Higher knowledge is that which makes known the fundamental nature of everything. Is such knowledge possible and if so how is it to be sought? These are pressing questions because we live at a time when human knowledge of the world around us is growing faster than previous generations could have imagined possible. And very recently there have been particularly fascinating advances in the understanding of nature.
The Large Hadron Collider at CERN near Geneva accelerates beams of protons to near the speed of light and then causes them to collide so that researchers can detect the particles and radiation that occur only in such extreme conditions. As was well publicized, using the LHC, strong evidence has been found to support a theory of how elementary particles gain mass, by interacting with a field associated with the so-called Higgs particle.
Turning from fundamental particles to cosmology, it is now well understood that the universe is expanding, or rather that the distance between galaxies is expanding. At least within the region that can be observed, galaxies are moving apart in such a way that the distances between all of them are growing equally. This evidently implies that the universe was smaller in the past, and began from a point of extreme density. Researchers have been extrapolating backwards to describe how this expansion has occurred. And current theories now reach back to a time when the age of the universe was in the order of 10-32 seconds.
In the light of developments like this there has been speculation about whether we could be close to a scientific explanation of everything. Progress seems to have been so rapid, is it not likely that soon there will be a scientific answer to the question of why everything is as it is, and where it comes from? For some who are inclined to a scientific understanding of the universe and find religious or spiritual ideas unattractive, it is appealing to think that there could be such an explanation in which an entirely natural process would take the place which some religious teachings ascribe to a God as the ultimate source and origin of all that is.
Still, not all developments are indicating that the end of the scientific quest is in sight, or even getting closer. There are no suggestions that the LHC and related projects might be closed down in the foreseeable future because their tasks are approaching completion. In fact, after publication of the results concerning the Higgs particle, the LHC was upgraded to almost double its power to enable it to create even more extreme conditions. This was in order to seek evidence for theories about another level of nature, and no-one is seriously suggesting that this will be the last. Whatever answers are found, or not, will be the starting point for the next set of questions.
In the search for an ultimate explanation of everything, the limit is not just a matter of how powerful the instruments become. There will always be a limit, in principle, to how far explanation can go. This is because with any empirical explanation, something has to be accepted as given initially.
There is a well-supported theory that our universe began with what have been characterized as fluctuations at the level described by quantum mechanics. This theory may be further substantiated, yet even if it is true, it cannot explain the origin of these initial conditions and laws. The theory does not and could not include a reason why the universe is like this and why these natural laws apply. One could only say that it just is the case that there is not nothing, there is not chaos, there is not an infinite number of other situations, but there is this particular universe where the features described by quantum mechanics apply. There would be no explanation of why all this is as it is, simply the statement that in fact it is so.
Sometimes it is said that these quantum fluctuations describe how something could come out of nothing. But this is to speak loosely. The theory is that energy could appear from space, for short periods of time. But, space as described at this level is very different from nothing; space is believed to have come into being with the big bang, it is rich in structure, and is intimately associated with time and energy. So to say that here something comes from nothing is either a bit of an intellectual blunder, or rather misleading.
It should be clear that the intention here is not to belittle the immense significance and interest of these theories as descriptions of the world. The point being made is simply that they do not and cannot in principle provide an explanation of everything, in a way that would take the place of a God in some religious views as an answer to all the questions. There is no reason why scientific researchers have to make such claims for their theories; it is only those who wish to engage in polemics beyond scientific questions who might choose to do so. The most comprehensive and successful scientific theories must leave the question of the ultimate source of what they describe completely unresolved. Actually, by revealing more of the complexity and structure of the world, they highlight the magnitude of what remains unexplained when all the facts are known.
Beyond theories about the origin of our universe, there are further hypotheses, with respectable support, which suggest that there may in fact be many universes, with variations on the laws of nature. This has been referred to as the multiverse. One appeal of this idea for some of those who support it is that it provides an answer to the question of why the universe we live in should be suited to life. Researchers have noticed that for a world like ours and beings like us to exist, the laws of nature need to be precisely set. The rate of the expansion of the universe has to be just right; the forces acting within atoms and between galaxies have to be suitable; specialists have concluded that if such basic features of the universe were different from the way they actually are, life as we know it would be impossible. It seems to be an extraordinary fact that the universe is ‘fine-tuned’ for life in this way, and this requires explanation. According to some multiverse theories, there may be so many universes that it is not so surprising or statistically unlikely that among them all there is one or more where conditions are such that higher life forms can occur.
Still, even if such a version of the multiverse theory were true it would still leave a limit to how much has been explained. The multiverse would have been described, we would have learnt that the multiverse exists, but there would be no explanation of why there is this, rather than nothing or anything else.
Some theorists have extended the idea of the multiverse with the suggestion that there are so many universes in the multiverse that everything that could happen does happen somewhere. This, it is proposed, really would be the ultimate explanation of everything, because here there would be an answer to the final question of why it is all like this: the answer is that it has to be, because everything that could happen does happen.
This is so speculative and far from anything testable, and raises so many difficulties of its own that one may be inclined not to take it seriously or to find it positively unscientific, so the idea is highly complex and controversial. But as a potential solution to the ultimate question of why our universe is as it is, its inadequacy quickly becomes apparent.
A difficulty arises about the meaning of ‘anything that could happen’. If this means that some worlds could happen and others could not, then the question arises of the origin of the principles that define what is possible or not, so the question of the source of what ultimately determines the nature of things stands completely unresolved. On the other hand, if it were suggested that there is really no limit to what could happen, we would be led into further difficulties. It is possible that there could be absolutely nothing; it is possible that there could be only one universe consisting of one hydrogen atom. If absolutely anything that could happen had to happen, then there would have to be something, and nothing. In other words, the theory leads to contradictions, so it is false. Leaving that aside and allowing the idea to get off the ground momentarily for the sake of argument, there would be different laws of nature in different regions, our universe would be embedded in wider totalities, and therefore, far from explaining everything, our scientific theories would be merely descriptions of how things are in one speck of total reality, while all the rest remained entirely unknown to us. Thus, whatever its other merits or otherwise, to the question of the ultimate source and origin of everything, this multiverse theory offers no solution at all.
We have been led into strange and highly speculative ideas. The point we wish to make is that even if they were true, they would not have provided an ultimate explanation of everything. Either we would be left in complete ignorance, or we would know some fundamental qualities of the universe or universes, but have no explanation of why it all is as it is and not otherwise.
For some people this simply means that we are presented with a great mystery. For others it suggests that beyond the limits of our understanding we can only conceive of some mighty power or being which is ultimately responsible for all this, which is incomparably greater than we are, and yet which is the origin and support of our own being. This is the basis of religious feelings, which therefore remain as alive as ever. It is a reasonable human response to the great mystery, but it brings us no closer to a real knowledge of what is that ultimate being or reality. We have inferred that this ultimate being must be there, but apart from that, we can say nothing about it, as it is beyond anything we can understand with our minds.
Does this mean that there is a limit to what can be known beyond which we cannot go?
It is not only in recent times that it has been understood that however many facts we know, there are still fundamentals which remain unexplained. In one of the Upanishads we find this interchange between a pupil and a teacher.
[The pupil asks] What is that through which, if it is known, everything else becomes known?
[The teacher replies] Two kinds of knowledge must be known, this is what all who know Brahman [Absolute Reality] tell us, the higher and the lower knowledge.
The lower knowledge is the Rig-veda, Yajur-veda, Sama-veda, Atharva-veda, phonetics, ceremonial, grammar, etymology, metre, astronomy.
But the higher knowledge is that by which the Indestructible [Brahman] is apprehended.
Chandogya Upanishad, 7:1:1-2
So according to this teaching there are two kinds of knowledge, which could be called higher and lower. The lower knowledge refers to everything that can be known about the world; higher knowledge is knowledge of the absolute reality.
The list here includes all the branches of worldly knowledge available at the time this text was written; it mentions grammar and the rest, and also the Vedas. The Vedas are the scriptural basis of religious teachings, so it might be surprising to find them included in lower knowledge. The point is that the Vedas contain ideas about the creation and sustenance of the world, and how one might propitiate the powers at work there; these are ideas about the phenomenal world, the realm of change according to cause and effect. So whatever is being described here cannot be the ultimate explanation of things, and therefore according to this text, all this belongs to lower knowledge.
Higher knowledge, according to the Upanishad, is that, by knowing which, everything becomes known; that is, which reveals the ultimate source and nature of everything. So we come back to the question of whether such knowledge is possible, and if so how might it be realized?
According to the traditional teachings of Advaita Vedanta, there is such a higher kind of knowledge, and it can be realized. Still, these teachings are not concerned with giving us new facts or theories about the constituents of the world. If we want to know about the building blocks and forces of nature, careful observation and analysis is the way to find out. Spiritual teachings are not going to give us alternative answers to the same questions asked by science. The spiritual teachings are concerned with a different way of looking, another way of enquiring into the nature of reality. And we should not expect alternative answers to empirical questions; we need to be open to a completely different vision in which the divisions and differences that characterize the empirical world-view do not arise.
So what is this new way of seeking? Up to now we have been looking into things using our senses and minds. These are good tools for dealing with practical matters in the world, and it might seem that there is no other way of finding out about things. But in all this it is easy to overlook something important, which is that there is a difference between the world as it appears through our minds and senses, and reality itself. What we experience has passed through our senses and minds, which are highly complex instruments that have evolved to help us survive and prosper in the world. But they are themselves details within reality and what they present to us is quite different from reality as a whole. Through our senses and minds everything appears separated into different points in space and time. And perhaps most important of all, there is the difference between the things that are experienced and the one who experiences, the distinction between subject and object. There is no reason why those separations should exist in reality itself, in fact logic clearly points to reality as a homogeneous unity. This suggests that the way we experience things is far different from reality: but this should not surprise us—science tells us that.
Now the question comes, might there be any way of knowing about reality without using our minds in the way that creates the difference between our experience and reality? In fact, one might say that this is a fair description of basically what we are trying to do when we meditate. In meditation we are seeking for something which is not conditioned by the forms of perception and conception. Here we are not looking outwards into the world in search of truth, and neither are we looking for some mighty Being who creates and sustains us from some dimension outside ourselves; in meditation we are seeking reality as the ground of our own being. Logic suggests that the ultimate reality is the basis and substance of our own being and might thus be sought as such. Here is the one point where there might be a kind of knowledge that does not involve a distinction between the knower and the known, between subject and object. And as reality is one, not many, to know the reality in our self, or as our Self, would be to know the reality in all. Just as to know one atom of gold is to know all atoms of gold, to know the true nature of our individual self is to know the universal Self. This is where the possibility arises of solving the great question of the ultimate nature of everything.
This might sound like a specialized pursuit, but it is continuous with a universal human need. All of us are prompted frequently to turn within, to find a way through the motion on the surface of the mind, and reconnect with what is lasting underlying the changing impressions. We might call this meditation, contemplation, prayer, simply moments of inner recuperation, or no name at all. In time we become more consciously aware of a need for careful inner enquiry, with guidance when it is available, and at this point we may adopt the traditional time-tested meditations and related practices, with the explicit goal of discovering the objectively real behind conditioned appearances.
To understand how meditation might lead to knowledge which transcends the subject-object divide, we need to be clear about an important point in the teachings, the distinction between the mind and consciousness. Often we speak loosely and refer to mind and consciousness as interchangeable terms, but in fact they are distinct and this is made clear and explicit in the non-dual understanding. Mind here includes our thoughts and our feelings and also all the sensations to do with the body; all this is mind. Everything in the mind, like the world of which it is a part, has a particular form and character. Consciousness, by contrast, is not the mind or any content in the mind; it is that which is aware of the mind. In itself it has none of the forms that belong to experience; it is the pure light in which all experience occurs. One essential difference between the mind and consciousness is that the mind is constantly changing, and consciousness never does. In the spiritual enquiry it is necessary to distinguish between the mind and consciousness, and one can quickly do so by applying this criterion: anything that changes belongs to the mind, while consciousness itself is ever the same, like the sun it simply shines on all things equally.
Closely connected to the distinction between mind and consciousness is the understanding of the nature of our self. Generally, one is vividly aware of the mind and its contents, and has the compelling sense that ‘I am this mental activity, this is my self’. Psychology also takes the aggregate of mental qualities as the self of the individual. In the non-dual teachings, however, it is made clear through careful reflection that all mental activity belongs to experience, while the Self is properly identified as the unchanging subject. And this Self is identical with consciousness, when consciousness is distinguished from what it illumines.
Having understood this, we are ready to embark on the kind of meditation that has knowledge as its aim. In meditation, conscious awareness is deliberately turned from mental activity onto the light of consciousness itself. This consciousness is not the product of mental processes, but their prerequisite, so here unmediated knowledge is possible. As consciousness is the Self, here too the subject-object divide is resolved. And this instance of Self is not different from Self universally, so objective reality is approached.
This is far from being only an abstract philosophical exercise. In meditation we go experientially into the truth that I am not the mind, I am pure consciousness, in my Self there is no darkness, no boundary. It is a great relief to detach our attention from all the happenings on the surface of the mind and to do what we earlier called getting more deeply into contact with ourselves, with the inner light which we are in essence.
So these teachings present us with a doorway to a higher knowledge. It is worthy of being called a higher knowledge because it is not knowledge mediated by a mental process where experience and reality are different, rather it is direct knowledge of reality at the one point where this is possible, in the nature of consciousness, Self itself. Through meditation and the related disciplines, and guided by the principles of non-duality, it is possible to pass through the surface of experience to the underlying truth, the Self, in all.
It was noted before that these teachings do not provide alternative empirical hypotheses; they offer a completely different way of enquiring into the nature of reality. Still, the aim of this enquiry is knowledge; it may not be a form of knowledge that can be expressed in a formula or shared publicly, but it is knowledge, in fact it is direct knowledge by acquaintance. These teachings hold out the possibility of knowledge of the reality underlying all, and in this sense knowing that from which all this apparently arises.