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Setting the Stage

An introduction to the "Body of Knowledge" known as Theosophy

Part 57 - Origins Of Scientific Materialism

THEOSOPHY, Vol. 28, No. 12, October, 1940
(Pages 543-552; Size: 34K)

War grew up between science and materialism just as soon as the fetters placed by religion upon science were removed and the latter was permitted to deal with facts in nature. The reaction against religion naturally prevented science from taking any but a materialistic view of man and nature.

--The Ocean of Theosophy.

We are in a barren period: the eighteenth century, during which the malignant fever of scepticism broke out so irrepressibly, has entailed unbelief as an hereditary disease upon the nineteenth. The divine intellect is veiled in man; his animal brain alone philosophizes.

--Isis Unveiled.

It is the priesthood which has to be held responsible for the reaction in favour of materialism of our day. It is by worshiping and enforcing on the masses the worship of the shells -- personified for purposes of allegory -- of pagan ideals, that the latest exoteric religion has made of Western lands a Pandemonium, in which the higher classes worship the golden calf, and the lower and ignorant masses are made to worship an idol with feet of clay.

--The Secret Doctrine.

IT is a peculiarly western conceit that there are no other intelligences in the cosmos than human beings, no other minds in nature than our own. This is the view implicit in modern physical theory, which reduces all phenomena to the motions of matter -- motions which, although they can be mathematically described, are in no sense to be regarded as expressions of intelligence. In other words, the objective of human intelligence in scientific inquiry has been to give an account of nature which recognizes no intelligence, no purposive action, in nature. Mathematics has been a willing ally in this undertaking, for, as H. P. Blavatsky remarked in Isis Unveiled, "all the higher laws of nature assume the form of quantitative statement."1

But unless one is willing to grant that mathematical relations in nature are evidence of some mathematician or mathematicians besides ourselves, the numerical formulation of natures laws remains simply descriptive. Even if we know that bodies attract one another with a force proportionate to their mass and inversely according to the square of their distance, we still cannot see why they are so attracted. Whether, with Newton, we refer both the law of gravitation and the correction of its defects to God, or with modern materialism assert that blind physical laws are the ultimate reality, our ignorance is equally great. Laplace thought Newtons Cosmic Mechanic unnecessary, asking: "Might not those arrangements be an effect of the laws of motion?" forgetting, or refusing to consider, as do all materialists, that this law and this motion are a vicious circle, so long as the nature of both remains unexplained.2

Twenty three centuries ago, Plato distinguished between the utilitarian and the philosophic employments of mathematics. "Knowledge," he said, "is the real object of the whole science ... the knowledge at which geometry aims is knowledge of the eternal, and not of aught perishing and transient."3 This was the Pythagorean philosophy which saw in nature, "through all its departments, a living arithmetic in its development, a realized geometry in its repose."4 Repeating his great Predecessor, Plato taught that all things were formed according to forms and numbers, and the origin of motion he found in Souls, the self moving Units, or Monads. Plurality, he said, unfolded itself from unity by a necessary mathematical process.5

The early period of medieval philosophy was predominantly Platonic in character. Platos Timaeus with its Pythagorean doctrine of emanation established the pattern of cosmological speculation, while Aristotle, until the twelfth century, was known only as a logician. The Platonic view of things sometimes overcame the Christian in the minds of the early scholastics, as was the case with Johannes Scotus Erigena, the great pantheist of the ninth century.6 Pantheism, in fact, is necessarily implicit in all Platonic influence, and it was this tendency which prevented many Christian Platonists from developing their ideas to a logical conclusion. Erigenas great work, The Division of Nature, was condemned as full of "blasphemies" toward the end of the twelfth century, when it was discovered in the hands of a heretical sect in the South of France. There is evidence that it was known to the Albigenses and influenced the pantheistic brotherhoods of the Middle Ages -- the Brothers and Sisters of the Free Spirit, and other important forerunners of the Reformation.7

Peter Abelards controversy with William of Champeaux over the nature of Universals illustrates how the Church became conscious of the heretical core of Platonic Realism. The Platonists held that all particulars are transient expressions of universal ideas; Ideas are the substantial realities, independent of particulars, which reach back through the chain of emanations to the First Cause or Divine Substance. Abelard forced William to retreat from this "dangerous" theory, arguing: "A grave heresy is at the end of this doctrine; for, according to it, the divine substance which is recognized as admitting of no form, is necessarily identical with every substance in particular and with all substance in general."8This was the heresy of Pantheism which, the Church asserted, made an end of the individuality and freewill of human souls. Pantheism, by seeming to threaten individuality, endangered the doctrine of salvation as obtained through the mediating office of the Church, and this, of course, could not be tolerated.

The losing of the individual man in undifferentiated divine substance was the philosophical difficulty later thinkers found in Spinoza -- a defect common to all pantheistic systems which omit the doctrine of the monads. The manifested Deity or "God in Nature" is a compound unity of spiritual intelligences which in their totality are Spirit, or the Logos. It is an utter fallacy, says H.P.B., to attribute functional activity to the infinite and absolute deity.9 "Reality in the manifested world is composed of a unity of units."10 Individuality is incomprehensible except in terms of the self moving units of Plato, the monads of Plotinus, Bruno, Leibniz, and finally, of The Secret Doctrine.

Without the doctrine of the Monads -- the Pythagorean mathematics of the soul -- medieval Platonism was bound to suffer from logical difficulties, to say nothing of theological persecution. All medieval systems of Realism which denied the reality of particulars, or individuals, were, as Haureau has said, simply "undeveloped Spinozism."11 They needed the complementary doctrine of Leibniz. In the words of H.P.B.: "It may be correctly stated that were Leibniz and Spinozas systems reconciled, the essence and Spirit of esoteric philosophy would be made to appear. From the shock of the two -- as opposed to the Cartesian system -- emerge the truths of the Archaic doctrine."12 But the Middle Ages had no Leibniz -- the freer air of the Renaissance was necessary for that very intuitional philosopher to appear.

In the thirteenth century, medieval thought definitely exchanged Plato for Aristotle as its philosophical guide. The Aristotelian doctrine which found reality only in individuals enabled the scholastics to break the pantheistic Chain of Being which in Neoplatonism had extended from the Universal First Cause to the multiplicity of particular beings on earth. The only substantially real Universals allowed by theology were God and His two emanations, the Son and the Holy Ghost; further realizations of the Divine Nature would mean Pantheism, as Abelard had shown. Thomas Aquinas bridged the great gap between Deity and the world by asserting that every created individual -- man, animal, vegetable or mineral -- was the result of a special divine act. Here the Aristotelian Forms, which realize existence in things, were made to serve as categories of the Creators ideation. "Whatever has form is created, and whatever is created takes form directly from the will of God, which is also his act. The intermediate universals -- the secondary causes -- vanish as causes; they are, at most, sequences or relations; all merge in one universal act of will; instantaneous, infinite, eternal."13

"Thomism," in the words of a Catholic writer, "starting from the efficacy of the first cause, tends to reduce more and more the efficacy of second causes, and to replace it by a passivity which receives without producing, which is determined without determining."14 It would be difficult to make a more apt statement of the conception of matter found in mechanistic physics than this inert and determined "passivity." And history shows how easily the mysterious "Force" of science was substituted for the equally inexplicable "Will of God" which everywhere acts directly, without any intermediate intelligent agents! The foundations of modern materialism were clearly laid in the scholastic philosophy of the thirteenth century.15

The revival of learning which began in Italy and quickly spread over Europe was a return to the literature and philosophy of the ancient Greeks. It was not merely a study of Greek ideas, but an actual reincarnation of the Greek spirit. The mathematical philosophy of Pythagoras came to new life in the minds of the great re discoverers of the Renaissance. In the fifteenth century Nicholas of Cusa proclaimed an infinite universe without center or circumference -- an infinitude in which center and circumference "coincide." Contrary to the Ptolemaic astronomy, he argued that the earth, which is finite, cannot be the center of the universe, and therefore must move.16 This was the philosophical foundation for the heliocentric theory. All things, Nicholas affirmed, have their mathematical proportions, which was to say that all certainty is mathematical -- the Platonic doctrine that was destined to become the guiding principle of modern scientific method, although divorced from its spiritual significance.17 Copernicus, who studied mathematics under Novara, an Italian astronomer with Pythagorean leanings, learned that Nicetas and other of the ancients had believed the earth moved, and he "also began to meditate on the mobility of the earth." His arguments supporting the theory of the earths movement were mathematical -- he proposed a simpler mathematical solution than that of Ptolemy.18 He eliminated all the epicycles required by the assumption that the earth is a stationary body and claimed acceptance for his new system because of its mathematical simplicity.

Some seventy years later, in 1610, Galileo found the empirical proofs of the Copernican theory with his little telescope. He, too, was a convinced Platonist and therefore a lover of mathematics. His dislike for the tiresome syllogisms of scholastic philosophy is reflected in the statement: "We do not learn to demonstrate from the manuals of logic, but from the books which are full of demonstrations, which are the mathematical and not the logical."19 Like Copernicus, Galileo was familiar with the number philosophy. Kabalistic scholars assert that he possessed a treatise on astronomy by Archytas, a direct disciple of Pythagoras, and that he studied the Pythagoric sentences of Sextus.20 But with Galileo, mathematics became simply a tool of physical inquiry. Whatever his inner convictions, the great Florentine sought rather to conciliate than to contradict the Church. The fate of Bruno, whose revival of the spiritual philosophy of Pythagoras had brought him to the stake, was fresh in Galileos mind, and he limited his studies to the phenomena of physical motion, even discouraging attempts at metaphysical correlation.21 An inquiry into the causes of things he held to be profitless to physics, and he had good reason to know such inquiry was dangerous. Despite these precautions, Churchmen claimed that Galileos "pretended discovery vitiates the whole plan of Christian salvation," and professors were forbidden to teach the blasphemous facts revealed by his telescope.22

Galileo did not ask why, but how things moved, and offered mathematical answers. Every why question involves consideration of intelligence and purpose, and this, for Galileo, was impossible; there is, said the Church, only one intelligence, one purpose -- Gods -- a view the great father of experimental science had no intention of disputing. He would describe physical motion with mathematics and avoid theological controversy.

For Plato, the why of things was the all important question, but Medieval Christian authority had reduced the why of things to "Gods will," an answer which to doubt was to die. For Galileo, therefore, to know why became unimportant. How was the question he engaged to answer and he abstracted from experience a world that could be studied without reference to purpose. In order to apply his mathematical descriptions to terrestrial phenomena as well as to the motions of the heavenly bodies, Galileo adopted an atomic theory which resolved matter into "infinitely small indivisible atoms." Following Democritus, he divided the qualities of physical bodies into primary and secondary, the primary qualities being those susceptible to mathematical treatment -- size, weight, motion, etc.23 A. E. Burtt sums up Galileos view of nature and indicates its philosophical consequences:

Physical space was assumed to be identical with the realm of geometry, and physical motion was acquiring the character of a pure mathematical concept. Hence, in the metaphysics of Galileo, space (or distance) and time become fundamental categories. The real world is the world of bodies in mathematically reducible motions, and this means that the real world is a world of bodies moving in time and space ... Teleology as an ultimate principle of explanation he set aside, depriving of their foundation those convictions about mans determinative relation to nature which rested on it. The natural world was portrayed as a vast, self contained mathematical machine, consisting of motions of matter in space and time, and man with his purposes, feelings, and secondary qualities was shoved apart as an unimportant spectator and semi real effect of the great mathematical drama outside.24

Isaac Newtons great contribution to modern physics, despite his pious intentions, had the effect of strengthening the mechanical view of nature. Against his own will, Newton became "the founder of a new cosmical theory, containing obvious inconsistencies in its first elements."25 The law of attraction is nothing more than a mathematical construction and Newton clearly separated it from the actual cause of gravitation, but it was not long before his formula was elevated to the status of a physical cause, in preference to the unpopular hypothesis of "God." This development in scientific thought is described by Lange:

From the triumph of this purely mathematical achievement [Newtons demonstration of gravity] there was curiously developed a new physics. Let us carefully observe that a purely mathematical connection between two phenomena, such as the fall of bodies and the motion of the moon, could only lead to that great generalization in so far as there was presupposed a common and everywhere operative material cause of the phenomena. The course of history has eliminated this unknown material cause, and has placed the mathematical law itself in the rank of physical causes. The collision of the atoms shifted into an idea of unity, which as such rules the world without any material mediation.26 In effect, mathematics had been substituted for Gods will.

The ancient pagan cosmogonies had included a multiplicity of gods who were the intelligences behind the forces of nature -- personifications which were rendered acceptable to philosophy by Pythagoras and Plato. The Greek philosopher initiates assimilated the "gods" to various degrees of spiritual intelligences emanated from the One, coming forth in mathematical harmonies expressive of and participants in the intelligence of Cosmic Mind. The Christians borrowed and corrupted the Platonic cosmology, making the universe a unique ideation of an extra cosmic God, and degrading all classes of beings to the status of creatures, ultimately will less and without spiritual independence. With the rise of modern science came the rebirth of mathematics, the great tool of the natural philosophers. They accepted the passive matter from which, to the greater glory of God, theology had subtracted all life and intelligence, and they applied to this matter the atomic theory of Democritus. They used the mathematics of the ancients to give an account of the motions of matter, but omitted the intelligent "mathematicians" of nature in which the ancients had believed. Not the gods, nor God, but abstract numbers themselves were now made to explain physical phenomena.

By separating mind and matter in rigid dualism, thus supporting the theory that the physical world is an enormous machine, Descartes greatly increased the popularity of the materialistic world view. In Newtons philosophy, God was retained as the Creator who had formed the masses of matter which move under physical law and who imparted to them their original motion. God was also a cosmic adjuster of the world machine, overcoming the defects of gravitational law. Newtons interest in religion was as profound as his interest in physics and he was the author of nearly as many theological treatises as scientific classics, but his conception of God was inconsistent with his method in physics and was thereby doomed.27 Leibniz, attacking this curious mixture of mechanism and Christian anthropomorphism, wrote contemptuously of Newtons followers: "According to their doctrine, God Almighty wants to wind up his watch from time to time, otherwise it would cease to move. He had not, it seems, sufficient foresight to make it a perpetual motion."28 As Burtt says: "To stake the present existence and activity of God on imperfections in the cosmic engine was to court rapid disaster for theology."29

During the eighteenth century, men began to suspect that the universe might operate efficiently without any supernatural overseer, and in another hundred years God rarely appeared in scientific literature except to be minimized or denied, or when scientific writers allowed themselves poetic latitude. The world was simply a machine; its parts were matter, force was its prime mover, and chance its only guide. All theories which did not ultimately resolve into the mechanical relation of these three facets of physical reality were condemned as unscientific.

Such was the world view of orthodox science in the nineteenth century -- the picture of nature and man that H. P. Blavatsky came to destroy and to replace with a philosophy which saw intelligence and striving toward a higher life in every form and every point of space. Her major attack on science was leveled at the "law" of gravitation, the keystone of the materialistic structure. "One of the objects of The Secret Doctrine," she wrote, "is to prove that planetary movements cannot be satisfactorily accounted for by the theory of gravitation alone."30 Her great work, The Secret Doctrine, contains a section exposing the fallacies of gravitation and its inability to explain certain physical phenomena.31 The Occultists, she said, "see in gravity only sympathy and antipathy, or attraction and repulsion, caused by physical polarity on our terrestrial plane and by spiritual causes outside of its influence."32 Calling attention to the irresolvable contradictions in the scientific conception of the ether, she postulated "the reality of a supersubstantial and supersensible essence ... (not ether, which is only an aspect of the latter), the nature of which cannot be inferred from its remoter manifestations -- its merely phenomenal phalanx of effects -- on this terrene plane."33 She denied the dictum of physics that it is impossible "to construct matter by a synthesis of forces," pointing out that a body, when considered apart from its relations with other bodies, is a mere abstraction.34 Today, physics defines matter as a "synthesis of forces." Drs. Einstein and Infeld put it thus:

...matter represents vast stores of energy and that energy represents matter ... Matter is where the concentration of energy is great, field where the concentration of energy is small. But if this is the case, then the difference between matter and field is a quantitative rather than a qualitative one. There is no sense in regarding matter and field as two qualities quite different from each other. We cannot imagine a definite surface separating distinctly field and matter.35

There is not space within the compass of this review to examine the way in which the new, relativistic physics was anticipated by H.P.B., but it would be exceedingly helpful for the student to read carefully and several times the scientific "Addenda" to volume one of The Secret Doctrine, and then turn to Dr. Einsteins book, The Evolution of Physics, to see how closely physical science has approached the occult doctrines, insofar as description is concerned. This work gives an account of the transition from the mechanical world view of Galileo and Newton to the field physics of today. It shows first that the mechanical laws involving simply force and matter could not account for the phenomena of an electromagnetic field. In this department of physics the Galilean machine gave way to "Maxwells structure laws," in which "there are no material actors. The mathematical equations of this theory express the laws governing the electromagnetic field."36 Einsteins general theory of relativity involves gravitational equations which are structure laws describing the changes of the gravitational field.37 The "curved space" we hear so much about means that matter and its fields are inseparable -- wherever there is matter there is a surrounding field which gives a "structure" to space and modifies the motion of bodies through it. The phenomenon of gravitation is a result of the structure of the field. Einsteins great objective is to describe both the phenomena of the electromagnetic field and those of the gravitational field in one mathematical formulation -- a "unified field theory."

It should be noted that in dispensing with the ether, Dr. Einstein outlawed only the materialized and physically impossible conceptions of ether held by physicists of the nineteenth century. But doing away with the ether has not solved the problem. Einsteins equations are still only a mathematical description of physical events, better because more accurate than Newtons, and a description which cannot be represented by a mechanical model, as was the case with the old physical laws. The "substantial" nature of space is still a mystery. He says:

Our only way out seems to be to take for granted the fact that space has the physical property of transmitting electromagnetic waves, and not to bother too much about the meaning of the statement. We may still use the word ether, but only to express some physical property of space.38

The real "way out" of these difficulties of modern physics would be to recognize that the "space time" continuum is merely a "sense perception and memory" continuum conceived by conscious beings; that the universe is rather a continuum of life, omnipresent in time and space; that electricity, magnetism, light and the phenomena of attraction and repulsion are the physical effects of life; that there is a higher mathematics of spirit intelligence which reflects itself in the mathematics of interacting forces and fields.

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- Footnotes:

1. Op. cit.

I, xvi.


The Secret Doctrine, I, 498.


Republic, Book VII.


Isis Unveiled, I, xvi.


E. A. Burtt, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1932), p. 41.


Isis, I, 242.


Henry Bett, Johannes Scotus Erigena (Cambridge: University Press, 1925), p. 174.


Henry Adams, Mont Saint Michel and Chartres (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1933), p. 296.


S. D. I, 573; II, 239.


Ibid. I, 629.


Hastings Rashdall, The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages (Oxford: Clarendon Press) I, 46.


S. D. I, 628-9.


Henry Adams, op. cit., p. 351.


Ibid., p. 370. (This and the preceding quotation illustrate the general tendency of interpretation of Aquinas by Catholic theologians. Actually, Thomas spoke of God as the primary, and the Angels the secondary cause of all visible effects, which was essentially the Gnostic teaching. Thomas was accused of Pantheism by Franciscans and Jesuits. See Adams, p. 371.)


A vigorous attempt to prove that Thomism is consistent with the discoveries of modern science was made by a Catholic writer, G. Sanseverino, in 1862, and through an encyclical of Pope Leo XIII (in 1879) Thomas Aquinas was established as the model of Catholic philosophy and theology. The result has been the development of a strong neo scholastic movement, fostered chiefly by Louvain University. Modern Thomists of some eminence include Maurice De Wulf, historian of medieval thought, and Etienne Gilson, noted French philosopher and student of scholasticism. Prof. Gilson, it will be recalled, made the opening address at the Harvard Tercentenary Conference in 1936, creating a stir of enthusiasm in academic circles with his proposal of a world "Supreme Court of Wisdom" composed of leading scientists, philosophers, artists, industrialists, etc., which would exert an influence like that of the medieval University of Paris. The modern French writer, Jacques Maritain, has been called the "general" commanding the "ordered offensive of Thomism" in the Western world. In America, Dr. Mortimer Adler, associate and supporter of President Robert M. Hutchins of the University of Chicago, is an active adherent of the Thomist philosophy and author of books in its defense. He is also a great admirer of M. Maritain.


A. O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1936), p. 113 ff.


Burtt, op. cit., p. 42.


Ibid., pp. 38-9.


Ibid., p. 65.


Isis I, 238.


Burtt, op. cit., pp. 93-4.


For a full account of Galileos struggle with the Church, see Andrew D. Whites Warfare of Science with Theology (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1922) I, Chap. 3.


Burtt, op. cit., pp. 75-7.


Ibid., pp. 83, 95. (As H.P.B. remarks: "The whole structure of Modern Science is built on a kind of mathematical abstraction," S. D. I, 670.)


F. A. Lange, History of Materialism (Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1925) I, 313-14.


Ibid., 315.


Newtons conception of Deity suffered from internal contradictions as well, sometimes seeming quite impersonal, as when he identifies God with Space, and sometimes suggesting a personal power engaging in finite activities such as keeping the cosmic machinery in working order.


Burtt, op. cit., p. 289.


Ibid., p. 295. H.P.B. says: "A poor God he, who would work upon minor details and leave the most important to secondary forces!" (The Secret Doctrine I, 498.)


Transactions, p. 128.


The Secret Doctrine I, pp. 490-9.


Ibid., 512.


Ibid., p. 515.


Ibid., p. 511.


The Evolution of Physics (New York; Simon & Schuster, 1938), p. 257.


Ibid., p. 152.


Ibid., p. 251.


Ibid., p. 159.

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