The Theosophical Forum – May 1941

H. P. BLAVATSKY AND MODERN SCIENCE — H. T. Edge

Chemistry and physiology are the two great magicians of the future, who are destined to open the eyes of mankind to the great physical truths. (I, 261) 1. (1)

A few decades have witnessed the downfall of the best established principles and most firmly supported conclusions: a fact which shows the need of caution in basing general metaphysical principles on the advances of the different sciences. — Matter and Light: the New Physics: de Broglie, 1940

It is often remarked that H. P. Blavatsky forecast the lines along which science was destined to develop, and anticipated discoveries and changes of view which have been made since the time when The Secret Doctrine was published (1888). That there is plenty of warrant for such a statement is a matter of which anyone with a candid mind can convince himself by comparing what was said in The Secret Doctrine with the subsequent advances in science. But in these articles we propose to facilitate matters by calling attention to some major instances. Throughout the work scattered references are found, but the third section of each volume is specially dedicated to the consideration of science. The author criticizes and often assails the scientific views prevalent in her time; but, as will be seen, she is a champion of science so long as it remains loyal to truth and does not lapse into dogmatism and obscurantism. H. P. Blavatsky attacks some positions which are no longer held, but this merely illustrates our thesis; and in addition we may point out that we cannot adequately understand the science of today without some knowledge of the science of yesterday, for the present is always the child of the past.

ATTITUDE OF THEOSOPHY TO SCIENCE

This is explained at the beginning of Vol. I, Part iii, and is also the attitude of the present writer, who has been keenly interested in science from childhood and may call himself by education and avocation a man of science. As H. P. Blavatsky points out, earnest and honest truthseekers are always comrades in arms, whatever their particular lines of investigation may be; and their efforts, if faithfully pursued, must inevitably lead to the same goal. She avows that Occultism can have no quarrel with men of science so long as they adhere to their own prescribed program — to investigate natural phenomena, to formulate and systematize them into laws, and by means of these laws to discover other phenomena. Science is sometimes said to be inductive, but it has been shown that no science can be purely inductive, and science itself has to reason deductively from its own provisional hypotheses. In fact the method is alternatively inductive and deductive: facts are observed, from them are made provisional hypotheses, and these provisional hypotheses have to be changed or enlarged from time to time to include additional facts which may be discovered. But men of science are human beings, and the frailties of human nature may sometimes intervene. The provisional nature of these hypotheses is forgotten and they are put forward as established truths; and there is the tendency, when new facts are adduced, to reject them because they do not fit the theory, instead of changing the theory so as to accommodate the new facts. Not to be unfair to men of science, we must credit the public with their share in building up this new dogmatism. In the interest of truth, and of men of science themselves, it is important to separate the true from the false. To quote from The Secret Doctrine:

There can be no possible conflict between the teachings of occult and so-called exact Science, where the conclusions of the latter are grounded on a substratum of unassailable fact. It is only when its more ardent exponents, over-stepping the limits of observed phenomena in order to penetrate into the arcana of Being, attempt to wrench the formation of Kosmos and its living Forces from Spirit, and attribute all to blind matter, that the Occultists claim the right to dispute and call in question their theories. Science cannot, owing to the very nature of things, unveil the mystery of the universe around us. Science can, it is true, collect, classify, and generalize upon phenomena; but the occultist, arguing from admitted metaphysical data, declares that the daring explorer, who would probe the inmost secrets of Nature, must transcend the narrow limitations of sense, and transfer his consciousness into the region of noumena and the sphere of primal causes. To effect this, he must develop faculties which are absolutely dormant — save in a few rare and exceptional cases — in the constitution of the off-shoots of our present Fifth Root-race in Europe and America. He can in no other conceivable manner collect the facts on which to base his speculations. — I, 477-8

THE ATOMO-MECHANICAL THEORY

Professor P. G. Tait, in The Properties of Matter, 1885, says:

In the physical universe there are but two classes of things, MATTER and ENERGY.

Note the qualification, "in the physical universe"; it allows us to infer that he recognises the existence of one or more other universes, or departments of the universe which are not physical. But this qualification was not adhered to; the doctrine was proclaimed that the whole universe is based on these two things, each of which was described as being eternal and indestructible. Not merely the physical world, but the mental, moral, and every other possible world, were based on Energy and Matter. Our very thoughts were merely the result of energy acting in matter. This is the doctrine with which H. P. Blavatsky finds fault. Since her day science has been forced, by its studies in intra-atomic physics and radiation, to acknowledge that these two primary postulates, as they were formerly understood, are inadequate to explain the phenomena. The physical rudiment could no longer be conceived as a definite particle of physical matter, moving in accordance with the laws of molar dynamics; nor could motion be regarded as merely the transference of matter from one part of space to another.

There were writers in H. P. Blavatsky's time who shared many of her views with regard to the science of the day, and from some of these she quotes. One was John Bernhard Stallo, a United States judge, 1823-1900, whose work, Concepts of Modern Physics, examines point by point and exhaustively all the details of what he calls the "atomo-mechanical theory" of the universe. He comes to the conclusion that this theory is of a highly metaphysical nature, being founded exclusively upon concepts. These concepts are abstractions from reality, assumed quite legitimately for the purposes originally intended; but to mistake them for truths is disastrous. Stallo finds that, whatever the differences among the scientists of his time, they were all agreed that the fundamentals of the universe are Matter and Motion — or better, Mass and Motion. To quote:

The mechanical theory postulates mass and motion as the absolutely real and indestructible elements of all forms of physical existence. Ordinarily these elements are designated as matter and force; but this designation is plainly inaccurate.

And he shows that neither mass nor motion can have any meaning at all apart from each other. We have experience of moving bodies, but not of motion in itself; it is an abstraction. Similarly we can have no experience of mass except in so far as it is affected by motion; our only knowledge of it is derived from its composition with motion in various dynamical units; but of what mass is in itself we have no perception or conception. Both mass and motion then are abstractions from reality — concepts, as Stallo calls them; and yet science was treating them as independent existences and using them as the fundamental building bricks of the universe.

It must be noted here that Stallo was not proving the inadequacy of the atomo-mechanical theory to explain the whole universe, but its inadequacy to explain even the physical universe. In his own

words:

The considerations presented in the preceding pages lead to the conclusion that the atomo-mechanical theory is not, and cannot be, the true basis of modern physics. On proper examination, this theory appears to be not only, as is generally conceded, incompetent to account for the phenomena of organic life, but it proves to be equally incompetent to serve as an explanation of the most ordinary cases of inorganic physical action. And the claim that, in contradistinction to metaphysical theories, it resorts to known assumptions, and operates with no elements save the data of sensible experience, is found to be wholly inadmissible.

NOUMENON AND PHENOMENON

Students of The Secret Doctrine know how often H. P. Blavatsky insists on the need for recognising the Noumenon behind Phenomena. She explains the Noumenon as the conscious cause of the phenomenon (I, 633, 517); the word is defined in metaphysics as an object apprehended by the understanding, without mediation of the senses; the Phenomenon therefore would be an object apprehended by the senses. This latter word means "appearance," in which sense it is contrasted with "reality'; though Theosophists at any rate would use the word "reality" in a relative sense. Things may be real relatively to phenomena which spring from them on a lower plane; yet they may themselves be unreal relatively to a higher plane. The noumenon on one plane may be regarded as a phenomenon relatively to a higher plane.

We have seen that attempts to explain phenomena without reference to any plane higher than the physical must land us in contradictions and logical absurdities; and this has become more apparent to men of science with the passing years. It is seen that behind matter, considered as an aggregate of molecules, there is a something of a more or less electrical nature, and that this also underlies energic effects. We cannot perceive it directly with our senses; we study it through its effects. But this substance in its turn may be but the manifestation of something still more subtle and underlying. In short, there may be a concatenation of substances, growing more and more refined as we proceed upwards from the physical plane. The question arises, Where does consciousness come in? Consciousness, in some degree and form, is everywhere present in the universe, but is this the same as saying that the atoms of physics are conscious? If these atoms are merely appearances, merely effects produced on our senses by some hidden cause, it would hardly be appropriate to speak of them as either conscious or unconscious. There is conscious life everywhere, and it produces in our senses various effects; we see a mineral, a plant, an animal. Somewhere behind that mineral, that plant, etc., there is consciousness; unless we possess the power of direct intuition of that consciousness, we can only know the effect produced on our senses — a stone, a tree. We can apprehend the phenomenon, but the noumenon can only be known by sympathy of consciousness. This is what is meant by recognising the noumena behind phenomena; it does not mean that a stone is a phenomenon with a noumenon inside it; it means that a stone is a living being, which impresses itself on our senses as a solid block of inert material. Perhaps this will suggest an explanation of the occult virtues attributed to stones and other so-called inanimate objects.

Biology is also striving in vain against the necessity for recognising the noumena in order to understand the phenomena. A good deal can be learned by viewing vital phenomena as processes merely, but we must somewhere come to a stopping point in this kind of explanation. We must come to a point where we see microscopic particles doing certain things, acting in a certain way, without being able to tell why they do so or what they may do next. If we trace backwards a chain of physical causes and effects, we must sooner or later reach a point where we can trace it no farther. The only conclusion which does not involve us in logical confusion is that living beings are at work, invisible to our physical senses, but whose physical operations we can to a certain extent discern. This brings us to another most important point in our collation of the teachings of H. P. Blavatsky with science: that is, the need for recognising the existence of the Astral Plane beyond the Physical Plane.

THE ATOM — ACTIO IN DISTANS

H. P. Blavatsky has much to say about the atom. This word, in nineteenth century science, had a somewhat vague meaning. For one thing, as pointed out by H. P. Blavatsky, citing Stallo, the atom of chemistry was not the same thing as the atom of physics. In chemistry it was (and is) a convenient unit, but its physical qualifications were not in question. In physics it served as a basis for certain dynamical calculations, such as the kinetic theory of gaseous pressure. But the attempt to regard it as a particle of physical matter leads to hopeless confusion. For the physical properties of matter were interpreted as dependent upon the fact of the atomic structure of this matter. But the atom has (ex hypothesi) no such atomic structure; how then can it have any of those properties which arise from an atomic structure? How can the atom be elastic, compressible? And without these attributes, how can it obey the laws of motion and interaction, as required by the kinetic theory of gases? Again there comes up the question of actio in distans, action at a distance: in what conceivable way could such atoms act upon one another, as the theory requires us to assume that they do? The difficulty requires the assumption of a non-physical medium between the atoms, to convey energy from one to another. But the assumption of such a medium upsets the atomo-mechanical theory at once. For either this new substance is itself atomic, in which case we are still faced with the original difficulty; or else it is non-atomic.

As H. P. Blavatsky says (I, 487), most men of science reject actio in distans, while Stallo observes that there is no physical action which, on close examination, does not resolve itself into actio in distans. Thus they reject a principle which actually underlies their whole system, and which they must necessarily assume in order to define that system! On pages 400, 401, Newton is quoted to the effect that gravitational attraction must be caused by an agent, and he implies that this agent is not material (at least in the usual sense of the word). Euler is quoted as suggesting either a Spirit or some subtle medium.

The difficulty as regards actio in distans is evidently that we are trying to demonstrate what we have assumed; for the atomo-mechanical theory presupposes action at a distance. For the explanation of action at a distance we must step outside the atomo-mechanical theory; hence we find the mention of spirits, subtle mediums, and something which (whatever it may be) is not physical. "Distance" is in itself a conception founded on our sensory experience, our experience of the physical world. Is it necessarily applicable to the universe in general? Can we attach the idea of distance to our mental and emotional life? In short, if we are to explain the universe in physical terms, we shall be compelled to assume something which we cannot prove within the limits of physical science. H. P. Blavatsky says that actio in distans is one of the fundamental principles in the question of Aether or Akasa in Occultism (II, 487); and now today physical matter has been found to resolve itself into an affection of some substance which is not material in the old sense, though it may deserve the name of matter of another kind. This means that the supposed separate particles of matter are not really separate at all, so there is no longer any distans to be bridged.

It is easy to imagine how H. P. Blavatsky was perplexed to find words in the scientific vocabulary of her day to correspond to her words Aether, Akasa, etc. But now we find a word ready to use, much used by the great Einstein, though familiar to science before his vogue — that blessed word "field." What we need is a term which will embrace the notions of space and a fluid medium, without being too committal either way; and the word "field" just fits. Now it is admitted by the most orthodox science that a particle (or point, if you prefer) that is charged with energy can have a field of force extending to that unknown bourne known as "infinity," which is far enough surely; so here is your actio in distans, all complete, free from any trouble about particles and intervals. Then again, so far as action at a distance is concerned, there is no significant difference whatever between a small distance and a great one; and it has been shown that the behavior of intra-atomic particles (or whatever they are) simply laughs at the law about the square of the distance.

So, as Stallo shows, the physical world is merely phenomenal, and is underlaid by a world which we must necessarily call non-physical. The atom is a phenomenon taking place in some other kind of matter. We say "matter," but might as well say "energy'; in fact, both these terms, if considered separately, are abstractions, and neither one alone will apply to our hypothetical substratum.

ATOMS AND VIBRATIONS

In this connexion we must not forget the vortex theory of atoms, which at one time had some vogue. It was shown that a vortical motion taking place in a perfect fluid would have the same properties as were attributed by physicists to their atoms; and the idea was illustrated by creating vortices in smoke, and in other ways. But that "perfect fluid" presented an obstacle. Yet this theory foreshadowed an idea very much in vogue today; before speaking further of which, let us quote from The Secret Doctrine, I, 633:

Atoms are called "Vibrations" in Occultism. . . . The waves and undulations of Science are all produced by atoms propelling their molecules into activity from within. Atoms fill the immensity of Space, and by their continuous vibration are that MOTION which keeps the wheels of Life perpetually going.

(Remember that the writer of this did not have the word "electron" at her disposal, and so used the best words available).

Now it is characteristic of the science of today, as contrasted with that of yesterday, that the two notions of particle and vibration have become merged, so that a formula is sought which shall comprise the two in a single general idea. This but confirms the conclusion mentioned above, as being reached by Stallo and advocated by H. P. Blavatsky — that neither mass nor motion have any meaning when considered apart. It is true that they may be assumed, as primary postulates, for the purposes of a particular branch of investigation; and this was most successfully done, for the purpose of co-ordinating observed phenomena in physics and chemistry, and thus leading to useful practical results. But it was not always remembered that the said assumption was provisional only, which led some scientists, and the public who accepted their dicta without examination, into an unjustifiable dogmatism. But now the investigations of physicists have forced them to admit the provisional nature of these assumptions, and they can no longer speak of mass and motion as independent absolutes. (2)

(To be continued)

FOOTNOTE:

1. In these articles, to avoid repetition, references to H. P. Blavatsky's great work, The Secret Doctrine, are indicated simply by numbers denoting the volume and page. (return to text)

2. It should be stated here that, in saying that motion has no meaning apart from mass, we are not impugning anything that may be said in The Secret Doctrine or elsewhere as to the reality of MOTION as a fundamental hypostasis of the universe. The motion we are speaking of is that conceived by the modern science of physics. The MOTION spoken of by H. P. Blavatsky is a far more generalized idea, of which motion on the physical plane is merely a particular manifestation. If we speak of motion as characterizing our mental and emotional life, we do not think of anything like a transference of masses from one place to another; far less can we apply such a materialistic notion to planes .higher even than the mental and emotional. (return to text)


The Theosophical Forum

THEOSOPHICAL UNIVERSITY PRESS ONLINE