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Did Matter Come First?
Stewart: Hello, James. I am having some trouble understanding the oneness of consciousness and matter. I can clearly see that I am one with everything I perceive (since everything is perceived in consciousness), but where did matter originate from? I have read the relevant section in your book several times, but have not found it definitive.
James: This is a difficult question because the answer is completely counter-intuitive. There are only two possibilities: matter came from consciousness or consciousness came from matter. Consciousness, you, are prior to matter. You are present at all times, and thoughts/feelings (subtle matter) appear in you. When you look through the senses, gross matter appears and it seems that matter is primary. It seems that you see the world because it is there. But in fact, if you think about it carefully, matter is there because you see it. Without you, there is no matter. How can anything exist if it is not known to exist?
The first view, that the world is here first, is called materialism. It is the view of modern science. Its epistemology, means of knowledge – perception and inference – is based on the senses. They are seen as the only valid means of knowledge. If I see the world because it is there, it is natural to assume that consciousness evolved out of matter. The fly in the ointment of this idea is the fact that matter is inert. It is not sentient.
This is easily observable. It is also true that you cannot get something out of nothing. So if there is such a thing as consciousness – and it is impossible to deny the existence of consciousness, because it is self-evident – all things are revealed in consciousness and no object reveals consciousness, except by implication – then consciousness could not have evolved out of matter. It had to be here first.
Science tells us that the universe began at a certain point. So what was the source of the Big Bang? Because there are only two existential categories, consciousness and matter, it had to be consciousness. So how is consciousness known? First it is known by itself, unlike matter which can only be known by consciousness. If you cannot appreciate this fact, it can be known by Vedanta, which is a means of knowledge that does not rely on the senses. Vedanta reveals consciousness by direct experience and by implication and reason. Implication is a valid means of knowledge.
Vedanta is a method of inquiry. If you analyze the body along the lines of modern science – and Vedanta accepts the findings of modern science – you come to the idea of consciousness, assuming you do not know that you are consciousness. Vedanta does not contradict science, because the scope of science’s investigation is not consciousness. Its arena is matter, and the senses are appropriate means of knowledge for matter. They are not appropriate for consciousness, because consciousness is subtler than matter. Consciousness is to matter what infrared is to the eyes. It is there but it cannot be seen, because the eyes can only perceive in a limited range of the light spectrum.
This why all the teachings stress the fact that you are not the body. If you take yourself to be the body, you will not see consciousness. It is a matter of experience that you are not the body, but that does not stop human beings from assuming that they are the body. If you assume it without thinking about it, you will not realize your self. It will not be known to you.
Vedanta, as I said, accepts modern science because its findings do not contradict the findings of Vedanta – to wit, the existence of self-evident consciousness. If you accept science’s findings about matter, it tells us that gross matter is made up of subtle matter, elementary particles – atoms, protons, neutrons, mesons, pi-mesons, quarks, neutrinos, etc. right down to all-pervasive space. But it has to stop there because it is hampered by its means of knowledge – perception and inference. You can’t see consciousness with the eyes. Consciousness sees through the eyes. You can infer that there has to be something from which these elementary particles and space come and are known, but inference cannot tell you what it is. All the scientists need to do is to ask who the observer – the scientist – is and they will know the answer. But they cannot do that, because they are constrained by their means of knowledge. The truth is always present in the form of the observer, but it is not known. This is why Vedanta calls knowledge of consciousness the “royal secret.” It is the most valuable knowledge a human being can possess but it is hidden in plain sight – because the mind is always looking elsewhere.
Vedanta reveals the existence of consciousness by a special method. It does not prove the existence of consciousness, because consciousness is self-evident. It is implied by every bit of knowledge since you cannot know anything if you are not conscious. It does not give you the experience of consciousness, because you are always experiencing consciousness because reality is nothing but non-dual consciousness – appearing, oddly enough, to be gross and subtle matter because of the operation of maya. When maya is operating, all one sees is matter.
Consciousness does not transform itself into matter and cease to be consciousness, just as milk is transformed into cheese but can never go back to being cheese. Consciousness appears as matter. Maya is very difficult to understand by the human intellect because the intellect is an effect of which maya is the cause. It cannot understand consciousness in the way that a light bulb cannot see electricity. Light is a transformation of electricity. When it passes through a bulb it “becomes” light. Electricity does not cease to be electricity at any time; it just appears as light when it flows through the bulb.
What is preventing the intellect from appreciating the non-dual nature of reality as primary consciousness is the belief that the body is the self. It is obvious that it isn’t, because the body is known to the self but the self is not known to the body. But maya – accepting appearances to be reality without investigation – keeps the intellect deluded. Krishna, speaking as consciousness wielding maya, says, “By my maya I delude all sentient beings.”
Vedanta dispels maya by training the mind to discriminate, to separate, consciousness – you – from the objects appearing in you. It does this by revealing the hidden logic operating in your own experience, a logic that is obscured by your belief that you are the body-mind entity. It actually proves that you are not the body-mind entity in variety of ways. When this belief in oneself as the body is destroyed, consciousness is revealed. When consciousness is revealed, it is obvious that matter is an appearance and consciousness is the reality. Until that belief is questioned and destroyed, it seems to be the other way around.
The belief that matter is primary is a huge problem for human beings because it puts them in bondage to it. And being in bondage to matter – including one’s thoughts and feelings, which are just subtle matter – is not fun, whereas when consciousness is revealed by the teachings of Vedanta to be primary, the intellect is liberated from the belief in the tyranny of matter and the self is known to be free of it.
The Samkya theory of creation, which Vedanta accepts, is called panchikarana, or the “Evolution of the Elements by Division and Recombination.” It is explained most simply and carefully in an elementary Vedanta text Tattva Bodha by Shankaracharya, and made very understandable in a book called Path to the Pathless by Swami Suddhananda.
Stewart: A related line of questioning is this: Are all these manifestations in our consciousness MADE OF consciousness or are they made of something else (i.e. matter that is subsequently transformed into consciousness in our experience)?
James: They are made out of consciousness. There is nothing else, because reality is non-dual. But it seems as if there is something else because of maya. You cannot transform matter into consciousness for the reasons stated above. It is rather the other way around.
Stewart: One of my sticking points is that matter, in contrast to consciousness, is inert. So what gives rise to matter?
James: This is the right question. I explain it above. I hope this has been helpful.
~ Love, James