Mind, Consciousness, And The Many-Dimensional Canvas
Our universe is composed of various dimensions. Mostly commonly, we think of the three dimensions of space, but time is also understood as one of the dimensions of our reality. We can think of these dimensions as a kind of “canvas”. In the same way that an artist’s canvas can hold paint, the canvas of our physical reality holds matter and energy in its four dimensions. They are the “paint” of our reality, giving shape to the picture you see when you open your eyes.
But many of us sense that there is more to our universe than matter and energy. As humans, we experience our reality via what is typically called consciousness. Color, which starts its journey in our physical world as a wavelength of electromagnetic energy, enters our eyes, is converted into electrical impulses, and somewhere along the way, allows us to experience color. How we understand the essence of that experience, or how it comes about, remains an incredible mystery. We can ask: What is the color red, as seen by humans? So far, no one knows. No one knows how to understand the essence of watching a sunset, or standing on the shore while huge waves crash around us.
But there seems to be a fascinating connection between the canvas of our physical reality, and the canvas of our consciousness. That is, we can think of consciousness, too, as a kind of canvas, upon which our experience is painted. However, consciousness would seem to be comprised of many dimensions. Sight is distinct from sound, which is distinct from touch, which is distinct from formal thought, which is distinct from emotion. One way to view consciousness, then, is that each “sense” is its own canvas, its own dimension, but that those canvases are united as a super-canvas which we call our consciousness.
This gives rise to the sense, which many people have, that consciousness is part of the fabric of the universe -- just like space and time are part of the fabric of our reality.
We’re missing a piece here. When I talked about spacetime as a canvas, I made a distinction between the canvas and what was on the canvas. In that case, matter and energy were what filled the canvas. I haven’t made the same distinction for consciousness -- we have used that word both to refer to the canvas, as well as what is on the canvas at any one time, but perhaps we should distinguish between the two. And here, language may start to fail us. One alternate candidate word for the canvas itself might be “mind”, while we might call what’s on that canvas to be “the experience of mind”.
One hugely significant difference between spacetime and “mind” (which I will use to refer to the canvas of consciousness) is that the canvas of spacetime is unified. The entire universe represents a single, continuous canvas. Conversely, the canvas of mind, so far as we know, is broken into many discrete canvases. My experience is different than your experience. I have a private theatre, which you know little about.
This gives rise to an important question: Is the canvas of mind truly broken up into discrete canvases, or is that an illusion? Perhaps each of us simply projects onto our area of a much larger canvas that unifies us all.
And that possibility of a unified canvas is somewhat breathtaking. One way to envision that is a wall of TV screens at a department store. Each screen is projecting its own story, but is part of a larger surface that contains all of those experiences.
When we think of a unified, many-dimensional canvas that is imbued with each of our consciousnesses, and when we use the word “mind” to refer to that unified canvas, we can’t help but wonder where the intersection between that canvas and God is.
What comes to mind for me is the movie Matrix, which supposed that our reality was actually inside of a computer. And I think that’s why, upon watching that movie, myself and many others resonated at a deep level. We intuitively have this sense that we are part of something greater than ourselves -- a structure of mind that carries and supports each of our beings, and without which we could not exist.
Such ideas can seem both encouraging and challenging to our notion of God. On one hand, it matches the sense that God is all knowing and all feeling, because the canvas of all space, time, and consciousness holds everything. (how’s that for a take on the sense that all of our good and bad deeds are recorded in a book)
On the other hand, if God is simply a unified canvas that holds each of our minds, we are left with a being that doesn’t have its own will apart from us, and that is in sharp contrast to the way most people view God.
It is helpful, though, to realize that God need not be limited by this unified canvas, but rather to think of this canvas as possibly being part of God’s being. Or, alternatively, is the canvas not part of God’s being at all, and simply carried by God. Those are old questions, and perhaps we have some hints to muse one way or another.
Let me leave you with the main thought of this essay, said one more time: We are amazing creatures that dance and flit across an expansive and many dimensional canvas. We occupy the canvases of space, of time, and of consciousness, all intimately linked together to form a super-canvas. We are composed of matter, energy, and things which we can yet hardly grasp. Thanks be to God.