Mark Zegarelli
Mark Zegarelli

Insight 16: 
Existence and awareness are one.

Jesus said, "I am the All. Cleave a piece of wood and I am there. Lift up a stone and You will find Me there." 

                       ­­The Gospel of Thomas                                            


This insight is the natural outcome of the previous two insights. It falls into place quite easily now.


And yet, it’s a revelation.


Imagine the Earth some 4.5 billion years ago, when it was still a cooling ball of molten rock. Over tens of millions of years, gravity pulled the heavier elements to the core, and up rose water as superheated steam. As more time passed, the steam cooled and fell as rain, gathering drop by drop into pools that eventually formed a vast ocean on the uneven and newly-forming surface crust that was also cooling. Then, as this ocean stabilized in composition and temperature, literally 2 billion more years had to pass before the chemicals in it would combine in such a way as to create the first living cell that was capable of multiplying itself. And life was born.


I hope as I’ve sketched out what I believe to be a fascinating and compelling scientific account of Earth’s history, you were able to imagine a few of these events in your mind.


Now, step back from these images and realize that, even if the account I just presented is 100% factually accurate, what occurred didn’t in any sense “look” like what you just pictured.


First of all, while there would have been direct light from the sun and stars, as well as reflected light from the moon and planets, there were no eyes capable of turning that light into electrical impulses, and no brains or even nervous systems capable of turning those impulses into images.


Yes, yes, you may say, But even though there were no humans there to witness it, the Earth, in fact did look like what you described – or, at least, it would have looked that way if someone had been there to see it.


But I need to push back on that. Are you really saying, as a scientific conjecture, that billions of years before the human eye and brain had in any sense started to evolve, the cooling blob of matter we now call Earth “really” looked the way we picture it? At the very least, it seems to me that it might just as easily “really” have looked the way a fly, with its two compound eyes, might have seen it. Or, for that matter, how a bat with its poor vision enhanced with radar might have experienced the terrain.


I hope you see the problem here, which needs to be seen as a problem – that is, which needs to be problematized: Everything we humans know of objective existence, we know subjectively through our own awareness. And unless we attend to and engage this obvious fact, we’re going to be left with an unclear and misleading picture of the universe.


For example, science tells us (and I have no reason to dispute) that our Sun stabilized billions of years ago and, since that time, has looked very much the same as it does now. It would be unscientific to suggest, But since no one was there to see it at the time, perhaps it didn’t exist. But I believe it’s entirely within the purview of sound scientific thought to push back at the idea that the Sun “looked very much the same” on entirely different grounds and ask, What do you mean by “looked” very much the same?


My point is that everything we know of what exists occurs as subjective experience. So, in what sense is it a scientific statement – that is, statement that could be falsified by further careful observation – to discuss existence apart from awareness?


I’m not saying that the Earth, the Sun, and the Universe didn’t exist before beings capable of observing them had evolved.  I’m also not saying that when you turn your back, the part of the room that’s behind you disappears into non-existence. I’m simply stating the obvious fact that what exists outside of awareness is, by definition, entirely unknown. To the extent that we know something about the universe – through physical artifacts, equations, logical reasoning, or simply pictures in our minds – we know it through our awareness of these things.


I’ve come the long way around on this topic of how existence and awareness are inextricably bound together, because it’s so easy to misunderstand this idea, either through a lack of clarity or willful refusal to engage it properly.


So let me say this as clearly as possible: Awareness bestows on us everything we know about space and time. To another being whose awareness has evolved differently, space and time themselves might look and feel very different. Potentially, even the primary importance that we humans attribute to space and time might not carry over to this being. And most importantly, as aware beings, none of us can begin to formulate a true picture of what existence without awareness might look like. Even so, we can easily fall into the all too simple formulation that it would look “much as it does now, only without us there.”


As you can see, I’m pretty passionate about clarifying this point. That’s because it’s really, really subtle. And that’s because our minds are so very adept at wallpapering over this particular blind spot without bothering to inform us that they’ve done so.


That’s why the question, If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound? befuddles almost everyone who comes across it. Because, when a tree falls, any physicist can tell you that the inevitable result will be ripples of perturbation in the air around it which, if they reached a human ear, would “sound like” a falling tree. But what they can’t tell us is what it would “sound like” to an aware being who evolved in a radically different way from a human. And what they really can’t tell us is what a falling tree actually sounds like independent of awareness of any kind.


Sound quality, volume, and timbre; color and brightness; texture, heat, and cold; odor and taste in all their separate varieties: All of these emergent qualities of matter – everything we directly experience as existence – are entirely dependent upon awareness to fully come into being. It’s just that awareness - not simply perception, or the myriad forms that awareness can take, but awareness itself -  is so ubiquitous and slippery that we project it even into places and situations where it expressly isn’t present: for example, when we believe we know what a falling tree “really” sounds like or the Sun “really” looks like apart from awareness itself. 


Now I know I’ve picked a fight with a whole slew of philosophers, from the amateur to the iconic, over the last few millennia in the history of human thought. Nevertheless, tempting and engaging as these lines of thought may be, we're going to have to tear ourselves away from them, because the path we’re tracing out for ourselves diverges from theirs. The point I’m making, with doubtless too much handwaving, is a humble one:


What we typically call existence or the universe, or even the multiverse of ultramodern quantum theory, is entirely known to us through our awareness. This awareness includes the collective knowledge of history, science, mathematics, and – well, everything. And whatever might exist outside of all that may appear knowable but, in fact, by definition isn’t, because knowledge itself is a function of awareness.


That is, to make the leap: Existence and awareness are one.


As I said up top, it’s a revelation.


If this particular revelation is something that you can understand and begin to accept – or even grudgingly agree to so that you can see what follows from it – you’re ready to move on to Insight 17.