The Newsletter of the Northwest Branch of the Theosophical Society
April 2011 – Vol. 14 Issue 2
Some years ago I had the privilege of witnessing an old custom. I was in Stockholm on April 30 and in the evening drove with friends into the surrounding countryside. One after the other huge bonfires were set alight, followed by folk dancing and singing. All over Sweden during the long winter, in cities and hamlets, in the forest and by the lakes, young and old had offered their portion of weeds and rubbish to the growing piles – to await with eagerness the kindling of the flame that was to banish the darkness and release the light.
According to Nordic tradition, the lighting of these bonfires was originally a sacred rite: the accumulation of the waste represented the concentration into one huge mass of all the evil and destructive elements that had held sway during the absence of the sun. On the night of April 30, the single act of igniting the pile would overthrow all the forces that had wrought havoc and disease so that from May Day on, spring, harbinger of warmth and light, would rule in the land.
Such beliefs are today for the most part ignored; but as we participated in the atmosphere of the singing and dancing and watched the kindling of the flames, we sensed the spontaneous release of a deeply buried joy, a gratitude in the heart that the cold and the melancholy of an old year had at last been dispelled by the return of the sun.
Another year I experienced spring in the Netherlands, where crocus, daffodil and hyacinth crowded the air with fragrance, followed by fields upon fields of tulips of every shade, texture and form. The song of the birds was a wild chorus of joy and the fluffy white lambs were a month early when the season of beauty had arrived.
Whether it is a May pole around which children dance and sing, or those immensely tall poles of Bavaria which all but brush the sky and on which are carved the manifold symbols of human toil, one recognizes in peoples of every northern land the identic urge: to give thanks that the darkness of winter is gone, and the fertility and strength-giving light of the sun is again in command.
Today, negative and destructive forces are at work, forces which would keep humanity buried in the dark and chill of hate and greed. But the forces of light and freedom and integrity are equally at work, and every one of us is at liberty to ally ourself with them, or with those of disruption. Nor should we be so isolationist as to think that world problems are not our own, or that what we do with our individual lives will not affect world consciousness. We are physically interdependent, that we know; but more important, mentally and spiritually we are part of the pulsing life of humanity, and by what we are do we add to the pile of waste and rubbish of others, or conversely do we contribute to the light and warmth of mankind’s progress.
Year after year nature repeats her message: spring can-not last, nor the fullness of summer; the harvest of autumn must come, and again the winter. There will be innumerable winters in the life of mankind; there will be the long dark nights of agony when the ashes of discontent, of self-concern, of despair, will try hard to smother the soul. But after every night of winter, there is assurance always of the daylight of a resurrected spring. The round of the seasons is nature’s outer stage-setting; the human soul is the actor – and the re-actor.
When we have developed the maturity to cast into the fire of discipline the fears and greeds of the wintery part of ourselves, a bonfire of world magnitude will be kindled. Then, whether winter or summer, spring or autumn, we will discover that the dross of selfishness and tyranny can be consumed by the fire of divinity in our hearts. – Grace F. Knoche
Tending Adam’s Garden Study/Dialogue Circle continues Sunday, April 3, with a youth-focused session on “What Do Our Children and Grandchildren Need to Know, and How Can We Help Them Learn These Things?” Join us from 3:30 to 6 p.m. at Temple B’nai Torah, 15727 NE 4th Street, Bellevue. For more information or to RSPV, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. (flier)
Join us one Tuesday a month for informal conversations exploring major ideas that have influenced human thought and actions through the ages. This month our topic is The Atomic Theory. We’ll be discussing such questions as: What is the essential nature of matter? Are there limits to empiricism and reductionism? Does atomic theory entail materialism? What does it imply about causation and determinism? Is atomic theory compatible with religious and philosophical explanations of the world? What are the results of the chemical revolution of the 19th and 20th centuries? What responsibility to society do researchers and those using scientific ideas have? What about nuclear energy, nanotechnology and other fields built on atomic theory? What is the difference between a scientific fact and a scientific theory? (Quotes on this topic.) We hope to see you there!
May 3: The Examined Life
June 7: Democracy
July: The Big Bang
August: Living Beyond War: Nonviolent Conflict Resolution
Students who love nature follow with profound interest every increase in knowledge about the structure of matter, for it promises to lead to glimpses of regions of life and consciousness usually regarded as belonging only to the sphere of religious faith or hope, not to sober reality. Along these lines the views of the great German philosopher and mathematician Leibniz (1646-1716) are of profound interest. Leibniz shares the honor with Newton of perfecting the differential calculus; however, he is perhaps better appreciated for his daring penetration beyond the sense-world in search of a superphysical reality which he intuitively felt was concealed there. His researches led him to his theory of the monad.
Leibniz had nothing but the very incomplete scientific equipment of the 17th century, but his marvelous insight pierced so far beneath superficial appearances that it was only in the 20th century that science began to catch up with his intuitions. Two main aspects are of special interest: (1) the illusory nature of physical matter, and (2) the fact that every particle of which the universe is composed is a living, growing entity or being. He was a true evolutionist. He decided that matter is the semblance or outward visible appearance of an invisible (to us) superphysical reality composed of meta-physical or spiritual points which he called monads. Each monad is a distinct individual possessing its own kind or degree of consciousness and existence. Life is everywhere, rising in grades of intelligence from the most primitive monad to the ineffable glory of the “monad of monads,” the incomprehensible Divine Unity or One – the word monad being derived from the Greek monas or “one.”
Leibniz was not the first European philosopher to accept the granulated structure of matter. The Greek Atom-ists held concepts in some ways similar. Holback, a champion of materialism, argued that since man, “a material being,” thinks, therefore matter is capable of thought. Leibniz, on the contrary, spiritualized matter instead of materializing the soul. But his monads are not within normal human perception, and in logically concluding that “pure reason” is greater than sense-perception, Leibniz went so far as to declare that interior thought processes can truly reveal wider universes or planes of being than are available to the senses. He included time – past, present and future – in the same conclusion.
Leibniz’s philosophical monads closely resemble the scientific concept of the primary particles which compose the visible universe. Neither the monads nor the concourse of primary particles – electrons, protons, neutrons, photons, etc. – can be adequately observed by our physical senses. But we can establish their existence by experiments which show the effects they produce. We can see what they can do, but this does not explain what they are in themselves.
To adopt Leibniz’s monadic theory in its entirely would mean that the classification of objects into organic and inorganic would be overthrown, for he was positive that the monadic host which stands behind the illusory mask of matter is entirely composed of living entities, intelligent in various degrees. And this principle of universal life, with no qualifications or exceptions, leads directly to a kind of hierarchical structure of the universe. Leibniz sums up his comprehensive idea of evolution in these words: “All the natural divisions of the world show one sole concatenation of beings, in which all the various classes of living creatures, like so many links are entwined so perfectly that it is impossible to state, either by imagination or by observation, where any one either begins or ends… . Everything in nature progresses by stages, and this law of advancement, which applies to each individual, forms part of my theory of unbroken succession.”
In Leibniz’s day matter was regarded in its mass aspect. Even Dalton’s later theory of the indivisible, solid atom was nearly a century away. Since then, Dalton’s individual, hard, material atom has been split into particles so mysterious that to demonstrate even their existence science has been compelled to rise above commonsense notions of matter, time and space. It has had to call upon strange principles such as the existence of higher dimensions of space beyond or within that with which we are familiar. Entities there cannot be measured by our yardsticks nor perceived by our senses. As Leibniz realized, they have no “extension” in our familiar space, no comprehensible form or size, yet, paradoxically, they are very real. Leibniz as an intuitive philosopher ranks with his great contemporary, Spinoza, and if their teachings were judiciously combined, the result would be an excellent bridge between religion and science, between physical matter and the realities that lie behind it.
The first principles of the universe are atoms and the void. Everything else is merely opinion. – Democritus -------------------- The mind of man has perplexed itself with many hard questions. Is space infinite, and in what sense? Is the material world infinite in extent, and are all places within that extent equally full of matter? Do atoms exist or is matter infinitely divisible? – James Clerk Maxwell
The problems of language here are really serious. We wish to speak in some way about the structure of the atoms. But we cannot speak about atoms in ordinary language. – Werner Heisenberg
Even if I knew nothing of the atoms, I would venture to assert on the evidence of the celestial phenomena themselves, supported by many other arguments, that the universe was certainly not created for us by divine power: it is so full of imperfection. – Lucretius
It is now commonly believed that all elements occurring in nature, i.e. those to be found in Mendeljev's Periodic Table, have been produced through nuclear reactions either early on during the Big Bang or later on in stars and the interstellar medium. "We are all stardust" is a much-quoted sentence that phrases the idea that all the chemical elements that make up our bodies, e.g. carbon, iron, etc., were created billions of years ago in the hot interiors of remote and long-vanished stars. – Gert Goeminne
So that when I look up at the night sky, and I know that yes we are part of this universe, we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the universe is in us. .... Many people feel small, because they are small and the universe is big. But I feel big because my atoms came from those stars. – Neil deGrasse Tyson
I do think that when we have a really comprehensive understanding of nature at the most fundamental level, it will percolate out into society in general. It will probably be very mathematical, and it will be a long time before the general public understands it, just as it took a long time before even scientists understood Newton's theory. Eventually, though, the Newtonian picture of the world had a profound influence on the way people in general thought about the world and human life. It had effects on economics, biology, politics and religion. I think something like that may happen if we come to a really comprehensive theory of nature. I think that our picture of nature is getting more and more all-embracing, and things that previously seemed very puzzling, like the nature of the force that holds particles together inside the atom, are now understood perfectly well – only to be replaced by other mysteries, like why the particles in the Standard Model have the properties they have. And the process of explaining things that have seemed puzzling, while discovering new puzzles, will go on for a long time. – Steven Weinberg
The structure of nature may eventually be such that our processes of thought do not correspond to it sufficiently to permit us to think about it at all. . . .The world fades out and eludes us. . . . We are confronted with something truly ineffable. We have reached the limit of the great pioneers of science, the vision, namely, that we live in a sympathetic world in that it is comprehensible to our minds. – Percy Bridgman
The laws of physics should allow us to arrange things molecule by molecule and even atom by atom, and at some point it was inevitable that we would develop a technology that would let us do this. .... Nanotechnology will let us build computers that are incredibly powerful. We'll have more power in the volume of a sugar cube than exists in the entire world today. – Ralph Merkle (continued on back) Every time some class of objects appeared to be the entities that Newton had described as "solid, massy, hard, impenetrable, movable Particles" out of which "God in the Beginning formed Matter," further research revealed that these objects were divisible after all. One might be tempted to see that history as confirming Leibniz's dismissal of atomism as a "youthful prejudice." Perhaps material objects and their parts are always divisible. There are no extended atoms; nor are there point particles which compose material beings. – John Hawthorne and Brian Weatherson
Now where there are no parts, there neither extension, nor shape, nor divisibility is possible. And these monads are the true atoms of nature and, in a word, the elements of things. – Gottfried Leibniz
If we conceive all the changes in the physical world as reducible to the motion of atoms, motions generated by means of the fixed nuclear forces of those atoms, the whole of the world could thus be known by means of the natural sciences. – Wilhelm Dilthey
The ultimate unintelligibilities on which science is founded must be facts, or, if they are hypotheses, must be capable of becoming facts. If the hypotheses are so chosen that their subject can never appeal to the senses and therefore also can never be tested, as is the case with the mechanical molecular theory, the investigator has done more than science, whose aim is facts . . . and this work of supererogation is an evil. – Ernst Mach
Now these two questions — Does there exist a material reality distinct from sensible appearances? and What is the nature of this reality? — do not have their source in experimental method, which is acquainted only with sensible appearances and can discover nothing beyond them. The resolution of these questions transcends the methods used by physics; it is the object of metaphysics. – Pierre Duhem
There was much in Lucretius's cosmogony and in the Epicurean philosophy that was objectionable to the seventeenth-century reader. His account of the natural origin of the first animals and humans was particularly objectionable. The extreme materialism of atomism, which asserted that only atoms and the void exist, and its exclusion of the gods from any practical existence in either the cosmos or the lives of people made scholars wary of this ancient school. . . . The question of the origin of life and of human beings, and of the respective roles that scientific and religious ideas should have in answering this question, is a subject of much contemporary debate. It is not, however, solely a modern or post-Darwinian problem. Naturalistic theories of human origins have a very long history and the debates that surrounded these theories often differed greatly from century to century because the context of the scientific ideas they were founded upon differed, as did the prevailing religious beliefs and the social context. – Matthew R. Goodrum
The quest for detailed knowledge of the fundamental constituents of matter dates back to the ancient world. In the 6th century B.C.E., Kanada and Pakhuda Katyayana in ancient India had propounded ideas about the atomic constitution of the material world. However, it is the great pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Democritus … and his mentor, Leucippus of Miletus (born about 500 B.C.E.), who are considered the main representatives and proponents of the atomic theory, called atomism . . . Atoms were considered to be full, incredibly compact and completely solid, with no internal structure, and could not be further divided into smaller particles, whereas the void was empty. Even though the void was empty, it existed; in other words, it occupied an area. Atoms differed in shape, arrangement and position. Atoms were indestructible, eternal and in continuous vibration. Coming into contact with other atoms, they formed bodies. Neither the atoms nor the void had ever been created and neither would ever end. The void is infinite and provides space.
Although the atomic theory was supported by later philosophers and scholars, it was fiercely attacked by others, including surprisingly, Plato (born in 427 B.C.E.) and Aristotle (born in 384 B.C.E.), who argued against the existence of such atoms … Additionally, since atomists’ work was considered to contradict Christianity’s concept of an immortal soul (in that if this soul is composed of atoms, it must perforce perish upon death, with the consequence that there is no afterlife), it was actively suppressed by Christian writers, leading unfortunately to the dismissal of the atomic philosophy for nearly two millennia. However, the Greek atomic concept ironically survived in Aristotle’s works among his arguments against it, as well as in the superb classical manuscript by the Roman author Titus Lucretius Carus (born in 1 B.C.E.), ‘De Rerum Natura’ (‘On the Nature of Things’); furthermore, it is to some extent also preserved in the philosophy of the Islamic medieval scholars.