“Know, the stars yonder, the stars everlasting,
Are fugitive also . . . .”—EMERSON.
Waves of credulity and of mental analysis alternately sweep across the face of the world. To the period of blind belief, which made possible the prospect of mediæval Christendom, enveloped by a black cloud of false science and theological dogma, has succeeded an epoch of expansion of the mind’s forces, a wave of all-dissolving analysis, prompting us to lift the veil of seeming from the face of Truth, to pierce through the shell of appearances to the central reality.
The physical scientists long led the van of the new era. Theirs were the triumphs over the dark places of nature and the falsehoods of tradition. But they have failed to gauge the force of the wave that carried them forward, and unless their whole front is changed, they will become in their turn the credulous; the reactionists against a new party of advance. Their error is that they believe too much—that their enquiring analysis does not go deep enough. For the wave of thought which is permeating us, will finally obliterate and render unrecognisable many of our present idols and unquestioned verities—ideas now undoubted even by doubting science.
The last of the old-world ideas to perish—and that after the lapse of ages, perhaps—will be the most familiar and commonplace.
Perhaps last of all will fade our present conceptions of what Carlyle calls the deepest of all illusory appearances—Space and Time.
But as the sunrise first gilds the mountain-tops, and then floods the plain with light, so the approaching inspiration of knowledge appears first in a few of the best minds, and then spreads to the multitude. Thus we find already Descartes doubting the reality of the external world; and Wordsworth, striking the walls of his room to assure himself that they were objective, and not mere phantoms projected into the void of nothingness by the mind’s formative power; for this idea, he thought, must be shunned as maddening; forgetting that two senses may concur to deceive.
Space, whether treated by the physicist or the psychologist of the modern world, remains an unquestioned reality, whether objectively in nature or subjectively in the mind.
All the conceptions of science are three-dimensional, endowed with length, breadth, and height, whether we take the starry depths as pictured by the author of “First Principles”; or the human brain, in the conception of the last would-be scientific school.
But are not the properties of Space indeed mere appearances, and is not Wordsworth’s fear a shadowy premonition of the truth, that Space is but a creature of the mind—an unreality?
This suspicion of the illusiveness of Space is one of the nascent perceptions of that most new and yet most ancient school of thought, whose wide generalisation will soon render obsolete and insignificant the daring doubts of sceptical science. In dealing with space and its dimensions, it is incumbent on us to show how our present conceptions of these could have been generated, on a purely idealistic hypothesis. If unreal, can we trace the growth of our notions of space and its dimensions? A theory readily presents itself; but to approach its consideration we must waive that larger question of the apparent separation of the One into innumerable units of consciousness, and, beginning by considering the condition of one such unit, trace the growth of the conceptions of space, as related to that unit.
Let us first picture such an individualised unit of consciousness—to use, perhaps, the best available phrase—at the very beginning of its evolutionary course, in quiescence, absolutely sensationless; let us endow it with the power of sensation, though in a latent form. To understand this, we must use a simple simile. Suppose yourself alone in a dark room in silence; suppose the temperature and your position to be such that you have become oblivious to your body; none of the senses are exercised; the pictorial power of the imagination is also at rest; while the mind’s attitude is one of expectation directed towards the sense of hearing. This is the best available illustration of the condition of a unit of consciousness with the latent power of sensation, before sensation has set in. Suppose a musical note to sound close to the ear, and gradually die away; let the sound be again gradually excited, and again die away. The ear—the seat of sensation—is for our purposes practically a point. The sense of hearing experiences a sensation, at first vivid, then gradually ceasing; then again increasing to vivid activity, and again sinking to rest. As far as physical knowledge shows, this changing sensation is represented by greater or less intensity of vibration of the tympanum.
Now instead of a note dying away naturally, suppose some sustained note sounded near the ear, then withdrawn in a straight line until out of hearing; then again brought near the ear, and again withdrawn. If the experiment be properly carried out, the experience of the sense of hearing will be exactly the same as before; their physical counterpart again being a greater or less intensity of tympanal vibration. The ear is absolutely powerless to distinguish between the two sets of sensations: and the only conception of nearness and distance that can be formed, having regard to the sense of hearing alone, is a greater or less intensity of sensation.
This is equally true of other senses taken separately; the sense of light, for example, or the sense of heat. Hence, as far as the sense of sight is concerned, the nearest stars are distinguished from the more remote chiefly by the greater intensity of their light, and, therefore, of the vibrations they excite on the retina. In fact, to speak physically, all our perceptions of varying sensation actually have their origin in a more or less intense vibration of the sensory surfaces, and their sources are subsequently projected into space by the imagination. To express the same thing from the idealist standpoint; all we experience is more or less intense sensation; our further conceptions are due to the separation and arrangement of these, by the imagination.
Taste is an example of a sense not yet translated into terms of nearness and distance, and it is worth mention that this is supposed by some Theosophists to be the sense at present undergoing development, and consequently incomplete.
But to return to our unit of consciousness: let us suppose a sensory point to be formed in it; let a simple sensation excite this sensory centre, with increasing and diminishing intensity. The effect will be exactly the same as if the exciting source were to approach and recede from the sensory point. From this experience, the conception of nearness and distance would arise; in other words, the conception of space of one dimension.
The conception of the point is derived from a sustained sensation: that of the line, from a sensation of decreasing and increasing intensity. So long as the consciousness remained absorbed in sensation no advance would be made on this conception of space of one dimension: but since all degrees of intensity from the very highest to complete absence of sensation may be experienced, this line, this space of one dimension, will be conceived as of infinite extension.
Let the consciousness of the unit now be supposed to reflect on this simple sensation, to stand aside from the point of sensation, and to regard objectively both that point and the varying intensity of the sensation; in other words, the sensory point, and the line of sensation, along which the exciting cause is conceived as advancing and receding. Suppose the sensation to diminish in intensity: that is to say, let the exciting source recede to a point some distance along the imaginary line. The new point of consciousness arrived at by the act of reflexion, or contemplative standing aside, is outside the line from the sensory point to the exciting source. It is clear that these three points not in the same straight line imply a plane triangle—which may be formed by joining them—hence the present attitude of the unit of consciousness implies space of two dimensions. But since the base of the triangle may be infinite—the sensation having all ranges from the highest intensity to absolute cessation—and since the point assumed by the consciousness through the act of reflexion can have no definite position, the present attitude of the unit implies two-dimensional space of infinite extension.
If the unit be conceived as having germs of two senses instead of one the results are identical, since in the first phase of consciousness, though we have two independent straight lines radiating from the unit of consciousness, they do not imply two-dimensional space, since they have no relation whatever to each other: and in the second phase of consciousness, instead of one plane triangle we should have two, both in the same plane. This holds good for any number of senses. The triangle formed with the line of sensation as base, and the point of reflexion assumed by the consciousness, as apex, is a sensory area every point of which is an objective source of perception to the unit of consciousness.
The perception of the unit of consciousness is now of two kinds; the first, exercised at the sensory centre, is one of varying intensity merely, corresponding in space to the line. That at the point of reflexion, the apex of the triangle of perception is one of observation, corresponding to surface extension.
Let the consciousness of the unit now be supposed to stand back from the point of reflexion, and to contemplate objectively the area of perception. Standing apart from the area of perception, it now corresponds to a point outside the plane of a surface, and this implies space of three dimensions. Since the position of the new point of consciousness, the point of contemplation, let us term it, is not rigidly determined, and since the surface of perception is of unlimited, this third attitude of the unit of consciousness implies three-dimensional space of unlimited extension.
As the last phase of perception was represented by a triangle, so this third phase may be represented by a triangular pyramid, or tetrahedron—every point in which is an object of perception; the whole forming a sensory solid—and having four corners; the top being now the seat of consciousness; one of the base corners, the point of reflexion, or perception of the sensory area—the base; another base corner being the point of sensation of variations in intensity; and the third base corner being the position to which the imagination projects the source of sensation.
Let us now translate these successive experiences into terms of Consciousness.
The first attitude of the unit of consciousness may be expressed by the unreflecting, and, so to speak, unconscious perception—in the sense of being without self-consciousness—“sensation is, or sensation is not”.
When the stage of reflexion is reached, the consciousness may be thus expressed: “I experience sensation”.
The third, the contemplative phase, is, “It is I who experience sensation”; or, “I am conscious that I experience sensation”; the second “I” here being personality, lower self, or false ego—an object of consciousness to the first “I”, the true ego, the unknowable Knower.
We are debarred from discussing fully the ethical aspects of these phases of consciousness by the nature of the subject; for—while we were compelled to begin by considering the condition of an individualised unit of consciousness, waiving the consideration of the apparent separation of the One into innumerable units—the subject of ethics deals almost entirely with the relation of the unit to the One, for “the separation of the divine-human spirit into the multitudes of men on the earth” is only an illusion, and is in reality nonexistent.
Let us now consider a few resultant truths.
The consciousness, whether in its first phase of absorbing sensation, or in its later phases of reflexion and contemplation, is itself subject to no dimensions of space; it stands detached from space, whether of one, two, or three dimensions. Hence the self is neither finite, in the sense of being small, nor infinite, in the sense of being great, it is superior to space, as to time, or, in the language of the Upanishads, “the self is smaller than small, and greater than great.” The self, the knower, is something apart from space and time, and independent of them; hence nothing that takes place in space or time can affect it, except as being an object of its perception.
“He who knows the self as the slayer, and also he who knows it as the slain, they both know not rightly. It kills not, nor is killed”, says the Bhagavad Gita.
In comparison with the realness of the self, time and space are mâyâs, “illusory appearances”, as Carlyle says.
And what we call the dimensions of space are only expressions by which the imagination distinguishes and separates various phases of perception.
As the previous advances in development which we have been able to trace, were made by the real self detaching itself entirely from the world it was experiencing, and standing apart as “a disinterested spectator” to view this world, recognising the organ of sensation, and afterwards the personality, as not the self: so, we learn, the next advance in development is made when a man, “by his awakened spiritual will, recognises the individuality as not himself”, and detaches himself from his present world, of which the individuality is lord.
The step must be taken by detachment from the things of space, as we know them, by detachment from the things of time, as we know them—by standing apart from these, and, in consequence, by standing apart from that unreal centre of this life, the personality, the abandonment of which leads to a condition we can only describe negatively as selflessness, and by plunging fearlessly into the unknown abyss.