The Theosophical Forum – June 1940

WHAT IS "LIFE"? — H. T. Edge

Materialistic philosophy starts by supposing that things are dead, and then has to invent a life-principle to explain how they come to be alive. But what this life-principle is, and where it came from, they cannot tell us. Ultramaterialistic science declared that the whole universe is made of inert particles of physical matter; and to account for the activities of these particles, it postulated something called "energy." Matter and energy were the twin uncreated and indestructible rudiments of all things. But if this energy is not material, what is it? Science did not allow of anything non-material in the universe. And so the "energy" of science is defined as a function of matter in motion; — energy and force are made out to be effects occurring in matter, not the causes of motion in matter.

It is little wonder that such an illogical theory did not satisfy some minds; and so there arose a school of Vitalists. Vitalism is the theory that the phenomena of organic life cannot be explained by the properties of physical matter alone, and that consequently they must be due to some vital principle of a non-physical nature. Attempts to define such a principle have been vague and various. If it is spirit, what can spirit be, apart from matter? Or how can spirit act on matter? Perhaps the vital principle is another kind of matter — an aether, a fluid. But the difficulty encountered by the vitalists is not peculiar to the so-called organic kingdoms of nature; it is fundamental in the entire materialistic philosophy. It has long been known to intelligent reasoners that there can be no such thing as an inert particle of matter; nor can there be such a thing as an immaterial force. And both these truths have now been proved by actual observation. The universe consists of living beings, whose activities, expressed collectively, may be called "life." The term "matter" has been applied to the static aspect of this life; the terms "force" and "energy," to the dynamic aspect. And why should a distinction be drawn between "organic" and "inorganic" beings? Why should animals and plants be called alive, and minerals dead? If the vitalists require a vital principle for plants and animals, they should require it equally for the mineral kingdom. But, as said, there is no need to postulate such a principle in either case. The dead matter and the force of materialistic science are highly metaphysical abstractions. The minute analysis to which we are now able to subject physical matter has revealed no such thing as inert material particles. What is revealed is a living something, that cannot be called force or matter, and yet is both; a something that may be called streams of electrons, electric charges in motion, light, electricity, etc. What is this but the universal Prana, in its physical manifestation? For this Prana is not a disembodied spirit but a stream or ocean of life-atoms, that is living beings.

The Theosophical Forum