Reductionism is the belief that everything can be understood by dissecting it into its simplest and "fundamental" component parts. It holds that psychology can be reduced to biology, biology to chemistry, and chemistry to physics. Many scientists are even trying to reduce the whole universe to a single formula, or Lagrangian, which will supposedly explain everything. Paul Davies writes:
This belief that all things ultimately flow from the fundamental Lagrangian goes almost unquestioned in the physics community. It has been succinctly expressed by Leon Lederman, director of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory near Chicago: "We hope to explain the entire universe in a single, simple formula that you can wear on your T-shirt." -- The Cosmic Blueprint, 1989, p. 13.
These scientists sincerely believe that they are a short step away from such a "Theory of Everything."
A hundred years ago, classical physicists suffered from a similar overconfidence, but their view of the world was overthrown by the revolutions of relativity theory and quantum mechanics. In the last century most scientists believed that the fundamental constituents of the material world were lifeless, indivisible atoms, analogous to little billiard balls. The random motion of these atoms was believed to have given rise to the amazing order and complexity of the universe and eventually to living, conscious beings. All this was assumed to have come about without any form of intelligent guidance. Indeed, mind and intelligence were considered to be no more than by-products of the molecular motion in our brains.
Subsequent advances in quantum physics have helped undermine this worldview. Virtually all the founders of modern physics became mystics, including Einstein, Schrödinger, Heisenberg, De Broglie, Planck, and Pauli. They discovered that to go beyond the shadows which we mistake for the real world was to go beyond physics altogether and into metaphysics. Many came to the conclusion that far from being a derivative of matter, consciousness is fundamental.
Since the turn of the century physicists have penetrated deep into the structure of the atom. It is now known that atoms are not indivisible: they are mostly empty space, and consist of a tiny nucleus of protons and neutrons with clouds of minuscule electrons whirling around it. Subatomic particles are not hard and solid either; they are considered concentrated points of energy, which behave sometimes like particles and sometimes like waves. In the 1930s the scientist Sir James Jeans wrote:
the tendency of modem physics is to resolve the whole material universe into waves, and nothing but waves. These waves are of two kinds: bottled-up waves, which we call matter, and unbottled waves, which we call radiation or light. If annihilation of matter occurs, the process is merely that of unbottling imprisoned wave-energy and setting it free to travel through space. These concepts reduce the whole universe to a world of light, potential or existent . . . . -- The Mysterious Universe, 1931, p. 83.
The idea of matter being crystallized light echoes what H. P. Blavatsky wrote half a century earlier in The Secret Doctrine, where she speaks of "that infinite Ocean of Light, whose one pole is pure Spirit lost in the absoluteness of Non-Being, and the other, the matter in which it condenses, crystallizing into a more and more gross type as it descends into manifestation" (The Secret Doctrine, 1:481). Material particles, she said, were infinitely divisible centers of force, and matter could therefore exist in infinitely varying degrees of density. Our physical senses have been evolved to perceive only one particular plane of matter, which is interpenetrated by countless other worlds or planes invisible to us because composed of ranges of energy-substance both finer and grosser than our own.
Modern science has analyzed matter down to the point where it vanishes into wisps of energy. Energy is said to be a measure of motion or activity. But motion of what? It is a truism that there can be no motion without something that moves. Scientists in the last century believed that wave-motion took place in a universal medium called the ether. Early this century, however, this hypothesis was abandoned because the ether proved to be chemically and physically undetectable, and science was left with the unlikely idea that waves are transmitted through "empty space."
Modern physicists believe that underlying the material world there is a quantum field, also called the quantum void or vacuum. The quantum field is said to be "a continuous medium which is present everywhere in space" (The Tao of Physics, 1984, p. 196) and matter is said to be constituted by regions of space in which the field is extremely intense. Scientists assert that the quantum field is non-material, but deny that it is mere nothingness. Paul Davies states that the quantum void is not inert and featureless but throbbing with energy and vitality, a seething ferment of "Virtual" particles and "ghost" particles. (Superforce, 1985, pp. 104-6) It therefore seems to be actually a form of ether, which is non-material only in the sense that it is not composed of physical matter. Rather than material particles being "knots of nothingness," as Davies calls them, they may therefore be seen as vibrations in an etheric medium composed of a subtler, superphysical grade of substance. The same reasoning applies to all the other "non-material" fields and forces postulated by science.
Everything is relative. Physical matter is condensed energy, but what for us is energy would be matter for beings on a higher plane than ours, as is suggested by the fact that energy does not exist in a continuous flow but is composed of discrete units or quanta. Likewise, the energy on the next plane would be matter to an even higher plane. The loftiest form of energy in any particular hierarchy of worlds is what we call spirit or consciousness. As H. P. Blavatsky put it: "Spirit is matter on the seventh plane; matter is Spirit - on the lowest point of its cyclic activity; and both -- are MAYA." (The Secret Doctrine, 1:633). To say that spirit and matter are "maya" or illusion does not mean that they do not exist, but that we do not understand them as they really are. Any particular plane of energy-substance can be understood only with reference to superior, causal planes. Everything -- from atom to human, from star to universe -- is the expression of something higher.
Throughout the ages, sages and seers have suggested that hidden within the phenomenal world in which we live there are inner worlds of reality -- astral, mental, and spiritual -- and that the physical world is but a pale shadow of the spiritual world. These inner worlds cannot be investigated with physical instruments, but only by delving into the depths of our own minds and consciousness, and this requires many lives of self-purification and self-conquest. Scientists using only materialistic methods are in no position to deny point-blank the possibility of such higher planes.
Most scientists, in fact, now believe that some 90% of the matter in the universe exists in a state unknown to them; it is called "dark matter" because it is physically unobservable, and its existence is known of only by its gravitational effects. Such matter is suggestive of the higher subplanes and planes postulated by theosophy, which are composed of matter of increasingly slower rates of vibration and are therefore beyond our range of perception.
Given scientists' confessed ignorance of most of the matter in the universe and their inability to explain satisfactorily the evolution of life and consciousness and the "laws of nature" along materialistic lines, any suggestion that they are on the verge of discovering the innermost secrets of nature or of reducing the mystery of existence to a single equation is premature to say the least!
In theosophical philosophy, the physical universe is regarded as no more than a cross section through infinitude. Universal nature is composed of worlds within worlds within worlds, filled full of conscious, living beings at infinitely varying stages of their evolutionary awakenment. Our finite minds cannot embrace the infinite. As G. de Purucker says in his Fundamentals of the Esoteric Philosophy (p . 216), we can do no more than to try and form a simple conception of the Boundless All: never-ending life and consciousness in unceasing motion everywhere. . The ancients, he says, were never so foolish as to try to fathom infinitude. They recognized the reality of being and let it go at that, knowing that an ever-expanding consciousness and an ever-growing understanding of existence is all that we can ever attain to during our eternal evolutionary journey through the fields of infinitude.
(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1992. Copyright © 1992 by Theosophical University Press)