Science and Theosophy: The Challenge of Unification Part 1

By Michael Levin

Originally printed in the JANUARY-FEBRUARY 2007 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Levin, Michael. "Science and Theosophy: The Challenge of Unification Part 1." Quest  95.1 (JANUARY-FEBRUARY 2007):
25-29.

Michael Levin

Those of us who consider ourselves "hard-core" theosophists have a commitment to a large package of ontology, or specific beliefs about the world. We not only take the general suspicions of the existence of "something important beyond the physical" seriously, as some famous scientists, noetic theorists, and New Agers do, but we also take seriously a considerable amount of detail about planes, non-corporeal beings, rounds, and chains from theosophical thinkers such as Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater. In this sense, Theosophy is one of the most naturalistic and, in a way, scientific of the various spiritual paths. Because Theosophy has so much to say about the world, it is important to consider how this set of claims meshes or conflicts with modern science—the other major way of describing and understanding the outside world.

 

As the Nobel prize-winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann said, "A theory is like an animal— it is only alive as long as it is in danger." Our theosophical heritage of specific claims is at once a huge leg-up, but also potential baggage. Some systems, like Zen, are free of positive claims. They can accommodate any scientific world-view whatsoever because they have nothing to say about how the world is organized (although they offer important content along other lines, such as how one ought to relate to the world.) In this arena such systems are safe and not in danger of falsification from the advances of science, but may also be seen as sterile, to the extent that they don't contribute much positive information. They cannot be falsified but may be limited in the kind of insight they provide in regard to understanding the world. In contrast, Theosophical beliefs that there are entities living among us unseen by physical senses; that there is one soul per human body; and that our actions set in motion karmic forces which play out over lifetimes are in danger in so far as they might potentially conflict with future discoveries. As any scientist knows, propositions that are endangered in this way are the most valuable because they afford us the possibility, at least in principle, of determining whether they are true or false.

Does this matter? Maybe the important thing is just to be kind to each other and the details of how the world works are unimportant. But it does matter a great deal, even for those who are not personally driven to seek to understand the world in this fashion. If our favorite claims are found to be false, does that not throw the whole enterprise into question? As an example, consider the Christian church during the Middle Ages. When its positive claim that the Earth was at the center of a universe consisting of fixed spheres was shown to be false, it had to back off to a position where it could make no comments about the real world, but speak only to normative or moral issues—how one ought to act, rather than how the world is. This is a weak position; one theosophists cannot afford to take. One of the things that make our tradition different from many others is that it is based on a naturalistic description of important features about the universe, including the existence of a super-physical world, other sheaths/bodies, Kundalini, rebirth, karma, Masters, other entities, chains, and rounds. If all of this was disproved or shown to be conceptually useless, perhaps we could still lead a moral life, but it would hardly be Theosophy.

Worse yet, it is likely that leading a moral existence is impossible without understanding the world. Surely, knowing the right thing to do depends critically upon the facts of how things are now, and how they are likely to be changed by one's actions. In an increasingly complex society where the goals of various people and groups are often mutually incompatible, making the best choice (even without selfish motives) can be very difficult. For example, knowledge of the facts surrounding the events leading to the conception, gestation, and birth of human beings, along with aspects such as ensoulment, life plans, and karma would seem crucial to making rational decisions about the ethics of abortion, whether on the personal or societal levels. Any philosophy worth dedicating one's time to has to be based on a realistic understanding of the universe in which we live.

In the last two hundred years, science has been the way that we learn about the world. In general, Theosophy has had a very scientific attitude in the sense that the classics exhort us to not take things on faith but rather to study diligently, keep an open mind, perfect the necessary qualities, and determine the truth for ourselves. All of these strategies, without exception, are directly applicable to the modern study of science. Blavatsky's "There is no religion higher than truth" summarizes this commitment nicely. But how are those who do not have direct spiritual perception of specific details to judge the truth-value of various claims? Science has done extremely well in that department, and this suggests that it might be profitable to examine the relationship between Theosophy and science.

It is not necessary to get into the issues of precisely which Theosophical claims are more valid than others. People with varying degrees of spiritual perception disagree on particulars, of course, and there has been some disagreement and argument among the classical Theosophists themselves. My explanation is based on the fundamental Theosophical package, the works of Blavatsky, Purucker, Leadbeater, Besant, and Judge; and expanded with the works of Steiner, Bailey, Heindel, and Ouspensky.

Qualities of the Scientific Approach

There are some important qualities of the scientific approach to highlight at the forefront. The first would be consilience, The quality of consilience is of preeminent importance, and has been written about by scientists such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Heinz R. Pagels, and Edward O. Wilson. Space constraints prevent the full transmission of the truly wondrous import of this quality in modern science, but it can be roughly pictured as the way all of the parts of the scientific edifice—facts, methodology, conceptual structures, and so on—"hang together." Everything is connected to everything else and attaches perfectly at the seams. Often, results from one field enable progress in a completely different field, giving us reason to believe that we are indeed successfully investigating a coherent reality. For example, the results of logic, game theory, and statistics when applied to the data of molecular biology, genetics, and biochemistry within the Darwinian paradigm, provide a powerful edifice encompassing embryonic development, altruistic behavior, and animal communication. Descriptions of reality on completely different levels, from molecules to behavior, merge nicely to provide a coherent picture of the world we observe. For example, models from quantum theory have shed light on the largest issues concerning the origin of the universe (Greene, 2005). Though this effort is far from complete, despite claims to the contrary, the different areas of science share a coherent vision centering on reproducibility, intelligibility and rationalism, objective third-person descriptions, simplification, hierarchical emergence, and mechanistic models based on exchange of energy or information (Horgan, 1996).

Another important quality of the scientific approach is the predictive, or controlling, power of science. However one might be tempted to criticize Western society as a whole, and whatever possible harm technology may have done to some aspects of our lives, there is no denying that any system that can allow the average person the opportunity to construct a laser beam, perform heart transplants, or send objects to the moon is surely on to something real and profoundly important. No need for lifetimes of apprenticeship or secrecy here. Is there any other system, religion, or philosophy that results in even a remotely similar level of efficacy? It might be useful to step back and consider one's own intuitive expectations. If an engineer is hired to build a computerized control system for a house, it is expected to work correctly and every single time. Contrast that with the situation when someone is ill or has some sort of problem in life. A rabbi or priest will generally pray for that person, which may be comforting, but what does one realistically expect in terms of any ability to actually affect the outcome? We are told the Masters hold powers that dwarf our accomplishments and can use them at will, but it is quite clear that in terms of the ability to reliably and reproducibly understand, predict, and control the outside world, the methodology and conceptual constructs of science are the best tools we have, that is until we all become Masters ourselves.

Two more important qualities that need to be looked at are fundamental principles and specific scientific paradigms. Examples of fundamental principles include materialism, Occam's razor, the basic properties of position, energy, and mass, and the use of mathematics as the language of description. These principles have no specific proof, and are not generally at odds with Theosophy. In contrast to these general principles that guide method and theory-building in science, there are specific scientific theories that have varying degrees of evidence in their favor. Note the cumulative nature of science. Theories are discarded when better ones, which explain why the old ones worked to the extent they did, are developed and provide a more accurate or more complete explanation. A classic example is Einstein's work which showed nicely why the older Newtonian scheme worked at slow speeds and moderate sizes of objects, but then extended our ability to understand the very large and the very fast. In contrast to philosophy, where not a single issue has been satisfactorily put to rest in thousands of years even by the greatest minds, science always moves forward. The net movement of science is always towards deeper understanding and more functional control over its domain.

In time, scientific theories can of course be rejected and one ought not to throw away Theosophy just because it happens to disagree for example, with the current model of how many dimensions the universe has. In cosmology, as in other fields, such radical issues are not only hotly debated but the majority opinion can change within a few years. Nevertheless, the amazing success of science from the perspective of engineering and medicine shows that we have gotten many of the basics right. Thus, for Theosophists, there are a number of specific issues with which we have to reconcile.

One possibility is that this strategy is backwards, that Theosophy must most crucially be reconciled with the primary and very successful basic "limiting principles" of science, while the specific paradigms of today are unimportant, since their relevance changes over time (Broad, 1949). However, the basic principles are not a problem; they will serve us well if properly understood, and can be expanded as needed since no specific data hinges on their truth or falsity. In contrast, some of the conceptual structures of science are highly unlikely to be overthrown and must surely be dealt with by any Theosophist wishing a consistent world-view. Most importantly, by directly confronting these possible inconsistencies, we may begin to discard them and reach a more profound understanding of both.

A Cautionary Note

 

How has science made so much progress while completely ignoring what we are told the majority of reality is, that is six out of seven major planes being non-physical? Of course, science has made progress mostly on the physical side of reality; but it seems odd that one need know nothing whatsoever about those topics which Theosophists discuss, in order to harness nuclear energy, transplant hearts, or induce normal eyes to be formed exactly where we want them on a tadpole's tail. Perhaps we are on the verge of a great scientific entry into the spiritual dimensions. Various theosophists suggested that this was to have happened in the last century, but maybe their timing was off a bit and a unification will still occur.
 

It is important that we not fall for superficial similarities. A number of very popular New Age authors such as Capra, Dossey, Goswami, Wolf, and others make it seem as though science is moving towards the spiritual. This is a comforting thought because it allows us to have it both ways since it has been said that in time, science will move towards and embrace the spiritual. This is a dangerous attitude because without concerted effort along those lines, it simply will not happen in the necessary time-frame. The main thesis of this paper is that as things stand, science is NOT moving towards the spiritual. E=mc2 does not have anything to do with Theosophy's ether; rates of vibration and subtle energies are not in any clear way compatible with our understanding of energy; and quantum mechanics does not help with the problems of consciousness. Not to say they are incompatible, but it does nothing to help us understand what consciousness is or to solve the main problem of cognitive science--that is explaining how any third-person account of events, quantum or classical, gives rise to a conscious first person perspective. Complementarity, non-local interactions, and all the other wonders of modern physics may sound similar to various claims about psychical matters, but this analogy does not stand up to logical scrutiny of the details. Indeed, materialism, in its modern wider sense, is ever more firmly considered a fundamental pillar of science because of its increasing methodological success.

 

There is no indication that science is moving away from that direction. There are specific examples of people attempting such a unification, but generally the consilience of science and the arrow of its progress is pointing directly toward the elimination of anything non-physical when we look at the theories of such scientists as Bose, Jahn and Dunne, Laszlo, Stevenson, and others. The high-quality work along the lines of unification is a small speck in the sea of pseudoscientific and pseudo-spiritual writing on "soul physics" and such. To consider how theosophy and science might intersect, it is necessary to suspend the scientific disbelief and ignore the fact that almost any scientist will think the issues discussed in this paper are utter nonsense. To make progress along these lines, it is necessary to take both sides, thought forms as well as tensors, seriously. It is hoped that a critical, hard-nosed look at the gulf between science and theosophy may galvanize the community out of their state of blissfully optimistic patience and into useful activity driven by the opportunity of crisis.

Where Science and Theosophy Intersect: Areas of Exploration and Integration

Here is a brief overview of the scientific edifice to establish some boundaries for what it is that Theosophy must be integrated.

Physics encompasses many aspects. Basic Newtonian mechanics describes how things work at medium scales of speed and size. Thermodynamics describes the laws governing collections of objects, provides a unified view of steam engines and animal metabolism, and shows why all isolated systems eventually run down if left to their own devices. Quantum mechanics describes, with incredible precision, the action of subatomic particles. It has taught us that fundamental unpredictability is a main ingredient in the events taking place at small scales. Relativity theory covers very large and very fast-moving objects. Special relativity has shown that space and time are inextricably linked as two faces of a single entity; most strikingly, it has shown us that there is no special "now" for all observers. General relativity gives a satisfying geometrical picture of how space-time can be bent, and together with quantum cosmology, is beginning to give a detailed picture of the shape, structure, and evolution of our universe. We have learned about black holes, quasars, gravity lenses, inflationary expansion, and the big bang.

Chemistry allows us to explain the behavior of materials and make new compounds with predictable properties. Biology now comprises a synthesis of genetics, biochemistry, and cell biology that shows, on all scales, how physiological processes result from chemical reactions driven by protein blocks encoded by DNA. We now understand much of this process from the smallest scale, being able to manipulate the structure and function of living forms as desired, to the largest scale, as we uncover and understand the dynamics of the evolutionary history of the physical forms of animals from the very first cells on Earth. Computer models of Darwinian evolution demonstrate that complexity can indeed be generated by processes involving no teleological component.

Cognitive science is beginning to tackle thought and behavior. We now understand how brain mechanisms process information at many levels, from signals impinging on individual neurons in the retina to whole behavioral repertoires generated by large neural networks. The best current model for human thought is a "multiple-drafts" theory, which postulates that different structures in the brain generate behavior based on their own processing of the data they have. Investigations, of normal brains and people with revealing injuries suggest that there is no homunculus in the brain—there is no place where it all comes together and no central "I" at the base of it all who has a unified perspective (Sacks, 1998; Stich, 1996). Studies on confabulation, subconscious processing, and split-brain experiments suggest that a coherent central thinker at the center of our being is a fiction—a "narrative center of gravity" according to Daniel C. Dennett in his book Consciousness Explained.

Some important results have come from the foundations of mathematics. Turing, Gödel, and Chaitin have developed rigorous proofs concerning the limits of knowledge and predictability. While these limits are applicable within very narrow contexts, it is important to know that here, as in quantum limits on predictability, the evidence does not come from our being unable to predict something (which would then give hope that someday with better techniques we could predict it.) Instead, the unpredictability is a mathematically-derived feature and is a base axiom from which other successes are made, suggesting that it is real and not contingent on current limitations. Game theorists and work from cellular automata computer models have shown how incredible complexity and apparent design can be developed from simple systems with very few components interacting according to fixed rules.

The Consilience of Theosophy and Science Is Crucial

It is simply not tenable to say that all scientific knowledge applies only to the physical world and that other laws apply to mind-stuff and spirit. Eventually, everything has to intersect and integrate. If the spirit world has a reality and a relevance to physical life, it has to interact with the world of matter, and thus its laws must somehow be relevant for some aspect of physics. Therefore, it is necessary to identify the places where such intersections may exist, determine whether there are contradictions, and then see if the contradictions can be resolved.

References

Broad, C. D. "The Relevance of Psychical Research to Philosophy." Philosophy 24, 291-309, 1949.

Greene, Brian. The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory. Boston: WGBH Boston Video, 2005.

Horgan, John. The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1996.

Sacks, Oliver W. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998.

Stich, Stephen P. Deconstructing the Mind. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.


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