Universal Brotherhood Path – November 1901

THE ATOMIC THEORY — H. T. Edge

In view of the address of the President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Professor Rucker, at Glasgow, on Sept. 11th, it may be well to recapitulate some ideas on the Atomic Theory and the attitude of H. P. Blavatsky towards it.

The atomic theory may be described as an attempt to explain, systematize, and account for the properties of material substances, by supposing them to be made up of very small particles, masses, or elements, separated from one another by intervals.

This theory affords an admirable and satisfactory means of systematizing and explaining physical phenomena; but falls short when applied to the solution of ulterior problems as to the nature and structure of the material universe. Whether true or false, there is no doubt that the atomic theory is at least a most useful figment or convention in classifying and correlating physical phenomena; just as the geocentric system of astronomy suffices for the calculation of eclipses, or the symbol of an imaginary fourth dimension of space may serve as a model for instructive analogical inference. But, considered as a fact, the atomic theory shows itself to be self-contradictory and absurd.

Many scientists have come to recognize this, and Prof. Rucker, while admitting it freely, endeavors to maintain a middle ground between those who would reject the theory altogether and those who would adhere to it even in its most absurd extremes. He sees the failings of the theory but cannot bring himself to yield it up.

Let us compare some remarks from The Secret Doctrine with some from Prof. Rucker as reported in condensed form in the following:

THE SECRET DOCTRINE PROFESSOR RUCKER
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, overstepping 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. — I, iii, ch. 1 It is impossible to deny that, if the mere entry on the search for the concealed causes of physical phenomena is not a trespass on ground we have no right to explore, it is at all events the beginning of a dangerous journey.
The properties of matter, such as elasticity, expansibility, and even density, being functions of its atomic structure, cannot be predicated of the atoms themselves. Hence these atoms are not material. — I, ii, passim If it be true that the properties of matter are the product of an underlying machinery, that machinery cannot itself have the properties which it produces, and must, to that extent, at all events, differ from matter-in-bulk as it is directly presented to the senses.

The position which Prof. Rucker takes up, in his attempt to retain the atomic theory while admitting its inadequacy to explain ulterior problems, is not a very definite or easy one. He abandons the attempt to explain the deeper mysteries; but thinks that, since the atomic theory explains so much and is confirmed by so much inference from experiments, therefore it should be retained even in the face of our inability to picture the atoms and their properties. No better theory comes to hand, he says; and, though the atomic theory cannot be true when carried to a conclusion, it may nevertheless stand for some less fundamental fact immediately underlying observed phenomena. A few quotations will illustrate his position.

"The question at issue is whether the hypotheses which are at the base of the scientific theories now most generally accepted are to be regarded as accurate descriptions of the constitution of the universe around us, or merely as convenient fictions. From the practical point of view it is a matter of secondary importance whether our theories and assumptions are correct, if only they guide us to results which are in accord with facts. The whole fabric of scientific theory may be regarded merely as a gigantic 'aid to memory;' as a means for producing apparent order out of disorder by codifying the observed facts and laws in accordance with an artificial system, and thus arranging our knowledge under a comparatively small number of heads. The highest form of theory — it may be said — the widest kind of generalization, is that which has given up the attempt to form clear mental pictures of the constitution of matter, which expresses the facts and the laws by language and symbols which lead to results that are true, whatever be our view as to the real nature of the objects with which we deal . . . [But] the questions still force themselves upon us. Is matter what it seems to be? . . . Can we argue back from the direct impressions of our senses to things which we cannot directly perceive; from the phenomena displayed by matter to the constitution of matter itself? . . . whether we have any reason to believe that the sketch which science has already drawn is to some extent a copy, and not a mere diagram, of the truth."

"We may grant at once that the ultimate nature of things is, and must remain, unknown; but it does not follow that immediately below the complexities of the superficial phenomena which affect our senses there may not be a simpler machinery of the existence of which we can obtain evidence, indirect indeed, but conclusive ... It is recognized that an investigation into the proximate constitution of things may be useful and successful, even if their ultimate nature is beyond our ken. Now at what point must this analysis stop if we are to avoid crossing the boundary between fact and fiction?"

"[People] too often assume that there is no alternative between the opposing assertions that atoms and the ether are mere figments of the scientific imagination, or that, on the other hand, a mechanical theory of the atoms and of the ether, which is now confessedly imperfect, would, if it could be perfected, give us a full and adequate representation of the underlying realities. For my own part I believe that there is a via media."

"I have tried to show that, in spite of the tentative nature of some of our theories, in spite of many outstanding difficulties, the atomic theory unifies so many facts, simplifies so much that is complicated, that we have a right to insist — at all events till an equally intelligible rival hypothesis is produced — that the main structure of our theory is true; that atoms are not merely helps to puzzled mathematicians, but physical realities."

"If we can succeed in showing that, if the separate parts have a limited number of properties (different, it may be, from those of matter in bulk) the many and complicated properties of matter can, to a considerable extent, be explained as consequences of the constitution of these separate parts; we shall have succeeded in establishing, with regard to quantitative properties, a simplification similar to that which the chemist has established with regard to varieties of matter."

Now let us put our own case concisely. Modern physicists find themselves confronted with an irresolvable dilemma — the atomic theory must be true and yet it cannot be other than false. Some boldly accept one horn of the dilemma and ignore the logical and metaphysical absurdities of the theory. Others grasp the other horn and seek a new theory which shall obviate the dilemma. Here we have a professor trying to steer a middle course, and, by stretching (by means of qualified phrases) each horn a little way, to effect a junction which shall yield something like the circle of truth. But the dilemma is hopeless, because it comes from a fallacious point of view assumed by physicists. They have neglected to take into account the purely illusive, and phenomenal, and sensory nature of what they call "matter;" and, regarding it as a reality, they have ventured to transfer it and its properties beyond the sense-world into the subjective world, of imagination. When they scrutinize the world with the bodily senses, they are secure, for they are studying something which is real to those senses. But when they shut their eyes and think about "matter," they study what is merely a mind-picture and has no real existence. "Scientists have nothing to do with metaphysics," they say; "that we leave to the metaphysicians." But truth cannot be divided up in this way, and the results of the attempt to do so are such as we see.

What science calls "matter" is an appearance to the mind. Here let it be noted that we do not concur either with the objectivists who maintain that everything is external, or with the subjectivists who hold that all is subjective and phantasmal; but with the Secret Doctrine, which maintains that there is an objective reality which the mind cognizes in various ways — through the senses or otherwise. What science calls "matter" is the result of a sensuous cognition of this objective reality. It is this objective reality that H. P. Blavatsky speaks of when she says "Matter."

To use an illustration — the mind is an optical lantern, the screen is H. P. Blavatsky's matter, and the picture is the "matter" of science. Now we may examine that picture as much as we please; it is solid, objective, and self-consistent. If it is (for example) a map, it will serve admirably as an accurate guide. But, if we attempt to discover the mystery of its light and shade, and to isolate its colors, we shall fail ignominiously, unless we step behind and examine the lantern.

There is no other escape from this dilemma — that that which constitutes matter cannot be matter; in short, that the atoms cannot be matter. What then are they? Occult science answers "Mind," or rather, "living conscious beings." And we may claim, in Prof. Rucker's own words, that this theory "unifies so many facts, simplifies so much that is complicated, that we have a right to insist — at all events till an equally intelligent rival hypothesis is produced, etc."

We have shown briefly that no sane theory of the universe can be made so long as the theorizer starts from matter as his premise instead of from mind. We do not propose to enter into a description of the innumerable false conclusions and dilemmas arising from the logical elaboration of that false premise; that is a question of study, and we refer inquirers to The Secret Doctrine and to the authors quoted therein.

It may, however, be worth while in passing, to call attention to the false idea of "space" that obtains among physicists as a result of ignoring metaphysics. Spatial extension is an attribute of the appearance called "matter;" in fact, spatial extension is a characteristic due to the peculiarities of our sense-organs. Spatial extension cannot exist by itself. But physicists talk as if, when all matter was removed, there would remain an "extended space." Now it is evident that mere emptiness, nothingness, cannot be extended or have height, breadth, etc. What they really imagine, then, as "space," is simply a volume of gas or of ether, or a very large room. But, if all ideas of matter be excluded from the mind (no easy process), it will be seen that all ideas of distance, relative position, size, and the like, vanish also. So space is a thing which the imagination cannot picture, and is, in fact, a state of the mind when no object of cognition is present. Hence the scientific "space" is another illusion, and space as spoken of by H. P. Blavatsky has nought to do therewith.

It remains to say what we think ought to be done by physicists about their Atomic Theory. We might say: Keep it on as a "convenient fiction" so long as it will serve, and correct it from time to time in the light of future experiments; and never mind if you do eventually reach an atom so loaded with irreconcilable attributes that it would look better in a creed than in a theory. We might say this, did we not know that the materialistic theory of the universe has consequences far graver than merely to afford a subject for jests. For, profess what they may, scientists will overstep the limits of their domain and, from the motion of particles, attempt to infer laws to regulate man's life, hopes, and duties. Professor Rucker is a man of science of the best kind, and would never be found in the ranks of pessimism and denial of faith. But we leave him to determine whether his high ideals of duty and destiny are deducible from the axioms of physical science, or whether they spring from an inner and brighter light, whether his higher hopes and his scientific theories support one another readily, or whether they require much mutual adaptation; and what might be done in the world by other scientists not having the safeguard of a better intuition to direct their conduct. He may say that his faith and his moral ideals have nothing to do with his scientific opinions; and, if so, we at once cheerfully take issue with him on this very point. For, as far as we are concerned, the truth is one, man is one, the universe is one; nor can we forever tolerate the presence of an unexplored "buffer-state" between our spiritual and our "scientific" views. And, while there may be not a few people whose religion suffices for their simple needs, and whose modest desires and scientific pursuits do not tempt them and lead them astray; yet the world is growing and growing, and its overwhelming selfishness, impurity and greed, are more than a match for worn-out theological systems or for sciences that ignore the mind and the Soul.

For these reasons we look for a science that, like the "heathen" Minerva, shall be a goddess, beaming with light for humanity; that shall aim at showing men how to live nobly and happily; that shall see conscious life and intelligent mind pulsating through all nature; that shall speak of man as a Soul — not as a compound of "life," "chemical force," and "atoms." We shall learn all that we need to know about the physical universe, and much more than we know now. And we shall forget all these misconceptions and intellectual abortions that lend color to the deeds of those who prey on society.


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