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.