Theosophy and Science

By Rudi Jansma

Science presents itself as the leading force of the human mind. Modern culture's views on the composition, origin, and future of the cosmos; its conception of natural and human evolution; decisions concerning questions of life and death, and what life and death really are; and insights into psychological, social, political, and physical welfare -- all are based on scientific investigations and beliefs. Science and its practitioners, the scientists, have therefore an enormous responsibility.

Study of ancient and modern religions, sciences, and philosophies reveals the essential unity of the human mind, and that our present culture can build on the heritage not only of Western culture of the last few centuries, but of all cultures, ancient and modern. It also reveals that science can be spiritual, demonstrating the oneness of all life as a fact in nature, which provides a basis for an ethics of universal brotherhood. Science -- the perception and interpretation of natural fact -- then becomes the great sustainer of the higher purposes of human development, as it has been in more spiritually-inclined cultures. In this context science cannot do without philosophy and unshakable dedication and devotion to truth, oneness, and the well-being of all.

If we look closely into the more progressive and daring efforts of some philosopher-scientists in the last few decades, we see awakening an awareness that there may be something more than the merely material and mechanistic. We hear about "immaterial" morphogenetic fields, about our earth as a living mother, about the universe as a living being, about wholeness and holistic approaches in the health sciences. But still we have not witnessed a full breakthrough into the understanding of the inseparability of all aspects of nature's manifestation: of physical matter, fields, life, energy, mind, intelligence, forces; of stars and men, of gods and more humble creatures. Largely this is because the efforts of the majority of investigators and thinkers lack the universal framework that the ancient wisdom of mankind provides.

H. P. Blavatsky devoted much space in her Secret Doctrine and elsewhere to the discussion of scientific topics. She also received many prominent scholars of all disciplines who came to speak to her. She stormed the strongholds of materialism and, though almost invisible to the world, laid the basis of a more spiritual evolution of science in centuries to come. She was often aggressive in her tone because she had to destroy the old to allow the new to be born. More than a century later, it is our task to further help the new child to be born and prepare the basis for a healthy adulthood. Theosophic commentators in the 19th and 20th centuries, though reacting to the scientific impulses of their day, referred to universal themes which are as pertinent now as they were then, and we have not yet pondered the full depth of their words. No doubt their works contain an almost inexhaustible source of wealth, for there is hardly a subject of interest for science, philosophy, religion, or human welfare to which they have not referred.

There is great value in examining science from the perspective of theosophy and the profound non-Western knowledge we have at our disposal nowadays. For example, we may look at the hypothesis of morphogenetic fields strongly promoted by biologist and science historian Rupert Sheldrake. He maintains that fields exist, comparable to gravitational and electromagnetic fields, which are of a nonmaterial character but nevertheless influence matter. They define the form which potentially will manifest in the arrangement of molecules that build the physical bodies of plants, animals, minerals, and even astronomical structures, and on a smaller scale internal structures of atoms, etc. These fields are supposed to account for, or describe, the coming into being of the characteristic forms of embryos and other developing systems. In such books as A New Science of Life and The Presence of the Past, Sheldrake elaborates his ideas in great detail and accounts for regulation and regeneration. He also states that "morphogenetic fields play a causal role in the development and maintenance of the forms of system at all levels of complexity." Through "morphic resonance," acquired characteristics can be transferred to other morphogenetic fields independent of our current notions of time and space, and become patterns or habits. Thus, through learning, evolution proceeds. The fields, finally, also account for movement, psychological tendencies, behavior, habits, etc. He maintains that nothing can be said about the origin of the manifested universe and how the first forms, from which others evolved through learning and morphic resonance, came into being.

Some aspects of his ideas remind us of what in theosophy is known as the linga-sarira or astral model-body. Other aspects remind us of the astral light or akasa, with its ability to keep records of everything that has ever existed, including models or astral molds for future use. But it would be superficial to jump to the conclusion that Sheldrake is moving science significantly in a more spiritual direction. Before we can make such a statement, we must study his work in detail, and at the same time make ourselves fully acquainted with ancient wisdom concerning the astral light, the astral or ethereal body, akasa, memory, and the manifestation of spiritual forces through matter.

In my opinion, despite his intelligent efforts and intuitive insights, there are assumptions in his theories that do not seem to agree fully with the perspective of the ancient wisdom. One of the points with which Sheldrake struggles is whence his fields originate. He does not present the inner being of plant, animal, atom, or whatever, as something beyond physical matter which is manifesting through matter on this plane. From the point of view that there exist more subtle substances than physical matter, the field does not derive from a material "germ," as Sheldrake states, but exists independent of physical matter. The material form is a precipitation of material particles on this model. It is even doubtful whether it is correct to call his morphogenetic field a field comparable with a gravitational field. Gravitational fields, it seems to me, are manifestations of life through -- not from -- physical matter, in a form of manifestation inseparably linked with matter. However, form fields (or rather, astral or ethereal models) with all their detailed complexity, pliability, and beauty, which are indubitably influenced by formative intelligence, can even exist separate from physical matter. This is shown also in the supposed fact that information gathered into a morphogenetic field at one place on earth can apparently be transferred to another place and then influence such things as the growth speed of crystals or the behavior of birds or monkeys. Perhaps it would be better to abandon the word "field" entirely in this sense, and replace it by a term such as "morphogenetic ethereal model."

Several articles could be written analyzing Sheldrake's theories alone. My feeling is that many scientists -- and Western society as a whole, especially of the younger generation -- show an intuition that makes them reach above absolute materialism, but that there is not yet a breakthrough towards a unification of Western science with universal spiritual science. This will have to be accomplished in times to come.

This sketch covers one particular biological subject; the same could be done, and far more elaborately, by those knowledgeable in physics, evolutionary theories, biochemistry and chemistry, astronomy, brain research, the question of life in the universe, psychology, and also mythology, archeology, and anthropology. There are so many interesting questions that can be discussed, many of which are very fundamental to present-day science, such as the second law of thermodynamics. This law proposes that in a closed system nature always strives towards the highest entropy or the lowest condition of energy. Though perhaps apparently true if only physical matter is taken into consideration, life itself seems to make fun of thermodynamics: one could hardly imagine a structure farther removed from this situation than a tree, with its tall, thin uprising stem topped by a heavy crown. Moreover, there exist no closed systems in nature. Would it not be better to have a theory that includes all manifestations of nature, not just inertia? It would be interesting to investigate the Hindu trimurti of energy, inertia, and balance in this connection. Further questions: Does Einstein's curved space make sense? Is light indeed dual in manifestation, having both a particle and a wave character? Is empty space empty? What is force, and energy? All such questions have long been discussed in theosophic and ancient literature, though not always in terms that we today directly recognize.

Because I was educated as a biologist, I will mention another well-known biological example. James Lovelock presented what has become known as the Gaia hypothesis -- the idea of earth as a self-organizing, organism-like entity. It was only a small step, which he did not oppose, to speak of Mother Earth as a living being. He found that such constants as temperature, oxygen, carbon dioxide, and ozone in the upper atmosphere were in fact regulated by microorganisms in the oceans, in swamps, on continents, and so forth. But one cannot expect these microorganisms themselves to self-consciously have the broader picture of serving the entire earth. The next step is easily made: Is the earth indeed a living organism? Does it have intelligence, or are the processes guided by "something" that has an overview of the processes of the earth? Lovelock and others hastened to explain that their ideas are fully compatible with Darwinism. But are they?

It is difficult to decide whether something is a living organism if we have no clear picture of what life is. Many non-Western traditions would classify as living the minerals of which the earth and our bodies are built. Another question: As far as the earth is concerned, are we and the plants and animals living on the earth, or are we together composing the earth? Is the earth a living organism, but not Mars or Venus? These questions have also been discussed in theosophical literature, recent and ancient. Everything that is connected with the earth, visible and invisible -- the divine and elemental hosts of beings, the invisible aspects of our earth as a living being, the peregrinating kingdoms of lives, the various cosmic planes of existence and their denizens, the vital streams of the solar system passing through the sun and along the visible and invisible planets -- is certainly very complex. But what living being in the entire universe is not very complex?

Before we can answer the question of whether the earth is a living organism and what that means, we have to study many subjects in sufficient detail. At the moment, a living earth is too much for most scientists to grasp and accept, but perhaps as students of the ancient wisdom we can place this idea philosophically in a wider context, thereby giving some hope to those who already feel in their hearts that greater truths exist. We may point out the Buddhist wisdom that there is no separateness and therefore nothing exists that does not have the nature of all other things within it. That means that if we humans have within our being, besides our physical principle, a life force, intelligence, desire principle, and the ability to become at one with the divine, this must also be true for every other thing within the universe, including Mother Earth. As streams of vitality flow through every cell of our body, so must this be true for the earth, the solar system, or the infinitesimal world of the atom. Of course, every single entity within infinitude has its own place, stage of evolution, grade of consciousness, and innate characteristics, and though identical in essence, no two beings, whether men or planets, are identical in manifestation.

In the sciences, serious minds are making efforts to understand more universal truths in their particular fields of focus. Each of us has a responsibility to deepen and enlarge today's discussion and understanding of the fundamental truths of nature by pondering the meaning of our own areas of interest. Too often there are gaps in language and understanding between science and other fields. To overcome this, we need to study the facts and theories of modern science in the context of universal traditions, religious, philosophical, and scientific, and carry the background of our studies in our hearts and minds. We should take care at all times to avoid being superficial, vague, or biased. Acquiring this background requires self-improvement through silent study and putting our ideals and beliefs into practice. The other side of our task, as I see it, is going actively into the world to help wherever we can, practically, philosophically, and scientifically. Such a combined effort would assist in a real way the evolution and welfare of humanity.

(From Sunrise magazine, February/March 2005; copyright © 2005 Theosophical University Press)

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Nothing is rich but the inexhaustable wealth of Nature. She shows us only surfaces, but she is a million fathoms deep. -- Ralph Waldo Emerson