Space, Motion, Time, and Substance

By I. M. Oderberg
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
—William Blake, Auguries of Innocense

The universe is one whole, but we perceive it in such different ways that we believe there is a multitude of separate parts. This lies behind our difficulty in understanding how the One — whether we think of it as God, or Divinity, or the First Cause — can become the many, i.e., the limitless variety of entities we see around us. If we understood better the fact that the potentiality of a thing is not nonexistent until it appears, but rather it does exist in a subjective state that is really a frequency of energy beyond our sense perceptions, we might view the planet on which we live as a system of interlocking entities indicating the One in the many. This means that the many beings composing the world are embodiments of a cosmic hierarchy of intelligences — divinity in essence. Furthermore, if we consider the globe as one element of a magnetic field of vast extent, then it would be more correct to say that we actually live in the earth as a field, rather than on it as a rocky crust.

Four of the most important topics fundamental to our view of the universe and all in it or comprising it, are space, motion, time, and substance. In Western culture, these concepts are treated differently from the standpoint of classical and Oriental thinkers.

Space, for instance, is considered in the West mainly as a container of entities such as the organic or "living" beings, and of the inorganic or "inanimate" minerals. Motion is treated as though its major interest to us were our awareness of it: through our observation that the heavenly bodies move, such as the planets around the sun, or the circulation of the stars and their attendants around some central point in their galaxy; or, perhaps, through our concern with the motion provided by our machines. Time is generally viewed as the succession of instants derived from our divisions of the planet's rotation around its axis that we measure and call seconds, minutes, hours, days (or years, if we refer to phases of its journey around the sun). Substance is treated rather generally as the be-all and end-all of life, which itself is taken to be nothing more than arrangements of material particles in a process that began out of a chance event but thereafter continued in accordance with "natural laws."

Some philosophers have argued about these subjects, basing their conclusions largely upon speculations underpinned by logic; others, upon the researches of modern physicists and mathematicians, trusting only the senses and the reasoning faculty. But this kind of analysis of the phenomena of nature is limited to one small spectrum or range of all the energies we have cause to believe function around us in an unbroken continuity, one wave band merging into another. The technicality of the details observed or speculated upon often obscures for us the essence of the problems the phenomena present, this essence being nothing else than the universe as it really is. Yet other philosophers have written more deeply about these subjects, and although much chaff has been mixed up with the good grain of metaphysical thought, the grain remains of solid worth after it is winnowed from the rest.

Before metaphysics became fanciful in recent centuries, it had been regarded as the intelligent examination of the nature of first principles, investigating problems of ultimate reality, venturing into immaterial, or rather incorporeal, realms of speculation if that is where the search for truth led. This branch of philosophy, then, is concerned with the study of being and also the structure of the universe. The word itself derives from Aristotle's transcendental philosophy because it followed his work on physics. But we should remember that for the old Greeks, physis meant nature as a whole, including intelligences or the gods as well as the material aspects.

Turning then to our four main topics, in contrast with the view of space as a container, metaphysical thinkers of olden times, and even of those near our own day in the Orient, saw space as the source of all life and life-forms, as a mother is the channel through whom her children enter upon their earthly existence. In this sense, what appears to our scientific reasoning as an emptiness was perceived by them as a fullness: the limitless fecundity of "nature" producing multitudes of beings from the tiniest we have conceived of, to the largest. The ancient Greeks, for example, regarded motion as the first manifestation at any point of space where a small or large universe of any kind was to come into material existence. Inanimate matter was inconceivable to these metaphysicians, who ascribed divinity to planets and stars because they moved. This is the very meaning of the word theoi, "gods," as derived from the root "to move." Motion implied consciousness to initiate it, and matter responded to the impulse to move; Plato refers to matter as the receptacle of the designing imprint and as such the nurse of all ensuing manifestation.* [*See Timaeus ch. 13 in the Bekker Greek text, and Henry Davis translation; 36D-38B in the Benjamin Jowett translation. I found Thomas Taylor's translation insightful because of its balance of inner and outer aspects of manifesting creation. However, the sections there are not numbered.]

Time is a kind of motion, the movement of beings as they express in sequence innate aspects called out of their nature by experiences, inner and outer. We are accustomed to think of time as a succession of the lengths into which we have divided it, but perhaps we would understand it better if we thought of it as an unbroken continuum, a continuing flow which we may call duration. We would not then consider time as a kind of dimension, but as the course of an entity through its experiences. Heraclitus, the early Greek philosopher, for instance, saw that change affected everything, all entities, and therefore that time was like a river into which one could not step twice — the stream was the same, but the molecules of water themselves succeeded each other as they flowed from their source in the mountains down to the sea.

Plato saw time as moving in a likeness of eternity — the latter meaning duration in the sense given above. He referred to a kind of ideal clock that marks the cycles of the heavenly bodies; time could not be if there were not this model or subjective cyclic pattern. Furthermore, instead of viewing time as moving in a straight line from the past, through the present into the future, he imaged it as a periodic, circular motion, which is suggestive of a spiral rather than a return over and over to an identic beginning point.

Turning to substance: we may think of it as the raw fabric out of which are made the various kinds of bodies of consciousness from ethereal to densely material. Each particle of matter is the outer sheath of a living entity, and our familiar matter may be considered to comprise but one spectrum out of all the possible ranges of energy frequencies — just one octave or rather septenate out of the many. There must be a limitless extension of material units in an infinite universe; and entities that seem to us merely matter may well be immaterial to observers beyond our ken. Furthermore, they may be involved in a process of etherealizing themselves under the driving impact of the consciousnesses using or inhabiting them.

Modern philosophers tend to disregard the intrinsic quality of substance, carrying on the strictly intellectual analysis that began in some schools in the ancient Greek period. They examine things through their attributes or properties (Aristotle's ousia), and being acquainted only with our own matter treat the term as a synonym for substance. However, some philosophers have taken up the old concept of "essence,"* which is really another term for innate consciousness. If the quality of consciousness is all-permeating, then substance can also be thought of as equally extensive with a limitless scale of being and operations. Our consideration of innate properties of entities will indicate what aspect of themselves they are manifesting. Matter will then appear to be but one facet of the multifaceted jewel we call substance. [*They define it as "the qualities that conjointly embody the nature of the thing they qualify."]

This view of the subject extends our vision of universal life so that we see that it expresses what we may term "spirit-matter," i.e., the two poles of consciousness as it embodies itself in forms of varying quality and substance. Instead of an inanimate cosmos of lumps of material particles aggregated in various ways and sizes, we see then a dynamic and vast concourse of living entities filling unlimited space, existing on the most spiritual planes or worlds of existence down to the most material. There is not one empty place anywhere; every point is occupied by a being that is animate, that is ensouled. This picture extends our concept of evolution to mean the movement of faculties from within each entity outwards from the center and into manifestation. There is a step-by-step growth of the form-makers inside the forms, rather than the materialistic view of past generations that bodies produce more sophisticated bodies from each other. As these vehicles or integuments succeed each other, each individually denser than the preceding one, there surely must come a time when the utmost limit of compacted materiality is reached. The bodies thereafter in proper sequence become less dense, or more ethereal as they express the refinement of the essence within them.

The process outlined here, and derived from a philosophy that is part of an ancient stream of tradition, gives depth to the theory of evolution. When the innate centers of consciousness express faculties through material envelopes, material evolution, or unfoldment of quality from within, proceeds along with spiritual involution which is a higher quality turning inwards. When the outermost limit is reached, the process reverses the flow, and then material involution operates together with spiritual evolution.

Philosophically, this indicates a pulsating cosmos resembling the inbreathing and outbreathing creative deity of Hindu metaphysicians, and conceived in astronomical terms as The Oscillating Universe by S. Opik in his paperback study many years ago. In such a context, billions of our years are like the blink of an eye for a supergalactic entity, and the return to sources of emission are not completions of circles of movement but the culmination of a spiral motion. The numberless families of the component entities derive from the one source of all life, their interlocking relationships being the bonds of a universe spanning brotherhood. They travel together throughout the reaches of space, inhabiting one home after another, indeed building them out of themselves as they learn from the experiences of new conditions. Their ascent must be a gradual one, no rungs on the ladder of being skipped or missed out, the coarser realms of self-expression blending into more refined manifestations. In a deeper sense than might be a apparent, evolution as a general concept may be considered as cosmic in scope and "self-directed." We human beings, for instance, evolve our potentials limited only by the obstacles we have ourselves placed in the way.

The most important consideration is undoubtedly the interlocking of all families and their units in the efflorescence of the inmost divine spark of being-ness at the heart of each and every one. The recognition of this point may be the purpose of nature viewed as the expression of vast and ever vaster intelligences that are also energies and the directors of planetary life behind the scenes. It certainly lies behind the interpretation of the richly laden lines of William Blake at the head of this article. Relativity may justly be claimed as the child of theoretical physics that has been partially substantiated by observation and experiment. But it may also be applied philosophically, crossing the boundaries of disciplines into poetry.

Looking at Blake's lines, let us think for a moment of the composition of a grain of sand: incomputable numbers of atoms bound in molecules. But if we consider the microscopic organisms that flourish on and in the skin of our palms, to each of which a minute of our time is a vast age of theirs, what shall we say about the possible ultramicroscopic inhabitants of an electron "world" inside the atom? One second of our time would surely be like a billion billion years of theirs. And heaven in a wild flower — a consciousness-center expressing itself in beauty without strain, but opening up naturally its yearning possibilities to the sun in the sky, prototype of the sun within itself — is that not like the infinity in our hand and the eternity in an hour: pointers to the oneness of all Life within its many outer expressions that seem so separate?

(From Sunrise magazine, October 1978. Copyright © 1978 by Theosophical University Press.)


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