Reflecting on this single point of light emerging from the darkness, I think about the Big Bang and connect it to the notion that from nothingness the universe burst forth into “pure potential.” To see what I might have on this phrase, I went to my Vision For Television database. Not surprisingly there were many references to the word “potential,” among them the phrase containing the quote by physicist Amit Goswami that sparked my interest originally. He wrote “The universe is pure potential, waves of possibility. The elementary particles, the atoms, all the way up to the brain, are waves of possibility, not actuality. We, as observers, are required to choose (scientists use the term “collapse”) actuality from possibility.”
The significance of an observer determining what’s real derives from a paradoxical thought experiment by Erwin Schrodinger, who showed that a cat in a box with a capped vile of poison is both living and dead—until the box is opened and the cat is observed. The moment of observation collapses potential into a “reality,” such that only one of the possibilities becomes actualized. Quantum physicists are still exploring aspects of his experiment, but the notion that the universe is pure potential, waves of possibility until we choose what is actual, mysterious as it is, holds up. From my perspective it adds weight to the idea that consciousness pervades and is fundamental to the universe.
Dictionaries vary on the definition, but they share the general idea that a “potential” exists as a possibility that something can be actualized. Manifested. Michelangelo famously said that he cut away the parts of the block of Carrara marble that were not David. He made real the potential he saw in the stone. The sculpture did not exist in the raw stone, but that potential was there. Like “beauty,” a potential that gets actualized is the one in the mind of a beholder.
From atoms to galaxies, matter alone has potentials. By virtue of being, it moves or is moved and in the process transformation occurs—atoms join with other atoms and a potential to become something else is realized. Raindrops can quench a thirst, sustain a pond, transport acid from the atmosphere and more. Of itself a boulder can contribute to the movement of a mountain or clog a drain. In the hands of a human being that same boulder can become a monument or a weapon.
One of the potentials of human beings is to actualize and enhance to probability of realization in objects and systems—toward constructive and destructive ends. An input of any positive or growthful energy increases the potential for positive actualization. Negative energy either retards the potential of a constructive realization or increases the likelihood of negative actualization. And the more complex the system, the greater its potential. For instance a computer has enormous potential. In itself, those potentials are latent until someone uses it. Introduced into a classroom, business or home, it can enhance the realization of the user’s purpose. But its destructive potentials can also be exploited, as when the same computer is used to coordinate a terrorist attack.
Machines have no preference with respect to how or even if their potentials are realized. The potential of a complex or machine follows its design and intended purpose. Some tools are intended to build, others to destroy. A gun for instance, has a relatively limited range of potentials. Aside from carrying aesthetic and collecting possibilities, its primary potential is to kill. To see how potentials are enhanced, imagine two houses on the same street where the families are exact duplicates of each other. The individuals in both families are equal in terms of their potentials for good and evil. When a gun is introduced into the system, say in “House A,” it’s mere presence enhances the potential for death or disaster by gunfire, irregardless of the gun’s attributes or disposition. This is so because the object was designed to carry lethal potential. Of course the potential for death by a weapon exists in “House B” as well, because other objects—such as knifes and poisons—carry that potential as well. But the likelihood that someone in House B will be killed by a gun—that the instrument’s primary potential will be actualized—close to zero compared to the family in House A. There, a passionate argument or any kind of negative energy would enhance the potential for disaster.
There’s a Native American story that speaks to the realization of potential. A grandmother was teaching her grandson about life and the world. “A fight is going on inside me,’ she said to him. “It is a fight between two bears. One is angry, greedy and jealous. She complains about everything. She thinks she knows better than anyone and puffs herself up. The other bear is filled with joy. She is grateful for all that is given, accepting it as it is given. She is kind and generous. Her manner is humble and gentle. As you can imagine, the two bears are constantly fighting. It is a fight that is going on inside of you as well,” the grandmother said. “It is going on inside all human beings.” The grandson asked, “Which bear wins?” His grandmother leaned close and said, “The one you feed, grandson.”
Indeed, the potentials we feed are the ones that become actualized. On the positive and constructive side, voices in many areas of human endeavor have addressed the subject of potential. I let them speak for themselves.
Evolution then is the grand adventure of matter exploring its own innate potentials: from its first appearance after the big bang—from the first atom, molecule, and cell—to the magnificence and glory of the human brain. The greatest unfolding of evolution is literally the story the universe is telling to itself. Christian DeQuincy (Philosopher, cosmologist)
Light is energy and it’s also information, content, form, and structure. It’s the potential of everything. David Bohm (Theoretical physicist)
Free the child’s potential, and you will transform him into the world. Maria Montessori (Physician and philosopher of education)
That society is good which fosters the fullest development of human potentials, the fullest degree of humanness. Abraham Maslow (Psychologist)
When driven into far-from-equilibrium conditions, systems do not just break down, they generate new structures that pull higher forms of order out of the surrounding chaos. It is as if nature reaches into herself and draws forth structures that reflect the inherent potential of the system for higher orders of self-organization. Duane Elgin (Author, system’s theorist)
Our mass media are only a poor shadow of what they could be—not for lack of technology, but because of our imperfect understanding of their potential power. Hazel Henderson (Economist, futurist)
Every work of art that does not cause God to be felt misses the true potential of art. Alex Gray (Artist)
Individual success depends on environments that trigger the fulfillment of our genetic potential. Environments that motivate through fear literally shut down the potential for growth. Those that motivate through vision, open us up to express unforeseen possibilities. Bruce Lipton (Biologist)
With realization of one’s own potential and self-confidence in one’s ability, one can build a better world. Dalai Lama
We’re all equally divine, but we’re all at different stages of actualizing our divine potential. The fullest expression of our divine potential is to be someone who helps others actualize their potential. Gordon Davidson (Leadership and social investment consultant)
ABOUT THIS IMAGE
Title: Incandescent Starlight
I set up a penlight about fifteen feet from the camera and exposed through a star filter.