Modern Science, Ancient Wisdom

By Sarah Belle Dougherty
Help Nature and work on with her; and Nature will regard thee as one of her creators and make obeisance.
And she will open wide before thee the portals of her secret chambers, lay bare before thy gaze the treasures hidden in the very depths of her pure virgin bosom. -- H. P. Blavatsky, The Voice of the Silence, p. 14

Modern science and ancient wisdom share many prerequisites for their explorations: curiosity, keen observation, self-discipline, impersonality, cooperation with one's co-workers, and verifying data and hypotheses for oneself. Also important are intellectual mastery of a body of relevant knowledge and the need for training. The more extensive the training, the more advanced the research that may be undertaken. These techniques throughout time have made the scientist, the "knower."

The differences between ancient and modern investigations of nature arise largely in their underlying assumptions. Modern science, whatever the private views of its practitioners, posits a material universe which can be explained completely by understanding matter and its organization. Materialism, of course, is as old as thinking man, yet how its many varieties compare with scientific materialism depends on the definitions given to concepts such as matter, life, and consciousness. The theosophic tradition, on the other hand, sees consciousness, life, and substance as inseparable aspects of an underlying reality which encompasses everything while simultaneously being its inmost essence. This underlying unity is the basis of all phenomena, internal and external. As the fundamental organizing principle, it transcends even primal dualities such as time and space, matter and consciousness, and self and non-self. Intellect and reason, the tools of modern science, are very useful for investigating the world of appearances but inadequate for comprehending its underlying unity.

For all its presumed originality, modern science is largely rooted in ancient traditions. It was shaped in reaction to, and continues in many subtle ways to reflect, Christian thought. It also draws heavily on the ancient Greeks and more recently on Asian and other world thought as scientists search for insight into the complex and often paradoxical findings that confront them, particularly in the atomic, astronomical, and psychological realms. Greater use of mythic, religious, philosophic, and scientific knowledge from other cultures could further illuminate current investigations, reveal blind spots, reduce dogmatism, and suggest new issues and approaches for research.

Those unfriendly to modern science most frequently criticize its various technological applications. Of course the harmful use of any knowledge is firmly rooted in ignorance, greed, selfishness, fear, and aggression. Science itself, however, has on the whole been a beneficial force. By requiring objective, replicable, public data as the basis for claims, it has diminished the hold of superstition and priestcraft. Its greatest limitation is self-imposed: by cutting itself off from immaterial phenomena -- abandoned as the province of religion due to the stifling and threatening influence of the Christian churches on intellectual life -- it ignores or denies the reality of nonphysical phenomena or explains them as byproducts of matter. But the presumed claim of causation between matter and nonmaterial or psychological phenomena has never been demonstrated or explained. Hence the assertion that matter forms the basis of such phenomena is no more than an unwarranted assumption or blind faith. Still, it would be a challenge to introduce the investigation of nonmaterial realities into science without reviving the credulous dependence on authority that has been the bane of dogmatic religions. Even today fantasies accepted as spiritual, psychological, and physical realities abound, based on the assertions of visionaries, gurus, con men -- and scientists. The history of science itself is a graveyard of currently discredited but once believed "realities." The consequences of a mistaken view of reality can be profound -- in our expectations for ourselves, individually and culturally; in what we are willing to accept as normal and natural; and in the means and ends we consider acceptable and worth pursuing.

Only by becoming independent thinkers, skeptical but not cynical, can we hope to discern the valid from the erroneous among theories presented by whatever source. Consciousness, the primary means of human discovery, includes much more than the intellect and senses, yet just as our mind and senses can be deceived, so can other aspects of our awareness. By weighing carefully what we are told by others and by trying to prove all things for ourselves as far as we are able, we can seek to apply our finest judgment and sense of humanity to all we encounter intellectually, technologically, socially, and psychologically. But attaining wisdom requires more: striving to see the unity behind diversity and living with compassionate understanding. As we become proficient in the use of higher ranges of our consciousness, new vistas of experiential knowledge will open before us that cannot be expressed in words or systematized by reason. For nature

shows her treasures only to the eye of Spirit -- the eye which never closes, the eye for which there is no veil in all her kingdoms.
Then will she show thee the means and the way . . . [and] the goal -- beyond which lie, bathed in the sunlight of the Spirit, glories untold, unseen by any save the eye of Soul. -- The Voice of the Silence, pp. 14-15

By working in harmony with nature, in time we will become creators with the penetrating vision to understand an ever-widening range of phenomena. Our conscious awareness eventually will reach toward the root of our own being while at the same time encompassing the planet and each and all of her inhabitants, from core to outer atmosphere, material, energic, psychological, and spiritual, inner and outer. And that will be just the beginning of our new-old scientific exploration of the cosmos in its infinity.

(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 2003; copyright © 2003 Theosophical University Press)

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