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By Michael Heap
I suppose that I am no different from most people in spending time contemplating questions such as why I exist, what defines my personal identity, what is my fate after death, whether I have had a previous existence, and so on. I do not think it will ever be possible to truly answer these questions, but I would like to be able to consider some answers that seem to me to be at least feasible. So, after several years of deliberating I have written an account of what I call my “search for answers” in a book entitled Universal Awareness: A Theory of the Soul. By “soul” I mean one’s awareness of being as distinct from the person one is aware of being.
Amongst the questions that have spurred me on is “Why was I born the person I am and not somebody else?” Now, my logical side immediately tells me that this question is based on a false duality, namely “I” and “the person ‘I’ am”. “I” is integral to “the person ‘I’ am” so the question doesn’t make sense (maybe). There is, however another question: “If the person I am aware of being hadn’t been born, would I be aware of being someone else?” Again one might dismiss this question, this time as mere “counterfactual thinking”: for the person I am now not to have been born, the entire universe itself would have had to have been different; but the universe is as it is. Nevertheless I do believe that it is a meaningful question and it has an answer “yes” or “no” (possibly others, but let’s stick with these two). Either way the answers raise further intriguing questions.
Over the years, I have approached my quest for answers by a process of objectivization. By this (an ugly word for an honest and mind-blowing enterprise) I mean that there are important assumptions about our world based on our subjective experience – i.e. ways of thinking that we impose upon the world – that can be set aside for the purposes of addressing the above questions.
The first thing I do is to keep in mind the distinction between objects and the activities they perform. (Objectively, this may be a false duality but that is not so important for present purposes.) We can do this in particular with respect to any individual human being by distinguishing the physical body of that individual from what his or her body (especially the brain and nervous system) does – the activity it performs. Thus we arrive at the strange but logical conclusion that what we refer to as “a person” is actually an activity and not a material object. Hence we can say, “I do, therefore I am”. Our being is in our doing, and when we stop doing, we stop being.
It is thus possible (and there are various thought experiments that we can do to support this) to set aside something that seems to us to be beyond doubt, namely that our personal identity is preserved over time – i.e. that we are “the same person” from moment to moment. Indeed we may argue (although not crucially here) that the very concepts “sameness” and “identity” are attributes that we subjectively impose on the universe but are not a property of it; for example, I may say that the desk at which I am sitting is not “the same desk” I was sitting at a moment ago, since, in that moment, the whole universe has changed.
Boldly on we go. All conscious experience occurs at a moment in time that we call “now”, and only what is occurring now exists. Events before now have ceased to exist; events later than now have yet to exist. But we must ask, “What defines now as a moment in time in the universe’s history, other than the experience of an individual sentient being?” The answer is “Nothing”! The moment we call “now” – time present – is personal to each one of us, as is time past and time future.
Let me explain this a little further. In everyday experience, events may occur before, simultaneously with, or after a given event, including an individual’s conscious experience. There is however no absolute “now” in the universe and therefore nothing that objectively defines what is in the universe’s past, present and future. There is still such a dimension as “time” but we can detach existence from time so that everything in the universe’s history exists, as it were, simultaneously. We can understand this by imagining time as a spatial dimension and conceive of the universe throughout its entire history as a four-dimensional object. “Now” is equivalent to “here” in space, and hence can only be defined by a given observer; likewise past and future are equivalent to “there”.
What is it that divides the universe into a myriad separate “things” or “objects”, likewise “activities”? Again, only sentient beings. So let us, for present purposes, relinquish this way of thinking and instead conceive of the universe as being one organic whole, engaged in one activity. (Describing the universe as “process” might be more apt; it may not be strictly logical to refer to the universe as though it were the agent of its own activity.). So we can think of anything we identify as “an activity” as something that is undertaken by the universe itself. For example, in my book I ask the reader to consider the question “Who wrote Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony?” from the standpoint that the answer is “the universe”.
Consciousness and self-awareness are themselves activities engaged in by the universe. Hence I put it this way: “The universe engages in the activity of being aware of itself and its own activity at rare and minute localities in space-time where its structure is appropriately organised to do so”. We call such parts “sentient beings”, but we must always keep in mind that “awareness of being” is something the universe does; it is not an isolated activity of certain objects. Awareness is, however, experienced in a localised manner; the universe does not experience awareness simultaneously at all these localities. Thus at any particular moment I am only aware of being “the person I am” and not anyone or anything else as well.
Incidentally, it may be argued by means of thought experiments that within each of these structures that we identify and label “human brains”, represented in some way is the entire structure of our universe, or at least much of it. If our universe were slightly different in any way, this would be reflected in some difference in our brain, even if only at the level of a few atoms.
It is not such a great step now to arrive at the core of the theory of universal awareness. For all of us awareness is an eternal experience, an activity the universe engages in; there is never oblivion. But it is always awareness of being something in the universe, a sentient being. And so, in a manner of speaking (I say this because it is not easy to express what follows in the language available to us) when “I” am not aware of being the person “I” am now, “I” am aware of being some other sentient being. This sentient being is literally any of the other sentient beings that exist in the entire space-time universe. All share the same soul.
I could stop here, but something seems wrong. The theory as it stands is highly deterministic and, without any further consideration, it does not allow for the possibility that events may sometimes be undecided until the exercise of “free will”. Well, maybe, however compelling it seems to the contrary, we do have to abandon the subjective impression of “exercising free will”. However, free will or “making a conscious choice” is not incompatible with current scientific thinking; free will, may be possible in some form, though we need to engage in some radical, and in this instance rather speculative, objectivization to understand how this can be. In a nutshell, maybe free will or conscious choice is associated with momentary states of uncertainty in the outcome of brain activity. And maybe these states occur at those times when we do indeed feel uncertain about what action to take and we have the sense of making a conscious choice. And even more radical, but consistent with some current scientific ideas, the two or more possible outcomes available to us are allowed to co-exist in different versions of our universe.
Whatever the case “We see through a glass, darkly” and the truth becomes more discernible only when, instead of inventing more illusions and stories, we relinquish existing ones. So let the world speak for itself. And when it does, unexpectedly it emerges as a more extraordinary and awe-inspiring place to be a part of than we could ever otherwise conceive.
About the author
Dr Michael Heap (www.mheap.com) is a clinical and forensic psychologist living in Sheffield, England. He is the author of several textbooks on hypnosis and has taught and lectured widely on this subject. His book Universal Awareness: A Theory of the Soul may be ordered at https://www.createspace.com/3640356 or from Amazon (paperback or Kindle). For a summary of the theory visit: https://sites.google.com/a/sheffield.ac.uk/soul/ where readers are invited to share their comments, criticisms, suggestions, and so on.