Idealism: Are We Creating The Material World With Our Consciousness?
Updated: Dec 13, 2022
"Never forget that the universe is a single living organism possessed of one substance and one soul, holding all things suspended in a single consciousness and creating all things with a single purpose that they might work together spinning and weaving and knotting whatever comes to pass" - Marcus Aurelius
Many people in the West, including much of the scientific community, assume that the universe, and everything therein, is made from matter, and therefore consciousness is a product of matter in the brain. It’s what’s called physicalism, or materialism.
Here's the thing: this remains only a theory, and we’ve never been able to actually prove that consciousness is a product of the brain, hence why it remains the ‘hard problem of consciousness’.
But maybe it doesn’t need to be so hard if we take a different view.
Increasingly, credible scientists like Donald D Hoffman, Bernado Kastrup, and others, are proposing a radical paradigm shift in Western science, towards idealism.
Unlike panpsychism, which believes everything has consciousness, idealism believes everything is consciousness (framing consciousness here as awareness, aka the prior always-existing space that all objects - sense objects, thought objects etc. - temporarily rise into and fall from).
In this framing, everything appears in, and is created by, consciousness, including matter: for example, we look at a tree and it appears in the material world, and when we stop looking at it the tree stops existing. According to Hoffman, the latest maths in physics proves this.
This rhymes with the famous double slit experiment in quantum physics: reality is pure potential wave function, until observed, and then manifests as a particle. Which could be another way of framing consciousness creating matter.
According to both Hoffman and Kastrup, the latest maths points to a very interesting theory: through our personal consciousness, the greater consciousness is understanding itself, as if trying on different hats of experience. The more hats it tries on, the better it knows itself.
Which is how people like Alan Watts, Stanislav Grof, and indeed the Hindu cosmology, frames the nature of reality and God, which the Hindus call Brahman: our own individual consciousness, which the Hindus call Atman, contains the entirety of existence (Brahman) which is non-dual (i.e. 'one big thing with no separation'), formless, timeless, infinite, and contains pure potential. As we understand ourselves, It/God understands Itself, as though waking up from a dream. And we are It, just as a piece of a holographic image contains the entire image. In this framing, in a very literal sense our consciousness contains the entire universe, and we are all connected through consciousness.
In the Upanishads, the oldest scriptures of Hinduism, the answer to the question “who am I?” is “Thou are That”, or “you are Godhead”. It's the idea that, fundamentally, we are not “namarupa” (body/ego) but that our deepest identity is a divine spark of cosmic creative consciousness that we carry in us (Atman) which is identical to the universal principle that creates the universe (Brahman).
Hinduism is not the only religion that made this discovery. The concept that God is the all-compassing common ground of reality - and we are That/It - is reflected in all the major spiritual/religious traditions originally, before aspects of certain religions became dogmatic and a means of control:
Buddhism: “Look inside, you are the Buddha”
Mystical Christianity: “Father you and I are one”
Confucianism: “Heaven, earth, humans are the same”
Mohammed: “Whoever knows himself, knows his Lord”
This framing of reality becomes apparent in other, perhaps unlikely places, if one is looking for it. Hence the Marcus Aurelius quote at the start. To me, the fact that this idea has survived thousands of years points to it potentially being a very deep fundamental truth. It would be surprising if an idea survived that long if it wasn't true.
As I've often said, there is plenty of room, and arguably a need, for both science and spirituality. Both the rational knowledge of scientific empiricism and the inner knowing of spiritual experience can co-exist. Plus reality is infinitely more complex than any one scientific theory can describe, and, while theoretical models can usefully integrate the data known at a particular time, they are at best only temporary approximations of the structures and processes to which they relate. They can never provide an exhaustive and final description of objective reality. Hence why we, and the conceptual frameworks that we use, must be tentative and flexible, and always underpinned by the humility to accept there is so much more yet to be revealed.
Indeed, our models are always being updated, and even replaced. Major shifts in paradigms have occurred throughout the ages: for example, shifting from a geocentric view of the solar system to the heliocentric system of Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler; also, shifting from the hegemony of Newtonian physics, to Einstein’s theory of relativity, and then to quantum physics in just the first three decades of the 20th century. And speaking to the need for humility, in 1900 Lord Kelvin, just 10 years before quantum-relativistic physics was discovered, declared "there is nothing new to discover in physics, only more and precise measurements". Whoops.
Idealism is still only a theory for now, but perhaps we’re nearing a big shake up in the West. Perhaps in the future we'll look back on physicalism like we do today to past theories like geocentrism. And if that's the case, grab your popcorn, friends, because it's going to be a very interesting ride! 🍿