From the Executive Editor - Spring 2009

Originally printed in the Spring 2009 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Smoley, Richard. "From the Executive Editor - Spring 2009." Quest 97. 2 (Spring 2009): 44.

Richard SmoleyDid you realize that the earth as we know it did not exist a million years ago? This may sound incredible, but I can prove it to you simply and irrefutably.

I'm not saying that the world did not physically exist a million years ago. But as you no doubt recognize, the world is an inscrutable combination of what is "out there" in some absolute sense and the way our minds are set up to process our experience of this world. To take an example, consider rainbows. The particles of light and water vapor that combine to form rainbows exist, shall we say, objectively. But the colors and shape of the rainbow are due to our own visual apparatus.

The same is true of colors as a whole. There is an enormous bandwidth of vibrations, only a small fraction of which we perceive as the color spectrum. Thanks to science, we have been able to push these boundaries a bit, to the extent of knowing that there are infrared and ultraviolet colors. We also know that other species, such as bees, can see different ranges of color than we can. But to perceive color as we do requires a human nervous system. (Here's a brain twister: try to visualize a color that you have never seen before.)

When we imagine the world as it was a million years ago, what we are really imagining is the world the way it would have been if there had been creatures like us to perceive it. But there were no such creatures—at least not according to science. There were no humans with minds like ours, to see the colors we see, or to organize their experience in the way we do. Therefore the earth as we know it did not exist. Something existed—but not the earth we know, not because there was no earth, but because there was no "we."

This argument, which I owe to Saving the Appearances, a book by the British philosopher Owen Barfield published in 1957, yields some striking insights. It may cast light on Theosophical concepts of earlier Rounds and Root Races. Scientists dismiss the notion of races of Lemurians and Atlanteans and so on because, they say, the fossil record indicates no such thing. (What the fossil record does indicate is more ambiguous than you might expect. If you're interested in this question, look into Forbidden Archeology: The Hidden History of the Human Race by Michael L. Cremo and Richard L. Thompson).

But that still leaves us wondering what these ancient records refer to. H. P. Blavatsky says, for example, that the primordial First Root Race was "nonphysical"; it had no physical form and existed only amorphously on the astral plane. She described it as a race of "pudding bags" (Collected Writings, 12:701).

What if the esoteric accounts of such races—amorphous, androgynous, and so on—are recalling the subjective experience of life in these forms, when the boundaries between self and other were more permeable? These ancient accounts would then be referring, not to these creatures as they might look in a textbook of paleontology, but to the way it would feel to be one of them. While this suggestion does not dispose of differences between science and Theosophy in a single shot, I believe it is a fruitful avenue of approach.

In any event, the earth we know is a product of human consciousness. Today when we speak of "endangering the earth" or "saving the earth," we are really talking about saving the earth as a human construct (and as a human resource). The earth as a thing in itself is mysterious and perhaps ultimately unknowable. To all appearances it long preceded our race and will long outlast us. Thus the current urge to sentimentalize and "Save" it may be misguided.

In no way am I saying that environmental concerns are to be taken lightly. Clearly they need to be taken far more seriously than they have been. But I believe that when we view the earth as a personification, say, of a wounded mother, we are projecting our own wounds upon it. As Stephan A. Hoeller suggests in this issue, there is a tendency among many to elevate Gaia to the place vacated by the Judeo-Christian deity. No doubt the Judeo-Christian God, as conventionally imagined, is too small a vessel to accommodate the sublimity of the Absolute. But I think the hypostatized earth will prove just as inadequate.

The Bible often condemns the sin of idolatry: making images of wood and metal and bowing down to them as if they were gods. Today we are more sophisticated; we no longer mistake the physical representation of a thing for the thing itself. But we have not advanced quite as far in the realm of ideas. Whereas people in the past confused their gods with the works of their hands, we often confuse ours with the works of our minds.

This is a time when we are facing hard truths and seeing dear illusions shattered. It is true that we cannot defile our own nests without paying the penalty. At the same time we must avoid the trap of believing that we can only stir ourselves to action by setting up a new idol to replace the old ones. Do we really need to construct a myth of a wounded Gaia to persuade ourselves to clean up our own filth? I suspect not. To do so is to step back at a time when we most urgently need to move forward.

Richard Smoley
Executive Editor