Before we can start the search for heaven and hell we first have to answer another question, namely, Where exactly do we think this world is? Fortunately we have observations from science, philosophy and our own self-reflection to help us out, and it may turn out that after this investigation is over we will find that these seemingly only metaphysical entities are actually a little closer than we originally thought.
The New Astronomers: First we need to make a distinction between what we might term our practical relationship to the world—our ordinary day-to-day interaction—and the truer relationship gained from going somewhat deeper into the origins of our perceptions and mental constructs. The analogy we can use to illustrate the difference is that of the old and new astronomy, where the old is that of the earth standing still and the sun moving around it, and the new is the heliocentric model with the earth moving around the sun. The old model works fine for all practical purposes, and would work today too if we were still in a hunter-gatherer society. It is based on adequate observation, record keeping (to get the solar year and so on), and makes good enough predictions of the seasons, animal migrations, and so on. But there were always a few people who had doubts about this picture, and, in my mind, I imagine them as being viewed by “normal” society as being a little eccentric. The doubts come, as is often the case, from more detailed observation and what in (computer) science one calls the “edge cases”, those seemingly not so important anomalies “at the edges” that do not fit into the general picture but are not so important as to upset the whole cart. These include observations made at night—an unnatural time to be awake—and mathematical calculations—another esoteric science unfamiliar to many—which have to be “fudged” or approximated to fit the observations. But in the end it is the new theory that holds sway, and from its use it has enabled us to do a lot more than was possible with the old, including accurate astronomical predictions, space navigation and so on. Interestingly, and much to our purpose, this new theory is accepted by almost everyone but understood by few—few, because how many could derive this theory from first principles using solely their own observations and intellects (and I include myself in the not-me category)?
In the search for new worlds, we need to be like the new astronomers, sifting through the details, worrying about the anomalies, and being dissatisfied with partial answers, while at the same time being quite happy with the old astronomy—our usual relationship to the world—when it comes to buying the groceries and taking a walk in the park. The old is quite functional and practical, but the new will be truer and aims to get nearer reality. And the hope is that it will also allow us go much further—multi-dimensional space travel, anyone?—than the old astronomy.
Sense perception: Let us dive into sense perception. If we take vision as an example, using ordinary science as a basis, we know that light meets the back of the retina, which consists of about 100 million cells (rods and cones), and from there is transformed into chemical and electrical signals which propagate through the brain to the visual cortex. Something similar happens to all the senses in that all are changed into these chemical and electrical signals. But our subjective perception is something quite other, namely I “see” a tree and blue sky; and, moreover, they are seen as continuous not as dots (or quanta). Without investigating this gap between brain activity and subjective perception, one conclusion that is clear is that we never see the tree and sky directly as they really are, they are always indirect experiences, representations of the original, somehow mediated by the mechanisms in the body. This indirectness is not a new insight. It can be found in many religious and philosophical treatises from the last few thousand years, that is, long before the scientific explanation (chemicals and electricity) became available, which is to say that plain self-observation can lead us to the same conclusion (see).
Kant’s contributions: The philosopher Kant lays out several more mental faculties that come into play in order for us to register things in the outside world. These are all prerequisites, that is to say, they are built into our basic physical and mental mechanisms which we cannot change or turn off (see). Initially, there is the faculty of receiving impressions, termed “sensibility” (the physical part of the process), which passes to the mental faculty of “intuition” which forms the material of thought through which the understanding forms its concepts. “Sensibility” and “intuition” seem as good an attempt as any to describe this transition between the physical reception (chemicals and electricity) and the first mental apprehension. But for now it is the next few inborn faculties that are of more importance since “intuition” is still prior to the actual “experience.”
We don’t see the whole world: But perhaps there is one relevant comment to make here, which is that, fairly obviously, we can only derive experiences from the material which the senses supply us with, but there is no guarantee that they are detecting everything that is detectable. If we go by the usual scientific notion of evolution, then our senses only detect what is relevant to our survival, and only incidentally what those same restricted senses may show us about the rest of the world. So we really have no idea what the “full” world is like, and even if we do see the whole thing there is no way we can be certain that it is the whole thing! Moreover, even though our brains navigate the world successfully, this does not mean that they capture its structure faithfully, which further implies that reality might be completely unlike what our minds are presenting to us.
Space: In between the initial “intuition” and our conscious experience, in order to start making sense of the physical input, the mind, as it were, places the object in space, or rather, in order for us to even begin to see what it is we are dealing with, it uses its inborn “formal intuition”, or space sense, to give us the possibility of experiencing the external phenomenon as a separate object. We should point out here, to fend off the physicists, that Kant is not talking about a mathematical description of space (Euclidian, Riemannian and so on), but the very ability to be able to perceive objects as separated. So if we visualize an experienced object, say a tree, and remove the color, hardness, form, solidity and so on, there still remains the space which the body used to occupy (in the mind), and this one cannot take away. So space itself is not an object, and hence is not derived from experience, but is the very “form of possible objects”, the “mere possibility of external phenomena”, and is the first of the ways the mind uses to take apart and understand its sensual input. In short, space is added by the mind as part of its inquiring capability, and is not derived from the senses and external phenomena (see).
Some vocabulary: We need a little more philosophical vocabulary to help us along here. The adjective “a priori” denotes reasoning or knowledge which proceeds from theoretical deduction rather than from observation or experience. Meanwhile, “a posteriori” is a term applied to knowledge considered to be true based on experience, observation, or existing data. In the current context these will refer, respectively, to inborn, internal faculties, and knowledge derived from external (sensuous) experience. Another important difference between the two is that a posteriori knowledge always has a degree of uncertainty because even though the past experience has proved consistent—the sun has come up every day since whenever—there is no guarantee that it will do so tomorrow: this logical process is called induction, which is never absolutely certain. As “new astronomers” we need to hold to this fact even though in practice there is no problem (the sun will rise). In contrast, a priori knowledge has a certainty (“apodictic certainty” to use a fun philosophical term), and also a universality, meaning that it is always and indubitably the case. So common experience may teach us that something is so (the sun will rise), but not that it must be so. It is the “must” that makes the difference. Kant uses these facts to work backwards to show that if we find something that is both certain and universal, then it must by necessity be a priori knowledge, that is, something built into us and prior to the experience of the world. Experience can never give us (apodictic) certainty.
Time: Time is the second inborn internal sense. Using this we determine, with certainty, that one phenomenon is simultaneous with, or successive to, another phenomenon. Even though experience seems to determine these properties, experience cannot supply the conviction that one event follows another, and it is this conviction that shows us we are dealing with an a priori inborn ability. Moreover, even when there is no sensual input at all, we still feel that time is passing, and are unable in our minds to do away with time itself. Even though experience is necessary for us to be aware of time, and our conception of change relies entirely on the time sense, time itself does not change, only the objects which are in time. “Time is a necessary representation on which all intuitions depend” (see). Kant goes further to say that time is nothing but the “form of the internal sense, that is, of our intuition of ourselves, and of our internal state.” He also assigns part of our reasoning ability—that one cannot at the same time assert and deny the same thing of a subject—as being grounded in the time sense (see). (Note that in all this we are ignoring the downfall of simultaneity described by General Relativity because this is outside of our ordinary day-to-day perceptions that philosophy deals with.) Here are some more quotes to help clarify the observation that both space and time are provided by the mind in order to understand the sensual input, and are not part of the external world in itself.
Things-in-Themselves: The last part of the analysis of how we relate to the outside world goes back to our sense perception. Because we only receive impressions or representations of objects we can never know anything at all about the objects as they really are, the Ding an sich (german) of Kant, “things-in-themselves.” Because we interact so successfully with these objects, most people, including many modern philosophers, prefer to think that our representations really do reflect the true nature of external objects. This, of course, matches our ordinary interactions with the world—we take the objects to be exactly as we see them. But for us “new astronomers”, who are chasing reality, we have to stick with the fact that our immediate experience, which is in the mind, is only a representation of these objects and we can never know them as they are in themselves (see).
Body also outside: One more step, for those of us who are taking “me” to start with the body, at the eyeball, so to speak. The whole body has to be included in the “outside world” and so is as much of a representation as the tree and the sky. Even though we are not able scientifically to describe the dividing line between the brain and the mind, we do know, as a subjective certainty, that there is a big difference between the brain’s “chemical and electrical signals”—which is where neuroscience ends—and my subjective experience of the tree and sky—where my actual life begins. These representations are my life, and even though the mind and body are intimately connected—our “world” can change just from receiving a little bump on the head—our experience is clearly something other than chemicals and electricity.
Materiality: Although the existence of worlds, any worlds, is looking like it depends at least in some way on the minds that perceive them, it may be worth spending a little time on materiality itself, regarded, for the time being, as being independent of minds. In general, ordinary science has no trouble at all with allowing the existence of finer matter, since it already deals with particles such as neutrinos, of which about 100 trillion pass through each of us each second without any interaction at all. But it would have trouble with the idea of things or beings formed out of such particles because it only deals with them as independent individuals, not aggregates (taking our bodies as “aggregates” of particles). Nonetheless, the idea is there, that different materialities can co-exist in the same “space”. Another example would be the “dark matter” that so puzzles astronomers, because it too is “right here” but does not interact with ordinary matter.
Because modern science holds to the principle that the laws of the universe must be true at all scales, from the neutrinos to the galaxies and beyond, it cannot entertain the concept of levels or allow that each level, however these are defined, may have its own characteristics, or that each may share some laws with other levels but also be governed by its own particular set. Seeing the universe in this way might well resolve the current roadblock in physics which is unable to reconcile the small—quantum physics—with the large—general relativity. Setting up such a science from scratch would be a monumental task, but such schemes have already been laid out by various authors, for instance the one from Swedenborg, and the one from the authors of the 4th Way with its elaborate and coherent hierarchy of matters and laws, both of which schemes allow for the existence of worlds in the same “space” but without necessarily interacting. We know from our own experiences that, in a sense, we already live in two worlds, the physical one with its gravity and limitations, and the mental world with its free imagination and untrammeled thought. If we return to the observations of Kant & Co. and incorporate the finding that the world we experience is at least partly dependent on the mind, then we should be able to allow into our thinking about the location of the worlds the hypothesis that other worlds might actually co-exist with this one, but may not be immediately obvious because—well, are we looking correctly, are we looking in the right place, are we using the right tools?
But—back to Kant—even if we do allow that things-in-themselves are material, what we mean by materiality or substance is also found to originate in the mind (see), which means that we are still unable to say that any thing-in-itself really is in itself “solid”. In fact, we are unable to say anything at all about outside objects in themselves because we only receive their representations.
Representation in practice: In order to move these observations from the cubby-hole reserved for theories into the wider practical part of the mind, I would like to go back to the initial sense input, taking again the sense of sight. As I imagine it, at any given moment what we receive is basically a plane of small colored dots (quite a lot of them!), which changes (in time) to give another set of dots, and so on. So it is like a continuously changing pointillist painting which the brain and mind co-operatively mull over to spit out the representations of the world “out there”, the tree and sky, to the “me” in here. To help us go back to just experiencing the dots, with no interpretations, it might be helpful to put oneself in a dark room where one sees only different dark shades—dark dots—without knowing what they might represent, so that one experiences just sense input without the forms created by the mind. I believe this is what things looked like to us just after we were born, a mass of dots (and sounds, sensations) which made no sense at all but which the body and mind immediately started to organize (using the built-in faculties of space, time, quality and so on) in order to understand where “on earth” one had ended up and what it was all about.
So here we are, the new astronomers, busily transforming chemicals and electric signals into representations of the outside “something” with the help of our inborn space and time senses (among others). Moreover, to drill down a little deeper, Kant points out that space represents objects as outside of us (see). This seemingly innocuous phrase points out that what we are taking as the “outside” is also part of the representation, that we cannot assert apodictically that there is an outside, and can only say that that is how it looks. For all we know, it could just as well be “inside” us if we could determine who “us” are (remembering that the body is also part of the representation).
I hope it is not too confusing to add here one observation on the “us”, which has a parallel in Plato’s representative allegory of the Cave (see), which is that the “I”, our “I”, does not move. The head moves, the body moves and so on, but the sense of “I” is immovable, as if it were the center of everything. In the Cave story, Plato has them “able to look forward only, and prevented by the fetters from turning their heads”. I believe this has relevance to the search for where the worlds lie. If one likes analogies, in the ordinary scientific explanation of the cosmos, each point in space is still expanding (from the Big Bang), that is, each point is a center. And some of our authors also say that each one of us is a center; or, put differently, the whole is in each part (see).
Where is this World?: Returning to the main gist, can we say that we have answered the counter-question to the one asked by this essay, namely, where do we think this world is? Perhaps not actually answered, but maybe it has disturbed or upended what we take as the usual view, where everything in the world, including space and time, exists independently of us “out there”. It is clear that at least some of it is in the mind, and though the remainder still looks like it must be “out there”, we cannot say anything about what it is like “in itself” because all we receive from it is a representation. Some philosophical texts go further and completely deny the objective existence of any of the “out there”, the physical world, but at this point we cannot go that far because we need to explain why objects plainly exist when we are not around (my computer is still there when I return from a shopping trip), and they have properties which we all agree on—I see the tree and you do too and your description matches mine. But since our lives, our actual experienced lives, are concerned only with these representations—these are our primary experiences—we are pretty much forced to admit that the world is inside us, in the mind, but also outside us in that the input for experience comes from the outside things-in-themselves.
Berkeley: Bishop Berkeley, an earlier contemporary of Kant, was one of the out-there deniers. He made the similar observation that our primary world is one of ideas, but he denied the existence of things-in-themselves (he refers to these as “unthinking things”): only ideas exist, and the permanence of external objects (the tree that both you and I see) is due to the action of a higher entity, namely God, who maintains the “external objects”. He also points out the still thorny question of how external objects are able to produce ideas in our minds (see; in modern science this is termed the “hard problem of consciousness”, with no solution on the horizon). So both Berkeley and Kant have unknowns which they describe very differently. Kant, the scientist, terms them things-in-themselves; Berkeley, the bishop, attributes the existence of independent external ideas (the tree and sky) as being sustained by God; but to us, as laymen, both are simply unknowns which are posited in order to explain the origin of external phenomena.
We have often heard, somewhat derisively, that “supernatural experiences” are “all in the mind”; but what part of anyone’s daily experience is not “in the mind”?
Onward to Heaven and Hell
All of the above ideas are taken from standard and accepted philosophical and scientific sources, and, in case my explanations are not clear, are amenable to your own observations and verifications. But the important point, if we are to keep going forward, is that we must take these observations—life based on representation interpreted via space, time, and so on—as facts and use them as the starting point for the next steps. They need to be lived if we want to get nearer to answering the questions on the location, and existence, of heaven and hell or any other spiritual worlds. So as I sit here writing these words, at the back of my mind I try to admit that right now space and time are being created on the spot based on input from what is essentially an unknown source, the “external world”.
And while doing this we also need to keep our sanity intact! But for this we—or myself, at least—know that many others, such as the authors quoted in this website have done something similar and survived. We are all on the hunt for Reality, and have good company.
Turning the corner: When putting all this together I was not sure how far one could travel down the known road before having to rely on other travellers’ knowledge about the places which currently seem out of reach. Well, we seem to have reached that spot, where ordinary knowledge diverges from the “esoteric”. But there is one aspect that connects the two somewhat intimately together, which is that the observations say as much about the traveller as the road travelled, and though the road may be unknown, the traveller is familiar and could potentially become more familiar if he increased his knowledge of himself. Finding worlds and finding oneself become an inseparable package. Our authors have quite a bit to say on this matter (see). So it is clear that where the worlds are is partly dependent on who is observing, and on the being of the observer. One’s perception of heaven or hell depends on one’s “loves”—self-love, love of neighbor and so on—so the Where depends on the Who. The observer will see whatever worlds he is aligned with, all of them “here”. And the relationship between the worlds, their interaction, is the same as that between the mind and the body.
But before actually turning the corner we should perhaps look back at “the world” and try and see it from the viewpoint of the further worlds we are trying to travel to, to see if we can at least find what its relationship is, its relevance, even in some sense its “meaning”. As humans we are always in this spot, midway between worlds, perhaps “prevented by the fetters from turning our heads” but able, with work, to turn around nonetheless and maybe become cognizant of both worlds at the same time, while being aware that this spot turns out to be somewhere in the mind, “in here”, rather than “out there” in some physical manifestation. We are told that nature, the physical world, instead of showing us a representation, which we decided did not really help us if we wanted to know the true nature of these things-in-themselves behind the representations, instead is a reflection of the higher worlds, as if in a mirror (see), that is, a much closer correlation than we could determine on purely logical grounds.
And if we now turn the corner, we are told that not even one more step is needed, that the higher worlds are immediately apparent, “right here“, if we care to keep our eyes open; and that they are all “within us“. No more searching is needed. I believe this is what is happening during those moments, especially outdoors in nature, when one senses more keenly and deeply the vibrations of life, and the connectedness between living beings, when one feels that even the stones “are alive” (see). If only one could go a little deeper then surely heaven would be apparent, tangible, intermingling with our ordinary world. We are in reality, after all, simply a combination of will and understanding, that is, we are mind-stuff, that is, non-corporeal, and in this mental world much more is possible. But the senses shout us down, so we see everything upside down, the outer world as real and the inner mental one as imaginary, even though this inner world is where all our experiences occur.
When one accepts that at least part of life lies in the mind, and that it is the mind that imposes space and time onto our sensations as a way to understand the world, then there is a path to seeing how the other worlds can exist, and perhaps exist on a similar foundation to that of the outside world, in that all the worlds hinge on the mind’s perceptions and interpretations. Further, we know that there is no reason to suppose that the senses tell us everything that exists, they only show those things relevant to our physical survival, and this allows the possibility of coincident worlds, in the same space but with different materialities. Moreover, we are also told that the activity in the physical world is in complete correspondence with the higher worlds, meaning that they are intimately connected and that there is a causal relationship, with the ordinary world in complete dependence on the higher worlds (for more on “correspondence” see this page). And because the “I” does not move, the worlds, all the worlds, must be right here, immediately here, within us.
The difference between knowing something is the case and believing or living it—this is our problem when it comes to converting metaphysical thoughts into practical actions. The main enemy is certainty, not a reasoned certainty, but certain because I believe it, I am right, it’s what everyone else thinks. And uncertainty is unpleasant, it puts one “between two stools” neither here nor there, so one rushes back to the old chair because it is comfortable. But we need to be New Astronomers, working in the night, with patience until the dawn.
Shushtari, Abu al-Hasan al- (1212-1265, Spain)