Which comes first? Consciousness or Matter?

A day or two ago, you stated that consciousness arises in matter of sufficient complexity. If you know Spira, you probably know he asserts something different, which is that matter and mind and everything else rise out of and are ‘made of’ consciousness. Just wondering if you disagree with him there, and if so, why?

Walt commented and asked a question on a recent post:

A day or two ago, you stated that consciousness arises in matter of sufficient complexity. If you know Spira, you probably know he asserts something different, which is that matter and mind and everything else rise out of and are ‘made of’ consciousness. Just wondering if you disagree with him there, and if so, why?

That’s a great question. I know Spira’s work only somewhat, but I have seen videos where he explains that point of view, which does seem to be contrary to what I said.

One thing I have come to appreciate in recent years is the ambiguity, uncertainty, and paradox that is involved in discussing some of these higher and deeper “mysteries.” Things may appear to be one way when perceived from one point of view, but they may appear to be quite different when perceived from a different point of view. And the thing is, they may both be correct.

Of course, we can see this easily in a normal every day object, when viewed from two different angles it may appear to be two entirely different objects. But there are some other great examples of this phenomenon in science, such as simultaneity in the theory of relativity, and the fact that particles can be in multiple locations and even multiple states of being simultaneously in quantum theory (e.g. Schrödinger’s cat).

What I’m trying to get at is that I’m not sure if it is only one or the other, either-or. It may be both-and.

Consciousness may arise in matter, and matter may also arise out of consciousness.

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I think it may just depend on how we look at it. I think it may be somewhat like the question of which came first, the chicken or the egg. Of course, the answer is neither, and yet we do have chickens and eggs. It’s like a Zen koan, to get us to consider the paradoxes of reality more deeply, which perhaps help us eventually surrender our intellect to a transrational mystery.

How might matter and mind and everything else rise out of consciousness? I can’t recall exactly how Spira explains it, but the following is how I think of it. Consciousness is awareness, and all the things which we may become aware of arise within that space. Without consciousness, there is no awareness of anything, and thus no “things” as such. All the “things” which we know of are no such “things” if there is no consciousness. Matter as we think of it only exists because there is consciousness to conceive of it in that manner.

It’s like the problem of a tree falling in a forest. If there is no one there to hear it, does it make a sound? I think the answer is no, it doesn’t make a sound. I think sound is qualia, and arises only within consciousness, and exists nowhere outside of it. There may be external correlates that are related to the perception of sound in consciousness, but without a conscious mind to interpret and translate those correlates into a perceived sound, there is no sound as such.

The deeper question is this: if there is no one there to see it, does the tree exist at all? I perceive that something exists, but it may be nothing at all like a tree. A “tree” is a construction of images, ideas, concepts, memories, experiences, perceptions, language, history, symbols, and expectations about part of the world that we encounter, and it is a very human construction. It is how we humans particularly view these things, how we perceive them, how we understand them, what we think they are, and all of this is constructed in milliseconds within consciousness when we see a tree, or even consider the word “tree.” Does anything like a “tree” exist for something like a snail, or a mouse, or even a chimpanzee? I don’t think so. They don’t view these things out in the world anything like what we do.

But you may say that they still view them as some “thing.” There is still some “thing” there for the snail, mouse, or chimpanzee to interact with. Yes, but these are all creatures with varying levels of consciousness, more primitive and simple than humans, but conscious still. And with those varying degrees of consciousness they construct very different worldviews and perceptions of what that “thing” is.

What about for something that has no consciousness? Does a tree exist for a rock? Or for a puddle of water? Or for a star in the sky? Does the tree exist in any way substantial to these? I don’t think so, because they have no consciousness to be aware of anything else, or even themselves. How can they be said to exist as such, when that suchness arises only within consciousness? (Although the case can be made that things like rocks, water, and stars like our sun contain the very constituents that make up living things like ourselves in which consciousness arises, and which becomes aware of these things, and in this way these things become aware of themselves. So, in that way, they do exist, in us, as us, and the world as we perceive it all around us, of which we are made.)

But can they be said to exist in some way apart from any consciousness whatsoever? I think the only way that things may be said to exist apart from consciousness is as a multitude of diverse patterns and forms of energy. Energy seems to “crystallize” into what we know as matter, but if we look really close at it, it is not solid at all, but whirling clouds of subatomic “particles,” which are not really particles at all, but more like fluctuations within various energy fields (i.e. an electron is a fluctuation of energy in the electromagnetic field). The energy of these fluctuations has just been captured in a particular form for a time. We name that form, and give many attributes to it, all kinds of stories and qualities arise from our conscious interactions with it, but the energy will not stay in that form forever. It is continually changing, even as it appears static to us. It will be released at some point entirely, and move into very different patterns and different forms. It is all one big giant dance and flow of energy, patterns, and structures.

Some would say that none of this energy manifests in the world as anything particular unless and until consciousness encounters it, after which it “becomes” some “thing.” Nothing exists in isolation. All things exist only in interactions, and so when our energy interacts with other energy, some “thing” seems to arise in that interaction. It must arise. There is a communion of energies, and some “thing” emerges in that communion.

In this way, matter only comes to be known as such within consciousness, and “arises” within consciousness. Outside of this, it is hard to say what exists, even “energy,” for to perceive it as anything in particular is to categorize it, which is something that consciousness does, which also limits it to being something which we think we know.

But I think that doesn’t negate the reality that something like energy has to come together in very precise ways in order for consciousness to arise. The energy patterns must be ever so intricately ordered, with many layers of nested complexity, in order for awareness to arise in that energy. This seems to be apparent from our most basic experiences with living and non-living things in the world.

And that’s the paradox. But it’s also the miracle and our divinity, for energy to become aware of energy in a conscious being is something infinitely remarkable which continues to perplex humanity. It is the Great Mystery. For we don’t know how it is that consciousness exists at all, or how we could possibly be aware of our consciousness. And yet we do exist, we are conscious, and we know it.

We are that energy that has become aware of itself as such, and this is why we are One with it all.


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8 thoughts on “Which comes first? Consciousness or Matter?

      1. First eggs evolved and much later chickens evolved utilizing a pattern of reproduction borrowed from others.
        Therefore, the egg came first, and the chicken came later!

          1. Is it? I’m not so sure everything can be reduced to matter. Is our experience of the color red material? Or the experience of the taste of salt? Are these experiences made of matter? Or is consciousness, and our experiences in consciousness, an immaterial quality?

  1. I don’t understand this Bryce. It seems you haven’t addressed the core of what Rupert Spira is saying.

    Let’s grant for the moment, that you may be correct – “energy” of some kind exists apart from Awareness (I’m deliberately capitalizing “Awareness” – which Ramana Maharhis, and David Bentley Hart, in his own way, have categorized as “Existence-Consciousness-Bliss,” Sat-Chit-Ananda).

    The thing is, from the beginning of your essay until the point of your assertion of the existence of energy apart from Awareness – you provided me with no reason to follow you to that point. There was nothing in what you wrote to indicate any logical or empirical method to come to the conclusion that there is some reason why I should believe in the non-empirically provable statement that energy can exist entirely independent of consciousness (notice, to repeat again, I’m not arguing against your point; I’m simply said I fail to see you’ve provided a sufficient logical basis to warrant what seems to me to be an unbridgeable ontological leap – a veritable chasm)

    Spira appears to me to be saying, “Starting, empirically, with what we know – forms in Awareness, there is no reason to posit the existence of pure forms apart from Awareness,” or in your language, energy apart from Consciousness.

    I’m left, after reading your very well written post, with the same question I’m left with after reading almost all dualists, physicalists, materialists, naturalists, positivists – why can’t you provide me a logical and/or empirical reason to believe in what you claim to exist (energy apart from consciousness).

    The second part of that question is, why? What value is it to hold such a non-empirical belief? It makes, to my understanding, order incomprehensible.

    Current cosmology holds that for something like a trillionth of a second after the “Big Bang,” there was utter chaos, that some order “emerged” which led to what we call “laws of nature.”

    If intelligent Awareness transcends and pervades time and space, the emergence of order (as the emergence of sentience, emotion, intelligence, etc) makes perfect sense. But if insentient, non-intelligent, non-living energy is primary, then nothing – as far as I can see – in the universe makes any sense, and in a way, virtually everything about the current universe would be possible, as there would be no explanation for order.

    This seems to me the conclusion of Nobel prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg’s essay, “Does Science Explain Everything? Anything?” though he tried to weasel his way out of it by saying ,”We scientists don’t have to accept philosophers’ definition of “explanation,” we have our own meaning” (which apparently is that things that “just happen” like the emergence of laws of nature are perfectly good “explanations” for everything else).

    1. Don, good thoughts. I’m not sure I set out to empirically prove that there is energy apart from consciousness. I was offering ideas for consideration. Energy (or matter) may be the same thing as consciousness (or mind) at some more fundamental level. There may not be a duality here, but they may both find their source in a more ultimate One.

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