.
Ervin Laszlo is a philosopher and systems scientist. Twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, he has published more than 75 books and over 400 articles and research papers. The above is an edited excerpt from his new book The Intelligence of the Cosmos: Why Are We Here? New Answers from the Frontiers of Science (Inner Traditions, Rochester, Vermont, 2017) reprinted here with the permission of the publisher.