A Metaphysics for the New Age
“Collective human consciousness and life on our planet are intrinsically connected.”
Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose
“From your thought springs your reality. From your ideas your future emerges.”
Neale Donald Walsch, Tomorrow’s God: Our Greatest Spiritual Challenge
Thoughts become things. Radiate positive vibrations and watch the universe reverberate in kind; we create our own reality; think high thoughts and your world grows brighter; focus on the negative, and your fears materialize. Thoughts inside attract things out there.
Tomorrow’s God will come down to earth and be part of us, as humankind awakens to find that its concept of a supreme being wrongly reflects the real deity. Life is God acting out its purpose, becoming real in physical form. A universal mind underlies the world; speak to it and it will supply an answer. Make up your mind; think positive thoughts; enrich yourself; leave your individual ego and create a New Earth.
And so the new age speaks of a tidal wave soon to wash over us, joining the old truths of religion with new-age optimism; one mind, one world.
But for these teachings to become real, the new age will need more than high thoughts, bright-colored books, and promises of a better world. It will need a logical, credible grounding. It will need a coherent worldview, a metaphysics, and specifically, an integrated picture of the universe that explains both spirit and the material world.
Standing against the new spiritualism is the worldview of scientific materialism, which today dominates the way we think.
What is scientific materialism? At its core, this worldview holds that the fundamental constituent of the universe is matter, mindless stuff, and that what we call mind, spirit or soul either do not exist or are some sort of emergent property of matter. If we break down any portion of the physical world, whether a rock, a tree limb, or the human heart, materialists tell us we will find only particles, “stardust,” something lifeless and ordinary, and surely nothing God-like.
Materialists assume that the entire world we experience exists independently from the mind and outside of its control. There is a real world out there, they say, working away on its own power unaffected by mind or spirit.
Thus, a material scientist, when presented with the claim that “thoughts create reality,” might respond as Nobel prize-winning physicist, Steven Weinberg, did to mind-over-matter claims: “What possible physical signal from our brains could move distant objects and yet have no effect on any scientific instruments?” (Dreams of a Final Theory).
And so the new age suffers from the same flaw as most mystical belief systems: how can thoughts, those wispy, insubstantial, subjective shadows impact the hard brute matter of the world, much less move mountains?
This is the problem of any spiritualism, whether it be the supposed spoon-bending feats of Uri Geller or the red-sea-parting powers of the God of the Bible: how can sheer emotion, thought or the deepest prayer alter, much less create, this hard, material world? Are not spirit and matter wholly different substances?
And the question remains: where is the link between the thought and the thing?
Materialism supplies an answer: thoughts do not move things. Things move things. In the language of Newton’s third law of motion, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Newton’s moving parts are things, not thoughts, and Newton’s mechanics are those of a machine not a mind. So in the end, modern science rejects the new spiritualism and all its variants because they talk about things that cannot be detected and measured by scientific instruments.
But perhaps the error lies in our conceptions of mind and matter, rather than in the limitations of scientific instruments. Perhaps we have conjured up a battle between mind and matter because we have misconstrued what the terms stand for.
Even Mr. Weinberg would not dispute that both “spirit” and “matter” are also mental conceptions. Our mental conception of “spirit” is of some internal feeling that lifts and inspires; the “eternal breath;” at bottom, some powerful, but insubstantial force. Interestingly, we have direct knowledge of the “spirit” concept because it is something we feel inside. Team spirit; the sense of being “down-in-the-dumps,” moodiness; hope; excitement; a striving for transcendence. We know it’s there.
Matter, it turns out, is also at least a mental conception. We have an idea or concept of matter: something solid, hard, substantial and constant. A granite rock; tree trunk; concrete wall.
But oddly, under current theories of modern (yes, materialistic) science and according to some of the greatest philosophical minds, there is in fact no such thing as self- sustaining “matter” existing outside the human mind. Might matter, like spirit, also be only a concept of the mind?
In the early 18th Century, the British philosopher, Bishop George Berkeley, launched a powerful attack against the concept of matter. He said that what we call “matter” is nothing but a collection of qualities − extension, figure, motion, color, roughness, taste − that “are only ideas existing in the mind, and that an idea can be like nothing but another idea; and that consequently neither they nor their archetypes can exist in an unperceiving substance. Hence, it is plain that the very notion of what is called Matter or corporeal substance involves a contradiction in it.” (G. Berkeley, Principles of Human Knowledge, Part First, 8.)(emphasis in original). It is a contradiction because while we assume matter to have an independent existence from mind, we know this thing we call matter only through ideas. How do we know this matter exists outside of the mind of ideas?
From this standpoint, Berkeley concluded that the whole framework of the material world resided in “the mind of some Eternal Spirit,” and there is no other “Substance than Spirit.” (Id. 6). Although Berkeley’s viewpoints have been criticized as being solipsistic (the world is all in my head) and mystical (where is the Eternal Spirit?), they point in a direction that appears more promising with time.
Another great British thinker, David Hume (1711-76), came to a similar conclusion when he pondered the question of why the common person continued to believe in the continued existence of a mind-independent world when all that is ever present to the mind are ideas. Hume said:
“Now since nothing is ever present to the mind but perceptions, and since all ideas are deriv’d from something antecedently present to the mind; it follows, that ’tis impossible for us so much as to conceive or form an idea of any thing specifically different from ideas and impressions. Let us fix our attention out of ourselves as much as possible; let us chase our imagination to the heavens, or to utmost limits of the universe; we never really advance a step beyond ourselves, nor can conceive of any kind of existence, but these perceptions, which have appear’d in that narrow compass. This is the universe of the imagination nor have we any idea but what is there produc’d.” David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Book I, Sec. 6.) (emphasis added.)
In other words, dear scientists, do all the theorizing you desire, but in the end you are only discussing a world of the imagination, not a mind-independent objective world.
Modern scientists typically ridicule these positions either because they do not understand them, or because they undercut the foundation of their own materialistic worldview; a worldview that assumes the existence of the very mind-independent material world that Berkeley and Hume showed was conception of the mind.
That’s all fine and good. No one reads, much less agrees with, Berkeley and Hume any more. But then here comes the shocker for those who devote some attention to the issue.
When we turn to quantum theory, physic’s leading theory of the nature of reality, we find that physicists and the idealist philosophers are saying very close to the same thing but in different ways. Physicists repeatedly remind us that “atoms are not things.” Rather, at the base of reality all we have are “quantum waves,” something resting in the borderland between a particle and a wave, or the wave function, a formula telling us where we might find a particle if we decide to look for one. (See Bruce Rosenblum & Fred Kuttner, Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness). Nobel prize-winning physicists, Robert J. Laughlin, tells us that “[q]uantum mechanical matter consists of waves of nothing.” (A Different Universe). Jim Al-Khalili, in his book, Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed, acknowledges that “no one really knows what the wave function actually is.” It is not a “classical particle with a definite location at each time.” Rather it is a probability wave that “collapses” into a discrete particle when observed.
As Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner write, “There is no way to interpret quantum theory without encountering consciousness.” Why? Because even though quantum theory says only wave functions exist, scientific observations somehow convert the wave function into a particle. As soon as consciousness is found to play a role in the “collapse of the wave function,” the next question is, how much of a role? Instead of mind-independent matter, are there mind-independent wave functions “out there” waiting to be collapsed into a real world? Or, was Berkeley right after all? Are we simply looking at a dream in the mind of an Eternal Spirit?
Quantum theorists say that conscious observations are necessary to create a picture of physical reality; Berkeley said that a mind or spirit is necessary for us to experience a material world. Isn’t the difference between these two viewpoints one of emphasis rather than of doctrine? Have scientists, in belittling Berkeley’s philosophy, missed out on a chance to integrate science with idealism?
Despite the findings of quantum physics, the scientific mind cannot bring itself to dispense with the principle of objectivity, the belief that “there is a real world independent of human perceptions.” (Ernst Mayr, This is Biology: The Science of the Living World.) Science remains the emotionally-detached search for truth; it does not want to inject spirit, life, or mind into the wave function; it only wants to observe particles in motion.
Both the idealist philosophers and quantum theorists agree that there is no such thing as a mind-independent world of matter. Rather, under both fields of thought, matter is a concept we have implanted upon the external world. In other words, both matter and spirit are internal concepts and exist on the same level. Therefore, spirit should be able to affect matter in the same way that the material world − a bad day at the office, the home team comes from behind to win, our best friend moves away − affects spirit.
So we are now ready to outline a metaphysics for the new age. And it is simple. All physical reality does in fact reside in an Eternal Spirit, and this spirit is what we call God. The mistake we have made is in not understanding that our bodies our part of the stage setting of the physical world; we are living spirits in a spiritual world that is as real as can be to us.
If we are one mind acting out a drama in the midst of a powerful dream, then most everything the new age writers says can be true: thoughts can make up things because the thought and the thing are connected, like a dreamer and its dream.
For the new age to be something both new and credible, it will at some point be necessary to eliminate the independent-world assumption of scientific materialism and join spirit with matter, the dreamer with its dream. Then will truly live in a new age of humankind.