Theosophy and Science: Do They Conflict?

Printed in the  Winter 2020  issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation:  Savinainen, Antti"Theosophy and Science: Do They Conflict?" Quest 108:1, pg 12-16

By Antti Savinainen 

Theosophical Society - Theosophy and Science: Do They Conflict? - Antti Savinainen is a Finnish high-school physics instructor.  He was on the editorial team that compiled From Death to Rebirth: Teachings of the Finnish Sage Pekka Ervast The relationship between Theosophy and science is intriguing yet paradoxical. On the one hand, many key Theosophical teachings are metaphysical, which means that they cannot be scientifically tested. On the other hand, both H.P. Blavatsky and the Mahatma Letters discuss the science of their time. After all, the Second Object of the Theosophical Society is “to encourage the study of comparative religion, philosophy, and science.” Master Koot Hoomi even stated that “modern science is our best ally” (Chin and Barker, 168). My aim in this article is to determine to what extent some statements in early Theosophy and in the work of the Anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner stand up to scientific scrutiny. I will also briefly address two scientific lines of study that support Theosophical teachings.

To begin, let’s look at some key features of modern science. Science is not a collection of facts; it is a method and a process that are extremely effective in answering certain types of questions. Scientific theories and statements should be validated by evidence. There are different levels of certainty in science: we know some things almost for certain (though not with 100 percent certainty; this is possible only in logic and mathematics). For instance, the law of electromagnetic induction is virtually certain, since it has been tested and retested for well over a hundred years, and much of our current technology has been built on it. On the other hand, many exotic new ideas at the frontier of physics are not certain at all. Replication and the test of time will decide which ideas will survive. Scientific theories are formulated using methodological naturalism: hence scientific explanations cannot appeal to influences from invisible worlds (which are so eloquently described in Theosophical literature), spirits, gods, or any other metaphysical principles. It is clear that methodological naturalism has served science extremely well. 

HPB and Science in the Nineteenth Century

Let’s first discuss the concept of the atom. At the end of the nineteenth century, some physicists considered the existence of atoms as speculative, since no direct evidence was available (although the kinetic theory of gases employed the idea of atoms very successfully). HPB had interesting things to say about atoms in The Secret Doctrine. She proposed that “the atom is divisible, and must consist of particles, or of sub-atoms.” This statement is consistent with modern physics. However, she continues: “But infinite divisibility of atoms resolves matter into simple centers of force, i.e., precludes the possibility of conceiving matter as an objective substance” (Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine, 1:519).

The modern view regards electrons and quarks, along with particles mediating the interactions within the atom, as elementary particles. This is not to say that quarks could not possibly consist of even smaller particles, but this infinite divisibility might be impossible to verify experimentally. The idea of the atom as a force center is more interesting from the modern point of view: particle physicists consider particles to be excitations of fields, seeing physical fields rather than particles as fundamental aspects of reality. Yet HPB made a grave mistake in claiming that “the atom belongs wholly to the domain of metaphysics . . . it can never be brought to the test of retort or balance” (Blavatsky, Secret Doctrine, 1:513). Actually individual atoms can be manipulated with modern technology, and by using laser cooling and ion traps, ionized atoms can be seen even with the naked eye.

Nineteenth-century physics had no doubt about the wave nature of light: the empirical evidence was unequivocal. This led physicists to discard Newton’s corpuscular theory of light. HPB offered another perspective from the occult point of view:

True, the corpuscular theory of old is rejected, and the undulatory [wave] theory has taken its place. But the question is, whether the latter is so firmly established as not to be liable to be dethroned as was its predecessor? . . .

Light, in one sense, is certainly as material as electricity itself is. (Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine, 1:579–80)

These views are largely in line with the modern view of the wave-particle duality of light. It seems that HPB’s conception of light is validated by modern physics, at least to some extent. One might be tempted to proclaim that she was ahead of her time in her treatment of atoms and light.

HPB could, and did, meaningfully discuss and criticize nineteenth-century science in her writings. Nonetheless, it is crucial to take all of HPB’s statements on science into account. Some of her discussions reveal that she didn’t fully understand the theory of classical mechanics (for instance, see her take on the rotational motion of planets and the tails of comets: Blavatsky, Secret Doctrine, 1:539, 542–43).

Overall, although her discussion of science was quite insightful in her time, it has not stood the test of time. As one Finnish professor of cosmology has written, the scientific ideas in The Secret Doctrine have been shown to be “erroneous, irrelevant, or complete misunderstandings” (Enqvist, 243).

Science in the Mahatma Letters

    Theosophical Society - Master Koot Hoomi wrote of science in regard to Theosophy: "Modern science is our best ally."
    "Modern science is our best ally." wrote K.H. in the Mahatma Letters. This famous portrait, painted by the German artist Hermann Schmiechen in 1884, is said to have been guided by the hand of the Master himself.

To turn to the Mahatma Letters, Master KH wrote that there are other solar systems with planets beyond our own. Although there was no empirical evidence for exoplanets in the nineteenth century, about 4000 of them were detected as of March 30, 2019. Master KH makes a peculiar prediction concerning the exoplanets:

“Science will hear sounds from certain planets before she sees them. This is a prophecy” (Chin and Barker, 325.)

It is impossible for sound to propagate in interstellar space. On the other hand, there is another way to interpret the prophecy: perhaps KH was referring to radio waves, which were the means of detecting the first accepted observation of an exoplanet in 1992.

Other statements were not correct: for example, KH’s views on gravitational potential energy and conservation of energy reveal a lack of understanding of classical physics (Chin and Barker, 166–68).

Here are two more examples of incorrect statements about science:

On additional planets: “Not all of the Intra-mercurial Planets, . . . are yet discovered, though they are strongly suspected. We know that such exist and where they exist” (Chin and Barker, 325).

On meteors: “We all know, that the heat that the earth receives by radiation from the sun is at the utmost one third if not less of the amount received by her directly from the meteors.” (Chin and Barker, 319).

It is quite clear that the Mahatma Letters contain erroneous statements on science. 

Rudolf Steiner and Science

Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925) was a prolific spiritual teacher, first in the Theosophical movement, and later in the Anthroposophical Society, which he founded. One might say that he was a polymath in spiritual science and its applications into practice. Among other things, he was well acquainted with classical physics, which he had studied at an institute of technology. Again, however, some of his statements on science have been shown to be completely incorrect. Let’s consider two examples on special relativity, which is now supported by an overwhelming amount of empirical evidence:

There is the further requirement that the concept or idea must be in accordance with reality. Now, a very lengthy discussion would be required if I were to show you that the whole of the theory of relativity does not agree with reality, even though it is logical—wonderfully logical . . .

Another affirmation of Einstein’s is that even the dimension of a body is merely relative, and depends on the rapidity of movement. Thus, according to the Einstein theory, if a man moved through cosmic space with a certain velocity, he would not retain his bulk from front to back, but would become as thin as a sheet of paper. (Kinnes)

The first excerpt treats special relativity as an abstract theory with no connection to reality. It may have been reasonable to say this in 1920, but later evidence (from particle accelerators and geographical positioning systems) has unequivocally shown that special relativity accords very well with reality. The second excerpt shows that Steiner had not understood the implications of the Lorentz contraction. The point is that there is no change in the proper length. It may be that this was not well explained in the sources available to Steiner.

Radioactivity was discovered in 1896, but full understanding of the phenomenon was reached only much later, with the development of quantum theory. Steiner took a stance on it soon after it was discovered: in his opinion, radioactivity had existed in nature for only a few thousand years (Grant, 1996). Then in 1918, Steiner claimed that it had existed only since the Mystery of Golgotha (the death and resurrection of Christ), that is, about two thousand years (Meyer, 165). This view is clearly wrong. Moreover, a year before his death Steiner said that the earth is younger than 20 million years. This is demonstrably wrong: the evidence for a much older earth is overwhelming. 

Tension between Spiritual Teachings and Science

One could safely say that it is not wise to read the Bible as a textbook of science. I would recommend the same approach for other spiritual sources as well. The fact that there are incorrect statements about science in Theosophical and Anthroposophical sources does not surprise me, even though I think very highly of these as spiritual teachings in general. It is not plausible to assume that spiritual teachers would have infallible expertise in every possible scientific question from here to eternity. Actually, this interpretation is supported in Master KH’s own writing: “You may be, and most assuredly are our superiors in every branch of physical knowledge; in spiritual sciences we were, are and always will be your—Masters.” (Chin and Barker, 34).

The Anthroposophist Christopher Bamford has written about how even the initiates are inevitably children of their own time: “Everyone, even an ‘initiate,’ incarnates in a specific time and culture, so that no matter how deep the love and wisdom they are able to infuse into their historic moment, they are nevertheless inevitably of that moment and thus express its contingent strengths and weakness to a greater or lesser extent” (Bamford, introduction to Steiner, 11–12).

Bamford makes an excellent point. Refusing to recognize errors in the Theosophical lore risks making the movement frozen in time. Taken to the logical extreme, this would mean that no evolution of spiritual or scientific views is possible. 

Where Science and Theosophy Agree

So far I have addressed only topics in which spiritual teachings are at odds with validated scientific views. Nevertheless, some areas of scientific inquiry do support spiritual teachings and challenge the naturalistic framework. One such area is near-death experience (NDE), which has been studied for over forty years. There is now reliable evidence about the process of dying as experienced by people who have lost all vital signs. The best evidence comes from prospective and longitudinal studies, such as the study published in The Lancet by van Lommel et al. (2001). Perhaps the most striking similarity between the NDE studies and Theosophy is in life reviews. Here are short excerpts about this subject from Master KH and the Finnish Theosophist Pekka Ervast (1875–1934):

At the last moment, the whole life is reflected in our memory and emerges from all the forgotten nooks and corners picture after picture, one event after the other. The dying brain dislodges memory with a strong supreme impulse, and memory restores faithfully every impression entrusted to it during the period of the brain’s activity. (Chin and Barker, 326)

He does not live in his reminiscences as he did while being physically alive. He just watches the great play and judges it objectively, calling each thing—depending on its own quality—as good or bad, crime or merit, and so on. He remains in a great light, so to speak . . . In fact, the viewer is the personalized higher self. In death the solemn experience of memories is not due to the ordinary physical personality; instead, it is due to the higher self. (Marjanen et al., 40)

Both of these descriptions match very well with the findings of NDE research.

Furthermore, some people undergoing NDEs have been able to recall accurately what was going on when they were being resuscitated, whereas a control group with no NDEs were highly inaccurate in describing their situations (Sartori, 2008). Furthermore, Holden (2009) reviewed eighty-nine published case reports documenting observations during NDEs with out-of-body experiences: 92 percent of the case reports were considered completely accurate. (It does not come as a surprise that skeptics have been keen to provide naturalistic explanations, no matter how contrived, for these findings.)

The second area of scientific inquiry that is relevant here, is research on children who report past life memories. The late Professor Ian Stevenson started this research in the 1960s, and his work continues at the University of Virginia, whose Division of Perceptual Studies has a database of about 2500 cases in which children have provided information on their (alleged) past lives.

Typically children talk about their past lives when they are aged two to five. In some cases, researchers have verified many statements made by the children before their present and past-life families have been in contact. On the one hand, no “perfect” case has been found, which leaves some space for doubt. On the other hand, some cases are very convincing: for example, James Leininger’s (Tucker, 2016).

Finally, it may be worth noting that the time between incarnations in the investigated cases is usually only a few years or less, whereas according to Theosophical teachings it is typically ten centuries or more. From the Theosophical point of view, this discrepancy suggests that children’s reincarnations are an exception: these individuals have not gone through the lengthy process of various afterlife states. 

Conclusions

It is exciting that the scientific research on NDEs and children’s past life accounts coincide very well with teachings of the perennial wisdom. These lines of study provide a challenge to the materialistic paradigm of science: if consciousness is a mere product of the brain, there should be no conscious experiences during the time the brain is not functioning, and any notion of reincarnation is totally impossible. Yet cases like those described above do happen. The essence of science, like Theosophy, is seeking for truth. This means that if the data suggest that the naturalistic worldview is too narrow, it should be broadened in the spirit of “follow the data wherever it leads.” In this sense, science can indeed be “our best ally.”

Nonetheless, there clearly are statements about science in Theosophy and Anthroposophy that have not withstood the test of time. This fact should be taken seriously, and we should ask the following question: which teachings are just contingent products of the past?

Whatever the answer turns out to be, there are certainly many great teachings in Theosophy which are crucial in understanding life from a higher perspective, such as the laws of karma and reincarnation, the evolving higher Self, and highly ethical ideals, which inspire us to become truly compassionate human beings.


 

Sources

All emphasis in quotes is from the original.

Blavatsky. H.P. The Secret Doctrine. 3 vols. Wheaton: Quest, 1993.

Chin, Vicente Hao, Jr., and A. Trevor Barker, eds. The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett in Chronological Sequence. Adyar: Theosophical Publishing House, 1998.

Enqvist, K. Olemisen porteilla (“At the Gates of Being”). Helsinki: WSOY, 2011.

“Exoplanet.” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exoplanet#History_of_detection, accessed Sept. 30, 2019.

Grant, N. “Radioactivity in the History of the Earth.” Archetype: Journal of the Science Group of the Anthroposophical Society in Great Britain 2 (Sept. 1996): http://sciencegroup.org.uk/old/archetyp.htm, accessed Sept. 27, 2019.

Holden, J. M. “Veridical Perception in Near-Death Experiences.” In J.M. Holden, B. Greyson, and D. James, eds. The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences: Thirty Years of Investigation. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Praeger/ABC-CLIO, 2009: 185–211.

Kinnes, Tormod. “Rudolf Steiner Looks at Relativity”: http://oaks.nvg.org/steiner-relativity.html accessed Sept. 27, 2019. Kinnes cites Steiner’s The Riddle of Humanity, lecture 10.

Marjanen, J., A. Savinainen, and J. Sorvali, eds. From Death to Rebirth: Teachings of the Finnish Sage Pekka Ervast. Helsinki: Literary Society of the Finnish Rosy Cross: 2017, https://teosofia.net/e-kirjat/Pekka_Ervast-From_Death_to_Rebirth.pdf

Meyer, T.H. Ludwig Polzer-Hoditz, A European: A Biography. Forest Row, U.K.: Temple Lodge, 2014.

Sartori, P. The Near-Death Experiences of Hospitalized Intensive Care Patients: A Five Year Clinical Study. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2008.

Steiner, Rudolf. The Occult Movement in the Nineteenth Century. London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1973.

Tucker, J. “The Case of James Leininger: An American Case of the Reincarnation Type.” Explore 12 (2016), 200–07.

University of Virginia, Department of Perceptual Studies website: https://med.virginia.edu/perceptual-studies/our-research/children-who-report-memories-of-previous-lives/media/, accessed Sept. 27, 2019.

Van Lommel, P., R. van Wees, V. Meyers, and I. Elfferich. “Near-Death Experience in Survivors of Cardiac Arrest: A Prospective Study in the Netherlands.” The Lancet 358 (2001), 2039–45.


Antti Savinainen, PhD, is a Finnish high-school physics instructor who teaches both the Finnish national syllabus and for the international baccalaureate. Since receiving his PhD in physics in 2004, he has been involved with physics education research as a researcher and thesis supervisor. He has been a member of the Finnish Rosy Cross, a part of the Finnish Theosophical movement, for thirty years. He was on the editorial team that compiled From Death to Rebirth: Teachings of the Finnish Sage Pekka Ervast (see link in Sources above).


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