If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you have to start with the big bang.”Carl Sagan
We may or may not begin with time, the big bang, matter from nothing, or from within countless other stories shared among us. We may take the root sense of being for granted because the nature of mind is so seamlessly immersed in whatever forms, languages, stories and relationships our time and place make real to us. But what to make of the question, “why is there something rather than nothing,” gets to the heart of all questions about “being” that I carry with me. I don’t have any answers, but only a love and wonder for the multitude of ways one can try to express life’s mysteries. Perhaps too, the ways in which we ponder and consider our response to the mystery carries much more import than any answer we may find.
For who is it that asks? And who then, is the keeper of continuity, the thread of this “I” or “We?” How can we venture outside the comfort of accumulative thought habits we find ourselves entrenched in to consider other possibilities? If within our time and place, we don’t ask, or worse, we lose faith that life carries any meaning beyond the gross material happenstance of a non-sentient objective world, what impact does that have on how we are to live…and what of love? Is there any import beyond the meaning we humans ascribe through our subjective experience, and especially our collective agreements?
In Richard Grossinger’s newly published book, Bottoming Out the Universe: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing, he condenses and presents for us a close look at the fundamental ideas and questions of the nature of consciousness, being, cosmology, intelligence and subjective awareness within the current crisis of modern technological culture. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
I appreciate Grossinger’s emphasis on the idea that intelligence expands beyond the association with the cerebral, and might include the behaviors of the tiniest particle, to the largest ecosystems as expressions of a simultaneously constrained expansiveness of the continual formation of a living cosmos, presenting us with a vision of cohesive unity underlying Everything.
How did a state of consciousness that we all subjectively experience become part of a universe conceived of as entirely material? It’s either an epiphenomenon without ontological implication or it’s there in its own right; it’s a by-product of brain chemistry or a primary constituent of reality. I am asking (in effect), Which is more fundamental: the existence of an objective physical universe or our subjective experience of it?
Modernity’s language of science encultured by the current economic paradigm is also a layer, and like other languages, not literal, but a representation of the workings of Everything, and yet, remains productive as a way, not only to represent the intelligence of the Cosmos, but to use that language to become a creator of sorts so spellbinding that we might come to wonder if we are not god’s will Itself. Science though, when it insists that its language is the only language, plays into a mode of monotheism that it ironically helped us to dispel. But if science insists that its language is the only acceptable representation, and we buy into its claims because of the technological vision of progress it provides, where does that leave us?
Rationalism and empiricism mask a marriage of science and capitalism for the corporate takeover of reality. The algorithm has been blackmailed into converting everything into commodities and cashflow, masking their theft in its own quantitative depth.
What does it mean to reach the bottom of this particular mode of being? In what ways does science shift meaning, especially away from the qualitative aspects of experience such as beauty, wonder and love, towards the more functional, rational quantitative aspects, as that which, because predictable, and successfully improving the level of creature comforts (for some anyway) are more useful? But even usefulness has a psychological aspect to it that ultimately says something about the mythology of modernity.
To “bottom out” is also, as noted, to hit personal bottom, as in “skid row,” described by rock and roll star Ricky Nelson in his 1958 hit, “Lonesome Town.” Dwellers in modernity are the song’s “brokenhearted,” and there is no guarantee of a rebound or rise, for we have not only bottomed out the scientific model, we have also bottomed out the technology arising from it, as well as the social, political, and ecological outcomes of that technology. We have bottomed out as a species, as is evident from our failings in human equity, compassion for sentient beings, and stewardship of the common shore. We have lost the thread of civilizational meaning but persist in a mad dash through materiality and prosperity, spreading poverty, emptiness, and a great silence in our wake. This is Lonesome Town all right, and “a dream or two,” to augur Thomas Baker Knight’s lyrics, won’t get us through another century of it. It is time to recognize the core paradox: we are bottomed out ourselves, yet falling through a bottomless, unbottomable void.
More commonly these days, we recognize that any understanding of the nature of consciousness remains bound itself by that same consciousness. So Everything, by its very nature includes modes of apprehension embedded within all intelligence, even if, like the spiders and trees, we cannot get outside of our own sense limits. That mathematics, logic and the rational mind appealingly tease us into modes of seeming objectivity, tests the very limits of consciousness itself. It’s not necessarily magic as much as it is an aspect of human nature. What do we risk losing though, through the devaluation of everyday subjective awareness, the very part of us that makes life so personal and full of meaning, in favor of a unified theory of objectivity?
From a Sethian standpoint, to make a priority of nonduality and ego-dissolution overlooks how egoity came into being, how profound it actually is. Karma did not locate us in a fix to see if we could get ourselves out of it, nor did it consign us to conditional beingness from original sin or because our soul was too stupid to make a better choice. Ego nature is neither a defect nor an aberration. It is the effect of an already enlightened intelligence choosing to explore personal existence. The soul is intentionally incarnating in this world as us because it is the nature of consciousness to explore every dimension. And the universe is not just a lesion; it is an exquisitely designed reality. Whether the architect is divine energy or our own higher intelligence, reality is giving rise to beingness (and vice versa). Essence (essentia) is identical to existence (esse).
So what if the subjective languages which don’t ask for proof, but rather, seek appreciation for life as it is, are accepted and understood for what they are, and especially valued for the beauty they display, satisfying the deep rooted desire for the feeling of belonging, peacefulness, comprehension, while engaging our ability to love and care for subjectivity itself, and especially the nurturing of our precarious sense of vulnerability? How can we reconcile these two very different languages of knowing; science’s objectivity and the soul’s delight of being? More importantly, where else but within the depths of our own subjectivity can we loosen the grip that power and fear sometimes take hold of us?
The formulations of Ludwig Wittgenstein, as summarized by a later philosopher, Jacob Needleman, circumscribe the central question that modern man faces in the overwhelming light and darkness of modern science:
What I see, what I know, is a universe of death. What I feel is life. Which is real—death or life? The world is a vast blind machine, an assemblage of inert facts. I am only another fact in that world. But I who know this encompass the world that I know with meaning and purpose. Which is real: What I know or that which knows? I do not see God in the world or in myself. Yet the world and myself exist. Which is real: the facts about being or the mysterious fact of Being?
The Soul of Water
The essence of water provides a way into the idea of seeing an imaginal subjectivity within that which we moderns deny intelligence to. Water, for instance, has its own power, the more so through its ability to give and receive of itself all that it touches and is touched by. What powers it displays, or we might say subjectively possesses. What strength to shape the hardness of rock into sand, and softness to womb and mother an array of watery life forms. To cooperate with the sun she will rise up towards the sky, gather as clouds, burst into thunderous rain that falls to the ground.
We, like water, have a nature particular to that which makes and keeps us human, or at essence, soul. But each substance, as well as substances within substance, display their own innate intelligence and correspondence within the web of life. Every cell in your body knows who it is by how it is, what it does, and where it is located. These are not mere metaphors, but a language of poesis which sees into the nature of being by deepening our notion of subjectivity which acknowledges intelligence within every form and structure of the cosmos. It’s not science, but neither is poetry, love, music or the sound of thunder.
All those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and the land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.THORNTON WILDER, THE BRIDGE OF SAN LUIS REY
The question I hear Richard posing in this book though, is to reconsider meaning against the backdrop of not being able to prove or understand meaning. It’s not a scientific truth, but to dismiss it altogether, to lose the ability to feel meaning, might be worse than any void beyond death we can imagine.
I sense that what most of us need more than ever right now is a trust in each other that, beyond truth, allows our stories to be absolutely, unquestionably real to the teller. Yes, we may all want our story to be the true one, but can we reach out to each other and begin to recognize this deep need for sincerity and trust is at root what is most common to us? If so, we would have to be able to let go of standards of truth – in order to listen – and accept that although every truth is part fact and part fiction, fiction is not merely falsehood, but necessary as the only way we are yet capable of expressing the complexity of the world as we each experience it. All and nothing.
Personal identity can’t be found unless it is ransomed to an output of neurons and synapses. Otherwise, it is unconditioned, self-arising, self-illuminating—the background against which a landscape unfolds.
All quotes, except where noted, Grossinger, Richard. Bottoming Out the Universe: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing (p. 7). Inner Traditions/Bear & Company. Kindle Edition.