Ontology of Energy

Time has come for a discussion of the ontology of energy. Let’s discuss it without academic pretense and dogmatism.

I will start by mentioning the views of a well-known philosopher and a physicist I respect. Shrii Shrii Anandamurti’s views on energy will be presented later. My views will be interspersed in the text.

Colin McGinn (philosopher)

In his introduction to the chapter titled “The Ontology of Energy” from his book “Basic Structures of Reality: Essays in Metaphysics” McGinn says:

“This chapter suggests that energy is a real objective trait of reality, not merely a useful mathematical fiction, and that it has a highly general nature, which is capable of assuming different forms. Regarding its intrinsic nature, this chapter leans towards a position of agnostic realism about energy: we refer to something we-know-not-what with the word “energy”—just as we do with the word “matter.” We know that energy circulates and remains constant, as well as knowing the laws of its various manifestations, but we don’t know what it consists in—we have no positive descriptive conception of it. Given that it is basic to physical reality, then, we lack knowledge of a fundamental aspect of the world.”

Matt Strassler (physicist)

In his post titled “Mass and Energy” Strassler articulates the differences between “mass-energy”, “motion-energy” and “interaction-energy.” He mentions the difficulty of defining energy in words but reminds us that physicists know how to measure energy.

“Unfortunately, the meaning of ‘energy’ in physics is very difficult to put into the form of a dictionary definition, with a short phrase that characterizes what it is. But do not be misled! This is a failure of language, and does not mean that physicists’ notion of energy is vague. Not at all! In any given physical system, it is very clear what the energy of the system is, both in terms of how to measure it experimentally and (if there are equations that can predict the system’s behavior) how to calculate it.”

He also reminds us that “energy” is a conserved quantity by definition. In other words, there is a conserved quantity in nature and physicists call it “energy.” What others call “energy” may not be that conserved quantity physicists know as energy.

Energy is conserved in isolated systems

We learn in school that energy is never lost. Energy has many forms. It can be converted from one form to another but the total amount of energy remains constant. When you walk up the stairs, the energy you spend comes from your body which converts the food energy into kinetic energy. The food energy you spent walking up the stairs is nearly equal to the kinetic energy you spent. Remember, some of the food energy is converted into heat. More interestingly, the kinetic energy you spent walking up the stairs is precisely equal to the potential energy stored in the gravitational field of Earth. In the process of walking up the stairs, the food energy was converted into heat and kinetic energies and at the same time the kinetic energy was transferred to the gravitational field. The sum of the heat and gravitational energies equals the original food energy. When you include the heat the total amount of energy in the system is constant.

The hidden assumption here is that you are in an isolated system. The conservation of energy is only valid in isolated systems.

Current thinking in physics is that the total amount of energy in the universe is constant. This is based on the assumption that the physical universe is an isolated system. I question that assumption.

Mass energy equivalence

The famous \displaystyle E=mc^2 equation of Einstein is usually interpreted as “matter is bottled-up energy.” This interpretation is not quite right!

\displaystyle E=mc^2 gives the impression that the mass can be converted to energy.  This interpretation is not quite right either.

If you go to the origin of \displaystyle E=mc^2 you will see that the mass/energy equivalence is meant to express the fact that the gravitational force acts on the total energy of an object. The total energy of an object includes its rest-mass. \displaystyle E=mc^2 does not mean that mass can be converted to energy.

Rest-mass can be converted to energy under certain circumstances but even that is open to interpretation. For example, when we collide an electron and a positron (anti-electron) 2 photons emerge. Electrons and positrons have rest-mass. Since photons do not have a rest-mass we can claim that we converted the rest-mass into energy in the form of photons. Others might argue that we converted particles with nonzero-rest-mass into other particles with zero-rest-mass.

What is happening in nuclear reactions? Are we not converting matter into energy? No we are not! We are simply releasing the “interaction energy.” We are releasing the energy contained in the force that holds protons and neutrons together. We are not converting matter into energy.

Einstein did not know anything about the laws of elementary particle physics. He was referring to the behavior of objects under the influence of the gravitational force. So, in his General Relativity Theory he showed that “total energy” distorts the space-time and the effect of curvature manifests as an attractive force between objects. He envisioned a universe of varying local energy densities attracted to each other through the curvature they created in space-time.

The rest-mass is as mysterious as the energy. Strassler refers to the rest-mass as “mass-energy.” There is a universal field known as the Higgs field.  Elementary particles get their rest-masses from the Higgs field but the composite particles such as protons and neutrons do not get their rest-masses from the Higgs field. It is also very interesting to note that the Higgs particle (quantum of Higgs field) does not get its rest-mass from the Higgs field either. This is very strange! The story of the Higgs field is certainly not the last story. There will be better theories in the future.

My thinking on the rest-mass is closer to Einstein’s in the sense that the rest-mass must be related to curvature. Einstein was referring to the curvature of space-time. I am referring to the curvature of the primordial fabric of the universe which is more fundamental than space-time-matter. I am thinking that there are intrinsic flows (threads) in this fabric and when a closed-loop is formed in a fundamental thread the rest-mass manifests. I know very little about the String Theory of physics but I have a feeling that what they call a “string” and what I call a “thread” are related.

Negative energy = Interaction Energy

Strassler explains that “negative energy” and “interaction-energy” is the same thing. To explain it better he wrote “The Energy That Holds Things Together


Interaction” is a key concept in physics. All forces are explained using the concept of “interaction” which is fundamentally important for a deeper understanding of energy as well. We cannot comprehend energy without appreciating the fundamental role of interaction.

Even though Strassler separates the “mass-energy” from the “interaction-energy” the rest-mass (“mass-energy”) can be understood in the context of interaction in my opinion. I mentioned the curvature and the closed-loop formations of the fundamental threads. The closed-loops cannot form without an interaction. In Prometheus and Chronos I referred to this type of interaction as “twisting action.” The root cause of symmetry breaking in particle physics is the “twisting action” in my view.

Fundamental Interaction

At the deepest level the fundamental interaction is the tight embrace between the cognitive and operative aspects of Consciousness (Absolute Being, Godhead).

The fundamental interaction is the first cause of all emanations of Consciousness. Please see Definitions and Summary of Soul Monism for much more on this.

Energy originates from the fundamental interaction. The forward motion that emerges from the divine embrace is the most general definition of energy. This divine energy is known as Shakti in Sanskrit.


In physics (classical mechanics) the Lagrangian is a quantity related to the difference (subtraction) of the kinetic energy from the potential energy. The integral (summation) of the Lagrangian over a path is known as “action.” Physical systems evolve in such a way as to minimize action. Lagrangian and action concepts are applicable in quantum mechanics and quantum field theories as well.

In the most general sense, philosophically speaking, “action” is the relative change. The emphasis is on the word “relative.”

Binding Action

Confining, limiting, localizing, encircling, or internalizing action can be described as “binding action.”

Big Picture

In “Definitions and Summary of Soul Monism” I mentioned the big picture.

Absolute Being (Godhead, Nirguna Brahma, Pure Consciousness, Ananda) —>  Divine Center (Cosmic Soul, Cosmic Consciousness, Parama Purusha)  —>  Reality (Manifested Consciousness, Saguna Brahma)  —>  Cosmic Mind (Divine Mind, Mind of God)  —> Cosmos  —> spiritual, mental, physical realms of Cosmos  —> primordial fabric  —>  space-time-matter  —> galaxies —> planets —> organisms —> individual mind (encapsulating the individual soul which is a reflection of the Cosmic Soul) —> expansion of the individual mind  —> merger of the individual mind with the Cosmic Mind  —>  identification of the individual soul with the Cosmic Soul  —> Absolute Being (Godhead, Nirguna Brahma, Pure Consciousness, Ananda)

Where is energy in this “big picture?” Is it to be found in the “space-time-matter” stage? Is there energy in other stages?

The discussion of energy should not be limited to the physical universe (space-time-matter). Shakti (divine energy) is present in all stages of manifestation.

Prakrti, Maya, Nature, 3 Gunas

Shrii Shrii Anandamurti taught us that:

  • Prakrti is the cosmic operative principle of Consciousness. Prakrti is the binding principle which is the root cause of all manifestations.
  • Maya is the name for the non-equilibrium phase of Prakrti.
  • Nature is the functional style of Prakrti.

Binding action of Prakrti manifests as 3 broad principles or tendencies.  These 3 broad principles are known as gunas. The 3 gunas operate within Saguna Brahma. Pure Consciousness (Nirguna Brahma) is beyond the gunas.

Energy is associated with Rajoguna

The existence and the significance of the 3 gunas have been known for thousands of years. The 3 gunas are the essential operational aspects of Reality at every stage of manifestation. The 3 gunas are certainly active in the physical universe but they were operating even before the formation of the physical universe.

Gunas are not substances. Gunas are not forces either. Gunas are more like principles or tendencies.

Here’s my interpretations of the 3 gunas:

Rajoguna (mutative guna): The principle of transformation and change. The principle of action. The principle of evolution. Basis of pulsations, vibrations, oscillations, fluctuations. Basis of time. Basis of energy. Basis of quantum mechanical nature. Symmetry breaking. The “wave and vibration.”

Tamoguna (static guna): Qualification principle. Limiting, localizing, encircling, internalizing tendency. Basis of dualities. Basis of all forms (mental and physical). The principle of stability and staticity. Structure forming tendency. The source of all physical forces: gravitation, electromagnetic force, strong nuclear force, weak nuclear force. The origin of coupling and interaction. Nonlinearity (outcome of coupling/interaction). Curvature (outcome of nonlinearity). Scale (outcome of curvature and nonlinearity). Space (a manifestation of scale)

Sattvaguna (sentient guna): Sentience principle. Unity and unification. Symmetry. Freedom, salvation, liberation. Resistance to binding action. Resistance to curvatures in general. Resistance to citta forms (samskaras or memory seeds). De-coupling and un-tangling tendency. Anti-objectivation tendency. Anti-coupling tendency. Anti-formation tendency. Facilitates the reflection of Consciousness in the unit structure.

The 3 gunas cannot be expressed in terms of each other.

  • Energy is associated with Rajoguna but energy does not come from Rajoguna. Remember gunas are not substances. They are principles or tendencies.

Shrii Shrii Anandamurti

Someone needs to write a book about Anandamurti’s views on energy in an organized way and expand on his hints. His discussions involved explanations of the intricate play between the cognitive and operative aspects of Consciousness, the similarities and differences between energy and microvita, deeper discussions on Shakti, and discussions on the concepts of bala, prana and pranah. He also talked about the relationship between citta and energy.

In the “Matter and Abstract” lecture in 1989 he gave us a new definition for matter: “So matter is not bottled-up energy – it is ‘known I’ in the cosmic arena, in the arena of the cosmos.” In a different discourse (“Microvita and Cosmology”) the same year (1989) he defined energy as “knower I.”

If you are familiar with his writings you would recognize that the term “known I” describes the Tamoguna dominated portion of the Cosmic Mind. In the “Big Picture” section above we see that “space-time-matter” emerges from the “primordial fabric” but the energy that flows in “space-time-matter” comes from a higher (more abstract) layer of the Cosmic Mind.

The “knower I” corresponds to the Atman. In “Definitions and Summary of Soul Monism” I mention that the synonyms for Atman are Cosmic Soul, Cosmic Consciousness, Cosmic Nucleus, Divine Center, Parama Purusha, Purushottoma, Self, One, Source.

I prefer the term “Cosmic Soul.” My synthesis of spiritual philosophy as summarized in “Definitions and Summary of Soul Monism” is based on the perspective of the soul. My sincere wish is that after you read this article you would take a look at my summary. There is a lot of information in that summary.

One of the points I tried to make in that summary was to emphasize the fact that life is not possible without a soul. I don’t restrict “life” to biological life. I use the term “life” in the most general sense. I believe that any manifestation of the soul is life by definition. Life cannot start without a soul. This is a universal principle. Eternal Life cannot start without the Cosmic Soul.

By stressing the fact that energy comes from the “knower I”, Anandamurti is clarifying that Cosmic Soul is the source of life and energy in the universe.

Energy comes from the soul through the mind. Cosmic Soul gives live and energy to the Cosmic Mind and in turn Cosmic Mind passes the energy to the physical universe.

Primary atoms of energy

In an early discourse titled “Matter and Spirit” (1956) Anandamurti talked about the atoms of energy.

“This eternal game of pervasive Consciousness and energy (Shiva and Shakti or Puruśa and Prakrti) in which Puruśa is unable to shake off the influence of Prakrti and express Himself such a state may be called the ‘primary atom of energy’ (Prathamika Shakti kańá) The primary atoms of energy and matter are absolutely identical.”


Anandamurti’s views on Shakti is beyond the scope of this article. In the “Matter and Spirit” (1956) discourse he gives a clarification that I think is relevant here.

“There may be some incongruity regarding the word Shakti. Actually where the two words Shiva and Shakti are used, Shakti stands for the binding force of Prakrti. The atoms of energy or Shaktikańa’s that are generally regarded as the fundamental essence of the created world are not really Shakti in the above sense; they are compound of Shiva (Consciousness) and Prákrta-Shakti (the binding force). The universe is fundamentally the cooperative creation of these atoms of energy. To think that Prakrti is the only cause of the creation of the world would be illogical, for each of the limitless atoms of energy of this universe is created due to the influence of the binding force upon Cosmic Consciousness. So to say that the universe is created out of limitless atoms of energy is tantamount to saying that the universe is the compound image of Mahashiva and Mahashakti, i.e., Cosmic Consciousness and Cosmic Energy. This Shiva-cum-Shakti creation is indeed the psychic manifestation of Brahma. His liilárúpa [[inscrutable form]].” 

Vacuum Energy or Dark Energy

Most physicists think that the “dark energy” is the same as the vacuum energy. I call vacuum the “internal space” and refer to the space-time as “external space.” In my view vacuum fluctuations started as a reaction to the growth of the external space.

Acceleration of the expansion rate of the external space implies that the internal space (vacuum) is becoming more active. There is an action-reaction relationship between the “external” and the “internal” space. The internal space (vacuum) is becoming more active.

In my opinion “dark energy” is a measure of the activity level in the internal space. Vacuum activity develops as a reaction to the expansion of the external space in the first place.  Afterwards, a feedback loop is established causing amplification of both the expansion and the vacuum energy. This looks like instability. Sounds scary! This fundamental instability may be avoided by the birth of baby universes.

Infinite Energy Source ?

I planned to write a few words on the controversial subject of extracting energy from the vacuum (which may be equivalent to extracting energy from Cosmic Citta) but I decided not to write about it because having access to infinite energy is not a good thing.

Let’s say we have cheap and infinite source of energy. The usage of that energy would heat up the Earth and the climate would be permanently altered and the life on Earth would probably disappear if humans insist on using extravagant amounts of energy.

What is possible may not be realizable anyway because Nature will most probably prevent it.

About Suresh Emre

I have worked as a physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and the Superconducting Super Collider Laboratory. I am a volunteer for the Renaissance Universal movement. My main goal is to inspire the reader to engage in Self-discovery and expansion of consciousness.
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