Thomas J. McFarlane
The web address of this article is http://www.integralscience.org/wolff2008.htm
Copyright 2008 Thomas J McFarlane.
Note: This article is based on the author's keynote presentation at the 2008 Franklin Merrell-Wolff Conference in Lone Pine, California, on June 7, 2008.
In Chapter 61 of Pathways Through to Space, Franklin Merrell-Wolff makes the bold assertion that physics can be a path to mystical Realization:
Once it is realized that he [the physicist] is unfolding the laws governing the obverse of the Real, his knowledge can be employed as a Way to the Recognition of that Reality. I can see how our present physical science is unfolding a peculiarly beautiful Path to Yoga.
How can we understand this provocative claim? Physics, as conventionally understood, is the study of the objective world of matter, while mystical Realization is a radical transformation of consciousness. Thus, it would seem on the face of it that there is little if any relationship between the scientific laws of the physical world and mystical Awakening to ultimate reality.
To understand Wolff's claim, we will examine it in context, quoting and commenting upon various passages from Chapter 61, entitled "The Nature of Ponderable Matter." The chapter begins with the question:
What is the nature of the phenomenal world?
This is the basic question of physics. It arises only because there is an intuition of a deeper reality that is not yet known. This question thus indicates that genuine scientific inquiry is based upon an acknowledgement of ignorance: the true nature of the world is veiled, or hidden. Once this ignorance is acknowledged, we begin by critically examining our current experience of the world. Typically, this begins with our naive, common-sense view. According to this non-critical view, the nature of the world
is the actual "thing" itself, existing quite independently of the perceiving subject. ...Not only is it self-dependent apart from the observer, but it is, as well, substantially as it appears to be to the observer.
For example, in our naive experience of the world, a cup is experienced as objectively existing, irrespective of whether or not it appears in consciousness. Moreover, we uncritically take it for granted that the three-dimensional cup is simply "given" to us directly by experience. But both modern science and philosophy have critically examined this naive view, and both agree that it is fundamentally mistaken. In short, our normal experience of the world is deluded.
As for philosophy,
Genuine philosophers concur in holding that whatever the real world may be, it is at least modified by the senses so that what man directly experiences is something different.
As Kant famously declared, we do not have contact with objects as they are "in themselves." Rather, we only know them as they are filtered by the mind. For example, consider the experience of a cup. In any given moment, we are directly aware of a two-dimensional image. It is our mind, however, that constructs the idea of a three-dimensional object "behind" the two-dimensional visual appearance. Although this mental activity normally happens unconsciously, it is possible to become immediately aware of it, provided our attention is sufficiently stable and clear. To get some awareness of this mental act of constructing the cup's objective existence, hide the cup from view. Then bring to mind the sense that the cup still objectively exists. Now let that thought go. Finally, bring the cup back into view. The immediate visual appearance is clearly distinct from the sense that the cup objectively exists. See if you can let go of the thought while the visual appearance is present. As this experience shows, the objective "cup" is nothing more than a mental fabrication. We do not actually experience or know any objectively existing world as it is in itself.
The naive view of objective existence is also undermined by science.
Also, for the twentieth-century physicist, ponderable matter, that is, matter and form as given through the senses, is definitely known not to be the actual physical reality. The ultimates of matter are apparently wave-systems....
The "wave systems" Wolff alludes to here are the wave functions of quantum mechanics which currently provide the fundamental scientific description of the physical world. These waves are not physical waves, but waves of probability. For example, an atom is not a little solar system, with electrons orbiting the nucleus. Rather, the atom is more like oscillating clouds of probability that can be accurately described only with complex mathematics. So, whatever the nature of the world may be, it is not the objectively existing world of our naive experience.
Both physics and philosophy undermine the view that the world is composed of independently existing material objects. But if physical realism is not the correct basis for understanding the true nature of the world, what is? Wolff invites us to consider the perspective provided by mystical philosophy, according to which ultimate Reality is pure Consciousness. Wolff's First Fundamental expresses this principle as follows: Consciousness is original, self-existent, and constitutive of all things. What is the nature of matter from this perspective? Wolff provides a profound and radical answer to this question:
The apparently inert and lifeless matter comes to be viewed as merely a partially obscured Consciousness. Thus, if we regard a portion of an originally homogeneous Consciousness as partly blanked-out or neutralized by its own other, the result is some degree of relative unconsciousness. This relative unconsciousness is the objective world, or, in other words, the basis of the whole universe as experienced through the senses. ...It may now be said that the universe is produced by a process which we may call a partial blinding, and that the reverse process, i.e., that of Awakening, destroys the universe to just the extent that the Awakening has proceeded.
This passage provides an understanding of the fundamental identity of consciousness and the world: The very experience of a world as existing "out there" arises through a process of veiling consciousness, reminiscent of Plato's allegory of the cave (Republic, Book 7). For example, when we experience a cup as objectively given in experience, the immediacy of consciousness is partly obscured by unconsciously taking the idea of "cup" as a real, three-dimensional object. When that unconscious mental act of predication is consciously recognized, the "cup" is seen to be an idea. Thus, the extent to which we posit objects as independently existing is the extent to which we are unconscious. Conversely, the extent to which we become conscious and Awake is the extent to which those objects are recognized as not existing independently.
It is important to emphasize that the process of Awakening does not involve a physical destruction of the universe of objects. Rather, the universe is recognized as never having had a true objective existence in the first place. Nor does Awakening necessarily require the absence of all relative contents of consciousness. In other words, it is not the primary universe that vanishes, but the secondary universe of objectification. As Wolff explains in the chapter "The Barriers to Recognition" in Pathways Through to Space:
The universe is neither a mistake nor a purposive necessity. But it is an empiric fact, and it is the part of wisdom to accept it as such. ...The state of subject-object consciousness, in the sense of the primary universe, is not to be regarded as pathological. However, the genuinely illusive secondary universe does involve a pathological or hypnotic type of consciousness. This is the universe that is produced by Ignorance and is destroyed when Ignorance is destroyed.
The objectification that gives rise to the secondary universe is thus not a literal blanking of the contents of consciousness, but an ignoring of a portion of consciousness. Specifically, when the predication of objective existence is not recognized, the illusion arises that the imagined object actually exists independent of consciousness. For example, when the three-dimensional cup is taken to exist independently, the two-dimensional visual appearance of the cup does not literally blank out. Rather, there is an unconsciousness of the activity of positing independent existence upon the idea of the cup. This illusion ceases with the clear recognition of the process by which the mind constructs the illusion by predicating existence upon relative contents of consciousness.
According to this metaphysical perspective, the experience of ponderable matter and form is the experience of veiled consciousness. Thus, matter is not itself something substantial but rather a relative absence of true substance. The experience of a cup, for example, is actually an experience of relative vacuity or nothingness. This radical shift of the meaning of substance completely changes what is experienced as real.
A sense of how a shift in metaphysical perspective can change what is considered to be real may be provided by the example of the Copernican revolution in astronomy, as shown in Fig. 1. According to the earlier Ptolemaic system, the Earth was stationary while the Sun and stars moved. Copernicus shifted the base of reference from the Earth to the Sun, so that the Sun and stars were stationary while the Earth moved. This shift in perspective resulted in a complete change in what motions were considered to be real and what motions were considered to be only apparent. For example, the motion of the Sun across the sky, which Ptolemy considered to be a real motion, was recognized by Copernicus to be only an apparent motion due to the rotation of the Earth.
Fig. 1. In the Ptolemaic system of astronomy (left) the Earth is fixed while the Sun and stars move. In the Copernican system (right) the Sun and stars are fixed while the Earth moves.
It is significant that the Copernican revolution did not alter the appearances in the sky or the lawful relationships between them. One could still navigate at sea quite accurately using the Ptolemaic astronomical system. Thus, while the lawful relationships did not change, their metaphysical interpretation was radically altered. Similarly, the metaphysical interpretation of matter as a relative absence of substance does not imply a change in the laws of physics. As Wolff puts it:
There is nothing in this standpoint that militates against the relative correctness of any physical determination. The only thing that is changed is the metaphysical interpretation of what those determinations Mean. There is in this no challenge of the scientist, so long as he confines his conclusions to the limits logically defined by his methodology. He remains our best authority in the determination of objective fact as seen from the perspective he assumes.
To illustrate how this shift in metaphysical perspective might alter the meaning of physical laws, Wolff considers in detail the example of Newton's first law of motion, i.e., the law of inertia. According to this law, matter remains in its state of rest or motion unless some external force acts upon it. While this law itself remains valid within the domain of classical physics, its validity does not require that we view matter as substantial. Instead of viewing the law of inertia as governing substance, we are free to reverse the valuation and view the law as governing the relative absence of substance:
Thus, we would say, the physicist is right in making inertia the prime mark of that which he is studying, but he is wrong if he proceeds to predicate substantial reality of his object of study. Actually he is studying a relative nothingness. This fact does not detract in the least from the practical values of his studies, but simply means that he is dealing with the obverse of metaphysical actuality.
This discussion of the law of inertia illustrates the meaning of Wolff's claim that the physicist "is unfolding the laws governing the obverse of the Real." The laws of physics can become a "peculiarly beautiful path to Yoga" by viewing them from a completely different metaphysical perspective. Rather than viewing the laws as describing the relationships between objectively real material substances, they are seen as describing the relationships between relative voids in true substance.
This metaphysical shift in the base of reference is not merely an intellectual exercise or theoretical hypothesis to be entertained, but involves a transformation in our very experience of the world, a Copernican shift in individual consciousness. In this transformation, we are liberated from the error of attributing reality to the plurality of objects in the universe of experience. The universe itself then becomes a Way to Recognition:
If he avoids this error he can, through the universe, find the Real. Most of humanity has fallen into the error, and that is the cause of all suffering. But the very agency that caused the fall may be used as a stepping-stone to Recognition.
The agency that causes the fall into illusion is the power to project a false reality upon relative contents of consciousness. But by recognizing this agency in action, the relative world becomes a revelation of the real rather than an ignorance of it. The entire universe, including space, time, and the laws of physics, is then experienced as a discrete multiplicity of relative voids arising in the substantial fullness of Consciousness.
Because objects arise through a process of negation of the original substantial fullness, the more concrete or ponderable an object is, the less substance it represents. As Wolff states it, "Increase of ponderability implies decrease of substantiality and vice versa."
Fig. 2. A graph of the inverse relationship between ponderability and substantiality.
A highly ponderable object has a small degree of substantiality (e.g., the lead weight in Fig. 2 has P=3 and S=1/3). Conversely, a very subtle and relatively imponderable object has a high degree of substantiality (e.g., the thought "E=mc2" in Fig. 2 has P=1/3 and S=3). The movement to lesser ponderability thus corresponds to the movement to higher substantiality.
The foregoing discussion gives us a new angle for interpreting the meaning of the technique designed to arouse Recognition by the systematic denial of all that is ponderable or thinkable.
Wolff is alluding here to the classical technique of jnana yoga that involves the systematic discrimination of all objects of consciousness from the transcendent Subject, or Atman. Starting with the gross physical body, successively more subtle "coverings" of the Atman are discriminatively peeled away, corresponding to an ascending leftward movement along the curve in Fig. 2.
The end of the process is the arrival at a seeming nothingness, i.e., pure Consciousness-without-an-object. This stage, plus the identification of one's Self with that seeming nothingness, produces at once the Recognition. But at that moment the Nothingness becomes complete Fullness and absolute Substantiality.
The shift in identification corresponds to an inversion in the metaphysical value given to objects, so that zero ponderability is recognized as infinite substantiality. The curve in Fig. 2, however, does not have such a point on it. The points on the curve represent only the objects in consciousness which have finite substantiality, not the subject which has infinite substantiality. Although the substantiality of an object can become arbitrarily large, it can never actually reach infinity.
The diagram of Fig. 3 provides an alternative symbolic representation of this process. The multiplicity of objects is represented by a horizontal line, where distance from zero represents the degree of substantiality. The subjective point of infinite substantiality is represented by a single point transcending the line. The discontinuity between the subjective point and the objective line represents the subject-object distinction, and also expresses the fact that the subject to consciousness can never become an object before consciousness.
Fig. 3. The horizontal line represents the plurality of objects, with the least substantial centered at zero. Increase in inner substantiality is represented by movement to the left, approaching the infinite Atman, while increase in outer substantiality is represented by movement to the right, approaching the infinite Brahman.
Movement along the line to the left corresponds to increasingly subtle and substantial inner objects, ultimately approaching the infinite inner Atman, while movement to the right corresponds to increasingly subtle and substantial outer objects, ultimately approaching the infinite outer Brahman. As it stands, Fig. 3 represents the perspective of delusion, which sees the transcendent Atman and Brahman as completely inaccessible from the world of objects.
Fig. 4. Rays projected from the point at infinity establish an equivalence between points on the horizontal line and points on the circle. The unified circle represents non-relative Consciousness.
As shown in Fig. 4, however, the objective line and subjective point are equivalent to a continuous circle. Each point on the line corresponds to exactly one point on the circle. In addition, the circle include the point at infinity. Because it represents the common endpoint of horizontal movement either to the left or the right on the line, it shows the identity of Atman and Brahman. In addition, because the circle has no discontinuity, it represents a unified Reality prior to any distinction between subject and object. A relative world may appear by the selection of a subjective point of view on the circle. The other points on the circle are then projected as objects onto the line by this subjective power of awareness. (The model presented here in relation to Figs. 3 and 4 is discussed in more detail in "The Integral Sphere," available on the web at http://www.integralscience.org/sphere.html.)
The process of discriminative isolation of increasingly subtle and substantial objects corresponds to a movement along the circle toward the subjective pole at the top. The crucial aspect of the technique, however, is not completely eliminating all relative consciousness, but shifting the base of reference to the circle, so that objects are recognized as relative regions of unconsciousness within a substantial Whole. This inversion not only provides a completely new interpretation of the meaning of physical laws, but it also allows the whole universe of experience to become a surprising and beautiful Way to Recognition.