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Science and Theosophy

That the modern theosophical movement is not incompatible with science is clear both from the subtitle of Helena P. Blavatsky’s magnum opus, The Secret Doctrine — “The Synthesis of Science, Religion and Philosophy” — and from the Second Object of the Theosophical Society — “To encourage the study of Comparative Religion, Philosophy and Science.” The latter statement is ambiguous in that it is not clear whether the adjective “comparative” applies only to religion or to all three subjects. It is usually taken as applying specifically to religion but with the implication that all three subjects are to be studied with a view to vindicating the concepts of theosophy. But many theosophists, taking their cue from the sub-title of The Secret Doctrine, argue that the Second Object commands a synthetic approach to the three subjects with the aim of seeking one universal truth. In fact, The Theosophical Society in America has adopted the wording: “To encourage the comparative study of religion, philosophy, and science.”

At first glance it might appear that theosophy and science are incompatible, since their methodologies seem to differ considerably. The term “theosophy” denotes a spiritual wisdom tradition concerning the ultimate nature of mankind and the universe, known variously as the ancient wisdom or the perennial philosophy. This is believed to be handed down through the ages by a variety of teachers, often belonging to secret societies, and to be glimpsed throughout the ages by mystics or psychics in the course of their paranormal experiences. There is a remarkable commonality of experience concerning the “oneness of all” in the visions of the mystics, but it is not generally expressible in a form suitable for comparison with specific scientific concepts. Yet it is also stated in modern theosophical literature that all its own claims are verifiable by anyone who has acquired the requisite means of perception. So it is not unempirical, in a broad sense of that term.

It is also important to distinguish what is now almost universally regarded as science in the form of Western science, from the term “science” in its most general meaning of “knowledge” (derived from the Latin scientia, a noun formed from the present participle of the verb scire “know”). Both Western science and theosophy are sciences in their own right, for each has its objectives, field of application, structured approach, methodology, doctrines, and experimental techniques. But a careful examination of their methodologies reveals that they have more in common than many people believe.

Intersubjective verification is a cornerstone of the scientific method. Science, in other words, is done in public. What one scientist discovers must be accessible to any scientist with similar training, using the same methods of research (whether in controlled laboratory experiments or field investigations). Usually this is interpreted to mean verification by means of the physical senses or their extensions in various instruments. It is generally argued that psychic and mystical experiences are subjective, therefore private, not public. Thus they are rejected as unscientific. But at least one scientist, Charles Tart, has argued that this is too narrow a restriction of “intersubjective” and the term should allow for similar verification in certain altered states of consciousness, such as lucid dreaming, vipassan€ meditation, clairvoyance, or yogic states (usually mistranslated “trance”). Such scientists would argue that if two yogis or clairvoyants perceive the same situation, that amounts to an intersubjective verification. Theosophists would agree with that extended meaning of the term. To restrict verification to the physical world essentially begs the question of the reality — or, as most contemporary scientists would put it, the unreality — of non-physical realms.

Other aspects of the scientific method include precision of formulation of observations, usually by means of quantification (in terms of mathematized scales of measurement), falsifiability of observations, predictability, consistency and coherence of laws and theories, simplicity, and repeatability of experiments. The latter, however, assumes physics as the paradigm of science and really does not apply to many of the social sciences — even areas of biology — in which field observations rather than laboratory experiments are the norm. And the former implies certain aspects of scales of measurement (transitivity and additivity, for example) which are certainly something to strive for, but do not apply universally to all sciences (e.g., Moh’s scale of hardness and Richter’s scale of earthquake intensity are not additive). Furthermore, in most of the social sciences and in quantum physics, probability is a dominant feature of their quantification. Predictability is important since science is an ongoing process and a theory which cannot predict new avenues of investigation is essentially useless. For this reason, modern science is sometimes called hypothetical-deductive: hypothesis formulation, based upon some observations, is followed by testing, verification (or falsification), and prediction about other unexplored aspects of the universe. A theory is regarded as verified not only if the observed facts support it, but also if it can consistently make correct predictions about the results of future experiments. Furthermore, if one cannot specify what would count as a lack of verification, the hypothesis is not falsifiable, therefore not an empirical hypothesis. Since hypotheses are about the nature of the world, that world must make a difference, one way or the other. With these and the other aspects of the scientific method, theosophy would heartily agree. So the incompatibility between theosophy and science is more a matter of Western science’s present preference for physics than it is a real difference between methodologies.

Physics seeks precise, mathematized laws and theories about the physical world and includes geology and astronomy. Chemistry involves study of both the inorganic and organic world, therefore has some overlap with both physics and biology. Biology, presently, studies living systems from a purely physical point of view. Theosophy, and even some biologists, feel this restriction truncates the understanding of living systems, which, theosophy argues, involve non-physical realms of reality as well. Anthropology extends the study of living systems into social groups (whether those of anthropoid apes or humans) and history, political science, and economics investigate different aspects of those groups, especially human societies. Psychology also studies social behavior, but investigates individual behavior (both normal and abnormal) as well. The 20th century psychology movement known as “behaviorism” (begun by Watson as a reaction to the rather unscientific introspective approach of some German psychologists, and reaching its apotheosis in B. F. Skinner) is beginning to lose favor among many psychologists. Parapsychology investigates psychological phenomena, such as extrasensory perception and psychokinesis, which contemporary psychology ignores — and many psychologists reject as impossible. It is in this latter realm, especially, that there is considerable overlap between science and theosophy.

Note that the sciences of astronomy, geology, archeology, and palaeontology cannot carry out direct experiments on past states, but they can, in the case of palaeontology, archeology, and geology, examine fossils, rocks, and various unearthed artifacts and determine their age, using a variety of well developed dating techniques established by physics. Their developmental theories can thus be tested. Palaeontology, especially, also uses argument by analogy, comparing the structure of prehistoric skeletons with those of living organisms to hypothesize about the nature of long extinct creatures. Astronomers can observe the past because of the known constant speed of light. Distant objects are seen as they were when the light by which we see them was emitted and the relevant time lapse can be determined from the observed redshift of their spectral lines which is a measure of how much the universe has expanded in the interim. This enables theories such as that of the expanding, evolving universe to be thoroughly tested. Astrophysics and cosmology benefit enormously from nuclear physics by applying the theories of physics, tested in laboratory experiments including those which use large, high energy, particle accelerators. Thus the formation of the chemical elements is well understood as occurring in the dying days of massive stars with lifetimes much shorter than that of our Sun.

In all areas of science where direct knowledge or reliable confirmation of experiment is lacking, scientists speculate. At any given time, there may be several alternative speculative theories, only one of which will ultimately be confirmed. Speculation is necessary in order eventually to sift out the truth. Unfortunately, great misunderstanding can arise when speculative theories are presented to the public without qualification. Similarly, many of the ideas in the realm of science (often referred to as “occult science”) put forward by theosophists, whether by Helena P. Blavatsky or later theosophists, such as Charles W. Leadbeater, Annie Besant, or Rudolf Steiner, should be regarded as speculative and subject to either confirmation or refutation by subsequent evidence, not treated as infallible truths. And the term “occult” in this respect must be understood in the sense in which they used it, not in its degraded sense of satanic rites, etc. as it is often taken to mean. Again, there is similarity in this area between science and theosophy.

Theosophical Propositions. The fundamental difference between theosophy and the dominant view in contemporary science, then, is that the latter presently assumes that everything can eventually be explained in terms of the elementary particles which make it up. It claims that the physical realm is the only reality; it is, to use its technical term, micro-reductive. To put it simply, the whole is nothing but the sum of its parts. Mind, according to this view, is nothing but brain activity and will eventually be completely explained in terms of neurology, chemistry, and quantum physics. There have been and there are eminent scientists who do not agree with this, but they are given scant attention by most other scientists, many of whom are equally eminent. Theosophy, by contrast, is holistic. The first Fundamental Proposition of The Secret Doctrine clearly indicates this when it states that underlying the plurality of the universe we perceive there is one “Omnipresent, Eternal, Boundless, and Immutable PRINCIPLE” or “rootless root” of all that exists, which “transcends the power of human conception,” and which can only be characterized as “Be-ness,” since the term “Being” suggests limitation (SD I:14). In other words, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Not only that, but the physical world we perceive with our senses is only one aspect of a multi-leveled universe said to be septenary in nature. Mind is a reality separate from the body (and its brain) and survives its death. Contemporary science is either sceptical of that claim — or openly contemptuous of it. Where theosophy holds with the Hermetic axiom “As above, so below,” contemporary Western science would retort that there is no “above” at all!

The second Fundamental Proposition states that the universe as a whole and every sub-system within it undergoes periodic manifestations and withdrawals, relating that to the Hindu notion of the “Days and Nights of Brahma.” It is characterized as “the absolute universality of that law of periodicity, of flux and reflux, ebb and flow, which physical science has observed and recorded in all departments of nature” (loc. cit., p. 17). It has been suggested by some theosophists that this is related, at least on the physical level, to the “Big Bang” theory in cosmology in which space itself is said to expand. Some scientists believe that the highly compressed matter which gave rise to the initial “bang” must have come from a previous universe which collapsed upon itself after expanding to a certain limit. That accords with the theosophical view, but is still quite controversial among scientists, many of whom believe there is no evidence to support it.

The third Fundamental Proposition of The Secret Doctrine states that every unit of conscious life is ultimately identical with the one Absolute Reality, variously called “the Universal Over-Soul,” “the Unknown Root,” etc. (loc. cit., p. 17). This is often related in theosophical literature to the Hindu concept of atman. Obviously, contemporary Western science parts company with theosophy at this point. Even parapsychology does not venture into such realms.

Moving beyond those fundamental concepts, there are several main themes discernable in Blavatsky’s writing on science. The first is that scientists have no reason to be so dogmatic in holding that science has all the answers. She reinforces this view with many quotations from scientists expressing mutually contradictory views. One must keep in mind that she was writing towards the end of the nineteenth century at a time when many scientists were supremely confident that there were only a few minor problems to be solved to obtain a complete understanding of the material world. This was shortly before the discovery of electrons, X-rays, and radioactivity, together with the first work on relativity and quantum physics which revolutionized science in the twentieth century. Blavatsky’s criticisms were valid, but she made equally dogmatic statements about “occult science,” some of which have been vindicated but many others of which have not.

Astronomy. One of the most positive claims, clearly expounded in some detail, is that the solar system came about by a process much closer to the nebular hypothesis which had been earlier proposed by Laplace, rather than according to the scientific theory current in her day, namely that a passing star had drawn out hot material to form the planets from an already existing sun. She uses the graphic phraseology that the sun and the planets are “co-uterine brothers.” Her detailed description of this process stands vindicated by the scientific knowledge of a century later. The sun and the planets arose from the gradual contraction of a rotating initially nebulous cloud of gas and dust, the planets and their satellites aggregating in the outer regions of the nebula and the central mass heating up to become the sun.

On the other hand, some claims by Blavatsky and later theosophists have been questioned. For example, it was stated in The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett (cf. “Intra-Mercurial planets” in letter 93B; 23B in the Barker ed.) and later by C. W. Leadbeater (The Inner Life, vol 2, p. 186-7) that there was a planet called Vulcan closer to the sun than Mercury. Certainly, at the time of those writings, such a planet was postulated to explain the irregularity in the orbit of Mercury, but such a planet has never been observed and the irregularity can be completely explained by Einstein’s general theory of relativity. This was, in fact, the first of many precise confirmations of that theory. It was also stated in The Mahatma Letters that there is a “king star right behind Jupiter, that no mortal physical eye has ever seen”during historic times and which is responsible for that planet’s red spot (idem). Indeed this statement is so unsupportable that one either has to reject it out of hand or ask whether the statement was an intended to refer to a non-physical celestial body. If the latter, science has at present no means of verifying such a claim. Similarly, there is no scientific means of verifying the claim that each planet is one of a chain of seven planets, most of which are superphysical.

Related to the theosophical concept of “chains” of planets is the claim that the moon is much older than the earth and supported life which migrated to the earth when the moon became extinct. Ironically, that claim about the moon is inconsistent with the concept of the whole solar system being created in the same process and at the same time, as Blavatsky maintained in supporting the nebular hypothesis of Laplace, mentioned above. The same is true of the claim that Venus once supported life (the highly evolved beings of which came to Earth to assist in its early development) and that Mars presently has life. It was once believed that the other planets in the solar system were sufficiently similar to Earth to be suitable for life. We now know, as a result of the space program, that human biological life is impossible on any of the other planets. That does not preclude forms of life that are non-physical, of course, and that may have been true of Venus, though there is no way of verifying it by present scientific methods. But Leadbeater stated (loc. cit., pp. 189, 275-285) that there is human biological life on Mars and we now know that to be false. It is still an open question whether primitive forms of biological life might exist on Mars or even some of the moons of Jupiter. And it is quite possible that biological life — even what we would consider human life — might exist on planets around other suns in our galaxy as well as in any of the myriads of other galaxies in our universe. Again, that is something science cannot, at present, verify.

Chemistry. Much of the detailed “information” about life on other planets was claimed to be obtained by clairvoyant observation, the chief investigator of which was Charles W. Leadbeater, often in co-operation with Annie Besant. They reported much other material including supposed accounts of past lives of living persons and observations of atoms using magnifying clairvoyance which a modern analyst of this work, Stephen M. Phillips, has dubbed micro-psi. Besant pointed emphatically to the need for caution in view of the major difficulties in this type of observation, particularly the fact that the observing instruments were in fact the observers themselves, thus risking even greater observer-dependent effects than in normal science. Besant, in fact, suggested that the observations were either objective or were flights of fancy or were a mixture of the two. This was a particularly honest assessment.

The work on atoms by Leadbeater was extensive, taking place over various periods from 1895 until 1932. The subject became known as “Occult Chemistry,” the title of a major publication. It has been extensively analyzed by the British physicist, Stephen Phillips, in his book Extra-Sensory Perception of Quarks(TPH, 1980). Later clairvoyant observers, Hodson and Cowan, have reported the same general pattern, but with specific differences. The subject is covered more fully elsewhere where attempts to reconcile the observations with scientific knowledge of the atom are discussed. This is a tantalizing subject and the claimed reconciliation involves certain auxiliary assumptions which require a substantial act of faith. Essentially the claim is that the clairvoyant observers were not seeing atoms as understood by chemists and physicists, but rather the re-aggregation in specific shapes of the quark components, in each case, of the nuclei of not one but two like atoms intermingled. There are difficulties in interpreting the + and - signs attached by Leadbeater to the sub-components of atoms in his diagram of the hydrogen atom. These signs are often interpreted as electric charge but Phillips overcomes the difficulty by interpreting them as indicating magnetic monopolarity, a difficult and controversial scientific concept. In other words, the scientific jury is still out on this subject.

Evolutionary Theory. The concept of evolution has always been accepted by theosophists, though there is significant difference between the Darwinian or neo-Darwinian theory and that of theosophy. When Blavatsky was writing on the subject, she took her ideas about the age of the Earth from Hindu sources, therefore had no difficulty with Darwin’s extended time scale, unlike Christian fundamentalists who accept the Genesis account of creation literally. But she did not accept the idea that humans have evolved (by random mutations, natural selection, and survival of the fittest) from apes. Her major departure was to put forward her own version of humans as a special creation. Their early evolution, she claimed, was initially superphysical and only after eons of time became densified and took on physical form. Rather than being descended from the anthropoid apes such as chimpanzees, she said the early humans mated with animals to produce creatures who subsequently evolved into the anthropoid apes. This is called in theosophical literature “the sin of the mindless.” Whether or not it is true, it looks suspiciously like an influence of the pre-20th century view of animals as an inferior creation.

Today these ideas seem quite bizarre but they are still discussed seriously in some theosophical circles. Others avoid the issue altogether or alternately seek to present them symbolically as myths, but there is little effort to disown these concepts outright. Certainly there is officially a strong belief in freedom of thought in the Theosophical Society and members are enjoined to respect the beliefs of others so there is ample room for difference of opinion. Furthermore Annie Besant argues very strongly in a 1913 publication (“The Theosophical Student in the Face of Revelation, Inspiration and Observation”) that current theosophical views should not be enshrined as dogma, stating that to do so would be a great danger to the Theosophical Society. She stressed that knowledge is continually being advanced and that was certain to continue into the future.

A modern theosophical view of evolution is given in E. Lester Smith’s book Intelligence Came First (TPH Quest Books, 1975; greatly rev. ed. 1990). Lester Smith, a chemist, was both a lifelong prominent theosophist and also a distinguished scientist and Fellow of the Royal Society, an honor bestowed in part for his discovery of Vitamin B12, the anti-pernicious anaemia factor, and for his work on penicillin during World War II. The revised edition was largely assisted by biologist Patrick Milburn. As the title implies, there is a guiding cosmic intelligence behind evolution, in consonance with Blavatsky’s fundamental principles. The basic concept of neo-Darwinian theory (which incorporates modern genetics) are explained and accepted. However, there is also a discussion of some of the modern questions as to whether evolution can be entirely explained by random genetic variations.

This questioning has gone further in recent years. Theoretical biologist, Stuart Kauffman, argues that a study of the behavior of complex systems can explain naturally the development of self-organizing systems leading inevitably to the evolution of advanced self-conscious beings. We are not the result of purely random accidents — complexity acts as a handmaiden to natural selection in the orderly development of evolution at all levels. Physicist Paul Davies (Mind of God) takes up Kauffman’s ideas and goes further in suggesting “an impersonal creative principle or ground of being which underpins reality,” a concept consistent with Blavatsky’s first fundamental postulate. Lester Smith and Milburn go further in suggesting a pantheist Divine Intelligence, i.e., a God who both transcends the Universe and is also immanent within it, thus providing an Intelligent direction of the Universe through the operation of natural laws. Charles Birch, emeritus professor of biology from Sydney University and member of the “Club of Rome,” expresses similar ideas in his book Feelings. Thus, while early theosophical ideas on evolution are strongly at variance with modern science, an authoritative recent treatment which totally ignores the earlier ideas is quite consonant with some of the most advanced modern views.

Theosophy-Science Groups. The attempt to reconcile the multifarious statements in theosophical literature on matters of a scientific nature with the relevant scientific knowledge have exercised the attention of groups of scientists (and individuals) among members of the Theosophical Society. Also featured in their discussions are trends in scientific thought, particularly the more philosophical aspects, towards fundamental theosophical concepts. Foremost among these groups has been the Theosophical Research Centre in London and in particular its Science Group which operated from the 1920s until the mid 1970s. A lively Science Group Journal was published, at first monthly, but later quarterly, from 1957 until 1976 and for several more years as the Research Centre Journal. Members of groups in other countries such as the USA, Holland, Australia, and India also contributed. The most distinguished member of the Science Group and the Research Centre was the aforementioned Dr. Ernest Lester-Smith, F.R.S., chief chemist of Glaxo who is credited with turning that company from a baby food producer into a major pharmaceutical research organization. Other prominent members included chemists Corona Trew and Wallace Slater and engineer professor Arthur Ellison who is also prominent in the Society for Psychical Research.

The English Science Group have published a number of booklets and their discussion led to the publication of the book Intelligence Came First mentioned above. The Blavatsky Trust sponsors an annual seminar which includes scientific speakers at Tekels Park Guest House in Camberley, Surrey. The remnant of a former over-ambitious attempt to form a Theosophical World University continues to exist as the Theosophical World Trust for Education and Research which meets annually in London to receive reports from Councillors in many countries and to allocate modest grants to those Groups throughout the world which continue to function. The Theosophy Science Centre at the international headquarters in India has published three sets of Transactions from 1993 to 1997 under the title Holistic Science and Human Values, consisting mainly of articles by scientists, philosophers and religionists. These are mostly reprints but provide an interesting collection of articles on the above theme.

A prominent American Theosophist, Fritz Kunz, formed, in 1947 an organization, The Foundation for Integrative Education, in conjunction with a number of leading academics including physicist Henry Margenau and philosopher, F. S. C. Northrop. They published an excellent magazine, Main Currents in Modern Thought (which Kunz had actually started in conjunction with B. L. Whorf in 1940) until 1975. The magazine aimed at presenting leading integrative ideas, including many related to modern science. Several writers who later achieved prominence were contributors in their formative years. Fritjof Capra was one such. A very fine final retrospective issue was published in 1975 by co-editor Emily Sellon.

Many theosophist would like to believe that this or that theosophical statement is confirmed by modern science and sometimes make grossly exaggerated claims in this regard. The really important questions are not particular scientific ideas expressed in theosophical literature, but whether a synthesis is possible between the facts and theories of physical science and universal spiritual values and concepts discussed in theosophical literature and elsewhere. Such concepts include: 1) that the whole manifested universe is the embodiment of a Supreme Being (or Fundamental Principle); 2) that the universe evolves according to an inbuilt pattern; and 3) that all parts of the universe are interconnected; and 4) that we humans are all part of that interconnected whole.


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