If I were to try to put into words the essential truth revealed in the mystic experience, it would be that our minds are not apart from the world, and the feelings that we have of gladness and melancholy and our yet deeper feelings are not of ourselves alone, but are glimpses of a reality transcending the narrow limits of our particular consciousness – that the harmony and beauty of the face of Nature is, at root, one with the gladness that transfigures the face of man.
Sir Arthur Eddington (1882-1944), “Mind Stuff”
Is there a deeper transcendent reality than the normal world around us? If there is, can we know it in any meaningful way? The first two parts of this series delved into the Source and Summit as the twin ultimates that enfold our world of normal experience between them. The Source, the ground of being, is the metaphysical soil from which all actuality grows. The Summit is the more speculative type of divinity, the ultimate mind of God. This third part in my series on the Anatomy of God will delve further into the notion of God as Source and examines how Eros, the creativity of the universe, meshes with the Source.
Is there really a hidden reality, a Source, behind the world of sensible experience? Let’s start by looking to modern physics, keeping in mind that my goal here in these essays is to craft a coherent marriage between science and spirituality. Brian Greene’s 2013 book, The Hidden Reality, examines many contemporary notions of the multiverse and argues for a new and expanded notion of how science should be conducted. The “multiverse” is a term that captures various notions of reality that go beyond the traditional observable universe, including additional universes existing in space beyond our ability to observe them or in different dimensions beyond our own.
Greene argues that even if we cannot ever directly measure other universes, we may infer their reality from various lines of reasoning. He argues, therefore, against a strict observational and falsificationist notion of proper science, which has held sway for many decades now, at least rhetorically if not always in practice.
Greene does not, however, include in his survey of multiverse theories any discussion of what has been a pervasive and constant debate in both the West and East: the notion that there is a hidden reality beneath our feet, or above our heads, or just to the side of our vision — which is what I have called the Source. This isn’t “just” a spiritual or religious debate. It’s also a straightforward philosophical and scientific debate about the nature of reality.
What I’m getting at is the idea that there is a realm that produces everything that we can detect, which is not directly detectable. Yet we can reasonably infer its existence by its effects. This realm, which I’ve called in these essays the Source, Brahman, ether, etc., is the very ground of being, or ocean of being if we prefer a watery metaphor over an earthy one. Whereas the actual universe comprised of what we currently call matter and energy is directly detectable, the ground of being can’t be directly detected in a traditional manner. It can, however, be detected indirectly.
In the Western world, this debate finds its earliest and perhaps still best exemplification with Plato’s allegory of the cave. Plato described in his book, The Republic (which is an extended discussion about the nature of government, the state, and leadership), reflections about the nature of reality. Plato asks us to imagine a person who is forced to live in a cave all of his life and is completely tied down, to the point where his eyes are forced to look ahead at all times. This unfortunate person must watch the back of the cave, on which shadows are produced from a fire’s bright light behind the prisoner. The captors perform their routine activities behind the prisoner and their shadows are cast on the wall. The prisoner, knowing no other reality, mistakes the shadows for reality, not realizing they are shadows cast by the captors behind him.
This is, for Plato, an allegory about our real lives: we mistake the world around us for primary reality when there is a deeper reality that we can infer through properly applied reason.
The deeper reality was, for Plato, the realm of Forms, or Ideas (the terms are synonymous in this context). Forms are the true reality behind the sensible forms we can detect directly. As strange as it sounds to modern ears, Plato believed that a table is only a table insofar as it participates in, and is a shadow of, the archetypal Form of ‘tableness,’ and so on for everything we witness around us, from trees, to rivers, up to and including abstractions like truth, goodness, and beauty.
When we find something to be beautiful it is because it participates in the archetypal Beauty. The highest Form was, for Plato, the Good, and The Republic is an extended discussion of how individuals and the state can work toward realizing the Good in our shadow realm that we call everyday reality.
Plato’s most direct argument for the existence of Forms is in the Cratylus dialogue (389):
What has the carpenter in view when he makes a shuttle? Is it not something the nature of which is to weave?
Well, then, if the shuttle breaks while he is making it, will he make another with his mind fixed on that which is broken, or on that form with reference to which he was making the one which he broke?
On that form, in my opinion.
Then we should very properly call that the absolute or real shuttle?
Yes, I think so.
From our modern perspective, it seems that Plato went too far with his theory of Forms. To imagine that there is literally an archetypal and eternal shuttle Form in a timeless realm sounds, frankly, a bit silly to our modern ears. The manifest task of science and philosophy is to explain how simplicity produces complexity. And to posit complex archetypes as eternally existing objects in a parallel realm fails in this task, for many reasons. Nevertheless, there are some ways in which Plato’s ideas still have some relevance.
We can, with a more modern twist, think of the realm of Forms as, collectively, the ground of being that produces sensible reality. This process begins with the subatomic particles that appear and disappear in uncountable hordes in every part of space, according to modern quantum theory. This process leads, through many levels of complexification, up to the rarefied heights of stars and humans. And it wouldn’t happen without the ground to make it grow.
Modern physics has, over the last century, gone to great lengths to deny this hidden reality beneath our feet. While Einstein did not begin this trend, he is well-known for dismissing the “ether” (which was thought to be the carrier of light waves, among other things) as “superfluous” in his 1905 paper on special relativity. While Einstein himself quickly reversed course and embraced a “new ether” concept from 1916 onward, most physicists and philosophers relished the notion of being able to simplify our physical theories by denying the reality of the ether.
A New Ether?
Whatever we prefer to call the ether/ground of being, however, it is certainly making a comeback in recent years. Greene, writing about the recent efforts to detect the Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, states:
Roughly speaking, the mass of a particle, much like the mass of a truck, is the resistance you’d feel were you to push on it. The question is, where does this resistance come from? The answer, according to Higgs’s idea, is that all of space is filled with an invisible substance — the Higgs field — which acts kind of like a pervasive molasses, exerting a drag force as particles try to accelerate through it. The “stickier” a particle is, the more the molasses-like Higgs field affects it, and the more massive the particle appears. The emptiest of empty space, vacuumed clean of matter and radiation, would still be permeated by the Higgs field.
An “invisible substance,” a “pervasive molasses,” a field that permeates the “emptiest of empty space.” This sounds like an ether to me, but it doesn’t really matter what we call this underlying reality. I would modify Greene’s description only to state that rather than the Higgs field permeating empty space, empty space is more accurately conceived as the manifestation of the Source, the ground of being, the ether. In both Greene’s framing and my framing, there is not really any “empty space.” Rather, what we think of as empty isn’t empty at all when we consider the properties that we know space has, such as the ability to produce virtual particles.
Stephen Hawking writes, in discussing our modern theory of gravity, general relativity, that the theory proposes that “gravity gives rise to the structure of space itself. To put this plainly, gravity is defined even in ‘empty’ space, and thus, there must be something” even in empty space. He adds: “That ‘something’ is the ether, or, in modern language, a field. … In many respects, this is one of the most important contributions of relativity to physics. In the modern view, all forces arise from fields. In quantum theory … the particles themselves arise from the field.”
Frank Wilczek, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist at MIT, writes in his 2008 book The Lightness of Being: Mass, Ether and the Unification of Forces:
No presently known form of matter has the right properties [to play the role of the ether]. So we don’t really know what this new material ether is. We know its name: the Higgs condensate [or Higgs field], after Peter Higgs, a Scots physicist who pioneered some of these ideas. The simplest possibility … is that it’s made from one new particle, the so-called Higgs particle. But the [ether] could be a mixture of several materials. … [T]here are good reasons to suspect that a whole new world of particles is ripe for discovery, and that several of them chip in to the cosmic superconductor, a.k.a the Higgs condensate.
As the title of Wilczek’s book suggests: he argues from many lines of evidence that there is in fact an ether that undergirds space, which he calls alternately the ether, the Grid, or the “cosmic superconductor.” The recent work detecting the Higgs field certainly supports Wilczek’s ideas.
This discussion may convince even skeptics that modern physics finds a great deal of support for the existence of a realm deeper than what we can observe directly.
Fields of folly?
I suggested in Part I of this series that the Source is not itself conscious, so again we are in no way violating physical principles by equating today’s notion of the sum of fields with the spiritual notion of Source. However, even if we are convinced that there is a hidden physical reality behind or below manifest reality, we should not rely on a facile argument that God as Source lies in these hidden fields. Rather, we can and should rely on the realization that all of reality does, under the updated worldview of today’s physics, indeed grow from these hidden fields and this is the same idea as the Source, ground of being, ocean of being, akashic field, apeiron, ether, etc., in various spiritual traditions. The creative advance in each moment is this Source expressing itself, a process that we can describe as the Eros of the universe. We are all contributing our own vision to Eros and our collective human efforts are an increasingly important part of this unfolding creativity.
There is some risk in tying timeless spiritual concepts to modern physics because we know that modern physics is always changing, and will continue to change. My feeling, however, is that modern physics is now at a point where it is catching on to the broader truths that logic and spiritual experience have revealed to philosophers and spiritual explorers over the millennia. While we’ll never have a perfect match between science and spirituality, it is gratifying to see these often conflicting domains coming closer together in terms of their descriptions of deep reality.