Setting the Stage
An introduction to the "Body of Knowledge" known as Theosophy
Part 59 - Theosophy And Contemporary Thought
THEOSOPHY, Vol. 29. No. 1, November, 1940
(Pages 15-21; Size: 19K)
WHAT obstacles does Theosophy encounter in its approach to the modern man? They are not new, and they center around the primary obstacle, which is self interest, whether narrow or "enlightened." What is new is the particular way in which objections are stated -- the prevailing cast of thought in which the arguments and emotional reactions are formed.
By "prevailing cast of thought" is meant the conception of scientific method, not any one set of positive ideas on a given subject matter. Conflicting theories abound concerning every problem. It is not here that agreement is to be found, but solely in the general method of procedure. Scientists and laymen alike are convinced that to know a thing is to know it scientifically, that is, on the basis of evidence obtained under experimental conditions. This being the case, let us examine some of the fundamental characteristics of scientific method to see how various objections to Theosophy are framed in terms of it.
Scientific method arose with the development of experimental science. It involved a break with pure deductive reasoning. Deduction is simply the development of the meaning of logical propositions; it drains out what the propositions contain implicitly. The syllogism is a familiar type of deductive argument. Take for example the propositions: "All vertebrates are living beings; All men are vertebrates." These two propositions contain as part of their meaning the proposition, "All men are living beings." The same may be said of the propositions: "All men are dogs; All rabbits are men." Inevitably, according to the same logical principles, we draw the conclusion, "All rabbits are dogs." We see that the form of our reasoning has nothing to do with truth and falsity, but only with consistency. We take out of our premises, in the form of a conclusion, what we have put into them originally. If our premises are true, our conclusion is true. But we cannot prove the truth of any proposition simply by deducing it; all depends on the truth of what we deduce it from. If we attempt to deduce every considered proposition we involve ourselves in an infinite regress; we regard every premise as a conclusion to be deduced. Somewhere we must come to rest in propositions accepted without argument. In a deductive system these propositions are called postulates.
Mathematicians have discovered that there is not only one system of geometry. There are as many different systems as there are sets of postulates. Similarly, it is conceivable that other systems of laws might hold for nature. But in the multiplicity of logically conceived systems we are dealing merely with the consistent and possible. The question for science is, which of these logically conceived possibilities refers to the actual world. How are we to choose between a number of alternative possibilities, each internally consistent? For experimental science there is only one answer, by the observation of fact.
The stress of deduction led in the period of medieval scholasticism to a war of dogmatisms. Sanction for the truth of premises was sought in authority, mainly the authority of revelation. It was this authority which was called into question with the rise of scientific thought. Premises were regarded as hypotheses requiring verification. At first induction was stressed at the expense of deduction by the philosophers of the new science, but logicians have come to see that both are essential ingredients of scientific method.
Deduction is simply the expression of what is contained implicitly in propositions, or statements of relationship. It gives us nothing new. Induction, on the contrary, proceeds from particular statements to more general expressions; it goes beyond the meaning of the original propositions. Let us see how both methods are involved in a particular instance of scientific investigation. A physician diagnoses the disease of a patient. He observes symptoms a b c, and makes the induction that it is scarlet fever. Scarlet fever is defined as a disease which is present whenever there are symptoms a b c d e. But only a b c are observed. The physician goes beyond the observed facts when he constructs the hypothesis that a b c d e are all present, that is, he makes an induction. Deduction, however, enters into the verification of the hypothesis. Assuming that the disease is scarlet fever, the deduction is made that d e are also present. If subsequent observation reveals d e, the hypothesis is verified.
A similar procedure is followed in all scientific investigation. First there is a problem to be solved. Then observation is made of data which previous experience has shown to be relevant to similar problems. Then a hypothetical construction is made of a possible solution to the problem. On the basis of this construction deductions are made as to what could be observed if the hypothesis were true. If the experience confirms the predictions based on the hypothesis, then the hypothesis is to that extent verified, though not completely verified, because several hypotheses may yield the same consequences. If the hypothesis in question turns out to be the only one consistent with already accepted knowledge, and the only one empirically verifiable, it comes to be accepted. Much trial of hypotheses is usually needed before a definite one can be established. Yet we cannot hope to attain absolute certainty with this method. Evidence is always to some extent circumstantial, and in the last analysis knowledge is always relative to the way in which problems are stated -- they might have been stated in an entirely different way.
But although this method does not yield absolute certainty it works within the texture of human experience; it follows the lines of human interest and yields, for human beings at least, certain profitable results.
The scientist is by virtue of his method an empiricist. For him knowledge grows out of the experience of particular objects. Statements of laws, of course, being universal, go beyond particular experiences, but these experiences suggest them and ultimately test and verify them. Although certain objects, such as electrons, cannot be directly experienced, these objects are nevertheless conceived in terms of what is directly experienced. Thus science demands concrete referents for its terms. Terms are merely symbols. Their meaning lies in their referents. No matter how logically rigorous and convincing an argument may be, if the terms used have no referents, experiencable either directly or indirectly, the statements composing the argument cannot be said to have any definite meaning. To sum up: we may characterize scientific method as the method of experimental verification of hypotheses constructed in terms of the relations of concrete referents.
In the light of this brief analysis of scientific method let us see what sort of criticisms based on it can be raised against theosophical ideas. The usual criticism is stated in terms of referents. What, for example, in terms of human experiences, is meant by soul or spirit? The inability to indicate a concrete referent has led psychology to become more and more a biological science. The expression "psychology without a soul" has come to characterize modern psychology. For a long time even the word "consciousness" has been regarded with suspicion. To take another example, in what sense is there a "desire body"? Feelings and emotions have come to be defined in strictly biological terms.
The next point of criticism is that Theosophy does not appear to be a strictly experimental science. It is taken rather as a complete body of knowledge which is to be learned and applied. But, how are we to regard the proposition that there is a complete body of knowledge and that there are those who know it and have handed it down to us? According to scientific method this proposition is a hypothesis which requires verification. Now how is it to be verified? Take, for example, any established scientific law. The majority accept it on faith, trusting in the integrity of the scientists who proclaim it. But in the last analysis, the only verification consists in going through the theorizing and experimentation which the scientist has done. Applying this to our proposition, the one who has completely verified it is the Master of Wisdom; all lesser ones must take it with some degree of faith. What then is the difference, for the common man, between accepting on faith the scientists word and the Masters word?
Logically speaking there is no fundamental difference. The path from faith to individual verification is the same for both. What arouses the suspicion of the modern man is that the Masters remain in the background whereas the scientists are publicly known. One is remote and difficult to find, the other easily accessible. The work of one produces tangible effects, such as inventions apparent to everyone. The work of the other is obscure -- or so it seems to the mind habituated to western forms of thought; and though it is difficult to become a scientist it is still more so to become a Master of Wisdom.
All these factors and many more contribute to weaken the appeal to the average man to investigate and verify Theosophy for himself should he by any chance hear of it. It all appears to him extremely fanciful and out of touch with the work done in laboratories. Again, it appears as too much of a gamble. Its ultimate verification requires lifetimes, whereas the scientist has obtained his knowledge within a comparatively short time. When to the common man reincarnation is itself unverified, why should he undertake a type of experimentation which, so far as he knows, may be impossible, because he may never survive to fulfill it? What he would like to see, at least, is some link between scientific investigations and Theosophy. This link it is important for the Theosophist to endeavor to clarify.
The scientist draws a distinction between theory and fact. A theory is a hypothetical explanation, a fact is a hypothesis which has been verified. Much scientific work is done purely in the realm of theory, and a good deal of work must be done before experimental situations can be worked out capable of testing the hypothesis. For every problem in science there are alternative theories of solution. Each must be worked out to its logical conclusion. The scientist often devotes himself exclusively to the development of a particular hypothesis. This is for him a risk because the hypothesis may turn out to be of no value. Yet for the pursuit of truth it is necessary that people take these risks.
The student of Theosophy finds himself in a similar position. He cannot claim that he has personally verified the whole body of knowledge which is Theosophy, or else he would not be a student. In scientific language Theosophy is then for him, whatever else it may be for others, a system of hypotheses which he is endeavoring to understand and prepare for verification -- prepare in the fullest sense which Theosophy demands. For it is part of the hypothesis, if you like, that its verification requires not only intellectual discipline, but the discipline of a way of life, knowing and acting being interdependent. He must devote himself exclusively to this discipline, and this devotion requires faith. There are alternative hypotheses which at this stage cannot be disproved, yet the theosophist is he who is willing to risk the devotion which the verification of his hypothesis requires of him. Let others who are convinced of other systems devote themselves to them. The theosophist does not attempt to compel others to subscribe to his views.
What then is the task of the theosophist? It is to understand and live the message of Theosophy; to make concrete in his individual life the ideas which have been promulgated and in turn to pass them on. It is in his living experience alone that the ideas begin to have concrete meaning, that is to say, to find their referents. His theory of knowledge is in no wise different from the general one which lies behind science, that to know is to experience. He strives always for a deeper and more comprehensive experience.
Then there is the further task of bringing his growing ideas into touch with scientific knowledge. For every scientific problem there is always the possibility of working out a solution in conformity with basic theosophical ideas. This, of course, requires an intimate knowledge of the science in which the problem arises, a knowledge which can be obtained by those who find their duty in this direction. In this way theosophical ideas are made continuous with the intellectual problems of the day.
Theosophy by no means comes in conflict with scientific method taken in the broad sense of the building up of knowledge on the basis of experience. It comes in conflict only with various philosophical interpretations of the nature and scope of science. These also the theosophist must comprehend if he is to come close to the intellectual life of his time. The task of philosophy with respect to science is critical. Science confronts problems, gathers data, constructs hypotheses and verifies them. But philosophy attempts to determine just what is to be meant by fact, meant by data; what logical assumptions must be made as to the general structure of existence; what is the meaning of truth, etc. Within limits the work of the scientist can proceed without much attention being paid to the more general philosophical issues. The scientist is often not deeply concerned with these issues, but is willing to accept the philosophical interpretation which most appeals to him. It is against some of these philosophical interpretations that the theosophist must defend himself.
It is one thing to hold that knowledge depends on experience, another to limit ourselves to a certain type of experience. If scientific investigation is not to be circumscribed it should open itself to all types of experience, though proceed with its accustomed caution. In this connection Theosophical students will find the work of Henri Bergson, the great contemporary French philosopher, very suggestive.1 He attempts to disclose the immediate data of consciousness. He rediscovered the reality of intuition for western thought. He shows how science tends to limit itself to a certain type of data. It concerns itself with that which has clear and distinct outlines, the spatial and geometrical. It neglects that which is flowing, duration and creativity. Its laws could just as well apply to a universe in which the so called successive states were all spread out instantaneously. But we need only look into our direct experience to get the idea of concrete duration. Here we do not find mutually distinct states, but interpenetrating states, growing as in the experience of a melody. Duration is the accumulation of the past within the enduring present, which is always new because it is always growing. Here is a datum which if science took into account would open up many new lines of investigation.2 For Bergson the increase of knowledge lies in the expansion of the range of consciousness. To know things truly is to "enter into" them, to have them as a part of ones direct experience. Concepts are needed whenever consciousness is restricted; they fill in the gaps of direct experience; they are schematic substitutes. It is the task of the seeker after truth to make himself one with things and thus ultimately to dispense with concepts.
To sum up: the theosophists task is to prepare himself individually and in co operation with his fellows for the verification of the principles in which he has faith and to promulgate what he knows. But just as with the scientist who is working out the implications of a theory in which he is specially interested, he requires an attitude of humility. He does not get on a band wagon and try to impress people with the idea that he knows the secrets of the universe. He is simply a seeker after truth who has faith in what he regards as the path to its attainment. He listens to all that those who earnestly seek the truth may say to him. He does not say, should he disagree, "No, you are wrong," but rather, "You are not following exactly the line of investigation I am working on; we shall have to see how these different investigations develop." In short, he is both humble and tolerant. It is this attitude which is the first essential to his coming into close contact with contemporary trends of thought, because in it he is one with the spirit of scientific investigation. This path can be followed without compromise, and yet with sympathy and understanding; It is one of the means by which men of science, if at first only the few, may be led to realize, in the words of H. P. Blavatsky, "that there may be indeed a close relation between materialistic Science, and Occultism, which is the complement and missing soul of the former."
See in particular his Time and Free Will, Creative Evolution, and An Introduction to Metaphysics.2.
The theosophist will find in this datum a concrete idea of Karma capable of indefinite expansion. Here Karma can be seen as nothing other than time maturing.