Blavatsky's comments on the nature of light appear to reveal an insight that is decades ahead of the physicists of her day, showing a foreknowledge of the wave/particle duality of light, one of the important elements in the quantum mechanics of the twentieth century. She heads a section of her Secret Doctrine as "AND CAN IT BE THAT LIGHT IS ALSO SUBSTANCE?". To ask such a question was quite contrary to the established science of her day and quite compatible with the science of this century. The following article reviews the history of scientific thinking on this subject to give necessary perspective and then analyses her statements on this issue in detail in an attempt to ferret out exactly what she thinks.
Brief History of Scientific Views on Nature of Light
In the 17th century Sir Issac Newton declared that light was corpuscular, that is, made of particles. Though there were some outstanding questions, this view was accepted for over 100 years. Then in 1803 Thomas Young proved that light produced an interference pattern after it passed through a narrow slit. Such an interference pattern is a distinctive indicator of a wave. His experiment, along with subsequent work by Fresnel, soon persuaded scientists that light must be a wave. In the 1860's James Clerk Maxwell produced some brilliant mathematics, today known as Maxwell's equations, and proved that electricity and magnetism were integrally related as one phenomenon. As a byproduct, his equations showed that there should exist a certain kind of wave, consisting of a special interlocked pattern of oscillating electric and magnetic waves, an electromagnetic wave. Based on other empirically known constants associated with electricity and magnetism, his equations yielded a calculated value for the speed of this electromagnetic wave. The speed was exactly the same as the velocity of light that had been calculated by other experiments. This remarkable discovery demonstrated that not only were electrify and magnetism one phenomena, but light, a phenomena seemingly quite unrelated, was also an aspect of the same electromagnetic phenomena. After these developments, and for a some time thereafter, scientists understandably had thorough confidence that light was indeed a wave.
Against the background of this solid conclusion of science, Blavatsky, writing in 1888, gave her readers an intimation of the future when she hinted with a question.
True, the corpuscular theory of old is rejected, and the undulatory theory has taken its place. But the question is, whether the latter is so firmly established as not to be liable to be dethroned as was its predecessor?(SDi579)
This hint shows astonishing prescience. She is suggesting that the wave theory of light will be dethroned as the corpuscular theory had been. The italics, as usual, are hers and indicate in her style, through typographical emphasis, that they carry extra weight. With hindsight we see has here dropped one more hint of her foreknowledge of the rude shocks coming in the next century's science. One authority summarized the subsequent events:
As the 20th century opened, it seemed that optical theory had attained a completeness and perfection which hardly left room for further development. But this complacent view faced a series of rude shocks as previously unknown phenomena concerned with the interaction of light and matter were discovered. These apparently could not be reconciled with the theory of electromagnetic waves, but required a modified corpuscular theory. [Encyclopedia Britanica]
We can easily understand if scientists of 1888 reading the various passages of Blavatsky on the corpuscular nature of light, would conclude that the SD was, at least on this point, nonsense, since the wave nature of light was well established and based on solid evidence. The process of her vindication, however, began in the year she published the SD and was completed, after due wrenching of established views, twenty six years later.
In 1888 the photoelectric effect was discovered by several different workers. If light shines on the surface of a metal, negatively charged particles are ejected from the surface of the metal. The details of this phenomena cannot be reconciled with Maxwell's electromagnetic explanation of light. In 1899 Philip Lenard was able to explain this phenomena as ejected electrons since J. J. Thompson had conclusively identified the existence of an electron in 1897, but the final explanation required two more major developments in quantum mechanics. In 1900 Max Planck had suggested a form of quantization that properly predicted the results found in the black body problem. But Planck felt the mathematics he had introduced for the first time into science were only that, just a mathematical trick to make the answers come out right.
In 1905 Einstein took the audacious step of explaining the photoelectric effect using the principle of quantization introduced by Max Planck. Einstein suggested that the quantization of Planck is more than a mathematical trick, it reflects a fundamental aspect of the true description of reality. Einstein's interpretation required that light, in some real fundamental sense, acts as a particle and not as a wave. He named his new particle a photon.
Understandably, scientists did not race to embrace the radical new view of Einstein on the quantization of light. For more than a decade, Einstein stood alone in his view. In 1913 Einstein was recommended for membership in the Prussian Academy of Sciences and the letter of recommendation prepared by Max Planck himself read:
In sum, one can hardly say that there is not one among the great problems, in which modern physics is so rich, to which Einstein has not made a remarkable contribution. That he may have missed the target in his speculations, as, for example, in his hypothesis of the light quanta, cannot really be held too much against him, for it is not possible to introduce really new ideas even in the exact sciences without taking a risk. [The Cosmic Code by Heinz Pagels p. 15]
Einstein's "really new idea", already intimated (even asserted) by Blavatsky, received some experimental confirmation in 1914 by the U.S. physicist Robert A. Millikan who established that radiation exhibits some properties normally associated with particles. Nevertheless, Millikan, in 1915, said:
Despite ... the apparent complete success of the Einstein equation, the physical theory of which it was designed to be the symbolic expression is found so untenable that Einstein himself, I believe, no longer holds to it." [The Cosmic Code, by Heinz Pagels, p. 15]
Despite the doubts of others, Einstein did hold to his theory and in the following decade was vindicated. In 1921 Einstein received the Nobel Prize in Physics for his services to physics and especially for his explanation of this photoelectric effect. Despite the accolade, there was still opposition to his theory. Finally, in 1923-1924 the American atomic physicist Compton and Debye, a Dutch physicist, made independent theoretical predictions for the scattering of photons from another particle, the electron. Their predictions assumed that light consisted of actual particles with definite energy and directed momentum as though they were small bullets. Compton performed the necessary experiments and the experiments did indeed confirm the particle assumption. After this result Einstein's proposal of the particle nature of light was quickly accepted.
Blavatsky's Views on Nature of Light
To understand Blavatsky's views on the nature of light, it is necessary to compile and analyse a variety of assertions, challenges, hints, arguments, analogies, and explanations scattered on various pages in the SD. To the scientist of her day her views on light would have seemed to contradict well-proven scientific knowledge. To a non-scientific reader her views could easily have seemed contradictory or even incomprehensible. A reader, relying more on intuition, may have sensed from the totality of her statements that these statements on light were indeed made by someone who knew. To us, with the advantage of hindsight, we can see the clear meaning of her basic statements on light; understand how the apparently paradoxical element in them directly reflects the seemingly paradoxical views of science of this century; and further, notice the esoteric direction in which she points for a still deeper understanding.
Many of Blavatsky's statements on light appear in the early part of the third section of volume I of the Secret Doctrine, called "Science and the Secret Doctrine Contrasted". After giving some introduction, the next subsection begins with the outrageous heading "MODERN PHYSICISTS ARE PLAYING AT BLIND MAN'S BUFF" (SDi482). This is a reference, presumably, to the game of "pin the tail on the donkey" as executed by a blindfolded player. We must ask, even at the risk of digression, what possible thought could warrant such an insulting heading? Then, as now, scientists were certainly thoughtful, careful, even meticulously careful observers. We consider such characteristics implicit in the definition of "scientist".
One recurring theme of Blavatsky's - perhaps implied by such a heading - is that science uses the inductive method, reasoning from particulars to general conclusions, while esoteric science uses the deductive method, reasoning from general principles to detailed particular cases. Without entering a lengthy debate on this issue we can note that the distinction is not absolute and exclusive. Blavatsky does admit to the adepts "checking, testing and verifying" each other's observations so "as to stand as independent evidence" (SDi273) thereby granting some aspect of the exoteric scientific method. Science, for its part, operates deductively when it uses the technique of mathematical derivations to reach new conclusions from other established conclusions. Though, even here, such conclusions are not considered strictly verified until checked empirically. And certainly many a time, a scientist, struggling over a mass of details, has received, as a hunch, a broad explanatory principle and then proceeded to check it against the data.
But how is it even possible for there to exist a thoroughly deductive method or even an essentially deductive method? Wherefrom would come the original truths, who or what would know first broad principles? Blavatsky does propose an answer to this question and her answer is, of necessity, as fundamental as her conception of the universe. In her explanations, the fundamental "intelligence" required to "know" such original laws exists prior to the emergence of this cosmos, and indeed that "intelligence" is the cause that establishes such laws. Through a hierarchy of "intelligences" and "beings" the broad principles are passed down and then checked and verified by "countless generations of subsequent adepts". She explains this in part in Is Theosophy a Religion:
The just published "Secret Doctrine" will show what were the ideas of all antiquity with regard to the primeval instructors of primitive man and his three earlier races. The genesis of that WISDOM-RELIGION, in which all Theosophists believe, dates from that period. So-called "Occultism," or rather Esoteric Science, has to be traced in its origin to those Beings who, led by Karma, have incarnated in our humanity, and thus struck the key-note of that secret Science which countless generations of subsequent adepts have expanded since then in every age, while they checked its doctrines by personal observation and experience. The bulk of this knowledge - which no man is able to possess in its fullness - constitutes that which we now call Theosophy or "divine knowledge." Beings from other and higher worlds may have it entire; we can have it only approximately. (HPB Theo. Art. Vol 1, p 61-2)
While we justifiably value the results achieved by science with the inductive method, we can perhaps appreciate the position of Blavatsky. With the knowledge in hand of this cosmic process and the efforts of such adepts and the magnitude of their knowledge, the results achieved by the scientists of her day would understandably seem like the results of playing "Blind Man's Buff". The contrast to her of the inductive and deductive methods would be most glaring.
There is perhaps one other sense behind her charge of "Blind Man's Buff". In this century Thomas Kuhn, in his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, has demonstrated that scientists, while pursuing what he calls "normal science", follow an established paradigm or model that describes what are the constituents of reality, what kinds of questions should be asked, and what kinds of conclusions can be true. Normal science, he claims, is interrupted by occasional "revolutions" which alter the fundamental paradigm. This is the "paradigm shift" which he has brought to our attention. At one point Kuhn illustrates the persuasive power of a paradigm to rule against an explanation by citing the example of Maxwell's equations for light.
Clerk Maxwell shared with other nineteenth-century proponents of the wave theory of light the conviction that light waves must be propagated through a material ether. Designing a mechanical medium to support such waves was a standard problem for many of his ablest contemporaries. His own theory, however, the electromagnetic theory of light, gave no account at all of a medium able to support light waves, and it clearly made such an account harder to provide than it had seemed before. Initially, Maxwell's theory was widely rejected for those reasons. But, like Newton's theory, Maxwell's proved difficult to dispense with, and as it achieved the status of a paradigm, the community's attitude toward it changed. [Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, second edition 1970, p. 107]
The issue of underlying paradigm as developed by Kuhn is quite relevant to Blavatsky's view of science and perhaps contributes to her charge of scientists playing "Blind Man's Buff". The standard paradigm of science restricts the investigations of science to this material world and excludes non-material planes of reality - though there are, of course, constant signs of softening of this restriction. Blavatsky holds an opposing view, that other planes of reality are more significant, with occurrences in this material world fairly described as "illusory projections". With her different paradigm she says:
It [science] merely traces the sequence of phenomena on a plane of effects, illusory projections from the region that Occultism has long since penetrated." (SDi515)
In these two senses, then, Blavatsky is warranted in describing scientists as playing Blind Man's Buff, namely, science focuses on the inductive method, and science operates under a standard paradigm excluding other more important regions of reality. But what extraordinary claims! How should a writer in her position proceed to defend or support such claims? It was not her intent to reveal all of the philosophy of occult science and that could not be the method to defend her position. She explains that many of the facts in the SD were included to correct misunderstandings rather than to present the teaching in its entirety.
The publication of many of the facts herein stated has been rendered necessary by the wild and fanciful speculations in which many Theosophists and students of mysticism have indulged, during the last few years, in their endeavour to, as they imagined, work out a complete system of thought from the few facts previously communicated to them. It is needless to explain that this book is not the Secret Doctrine in its entirety, but a select number of fragments of its fundamental tenets, special attention being paid to some facts which have been seized upon by various writers, and distorted out of all resemblance to the truth. (SD viii)
One of the techniques she did use to defend her position was to include many statements that were contrary to the science of her time and to await justification in the halls of the future as her statements would one by one become vindicated. She reveals this approach, for example, in her article The Tidal Wave.
Instead of deriding our doctrines and aspirations the men of the XXth, if not the XIXth century will see clearer, and judge with knowledge and according to facts instead of prejudging agreeably to rooted misconceptions. Then and not till then will the world find itself forced to acknowledge that it was wrong, and that Theosophy alone can gradually create a mankind as harmonious and as simple-souled as Kosmos itself. (HPB Theo. Art. Vol 1 p 105)
So how does she begin the section referring to Blind Man's Buff knowing what she knows - with the fling of a gauntlet, of course. The first sentence reads:
And now Occultism puts to Science the question: "is light a body, or is it not?" (SDi482)
But the opinion of science was established on this point; light was not a body it was a wave. Why choose this as the opening gauntlet? With the advantage of twentieth century science the answer is obvious. Despite the confirmed opinion of science of her day, in fact that science did not know whether light was a body or not. She knew which gauntlet to pick - and why. From the choice of this gauntlet alone, we see that she knew science was in error in its view of light.
The next section is entitled in Latin: "AN LUMEN SIT CORPUS, NEC NON?" (SDi483) The grammatical construction involved in this sentence suggests a translation such as: "AND CAN IT BE THAT LIGHT IS ALSO SUBSTANCE?" Who would entitle a section this way without some knowledge that light has a particle nature?
While she conveys the tone of someone distinctly hinting at the particle nature of light there is a curious ambiguity, a seeming unwillingness to fully pronounce for one side or the other, that is conveyed in her initial challenge and in this Latin section heading. This same ambiguity is echoed elsewhere:
Physicists know neither one way nor the other ... whether it is an actual substance or a mere undulation?" (SDi482)
In light of twentieth century science this ambiguity has a most natural interpretation. We know that nineteenth century science was wrong to insist that light was fully explained as a wave. It would also be incorrect to claim light is fully explained as a particle. Rather it has a dual nature possessing the properties of both wave and particle. In general, electromagnetic radiation acts more like waves in the radio wave end of the spectrum, more like particles in the x-ray end of the spectrum, and usually (but not always) like a wave in the "middle" light area of the spectrum in our everyday experience. Her ambiguity, then, reflects a fact in nature, the wave/particle duality of nature.
But have we attributed too much in her favor? Does she know that in fact both the particle and the wave nature of light both represent aspects of light's true nature? A study of more passages reveals the answer in the affirmative. She does admit that the "vibratory wave" model does explain obvious known facts of light but asserts this does not cover all that is to be known about light.
In no way - as stated more than once before now - do the Occultists dispute the explanations of Science, as affording a solution of the immediate objective agencies at work. Science only errs in believing that, because it has detected in vibratory waves the proximate cause of these phenomena, it has, therefore, revealed ALL that lies beyond the threshold of Sense.(SDi515)
Having found her admission of the limited truth of the wave theory, we can also find specific indications of her support for the particle nature of light? Her introductory gauntlet and section headings certainly imply she knows of the particle nature of light. In one case she is completely explicit.
Light, in one sense, is certainly as material as electricity itself is. (SDi580)
This statement is definitive. Today, science would agree completely with her assertion. Light is material in one sense but not in all senses.
Throughout the SD and in particular in the section entitled Science and the Secret Doctrine Contrasted, Blavatsky attempts to gather together whatever vestiges of support in the field of science that there may be in order to support her views. This is a difficult task by its very nature. If her view were not unusual it would not need supporting; if it were too unusual there may not be any available support at all. Ironically, it is just those cases in which there was no support all for her view - - for a view latter vindicated -- that present the strongest case of her foreknowledge of this century's science.
The SD and Isis Unveiled do both search for support from science for the material nature of light. The evidences brought forward from the science of her day do not have the immediate logical weight that they may seem to have, because there are other available scientific explanations for the phenomena cited. The first definitive phenomenon displaying the material nature of light, the photoelectric effect, was discovered in 1888, the very year the SD was published. As will be discussed at length in another article this was the year that Blavatsky had prophesied would mark the beginning of a "rent" in the veil of nature. The second significant phenomenon was the Compton photon scattering effect that was not developed until the 1920's. As a result there was a dearth of contemporary scientific evidence to support her view - just the most interesting case to support her foreknowledge.
Given this dearth of contemporary scientific support, there are three such quotations that do present seeming evidence from science that are included here, not because the reasoning still holds, but because the citations show what Blavatsky's view was on this question of the material nature of light and just what she was trying to demonstrate.
Isis Unveiled, published in 1877, tended to give only the most general statements and hints on science, serving rather as an opening wedge into the complacency of the established views of her time. One such statement, aiming to elevate the view of the ancients, drops an early hint that light really is "ponderable".
About all they [scientists] can do on any one day is to correct the errors of the preceding day. Nearly three thousand years ago, earlier than the days of Pythagoras, the ancient philosophers claimed that light was ponderable - hence matter, and that light was force. The corpuscular theory, owing to certain Newtonian failures to account for it, was laughed down, and the undulatory theory, which proclaimed light imponderable, accepted. And now the world is startled by Mr. Crookes weighing light with his radiometer! (Isis Unveiled i281)
In the next passage she specifically argues that light is a substance and implies that occultists generally have taken this position.
The Occultists are taken to task for calling the Cause of light, heat, sound, cohesion, magnetism, etc., etc.., a substance. Mr. Clerk Maxwell has stated that the pressure of strong sunlight on a square mile is about 3.25 lbs. It is, they are told, 'the energy of the myriad ether waves;' and when they [the occultist] call it a 'substance' impinging on that area, their explanation is proclaimed unscientific. (SDi514)
Another passage occurs first in Isis Unveiled and is repeated in the SD.
The undulatory theory does not account for the results of his experiments. ... And he is forced, he says, 'by this class of facts, to reason as if light was material(?).' Professor Josiah P. Cooke, of Harvard University, says that he 'cannot agree .... with those who regard the wave-theory of light as an established principle of science.' Herschell's doctrine, that the intensity of light, in effect of each undulation, 'is inversely as the square of the distance from the luminous body,' if correct, damages a good deal, if it does not kill the undulatory theory. (SDi580)
Today we do not need to assert that light is a particle in order to explain pressure from light. We can explain it from a wave. But if one weighs this fairly one must ask how she came to know the correct general statement on light and with such certainty even though these minor points of alleged proof are not a compelling as she thought. The conclusion is that the apparent weakness of the her immediate argument lends still more support to her larger argument - the reality of those who have already penetrated the mysteries of nature and who were her teachers. She had been taught the right answer to the larger question of the nature of light.
Some Polemical Points
While the case for Blavatsky's foreknowledge has been successfully show above, there are some possibly unclear passages that may be cleared up here. (This section is only here for those who would like to consider every detail on this issue. It may be passed over by most.)
On page 483 she says
Most decidedly Light is not a body, we are told. Physical Sciences say Light is a force, a vibration, the undulation of ether. It is the property or quality of matter, or even an affection thereof - never a body! Just so. For this discovery, the knowledge - whatever it may be worth - that light or caloric is not a motion of material particles, Science is chiefly indebted, if not solely, to Sir W. Grove. (SDi483)
She appears to be speaking in contradictions. The tone suggests very clearly she thinks light is a particle. But just when we think we understand where she is going she says "Just so" and seems to confirm the wave view. What does she really think? Why is this so contradictory and paradoxical?
We should note that what she is actually confirming is that light is an "affection" of matter. She hasn't said what she means by "affection" and she hasn't said what kind of matter she agrees with and what kind she disagrees with in this passage!
Deeper into Blavatsky's View
We can do better than the Latin title to understand her meaning. Blavatsky does not always give all of her answers straight out. But SDi514 gives a clearer insight into her view. She says
If they [men of science] would fathom the ultimate nature of these Forces [light and heat], they have first to admit their substantial nature, however supersensuous. Neither do the Occultists deny the correctness of the vibratory theory. (SDi514)
Here she directly admits the wave theory while insisting on the substantiality of light - at least on some plane. If this sentence of hers is read with emphasis on the italicized words "substantial" and "supersensuous", it makes clear a higher meaning to her assertion that light is 'never a body' and 'not a motion of material particles'. She means light is corpuscular and substantial but the substance of those corpuscles is not matter on this physical plane but matter on a supersensuous plane. According to her, then, light is not a body in the sense that it is not composed of physical particles and is not a motion of material particles of the earthly physical kind of matter.
But doesn't the wave/particle theory of physics today assert that, in its particle aspect, light is made of matter? Not exactly. According to physics the photon is a particle but it has zero mass. So to speak, the zero mass permits it to travel at the speed of light. We conclude that not only did Blavatsky know the wave/particle duality of light, she also understood that in its particle nature it was not like our normal matter. The zero mass of the photon is another confirmation of the science of the SD.
This takes us back to SDi482. In between the sentences just analyzed on that and the next page, she makes a certain point. She says that for our explanations to be valid we should not have one model for reality in one context and another model in another context. Now why did she sandwich this thought between the other statements analyzed above? We answer, because she knew the wave/particle duality of light. Even for our science of today we use one model (wave) in some circumstance and another (particle) in other circumstances. She not only knew the wave/particle duality, and the zero mass of the photon, she also foresaw that science would discover this duality and not be able to go any further. She is now chiding the science of our century.
Now science has a paradox - this duality. (And matter has now been shown to have wave properties to make the duality symmetrical.) A paradox suggests an incomplete understanding. "Paradox" comes from "para" beyond, and "dox" teaching. One must go beyond the teaching or current understanding in order to resolve and understand a paradox. Blavatsky intimated this on SDi482 and gave the necessary teaching as an introductory comment on SDi481 (not by coincidence, placed just one page before). She says
"For the occultists it [light] is both Spirit and Matter."
She seems to suggest that the wave/particle duality is a reflection of the spirit/matter duality!
Then, for science to find the ultimate unity to explain the wave/particle duality, they must be led to the unity behind the spirit/matter duality - or to some aspect of the First Logos of Theosophy. Blavatsky must have understood this. No wonder she put this as the first subject in "Science and the Secret Doctrine Contrasted".
Later on, on page SDi515, she gives a still fuller explanation. First she explains the region of agreement and disagreement between science and occultism. She then gives more of the Occultist's view and comments on what kind of matter she has in mind.
"And the latter [Occultism] maintains that those etheric tremors, are not, as asserted by Science, set up by the vibrations of the molecules of known bodies, - the matter of our terrestrial objective consciousness, - but that we must seek for the ultimate causes of light, heat, etc., etc., in MATTER existing in super-sensuous states - states, however as fully objective to the spiritual eye of man, as a horse or a tree is to the ordinary mortal. Light and heat are the ghost or shadow of matter in motion."(SDi515)
Here we have the answer. Light is the ghost or shadow of super-sensuous matter in motion on another plane. To resolve the wave/particle paradox requires considering the next plane. That plane is unavoidably metaphysical. She expresses this still another way on SDi493.
"The Occultist sees in the manifestation of every force in Nature, the action of the quality, or the special characteristic of its noumenon; which noumenon is a distinct and intelligent Individuality on the other side of the manifested mechanical Universe. Now the Occultist does not deny - on the contrary he will support the claim - that light, heat, electricity and so on are affections (not properties or qualities) of matter. To put it more clearly: matter is the condition - the necessary basis or vehicle, a sine qua non - for the manifestation of these forces, or agents, on this plane." (SDi493)
Here also is the explanation of how she meant the term "affection" used earlier. (One might notice the parallels to Plato's famous cave analogy. He may hereby receive some indirect vindication along with proof that he was an initiate as Blavatsky asserted.)
Blavatsky knew a) the wave/particle duality of light (a major finding of this century's physics), b) the zero mass of the photon, c) light pressure on a surface from the momentum of photons, and d) the paradox remaining with this century's physics. She knew the electron would be discovered in 1897 (to be shown in another article). She knew it would lead to the particle nature of light. She knew this paradox in turn would ultimately force us to the supersensuous level and to the teachings of occultism to understand this paradox. Knowing all this, imagine her view of the science of her day.
By Reed Carson December 1, 1997