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Does the Universe have an Inner Life?

W.H.S. Gebel

Determinism and Uncertainty

According to Sir Arthur Eddington, a prominent astronomer who confirmed Einstein’s theory of General Relativity, 1927 was the year when it became possible to reconcile science and religion. It was the year of the Solvay Conference in Belgium where leading scientists met to discuss the newly emerging field of quantum mechanics. In marking that year as a milestone, Eddington was referring to the replacement of the strict determinism of classical physics by the indeterminacy implied by the uncertainty principle inherent in quantum physics.

Based on the laws of classical physics, the state of the universe, its structure, and the details of its elaboration, can be predicted, at least in principle, for any future time once it is specified for a particular moment. Therefore the classical universe is mechanical, evolving by random processes with no apparent meaning, purpose or direction. In contrast, quantum physics holds that an unlimited number of future states are possible at each moment. Thus it is not deterministic, and can only predict probabilities for the development of the universe. This difference between classical and quantum physics does not in itself add meaning, but it does eliminate a rigid barrier.

So in 1927 a major obstacle to the coexistence of science and religion was removed. Sir Arthur, in The Nature of the Physical Reality and New Pathways in Science, went on to propose the terms of a peace accord whereby each field would agree to limit its area of expertise to a specified domain.


How are the relevant domains to be specified? For Eddington, this requires an examination of the notion of reality. The scientific revolution which began in the 17th century championed a consensus reality that requires the results of experiments to be reproducible, at least in principle, by anyone.

Eddington probes deeper into the question of what constitutes reality. His criterion for reality is what is meaningful or significant. Working with Einstein’s theory of General Relativity, Eddington demonstrates that scientific explanations have a cyclic nature. As terms are defined, it turns out that every term depends on another for its definition. It’s like trying to get to the bottom of a definition in a dictionary. He calls it a cyclic explanation because he finds himself cycling back to certain basic terms which must remain undefined. Eddington concludes that consensus reality is a skeleton or framework that can capture in great detail the incidental but always misses the essence.

The 12th century Sufi mystic Shahabuddin Suhrawardi struggled with the same problem: how can one find the basis of knowledge when it seems to be intrinsically referential? He concluded that the essence of knowledge is self-revealing. There is a knowledge that is direct, immediate, and spontaneous. The Sufis call it presential knowledge. This knowledge is commonly experienced, for example, in the form of aesthetic sensitivity, conscience, striving toward a purpose, caring, feeling responsible, and experiencing sacredness. What is implied in Suhrawardi’s description of presential knowledge is that there is an inner reality that fills consensus reality with meaning.

For Eddington the proper domain of science is the realm of impressions of the outer life that are measurable through the senses. Direct or presential knowledge which comes from within is a domain science cannot probe. As he states in The Nature of the Physical World:

A defense of the mystic might run something like this. We have acknowledged that the entities of physics can from their very nature form only a partial aspect of the reality. How are we to deal with the other part? It cannot be said that the other part concerns us less than the physical entities. Feelings, purpose, values, make up our consciousness as much as sense-impressions. We follow up the sense-impressions and find that they lead into an external world discussed by science; we follow up the other elements of our being and find that they lead, not into a world of space and time, but surely somewhere.

Stated more simply, we could say that the domain that science is well suited to explore is the outer life, and the domain of the spirit is the inner life. He examined his own experience as a scientist and as a man of faith, and concluded that the inner life is a domain for mystical religion, by which I think he meant experiential religion apart from theology and dogma. So far do the arguments of Eddington go.

The Inner Domain

If the scientist is well suited to study the phenomena of the outer life, who would be the scientist’s counterpart in the study of the inner life? I believe it is the mystic who is most qualified to discover the knowledge of the spiritual reality Eddington marked out as the other domain. It is the mystic who enters the silence of the inner life with patience and trust, who cultivates the breath as a gateway to deeper concentration, who develops the discipline of stillness, and who empties the psyche of self to more clearly receive the self-revealing knowledge coming from within.

In the literature of the religious traditions of the world, mystics have recorded their discoveries of the nature of spiritual reality. Often these insights revolve around the place of the human being in the greater scheme of nature. However, humans are newcomers to the realm of the universe. Science has determined that human-like ancestors go back perhaps 3 million years. Recent mapping of the cosmic microwave background, the remaining remnant of the Big Bang radiation, fixes the age of the universe at 13.8 billion years. Thus human-like creatures have been around for about .02 percent of the age of the universe. In other words, the universe has existed for 99.98 percent of its life without human intelligence. What is the nature of the inner life of the universe without human intelligence, which has only flashed on the scene in the very last instant, so to speak?

Eddington’s analysis relies upon the common human experience of an inner life. Was there anything comparable to that inner life before human intelligence appeared in the universe? Isn’t this idea simply an anthropomorphic projection? But what if we turn the idea of an anthropomorphic projection on its head. What if human intelligence is a theomorphic projection? By this I mean that cosmic intelligence has always existed and has taken upon itself a particular manifestation as human intelligence. (Though use of the prefix “theo” suggests “God,” with all of its associations, for simplicity I am limiting the use of theomorphic here to cosmic intelligence.)

The idea that intelligence is universal and has always existed is a widely shared belief among mystics. So the domain for the mystic to explore is not just the personal inner life but the inner life of the universal intelligence, in other words, the inner life of the entire universe.

Universal Intelligence

How does a mystic know something about the essence of consciousness? Intelligence is known directly as presential knowing. If I examine what is truly me, first I think of the body. But the body is substance borrowed from the earth, to be given back when it has exhausted itself. Am I my mind or my feelings? But both mind and feelings are subject to frequent changes. What is there about me that is persistent, that has continuity? There is a bare sense of “I” that has always been with me. It doesn’t seem to change with age. If I strip away my sense of identity from everything but this bare sense of I, and if I examine it more deeply, I can further recognize it intuitively as pure intelligence. It is absolute intelligence, not relative intelligence, present in everyone and everything equally.

Now a picture emerges of the inner life of the universe. Mystics report that intelligence has always existed and is seeking to know itself by unfolding its nature in ever more sophisticated and complex material forms. The universe has an outer life in the functioning of a plethora of materialized forms, organic and inorganic. It has an inner life as the essence of those material forms which accounts for their vitality. Taking human experience as a clue, I believe that consciousness, conscience, creativity, inspiration, motivation, and sense of purpose are aspects of the inner life of the universe. Think of these phenomena as pre-human templates that were present in a rudimentary way from the earliest manifestations of matter. As theomorphic projections, they are archetypes from which human experience has taken its familiar shape.

An Integrated Worldview

I believe that a natural harmony between science and religion can be achieved with the help of a wider recognition of Eddington’s domains and mutual respect for the methods of scientists and mystics. He drew attention to the boundary where outer and inner life meet; perhaps there is room for a sharing of perspectives at the boundary that would benefit both fields of knowledge.

The discovery in the twentieth century of the vast expanse of the universe—100 billion galaxies each on average studded with 100 billion stars, the whole assembly fixed in a space-time matrix that has been expanding for 13.8 billion years—has impressed upon us a stunning physical vision of the universe. Further revelations about dark matter and dark energy, as well as speculations about the earliest moments of the Big Bang, have kept public attention focused on a material framework in which we might wonder what is our place.

It is natural to imagine that life on our planet, including human life, is utterly insignificant in such a mind-boggling vastness in whose description the word “billions” is cast about so casually. Is human life simply a chance outcome of physical processes working mechanically? Or is our existence just the consequence of the existence of innumerable possible universes in which, like monkeys typing randomly and eventually producing Shakespeare, one universe happens to have the right conditions for life, without any meaning or purpose? As Eddington pointed out, since science only attempts to explain how things work, it can at best offer a functional description of nature, without essence.

If the universe has an inner life, what are the implications for revising our worldview? Imagine that pure intelligence has always existed, that it is the essence missing from the picture science has discovered. The unfolding of the universe according to mystical insight is a result of pure intelligence seeking to discover its secret by working its way through the simplest forms of matter into ever more refined and suitable instruments. In this picture our existence as a complex material form capable of self-awareness is a most significant stage in the story of the universe.

This vision of the inner life of the universe can coexist with the spectacular discoveries of the scientific worldview. It doesn’t contradict scientific ideas. Also, although it stops short of religious doctrines, it needn’t conflict with any religious point of view. It comes from the insights of mystics who have dived deep into their own inner life and have found their way to the universal inner life. To arrive at this understanding, they have dedicated themselves to a demanding discipline and a self-denying life. Yet every soul potentially has access to direct knowing.

I believe that in the course of evolution, humanity has developed a sensitivity, refinement, and awareness that makes possible for all of us to have a glimpse of spiritual essence. This opens up the possibility of a broader, meaningful worldview in which a new understanding of the purpose of human life in this vast universe may emerge.

Image Credit: Milky Way above Pakistan’s Karakoram Range by Anne Dirkse via Wikimedia Commons

William Hassan Suhrawardi Gebel received a Ph.D. in astrophysics from the University of Wisconsin and was a member of the faculty at State University of New York at Stony Brook. He received his training in the Sufi path from Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan and Pir Zia Inayat-Khan, served as Secretary General of the Sufi Order International (now The Inayati Order) for 8 years, and is currently a senior teacher and retreat guide. He is the author of Root Speaks to Bud: Fulfilling the Purpose of Life.

Read more about W.H.S. Gebel

Comments (1)
  • So lovely a paper that I had to pull some quotes for the next retreat that I am guiding. This speaks to our time, and the particular contribution of the Sufi, the unification of matter and spirit. One can only wonder what will unfold should when these two seeming poles come together. I look forward to reading your recently published book.


    — Jehanara Wendy Tremayne on February 12, 2016

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10 February 2016

Tagged Under
mysticism, cosmology, religion, universe, science, scientific cosmology, Living Universe, Sensing Presence,
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