THEOSOPHY, Vol. 26, No. 2, December, 1937
(Pages 64-69; Size: 18K)
(Number 75 of a 103-part series)


(Part II)

WE have described the mysterious chain of events leading up to the "revolution" in physics at the close of the last century, which opened such a wide gap between the science of Madame Blavatsky's time, and that of ours, the "reincarnated New Alchemy." Let us now cast an eye over the heterogeneous field of that modern science, especially with a view to the overlap of the physical and metaphysical worlds which has been produced by that change. So far as popular thought is concerned, the facts of science are of only indirect importance. The public in reality knows nothing of those facts, and cannot be taught to know anything of them -- which is not so uncomplimentary after all, in view of the admitted difficulty which our foremost savants themselves find in grasping them.

The public does know to a certain degree the views of that section of the scientific world which has the knack of expressing itself in popular terms. And precisely because these fragmentary and highly changeable views have replaced the authority of religion, they become of great practical importance. It is from this viewpoint that we deal with the present blending of metaphysical view and physical fact, and, in turn, with the connection of both with the aforesaid chain of events.

Dr. W. V. Houston, of the California Institute of Technology, remarks that the old physicist defined philosophy as "The systematic misuse of a terminology especially invented for the purpose."(1) He says that "In spite of this state of mind, the rapid changes in the concepts with which physics deals have almost forced consideration by physicists of problems which were formerly regarded as belonging exclusively to the domain of philosophers." This is equivalent to saying that a man falling into a well is almost forced into some consideration of flotation problems. Dr. Houston proceeds to point out that the whole existence of an objective, i.e., a physical world, as defined by science, has been brought into question.

But let us first look into the precise meaning of Madame Blavatsky's prediction that the discoveries between 1888 and 1897 would become a "death-blow" to materialism in science. So examined, that apparently vague expression takes on as definite a significance as any of the technical terms of science.

How shall we define "materialism"? Among numerous possible descriptions it seems that, scientifically, the most fundamental is the idea that substance can exist independent of and external to consciousness; and, ethically, the idea that there is any but one single real existence in the universe. These two aspects, thought out, become one.

Inquires Dr. Houston:

Does there exist a material world, and can anything be learned about it? If one considers the statement that there exists an outside material world, the question arises, "what is it outside of?" ... An active physicist rarely stopped or stops now to consider such a question. He is so busy observing things in this outside world that he has not time to bother about its strict delimination, although he probably realizes instinctively that there must be a division somewhere between himself and this world which he is to observe. He is usually willing to admit that his hands and feet belong to this outside world....

Because of the simplicity of the physicist's attitude, the difficulties in his dualism were not at first troublesome. For instance, the question as to how a sensation got from the obviously material body of the observer to the obviously non-material observer himself ... everyone could see that the sensation did get across ... and so what more was to be said about it? Nevertheless, a little consideration of this problem makes it very formidable....

Consider, for example, that I wish to observe this desk. I am on one and the desk is on the other end of a chain of interactions. Where shall I draw the line between myself and the thing observed? In the first place, I can draw the line at the surface of the desk, and say that the scattering of light from the surface constitutes the act of observing the desk. I can say that the source of light, the light itself, and all the mechanism necessary for the perception of the light is part of me, is an extension of my sense organs. On the other hand, I could also say that what I really observe is the light which strikes the retina of my eye, that this is the point at which the observation really takes place, and that here must be drawn the line dividing the observed things from myself. But I can go still farther and say that the action of the light on the retina is a purely physical process which can be described by known laws, and that the dividing line must be placed at a point at which the nerve impulse reaches the brain. The fact that none of these places seems satisfactory might suggest that there should be no dividing line at all, except for the uncomplicated feeling that there must be made some such division.

Here indeed has science unknowingly placed its finger upon the crux of the whole matter; in fact, upon the "laya" point dividing the "material" from the "spiritual" world. It is precisely this "uncomplicated feeling" which is the basis of the whole idea of an external material world; it is Maya, Ahamkara, the sense of self, the "Great Heresy." In other words, materialism in both its aspects, is shown to be a matter of "feeling," which is found to be illogical, delusionary, so soon as the pursuit of actual reality is pushed far enough, even by physical means.

Let us examine a little the nature of this pursuit, in the light of the new conception of physics. The common idea of matter grows from the "feeling" of what, in popular terminology, may be described as "solidity." It is significant that if one were to ask a qualified physicist in pure research what in his mind corresponds to that popular idea, he would reply that he has no such conception. Research based upon the discoveries of 1895-97 has made it impossible.

To the "man in the street," a block of wood is a single piece of substance. The mere fact that it can be cut, however, demonstrates that it must consist of particles, and the idea of solidity is transferred to these particles. Even in Madame Blavatsky's time, however, the property of elasticity, which is possessed by all substance, was evidence to Prof. Butlerof that these particles are themselves elastic. These, in their turn, must be composed of lesser particles, as she went on to show:

This is sufficient to show how absurd are the simultaneous admissions of the non-divisibility and elasticity of the atom. The atom is elastic, ergo, the atom is divisible, and must consist of particles, or of sub-atoms. [What we now call electrons. --Editors.] And these sub-atoms? They are either non-elastic, and in such case they represent no dynamic importance, or, they are elastic also; and in that case, they, too, are subject to divisibility. And thus ad infinitum. But infinite divisibility of atoms resolves matter into simple centres of force, i.e., precludes the possibility of conceiving matter as an objective substance. (The Secret Doctrine, 1888, I, 519.)
But, one may well ask, why was not such an obvious and simple truth recognized from the beginning? Butlerof, as quoted by H.P.B., gives a "scientific" reason:
To admit the divisibility of the atom, amounts to an admission of the infinite divisibility of substance, which is equivalent to reducing substance to nihil, a nothingness. Owing to a feeling of self-preservation alone, materialism cannot admit infinite divisibility; otherwise it would have to bid farewell to its basic principle and thus sign its own death-warrant.
The correctness of this view is indicated by the words of Büchner, a leader of the materialism of that day: "To accept infinite divisibility is absurd, and amounts to doubting the very existence of matter." H.P.B. joins the issue clearly in the following words: "It is on the doctrine of the illusive nature of matter, and the infinite divisibility of the atom, that the whole science of Occultism is built." (S.D. I, 520.)

Thus, so emotionally rooted was the passion for an indivisible atom -- for something "dependable" to cling to in an otherwise metaphysical universe -- that simple common sense was unable to remove it from scientific conception, even though, in the words of Dr. Compton, it had led to "a stagnant science of physics, a descriptive science of chemistry, and a sterile science of astronomy."(2) The issue had to be forced by a totally new line of departure; the fact of elasticity was not enough, so the electron was made to do it!

Logic and fact uncontradicted by the series of discoveries since 1895 tell us that pure matter cannot exist. What, then, is the basis of experience?

H.P.B. replies: "It opens limitless horizons to substance informed by the divine breath of its soul in every possible state of tenuity, states still undreamt of by the most spiritually disposed chemists and physicists." (S.D. I, 520.)

But this does not end the problem. Paradox is implicit in objective existence: the paradox of substance, which apart from consciousness is an inconceivable abstraction; and of consciousness, which apart from substance is unconsciousness, non-existence. What, then, is gained?

So far as science is concerned, to take this position would be to recognize the impossible character of certain of its endeavors. This done, the endless energy thus frittered away might be turned into more useful channels. The impossibility is that of ever discovering such a thing as independent matter, except as the shadow cast by the light of consciousness; the impossibility of examining any of the happenings to which the name of matter is given apart from the action of the examining consciousness. The laws of consciousness and of apparently objective matter must be examined as a whole. "Matter" can never be revealed as a separate reality; the attempt to do so is in a class with the perennial search for "perpetual motion" -- fruitful only in by-products unsought and unexpected by the investigator. The most valuable by-product of this latter investigation has been the certainty of its futility; the most valuable possible by-product of the search for pure matter is the recognition that, even if existing, it can never be found.

The attempt to discover the "ultimate" of matter, while setting consciousness apart from the thing observed, must always end in paradox -- in the dream-conception of an objective universe unsupported by consciousness. Progressive analysis of "matter" has led from step to step of divisibility, now having reached the eternal paradox in the form of the dual nature of the electron. "Particles behave like waves and waves behave like particles; here's to the electron; long may she wave." (Compton.)

Says Dr. Houston:

The experiments on light have shown that at times light behaves as though it were a train of waves, while at other times it acts as a stream of corpuscles. A positivist is not displeased with this. He merely proceeds to build up a system of classifications, and after having built up such a system he is happy.... A philosopher of another persuasion, however, will want to know something of the nature of the reality behind this apparent paradox, and this desire will put him in a bad predicament, for waves and corpuscles are essentially different things. They have in fact mutually exclusive properties and as far as I know no one has yet been able to formulate an adequate picture of a reality behind these sensations.
Politely, Dr. Houston explodes the positivist balloon. Positivism insists that all truth lies in sensation and the classification of sensations. Dr. Houston points out that no two people have the same sensations and that such a theory involves as many systems of truth as there are individuals. While the positivist would be the first to balk at the proposition that a dream experience is just as true as his laboratory determinations, that is just what his own theory leads to!

As Dr. Houston shows, the quantum theory, and the whole of Einstein's work as well, are descriptive. Both leave the questions of what exists, and of why that happens which does happen, wholly in the dark. He remarks:

Usually when one is discussing indivisible atoms there comes along a cheerful soul who wants to know the structure of these ultimate atoms. He wants to know how big an electron is and what a proton is made of. The very asking of such a question is a denial of the fundamental nature of the particle in question. If a proton is really a fundamental atom there cannot be anything smaller of which it is made; there cannot be any units in terms of which its size can be measured. As soon as it becomes necessary or desirable to talk about the structure of these ultimate particles their usefulness as ultimate particles is gone.
He then goes on to say that with present experimental techniques the electron must be taken as whole. But this fact is in turn revealed to be not at all a characteristic of the electron itself, but of the particular means adopted to experiment with and describe it!

These considerations let loose a veritable Pandora's collection of puzzles. For one thing, the idea of a particle which is indivisible in substance requires also that it be indivisible in dimension. This promptly reduces the entire universe to zero dimension, since obviously the only indivisible linear dimension is zero; and as an action in measurable space cannot proceed with a point of zero size as its base, no dimensional action is possible. In other words, an infinite addition of zeros still produces zero. The whole tenor of Theosophical physics is to the effect that space is purely a mental conception; thus, from the point of view of physical ideas, it may be considered either infinitely great or non-existent! Space, teaches H.P.B., is "dimensionless in every sense."

In the course of plunging the scientific world into these new perplexities, modern physicists have not solved the original problem: elasticity is just as great a puzzle as ever. Wave-motion itself requires not only a medium which is atomic but one the atoms of which are elastic. The very wave-trains which from one aspect make up the electron themselves require a carrier the particles of which are very much smaller than the electron. Thus, elasticity, as a fundamental and inescapable property of every possible physical action, involves infinite divisibility, or the non-existence of matter!

The intuitive may find a degree of revelation in considering that elasticity is the very basis of physical action and reaction, of the conservation of energy-matter; in other words, the "physical" aspect of Karma. And it is in figures of that mode of elasticity that we are compelled to represent moral and spiritual Karma, when we try to describe it, since every aspect of "the tendency to restore equilibrium" is an aspect of elasticity. Certainly, there must be a close relationship -- an identity, perhaps -- between the "ultimate division of time" and the ultimate division of magnitude. He who knows the former "knows all Karma." Perhaps he who knows the latter, also.

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(1) Science, April 30, 1937.
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(2) Science, January 8, 1937.
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