15 Quanta and Vedanta

But why are objects that have spatial extent composed of finite numbers of objects that lack spatial extent?

In what follows I shall take my cue from a more than millennium-long philosophic tradition known as Vedanta, which is founded on a group of Indian scriptures, the Upanishads.[1–4]

The central affirmation of this tradition is that there is an Ultimate Reality (UR), and that this relates to the world in a threefold manner:

  • it is the substance that constitutes the world,
  • it is a consciousness that contains the world in its totality,
  • it is (subjective speaking) an infinite delight or bliss and (objectively speaking) an infinite quality or value that expresses and experiences itself in the world.

Two important observations can made right here. Within a bottom-up framework of thought, what ultimately exists is a multitude of entities (atoms, fundamental particles, spacetime points, you name them) without intrinsic quality or value. In many traditions this multiplicity is fittingly referred to as “dust.” In such a framework it is obviously hard to give a non-reductive account of quality and value. In a top-down framework of the Vedantic kind, on the other hand, quality and value have their roots in the very heart of reality.

The second observation is that UR manifests itself to itself. The world exists not only by it but also for it. When we think of the world as existing by it, we we think of it as a substance; when we think of the world as existing for it, we think of it as a consciousness. In the original poise of this consciousness, knowing and being are one: it knows what it knows by being what it knows, and it is what it is by knowing what it is.

Evidently this “identity theory” has nothing to do with the philosophical blunder according to which the consciousness we are familiar with is identical with some material structure or function. While the consciousness we are familiar with is to a considerable extent dependent on the structure and function of our brain, it has its roots in that consciousness, and it is because that consciousness is one with every particle that “constitutes” our brain that we have a fighting chance of understanding how anything material can possess the private, first-person, subjective aspect we call consciousness.


The poises of creative consciousness

There is a descending series of poises of relation between the consciousness that contains the world and the world contained in it.

The original poise features a single conscious self, which is coextensive with the world. Since in this poise the subject is wherever its objects are, no distances exist between the seer and the seen. There is an expanse of some kind — otherwise there would be no world — but this has neither the quality of space nor that of time.

In a secondary poise, consciousness bifurcates: the self distantiates itself from the content. This allows consciousness to apprehend its content from a location within its content, perspectively, and to do this many times over, thereby taking on the aspect of a multitude of localized selves.

It is here, in this poise, that the three dimensions of space — viewer-centered depth and lateral extent — come into existence, for objects are no longer seen from within, by identity with the all-constituting substance, but from outside, as presenting their surfaces. It is also here that consciousness becomes distinct from substance. For whereas in the primary poise the world’s properties exist indistinguishably as determinations of a single substance and as content of a single consciousness, the properties of a conscious individual exist distinguishably as determinations of this particular individual and as content (“in the consciousness of”) of other individuals.

A third poise arises if the multiple concentration of consciousness, which has has led to a multitude of conscious selves, becomes exclusive. We all know first-hand a state of exclusive concentration, in which awareness is focused on a single object or task, while other goings-on are registered, or other tasks attended to, subconsciously, if at all. It is by a similar — albeit not as easily reversible — concentration that consciousness loses sight, in each individual self, of its identity with the other selves and of the identity of all selves with the single self of the primary poise.

Various degrees of exclusiveness are possible. A characterization of the major degrees can be obtained by thinking of the creative process — the transition from infinite quality to revealing form — as involving a couple of intermediate stages:

  • Infinite Quality → Expressive Idea → Executive Force → Revealing Form

When consciousness loses sight, in the individual, of its identity with the single self of the primary poise, it also loses sight of its oneness with the infinite quality/delight at the heart of existence. It then becomes the center of a quantitative and finite action that is no longer aware of its original purpose, which is to develop infinite quality into expressive ideas. Whatever infinite quality is still expressed, is now received subliminally, unbeknown to the individual.

If, by a further deepening of the concentration, this action is also excluded, we arrive at a world whose individuals execute expressive ideas unconsciously. (Consider the flowering plants, and don’t let yourself be bamboozled into thinking that the beauty of a flower is but a device that serves to ensure the survival of a species. In a bottom-up framework of thought it is natural to end up by saying that qualities are “nothing but” quantities, but in a top-down framework that has infinite quality at its core, quantities are nothing but means of manifesting qualities.)

And if the exclusive concentration is carried to its absolute extreme, then even the executive force that was active in the individual falls dormant. Because this is instrumental in creating and maintaining individual forms, what remains is a multitude of formless individuals. The stage for UR’s adventure of evolution has been set. Welcome to the physical world!

This, then, is the reason why objects that have spatial extent are composed of (finite numbers) of objects that lack spatial extent.

At the same time we learn how UR enters into spatial relations with itself: by carrying its multiple exclusive concentration to its absolute extreme.

In a sense, evolution is the reverse of this sequence of essentially psychologically processes. Life, capable of executing ideas without being conscious of them, evolves first, then mind, still unaware of the one self and infinite quality/delight at the heart of existence. By the very logic of things, the higher poises of relation between consciousness and world are bound to emerge, too, eventually.

There is however this difference: the evolution of life does not transform formless entities back into individuals capable of executing expressive ideas; instead it proceeds by aggregation, manifesting forms as sets of spatial relations between formless entities, and manifesting qualities with the help of forms. More generally, it proceeds by an ascent to a higher poise of relation and a partial but increasingly comprehensive integration of the constituents of the lower poise [4, Book 2, Chapter 18].


1. [↑] Phillips, S. (1995). Classical Indian Metaphysics, Open Court.

[2] Sri Aurobindo (2001). Kena and Other Upanishads, Sri Aurobindo Ashram Publication Department.

[3] Sri Aurobindo (2003).Isha Upanishad, Sri Aurobindo Ashram Publication Department.

[4] Sri Aurobindo (2005). The Life Divine, Sri Aurobindo Ashram Publication Department.