IN THE BEGINNING OF CREATION
The Dudleian Lecture for 2002-03
by Seyyed Hossein Nasr
My lecture title may sound somewhat strange, but I chose it on purpose. I
believe that we are, at the present moment, at the cusp of the curve of life—what
the French call course de vie—of the paradigm that has dominated Western
civilization since the Renaissance. And this transformation has at right on
this campus, with Thomas Kuhn, a major American philosopher of science and an
old friend, and a few others, including myself, who were grappling with this
question of paradigm shifts. He and I did not exactly agree on what the shift
was or what we meant by paradigm, but we both felt that a major change was
afoot. Of course, these things do not happen quickly, as he himself pointed out
in his important writings. face present-day civilizations involve not only
solutions within the present parameters within which people think, but also
those parameters themselves—that is, the paradigm within which human beings
carry out their intellectual and also practical activities.
So, I speak about "in the beginning was consciousness." In fact, the
original title I had thought up for my lecture was "In the Beginning Is
Consciousness"— reality here and now. Let me begin by quoting from several
of the sacred scriptures of the world. In the Rig Veda, the oldest of all Hindu
sacred scriptures, we read, "When alone is the dawn beaming over all this,
it is the one that severally becomes all this." The one is Sat, Chit, and
Ananda—that is, the three states of being, blessedness, bliss, and, of course,
We find the same idea in the Tao Te Ching, the primary text of Taoism, which
also influenced Neo-Confucianism. The nameless Tao is the beginning of heaven
and earth, and the same Tao is the mother of the 10,000 things. So at the
origin of the universe you have the Tao, which in fact is also consciousness.
And, of course, we all know the opening of the Book of John: "In the
beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God, and the Word was God."
In chapter 6 of the Book of John, Christ says, "The words I have spoken to
you are spirit and they are life." So this Word is not simply word in the
ordinary sense, but it is the spirit and life; it is consciousness.
Finally, in the Qur'an, in chapter 36, the surah Yâsîn, it is said, "But
His command when He intendeth a thing is only that He sayeth unto it, be and it
is." So the origin is very explicitly stated in the Qur'an to be the
command of God, who is the knower (al-'Alîm) and is supreme consciousness.
When we turn to traditional philosophies all over the world, we see this almost
remarkable unanimity in this matter. We think of the point beyond all forms and
numbers associated with the Lambda of Pythagoras, or of Plato's to Agathon (his
name for that aspect of the Divine otherwise called the Unmanifest or First
Logos), or Aristotle's Divine Intellect. We can think of the esse of St. Thomas
Aquinas, which is also consciousness, which is the origin of all things and
knows all beings, and corresponds to wujűd in Islamic philosophy, which St.
Thomas Aquinas knew well. And outside of the circle of Western Asia, Europe, and
the Abrahamic world, we can turn to Âtman in Hindu metaphysics, which is pure
consciousness, the Self, which is the origin of all things, and also the role
of Tao, and the Neo-Confucian philosophies of the twelfth and thirteenth
centuries. One can go on and on in providing examples.
So where is the exception to the view of consciousness being the origin of
things? The exception happens to be found in the world in which we are living.
Before modern times, there were philosophies for which consciousness was not
primary and "in the beginning." We see it in the Greco-Roman
antiquity; we also see it in certain schools of Hinduism, but these views were
minor and marginal. They did not dominate the worldview of the civilizations in
question. Furthermore, in all traditional civilizations, there was a mentality
in which "in the beginning" did not imply only a beginning in time
somewhere back there but also a metahistorical truth. That is very important.
It is very significant that while in English we say, "In the beginning was
the Word," in the Latin Vulgate it says, In principia erat verbum. So in
principle was the Word, and not only temporally. These other civilizations were
fully aware of this truth. The reality of the primacy of consciousness begins
in modern times at the end of the Renaissance, especially with the Scientific
Before I go further, however, it is important, if we are going to be
philosophically serious, to define what we mean by "consciousness."
There are those who believe that philosophy should only deal with what is
operationally definable, that the word veritas should be removed from the
concern of the philosophy department because it cannot be defined from the
point of operational methods that are used in analytical philosophy.
But there are universal concepts of philosophy to which I am appealing—the
traditional and the time-honored schools of philosophy—which also are very
rigorous, but not necessarily rationalistically. This is because it's
impossible to define consciousness operationally. Every time you try to define
consciousness operationally, you have to make use of consciousness in order to
do so. It is like the famous saying of Pascal, who said that one cannot define
"to be," because every time one uses a sentence to define it, one
says, "that is, it is, etc.," and one is therefore already using the
verb "to be" in order to define being. One then has a circular
argument, and this is not logically acceptable.
It is a paradox that something as obvious as consciousness cannot be externally
and operationally defined. That is true. But we all know what consciousness is
innately, because to know itself involves consciousness. Through a way of
deluding ourselves of being the only reality, we might deny the world out
there, or, through some kind of sophism, try to deny the reality of the
consciousness that is making the statement about the world out there. In both
cases, it is through the use of consciousness that we make a truth claim, a
claim to know. Consciousness is, therefore, the most primary reality through
which we know and judge every other reality.
Consciousness, for traditional civilizations, for religions and traditional
philosophies, is not only a state. It is a substance and not a process. It is
something that is, like Being itself, which at its highest level of reality is
at once luminous and numinous. Consciousness at its elevated levels is at once
knowing and knowing that it knows, knowledgeable of its own knowledge. It is at
once the source of all sentience, of all experience, and beyond all experience
of the knowledge that something is being experienced. That is why even the more
skeptical philosophers have had a great deal of trouble negating it, even those
who have been skeptics from a religious point of view.
We have the supreme example of skepticism in the famous Cartesian method.
Descartes was, I think, wrong in many ways, but he was right in one thing. And
that is: You can doubt everything, but you cannot doubt the fact that you are
doubting. And from this affirmation, of course, comes the famous cogito ergo
sum of Descartes, "I think, therefore I am." What follows from the
"therefore" is unfortunate, because the "therefore" has
other more essential consequences. Descartes should have said, "I think,
therefore God is," or "Consciousness is," but he did not do so.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that even if you negate everything, if you doubt
everything, you cannot doubt the instrument by which you are doubting.
This idea did not begin with Descartes. The great Persian philosopher Ibn Sînâ,
or Avicenna, over a thousand years ago talked about the hanging man. A man
hangs in the middle of space so his feet do not touch anything; his hands do
not touch anything. He does not know where he is. He can doubt the existence of
the earth. He can doubt the existence of the air. There is nothing that he
cannot doubt. The only thing he cannot doubt is himself, who is doubting other
things. So, in fact, Descartes's argument is not the beginning of this concept
in the history of philosophy. Even the skeptical philosophers in days of old
did not deny the primacy of consciousness. The question was, "What mode of
consciousness?" "What kind of consciousness?"
I want to get back now to the significance of consciousness metaphysically, and
the consequences of the denial of its primacy, for our life, religiously and
otherwise. As I have said elsewhere, I believe that it was really with the
Scientific Revolution that "in the beginning was consciousness" was
seriously challenged. At first it was not challenged outwardly by those who
were the great masters who created modern science. Certainly, not by Johannes
Kepler and Sir Isaac Newton, both of whom had even a mystical view of religion
and the belief not only in God but also in a kind of mystical vision of God,
each in his own way. And even Galileo the maverick could not imagine denying
that God created the world. But that is not really the point.
Once having established this new worldview in which God becomes at best only
the creator of the world, two issues arise. First, the levels of consciousness
are all, in a sense, reduced to a single level. That is, the multileveled
structure of the world of consciousness, which you had traditionally, from the
Divine Consciousness, to the consciousness of the angels, of the great
intellects, of the great saints, and sages all the way to the consciousness of
ordinary human beings, not to speak of animals, was all reduced to a single
level of reality. And people spoke of consciousness in the world as being
confined to ordinary human consciousness.
The second consequence, which is even more devastating from the point of our
discussion here, is that it is true that it was accepted by most of the
architects of the Scientific Revolution that God created the world, and that
God had consciousness, because he knew—he is the "knower," and that
he has all the other attributes related to the attribute of consciousness. But
after creating the world he had nothing further to do with it. In other words,
"in the beginning" was understood only temporally. This is the
deistic position, which came to the fore for a long time, and remained so,
replacing the theistic position of William Paley and other natural theists.
Natural theology came to be considered to be, in fact, an oxymoron, not having
any real significance and meaning, even religiously. What lasted much longer
was the deism within whose framework many people still think to a large extent.
During the last 40 years we have heard constantly about the Big Bang theory.
Lectures have been held on how it is related to the perspective of the book of
Genesis, or the Qur'an, and the Abrahamic vision of a creator God. But the
consciousness of God within his creation is irrelevant, because once the Big
Bang has taken place, and the universe is here, one is no longer seen as being
interested in any consciousness in the universe, and in fact the predominant
scientism denies such a reality. One speaks only of energies and material
particles. So consciousness is taken out of God's creation. That is what
resulted from the seventeenth-century Scientific Revolution, and henceforth
consciousness became an epiphenomenon in the universe limited to the human
state. It was through this mechanical view of the universe, complemented by the
Darwinian theory of evolution in the nineteenth century, that the category of
consciousness essentially became irrelevant in the cosmos according to the new
scientific paradigm. It became irrelevant, even if many still believe, that God
created the heavens and the earth. It became irrelevant as far as science and
our situation in the world—that scientism is so dominant today even among many
people who call themselves religious—are concerned.
And it is this denial of the primacy of consciousness that led finally to the
idea of always trying to explain by reduction. This reductionist outlook is one
of the most important characteristics of modern thought: explanation through
analysis and reduction but rarely through synthesis and integration. That is,
the whole is never seen to be greater than its parts, and therefore in
explaining the cosmos we are always after ultimate particles. Long ago, a
well-known physicist thought that within five years we would discover all of
the ultimate particles of matter. Fifty years later, we are still looking for
the ultimate particles of "matter." Because of metaphysical reasons,
it is not just a question of discovering a few billiard balls that happen to be
very small and we just have not found the smaller ones whose discovery is
around the corner. Just put material particles together and create the
universe. And yet we hold on to this idea, and continue to deny higher rules of
existence and the truth that "in the beginning was consciousness."
One example is found at the doctor's office. We are reduced to what the MRI
shows, and our chart, but the rest of us does not count. We are reduced to our
biological aspect, and the biological aspect to chemistry, the chemistry to
physics, and so forth. This is reductionism at work in our personal lives. It
is only recently, in fact, that Harvard University has started a spirituality and healing program at the Medical School, because at least some medical doctors have come to
realize all too well that our consciousness does affect our body in remarkable
ways, even if we cannot explain it according to the prevalent paradigm.
In the realm of quantum mechanics, paradoxically, we have to accept the reality
of consciousness, because we cannot ever know anything without observing it.
That is why some physicists now talk about psychons, but most physicists have
not accepted such an idea. The idea that we have psychic "particles,"
consciousness "entities" or "fields," along with neurons
and all the other particles that are around is itself a way of trying to come
to terms with consciousness. We have ended up with the paradox that we cannot
really understand the universe quantum-mechanically without a consciousness to
observe the quantum.
The reality of consciousness has grabbed us once again and will not let us go.
And the remarkable thing is that when we come to the end of this period of the gradual
dissolution of the Renaissance seventeenth-century paradigm, the reality of
consciousness enters the scene again.
Hinduism, to cite a non-Western example, is the antipode of this seventeenth-
century view, for in the Hindu view everything is a level of consciousness. For
example, a stone's being is a form of stony consciousness, as it were. In
Hinduism, this is perfectly understandable, but in our terms, such an assertion
is not understandable. The same holds true up the line, all the way to the level
of human beings. In contrast to Hindu doctrines and ideas coming from other
religions and philosophies of the East, in the prevalent scientistic worldview
the ontological reality of consciousness is negated from everything in the
world, except for some human beings, including ordinary believers in God. But
in this paradigm, whether one believes in God or not is irrelevant to the
situation of human beings in the world, as far as the significance of
consciousness is concerned.
This banishing of consciousness from the cosmos, denying that "in the
beginning was consciousness" (and also, in principal, is consciousness at
the present moment) has had very deep consequences for the human state, for
what we are suffering through and experiencing today. Let us not forget that
the scientific theory posits that consciousness is an epiphenomenon in the
cosmos, possessed by an insignificant species living on a very irrelevant
planet, in a minor solar system and galaxy, a species some of whose members
happen to be able to claim that human consciousness is irrelevant. But no one
talks about how we happen to be able to make this claim. Our consciousness is
not considered to be a major reality in the cosmos although it claims to know
the cosmos. We consider it to be no more than an epiphenomenon. We paint the
picture of a cosmos that is not only without consciousness but is also dead.
And, nevertheless, we claim that our consciousness is able to study it
objectively. What a peculiar consciousness is this indeed.
What are the consequences of this denial of the principality of consciousness?
First and foremost there has been the withering of religious life by the
reducing of levels of consciousness to the lowest and the most ordinary, to the
level of ordinary causes. I believe one of the reasons for the withering and
marginalization of mysticism within Western Christianity after the Middle
Ages—not only in Protestant Christianity, but even to some extent in Roman
Catholic Christianity—was this loss of vision of the levels of consciousness.
In medieval times, or even in the Renaissance, a Hildegard of Bingen or St.
Teresa of Avila had visions of Christ and the angels, and these visions
had meaning within that universe. Whereas, when Swedenborg was having his
visions in Stockholm, that did not mean anything, given the dominant scientific
paradigm of that time. The meaning of Swedenborg's visions in the Christianity
of the seventeenth century is already very different than that of St. Teresa of
Avila and the Catholicism of the sixteenth century, and the
reason is the banishment of consciousness from the cosmos, and even reality as
such, during the period separating these two figures.
The consequence of cutting off man's consciousness from the higher levels of
consciousness, which, however, did not go away by our denying them, was the
weakening of access to the transcendent. Taking away the ladder or stairs to
the third floor in this building means that you will not try to go up to the
third floor any longer, and gradually the existence of the third floor becomes
denied. Therefore, the quest for transcendence —for the empowering and
illumination of our consciousness, which was the goal of all traditional
civilizations— became irrelevant, explained by many to be an illusion. The desire
for the transcendent and the gaining of perfection— which defines what, if one
views it from the point of view of our ultimate concerns, it means to be
human—became horizontalized. It was reduced to gaining more and more
information but not necessarily luminous knowledge, which meant a negative
transformation of human consciousness.
Another consequence of this loss was that the truths and realities of religion
themselves became lost or put in serious doubt. They became either meaningless
or reduced to metaphors or simply historical accidents. It is not accidental
that most of the influential philosophies of religion that developed from the
nineteenth century onward were based on historical reductionism, of reducing
historical realities to what can be understood materially, and denying
everything that cannot be demonstrated by positive historical methods or proven
in a laboratory at Oxford or Harvard. Since we cannot walk on water, then Christ
could not have walked on water either. And, therefore, if the people say he did
walk on water, either they were blind or they had not been as well educated as
us, or it had some other meaning, and has to be interpreted metaphorically on
the basis of our truncated view of reality.
The whole question of the language of religion—the way it spoke to humanity,
from the greatest miracles to everyday religious life—became unreal. The
turning away in droves of people from religion in the eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries in the West was not at all accidental, because religion addresses
humanity in the context of a universe that is full of consciousness. Not only
is the divine reality consciousness, but also there are the hierarchies of
angels, of various conscious beings that are now reduced to UFOs. This emphasis
of religion upon a cosmos replete with conscious beings holds also true in the
non-Abrahamic world, in the Buddhist tradition with the hierarchy of the
various Buddhas and boddhisatvas, and all kinds of other beings in intermediate
worlds, and also in the world of Hinduism with its gods and goddesses. There is
no religion whose traditional universe is not filled with consciousness. Even
the most rationalistic Muslims who try to interpret Islam in a very dry manner
cannot deny the reality of the archangel Gabriel, without whom there would not
have been a Qur'anic revelation. They cannot deny the verses of the Qur'an
which speak of the angels and the jinn.
This became a very important issue, and the reductionism in the understanding
of the language of religion and its worldview caused a panic among many people,
a fervor to try to reinterpret religion. This occurred for people all the way
from atheists to theists, from Karl Marx to Schleiermacher, in the nineteenth
century, and in the twentieth century all different kinds of new
interpretations appeared that people had not needed or confronted previously
because the religious view of the cosmos had been their general worldview. They
lived in a universe in which God could speak to the trees as well as to us.
Angelic beings could manifest themselves and they could even transmit
knowledge. Knowledge and consciousness were not limited to the human order.
This emptying the universe of consciousness even affected the relationship
between human beings and God. This change did not destroy the reality of God in
the minds of many people, but it did affect that relationship—even the question
of prayer and how God answers prayers. Of course, in a mechanistic universe, in
which consciousness is placed at the beginning in time, this is a very
difficult thing to explain rationally. What are the agencies through which the
divine can come into our lives and in the life of the cosmos? Most theologians
in the West tried to explain this matter emotionally, without really
confronting intellectually, in the most rigorous sense, the challenge of the
mechanistic universe. They tried to circumvent the issue. And, of course,
Christian theology suffered a great deal in the battles that were fought
because one had to accept a more and more scientistic point of view.
Today there is a movement for better relationships between religion and
science, but it is always the theologians who are asked to give. The scientists
never have to give up anything. It is always theology that is retreating step
by step, and, therefore, this leaves a deep negative effect upon theological
concerns, one of which is the lack of attention to nature as a theological
category, a category that Christianity began to leave aside in the seventeenth
century. Now that the issue has returned it is still for the most part the
scientistic view of nature that is accepted as a given and about which
theologians are theologizing.
Another important consequence of this transformation is the loss of the meaning
of being human. What does it mean to be human? This is not just an academic
matter. A Christian or Muslim would say the human being has an immortal soul,
but what does soul mean in the accepted view of the cosmos? We have
consciousness of being human, of having a human soul, and for believers God is
the Spirit with a capital S. And what about our attitude toward and relation to
the rest of God's creation? What does that entail? What does that mean? And
also, what is the relationship between our being human as an immortal soul and
our body? Since the establishment of the mechanistic worldview there has been
an indifference to the body as a source of wisdom. Then there seemed to be a
sudden rediscovery of the body in the 1960s, expressed through sexuality and
new kinds of music, trying to reassert the reality of the body. This was a
reaction to the reductionist view prevalent in Western society.
All this goes back precisely to what happened as a result of the loss of the
sense of the presence of consciousness throughout reality. Moreover, not only
was the sense of the sacredness of human life put into question—because the
word sacred does not mean anything in the context of modern science; it is just
sentimentality. And with the loss of the sense of the sacred came the loss by
human beings of their home in the cosmos—that is, we became homeless in a
cosmos that was seen as being no more than energy and matter. Historically,
humanity knew its position in the universe and felt at home in it. In the West
there was this Ptolemaic system, with the earth in the middle and all of the
heavens above, and this did not cause hubris because man was also seen to dwell
on the lowest level of the cosmic hierarchy. The Mesoamericans in the Amazon
feel they know where they are ontologically, but we do not know where we are—we
do not have a home in the cosmos, and we have lost our sense of orientation.
The result has been a very profound sense of alienation, including
psychological alienation, which is one of the maladies of the modern world from
which traditional society suffered much less. Alienation is a disease like
AIDS, a really modern ailment. This is not to say that no one was ever
alienated before, but this strong sense of alienation today comes, to a large
extent, from the fact that if we accept this reductionist worldview that came
into being in the seventeenth century, and take seriously this cutting off of
consciousness from the world in which we live, then we become very lonely here.
The cosmos is no longer a hospitable place for us, and we are alienated from
the world in which we live.
And, of course, if you calculate the probabilities for our being here, from a
scientific point of view, and it comes out to be extremely small, then that
makes it even stranger that we are here at all. But even if we keep that idea
in a corner of our minds, we feel even more that we do not belong here. That is
why in our normal lives we do not take these probabilities seriously. Any
person who walks in the street and smells a flower, and sees how beautiful it
is, that person is not taking this point of view seriously, even if he is a
professor teaching it in his class—because our human psyche, to remain sane,
has to feel somewhat at home in the world in which we live even if we have
become more alienated from it than ever before.
This unnatural alienation has nothing to do with mystical alienation. Many
people writing about the environment today have confused the two. Mystical
alienation from the world is based on the realization that our ultimate home is
paradise, the angelic world; that we are on a journey here; and that this is
not our permanent home. This is very different from feeling that, in fact, this
world has nothing to do with us and we do not belong here—this has a very
different sense, and the two should not be confused with each other. It is as
if you were to come to Harvard University for four years and realize that this is not your permanent
home, but, nevertheless, you feel that you belong at Harvard and you try to
take care of the dorm in which you live while you are here.
But that is not the way many modern people feel. The world around us from which
we feel alienated also becomes spiritually worthless, in a sense, and therefore
is valued only as far as our own immediate impulses and so-called needs are
concerned. The result is catastrophic to the world of nature. This relationship
between human beings and the environment is now very much at the center of our
attention. Right in the library here at HDS, in the early 1960s, I spent a
summer, when I was teaching at Harvard, doing research on the book that became
Man and Nature: The Spiritual Crisis of Modern Man, given first as the
Rockefeller Lectures at the University
of Chicago in 1966. These lectures foretold the environmental crisis,
and spoke of the spiritual and inner causes of this crisis.
Practically none of the theologians from the United States or England were at all interested in what I was saying at that time,
and did not pay attention to the environmental consequences of the banishment
of consciousness from the cosmos. The theology of nature was a non-existing
category. Some were angry at me for even speaking about these matters —the fact
that the environmental crisis has a religious, theological, spiritual basis,
and is not just a result of bad engineering, as some people still think. But
the crisis has a deeper root. I think that it has everything to do with what we
think of the world around us. What is this tree that I am looking at through
the window? If it is just wood for my fireplace, or if the fox is just skin to
put around my wife's neck, or this mountain is just the place from which to
extract iron ore and make cars, that is a very different attitude than if I
look upon these things as sharing my own reality, including consciousness.
Let us look at how we view our pets. None of us would accept having our cat
fried for dinner. God forbid. My cat is in the hospital right now, and I just
paid $1,000 yesterday for an operation, so I sympathize deeply with it and have
love for it. I love animals. Those of us who are animal lovers feel that
animals share in our reality. We talk to our cat, our horse, or our dog. We
feel they have consciousness. If we accepted the Cartesian view, that these are
mechanical objects and they do not share in our reality, we would do with them
what we have been doing with the macro-nature around us, decimating it in the
name of human needs— sitting on a limb of a tree and cutting it without knowing
that we are going to fall down and break our neck very soon, through this very
We do not think much about such issues anymore, but it is, of course, a crucial
matter. Our abominable treatment of nature is, I believe, a direct consequence
of our alienation from a world in which there is no participation in a shared
reality beyond the material. Even if you say, "My body is made of
stardust, and I share the dust of the stars," this is a nice poetic
utterance, but it does not mean anything in the prevalent scientistic paradigm.
What consciousness do I have of dust except as a reality within my
consciousness? And when I identify myself with a star, it has to be something
that identifies with my consciousness for such an assertion to be meaningful.
In other words, the word d-u-s-t, what does it mean? It has to be something that
has meaning within my consciousness, but this is what is lacking when we define
stardust as simply dead matter in a dead universe devoid of consciousness.
To turn to a more philosophical issue: When you negate that in the beginning
was consciousness, and you end up with this idea of consciousness being an
island within certain creatures known as human beings, who occupy a certain
planet called the earth, then how can we know anything? The Cartesian
bifurcation has never been solved. None of the prevalent answers really provide
the complete solution. How do I know that something is out there? Not because
of the neurons in my brain reacting—neurons and consciousness are not the same
thing. There is a very big leap between them. It is like the leap between the
material of the canvas and the meaning of the painting on top of it. They are
not the same thing. We just identify brain activity with consciousness to evade
the profound problem that comes up when we deny the principality of
consciousness and its ubiquitous nature.
So how is it possible for us to know the world out there if there is no common
element, nothing that unites the knower and the known? This enfeeblement of the
methodology of epistemology, which was never a problem for traditional
philosophies, has everything to do with the total and radical partition created
between what we call consciousness and matter—"matter" meaning the
material world, the corporeal world. With the very deep, categorical, absolute,
division drawn between consciousness and matter, how can one know anything
belonging to a completely different order of reality? No wonder some take
recourse to denying the reality of human consciousness, but do so consciously.
We do not claim that matter can know us, or anything else, because knowing is
one of the attributes of consciousness. And because we do not attribute any
power of consciousness to material things, we cannot say that they know. When I
was at MIT, I once asked a question of one of my physics professors. We had
just studied integral calculus and learned that you can integrate the
trajectory of a particular object that you throw into the air and, through
mathematics, find out exactly what that trajectory is, and where that thing
will land. This object, this little pebble, or whatever it is that you are
throwing, obviously does not know any calculus, and cannot integrate the
function. Therefore, I asked: "How does it know exactly where to go and it
does not ever miss? Why does it always land in the same place?"
He said: "Oh, these are simply laws of nature. Do not ask this question
because it is not a part of physics." But he really did not answer the
question. If you have a traditional understanding of nature, the question is
not so difficult. Supreme consciousness, in a sense, impinges through various
levels of reality upon the ether, and the ether upon the elements, and the
elements upon what we see out there, certain norms, certain orders, which we
are able to observe. And so in the perspective of traditional metaphysics even
the laws of nature, which we are able to observe, far from being simply
subjective whims or unexplainable facts have an objective and understandable
basis. However, this is something that we can no longer rely upon in the way
that we think about knower and known, if we operate within the matrix of
This leads me to another very important point. Since we have become
marginalized, since consciousness has become marginalized, since we have
categorically denied the possibility of consciousness outside of the human
domain and probably some animals, we have been at a loss for what happens when
something goes outside of the definition that we have determined and either
seeks or claims to find consciousness elsewhere in the cosmos. This problem
never existed before. Take for example the question of UFOs or alien
abductions. It is too easy to say: "These are all crazy people. Throw them
into the insane asylum." It is interesting that for traditional societies
such problems never existed.
All civilizations have marginalized and rejected people who have had a
worldview contrary to the dominant worldview of that civilization. Today we do
it in the name of science. There is a famous professor here at Harvard, John
Mack, who studied hundreds of cases of UFO sightings, clinically and
scientifically. Even if you do not accept that these people are telling the
truth, this phenomenon is related to a kind of deep urge of connectedness, with
intelligence, with consciousness, beyond our immediate human terrestrial
sphere. And this matter is not irrelevant. It is now part and parcel of pop
culture or common culture. Children are brought up with movies about aliens and
What function does this fill? Why are there so many people interested in these
things? The "beings" involved in such experiences have taken the
place, actually, of all the non-human intelligences and forms of consciousness
in traditional civilizations as we see in fairytales and traditional stories.
Every traditional civilization was full of these accounts, and they percolated
into children's stories told by grandmothers to the young. This satisfied a
very deep yearning of the human soul for companionship in the world in which we
live, and the stories were not considered simply fiction.
When you cut human being off from that cosmic world of consciousness— when that
world is no longer considered relevant—myth is converted to science fiction and
the vision of angels to the experience of extraterrestrial beings and UFOs. A
myth then becomes something unreal rather than real. Myth used to be a sacred
reality, but now it is seen as unreality. In its place have now come all kinds
of pseudo-myths, such as science fiction itself, which is an attempt to try to
fill the void with, you might say, pseudo- sacred writings. Why do children
want to see strange, extraterrestrial looking beings in films? These are
extremely profound issues that deal with the total psyche of a society that has
been banned from even thinking that it is possible to have contact within a
universe in which there are other forms of not only life but also intelligence
This desacralization of the cosmos and the ensuing alienation has also made a
sham of the metaphysical and philosophical basis of ethics. This is a major
claim that I am making, and is really a subject for another day, but let me
just say a word about it. In all periods of human history, ethics was related
to a vision of reality. It had a cosmic aspect. We think of the battle between
the good spirits, the ahuras, and the bad, the divs, in Zoroastrianism, of the
treatise of St. Augustine on the good. We think of Neo-Confucianism. Whatever
traditional world you enter, there is a permanent set of ethical norms that are
never only human ethics linked to the human world. Rather, they have a cosmic
aspect. For the Abrahamic world at least—you had the ternary of God, human
beings, and the cosmos. And in the world of ethics there were relations and
correspondences between them. Through this depleting of the cosmos of
consciousness, we have made any ethical act toward the world of nature
contrived and without a metaphysical and cosmological basis. Regarding
Christian ethics, for example, we adhere to being respectful to our neighbor:
"Thou shalt not kill." But within the scientistic paradigm what is
the reason for not cutting down a tree or not killing a particular animal
except sentimentality or expediency?
In the sacred scriptures, there were explanations given for an ethics
encompassing the world of nature as well as that of human beings. Animals and
plants were seen as God's creation, with spiritual value, as were rivers and
mountains. Those notions are now scientifically meaningless, and any
environmental ethics based on that view of the world is based on mere
sentimentality. It is not based on reality, if you accept the scientific view
of the world as reality. It's like talking about the sacredness of human life.
In one breath we mention the sacredness of human life and with the next breath
note that its basis is nothing but DNA. What is sacred about DNA if it is just
some molecules banging against each other in certain configurations? If we
reject the sacred, reject that it is the wisdom of God that is imprinted upon
the DNA, that all creation bears the imprint of God—a meaningless statement in
modern biology— where then does the sacredness of human life come from?
Even the withering away of Christian ethics, which we now see before us after
several hundred years of its survival even since the Scientific Revolution, has
to do a lot with the more recent consequences of the extension of the
desacralized view of nature into the domain of human life itself. This is
especially notable when it comes to environmental ethics, which we need to
create in a serious way if we are to be able to live in the future. For now,
animal activists and others like them are outside of the mainstream. They are
considered "crazy" people who tie themselves to trees and refuse to
come down. These acts are not part of the mainstream of society, which is not
able to develop an environmental ethics that is also in accord with the
worldview that dominates our lives. A similar disjunction occurs in our
hospitals because of the purely mechanical treatment of the human body, and
tensions are created by the fact that some people still believe they have a
soul and that the human body is not just a mechanical gadget. All of these
tensions present great challenges that the stilldominant worldview poses for
us, and are signs that this paradigm is now falling apart.
Finally, if you take seriously the rejection of the idea of consciousness being
the beginning not only of time but also, in principal, of the universe, it
really shatters all the deepest hopes of human beings. First of all, hopes of
immortality become mere dreams. And that is why we have, for the first time in
human history, the development of a society in which many people do not dare to
harbor these hopes. Great fear brings these hopes back, but, over all, these
hopes that relate to the deepest needs of our souls are no longer meaningful or
realizable within the framework of a worldview based on the primacy of the
material rather than consciousness.
If we have come into being only from the matrix of time and space, we cannot
transcend time and space. There is nothing that can ever exist at the omega
point that was not there at the alpha point. I have written very strongly
against Teilhard de Chardin and other theologians who believe that at the
beginning was matter and at the end there will be spirit, because as Christ
said, "I am the Alpha and the Omega." He did not say just, "I am
the Omega." If we do not have our root in consciousness, which is beyond
time, which is non-temporal, we shall never attain to the nontemporal.
These are the deepest aspirations of human beings, aspirations for
immortality—that is, for an experience beyond time and space, for we are the
only beings who are aware that we shall die. Even if we are good scientists, we
know we are going to die. The diversions that we create for ourselves cannot
prevent us from thinking of the fact that sooner or later we shall die. No
diversion can prevent us from that truth. Hence the significance of the hope
for immortality, which is inseparable from the deepest nature of our
souls—which are in reality created for immortality.
The reality of human life, whose terminus is the call of death, and what that
implies spiritually, has, of course, been very strongly challenged by the
worldview that reduces consciousness to an accidental epiphenomenon. I believe
the time has come for us to take this challenge seriously, to rethink what
consciousness is in relation to our life, in relation to the manner in which we
live, to the world in which we live, to our way of knowing, our sentience, our
experience. And also it is time to realize fully the consequences of the
negation of the primacy of consciousness in all its import.
It is logically absurd to deny the primacy of consciousness, because as soon as
we do so, we do it through consciousness. But a lot of people have claimed to
have done so—in fact, many professors on this campus. Behavioral psychologists
and the like, of course, do not believe there is such a thing as consciousness.
Although it is logically absurd, they have nevertheless claimed such a view. We
need to realize the consequences of this state of affairs for human beings
living in such trying and difficult times.
I believe that ultimately, of course, consciousness will have the final say,
but it is for us while we have consciousness—this great, great gift—to use it
properly to understand what it means to live consciously, to live fully with
awareness, to know where we are coming from, where we are going, and why we are
Seyyed Hossein Nasr is University Professor at George Washington
University. This lecture was given on May 1, 2003, in the Sperry
Room, Andover Hall.