A Living, Conscious Universe

By Sarah Belle Dougherty

Increasingly scientists describe the universe as hierarchical or holarchic, meaning that everything is composed of smaller organisms yet is more than the sum of its parts. Is this "more" the life and consciousness which expresses itself through a particular group of smaller parts? A growing number of researchers consider consciousness as fundamental, rather than as a byproduct of matter.

As human beings we are composed of organs, which in turn are composed of living cells. But each organ is more than a collection of cells, just as we are more than a collection of organs. Cells are very complex, composed of many organelles, some originally quite independent but now living symbiotically within the cell. Such interrelations continue into the subatomic realms as far as we can make distinctions. Looking in the other direction, we are like a tissue or organ of the earth formed of human cells. But we have not discovered our role or how to cooperate effectively with the earth organism. The planet is part of the solar system, which is a tiny portion of the galaxy. Galaxies form clusters, and these clusters form structures.

Slowly the ancient view of the heavens as filled with living beings is reemerging. Thinking of consciousness on a cosmic scale, a personal deity may come to mind. But how would a being in one of our cells perceive our consciousness? With its minute time scale, it could observe only a tiny slice of our activity. Perhaps over generations regular bodily rhythms might be noted. But what could it possibly know of our state of consciousness? How could it tell whether we had the consciousness of a buddha, an evildoer, an animal, plant, or mineral?

So is it when we look out into the universe. Whether galaxies we see form the body of some exalted spiritual being, or the equivalent of a supercosmic crystal or speck of dirt, we cannot know. How can we attribute to this consciousness personal interest in terrestrial affairs?

That a star or cell is conscious does not imply that it has human consciousness. We are not in a position to know the consciousness of nonhuman inhabitants of the earth or wider universe unless we tune ourselves to a more universal frequency of consciousness. And what are life and consciousness, in and of themselves? Just as matter and energy are equivalent and convertible, so consciousness and substance may be two sides of one underlying unity. Instead of deriving everything from matter, it may be more accurate to postulate an unknowable unity behind all manifestation, which expresses itself through life-consciousness-substance as three aspects. If all in the galaxy originates from the unity behind this inseparable trinity, then we are all expressions at different levels of unfoldment of that originating cause. We can trace that cause back until we reach a point where human understanding fails, and we must designate it as "unknown" and "unknowable."

Because all are subordinate parts of various more encompassing beings -- earth, solar system, galaxy, and on endlessly -- we together form a oneness or universal brotherhood, and as time goes on we must learn to work cooperatively with each other and everything around us, and with the larger beings we help to form. At the same time, we must take responsibility for the impact our thoughts and actions have on the quasi-infinitude of smaller beings which form us, from cells to atoms, physical and psychological, mental and spiritual.

  • (Reprinted from Theosophy Northwest View, June 1998, in Sunrise magazine, August/September 1998. Copyright © 1998 by Northwest Branch, Theosophical Society.)

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