Gurdjieff International Review
Superforce and Beelzebub
Our day-to-day existence is cyclic and to a large extent characterized by repetition. Night follows day and one season another. Our activities follow an almost equally rigid pattern. What we do today is much the same as what we did yesterday. Life as we know it is very Newtonian, i.e., predictable and mechanical, interrupted only by accidents, both good and bad, over which we have little control. The final and inevitable accident is the cessation of life for each one of us.
This was also the view that we had of the universe before the emergence of new developments in physicsrelativity theory and quantum physics in particular. Everything was mechanical and, at least in theory, calculable. Matter, except in solar furnaces or in the thin film of organic life coating the earths surface, was essentially stable and immutable. Its basic building block, the atom, was a model of our equally stable solar system. Planets, solar systems, and galaxies in our large universe were distant and isolated from each other, influenced only by the faint action of the gravity of their remote neighbors. Nothing but empty space existed between them. Nevertheless, they all shared common, universal and homogeneous time. Stability was only marred by the imperceptible yet relentless action of the second law of thermodynamics, which in time will bring an end, not only to all life, but to all of the universe as well, in the form of a heat death. Except for a difference in time scale, the fate of the universe is no better than our own.
This view of the universe began to change with the advent of the theory of relativity and quantum physics in the 1920s. Initially the new theories were largely mathematical and hypothetical, but the development of high-energy particle accelerators made possible the confirmation of many earlier conjectures and opened a totally new window on the physical world. An unprecedentedly rapid development followed. The physicists new model of the universe is now very different from the mechanistic Newtonian universe. In time, no doubt, the way the rest of us view the world around us will change as well.
Recently it has become fashionable to seek parallels between the new laws and concepts of physics, on the one hand, and, on the other, great Eastern teachings such as Buddhism. The recent lucid introduction to the new physics for laymen by Paul Davies, Superforce: The Search for a Grand Unified Theory of Nature,1 is a welcome change. Davies sticks to physics, to what he knows and can explain. This does not mean that he is opposed to the great traditional teachings. The concluding statement in the book shows that he is relatively open-minded:
The laws which enable the universe to come into being spontaneously seem themselves to be the product of exceedingly ingenious design. If physics is the product of design, the universe must have a purpose, and the evidence of modern physics suggest strongly to me that the purpose includes us.
The idea that the universe has a purpose belongs to the great traditions, which are various Ways to the understanding of this purpose and the realization of ones own part in it. Recent popular books on physics and Eastern teachings almost suggest that the new physics is becoming yet one more Way.
Inspired by Davies book, I wish to show that this is not so, and that, while there are parallels the divergence between the lessons of the new physics and those of the ancient masters is fundamental. This is not surprising, since the materiality that physics is concerned with is very different from the materiality the great teachings are talking about.
The teaching and cosmology of G. I. Gurdjieff are, according to many, a synthesis of much ancient wisdom. As our source and point of reference in speaking of the traditional view, we shall use Gurdjieffs book, All and Everything: Beelzebubs Tales to his Grandson.2
To enter the realm of the new physics is to enter a realm where our everyday perceptions, based on a solid three-dimensional world, no longer apply. The physicists have had to abandon their common sense and work with abstract concepts expressed in mathematical language. The conjectures are based, not on what might reasonably be expected, but on what mathematical calculations happen to turn up.
Davies tells us that a subatomic particle such as the familiar electron is sometimes a particle and sometimes a wave; at any given moment it is neither here nor there, for sure, and if we happened to find it in a specific location, it is because we were looking for it there. It can go through a barrier, not by breaking through it, but by disappearing and then materializing on the other side. One particle can suddenly give birth to two or more particles of different kinds, or just materialize out of nowhere, only to disappear into nothingness again, its short existence being financed by what physicists call a Heisenberg loan. If you turn a subatomic particle of a fermion type, such as an electron, around full circle with a magnetic field, it may no longer have its original properties, but needs to be turned around once more to become itself again. The familiar list of particles consisting of protons, neutrons, and electrons has expanded beyond our expectations. We now have not only particles, but antiparticles, virtual particles, messenger particles, and quarks of various types and masses.
Many everyday notions are turned upside down in the realm of the new physics. For instance, a vacuum is no longer a vacuum but a field of teeming activity for virtual and messenger particles. Space, time, and matter are hopelessly convoluted and not just in a mathematical sense but practically as well. The lifetime of an unstable particle can be extended as much as you please by increasing its mass (and speed), the only limitation being the size of your particle accelerator.
Instead of two familiar forces that can act over a distance (gravity and electromagnetic force), we now have two additional forces, a weak force that accounts for all peculiar particle births and deaths, and a strong force that makes the stable particles stable. These are no longer forces that generate a field around them; instead, they send messengers to act on their behalf.
The four fundamental forces, distinct as they may appear, have a certain unity. Electricity and magnetism were conceptually unified as the electromagnetic force as early as the 1850s, by James Clerk Maxwell. The next step came much later, in the late 1960s, when the electromagnetic force and the weak force were brought together under the same set of equations. In the 1970s, grand unified theories were developed to encompass the strong force in the same family. Recent developments suggest that perhaps there is only one force, the superforce, the electromagnetic, weak, strong, and gravitational forces being only specific manifestations of it. In an eleven-dimensional world there would be only this one force. Projections of it to worlds of fewer dimensions would account for all the other forces.
It is significant that each step of progressive unification has been achieved by insisting that an abstract symmetry in laws be maintained. To uphold the symmetry, one or more additional dimensions had to be evoked at each step. The count was up to eleven in 1984 when Davies book was published. However, seven of the eleven dimensions are rolled up in a minute seven-dimensional sphere, and as such are invisible to us ordinary mortals.
The recent theoretical advances have a certain ethereal character about them. Conjectures based on the theories that unify all the known forces cannot be verified experimentally. Temperatures or energy levels that are high enough for conditions of unity to be apparent are too high for us to generate. The theories are therefore applied to an explanation of how the universe came into being some eighteen thousand million years ago. For the first time in the history of science the creation myth becomes a field for seemingly proper scientific study.
Since Edwin Hubbles observation in 1927 that the visible universe is expanding, it has gradually become accepted that the whole universe had its origin in a big cosmic explosion that created matter, time, and perhaps even space itself. While the big bang theory must remain forever a hypothesis, the explanation of why and how it actually happened has become a testing ground for the latest, often bizarre, theories. Only mathematicians can get away with proving one hypothesis by another. Nevertheless, this explaining of the unexplainable has an uncanny consistency about it.
It is now proposed that, at the beginning of time, the universe existed in the excited or false vacuum state. This is a state of quantum vacuum, not the kind of vacuum we normally think of. It has a negative pressure and hence repels itself; such a false vacuum state is unstable. The instant it decayed, extremely rapid expansion followed. Because of the negative pressure, energy was created by the expansion, just as the medieval Scholastics used to say, ex nihilo, out of nothing. As the excited vacuum decayed into vacuum, the energy was converted into heat, and the temperature rose to an unimaginable 1027 degrees Kelvin. The time was 10-32 seconds. During that fleeting instant, basic laws of physics such as the conservation of energy were suspended. Expansion continued, the temperatures came down to a more reasonable level, and energy became packaged into particles, antiparticles, and other species known to quantum theory. The probabilistic process of decay of the false vacuum into a vacuum left irregularities in the density of matter that eventually were condensed into galaxies. Further condensation of the primal plasma into atoms, stars, and planets, as the cooling process continued resulted in the universe as we now know it.
This whole explanation of the Genesis paradox had its origin in attempts to unify all the known physical forces in the universe. The task is not complete, inasmuch as there are a few variants of the formulation of the superforce. However, in many essential points the different theories agree. For one thing, the physicists think that they have a reasonable explanation for the evolution of matter from energy into hydrogen and then to helium, and from these two basic elements into heavier elements.
Correct or not, in explaining the evolution of inorganic matter, physics shows a sophistication and explanatory power far beyond anything available in biology to help us understand the evolution of organic matter and life. Biologists still insist that organic evolution has come about, not as a law-conformable process, but, in effect, by accident: random mutations selected for by competition and survival of the fittest. In what seems to be almost a footnote to the subject of creation, Davies seems to endorse the biologists theory of evolution of organic life, even though, as he explains, in the creation of the physical universe, law, symmetry, and unity reigned supreme. To me it is rather inconsistent to suppose that the creation of the infinitely more complex organic world relied simply on chance.
Superforce, the false vacuum, the eleven-dimensional worldit all sounds like a fairy tale from the land where the fox kisses the hare good night. But what can you do? The theories are all expressed in obscure mathematics that is fairly safe from any criticism beyond the small circle of experts familiar with that language. Besides, if the theory works at 1027 degrees Kelvin, and at the same time can be extrapolated to explain phenomena down here on the paltry earth, what more can you hope for? Nothing, except perhaps that somewhere, embedded in the mathematics of the superforce, there is room for an optional term or two that will give some guidance to the study of the evolution of organic matter, and perhaps even to the study of the evolution of consciousness. If and when such a rider to the theory of the superforce is found, we will no doubt be entrenched even more deeply in the land of fairy tales and the unknownand for sure, eleven dimensions will not be enough.
To enter Gurdjieffs world of Beelzebub, the main character of his 1200 page magnum opus, is to enter fairyland, but this time a very different kind of fairyland, that conceals its deepest truths from all but the most persistent readers. But, as with the study of physics, the pursuit of the truths in this great, lumbering flying cathedral of a book (as P. L. Travers once put it) requires certain skills and instrumentsnot the skills of mathematics, but the hard-earned capacity of self-observation; and the instruments are not measuring devices, but the internal capacity of attention and the determination to read on in spite of the resistance evoked by the abrasive style.
The quest is essentially a journey within oneself. To enter we need not have a high-energy particle accelerator at our disposal, but we must have a wish to know: a passion to try to penetrate the very secrets of our own existence. Higher energies are certainly essential, but they must be produced within ourselves to be of any use in this quest. The energies normally at our disposal are adequate to support the level of awareness at which only automatic Reason is available to us at best. In Gurdjieffs general scheme of gradations of Reason, such Reason is inappropriate for comprehending any objective truths, including the nature of time and the purpose of our existence.
The book has the distinct flavour of science fiction. The language, even though it has been translated into English, is about as obscure as that of the new physics, accessible only to those who have succeeded in making a few inroads into the land of the unknown within themselves. The text, full of statements that at the outset make no senseeven the author himself calls them arch-absurd and arch-preposterousis fairly safe from criticism and academic wiseacring.
The broad outline of Gurdjieffs creation myth is not unlike the current scientific big bang theory, but with some novel differences. It all begins with the fact that ultimately being and time are irreconcilable.
The universe as we know it came to exist in order to avert the inevitable diminishing in volume of the initial, sole cosmic concentration, the Sun Absolute, the dwelling place of His Endlessness. The cause of this almost imperceptible but nevertheless relentless shrinking was the flow of time, or, to put it in our scientific jargon, the pre-big-bang version of the second law of thermodynamics. To counteract the effect of time, His Endlessness made certain changes in the common cosmic fundamental laws, the primary change being to make the initially independent functioning of these laws dependent on forces coming from outside. This new system of laws and their interactions, designed to nullify the effects of the second law of thermodynamics, is called the Trogoautoegocratic process, a name which implies continual exchange of substances. The introduction of dependence on outside forces allowed an element of uncertainty to enter into the workings of the universe. This was the price that had to be paid. In a manner of speaking, the fall of man was one of the payments.
Once the changes in the laws had been made, His Endlessness directed the flow of forces from within the Holy Sun Absolute into the spaces of the universe. Now no longer shrinking, the universe began to expand. Out of the primal substance (Etherokrilno) matter and known cosmic concentrations were crystallized. The will of His Endlessness participated in this process of creation only at the beginning. Once the requisite changes in laws had been made, creation proceeded more or less automatically under the organizing influence of the basic laws, yet at the same time subject to an element of hazard.
Such are the essentials of the Creation according to Beelzebub. However, in contrast to many other creation myths that have survived to our day, this one provides a wealth of additional information. For one thing, we are told that everything in the universe, including our thoughts and our feeling, is matter (or energy), varying only in the degree of vivifyingness. Matter and aggregations of matter throughout the whole of the Megalocosmos can be grouped into categories in accordance with the level of organization and with the quality of energy produced and consumed. We have in fact what appears to be a boldly extrapolated cosmic variation on the Periodic Table of Elements.
The continual and universal exchange of substances is regulated by the interaction of two basic laws designated as the Law of Three and the Law of Seven. These two laws are different but each has a consistent internal or mathematical structure in all transformations throughout the whole chain of substances, even though their outward manifestations may vary. Man and organic life are very much integral parts of the scheme and together constitute an indispensable link in the chain. They were designed to participate not only in the current of increasing entropy due to the degradation of matter and energy, but also in the countercurrent, returning energy in the direction of the source, for which purpose the whole system was created, These two opposing currents of energy are referred to by Beelzebub as the involution and evolution of matter. The role of symmetry is thus much more pervasive and all-inclusive in Gurdjieffs cosmology than it is in physics.
The interdependent relationship of everything with everything else, called the common-cosmic Iraniranumange, is all-inclusive and provides a unifying principle for the whole of the Megalocosmos. Only awareness, the measurable attribute of which is Reason, stands outside of it. This awareness, embodied by His Endlessness, provides what physicists would call the initial conditions for the creation of the universe. More importantly, awareness in Gurdjieffs writings emerges as a primary and independent attribute of the universe, and not just a correlate of organized matter as scientists would have it. Admittedly, awareness as we know it is always awareness of something, internally experienced as sensation, feeling, or thought, all of which appear to have a physical basis.
There is a remarkable correspondence between the big bang theory of scientific cosmology and the description of the creation of the existing Megalocosmos à la Beelzebub. Each calls for a suspension or modification of laws at the beginning. Both maintain that the evolution of the physical universe is a law-conformable process. Beelzebubs statement that everything in the universe is matter (or energy) is supported by the recent developments in quantum theory. Energy and matter have become more or less equivalent, and moreover the old force fields such as gravity are now thought to act by proxy, i.e., by messenger particles. Even Heisenbergs uncertainty principle seems to have its analogue in Gurdjieffs laws of World Creation and World Maintenance. Thus, according to the Law of Seven, one of the two primary laws that govern the transformation of matter, the completion of any process is dependent on forces outside its primary flow. Coincidence and co-occurrence, as rare as they may be, thus become lawful and essential elements in the workings of the universe. Yet this uncertainty, so patently obvious in biology and human affairs, is not just random but has a law-conforming aspect to it, even though in science only the physicists seem to be able to quantify it.
However, below this common outer edifice the similarities between Beelzebubs explanations and the physicists tend to be more superficial than is at first apparent. According to Davies, physicists have had to abandon their common sense and rely instead on mathematics for their insights. In contrast, Beelzebub maintains that the trouble with us is just the lack of that common sense, a sense that is common to the whole of us. As a result of that lack we tend to see everything upside down and take the ephemeral for the real. According to Beelzebub, common sense, the ability to see reality as it is, is the sine qua non of the whole enterprise and must be acquired, while among the physicists the requisite acquisition is training in mathematics.
There is a similar divergence in the role of the observer. In physics, only the gross aspects of matter, or macroscopic phenomena, can be studied without taking the observer into account as a part of the system. In quantum physics the observer is an integral part of the observed system. The observation itself is subject to certain limitations dictated by Heisenbergs uncertainty principle. Quantum physics maintains that the act of observation affects the position of a subatomic particle irrespective of the uncertainty associated with its position in the first place. On the other hand, it is supposedly meaningless to talk about the position of a particle in the absence of an observer.
What Beelzebub maintains is a rather striking and quite unexpected extension of this quantum principal. To properly perceive or to observe anything whatsoever, the observer must be fully aware of himself as a whole and as an observer. But the attainment of such a degree of awareness requires the training of attention and the purification of the mind from its usual rubbish. The observers state of intense awareness of himself and of his process of observing dispels the uncertainty and partiality associated with all our usual data collection. Without trying to claim that the sphere of applicability of this view extends to subatomic particles, nevertheless this is very different both in spirit and in content from what is asserted about the role of an observer in physics. In both cases the observer must be taken into account. This fact seems to support the notion of similarity between the two kinds of observation. However, both the purpose and the outcome are entirely different in the two cases.
Curiously, the behaviour of subatomic particles is not unlike the behaviour of our random thoughts, feelings, and sensations that come and go as they please with little macroscopic impact on our daily life. Random thoughts and associations that appear only to disappear are akin to fleeting materializations of particles out of nowhere. The existence of these particles is based on a Heisenberg loan that needs to be paid back. In the same manner, unless a thought or even a feeling is echoed in other parts of ourselvesin some other brain or brains, as Beelzebub would put itit has no substance and leaves no permanent trace. Study of the parallels between the new physics and our everyday psyche, which, like physics, lacks the dimension of awareness most of the time, might perhaps be more appropriate than comparisons between physics and the great traditional teachings. After all, our life is the macroscopic pattern that emerges from the interplay of partly random and unpredictable events in the brain, just as Newtonian mechanics is a visible counterpart of quantum reality.
Gurdjieffs cosmology is holistic in the proper sense of the word. It is not just that the whole turns out to be greater than the sum of its parts; rather, all the separate parts only exist thanks to some organizing higher structures or laws. Each cosmos, each semi-independent part of the whole, exists for reasons of its role in the common cosmic exchange of substances, the reciprocal feeding of everything that exists. Organic life and man with his potential for awareness are integral parts of this interweaving movement of energies. If such is indeed the case, we cannot infer properties of the whole from the behaviour of its parts. Studying the parts of an intrinsically holistic system is analogous to studying its projections in a lower dimension. The true holistic properties of the cosmos would turn up as noncausal and nonlocal links among its parts. It is in fact these noncausal and nonlocal properties that have evoked the holistic view in physics. However, nothing short of a totally holistic perspective will suffice.
Physics is primarily concerned with the involutionary part of the cycle of matter. Thus, while the recent theories of physics are fascinating, they do not include consciousness or the evolutionary cycle of matter so central to, and often clearly articulated in, the great traditions. Among the sciences, a theory of consciousness should lie within the domain of biology, but at the moment, even the theory of evolution of organic matter is comparatively primitive.
The current notion that once brain structures of a certain complexity had evolved, awareness or consciousness suddenly appeared out of nowhere, is reminiscent of seventeenth century biological theories of spontaneous generation. At that time it was believed that agents of decay and disease arose spontaneously. The theory was, if not naïve, a sterile hypothesis that later turned out to be nonsense. No doubt, to Gurdjieff, our current belief in the spontaneous generation of awareness would be equally nonsensical, or, in the language of Beelzebub, just another manifestation of our degenerated and very, very strange and exceedingly peculiar being-Reason.
Physicists maintain, and for good reason, that the species of matter, the chemical elements, have come about by law rather than by chance. Perhaps when biology reaches the level and sophistication of modern physics and develops equally convincing theories of the evolution of organic life, we can begin to talk seriously about scientific theories of the creation of the universe and to compare such theories with the descriptions contained in the great traditional teachings. Meanwhile it seems that the study of the universe as a whole with all it contains, including life, thought, feeling, and consciousness, will remain the province of these teachings.
1 Paul Davies, Superforce: The Search for a Grand Unified Theory of Nature (New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1984).
2 G. I. Gurdjieff, All and Everything: Ten Books, in Three Series, of which this is the First Series: Beelzebubs Tales to His Grandson (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1964).
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