The Theosophical Forum — February 1943

RETURN TO A PHILOSOPHIC SCIENCE — Helen Savage

There must be something very wrong with our educational systems when our youth grow up without any philosophical standard by which life-in-the-living may be measured and evaluated. Because they lack this standard, a great many young people, observing the chaotic state of the world, imagine that chaos must be, de facto, a fundamental characteristic of nature, and that lawlessness and irresponsibility are therefore justified or at least to be accepted as a natural part of human life. On the other hand, because youth is naturally idealistic, there are thousands who still look for meaning and purpose in the turmoil of present-day living, many who are demanding that they be given a philosophy that will reawaken their faith in life, their faith in the soundness of ethics, and their enthusiasm for the infinite possibilities of the future.

It has become customary to blame science for the present deplorable outlook; to declare that science has elbowed out religion and has put a taboo on anything smacking of mysticism or metaphysics. Perhaps our scientific researchers will have to take some of the blame. They have, indeed, lost sight of the pattern of the whole in their attempt to understand the parts. Each researcher, wearing the blinkers of the purely analytical mind, has traveled down his own bypath, gathering about him such a bewildering mass of facts that Truth herself has been barricaded out. And Truth is the mighty whole. The part reveals truth only as it is related to that whole. Of what value is a knowledge of the structure and workings of the atom except as that atom is a building brick in a grand cosmic edifice?

This point is of first importance, because without the principle of wholeness the universe becomes meaningless and human life too loses its meaning; it becomes a sort of crazy nightmare where each unit must struggle with and overthrow its fellow units in order to survive. Such is actually the attitude abroad in the world today. Are the scientists entirely to blame?

There are those in the scientific world who realize that science has taken the wrong tack. They recognise that specialization has gone too far. They see the necessity of pooling all available knowledges in order that, correlated and interpreted, these may provide a consistent picture of universal and human life. The very pressure of the present-day turmoil is forcing to a quick birth a new era of synthesis. There is again dawning a belief in the ancient idea of the "wholeness" of the universe, a conviction that, more basic than an analysis of the minutiae of the parts, is an understanding of the relationship of part to part and of all the parts to the whole. What that "whole" is — whether just a gigantic machine, a living organism, or merely a metaphysical concept which gives psychological weight to man's ethical instinct — many are not prepared to say. It would of course be unscientific to probe into such matters!

A few, however, are somewhat bolder; and such a one is Professor Frederic Wood Jones. At present professor of Anatomy at the University of Manchester, Wood Jones has behind him many rich years of teaching experience, and as a scholar and man of wide and varied culture, he far outruns what might be considered the limits of his special line as an anatomist. His latest book, Design and Purpose (1) is a lecture given by him at Trinity College, Dublin, in December, 1941, and at the suggestion of appreciative friends later somewhat enlarged for publication. What he sets forth in this slim volume are "the convictions at which he arrived at the end of an extended period of dealing with the problems of human life and living and with the recurrent questings of the successive generations of students that have come to him, passed through his theatres and laboratories, and gone on into their destined spheres of utility and service to mankind." Convictions born of such experience are bound to bear the stamp of something more vital and genuine than any mere theorizing; for youth always challenges its teachers, and if the teachers through an eagerness to educate rather than to merely instruct can build up the necessary "electrical potential," there follows the lightning flash of truth.

Wood Jones declares, from his experience in meeting the perplexities of modern youth, that what they lack is a comprehensive outlook on life and its place in the cosmic order. This, he admits, is due in part to the tendency to scientific specialization, already mentioned, which has obscured the significance of life as a whole. He is not content, however, with immediate causes only, but traces the long chain of cause and effect back many centuries and shows how and when the ancient belief in a universal scheme, in which man held his proper and purposive place, was undermined. It is true that his sketch of the development of religious thought is based on the accepted lines which begin man in a state of savagery, pass him through phases of primitive animism, then on through the pantheistic stage, and thence to the monotheistic. In spite of the fact that, for the Theosophist, this puts rather the wrong slant on man's beginnings, we still can agree with the author that it was the development of monotheism in the countries adjacent to the Mediterranean Sea which had a large part in distorting man's universal viewpoint. From that "restless ancestral centre" the stultification and crippling of man's conception of the nature of Deity took place pari passu with the development of western thought, gaining a stronghold upon the plastic mind of the then young western nations and basically affecting western psychological reactions. Instead of the many gods, who, according to the esoteric tradition, emanated from an immutable and unnamable central source, there was now the One God, the God of Abraham — "personal, anthropomorphic, domestic." The impersonal, unintellectualized Tao of Lao-Tzu, even the All-wise Creator of Plato, had been whittled down into a cramped and narrow image of God patterned after man himself.

With this monotheistic conception, man's idea as to his own place in nature became utterly changed. Now he thought of himself as a special creation of the Deity, who, in fact, had built the universe about man for the latter's particular delectation and edification. Man no longer saw himself as in and of nature, one with her other folk, partaking of that same stream of life which informed the whole organism, but as something special, set against nature, separate, superior, and intrinsically different from his environment. And so, says Wood Jones, beginning with the reawakening of Europe, as western scientific knowledge progressively expanded, their god failed to expand with it; the religious framework proved too cramped to comprehend the new knowledge.

Of course there have been enlightened minds through the centuries who never worshiped an anthropomorphic god; and attempts have been made by lesser minds to reconcile the supposed disparity between man and nature, and between scientific facts and theological dogma. Wood Jones cites, for instance, the work of the Rev. William Paley (1743-1805), who in his Natural Theology made a noteworthy compromise between the noble conceptions of the older philosophers and the orthodox theology of his time. His work, and that of his followers who expanded Paley's thesis and gave to it the imprimatur of the science of their day, became by the middle of the 19th century the bulwark of all intellectual minds, who saw in this conciliation between religion and science a happy solution to long perplexing difficulties and "a most satisfying and spiritually comfortable conception of the universe."

It was Darwin, with his theory of the evolution of living forms, who upset this tidy applecart: or perhaps it would be more correct to say that Darwin's contemporaries, Thomas Henry Huxley and Ernst Haeckel, with their partisan pleadings were responsible. It was in 1859 that Darwin's Origin of Species appeared. Immediately there was a definite and uncompromising face-about in the scientific and then in the public mind. Darwinism took Europe by storm. Deity was jettisoned. If living forms were evolved through gradual stages by means of Natural Selection, i. e., by pure chance, how could God have had anything to do with it? Obviously he could not. What place would he have in a nature "red in tooth and claw," where the rule of might was supreme? It was natural, then, that the very words, god, soul, spirit, should be peremptorily discarded from the scientific world; and the rent between religion and science, so skilfully patched by Paley and his followers, became an irreparable rift. Man, then, more than ever before became alien to his environment.

It is interesting to note in passing Prof. Wood Jones' assertion of his belief that there was sufficient in the theories of Darwin himself to have turned the tide of thought in a far happier direction. He quotes, and very justly, Darwin's comment in regard to his use of the phrase, the Survival of the Fittest: "I use the term in a large and metaphysical sense including the dependence of one being on another." Darwin was, as a matter of fact, far more speculative than dogmatic. Not so Huxley and Haeckel. They fanned the flame of materialism. By their eloquent and energetic lecturing they pressed upon a gullible public a picture of relentless competition in nature, of bloody strife, of ceaseless struggle. One wonders if it may have been that a cycle of materialism was karmically due and its pendulum-like force could have swung almost any theory along with it.

Not only was no deity possible in the picture they presented. There was no place in the new set-up for design and purpose in life. "The search was no longer for beautiful adaptations, for harmonies and for purposeful meaning, but for misfits, maladjustments and disharmony, wrought by blind chaos." Even man, in the words of one writer, was but "a kind of miscarriage of an ape."

To say, as the author does, that there have been few signs of intellectual revolt against this soulless theory, and these only "on sentimental, metaphysical or theological grounds" would seem to relegate the work of the Theosophical Movement to some distant plateau of metaphysical speculation. Yet will it not one day be discovered that the thunder of H. P. Blavatsky's tremendous protest has reverberated in the minds and souls of many scientific thinkers? Her protest was not merely a literary explosion of strong feeling. She presented the noble principles of a grand philosophic science, a science of cosmic proportions which included the invisible causal factors that give meaning and unity to the varied phenomena of our physical world. Her teaching, far from being contradictory to modern research and discovery, is the very goal toward which the restless, eager, upward-looking scientist of today is inevitably tending. In fact, much that she taught in her monumental work, The Secret Doctrine, is now commonplace scientific knowledge. (2)

In this age of science anything approaching metaphysics has been for a long time suspect — only to be tolerated by courtesy and given no place in the categories of factual knowledge. And so it is with exemplary caution, but nevertheless with many a darting forward along the forbidden way, that Prof. Wood Jones proceeds to develop the main theme of his book: a confession of his conviction that there has been enough discovered in the world about us — a world whose limits have been far extended by the aid of scientific invention — to prove the universe to be a cohering whole, "a series of harmonies in which living things play mutually dependent parts." And what is more important still, he is convinced that this view of the cosmos is what the world needs today to bring back ethical sanity into human life.

He speaks of "living things"; but what, he asks, is living, and what is non-living? How can we bridge the gap between organic and inorganic matter? The way in which he answers this question is a significant contribution to a progressive and enlightened view of the universe. He notes, for instance, the status of the virus, which, hanging in that shadowland of doubt between two worlds, is believed by some to be living and by others not to be living. (3) And he adduces other facts to show that "no-life" grades into "life" by imperceptible stages in such a remarkable way that he is convinced — he does not quite dare to say there is but the One Life, but at least that there is evidence of the unity of design in the whole: in the cosmos and therefore in human life.

Further, he frankly admits that, whereas we know a good deal about the modes and means of evolution, we do not know its cause. If, he says, "we are brave enough to make this confession, it leaves us free to speculate as to the possibility of evolution having occurred in the realm of the non-living." Here he brings forward the behavior of chemical substances and the striking resemblance between Mendeleeff's table of elements and Huxley's selected zoological types, showing that there is something akin to orders, families, genera and species in the mineral world. Then he takes up the matter of the similarity of structure between the atom and the solar system, and the evidence that the atom of matter is no matter at all but only energy. And if one is not prepared to call this energy "life," at least it is "the only immortal thing we know."

Here the author confesses to a harking back to the "cosmic dream of pagan philosophers." For he finds the teaching of Democritus, that there is nothing but atoms (energy) and space, wholly conformable with modern theory. Even the fact that Democritus arrives at his idea by means of "pure thought and unsupported by any factual knowledge derived from actual ascertained scientific data," does not perturb him because, as he says, "there are times when the man who sets his faith solely upon facts hard won in the laboratory is in danger of missing something that maybe philosophers and poets, ignorant of scalpel and forceps, have already realized."

This is a generous admission for one trained in scientific thinking. And it contains more in it than probably even the author himself suspected. For the "pure thought" of the ancient philosopher was based, not on speculation, not even on what is modernly called a "hunch," but on what may be described as a direct perception of truth, a quality not vouchsafed the ordinary man but which, when present is surer than any scalpel or forceps, than any spectroscope or test-tube experiment — and far more scientific. It is a means of obtaining relatively infallible knowledge.

In her article, "The Beacon of the Unknown," (4) speaking of the true scientific basis of knowledge, H. P. Blavatsky says:

For let it be well understood, Theosophy has this in common with ordinary science, that it examines the reverse side of every apparent truth. It tests and analyses every fact put forward by physical science, looking only for the essence and the ultimate and the occult constitution in every cosmical or physical manifestation, whether in the domain of ethics, intellect, or matter. In a word, Theosophy begins its researches where the materialists finish theirs. . . . Theosophy utterly rejects the testimony of the physical senses, if the latter have not spiritual and psychic perception as a basis. . . the evidence of reason on the terrestrial plane like that of our five senses must receive the imprimatur of the sixth and seventh senses of the divine ego before a fact can be accepted by the true occultist.

Finding, then, that there is unity of design in the whole cosmos, and noting purpose in so many of its parts, it is a natural step for the author to declare that it is difficult to rule out the idea of purpose also in the whole. And behind this purpose — dare he postulate a Cosmic Mind? If he dare he admits he is going back to Plato, only this time it must be added "guided by the hand of accepted scientific findings." Yes, he says, to some this suggestion will seem an "unwarranted impertinence" and will receive condemnation as harking back to the outworn theory (?) of teleology; but we have a writer here who is courageous enough to press forward toward an investigation of the implications of factual knowledge; and he believes that that undesirable thing, mysticism, only creeps in because there are gaps in that knowledge. This is just another way of phrasing that oft-repeated statement of the Theosophists that there is nothing supernatural in the cosmos: what we call supernatural merely indicates hiatuses in our knowledge of its workings and properties.

But it would not be fair, with a book so short, to discuss its every point and thus perhaps spoil for the reader his first impressions of the author's logical, vigorous, and thoroughly charming presentation. One feels that there are dreams the author shares with the ancient philosophers, with Lao-Tzu, with the Buddha, with Plato — dreams he can only hint at to his circumspect scientific confreres; but one also feels that these same dreams he may be able to pass on to some of the young medical students whom he contacts daily, those fresh young minds who are ready to wrest from the universe any and all of its secrets, and who demand that they be given a philosophic science which will restore to them their faith in life through a belief in its intrinsic purposefulness and wholeness.

FOOTNOTE:

1. Design and Purpose by Frederic Wood Jones, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., Ltd., London. 82 pp. Ss. (return to text)

2. THE THEOSOPHICAL FORUM has published several series of articles along this line. See, for instance, "H. P. Blavatsky and Modern Science" by H. T. Edge and others, May-December, 1941; and "Modern Science and the Message of H. P. Blavatsky" by H. Groot, D. Sc, F. T. S., January-October, 1939. See also G. de Purucker's Man in Evolution, especially Chapter 3, "Trends of Modern Science." (return to text)

3. In this connection, the article by Dr. A. A. Beale, "Where Life Begins," THE THEOSOPHICAL FORUM June, 1937, is interesting. (return to text)

4. THE THEOSOPHICAL FORUM December, 1942. (return to text)


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