Home Artikelen
4. Three Planes

Rational Validity

At this point the most patient and open-minded of scientists may concede, as one distinguished physicist generously acknowledged, that Sri Aurobinodo's hypothesis possesses equal logic and internal consistency as the fundamental theories of reality posed by modern physics and, one might add, far greater beauty, simplicity and symmetry. Assuming that this conception is rational and internally consistent as a philosophical statement, scientists may with equal sincerity question whether there are any means by which the validity of the hypothesis can be tested. They may also question whether there is any likelihood that a theory based on so insubstantial a basis as consciousness can ever be productive of useful scientific findings when compared with the high productivity of quantum and relativity theory. After all, science seeks not only pure knowledge but also practical utility.

While it is certainly reasonable to create a standard for comparison, before applying a measure we must ensure that our measure is objective. Let us first consider the view that practical utility is a criterion for scientific validity. Science in its essence is the pursuit of knowledge. That knowledge when applied may result in technological, social, organizational and psychological development, but practicality cannot be considered a criteria for evaluating the validity of knowledge. For most practical purposes, it does not matter whether the sun rotates around our stationary planet or vice versa or whether both are in relative motion; but it matters very much for the advancement of scientific truth and bears on the development not only of technology but also of our social and psychological conceptions of ourselves and the universe. Public interest and investment in science may very well be skewed toward that which has the greatest practical application, but it is not always so. The billions of dollars invested to discover the nature of black holes, the existence of dark matter, the origin of the universe, vibrating strings, and unification of the four forces of material nature are undertaken in a quest for knowledge, not out of assurance that they will result in practical technologies. To confuse knowledge with practicality is to confuse science with technology, a common enough error in these days in which the scientist is confused with the scientific technician.

In these heady days of phenomenal technological advancement when our instrumentation is piercing into distant, prehistoric corners of the universe and unravelling each tiny segment of our genetic code, it is difficult to adopt an impartial view of the productivity of science in terms of pure knowledge. Indeed, to state that our success has been severely limited and decidedly skewed toward the most material end of natural phenomenon may outrage the biologist and neurologist who believe they are so close to unravelling the ultimate mysteries of life and consciousness. But an impartial examination will confirm this limitation. In fact, due to the severe constraints which the scientific method places on verification, science has consciously or unconsciously adopted a definition of life and consciousness in terms that are suited to physical methods of scientific inquiry. We are looking for life and consciousness within specific parameters because these are the only parameters to which our methods give us access. From a practical point of view, it is understandable. From a theoretical point of view, it is unjustifiable.

Scientific Utility

Even granting that practical application is a valid criteria for scientific inquiry and that the limits of the scientific method are a valid criteria for defining scientific hypotheses, we should not be in too great haste to dismiss Sri Aurobindo's hypothesis as a valid basis for scientific exploration, even in the purely material field of matter and energy and in the biological field of the physical body and nervous system. Even here, this hypothesis has the potential of vastly extending both the theoretical knowledge and practical utility of science.

Science, as he saw it, is approaching the frontiers of the physical plane where it begins to shade off into the subtle. The knowledge of science is at many places the closest to the truth at points where it has ventured the furthest from the secure assumptions and foundations from which it began and on which it still claims to insist. The spontaneous appearance and disappearance of vibrating strings of energy out of apparent nothingness, the unaccountable gaps in biological evolution, the physical inheritance of psychological characteristics, and countless other problems of science become explicable when the full implications of Sri Aurobindo's hypothesis are understood.

The scientist is much like a man staring into a mirror trying to see what is on the other side. Much of what he sees is only a reflection of himself, of his own a priori assumptions about the nature of reality and of his own methods of investigation. Much else of what he looks at is opaque and impenetrable to his vision, such as the inner workings of a lover's emotions, a thinker's genius, and a mystic's inspiration. It is not surprising that when he tries to analyze life and mind with physical instruments that he concludes life and mind are simply electrical and chemical processes of material energy and substance. That conclusion inevitably follows from his methodology and instrumentation.

But should the scientist come around to the other side of the mirror and examine the perspective from that vantage point, he would discover what had been reflective or opaque to his penetration becomes transparent and revealing. Instead of concluding that life and mind are merely mechanisms and systems processes of material energy, he will find that life and mind are fields of subtle forms and forces in contact, conflict and cooperation with each other. Each has its own energy-substance. Ideas come in contact, clash, merge and mutate with other ideas, feelings and material conditions, destroying old conceptions, creating new ones, and evolving higher orders of conception and understanding in the process. Feelings come in contact, clash, merge, and mutate with other feelings, ideas and material conditions, releasing into action powerful energies for accomplishment and destruction, creating and evolving higher orders of social and psychological forms. In the planes of life and mind also, every action has a reaction, energy is conserved, forms evolve and substance is a repository of tremendous latent energy.

The Science of Life

Based on the criteria of practical utility, we may still feel justified in clinging to the narrow materialist formula, since this approach has resulted in fruitful discoveries of immense value to humanity. But at the same time we must acknowledge that our progress in unravelling the secrets of matter has been accompanied by only modest gains in the fields of life and consciousness. Even after we have completely mapped the human genetic code and are able to manipulate it to correct physical defects in the body, we would understand nothing fundamentally more about the wider field of Life. Life as presently defined and pursued by science is confined to the physiological mechanism in matter. But Life as lived by human beings is a far vaster field of vital existence. It is a field of form and force like the material plane – a field of energy, action, reaction and result. The military commander who strives to anticipate the actions of enemy forces and the impact of unpredictable weather conditions on a battle, the entrepreneur and manager who strive to anticipate the actions of competitors and unexpressed needs of customers, the politician who tries to glimpse the unsatisfied aspirations and unaddressed anxieties of the electorate, the statesman striving to prevent war and promote peace, the householder trying to support a family and maintain harmony between the generations—all these people, all of us, confront in our daily ‘lives' aspects of life that are very far removed and only distantly related to the physiological functions of the body, but these too are central aspects of Life.

As lay readers struggle with the physicist's conception of fields, wave-particles and the like, those unfamiliar with Sri Aurobindo's thought may initially find it difficult to grasp what he means by the term ‘life', for indeed our science has no term to describe an equivalent field of existence. To the biologist life is associated with a group of physiological functions, reproduction, respiration, and metabolism. The presence or absence of these functions in biological forms denotes the presences or absence of life. To each of us as individual living beings, the term is commonly applied to a much broader field than the physiological. We apply it with reference to the entire span of our existence, to all the actions and experiences that occur and all the people and objects it involves. We also commonly speak of the life of organizations, social movements, communities and societies, in which we include all the activities and institutions associated with them. Beyond these, all cultures recognize that life is a plane of existence and experience subject to its own characteristic laws or ways of functioning, no matter how enigmatic they may often appear, as connoted in phrases such as “Life is like that.”

What do all these varied definitions have in common? They all denote a field of existence in which energy and action are primary, while form of substance and form of thought are secondary. What does the materialist hypothesis tell us about this field? If we apply the materialist's determinants to Life, we must conclude that results in this plane too are a product of chance (also referred to as luck or misfortune) and necessity (also referred to as destiny or fate), yet as with respect to the material plane we are unable to determine what it is that determines that necessity or governs its interplay with chance. There is no room in the materialist formulation of Life for notions such as choice and free will, no matter how real these principles may be to our personal experience. The conscious formulation of new individual and collective actions, the conscious evolutionary development of complexity within individuals and social groupings would have to be regarded, according to the materialist hypothesis, as mere action of material energy. While some biologists and neurophysiologists may feel comfortable explaining their own existence based on this mechanistic formula, most of us will feel that it leaves a wide and unsatisfying gap in our knowledge and our power for mastery in life. Their principles may be valid for life science, but not for a science of life. Moreover, it casts serious doubts on the claim of scientists to be anywhere near a final theory that unites and reconciles all the forces of nature, except in the very narrowest and most material definition of nature.

Because science lacks an adequate and unambiguous term to refer to this wider field of life, Sri Aurobindo refers to it as the vital plane of existence. And his thought takes us further into realms heretofore unexplored by science. This vital plane of life exhibits characteristic patterns of functioning on a parallel to the characteristic patterns of functioning of the physical plane which science refers to as universal laws. Life has a character. It has a capacity to respond, and the nature of that response is a direct function of the consciousness of the individuals or groups involved in the action. As physics observes and catalogues the characteristic properties of material substances and the interactions of material energies, seeks to understand their origin and to discover the laws that govern them, a true science of life must carefully observe and catalogue the characteristic patterns of action and response in life. This is the truth behind the much maligned and misunderstood concept of karma, whose essential meaning is that every action in life releases a particular vibration or quality of energy that evokes a response from the same vibratory quality of life in the world around. Violence begets violence, one good turn deserves another, and countless other commonplace phrases reflect shades of this profound truth, but the complexity of life energies and events is so great that simplistic formulas such as these will fail to satisfy empirically unless founded upon a deep and systematic study of life events and consequences. That is precisely what science can bring to the study of life, once it consents to impartially examine an alternative hypothesis.

Every successful farmer, business leader, politician and statesman—all those whose primary objective is accomplishment in social life, rather than being confined to work on material substances or mental formulations—intuitively discover these truths. Great writers of fiction, of whom Shakespeare is the pre-eminent example, intuitively reflect them in the words and actions of their characters and the consequences of those actions. The sudden attack by a pirate ship which enables Hamlet to escape the plot for his execution in England appears at first glance to be appropriately described by the materialists' concept of chance or luck, until the underlying determinants and governing principles of life are better known. Critics have studied many such patterns of action and consequence in great literary works, usually without realizing that they were dealing with universal laws of action and reaction that are the basis of a fully rational and verifiable science of life. Not just literature, but also history and biography are replete with instances that point to a deeper level of causality in life. That an inexplicable order by Hitler on May 24, 1940 stopping the advance of Nazi troops to Dunkirk, coupled with the sudden onset of heavy fog along the coast, made possible the near miraculous evacuation of 350,000 allied troops with minimum casualties mocks at simplistic notions of chance and necessity in life. Traditional wisdom in all cultures is rich with insights into truths of life, though it usually fails to organize and present the theoretical basis for its conclusions in a manner understandable or acceptable to the rational mind.

Who has not had less complex and dramatic, but nevertheless striking instances in their own life? You think or speak of a particular person and a moment later a letter or phone call arrives from that person or he arrives at your door. If there is a causal relationship between your action and the result, it is obviously not material. You become interested in a particular subject for the first time and suddenly find life inundating you with information about it that you have not even sought. You think of a word or passage and open a book spontaneously to just that topic. You notice that both good and bad news seems to often comes in streams, one good thing following another or a crop of bad news all coming to harvest at the same time, even when the sources and causes of events appear causally unrelated.

Life as human beings live it is a field in which forms and forces interact to produce results. However, in this case the forms are not forms of material substance, they are forms of action. As the basic building block of material forms is the atom, the basic building block of life forms is the individual act. In both instances, the real foundation for the form is energy in constant movement. As atoms combine together to constitute larger inorganic forms ranging in size from the molecule to the planet, solar system and galaxy and more complex organic forms ranging in complexity from single cells, to organs, organisms and species; so too, individual acts combine to form larger, more complex activities, systems, organizations, communities and societies. Composing a letter, conceiving a child, establishing a business, and founding a country are acts. Farming, shopping, manufacturing and researching are complex recurring chains of activity. Social habits, customs, procedures, and laws are complex systems of acts. Like the atom, each of these acts and systems can be broken down into smaller constituent parts ad infinitum, to discern the minutest sensations, impulses, thoughts and movements of which they are constituted. Each is itself part of a longer chain or larger system of actions. Like the expansive movements of stars and galaxies, each act can be traced back to its origins in the distant past and to its explicit or subtle consequences in the distant future. The key to this evolution of complexity in life is tersely explained by Sri Aurobindo. “It (life) evolves through growth of consciousness even as consciousness evolves through greater organization and perfection of life.” A progressive emergence of a previously involved consciousness and a progressive organization of the consciousness that emerges are the twin principles of evolution in all planes of existence, material, social, psychological and even spiritual.

The forces that act in our lives include forces of material nature such as weather and gravity, but also social forces such as political power, social status and peer pressure, and psychological forces such as the power of ideas, ideals, opinions, beliefs, emotions, sensations, impulses, desires and aspirations. All these forces meet and interact in the cauldron of life to influence the course of the acts, activities, systems and organizations. When Martin Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg in 1517 to launch the Reformation, when Roosevelt halted the banking crisis in 1932 by appealing to the American people over the radio, when Churchill single-handedly inspired the British people to resist Nazi aggression at a time when all of Europe had capitulated, when Gandhi stirred the Indian masses to cast off two centuries of British imperial rule, when Gorbachev unilaterally dismantled the iron structure of communist authoritarianism that ended the Cold War – their acts expressed and mobilised forces of tremendous intensity to confront opposing forces and destroy or alter entrenched forms of social organization. The fields in which they acted, variously term economic, religious, political, social, psychological, are fields for scientific inquiry – arguably far more central and important fields than any that absorbs the attention of astrophysicists or evolutionary biologists. The material, technological, organization, social and psychological forces they wielded and unleashed are also proper subject for scientific study. The forms they created, altered or destroyed, be they forms of governance, law and social organization or forms of social attitude and mental understanding, are very much objects for scientific investigation.

As science studies the structure and functioning of material substance to discover its composition, the processes through which it undergoes change, and the rules governing its interactions with other substances, so also, both for the purposes of pure and applied knowledge, it needs to study the structure of acts to discover their composition, motive power, sequence and interactions with other acts. Scientific knowledge of matter generates the power to create new and improved materials and to produce more efficient material processes with less expenditure of physical energy. Scientific knowledge of Life will generate the power to create new and more effective acts and organizations of act, to accomplish far greater results with less expenditure of human energy. As the study of physics holds a key to understanding the process of material creation, the study of these life processes holds the key to the process of human accomplishment in all fields of life, which is creation of a higher, more complex order.

It should be evident that the relevance of the material hypothesis of physical science to these fields has been severely limited. The most useful of social scientific theories reveals little correlation to the material hypothesis. Most of what we know and practice in Life is drawn from other types of knowledge – the insights of great thinkers, the life experience of great achievers, even the intuitions of the mystic. We look to these sources and draw inspiration from them because we find the revelations of science insufficient to explain and insufficient to ensure our success. With regard to life, the scientist is like a visitor from another planet who views the earth from high above and draws a map outlining all its contours and variations in colour, pinpointing its settlements, tracking the movement of lights and objects below, but never placing foot on the earth, never hearing the sound of waves crashing, never experiencing the variety of its wildlife, never knowing of the joys, strivings and sufferings of its people. He mistakes the map, a symbolic representation of physical attributes, for the reality and thinks he knows all there is no know. But that is not Life.

According to Sri Aurobindo's hypothesis, there are objective, universal laws that govern actions, reactions and results in life, but these laws are not the laws codified by material science, they are laws of consciousness. He goes even further to argue that the fundamental principles of consciousness governing these phenomena are in essence the same as those governing material fields, forces and forms, only the fields of action, the forms and the forces are subtle, not material. He, too, quests for an ultimate unifying theory. But it becomes evident that by ultimate unification he means something far more encompassing and also far more relevant to human existence than the unification of the four fundamental forces of material nature long sought after by physics. Both by the criterion of knowledge and the criterion of utility, we find science wanting in this domain that is so very central to our existence and so very much more relevant than the action of dark matter or the existence of parallel universes. This is not intended to disparage the pursuit for integrative theories in physics or any other field. It is only intended to place in relative perspective their overall contributions to knowledge and human existence and to offer an approach that achieves internal consistency and external efficacy in all the planes of our existence.

The Field of Mind

A 70 year old retired agricultural instructor in South India was admitted into the emergency room of the local hospital in coma and diagnosed by the attending physicians to be in the last throes of his mortal existence. All his vital signs were failing rapidly. The patient's advanced age, poorly nourished body and hard life left both the family and the physicians without any hope for his recovery. The patient's son, himself a school teacher, conveyed the news to a close friend, who accompanied the son to the hospital to pay his last respects. The old man lay in coma, unresponsive to the gathering of people around him, patiently waiting for the end to come. To his son's dismay, his friend approached the patient and called out his name loudly. There was no response. Again he called out to the dying man, saying “What are you doing there? You have to build your house.” Again no response. The friend repeated his question about what he knew to be the old man's lifelong unfulfilled aspiration. An eyelid fluttered and eventually opened. Again he asked, “What about the house? How can you build it lying in bed?” The patient's head moved. His lips began trembled. Moments later he mumbled a feeble reply, “What house?” The friend promptly responded, “The house you can build with the money your son promises to give by tutoring students before and after school.” The friend explained his plan in detail and made the son acknowledge his willingness to the father. The old man lay motionless but fully attentive. Moments later he was sitting up. Within an hour he was demanding release from the hospital. The same day he was discharged. The same year he built the house and lived on to enjoy it for more than a decade.

As this incident illustrates, Matter and Life do not constitute the whole of our existence. There is also Mind. We human beings are mentally conscious and capable of a vast range of psychological experiences. Daily we experience sensations, urges, feelings, emotions, perceptions, sentiments, attitudes, beliefs, opinions, thoughts, ideas, aspirations, inspirations, convictions, faith, will, decision, commitment, determination, enthusiasm, fear, anger, hatred, jealousy, and the like. And these experiences do not exist in a vacuum. They directly act upon and interact with physical and vital processes. How far does science enlighten us regarding these intimate personal experiences? The lack of scientific progress is signified by the fact that although we intuitively distinguish between all these various experiences, there is no satisfactory lexicon of scientific terms to define them.

It should first be recognized that, although these experiences are so central and relevant and directly real to our minds, to scientists nurtured in the materialist tradition, they are abstractions that can only be studied in terms of anatomical structures, physiological processes, and physical behaviour, because the assumptions and methodology of science are adapted only to the physical plane. Aided by remarkable advances in technology, medical science can performed near miraculous feats of surgery on the brain and nervous system; but theoretical knowledge regarding the nature of mental consciousness, conscious experience and personality remains in its infancy. These impressive advances in applied bio and neuro-technology are akin to the practical knowledge of the primitive who discovered how to make and use fire for cooking and metallurgy but had very little understanding of the underlying chemical and physical principles at play, principles which have subsequently enabled science to analyze the burning of the stars and harness the power of the atom. The utilitarian achievement, no matter how impressive and serviceable, should not distract us from a more profound inquiry into the nature of consciousness that will unveil far greater wonders than the life cycle of the stars and make available far greater power than that concealed in the atom. For, if Sri Aurobindo's hypothesis is correct, consciousness is the ultimate source of all energy and force in the universe. It would also provide us with the knowledge required to utilize that power more constructively than we have heretofore wielded each extension of human capacity.

Neuro-science has significantly advanced our ability to treat physical ailments and to understand the nervous system and brain disorders arising from anatomical damage and disease to the body. But in terms of theoretical knowledge and practical utility, the contribution of neuro-science to our understanding of human psychology and consciousness has been severely limited. Medicine remains perplexed by phenomena such as the psychosomatic origins of much, or perhaps even most, diseases. It can observe but not explain the countless remarkable expressions of the placebo effect, which demonstrates that the mind can both produce and cure diseases based on its faith in the treatment administered. Like the old man's dramatic recovery narrated above, these phenomena dramatically exemplify the action of consciousness on material substance and energy. Practitioners confront these phenomena every day, but without a valid theoretical basis for explaining them. It is not surprising then that mainstream medical science tends to disregard or discredit more far-reaching fields of consciousness research ranging from dreams and hypnosis to extrasensory perception, the curative power of prayer, meditation and mystical experience, precisely those fields in which the non-material nature of consciousness is most apparent and directly observable.

Even after we have mapped all the areas and functions of the brain and are able to cure all neurological disorders, we will still understand little more about the wider field of consciousness and conscious experience. We will know only the impact or expression of consciousness in and on the physical nervous system, because, like the proverbial villager who sees a radio or TV for the first time, we mistakenly conclude that the instrument is the source of the broadcast and disassemble the radio to discover the human being inside the box. There is equal likelihood that a minute dissection of the brain will ever reveal the origin and nature of mental experience and the psychological sense of self. We have yet to discover that, in Sri Aurobindo's words, “the force is anterior, not the physical instrument.”

Like matter and life, mind is a field of experience in which forms and forces act and interact for creation, destruction and evolution. Science has discovered that material substance actually consists of bundles of material energy that present to our sense perception as stable, solid forms. So too, according to Sri Aurobindo, the vital substance which constitutes forms in the plane of life actually consists of impulses of vital energy presented to our nervous sense perception as vibrations of vital substance (desires, feelings, emotions, fear, lust, anger, desire, love, joy and so forth); only in the case of life the energy content of the substance is far more perceptible than in matter, because it is less involved, more on the surface. Similarly, we can discover that the forms of mental substance are waves of mental energy presented to our cognitive faculties as thought-forms (mental sounds and images, conceptions, mental perceptions, ideas, and the like). In mind, the consciousness or knowledge content of the energy is quite apparent, its energy content less so. We normally perceive thoughts as bits of data rather than as energy waves. But like the physicists at the beginning of the 20th Century who found their cherished concepts about matter, energy, space and time shattered by their own discoveries, when our formed thought patterns are disrupted, we find that they release enormous amounts of mental energy that can be harnessed for fresh creation. It is noteworthy that physicist David Bohm came to regard thought processes as a more appropriate analogy for the nature of the physical universe than the analogy of a machine.

The basic unit of material substance is the atom. Atoms combine to form all the larger units of material substance observable in the universe. When we delve into the nature of particles smaller than the atom, we discover a microcosm in which particles resolve into vibrations of energy whose properties and location defy specification in terms common to discrete objects and reveal themselves somehow connected and in active relationship to their environment, pointing to a deeper plane of causality.

The basic unit of vital substance is the individual discrete act. Acts combine to form all the larger units of activity observable in life. When we delve into the nature of an act, we find it too consists of a microcosm of smaller components—thoughts, sensations and impulses—which are themselves energy vibrations. We find also that our perception of discrete separateness between living things gives way before a complex web of interactions and interdependencies with the wider field of Life and with other points of action, resulting in correspondences and consequences that defy a materialist understanding of contact and causality, phenomena we can catagorized by the expression ‘life response'. As in the case of matter, we discover non-linear patterns of correlation and correspondence which point to a deeper plane of causality.

The basic unit of mind is the individual thought. Like atoms and acts, thoughts combine to form larger, more complex structures variously termed concepts, ideas, theories, etc. When we delve into the nature of the individual thought, we find that the substance of thought resolves into energy waves. In mind we are able to more clearly identify the underlying property of relationship detected in matter and life, which links apparently separate forms. Here it is evident that no thought exists in isolation from a complex fabric of sensations, perceptions and conceptions, and that a slight modification in a single piece of data or a simple thought can have significant impact on a much wider structure of understanding. The activities of cognition, thinking, conception, perception, understanding, and imagination constitute a single web or fabric of mental consciousness. Unravel any single thread, ever so tiny, and eventually it will modify the entire mental formation which we variously refer to as understanding, thinking or knowing, as Darwin's insight into evolution so profoundly modified thought in such diverse fields as astrophysics, embryology, economics, philosophy and religion.

In matter and life, we find it difficult to delve behind the energy to determine the nature of that deeper plane of causality which holds everything in mutual relationship and determines the behaviour of energy on the surface. Even in mind it is difficult to do so due to the constant whirling vibratory activity of mental substance, which so resembles in its restlessness the continuous movement of subatomic particles, vital sensations and impulses. But with practice, Sri Aurobindo explains, human beings can develop the capacity to still the chaotic activity of mental energy, so that the mind becomes a silent, contentless field of conscious awareness with greatly enhanced powers of perception and knowledge. Such experiences lend themselves to scientific investigation and verification, provided that the methods, measures and instruments are appropriate to the plane of mind. As in quantum and relativity theory, here too the artificial and fictitious barrier raised by Descartes between the observer and the object of investigation completely breaks down and the scientist himself becomes the object of his own investigation, but the scientific criteria of repeatability and rational analysis remain intact.

As in superstring theory, in the plane of mind we seem forced to postulate that vibrations of thought energy may spontaneously appear and disappear out of ‘nothing', yet we are still unable to discern what it is that determines either their content or their action. Sri Aurobindo explains that to discover the underlying source and determinants of mental formations, we need to develop latent faculties of consciousness beyond those of our normal mentality and he charts out a path to do so. But while urging us to an exploration of higher faculties, he devotes equal attention to enhancing our understanding of the thinking mind and its functioning, which has its own complex, multi-tiered structure and functioning. His insights into the nature of mind are particularly interesting and relevant because they make fully intelligible the reasons for both the striking achievements and blinding limitations of modern science. The structure of our science is a product of the structure and functioning of our minds. The progress of that science reflects a gradual but progressive development and evolution of mental consciousness.

While the dominant characteristic of matter is form and the dominant characteristic of life is energy, the dominant characteristic of mind is knowledge. But as form and energy exist on all planes, so knowledge too is a function of all planes. The physical knows through reception of sense data, sensations, that arise from within the body, are generated by our thought processes, or impinge on us from outside. The vital knows through direct, subconscious perception of vital energies that arise from the body or the mind or impinge on us from outside, such as the subtle sensibility that people may refer to as a hunch or gut feeling. So too, the mind knows through formulation of thoughts, reception of thoughts arising from the subconscious physical and vital, descending from higher levels, or impinging on us from outside.

We are concerned here particularly with the nature of mental knowing. The physical and vital ‘know' things directly as a recognized contact with vibratory energy, without need for the intermediacy of thought. But for mental knowledge, the vibratory impact needs normally to be translated into thought forms intelligible to the mental understanding. Therefore the nature of those thought forms and the process of their generation have a profound impact on mental forms of knowing. As a result, the act of knowing by thinking mind has two very pronounced characteristics. First, it is a linear process that moves from one thought-form to the next and finds it extremely difficult to handle higher order concepts consisting of complex interrelations interacting in multiple dimensions. We think very much as we speak and write, one word and sentence following the other, one subject and action at a time. Therefore, we tend to think in linear sequences from action to result, from cause to effect. When we encounter complex situations in which multiple factors act simultaneously both on the same object and on each other in both directions, we find the phenomenon difficult either to conceptualise or to represent in language. This limitation has profound impact on the way we understand cause and effect in the material and, especially, the vital plane, and is one of the primary reasons why patterns of action and reaction in life, based as they are on complex interrelationships, are so difficult for the rational mind to perceive and decipher.

According to Sri Aurobindo, the second pronounced characteristic of mind is that it knows by a process of division and aggregation. The mind studies and knows things by distinguishing them from other things. It understands a visual form by first distinguishing the visual boundaries of that form from its surrounding environment, the way an artist begins drawing a picture by sketching its outline on a blank canvas. Mind knows by distinguishing one line, shape, form, color, sensation, thought and idea from others. It recognizes dog as different from cat and further distinguishes the features of a collie from those of a German shepherd. In other words, mind treats each object of its contemplation as a whole and then proceeds to subdivide it into smaller parts and component characteristics. It dissects and analyzes by comparison and contrast. This characteristic directly accounts for the preoccupation of science with categorizing material elements, molecular types, biological life forms, social activities, academic subjects, etc. It results in a continuous process of division and subdivision of each whole into smaller parts and each part into still smaller subunits that are regarded as wholes for the purpose of further division. This accounts for the multiplication of scientific disciplines related to living species from the original common subject of zoology into botany, physiology, anatomy, genetics, microbiology, pharmacology, neurology and a continuously growing number of more esoteric subdivisions. This accounts for the endless subdivision of matter in nuclear physics from the atom and elementary particles down to the level of strings, which are as small in relation to the atom as the atom is in relation to the entire solar system.

Mind's capacity for endless subdivision is complemented by its capacity for continuous aggregation. Mind has the ability to combine any number of smaller wholes and view them as the parts of larger wholes. Thus, electrons, protons and neutrons combine to form atoms, atoms combine to form molecules, molecules unit to constitute organelles, cells, organs and living organisms. Thus, individuals, families, communities, castes, classes, professions, sexes, ethnic and religious groups combine to form nations and the international community. We construct organizations along the same pattern, be they the organizations for governance, business, education or even religion. Our very conception of society as a group of separate individuals makes it difficult for us to recognize that the social collective as well as its members possesses all the characteristics of a living organism. Our conception of our lives is thus reduced to an endless number of people, objects, and events, with only a vague perception of some underlying being or force or conception which encompasses them all, yet which is not fully defined by the sum of its parts.

From these characteristics arise the atomistic and mechanistic view that dominated physics until early in the 20th Century and still dominates thought processes in most other fields of science and human knowledge. So natural and inevitable is this tendency of mind, that it is difficult for us to even conceive of a different way of perceiving reality, while it blinds us to the limitations of a world view based on division and aggregation. Yet, the very fact that science is challenging the limits of the linear, atomic and mechanistic view of reality suggests not only greater knowledge lies in a more synthetic way of knowing but also that the human mind has the capacity, if not yet the developed propensity, to think and know in a different manner.

Systems thinking is an admirable attempt to transcend these mental limitations, but because it relies on the very same mental instrument and faculties, its power of synthesis is severely constrained. More importantly, it lacks the power to penetrate to the deeper layers of causality which hold the key to determinations in material nature, human life and mind. For Sri Aurobindo tells us that, if our quest is to discover the ultimate determinants of energy and force in the universe which are presently involved in material, vital and mental energy-substance, we need to acquire a faculty of knowledge that can pierce the veil of inconscient matter, subconscious life and dividing mind.


Recognizing the inherent obstacles that mind poses to a true understanding of relationships and wholes, we need to re-examine and highlight some aspects of our earlier discussion to emphasize a point that both language and thought may otherwise tend to obscure. For purposes of clarity we have been considering each of the three planes of matter, life and mind separately as if they acted independently of each other. But this is a vast oversimplification resulting from the limitations imposed by our faculties for thinking and communication. The forms, substance and energy of the material, vital and mental planes do not exist independently of each other. The hypothesis Sri Aurobindo presents is at once more synthetic and complex than such an atomistic conception. Physical energy-substance, vital energy-substance and mental-energy substance represent three different expressions, or one might say vibratory frequencies, of a more fundamental energy-substance termed consciousness-force. According to science, only the material substance and energy exist, therefore all vital and mental activity is nothing other than action of material process. But for Sri Aurobindo, although the three are distinct and different planes of existence with their own distinct forms and forces, they do not exist in isolation from each other. All three are in constant contact and interaction. All matter is instinct with life and mentality. All life is encased in a material substance and has at least a rudimentary consciousness. All mentality manifests in life in a material body.

Sri Aurobindo's hypothesis enables us to understand the precise relationships and means of interaction between these three cohabitant expressions of consciousness-force, for all three adhere to the same principles of consciousness. In social life we know that vague, intangible, immaterial ideas can lead to immense and inexplicable consequences. The insightful concept expressed in a term paper by a young MBA student named Fred Smith evolved by such a process into $20 billion Federal Express. The insubstantial vision of a computer technician at CERNE in Switzerland evolved into the global Internet. The cherished aspirations of a few idealistic freedom fighters unleashed a social movement that swept the British out of India and by a domino effect toppled colonial empires around the world. These too are mysterious marvels of form and force waiting to be deciphered and harnessed for the greater good.

The same principles are applicable in material science. The status and functioning of the material body influences not only our physiological life processes, but our sensations, urges, emotions, sentiments, thoughts, aspirations and dreams. So too, our passions, attitudes, beliefs, faith and ideals act on and can powerfully influence the health, strength and energy of the physical body. In extreme circumstances, we know that life and consciousness can survive during periods in which the body appears to be clinically dead. Medical science has observed these intricate interactions, but has no framework by which to decipher the relationships. To fully understand the nature of our existence as conscious, living physical beings, we need to discover all the principles governing the interaction of these three planes as well as other planes subconscious and superconscious to our normal experience.

In human beings these three planes interact and mutually influence each other and their environment, while simultaneously receiving a continuous stream of inputs from the surrounding world. But since all three derive from a common basis of consciousness-force, we should not be surprised to discover the relationship is even more complex. Not only are the three in active relation, they are also in some way involved, interlaced and interwoven, each within the other. It is not enough to say they are integrated, which implies the weaving together of separate strands. It would be more appropriate to say that while each has distinct properties, they are somehow also parts or aspects of each other. It is not only the mind that ‘thinks', the vital that ‘feels' or the body that ‘acts', all three exhibit each of these capacities in different ways. Along with a thinking mind that deals in abstract concepts, there is a vital component to the human mind which is embued with feeling and is the source of idealist's sentiments, the poet's emotional idealism, the artist's insights into life and reality. There is also a physical mind grounded in sensation that gives us the capacity to understand and organize physical objects and activities, to plan and strategize, to translate abstract theory into practical technology, capacities well developed in the scientist and engineer. So too, there is a mental component in the physical responsible for the body's capacity to ‘learn' complex physical skills such as typing, computer game reflexes and piano playing. There is also a mental component in the vital, most pronounced in active social leaders such as the politician and entrepreneur who possess a direct intuitive perceptive of vital-emotional forces in other people and life around them. These complex interrelationships and their expressions are a fruitful area for scientific research.

Not only is there a connectedness between planes of consciousness, there is also a connectedness between all forms and forces on each of these planes. As the physicist have discovered, our experience of ‘things' as separate, independent realities is a gross distortion of the truth. Relationship and interconnectedness is the rule in each of the three planes of matter, life and mind. Physicists now know that the universe has to be pictured as a single, indivisible, dynamic whole whose parts are essentially interrelated. They know that subatomic particles cannot be simultaneously defined in terms of a finite position in space and a specific velocity of movement. They know that these particles do not possess intrinsic properties independent of their environment. Elementary particles represent relationships in the plane of material energy-substance. They even exhibit the capacity referred to as nonlocal connections, the ability to ‘communicate' instantaneously with the whole universe.

The forms of the vital plane have very similar properties to those attributed to elementary particles. Here too, it is not possible to reduce any vital impulse to its ultimate properties separate from the environment in which it acts or from the relationships it has with other acts in the past and future emanating from the same and other sources. Nor is it possible to isolated any single impulse from the world around it. The vibration of an impulse such as joy, anger, lust or impatience itself constitutes an action that can generate consequences irrespective of whether or not the impulse is expressed in physical action. Although not yet recognized or subject to systematic study by scientists, vital forms possess the same capacity for nonlocal connections, acting and generating consequences instantaneously over long distances. This is the phenomenon referred to earlier as “life response.” A decision formulated in the mind or an emotion intensely felt can result in instantaneous response from the environment, without the intervention of any known physical mechanism. An impulse of fear can attract the object of fear. A nervous vibration of impatience or expectation can delay the arrival or completion of that which is impatiently expected. A silent act of determined will can bring about the result willed for without the intermediacy of a physical act. The systematic study of these phenomena will revolutionize our understanding of ourselves and the world and tremendously enhance our capacity to solve the problems that plague humanity.

So strongly steeped is Western civilization in the atomistic tradition that most educated people find it difficult to conceive of themselves as other than distinctly separate individuals. Our very sense of personal identity as individuals is based on this notion. Yet it requires little reflection for us to recognize that there is hardly a single thought, belief, sentiment, habit, attitude or character trait that we can genuinely call our own. All our physical traits derive from a collective biological inheritance that can be traced back to primitive man. All our values, customs, attitudes and beliefs are the product of a collective social inheritance spanning millennium and the entire globe. As individuals we define ourselves so completely in terms of comparisons and interactions with those around us that we risk losing entirely our sense of personal identity if too long confined to social isolation. Though out of the pride of self-reliance and individuality some may resent the fact, the reality is that we are at all times both a product and a part of a greater social whole, subject always to its subconscious influence and conscious interactions. Understanding these relationships between individuals and their social environment will enable us to better comprehend the role and functioning of the ego in the evolution and emergence of individual as a center of consciousness-force in the cosmos.

Relationship is even more apparent when it comes to mental forms and energy. Here we have difficulty even distinguishing discrete thoughts from their environment. Our very language is context-specific. The meaning of the words we employ to express a thought are subject to radical change depending on the context. Each thought finds its fuller and clearer definition only by and through its relationship with a much wider body of thought. According to Sri Aurobindo, we can even observe that much of that we consider as our own ‘thoughts' actually enter our minds from the mental environment. Here too, the phenomenon of instantaneous nonlocal connection is pronounced and accessible to scientific validation. Understanding these relationships will help us surmount the inherent limitations of mental knowledge and to acquire more powerful faculties of consciousness.

The irreducible reality of relationships is so compelling that it forces us to discard the atomistic and mechanistic view of physical, vital and mental phenomena. More importantly, it compels us to search for a deeper plane of reality in which relationship is fundamental and separate existence is at best a secondary truth. For if all physical, vital and mental phenomena are in relation with themselves and each other, then there must be a common denominator, there must be a plane of existence in which they are unified. While the existence of such a plane is incomprehensible according to the materialist hypothesis, it is the very basis and starting point of Sri Aurobindo's alternative hypothesis. As we shall discuss subsequently, oneness is the essential condition of all existence. Division and separation of the One into Many is only an appearance.

The interaction between forms and forces on the physical, vital and mental planes calls into question one of the most fundamental assumptions of material science that has been raised to the level of natural law, the assumption that the amount of energy in the universe is constant. The law of conservation of energy states that although energy may change form, it is neither created nor destroyed. Establishing the existence of a vital plane and a mental plane in direct relationship with the material plane would in all likelihood undermine this pillar of physical science. For in that case the material world is in constant contact and interchange with non-material planes of energy, which can convert their energy-substance into energy-substance of matter or absorb material energy to form energy-substance of mind or life. Intuitively, this possibility is confirmed by our own experience. We know that when we are tired and hungry, our mental energy and vital enthusiasm often flag and that taking in the necessary physical rest or sustenance can energize both our mental and emotional centers of consciousness. We know also that the synthesis of structures and substance in the material plane by science requires an enormous investment of energy, not only of the material energy that binds the atoms and molecules of the structure, but also of the mental energy and perseverance of the scientist, inventor or the industrial engineer. Our own personal experience also confirms that by sheer act of mental will we can release greater energy in our minds, our emotions and our bodies, as Henry V's rallying call at Agincourt spurred his 6000 beleaguered soldiers to conquer a rested French army five times its size, while incurring only 450 casualties to more than 10 times that number among the enemy. Inspiring athletic coaches routinely reenergize their exhausted players to heroic last minute rallies after all their physical energy has been spent. Professional athletes apply the power of their own mind and will to affect a similar result.

Physicists may be understandably reluctant to accept this intuitive experience as valid evidence of a physical fact so contrary to established truth of science. Since physics has no way to objectively measure an increase or decrease in these non-material energies, it has always assumed that these energies are themselves forms of material energy and constitute part of the overall energy in the material universe. If the alternative hypothesis is true, widening the field of inquiry to encompass these planes may lead to some startling discoveries. For according to Sri Aurobindo, the basis and source of all energy-substance in the material, vital and mental planes is an infinite field of consciousness-force manifesting in these planes. That infinite field is a potential source of infinite energy and therefore there cannot be any finite limits to the manifestation of energy in the material or other planes. If Infinity is indeed the source of our universe, infinite energy is a natural corollary. If up to now science has encountered finite limits to the world's energy, it may be the result of the finite nature of the conceptions through which science has viewed the universe. Change those conceptions and another reality may reveal itself.


As serious as these weaknesses in the materialist hypothesis may be, they may be regarded as secondary, for there is a far more serious objection that challenges the whole edifice of the materialist world view because it undermines the very existence of the observer as a valid party to the debate. For there to be knowledge, three things are required—the knower, the object of knowledge and the act of knowing. Any valid theory of knowledge must first establish the existence and define the nature of the knower. If matter and material energy alone exist and consciousness itself is only a phenomenal appearance of electro-chemical processes, who or what observes those processes and codifies them as science? Who is the witness to the phenomenon of nature? Who is the scientist and what is the validity of his position as observer? Who is asking for proof or evaluation evidence? In the materialist hypothesis, there is room for only the object. The subject and the act have no valid status. Then the question becomes not whether the materialist view is rational, but whether rationality, knowledge and scientific truth have any meaning according to the materialist view.

The source of this dilemma may be traced back to the Cartesian division between mind and body, which resulted in a tendency to reduce all material objects to their smallest parts, all material processes to mechanical operations and all knowledge to mathematics. But Descartes did not abolish the observer. He gave equal status but independent status to the existence of conscious mind. Modern materialism has accepted his construct of body and his belief in reductionism and mathematics, but discarded his construct of mind. Systems theorists have rightly faulty the Cartesian division for obscuring the integrated nature of reality as discussed above. But the error of the materialists is more fundamental. By confusing the insensible with the non-existent, they have also abolished the observer, thereby undermining their own status as scientists as well the status of scientific knowledge itself!

This inconsistency points to a deeper problem with the materialist and mechanistic hypothesis, which systems theory is unable to satisfactorily address—the problem of the individual. Even assuming by a stretch of imagination that material systems can acquire the attributes of living systems and thinking machines, we have still to rationally explain the most fundamental of all human experiences, the sense of self. Even if human beings are only living, responsive systems, they cannot be only that because they possess an inherent self-awareness of their own being as a separate center of consciousness. That self-awareness may be entirely bound by biological, social and psychological conditioning like the multi-tiered programming, operating and application-specific languages of a computer system or the complex programming of the latest anthropoid robot, but in human beings there is something behind that conditioning which can separate itself from all those egoistic forms and observe itself as a pure witness. There is something that can say “I am, I know, I will, I choose, I feel, I sense, I act.” Until the nature of that witness consciousness is explained, nothing fundamental is explained about the nature of knowing and knowledge. To explain that, Sri Aurobindo says, we must discover the truth of conscious individuality and its relationship to the universe and to the Consciousness-force of which both are manifestations. That presents no difficulty for the alternative hypothesis. For it begins with a single, undivided infinite consciousness force and traces how that One manifests itself as the Many—many forms, many forces and many centers of consciousness as well—through a process of self-limitation and self-absorption, a process of creation.

Contact: info [@] sriaurobindo.nl