THEOSOPHY, Vol. 23, No. 2, December, 1934
(Pages 72-76; Size: 15K)
(Number 59 of a 103-part series)



OWING to elaborate mental constrictions inculcated in the mind by orthodox scientific training, a trend of thought once set in motion in the scientific world has all the undeviable solidity of the stream of water from a high-pressure nozzle, which cannot be cut with a sword or bent with a sledge-hammer. For that reason there seemed for years to be no infringement made upon the all-inclusive convention of respectable materialism, which took its greatest and most malignant growth in the warped brain of Haeckel, and still holds in thrall many a second-rate mind. During these weary years the accumulated impingement of facts upon the materialistic stream, so far from seemingly diverting it in the least, merely wore out the hearts and souls of the devotees of the Ancient Wisdom, who, with irresistible weapons in their hands, yet found themselves confronted by infrangible armor -- the only known armor of that quality -- prejudice in the human mind. Yet the falling of raindrops wears down the granite mountain; and the ramparts of pseudo-science are crumbling fast. In a few years we may expect to see the exponent of "blind force" and the "fortuitous concatenation of atoms" laughed as raucously off the platform as were Crookes and Lodge in their time. For the revolutionaries in science are waxing exceeding bold. To one of the boldest of them(1) we are indebted for a new, yet logical and quite polite name for materialistic dogma -- "Cartesianism." It is the truth that Descartes was the modern exponent, long before Haeckel, Tyndall, and Spencer, of the idea that facts are everything and truth -- that is to say, a comprehensive understanding of the bearing of facts -- negligible.

It is a pity that Prof. Kepner's caustic and far-seeing critique on Cartesianism cannot be reprinted in full.

... Our conviction in the reality of bread has caused us to neglect the prayer, "Thy Kingdom come." Bread, not personality, has been considered real by men and mankind finds itself in a muddle.

Science has been responsible for this situation. She has been under the sway of Cartesianism during the nineteenth century. The Cartesian revolution was launched by Descartes in the early seventeenth century. Prior to Descartes even men like Kepler and Galileo were seeking rather "divine perfection and purpose" than "sober description."

... Following this revolution, "Purposes gave way to mathematics, human will and foresight to immutable and inflexible mechanical order." Since Descartes, amoebae have been compelled to ingest food; birds to fly because they were mere machines and youths to aspire to win maidens because of the complex concatenation of circumstances that was behind them and of the fortuitous concourse of atoms that was within them. The reaction of an amoeba, the flight of a bird, and the aspirations of men were all determined by what came to be considered the result of "chemic compulsion."

Thus biologists find themselves in a peculiar position as they are confronted with the two mysteries -- matter and life. Under the influence of Cartesianism they have chosen the former.

Hence they have the peculiar habit either of defining their sciences as that of life and then hastily reducing life to terms of protoplasm or of referring to it as the science of living matter. They avoid life with its implications of purpose and cooperation.

This attitude on the part of the biologists arises out of the influence of Darwinism, which brought the reign of law into the realm of life. The theory of the survival of the fittest was applied to biological processes in the most detailed manner. I was taught, for example, that I existed only because of the nicely balanced struggle, that was maintained in my body, between its cells and tissues for the necessary materials with which to maintain their respective combustions. Within living forms, there was only struggle. There could be no cooperation. Cartesianism applied to biology, therefore, put cooperation, life itself, out of the universe.

But turn where we will, where we find life there we find cooperation. In our own laboratory we frequently witness two or more amoeba-like animals fusing, as though they were droplets of fluid, in order that a large food-object might be "swallowed" and digested. After the meal has been appropriated the cooperating individuals separate.

Who of us, who saw in Dr. Speidel's film last year a phagocyte struggling until it entered the sarcolemma of a nerve and picked up and carried away a foreign particle from within the sarcolemma, was not impressed with the cooperative aspect of this conduct? ...

Life, however, is purposive as well as cooperative. Indeed, cooperation seems to imply purposiveness.

It is because of this purposiveness that I was able to point out some years ago that physicists and chemists differed from biologists in that they need only the phrase "as a result of" in referring to their facts, whereas the biologists are compelled to use the phrase "in order that."

This distinction yet holds. I was greatly impressed with the apparent scientific attitude of a recent psychobiographer who would consider all the conduct of his subject to be the result of the subject's past experience. His subject, for example, had a keen sense of right and wrong, which arose out of his experiences when his mother weaned him. As a result of having been weaned the world was no longer entirely good; there was also wrong. As a result of all this a keen sense of right and wrong had been developed in the subject's mind. Throughout the first half of the book the psychobiographer got along fairly well with the phrase "as a result of." But near the middle of the book he fell from his strictly scientific attitude; for he said, "The censor (conscience) has been built up in order to keep the ego in check." This is the purposiveness that even a psychobiographer must recognize in life.

I have been told that one biologist is revising his text-book with the object of using only the phrase "as a result of" and deleting anything that may imply the phrase "in order that." To my mind this will be a difficult task; but even if accomplished it is needless. For the book is being revised in order that it may be ultra-scientific. A mechanistic biologist must needs show purpose, for he too lives....

... Matter in an organism is therefore transient. It has been estimated that there is a complete turnover of material in one's body every seven years. Hence it was a foolish Japanese who, after having lived in the United States for twenty years, had decreed that his body should be burned and the ashes sent back to dear old Japan from whence they had come. Good old American ashes had been sent back to Japan. The material of his body had been transient, but his personality had persisted during those twenty years.

Nuttycombe and I have held an animal that eats another animal and appropriates the "loaded guns" (nematocysts) of its victim away from the "gunmaker" for twenty-six asexual generations.... Regeneration of lost parts was followed by normal conduct toward "gun-makers" and their "guns." It is true that the individuals in all these generations represented but one gene complex; but taking cognizance of that point, the peculiar fact remains that even genes must respire and that matter, therefore, had come and gone through countless numbers of gene-generations. Matter in the case of microstomum was transient, but the manifestation of life had persisted.

In the purposive, cooperative effort of life and in its persistence throughout the metabolic flow of matter, biologists are confronted with characteristics that are peculiar.

The Cartesian dogma would ignore these characteristics of life. Many biologists yet consider that they can not afford to recognize these phenomena. To do so would jeopardize their scientific attitude.... The psychists and chemists are becoming less dogmatic in their conception of matter and the atom as an ultimate force of reality. The concept of the atom is changing and in the case of hydrogen is considered to be nearly empty. One physicist speaks of matter as being a "derivative of consciousness." Others claim that matter may be reduced to terms of energy or electricity. Finally, no scientist is prepared to tell us what electricity, of which protons and electrons may be composed, is. One has in all this a decline of the attitude that had been assumed by scientists since Descartes.... Huxley, Wells and Jeans, in reviewing the knowledge men have of psychic phenomena, conclude that "mind and matter are two aspects of universal stuff."

Some scientists have, therefore, departed far from the idea that the atom of matter represents ultimate reality and life is no longer held to be a product of matter. Matter may be electricity. Electricity and life may be two phases of reality.

I have never seen electricity perish and I have never seen life die.

At this point Prof. Kepner interjects a conversation between himself and his daughter which would well indeed be printed in every Theosophical children's book; in lieu of that ought to be used by every Theosophical teacher.
"Daddy, have these fish died and their souls gone to heaven?"

"Little Lida, do you know what electricity is?"

"Of course I do, have I not been shocked by it when I put my fingers into the outlet by the floor?"

"Do you know what life is?"

"Of course I do; am I not alive?"

"Now then, I may be in a position to answer your questions concerning these fish. Can you see electricity by means of your brother's electric locomotive?"

"Yes, for if electricity is there, it runs."

"If while it runs one breaks the engine, does that destroy electricity?"


"If a mechanic repair the locomotive can you again see electricity by means of the repaired engine?"


"Well, the situation with reference to these fish is similar (analogous). Life, like electricity, is everywhere. Our bodies are like machines through which we see life in one another. When these bodies break we can no longer see life, just as when an electric toy is broken we can no longer see electricity manifested. Now these fish's bodies are broken machines. Were I an expert biologist, I could repair them and then you would again see life manifested by these bodies. You may some day see my body break, but that will not necessarily mean that the life you recognize as Daddy will die. Living daddies and their daughters never die, though their bodies break and disintegrate in time."

The little girl closed our conversation with, "I like dat story, Daddy."

Prof. Kepner's conclusion is scientifically splendid and Theosophically impeccable.
So I close my address by reminding you that Cartesianism is becoming less a dogma. This dogma has led us to an unsatisfactory social situation, wherein the "ever-increasing beauty and power of science are manifest"; but wherein "the power of religion" has not "grown to render impossible hate and strife between races and nations" and individuals.

Perhaps the next generation of biologists will look upon protoplasm as the "medium of vital manifestation" rather than the physical basis of life and thus establish a better foundation upon which to build the social and personal progress of human beings. Humanity has been admonished to seek life rather than things.

COMPILER'S NOTE: The following is a separate item which followed the above article but was on the same page. I felt it was useful to include it here:


In esoteric teachings, the most transcendental conceptions of the universe and its mysteries, as the most (seemingly) materialistic speculations are found reconciled, because those sciences embrace the whole scope of evolution from Spirit to matter. --S.D. I, 623.

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(1) Prof. Wm. A. Kepner, Miller School of Biology, University of Virginia, in Science, July 6, 1934.
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