! ... The Primacy of Consciousness ... !

Ervin Laszlo


This essay presents the argument as to why 
        the ultimate nature of reality is mental not material.

         The Re-Enchantment of the Cosmos by Ervin Laszlo)

See also video stream of presentation given at: 
                 Physics of Consciousness Conference. 


Ervin Laszlo has proposed that the virtual energy field known as the 
quantum vacuum, or zero-point field, corresponds to what Indian 
teachings have called Akasha. the source of everything that exists, 
and in which the memory of the cosmos is encoded. I would like to take 
his reasoning a step further and suggest that the nature of this 
ultimate source is consciousness itself, nothing more and nothing less.

Again we find this idea is not new. In the Upanishads, Brahman, the 
source of the cosmos (literally, "that from which everything grows"), 
is held to be to Atman ("that which shines"), the essence of 
consciousness. And in the opening lines of The Dhammapada, the Buddha 
declares that "All phenomena are preceded by mind, made by mind, and 
ruled by mind".

Such a view, though widespread in many metaphysical systems, is 
completely foreign to the current scientific worldview. The world we 
see is so obviously material in nature; any suggestion that it might 
have more in common with mind is quickly rejected as having "no basis 
in reality". However, when we consider this alternative worldview more 
closely, it turns out that it is not in conflict with any of the 
findings of modern science - only with its presuppositions. Furthermore, 
it leads to a picture of the cosmos that is even more enchanted.

All in the Mind

The key to this alternative view is the fact that all our 
experiences - all our perceptions, sensations, dreams, thoughts and 
feelings - are forms appearing in consciousness. It doesn't always seem 
that way. When I see a tree it seems as if I am seeing the tree 
directly. But science tells us something completely different is 
happening. Light entering the eye triggers chemical reactions in the 
retina, these produce electro-chemical impulses which travel along 
nerve fibers to the brain. The brain analyses the data it receives, 
and then creates its own picture of what is out there. I then have the 
experience of seeing a tree. But what I am actually experiencing is 
not the tree itself, only the image that appears in the mind. This is 
true of everything I experience. Everything we know, perceive, and 
imagine, every color, sound, sensation, every thought and every 
feeling, is a form appearing in the mind. It is all an in-forming of 

The idea that we never experience the physical world directly has 
intrigued many philosophers. Most notable was the eighteenth-century 
German philosopher Immanual Kant, who drew a clear distinction between 
the form appearing in the mind - what he called the phenomenon (a Greek 
word meaning "that which appears to be") - and the world that gives rise 
to this perception, which he called the noumenon (meaning “that which 
is apprehended"). All we know, Kant insisted, is the phenomenon. The 
noumenon, the “thing-in-itself,” remains forever beyond our knowing.

Unlike some of his predecessors, Kant was not suggesting that this 
reality is the only reality. Irish theologian Bishop Berkeley had 
likewise argued that we know only our perceptions. He then concluded 
that nothing exists apart from our perceptions, which forced him into 
the difficult position of having to explain what happened to the world 
when no one was perceiving it. Kant held that there is an underlying 
reality, but we never know it directly. All we can ever know of it is 
the form that appears in the mind - our mental model of what is "out there".

It is sometimes said that our model of reality is an illusion, but 
that is misleading. It may all be an appearance in the mind, but it is 
nonetheless real - the only reality we ever know. The illusion comes 
when we confuse the reality we experience with the physical reality, 
the thing-in-itself. The Vedantic philosophers of ancient India spoke 
of this confusion as maya. Often translated as “illusion” (a false 
perception of the world), maya is better interpreted as “delusion” (a 
false belief about the world). We suffer a delusion when we believe 
the images in our minds are the external world. We deceive ourselves 
when we think that the tree we see is the tree itself.

The tree itself is a physical object, constructed from physical 
matter-molecules, atoms, sub-atomic particles. But from what is the 
image in the mind constructed? Clearly it is not constructed from 
physical matter. A perceptual image is composed of the same "stuff" as 
our dreams, thoughts, and feelings, and we would not say that these 
are created from physical atoms or molecules. (There might or might 
not be a corresponding physical activity in the brain, but what I am 
concerned with here is the substance of the image itself.) So what is 
the mental substance from which all our experiences are formed?

The English language does not have a good word for this mental 
essence. In Sanskrit, the word chitta, often translated as 
consciousness, carries the meaning of mental substance, and is 
sometimes translated as "mindstuff". It is that which takes on the 
mental forms of images, sounds, sensations, thoughts, and feelings. 
They are made of "mindstuff" rather than "matterstuff".

Mindstuff, or chitta, has the potential to take on the form of every 
possible experience - everything that I, or anyone else, could possibly 
experience in life; every experience of every being, on this planet, 
or any other sentient being, anywhere in the cosmos. In this respect 
consciousness has infinite potential. In the words of Maharishi Mahesh 
Yogi, "Consciousness is the field of all possibilities".

This aspect of consciousness can be likened to the light from a film 
projector. The projector shines light onto a screen, modifying the 
light so as to produce one of an infinity of possible images. These 
images are like the perceptions, sensations, dreams, memories, 
thoughts, and feelings that we experience - the forms arising in 
consciousness. The light itself, without which no images would be 
possible, corresponds to this ability of consciousness to take on form.

We know all the images on a movie screen are composed of light, but we 
are not usually aware of the light itself; our attention is caught up 
in the images that appear and the stories they tell. In much the same 
way, we know we are conscious, but we are usually aware only of the 
many different perceptions, thoughts, and feelings that appear in the 
mind. We are seldom aware of consciousness itself.

All phenomena are projections in the mind.

 - The Third Karmapa

   - - ? NO MATTER ?  - -

Although we may not know the external world directly, we can draw 
conclusions from our experience as to what it might be like. This, in 
essence, has been the focus of our scientific endeavors. Scientists 
have sought to understand the functioning of the world around us, and 
draw conclusions about its true nature.

To the surprise of many, the world "out there" has turned out to be 
quite unlike our experience of it. Consider our experience of the 
color green. In the physical world there is light of a certain 
frequency, but the light itself is not green. Nor are the electrical 
impulses that are transmitted from the eye to the brain. No color 
exists there. The green we see is a quality appearing in the mind in 
response to this frequency of light. It exists only as a subjective 
experience in the mind.

The same is true of sound. I hear the music of a violin, but the sound 
I hear is a quality appearing in the mind. There is no sound as such 
in the external world, just vibrating air molecules. The smell of a 
rose does not exist without an experiencing mind, just molecules of a 
certain shape.

The same is also true of the solidness we experience in matter. Our 
experience of the world is certainly one of solidness, so we assume 
that the "thing in itself" must be equally solid. For two thousand 
years it was believed that atoms were tiny solid balls - a model clearly 
drawn from everyday experience. Then, as physicists discovered that 
atoms were composed of more elementary, subatomic particles 
(electrons, protons, neutrons, and suchlike) the model shifted to one 
of a central nucleus surrounded by orbiting electrons - again, a model 
based on experience.

An atom may be small, a mere billionth of an inch across, but 
subatomic particles are a hundred thousand times smaller still. 
Imagine the nucleus of an atom magnified to the size of a golf ball. 
The whole atom would then be the size of a football stadium, and the 
electrons would be like peas flying round the stands. As the early 
twentieth-century British physicist Sir Arthur Eddington put it, 
“Matter is mostly ghostly empty space.” To be more precise, it is 
99.9999999% empty space.

With the development of quantum theory, physicists have found that 
even subatomic particles are far from solid. In fact, they are nothing 
like matter as we know it. They cannot be pinned down and measured 
precisely. Much of the time they seem more like waves than particles. 
They are like fuzzy clouds of potential existence, with no definite 
location. Whatever matter is, it has little, if any, substance.

Our notion of matter as a solid substance is, like the color green, a 
quality appearing in consciousness. It is a model of what is "out 
there", but as with almost every other model, quite unlike what is 
actually out there.

Even the notion of mass is questionable. In his General Theory of 
Relativity, Albert Einstein showed that mass and acceleration are 
indistinguishable. A person in an elevator feels lighter when the 
elevator accelerates downwards, and heavier when it decelerates to a 
halt. This is no illusion, scales would also show your weight to have 
changed. What we experience as mass is the resistance of the ground 
beneath our feet to our otherwise free fall towards the center of the 
Earth. According to Einstein, we are being continually decelerated, 
and interpret that as mass. An astronaut in orbit experiences no 
mass - until, that is, he bumps into the wall of the spacecraft and 
experiences a temporary deceleration.

Whatever matter is, it is not made of matter.

 - Prof. Hans-Peter Dürr

Spacetime and Action

Einstein's work also revealed that space and time are not absolutes. 
They vary according to the motion of the observer. If you are moving 
rapidly past me, and we both measure the distance and time between two 
events - a car traveling from one end of a street to another, say - then 
you will observe the car to have traveled less distance in less time 
than I observe. Conversely, from your point of view, I am moving 
rapidly past you, and in your frame of reference I will observe less 
space and time than you do. Weird? Yes. And almost impossible for us 
to conceive of. Yet numerous experiments have shown it to be true. It 
is our common sense notions of space and time that are wrong. Once 
again they are constructs in the mind, and do not perfectly model what 
is out there.

Kant foresaw this a hundred years before Einstein. He concluded that 
space and time are the dimensional framework in which the mind 
constructs its experience. They are built into the perceiving process, 
and we cannot but think in terms of space and time. But they are not 
aspects of the objective reality. That reality, according to Einstein, 
is something else, what he called "spacetime". When observed, 
spacetime appears as a certain amount of space and a certain amount of 
time. But how much is perceived as space and how much is perceived as 
time is not fixed; they depend upon the motion of the observer.

If space, time, and matter have no absolute objective status, what 
about energy? Physicists have a hard time saying exactly what energy 
is. It is defined as the potential to do work, that is, to create 
change. Energy comes in many different forms: potential energy, 
kinetic energy, chemical energy, electrical energy, heat energy, 
radiation energy. But we never measure energy as such, only the 
changes that we attribute to energy.

Energy if often said to be a fundamental quality of the cosmos. But 
that too turns out to be a mistake. According the Special Theory of 
Relativity, energy and mass are interchangeable, related by Einstein's 
famous equation, E=mc2. Observers traveling at different speeds will 
differ in their measurements of how much energy an object has.

Quantum theory offers further clues as to the nature of energy. The 
quantum is commonly called a quantum of energy, the smallest possible 
unit of energy. But that is not strictly correct. The quantum is 
actually a quantum of action.

What is action? It is another physical quantity like distance, 
velocity, momentum, force, and others that we meet in physics, but it 
is not usually given much attention in our basic math or physics

The amount of action in a quantum is exceedingly small, about 
0.00000000000000000000000000662618 erg.secs (or 6.62618 x 10 erg.secs 
in mathematical shorthand) - but it is always exactly the same amount. 
It as one of the few absolutes in existence, and more fundamental than 
space, time, matter, or energy. The Zero-Point Field is not therefore 
a potential energy field - despite the fact it is often referred to as 
such. It is a potential quantum field, a field of potential action.

A photon is a single quantum of light, but the energy associated with 
a photon varies enormously. A gamma-ray photon, for example, packs 
trillions of times more energy than a radio-wave photon. But each and 
every photon, each and every quantum, is an identical unit of action.

When the photon is absorbed - by the retina of the eye, say - it manifests 
as a certain amount of energy, measured by the amount of change it is 
capable of creating. This change is what is conveyed to the brain and 
then interpreted as color. The amount of change, or energy, is 
dependent upon the frequency, which is why we say different colors 
correspond to different frequencies of light.

What is frequency? Again it is another model taken from experience and 
then imagined to apply to the photon. It is most unlikely that a 
photon has frequency as we think of it. Indeed, even the idea of a 
photon is another example of how we have projected our experience on 
to the external world. We experience particles so imagine light might 
be a particle. We also have the experience of waves, so imagine light 
as a wave. Sometimes light seems to fit one description, other times 
another. It is much more likely that light is neither wave nor 
particle. For reasons of space, I will not go into the details of the 
argument here, but the interested reader can find more in my book From 
Science to God.

To summarize the argument so far: Our whole experience is a 
construction in the mind, a form appearing in consciousness. These 
mental forms are composed not of physical substance but of"mindstuff". 
We imagine that the world out there is like the forms that appear in 
consciousness, but it turns out, that in nearly every aspect, the 
external is not at all like the images created in the mind. What 
appear to us as fundamental dimensions and attributes of the physical 
world-space, time, matter and energy - are but the fundamental 
dimensions and attributes of the forms appearing in consciousness.

Matter is derived from mind, not mind from matter.

 - The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation

Two Aspects or One?

In Chapter Four, Ervin introduces panpsychism: the hypothesis that 
consciousness is not unique to human beings, or higher animals, or 
even creatures with nervous systems. It is in everything. As he is at 
pains to point out, this is not to imply that simpler systems have 
thoughts or feelings, or any of the other mental functions that we 
associate with consciousness, only that the capacity for consciousness 
is there in some form, however faint. Even a lowly bacterium has a 
glimmer of the inner light, maybe a billionth of the inner light we 
know, but not nothing at all.

The current scientific paradigm assumes the exact opposite - that matter 
itself is completely insentient, it is completely devoid of the 
capacity for experience. Consciousness only comes into existence with 
the evolution of complex nervous systems. The problem with this 
view - David Chalmers', "hard problem" - is explaining how conscious 
experience could ever emerge from insentient matter. Why doesn't all 
that neural processing go on "in the dark?"

Ervin argues that the only tenable answer, anathema as it may be to 
the current scientific worldview, is that the capacity for inner 
experience does not suddenly appear, as if by magic, once a particular 
level of complexity has arisen. The potential for inner experience has 
been there all along.

Panpsychism is usually taken to imply that there are dual aspects to 
everything. There is the physical aspect, that which we can observe 
from the outside, and there is a mental aspect, the experiences known 
from the inside. For a long time I went along with this dual aspect 
view. But recently I have begun to question it. I have not questioned 
whether or not there is a mental aspect, which is the question that 
most people raise. I have come to question whether there is, after 
all, a physical aspect. I realize this is radical to many, but let me 
briefly go over the reasons behind this suggestion and the implications.

Every time we try to pin down the physical aspect we come away 
empty-handed. Every idea we have had of the physical has proven to be 
wrong, and the notion of materiality seems to be evaporating before 
our eyes. But our belief in the material world is so deeply 
engrained - and so powerfully reinforced by our experience  - that we cling 
to our assumption that there must be some physical essence. Like the 
medieval astronomers who never questioned their assumption that the 
Earth was the center of the universe, we never question our assumption 
that the external world is physical in nature. Indeed it was quite 
startling to me when I realized that the answer might be staring us 
straight in the face. Maybe there really is nothing there. No "thing" 
that is. No physical aspect. Maybe there is only a mental aspect to everything.

We would then have to think of the Akashic Field as a field that is 
entirely mental in nature. Its essence is the essence of mind. It's 
hard to imagine, I know. In fact all we can imagine are the forms 
arising in our minds. We cannot imagine consciousness itself. It is 
the imaginer, that in which images arise. It is probably best not even 
to try to imagine what a mental field is like, for we would surely be 
as wrong as when we try to imagine quanta, or spacetime.

All we can say about it is that it is not a uniform field. It must 
contain distinctions of some kind, for it is these variations that are 
the origin of our perception of the world. If there were no variations 
in the field, there would be nothing to observe, nothing to experience.

These variations in the field are the "objects" of our perception. But 
they are not objects in the sense of a material object. They only 
become material objects in the mind of the observer. There then 
appears to be a material "thing" out there. We then assume that the 
physicality we experience, which seems so intrinsic to the world we 
know, must also be an intrinsic aspect of the external world.

Even though there may be no physical basis to the external world, the 
laws of physics still hold true. The only thing that changes is our 
assumption of what we are measuring. We are not measuring physical 
particles or such, but perturbations in the Akashic mind-field. The 
laws of "physics" become the laws governing the unfolding of a mental 
field, reflections of how perturbations in this field interact.

What we call an elementary particle would correspond to an elementary 
variation in the field. We might better call it an elementary entity 
rather than particle. Elementary entities are organized into atoms, 
molecules, cells and suchlike, just as in the current paradigm. The 
difference is that we no longer have to think of consciousness sensing 
matter (with all the difficulties that involves of how the physical 
influences the mental), consciousness is now sensing consciousness directly.

Interaction might now be thought of as perception - the perception of 
one region in the mind-field by another. In the current view every 
interaction is mediated by a quantum of action (an inter-action). In 
this alternative view, the smallest item would be a unit of 
perception, a unit of experience. It would be a quantum of 
consciousness, a quantum of chitta.

In the physical world of our experience we have discovered action to 
be a fundamental quality. In this alternative view, that still is 
true. Consciousness acts as it takes form. A quantum of action is a 
quantum of experience, a quantum of chitta.

We can now begin to understand why the material world appears to be 
devoid of consciousness. The qualities that appear in the mind - the 
color, sound, smell, substance, or whatever - become objects of 
perception, "the material world". But there is no sign of 
consciousness itself in the images of matter that appear in the mind. 
Just as when we watch a movie, the picture on the screen may be 
composed of light, but there is no evidence in the unfolding story 
that this is the case. The forms that arise in the mind give no hint 
in themselves that they are all manifestations of mindstuff. They 
appear to be other than consciousness. And so we assume that the stuff 
of the world "out there" - the matterstuff - is insentient.

Physics is the study of the structure of consciousness. 
The "stuff" of the world is mindstuff.

-Sir Arthur Eddington

The Hard Question Revisited

The hard question of how insentient matter could ever give rise to 
conscious experience is now turned inside-out. There is no insentient 
matter - apart from that appearing in the mind. The question now 
becomes: How does mind take on all these qualities that we experience, 
including that of matter?

That question is best answered by direct awareness; by turning the 
light of consciousness in upon itself, and observing the nature of 
mind first hand. Those who have chosen this path are the great 
mystics, yogis, seers, saints, rishis, and roshis who are found dotted 
throughout human history.

Despite the differences in time and culture, they have come to 
remarkably similar conclusions. These conclusions do not, however, 
make much sense to the contemporary Western mind. In most cases they 
seem to be so a odds with the current scientific worldview that they 
are rejected out of hand - and with them any credibility there may be 
for spirituality in general.

Consider, for instance, the statement by Baba Muktananda that "You are 
the entire universe. You are in all, and all is in you. Sun, moon, and 
stars revolve within you." Most people would be puzzled, if not 
confused. It clearly goes against the contemporary worldview in which 
I am a small point at the center of my universe, around which 
everything else revolves. Muktananda appears to be saying the exact 
opposite. Possibly, we might surmise, a mind deranged by too much meditation.

However, if we see it in terms of an intimate personal acquaintance 
with the arising of mental phenomena, and hence of our whole world, it 
makes much more sense. Every experience, every thing we ever know, is 
taking place within us.

Likewise, when we read such peoples' accounts of creation, we are 
likely to interpret them in terms of how the physical world was 
created. In a sense they are. But they are talking of the physical 
world as it appears in the mind - how that is being continually created.

The Ashtavakra Gita, a highly venerated Indian text, says: "The 
Universe produced phenomenally in me, is pervaded by me. . . From me 
the world is born, in me it exists, in me it dissolves." Hardly 
comprehensible, until we consider it from the point of view of consciousness.

"In the beginning was Logos." Often translated as "The Word", logos 
also means "thought, or essence." In the beginning was the mental 
essence, chitta.

"Be still and know that I am God" is not necessarily an injunction to 
stop moving around and recognize that the person speaking is the 
creator of the entire cosmos; it is much more likely an encouragement 
to still the mind - in the words of the great yogi Patanjali, "let the 
manifesting of chitta die down" - and discover through direct knowing, 
that "I", that ever-present, never-changing, innermost essence of your 
own mind, is the essence of everything.

It is in this that I find a personal reenchantment of the cosmos. If 
our own essence is divine, and the essence of consciousness is to be 
found in everything, everywhere, then everything is divine. 
Panpsychism becomes pantheism. It doesn't matter whether we call it 
Universal Mind, Allah, God, Jehovah, the Great Spirit, or the Quantum 
Vacuum Field, we are all of that same essence.

This raises my level of awe for the world in which I live, or seem to 
live. When I consider that - despite all appearances to the 
contrary - this world is, in the final analysis, of the same essence as 
my own being, I am filled with wonder. Every thing is enchanted anew.