How a single consciousness could create the cosmos
Imagine that there’s nothing but you — a single consciousness, all alone. You’re conscious, so you have the capacity to be aware. But if there’s nothing but you, what can you be aware of? Only this: yourself. At a certain point, you become aware of yourself, and this is the beginning. You are One, and then you see yourself, and now you are Two: two copies of the original consciousness aware of each other. This, I suggest, is the first step in the process by which the single universal consciousness — the “One without a second,” as it is called in the Upanishads — creates the world of form, the physical world and all of us who live here. The One becomes conscious of itself, and the cosmos is born.
In this post I’m proposing a new dynamic model for the creation of the universe. It’s based on the ancient metaphysical view that the ultimate ground of being is a universal consciousness, a single, undivided consciousness that is beyond space and time. This is an idealist metaphysics, and as such it offers a solution to the “hard problem of consciousness” that bedevils materialism. But the specific model that I propose also leads naturally to a picture of reality much like some recent models proposed by leading-edge physicists, and thus points toward an understanding of how the physical world might arise.
So, let us imagine that there’s a single consciousness, and nothing else, and see where that leads us. To make things vivid, I began this post addressing this consciousness directly as “you” — for in the end, I’m talking about universal consciousness, which in my view is what we all share. But for now, let’s talk about this single consciousness in the third person. It’s the One. It’s pure consciousness, with no internal division or structure at all. It has no room for dichotomies like now and then, here and there, us and them — so it is prior to time, space, and any kind of separation. It’s the One, and it simply is.
Suddenly the One becomes aware of itself, and now there are Two: observer and observed, or subject and object, or Self and Other — two avatars of the One looking at each other. This is the moment of conception, the leap from unity to duality that begins the history of the universe. As a concept, it’s extremely difficult to visualize or describe in words, for it’s the paradox that generates the cosmos, the foundational equation that violates the laws of number: 1 = 2. When the One sees itself, it divides into Two copies of itself. This is, I suggest, the event that brings the universe into being; and so it’s the axiom upon which my theory is founded. I can’t prove that it happens this way, but to me it feels like the logical consequence of self-reference. Think about it — if a single, undivided consciousness becomes aware of itself, does it not see itself, as in a mirror, looking back?
For now, let us assume that it’s true, and see where this leads. One consciousness, suddenly aware of itself, becomes Two. You might say that this Twoness is only an appearance, but in a world of pure consciousness, appearance is reality. One becomes Two, and the process of division does not stop there. Each of the Two avatars of the One looks at itself, and divides in two — and there are Four. Then each of the Four looks at itself, and there are Eight. The Eight become Sixteen, and the Sixteen become Thirty-Two, and so on — and thus the One gives birth to the Many.
I’m describing here a process that has many facets, focusing first on the purely numerical aspect of the growth. It begins with One that is conscious. The One looks at itself, and now there are Two. The Two look at themselves, and now there are Four. The growth may not follow a strict doubling pattern; as the process continues, the avatars on a given level of the hierarchy might self-observe and divide at different moments. And there is another possible variation of this process that would produce an even more rapid growth. But these are details that I will consider in a future post. The essential point I’m proposing here is that a single consciousness can, simply by turning its gaze upon itself, multiply into many. Using a visual metaphor, we might say that the many are images or reflections of the original One, but I will generally call them avatars or copies to suggest that each of the many is actually equivalent to the One — for the one who is being seen is the same as the one who is seeing. The One is always there, prior to time and space on what we may call the level of essence; while the many apparently separate avatars of the One live on the level of manifestation.
Time and space emerge, and the many copies of the original consciousness go on to create the universe in all its splendor. But before imagining more of how that might work, I’d like to consider the logical or mathematical bones of the structure we have so far. We have a hierarchy that begins with the single universal consciousness, then ramifies to become many avatars of the original One. Assuming for now a simple doubling pattern of growth, we can model the process with a directed graph, as shown below.
The graph is not intended to represent anything physical; it’s an abstract representation of a causal network. Time runs up the page, beginning at time 0 where the first node represents the universal consciousness before the first act of self-awareness. That first act divides the One into Two copies which are represented by the two nodes at time 1. Those two copies of the original consciousness observe themselves, thus each dividing into two, as shown here at time 2; and so on, as the One multiplies to become Many.
The graph resembles a family tree, and it can be understood as a causal network where causal relationships flow up from one level to the next. Significantly, it’s an example of what mathematicians call a causal set, or causet, which is a discrete partially ordered set. And this connects to exciting recent work in physics suggesting that a causal set structure might underlie the physical world. The physicist Rafael Sorkin is the originator of the causal set program, which he summarizes with the pithy equation “Order + Number = Geometry.” He suggests that time and space may emerge from a dynamical causal set structure or process, and that a complete theory of quantum gravity can be built on these foundations. Much work has been done along these lines in recent years. I’m particularly intrigued by the work of Lee Smolin and Marina Cortês, who have proposed a model based on energetic causal sets, which are causal sets composed of events that are endowed with energy and momentum. Smolin has combined that approach with some of his other work into what he calls a causal theory of views, which he describes as “a new ontology for physics, in which the history of the universe is constituted of views of itself.” I’m not a physicist, and I don’t pretend to understand the details of Smolin’s work, but to me his general program sounds a lot like the self-creating universe that I’m introducing in this post.
I’m certainly not claiming that Rafael Sorkin or Lee Smolin or any other physicist would support the idealist metaphysics that I’m proposing here. My impression is that most scientists implicitly assume a physicalist metaphysics in which matter (or energy, or quantum fields) is the primary reality, while consciousness is a secondary phenomenon that somehow emerges from the physical world under certain conditions. But I believe this physicalist assumption may be the main stumbling block in the search for a theory that unifies general relativity and quantum mechanics. Perhaps a theory of physics that gives a central role to consciousness is needed. To point in that direction, I’m envisioning a process that begins with consciousness, and suggesting that what results when consciousness acts upon itself is a causal set structure from which spacetime and the physical world emerge.
How exactly time and space emerge from an underlying discrete structure is a question for the physicists, and many of them are working on this problem. In addition to Sorkin, Smolin, and their collaborators, Stephen Wolfram is pursuing an approach that seems promising to me. In another post I will offer my own speculations about how time and space may arise. For now let’s return to the big picture of the Self-Creating Universe, and take another look.
In the primal state of oneness, time and space do not exist; so we cannot ask how long the One endures nor how large it is. But when the One-to-Many growth begins, it may appear as an internal process, as follows: The One sees itself, and divides into two parts, each a copy of the whole. Each part looks at itself, and now there are four parts; and so on. The original One is the entire cosmos, and its self-awareness drives a process of self-division that creates the Many; and as three dimensions of space emerge, the many copies are “small,” and are located “inside” the cosmos. On the level of manifestation, where time and space prevail, these many small copies of the cosmos are the elements that come together to form the physical universe.
A natural question to ask here is this: What form do the many copies of the One take? Are they electrons and quarks? Are they human beings? If the original One manifests as the entire cosmos, could the original division into Two manifest as some division in Nature that we can recognize — as mind and matter, perhaps, or as matter and energy? What then would be the division in the physical world corresponding to the original Four? These questions call for further inquiry; and perhaps in another post I will make some suggestions in that direction. Here I will say only that what makes the most sense to me is that the many small copies of the cosmos manifest as elementary particles of some type, perhaps quarks and leptons, or perhaps as smaller atoms of space that underlie all matter. It’s worth noting that this view provides a way to understand the nonlocal connections between separate particles that we see in quantum entanglement, since each apparently separate element is ultimately equivalent to the One that lives prior to space and time. And if each element is a conscious being, it’s not surprising that measurements by conscious observers who probe deeply enough might produce unpredictable results. This could help explain the indeterminate nature of measurements on the quantum level. Perhaps electrons really do know when we’re looking at them!
The next question I will consider is this: If the self-awareness of the One reverberates internally in this way, dividing the One into many parts, each equivalent to the whole, becoming Many in a flash, does this process ever end? I suggest that the answer is yes. At a certain point, the expansion phase comes to an end, and the universe is Many; and then the contraction phase begins, as the many tiny avatars of the One begin to come together. They are drawn by the fact of their essential unity, and over time they join into greater and greater wholes; until one day they are One again. The Many thus give birth to the One. And then again there is only the One, for a time beyond measure; until the One looks at itself — and the great cycle repeats.
The One-Many-One cycle can be pictured with a directed graph, as shown below; this is just the graph from earlier, extended to include the process of the Many rejoining. The dashed arrow represents what happens in between — the details that make up the history of the universe.
In my view there is no absolute time, so it makes little sense to ask how much time it takes for the One-to-Many part of the cycle. There are simply the events that occur, one at a time, as the One looks at itself and the Many are born. But later, perhaps, as the many develop relationships among themselves, and the universe becomes more structured and complex, the time dimension is fleshed out, coming to resemble what we now call time. And from our perspective, looking back and making time measurements using the relative motions we use to define seconds and years, it may appear that the One to Many growth happened extremely quickly. It may look like a rapid cosmic inflation where the One divided into an extremely large number of tiny copies of itself in almost no time. And then, perhaps, began the long, slow process of the Many rejoining to become One — the process that we measure now in billions of years.
When the inflationary period ends, the cosmos is filled with an immense number of elements. We might call these elements cosmions — hypothetical elementary particles, each a tiny copy of the entire cosmos. Each cosmion is a conscious being, and once they have been created, they begin to do what conscious beings do: they become aware of each other, they communicate, they form relationships, and begin to organize themselves into larger wholes. They are conscious, and they are moved by emotion; sometimes they are attracted to each other, and sometimes they are repulsed. But on the level of essence the cosmions are one, and so they understand each other, and beneath the more superficial feelings they long to unite; and so they are drawn together. They manifest, perhaps, as quarks and electrons; and they join to form atoms; and atoms join to form molecules; and so on, in a process of ever-increasing complexity. At each new level of organization, the conscious parts join to form a conscious whole with emergent properties that are not reducible to the properties of the parts; and each whole goes on to become a part in the next level of the holarchy. As the complexity increases, there’s no point at which life first emerges; it’s all alive. Prokaryotes arise, and then join to form the first eukaryotes. Larger networks of cells learn to cooperate, and plants emerge, and animals, and hairy apes, and even elephants. Yes, indeed, this is a teleological view — no tale of random accident. This is a view of living organisms forming and evolving, drawn by a goal — the goal of increasing in consciousness, and remembering their common origin, and eventually rejoining in a cosmic unity. For that is the end of the tale I’m telling — we continue organizing ourselves into greater and greater wholes, until we finally awaken, and look at each other, and remember that we are one; and at that point the Many become One again. This is the culmination of the One-Many-One cosmic cycle: the creation of a single universal consciousness, the One that will go on to create the next cosmic cycle.
To say it again: the One-Many-One process shows up in the physical world as a rapid inflation, a growth from One to Many, followed by a process of the many coming back together, drawn by the force of their essential unity, forming relationships, building communities, societies, and so on — and what it looks like to our scientific eyes is a history of particles coming together under the influence of gravity and other physical forces, forming atoms, molecules, finally stars, planets, people, and the whole cosmic panorama. And it will continue, with consciousness at many levels leading the way, with the ultimate goal of coming together in a great cosmic unity. On the physical level, perhaps, a Big Crunch; on the deep level, a joyful cosmic reunion, the Many finally home again, once more One. Now, for a time that can’t be measured, in a place with no location, the One simply is. The whole history of the previous cosmic cycle reverberates in its being; for an eternal moment we all remember — or perhaps even live it all over again. Then as One we look at ourselves — the One looks at itself and sees the One looking back; and there are Two now, each a completed cosmos, two looking at each other with a smile. And so begins the next cosmic cycle.
What creates the One? The Many. What creates the Many? The One. And…why? Why would the cosmic consciousness go to all this trouble? Why create a universe? The ancient sages have an answer. They say the One wants to experience things. The One wants to put on a play, and watch it all unfold.
In his book Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution, the physicist Lee Smolin presents his causal theory of views, giving the following one-sentence summary of his theory: “The universe consists of nothing but views of itself, each from an event in its history, and the laws act to make these views as diverse as possible.” This model I’m proposing would suggest that Smolin is on the right track. I’m extrapolating wildly from what he says, but to me his theory sounds a lot like a universe that wants to experience as much diversity as possible. It sounds like the “One without a second,” acting upon itself to create many copies of itself, all with the goal of throwing the greatest party ever.
This seems like a good place to stop for now. I’ll be writing more posts to explore various aspects of the Self-Creating Universe and what it all might mean for us. I hope you’ll join me in this journey, and I’d love to hear what you think.