Language, Energy, and Consciousness
New Age holistic-spiritual metaphysicians and materialist reductionists make strange bedfellows. Nevertheless, when it comes to talking about consciousness, both turn to concepts and images derived from physics. Materialists claim that consciousness is ultimately “nothing but” a form of matter-energy; New Agers often talk of consciousness or spirit in terms of “vibrations,” “waves,” “fields,” and so on, as though it were a form of subtle energy.
Why Consciousness Is Not Energy
If you tune in to someone’s “vibrations,” are you picking up some form of energy they are emitting--perhaps something we might call “psychic energy”?
It may be tempting to think so; to think of consciousness as a form of energy. But is it? What might be going on when we say we feel someone’s vibrations?
Well, one possibility is that their brain or their body could be sending out waves of energy--something, perhaps, like electricity. If so, it must be far more subtle than any form of energy known to modern science, because no physical instrument yet devised has detected any such energy.
But even if the vibrations were subtle energy waves they would still be physical because they pass through space. Anything that moves through space must be located somewhere in space. And anything that is located in space can be measured. That’s what “physical” means: It occupies space. It is objective. It can be measured.
But no one has ever measured consciousness. No one has ever been able to pinpoint it in space. If they had, questions such as these would make sense: “How big is consciousness (or any of its contents, such as a thought, a feeling, a desire) . . . is it an inch, a foot, a mile, a light-year?” or “Where exactly is consciousness?” But such questions baffle us.
Even though it is absurd to talk about the “size” of consciousness, some people may not think it so strange to say that consciousness (and its contents) is located somewhere in the brain. But where? No one has ever succeeded in finding any part of the brain (large or small) where consciousness is. Yes, it certainly seems to be associated, or correlated, with the brain--but it is not in the brain (not in the way your brain is inside your skull). Consciousness has a completely different kind of interiority.
So if consciousness has no size, and has no location, what does it mean to say it is in space? And if it is not in space, what does it mean to say it is a form of energy?
Maybe, then, consciousness is a form of nonphysical energy? If that is the case, how are consciousness and energy related? We have three options.
1. Consciousness is a physical form of energy (even if it is very, very subtle energy): If we say that consciousness is a form of energy that is physical, then we are reducing consciousness (and spirit) to physics. And few of us, unless we are materialists, want to do that.
2. Consciousness is a nonphysical form of energy. If we say that consciousness is a form of energy that is not physical, then we need to say in what way psychic energy differs from physical energy. If we cannot explain what we mean by “psychic energy” and how it differs from physical energy, then we should ask ourselves: Why use the term “energy” at all?
3. Consciousness isn’t any form of energy. Our third alternative is to say that consciousness is not a form of energy at all--either physical or nonphysical. Unlike energy, which is some kind of “stuff ” that spreads out in space, consciousness isn’t made of stuff and is not located in space. If this is true, then consciousness would not only be different from energy but also would be nonlocated.
This is not to imply that consciousness has nothing to do with energy. In fact, according to panpsychism or radical naturalism, consciousness and energy always go together. They cannot ever be separated. But this is not to say they are not distinct. They are distinct--energy is energy, consciousness is consciousness--but they are inseparable. So, for example, some spiritual traditions talk of kundalini experience, where a meditator may feel a rush of energy up the chakra system . . . but to say that such energy flow is consciousness is to mistake the object (energy flow) for the subject, for what perceives (consciousness) the object.
Note the two importantly distinct words in the phrase “feel the rush of energy . . .” On the one hand there is the “feeling” or a “knowing,” on the other, there is what is being felt or experienced (the energy). Even our way of talking about it reveals that we detect a distinction between feeling (consciousness) and what we feel (energy). Yes, the two go together, but they are not the same. Unity, or unification, or holism does not equal identity. To say that one aspect of reality (consciousness) cannot be separated from another aspect of reality (matter-energy) is not to say both aspects of reality (consciousness and matter-energy) are identical.
Simply stated: Consciousness knows. Energy flows.
Consciousness is the “witness” that experiences the flow of energy, but it is not the flow of energy. We could say consciousness is the felt interiority of energy/matter. To grasp this experientially you might take a moment to pay attention to what’s going on in your own body right now. The physical matter of your body--including the flow of what-ever energies are pulsing through you--are the “stuff ” of your organism. But there is also a part of you that is aware of, or feels, the pumping of your blood (and other energy streams). That aspect of you that feels the matter-energy in your body is your consciousness.