Originally printed in the MARCH-APRIL 2007 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Menahem, Sam. "Science and Theosophy: The Challenge of Unification Part 2." Quest 95.2 (MARCH-APRIL 2007): 59-63.
Opportunities for Integration from the Study of Physics
How are the seven planes of existence to be understood? They are most usually described as being made up of more rarefied matter vibrating at higher frequencies. This metaphor allows people to visualize the existence of many different things that interpenetrate but are oblivious of each other's existence unless they are at the same rate. The problem is that modern physics has a very clear understanding of the modes of existence of matter and challenges us to clarify and formalize this mental image. What exactly is vibrating, and along what metric? Most crucially, this rarefied stuff somehow has to interact with real matter—otherwise, mental/astral events could not exert causal effects in the brain. Surely these interactions would show up in the experimental and conceptual paradigms that comprise conservation of mass/energy, thermodynamics, and the structure of space-time.
Another way to understand this is as real orthogonal dimensions, in the sense of multidimensional spaces of relativity (Abbott, 2005). This is the approach taken by Ouspensky, who suggested that the different planes are spaces of which we are unaware because we are trapped within three-dimensional space, much the way ants on a table-top are oblivious to events below and above the surface. This approach allowed Ouspensky to develop some very interesting models of psychical phenomena, which are more easily understandable in a universe of additional spaces (Ouspensky, 1961; 1970). However, modern cosmology has a pretty good handle on how many dimensions there actually are. A working description of the physical world (driven by the data of astrophysics) needs at least eleven dimensions, with seven having atomic-sized dimensions and are rolled up into tubes. Macroscopic additional dimensions are ruled out based on the stability of planetary orbits in an inverse square law of gravity. Regardless, it is surely crucial to develop models of the planes and propose testable and coherent theories of how they relate to physical matter and the structure of the observed universe. These will have to encompass the data of cosmology, which currently points towards an ever-expanding universe that eventually encounters a cold death, and not the cyclical bounce universe which sounded so compatible with the breathing cycles of Brahma.
The problem of space is related to the problem of time. General relativity has eliminated the flow of time. The macroscopic universe is a Parmenidean block where time is a linear dimension—everything has "already" happened and exists somewhere along the time axis. True, some spiritual traditions hold that time is an illusion, but Theosophy is pretty clear on making the right choices with respect to karmic consequences, future progress as a result of time and effort, and so on. Even if one is willing to say that the consequences of all our actions, and the final spiritual progress of all the monads, already exists eternally and unchangingly, it is still necessary to develop a coherent model for the illusion of time which is so central to our consciousness as human beings who need to make choices based on thought and will. Moreover, Special Relativity has shown that there is no preferred "now" —events are ordered depending on the relative motion of the observer. Consider two differently moving observers. Since the state of our body is, as we are told, related to the spiritual evolution of our soul, will one observer see a given body as belonging to an adept while the other sees it as crude and at the very beginning of its evolution? How does the timeless Monad whose state is reflected in the physical body cope with this relativity? Theosophy certainly sounds like it is dependent upon a linear, absolute flow of time; if this is wrong, then the models of evolution, karma, cycles, etc. need to be drastically modified.
The problem of time and making choices is intimately bound to the issue of free will. Physics shows us two types of processes: deterministic ones, in which the outcome is completely dictated by the prior state of the system, and random ones, in which the outcome is in principle, not predictable. Where in this picture is what we know of as "free will," according to the action of which we generate positive and negative karmic consequences? Quantum mechanics is often thought to provide a way for consciousness to escape physical determinism, although new approaches involving decoherence offer promising ways to remove the need for an "observer" to collapse the wave function.
Mostly what quantum theory adds to this discussion is an element of fundamental unpredictability. But randomness is hardly what is meant by free will. What properties does a "free will" have? Theosophically compatible models of free will have to not only merge with physics (since presumably our free choices control what our body does), but also have to navigate the sharp philosophical distinctions between randomness and determination. Neither will do, by itself, and currently there is no conception of any other kind of causation. Moreover, determinism is a concept applicable to the state of the mental body, as well as the physical one, and we must begin to try to sketch an account of will, that is, what it means for a spiritual essence to make a decision related to, but not fully determined by, the current state of its components.
Quantum mechanics also achieves remarkable ability to accurately describe microscopic behavior based on the fundamental principle that certain events are fundamentally unpredictable. Can these kinds of events be perceived by clairvoyant faculties? What is the nature of the "knowledge of the future" which a Master may have? And, can spiritual development help surmount other kinds of unpredictability and unknowability revealed by the theory of computation and the fundamentals of mathematics?
Perhaps the biggest issue relates to the question of causal closure of the physical world. At the smallest scale, are the laws of physics enough to predict and explain all physical events with only information about the state of objects on the physical plane? If so, then the non-physical objects Theosophy spends so much time on are epiphenomenal and have no power to affect what goes on in the physical world. This profoundly undermines its importance and makes it completely unclear how anything we do in our minds and spirits ever matters here. If on the other hand, influence is passed down from the superphysical worlds, that is, events going on in the mental and astral bodies, perhaps working through the etheric, do ultimately exert an influence on the atoms of brains and thus the behavior of living things, then it is imperative to ask why this influence has not been noticed and how it might be accommodated within the mature science of thermodynamics and the conservation of mass/energy.
Opportunities for Integration from the Study of Biology and Medicine
Considerable success is being made in keeping mammals' heads alive without their bodies. If and when this experiment is perfected, what would one say about the other five chakras—are they not needed for life? How about animal group souls—they cannot correspond to species, since it is now known that there is no such sharp distinction. It is now possible to make embryonic chimeras, say between mice and chickens. What group soul is working through that living creature, especially since no such creature ever existed in the history of the universe, until it was created, and no other such creature exists in the world to share its group soul?
Cryogenics is also advancing. Once it is possible to successfully freeze and thaw a viable human being, what happens to their soul? Is it in limbo during the time that its body is frozen? What if a human body were frozen in a way that it could be later reanimated, but then sent to spend eternity frozen on Pluto—is that Monad barred from evolution until the end of the Universe or does it eventually disengage from the frozen body? And if it does disengage, how long before it does so? Can this be verified experimentally by showing that after such a time period the body cannot be brought back to life?
What exactly does the mental body do? If someday neurobiologists are able to show that the physical brain can successfully perform all of the input/output relations that are necessary for behavior without recourse to any non-physical components, why are the mental and astral bodies necessary? Admittedly, we are nowhere near achieving this yet, and in fact may never get there, but what if engineering and computer science produce a robot that is indistinguishable from a human being on the basis of behavior, conversation, etc. Shall we say that it is a clever simulation but has no consciousness, or that a human-level monad has learned to function through it? Would a gifted clairvoyant be needed to look at it and find out, or can this question be answered somehow on first principles? Are astral and mental bodies dependent on a particular kind of physical body or can they be adapted to bionic creations?
Imagine a Star-Trek-like matter duplicator that is used to make an exact particle-for-particle copy of a person's body. When assembled, will that body get up and function, and claim that it is the real person? Admittedly, this is an empirical question, and if an exact matter copy turns out not to be alive, this would be powerful evidence for the spiritual world-view and the lack of causal closure of the physical. This would be an excellent example of a result that would run counter to the current arrow of scientific consilience—everything we know suggests that this would not happen. All scientists would bet money on the opposite outcome; all of the findings of modern biology suggest that the processes of life are carried out by the chemical and physical components of cells. If the exact copy is indeed alive and well, does the copy "connect" to the monad of the original person and inherit the karma of that person? And what happens as their behaviors begin to diverge and generate different karmic forces?
What if a human egg is fertilized in vitro, and allowed to divide (first cell division), and then a quantum coin-tosser (random number generator) is used to decide whether or not the two cell embryo is to be split it in half, i.e., separated into the two distinct cells. If it comes up heads, the embryo is left intact, implanted and born as one person. If the quantum generator comes up tails, the cells are separated and implanted separately, resulting in twins. This can be done today, in fertility clinics. The decision and the splitting procedure can take place in about ten minutes. When are the life-plans that match souls to incipient conceptions made? When are the life-paths which those souls need for their next lessons determined? How many actual souls are there, in total? Presumably a finite number, if they are supposed to reach certain levels of progress through a finite number of life-times before the end of the universal cycle. Once space travel becomes practical, and humanity spreads out into space, reproducing exponentially to fill endless available space, will we reach a limit on the number of human-compatible monads? And if so, once we run out of souls, what will happen—will conceptions suddenly stop being viable?
There are also a number of miscellaneous puzzles. The Fermi paradox asks (as Theosophy affirms) if life is prevalent in the Universe, where is everyone? Surely some of these civilizations are also physical, and sending out radio or other signals that should easily be detectable. Why do we seem to be alone? And, closer to home, our tradition is full of stories of powerful ancient civilizations such as Atlantis. The disconnect between these claims and the modern understanding of paleontology, archeology, and anthropology needs to be addressed. Is it really plausible that we know so much about life forms that lived a billion years ago but have missed completely all the advanced civilizations and any of the artifacts that would have been left behind from that time?
These issues were chosen from a long list of places where Theosophy and science intersect and must be reconciled. These are not just koans, brainteasers, or crazy puzzles for people with nothing better to do. The question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin is not pointless sophistry—whether angels take up any physical space or not is a deep and important point; just as the paradoxes of Zeno, which must have been annoying in his day, now speak to fundamental questions about the granularity of space and time.
These questions allow us to get at the root of things that really are important. For example, if we can show that neurons compute, process data, hold memories, etc., what is left for the mental body to do? Entities without useful jobs get fired from our ontology; could the whole pantheon of Theosophical belief be gone some day because it simply is not necessary? Someone with an ancient Greek bent of mind might say that Einstein explained how rocks move in gravitational fields, but that his account left out the rock's soul that seeks its rightful place on the earth. True enough, but the fate of this kind of argument is clear—elimination of things that are completely useless for understanding leads us to do away with the soul of the rock (at least as far as impacting its behavior in any of our experiments is concerned.) Progress must be made so that theosophical subjects that do no useful work are not relegated to epiphenomena.
One wants to be a theosophist if and only if this system is useful in understanding the real world; in the long run, there is no room in our brains for facts about planes and devas if they do not help make sense of what we observe. Most of us, having no direct access to superphysical reality, rely on people like C. W. Leadbeater and Annie Besant to tell us about those things. If they are proven to be completely wrong on specifics, does it really make sense to spend a lot of the time worrying about other things they have said about how we are to live, and about the context in which we should understand our short lives?
Theosophists cannot afford to keep separate from scientists. Whatever else one can say about it, science works. Therefore, if one really believes that Theosophy has something to say to us about the physical world (and the old authors wrote volumes about "how the world is" and very little about "how to meditate" —they were clearly a very "scientific" or at least, "naturalist" bunch), then one cannot afford the stance of the old Christian church, i.e., that spiritual matters and physical matters are distinct realms of inquiry. It is imperative that we develop a way to merge; otherwise it will not be science that is left in the dust. Sure enough, science eventually will come to subsume everything that is real and tractable by rational methods, including the spiritual, but "eventually" can be a very long time. There is little indication that science is going in this direction at all, and that must be changed. Of course, the onus of initiating the change is mainly on our shoulders. Insofar as it is believed that Theosophy is valuable for humankind, theosophists must make sure that its gifts integrate into the best understanding of the world which we have, and as soon as possible.
This is a tiring journey. The effort must go both ways—Theosophy has to be thought about more deeply in light of modern science, but also may provide new ways to think about some aspects of science. We must establish a theosophical research program, identify the most promising areas for unification, recruit bright young people to work on it, and focus on developing proof-of-principle areas, which will bring the whole effort into greater contact with modern science. It has been previously argued that aspects of parapsychology provide one very promising inroad. A greater involvement of high-grade clairvoyants in laboratory research will also pay off greatly. Science has been tremendously successful in explaining the world with no need for those "other hypotheses" we all know and love. But of course there is a flip side to this coin—much has remained left out of the scientific picture of the world. Some of it has surely been left out for the best reason of all—it is not real. But much of it is true, and just needs to be brought to the forefront. It is here, if we choose to take up the challenge, that we as theosophists can truly shine.
Of course, thinking about theosophical details from a critical and scientific perspective is surely not for everyone, and represents only a portion of what Theosophy offers us. There is much to be gained from the non-fifth ray (i.e., scientific) approaches to spirituality while all these subtle issues remain unresolved. Although it is not the kind of inspiring message to which many of us are accustomed, this overview is not meant to be pessimistic. The "all will be well if we just wait long enough" mentality will not serve us well here (it almost never does.) However, there is reason for optimism because by asking these questions, light is shed on the road by which progress can be achieved. There is hard work that is necessary, but the rewards are great.
And surely that is the essential message of Theosophy as a whole.