The vast sweep of the night sky unfolds a great question: What does it all mean? Man has pondered this question as long as he has walked this planet as a self-conscious being. Examining the brief span of centuries that we call human history suggests that our distant ancestors lived in a very different world, one full of living spirits of all various grades and powers. The lowest were quasi-conscious denizens of an underworld of mysterious forces that produced the "mechanics" of the everyday world. These beings could be influenced and even directed by those wise enough to understand these elemental entities and the principles that governed their actions. Those who failed to understand them could be swept away in turn, but the wise man was ever the master of his own fate. He understood his station in nature and his responsibilities to himself and others. Aware of his birthright as a self-conscious spiritual being, he learned how to cooperate with nature and with the divine entities whose will assured the orderly progress of life and growth.
Watching over and protecting all were countless gods, whose luminous stellar bodies shone brilliantly through the dark night of infinity. From gods to men to atoms, all was an endlessly varied kaleidoscopic reflection in substance of our underlying unity as divine beings. While human selfishness could temporarily unbalance and even disrupt this living stream of spiritual energy, the universe invariably restored harmony. To be sure, in every age individuals have fashioned their own views and values. But throughout the ages this overall vision of a universe of spiritual consciousness could be found in teachings of great seers and in various aspects of the common thought of the day.
With the Western Enlightenment many thinkers erected an artificial barrier between the two main expressions of consciousness -- spirit and matter. Scientists and clerics tacitly agreed that henceforth each would concentrate on only one of the forms -- the scientists on matter and the churchmen on spirit. This truce avoided the issue of authority by means of a separation of jurisdictions. As always, the priests set themselves up as the gatekeepers of divinity: ordinary men would have to pass through the stone portals of the church in order to touch God. Yet many scientists became equally dogmatic. They proclaimed with papal infallibility that matter alone formed the basis of all that is. Even our higher intellectual faculties were seen, fundamentally, as but the complex motions of atoms devoid of any real significance or cosmic purpose. Chemists and physicists developed a completely materialistic theory of matter based on atoms that were minute, indestructible, indivisible units of substance. It was posited that all the material forms and processes of the universe could be explained by the interactions of these discrete atoms.
Laboratory experiments led to theories of light based on quantum mechanics, or the idea that atoms have a stable existence only at certain discrete (hence quantifiable) energy levels. This led to correlations between spectral lines observed in heated gases and the atoms said to form those gases. When similar lines were observed in the spectra of distant stars and galaxies, matter-minded scientists exulted in proclaiming that all the visible universe appeared to be made of the same atoms as found here on earth. No need for gods or spiritual elementals; matter alone could explain it all.
This materialistic view of the universe has been expanded and modified over the years. Indivisible atoms have given way to vastly more complex atoms composed of a few simple subatomic particles -- protons, neutrons, and electrons -- bound together by strong and weak nuclear forces and the electric force. These three types of particles are themselves said to be formed of a complex array of lesser components, whose number and complex interactions seem to multiply with each new increase in atom-smashing power. At this extremely minute scale, the search for unifying simplicity seems to be leading to ever increasing complexity, even to theories that multiply the dimensions of space itself.
The ancient view of atoms is also both simple and complex, but based on a very different view of matter and consciousness. The key notion is that an atom is an indestructible center, a single focal point of being that defines an individual. Wherever there is manifestation, it finds expression as a spiraling vortex of life-consciousness-energy centered on a singularity -- the center of the whirlpool. The same principle holds for all manifested beings, be they god, man, or atom. Without that unique center they could not take form in matter since there would be nothing to hold the form together. But if we try to pin down the essence of that center, to define it precisely in time and space, it gradually dissolves into an unknown infinity. This is reminiscent of the evanescent particles governed by the uncertainty principle of physics which, when they are constrained in time and space too tightly, gain such enormous uncertainty in energy that they vanish into statistical improbability, or spontaneously transform into some other kind of particle. In effect, their very existence is put in doubt.
Materialistic scientists have also greatly expanded their view of the universe as a whole. Early on they held that the known universe consisted of what we now call our home galaxy, the Milky Way. It was not until the late 1920s that astronomers demonstrated that there were other "island universes" or galaxies strewn through space. Today scientists recognize untold billions of galaxies, each containing billions of stars. They use atomic theory to explain the vast output of light and power provided by each of these suns. They purport to explain the birth and eventual death of these galaxies and their vast hosts of stars based on their understanding of material atoms acting under the influence of universal forces such as gravity and of a new kind of force called dark energy or anti-gravity. Paradoxically, this is both a bottom-up and a top-down conception. It is bottom up because the only reality is said to exist in the material atoms themselves and their corresponding energies. Never mind that more recent research finds these atoms dissolving into a bewildering array of imponderables. Fundamentally, most scientists cling to the dogma that matter and physical energy are all there is, so everything must be the result of the play of atoms in some way or another.
At the same time, modern scientific theory takes a very top-down approach to the atoms. They are themselves the result of the action of universal laws. Since the laws are identically the same everywhere, so are the atoms. The atoms that form distant quasars are indistinguishable from the atoms that form a human body, differing only in distribution of type and energy. All the atoms throughout the universe are required to obey the same physical laws, which in turn must somehow arise out of matter or, to be more precise, out of matter-energy-spacetime. For Einstein convinced the scientific community that matter and energy are simply two expressions of the same underlying reality, and that both are intimately connected to time and space. But if matter and energy are simply expressions of a deeper reality, how can they be fundamental? And how can they give rise to universal laws of nature (such as those that produce the same spectral lines in immensely distant galaxies as here on earth) if they are themselves the product of those laws? The fundamental paradox is unresolved in modern scientific materialism, for both the atoms and universal laws are each said to give rise to the other.
Christian cosmology is also a top-down belief since it holds that the universe was the result of a unique creative impulse by a mysterious, all-encompassing God. Western science has geometrized this belief into the standard model of the cosmos, which has the entire material universe bursting forth into existence from a singularity whose true nature defies any description in conventional terms or thought. Out of this discontinuity in space arose all the matter, all the energy, all the time -- everything we know as the universe. This cosmic birth is said to have occurred some 13 billion years ago in what is called the big bang.
Until recently it was thought that gravitational attraction was the dominant force in the universe, since physical matter everywhere is believed to exert a force of attraction on all other matter. The big bang postulates that all the galaxies are still flying apart due to the momentum imparted by the explosive birth of the universe. Hence astronomers busied themselves with the task of cataloging and adding up the total matter in the universe. Was there enough to slow -- or even reverse -- the expansion of the universe? Would the attraction of gravity be strong enough to pull all the galaxies back together in a "big crunch"? The standard model currently says no, there is not enough matter to pull it all back together. In fact, in the catalog of matter and energy, astronomers have come across what has been called dark energy, a kind of negative gravity acting upon space itself, causing it to expand and carry ordinary matter along with it.
These ideas lead to a very interesting view of space itself. Far from the static, empty entity scientists at first conceived it to be, it has become the fundamental source of all manifested existence. Matter and energy become the condensation of the void. Gravity becomes a distortion of the shape of space, a ripple in infinity. Ideas fashioned to explain the atoms become universalized in time and scale. The cosmos and all it contains are born and shaped by attraction and repulsion just as in the atom. Everywhere is found the balance of opposites, unknowable universality expressed as the interactions of individuals.
Are not our conceptions returning to where we began? Are we not still poised between infinities -- human atoms swirling in eternity? Could we conceive of clusters of galaxies or of universes within atoms if we did not ourselves encompass them in some way? Could we find manifestation in matter if the very atoms of our bodies had not been forged in the furnaces of the stars and strewn throughout space in the stellar "big bangs" of the supernovas? As the ancients would tell us, we are the children of the gods, of the countless luminous beings that brighten boundless space. Even the single-minded pursuit of the mysteries of matter leads us to the divine within us. Let us then fulfill our destiny as humans and be as gods to the billions of atoms that live and move and have their being within us, just as we are the expression of our own god within. The power of choice is ours. We can turn in on ourselves and shrink the scope of our thoughts and aspirations to the narrowest confines of our material self. Or we can bring our will, and our hearts, into harmony with the currents of light and love that inform and sustain the universe of matter and spirit -- our inner and outer infinities of consciousness.
(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 2003; copyright © 2003 Theosophical University Press)