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3. Sri Aurobindo's Hypothesis

According to Sri Aurobindo’s hypothesis, an infinite, omnipresent, omniscient consciousness-force is the creator of the universe and all that is in it. The universe is not a creation by the creator of something outside and other than itself, but a progressive and evolutionary manifestation by the Infinite of that which it contains within itself as unmanifest potential. The universe and all it contains is a portion, expression and manifestation of an infinity that is not limited to or confined by this manifest field, which is both a spatial infinity and a temporal eternity. That Infinite is also a formless infinity and timeless eternity that transcends all relative conceptions and experiences of space and time. This conception of the Infinite appears compatible with the speculation of Superstring theorists regarding a vacuum or void from which everything can emerge. But in the case of the alternative hypothesis it is quite clear that this ultimate source is not a physical plane of existence as normally conceived. It is something more subtle and undetectable by physical instrumentation.

Science is making a concerted effort to unify our conceptions of matter, life and mind by representing that all three are expressions of material energy-substance, be that energy the wave particles of quantum theory or the vibrating strings of Superstring theory. These theories split matter into its tiniest measurable or conceptual parts to arrive at anintangible energy-substance and then construct the entire material, living and conscious universe out of this basic ingredient. The reality of matter is so compelling real to our senses that long after physicists have exploded the myth of a solid and stable material substance, there is still a compelling urge to explain all life, mind and conscious experience in material terms, no matter how radically our experience as living and conscious beings may differ from our experience of inanimate matter.

Sri Aurobindo also presents a unifying conception of matter, life and mind by representing that all three are expressions of a common energy-substance. Here too, the constituting energy-substance is intangible, yet forms the basis for all sensual, perceptual and conceptual experience. But in this case that energy-substance is not inanimate or inconscient. This pure fundamental reality is what he terms Consciousness-Force, which is itself an expression of a more subtle reality he refers to as Self-conscious Being or Pure Existence. While some scientists would have us believe that all life and consciousness can be reduced to inconscient energy-substance, Sri Aurobindo asserts that all matter, life and mental experience are limited or veiled expressions of this fundamental Consciousness-Force. In his view, we are not compelled to reduce our deepest emotions, highest ideals and self-awareness to electrical impulses. As our mental activity may be reflected as electrical impulses by the oscillating waves on an electroencephalograph without revealing the actual content of our thoughts, the observable impulses of matter, life and mind which we experience are superficial expressions of a more fundamental reality that possesses the inherent characteristics of consciousness, will and being.

According to Sri Aurobindo, Conscious-Force manifests as mind, life and matter through the process of involution. According to current scientific theory, material energy has an inherent capacity to take on the behavioural characteristics that we associate with life and mental consciousness, characteristics not only very different but even contrary in nature to the inherent qualities of inconscient, inanimate material energy-substance. This is possible according to current theory because life and mind are merely more complex expressions of material energy-substance with no unique characteristics or separate existence of their own. According to Sri Aurobindo, Consciousness-Force has the inherent capacity to take on the behavioural characteristics that we associate with inanimate, inconscient material energy-substance. This is made possible by an involution of the inherent properties of consciousness-force so that it assumes the appearance to our sense experience of inconscient material energy-substance, subconscious life and conscious mentality.

Why, we may ask, this dual terminology of consciousness-force? According to Sri Aurobindo, the capacity to be aware and the capacity to will represent two complementary aspects of a single power, consciousness-force. We tend to think of consciousness as a power of awareness or knowledge, not as a power of action. We reserve a separate term, will or choice or decision, to denote the power of consciousness to exert itself in a particular direction. This division of knowledge and will results from the fact that in the normal human mind, the capacity to know and the capacity to will coexist but appear as separate faculties. We are capable of knowing without the capacity to will or willing without the capacity to know. But this is not the case either when human consciousness rises above the normal level or when we examine the consciousness of animals as it expresses in subconscious instinct. Both above and below the normal level of human mentality, awareness and will for action are unified as a single capacity. The animal does not reflect on his sensations as humans do and then decide to act in a particular manner. The reception of the sensation and the will for action are one and inseparable. In fact, the act of a mediating consciousness between the sensation and the action is barely perceptible, because the awareness of sensation is itself involved or subconscious. Sri Aurobindo maintains that even our normal human consciousness is an involved state of the conscious-force of pure existence. It is involved in the sense that it possesses only very limited knowledge and negligible power in comparison with the knowledge and power inherent in pure consciousness-force. This is analogous to the fact that the kinetic energy of physical forms is infinitesimal in comparison with the power involved in atomic structure. Even the energy released by nuclear reactions represents only a tiny portion of the total energy involved in matter. In the subconscious instinct of the animal, we see the play of a severely limited (involved) but almost infallible knowledge expressing with a decisive power uncharacteristic of human beings. Note that, at the same time, animals possess a power of vitality not found in mentalized human beings, in whom that energy is absorbed as mental consciousness. In higher mental states, the knowledge component is much greater than normal and it is unified with a self-effectuating will. In the thinking mind, the knowledge or consciousness component is primary, the force is secondary; while in life, force is primary and knowledge has become subconsciousness.

The Process of Involution

While science wants us to believe that all our conscious experience can be reduced to characteristics of minerals and electricity, Sri Aurobindo’s hypothesis only requires us to extend to matter and lower forms of life known capacities of consciousness validated by our own experience, the capacities for self-limitation and self-absorption, which are two of the three essential powers responsible for involution.

We know from our own experience that when we concentrate our attention on a particular object – be it a thought, a feeling, sensation, external object or event – our attention is simultaneously drawn away from other fields of perception so that we may not display the normal awareness of what is going on around us and we may not respond to external stimuli as we do in a normal waking state. We know that this apparent lack of awareness and responsiveness are the result of a conscious self-limitation or concentration of our attention on a particular field. Concentration or self-limitation is an inherent power of consciousness.

We know also from our own experience that when we are in dream sleep, we may be very actively aware and intensely responding to stimuli occurring within the dream, yet totally unaware and unresponsive to stimuli from the physical environment. Our motionless state of self-absorbed dream sleep may appear to a second person as an inanimate, inconscient state of death. Self-absorption of consciousness-force so that it is not at all manifest in surface behaviour is also an inherent power of consciousness.

We know too that our bodies possess a capacity for self-awareness that far exceeds the limits of our conscious mental activity. Psychology tell us that the body is capable of acting in direct opposition to our conscious will to express subconscious urges or tendencies. In times of emergency it may act so instinctively to preserve itself that our conscious mind cannot recollect its actions after the fact. The instantaneous reflex responses of the professional athlete have this character. Without our conscious awareness, the body routinely senses and responds to physiological conditions within its organs and systems, issuing chemical and electrical messages to support continuous respiration, metabolism, and countless other functions. While biology may wish to reduce all these subconscious functions to mere physical feedback systems, they possess characteristics of awareness similar to those found in conscious mentality, while differing in the extreme from mere physical processes in nature. Our bodies as well as those of other animal and plant species possess, so long as they are ‘alive’, a subconscious awareness and subconscious capacity for response arising from the fact that what we term ‘life’ is actually a partially involved status of Consciousness-Force.

As quantum theory, relativity theory and superstring theory have radically altered our conception of matter and material energy, Sri Aurobindo’s hypothesis requires a radical change in our conception of consciousness. In normal parlance consciousness is an attribute of self-awareness and mental activity associated with human beings. Although higher animals demonstrate awareness of their environment, we have no evidence that they are self-conscious. Plants also demonstrate ‘sensory awareness’ of their environment, in the sense that they can detect and move toward light and water, which science attributes to purely chemical processes rather than conscious awareness in the plant. With regard to material substance, we conceive of it as completely lacking even in the most physical capacity of sensation. Neurophysiology is striving to prove that the sensory perception of the plant, the instinctive behaviour of the animal, the conscious as well as the subconscious perceptions and activities of human beings are all of a type, being expressions of electrical and chemical processes. Sri Aurobindo concurs that all these manifestations of consciousness are fundamentally expressions of a single process, and therefore correlations between physical, vital and mental activities are to be expected, since they all have a common foundation and are closely interwoven in their development. But in his view that single process is a process of consciousness, not a material process. Although it certainly does manifest as exchange of electrical and chemical energy, these are only material expressions of a subtle process that are perceptible on the surface. He goes even further by concluding that even material substance itself possesses an intrinsic consciousness, but it is so fully involved or self-absorbed as to be undetectable on the surface. In material forms, the consciousness is unperceptible and the force expresses as inconscient energy moving in fixed patterns that are also unperceptible to our senses. As life is partially involved, subconscious status of Consciousness-Force, matter is a fully involved, inconscient status in which the Consciousness-Force takes on the appearance of inconscient and inanimate energy-substance.

Our primary concern here must be with the lower and purely material end of the spectrum, where we observe no visible signs of consciousness at all. For if consciousness is the very stuff of our existence, we have no difficulty in conceding that mental consciousness is an expression of that fundamental nature. We may even concede that the awareness and responsiveness observed in higher animals is a more limited expression of the same consciousness. But when it comes to material substance, we have difficulty associating its properties with the quality of consciousness. Here is where Sri Aurobindo’s conception of involution comes in, for it explains the process by which pure consciousness through its capacities for self-limitation and self-absorption can take on the form and appearance of inconscient material substance-force.

In matter, both the awareness and the will are so deeply involved and imperceptible on the surface that Sri Aurobindo adopts the term inconscient to describe them. By inconscient he means not a complete absence of consciousness, but rather a complete absence of consciousness as manifest on the surface as reception of sensation or response to sensation. As we go down the ladder from mentality to vitality to physicality, consciousness becomes more involved and concealed, while energy becomes more evolved and manifest; but since the consciousness associated with that energy is involved and acting behind the scenes, the more manifest the energy, the less conscious it appears.

An analogy from physics may make this proposition more intelligible than it initially appears to our sense-laden mind. Through the senses we view matter as solid, stable, inanimate substance, although we know since early in the last century that actually our perception is only an appearance. What we perceive as solid, stable matter actually consists of millions of atoms whirling around in constant motion at high velocity with huge interstitial spaces separating the particles from each other. Yet on the surface, neither the empty spaces nor the movement are perceptible. One could say that the energy is involved, in the sense that it is self-absorbed in maintaining what appears as the stable form of matter. Quantum theory goes even further, telling us that actually the atom itself consists of much smaller particles moving in stable orbits at high speed around a central cluster and that vast amounts of energy are so absorbed in this orbital movement, but not normally free to escape from their captive movement. This energy too is involved and normally unmanifest on the surface. Similarly, we know that the nucleus of the atom contains much greater amounts of energy locked within the structure of each atom.

According to Sri Aurobindo, what physics has discovered is true of energy is also true of consciousness-force. In fact, the energy detected and measured by science is itself a partial expression of that consciousness-force, partial because we perceive only the force and not the will that determines the direction of that force. Proving that matter is only energy form of consciousness may appear as formidable as the challenge of science to prove that consciousness is only action of material energy-substance. Because we are grounded in the physical body and can directly perceive material energy-substance with our senses, we are prepared to extend by inference our direct sensory experience of matter to interpret the nature of our experience as living, thinking beings. To understand Sri Aurobindo’s hypothesis, we must apply the same logic in reverse. We should extend our experience as living, conscious beings to understand matter. Certainly it requires a leap of faith, but no greater in magnitude than that which the materialist hypothesis requires of the mentally-awakened thinker or artist who vividly experiences the reality of pure thought and higher varieties of inspiration.

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