The Newsletter of the Northwest Branch of the Theosophical Society
July 2010 – Vol. 13 Issue 5
Theosophy rests on three fundamental propositions, containing within them the sweep of cosmic knowledge. First, there is an eternal, immutable principle from which all we know issues forth, a principle that is beyond human ability to comprehend or put into words. Second, the known or manifest cosmos regularly appears and disappears, encompassing cycles ranging from great eons of time down to our own round of some 72 years and the minuscule time periods of the subatomic world. Third, these cyclic appearances of galactic, solar and terrestrial systems provide the opportunity for all the beings in them to evolve through a series of transmuting conditions, first by natural impulse and then by self-devised efforts. In simple terms, the Unknowable periodically sends forth part of itself to experience all that it is, and it does this throughout infinite duration.
Concentrating on the visible universe about us, we can by experience and deductive reasoning learn to understand its operations and structure. Due to the fact that it issues forth from one supernal parent, we realize that all is one. Moreover, beyond our extremely limited visible range, all Nature is occultly connected by conscious, self-conscious and concealed patterns of ideation, webbed intricately from the world of human endeavors to the heart of cosmic life. This vast series of beings is interconnected by streams of thought or awareness, some of which take on physical bodies as their most material manifestation. They form the universe we see around us, including ourselves. The inherent occult links among all beings mean that they are one at their core. Thus, we are one humanity living individual lives which cannot help but affect not only the individuals, but also the whole of humanity and the whole of the cosmos in varying degrees.
This unseen fabric of life, with its properties and principles, forms the backdrop which Nature builds on – an inherent ‘grid for good,’ as we might picture the ethical basis of life. Everything derives impulse and direction from this great ‘grid’ of conscious forces which has its roots in the unknowable, the ineffable. It sends its impulses throughout Nature as an inner vital force which helps propel our own efforts through our lives. So when we act in this phenomenal world that we help to build – in body, in society, in general – we create our own self-born impulses which reflect wants, needs, and desires. When these impulses and movements are in harmony with the ethical grid, they are in accord with the inherent flow of Nature and find the path of least resistance. When they attempt to work contrary to the natural flow of life, they impede it and create counter-impulses to the smooth current of life. They become causes which eventually manifest as an effect which attempts to straighten out the inverse impulse that attempted in degree to break down life. For a long time civilizations have called this rectifying process by names like divine wrath or nemesis. Others pictured it as karma: the inherent system of perfect justice equilibrating all contraries in accordance with divine law or the grid of good.
The ethics taught by the founders and teachers of the world’s great spiritual traditions are based on cosmic law, and therefore they are cosmic ethics. When we work in harmony with these cosmic ethical principles we will find an easier path because it is a simpler path, one not merely defined or imposed by society but conforming to the workings of nature itself. Of course ‘easier’ does not mean there will be no hardships or tests or suffering, for that is how Nature teaches. But it is easier in the sense that there is no wavering between paths, or choices between this and that, for there is only a choice for love and life and kindness rather than a self-absorbed or selfish attachment to that which can never really be ours. Instead of a small sphere of activity, we have the whole world, the whole cosmos, to affect for good. As H. P. Blavatsky wrote in her The Voice of the Silence, “Help Nature and work on with her and Nature will regard thee as one of her creators and make obeisance.” – Scott Osterhage
While we may not be able to control all that happens to us, we can control what happens inside us. – Benjamin Franklin
Join us one Tuesday a month for informal conversations exploring major ideas that have influenced human thought and actions through the ages. This month we’ll be focusing on Evolution. What is the process of evolution, on earth and in the cosmos? Why is this idea so powerful, and so controversial? Does belief in change in organisms over time necessarily involve materialism and naturalism? Does evolution act in individuals and on consciousness as well as on groups and bodies? Is there any area of life or knowledge that shouldn’t be viewed evolutionarily? What meaning does evolution have in our lives, and where might it be heading in the future? (Here are some quotes to get the discussion started.) We hope to see you there!
August 3: Do No Harm
September 7: Relativity: Scientific, Philosophic
November: The Oneness of Life
Why is it that evidence one person finds compelling, another dismisses as unconvincing? Sometimes it’s the merits of the case, but often these are irrelevant. Human minds are so made that what we already believe is generally what persuades us of the truth or falsity of anything before us, particularly something with ramifications for our views. Our minds are rarely open: our opinions and assumptions, our self-interest and experience, the beliefs and groups we identify with together form our own personal “authority” against which everything that comes to us is measured and judged. Whatever contradicts this must overcome strong, and usually overpowering, emotional and mental resistance.
This aspect of the human psyche comes into play with the idea of evolution. Why is this among the most controversial scientific subjects? In biologist Kenneth R. Miller’s opinion: “Evolution affects each of us in ways far more personal than atomic theory or the germ theory of disease. Evolution speaks directly to our conception of who we are, where we come from, and how we should regard ourselves with respect to the rest of the living world.” Moreover, “many regard evolution as the cutting edge of a dangerous and destructive movement – a drive to secularize society and to undermine the traditional values . . . if evolution threatens the moral foundation of society, the issue of whether it is scientifically correct is secondary. It’s a dangerous idea, and that’s all that matters.” (Only a Theory, p. 193)
Scientific evolution does threaten many traditional accounts when they are taken literally. While some believers interpret teachings or scriptures allegorically, many are not content with this. They want to know the real story of who they are and where they came from and at the same time are committed to particular revelations, texts, or teachings which give their lives meaning and direction. Darwinian evolution is of course well known to contradict biblical stories of creation and humanity’s relationship to the rest of life. It offers natural explanations for what is attributed to a divine Creator with a special relationship to mankind. Even the fact that natural selection means that suffering existed in nature from the beginning is unacceptable to those who feel God created a “good” world which only became subject to death and misery because of Adam’s Fall. In this way it is a second Copernican revolution: the first removed earth from the center of the universe, while evolution removes humanity from the center of nature. This makes traditional dramas star-ring mankind no longer the crucial events in earth’s history.
Those whose beliefs are contradicted may cope with disparities by denying the validity of certain scientific findings or techniques; cherry picking scientific results that reinforce their beliefs while maintaining that science will eventually ‘come around’ on positions where they disagree; describing science as merely one account among other equally valid ones; or holding that science and metaphysics are non-overlapping spheres. By far the point of greatest conflict is denial of the need for spiritual forces and beings in explaining the development and workings of the physical world. Science by definition deals only with the empirical, but materialism (nothing exists but matter) and naturalism (irrelevance or nonexistence of the supernatural) are metaphysical claims. To reintroduce spiritual elements, some support religiously inspired alternatives like Intelligent Design. But manipulating empirical science to conform to metaphysics is an old game. Dr. Miller, along with many others, shows convincingly that current design theory is rooted in ideology not science. It rests on claims of necessary ignorance that erode as scientific knowledge increases. A cell biologist, he has compelling replies to irreducible complexity and the development of complex biological systems. He also points out that we can see evolution and natural selection at work today – among bacteria, for example, as they adapt to antibiotics.
Our view of scientific evolution comes down to what we recognize as authoritative: tradition or empirical evidence. Do we already know the course of natural history independent of any empirical evidence, or do we adjust our views in light of present empirical evidence? We each have a large stake in our own outlook; in many ways it’s who we think we are. Still, preserving the empirical nature of science so its theories and research aren’t once again circumscribed, distorted or dictated by any group’s metaphysical ‘truths’ seems to me of vital importance. For while spiritual literalists evaluate evidence in light of their scriptures and authorities, scientists in the end must hold their theories to all the empirical evidence, which makes science self-correcting over time.
Evolutionary science explains the unity of life by its history, whereby all species have arisen from common ancestors over the past 4 billion years. It explains the diversity and the characteristics of organisms, both adaptive and nonadaptive, by processes of genetic change, influenced by environmental circumstances. . . . Some of this history is recorded in the fossil record, which documents simple, bacteria-like life as far back as 3.5 billion years ago, followed by a long history of diversification, modification, and extinction. The evidence for descent from common ancestors lies also in the common characteristics of living organisms, including their anatomy, embryological development, and DNA. – Douglas J. Futuyma
It is one thing to embrace without reservation the Darwinian account of the origins of mankind and its assertion that universal suffering and death occurred long before the first Homo sapiens appeared on the earth, quite another to square this with the Bible. . . . this scenario seems to be in conflict with the data of biblical theology and its account of God’s perfect creation in the beginning. – Greg Haslam
Buddhist philosophy is evolutionary. Buddha taught that all things are impermanent, constantly arising, becoming, changing and fading. – Sean Robsville
I died as mineral, and became a plant
I died as plant and rose to animal,
I died as animal and I was Man.
Why should I fear, when was I less by dying?
Yet once more I shall die as Man, to soar
With angels blest; but even from angelhood I must pass on: . . . – Rumi, Mathnawi
The very fact that the universe is creative, and that the laws have permitted complex structures to emerge and develop to the point of consciousness – in other words, that the universe has organized its own self-awareness – is for me powerful evidence that there is “something going on” behind it all. The impression of design is overwhelming. – Paul Davies, Cosmic Blueprint
. . . The story evolutionary science can tell is grander and more sweeping than any just-so narrative concocted by the pretenders of intelligent design. Evolution tells us that we have a history on this planet, a history we share with every living organism. Our ancestors survived the great extinctions that nearly snuffed out life on planet Earth. They found a body plan that could produce limbs adapted for walking, running, climbing, swimming, and even flying. These adaptations explain why even today the genes that produce our forelimbs are the same ones that control the development of fins. They explain why the same DNA sequences that tell human cells to become photoreceptors will produce eyes in a fly, and why the same proteins that control cell division in yeasts will work in humans. We not only know where we came from, but increasingly we know how we got here, too.
Evolution is not just a better story, a drama with more plot twists and cliffhangers than design could ever imagine, but is has the added advantage of actually being true. It’s more than a clever turn of phrase or a crafty way of looking for gaps in understanding into which we can plug a “designer.” Evolution is a powerful and expanding theory that unites knowledge from every branch of the life sciences. Paleontologists now sit down with geneticists and developmental biologists to compare notes, and they find that changes over geologic time can be explained by the very genes that regulate development and growth today. Evolution draws all of biology into a single science. . . .
Evolution affects each of us in ways far more personal than atomic theory or the germ theory of disease. Evolution speaks directly to our conception of who we are, where we come from , and how we should regard ourselves with respect to the rest of the living world. Like it or not, evolution hits us right where we live. That’s one of the reasons why it provokes such strong reactions. The other . . . is because many regard evolution as the cutting edge of a dangerous and destructive movement – a drive to secularize society and to undermine the traditional values that they believe have built our country. For many Americans, if evolution threatens the moral foundation of society, the issue of whether it is scientifically correct is secondary. It’s a dangerous idea, and that’s all that matters. – Kenneth R. Miller, Only a Theory
. . . even if in the beginning God had given the world only the form of a chaos, provided that he established the laws of nature and then lent his concurrence to enable nature to operate as it normally does, we may believe without impugning the miracle of creation that by this means alone all purely material things could in the course of time have come to be just as we now see them. And their nature is much easier to conceive if we see them develop gradually in this way than if we consider them only in their completed form. – Rene Descartes
All vertebrates develop a similar body plan as embryos, an arrangement consisting of a notochord, body segments, pharyngeal pouches, and other structures. The commonality of the developmental program among vertebrates is a reflection of a shared evolutionary history. Even more significant, and this is confirmed by overwhelming evidence that researchers have gathered in recent years, it is clear that development in different animals is controlled by common genetic mechanisms, a watershed in our understanding of prenatal human development from conception to birth. – Dan Agin, More than Genes
Neo-Darwinism, in the Gaian perspective, must be intellectually dismissed as a minor, twentieth-century sect within the sprawling religious persuasion of Anglo-Saxon biology. – Lynn Margulis
. . . paleontologists have discovered several superb examples of intermediary forms and sequences, more than enough to convince any fair-minded skeptic about the reality of life's physical genealogy. –Stephen Jay Gould
Thus we find evolution and ecology occur at three fundamental levels;
i) Cultural: This applies to the evolution and ecology of knowledge, both in individual minds and the collective knowledge of their society (in books, films, computers, etc.). Richard Dawkins coined the term 'Memes' to describe these evolving ideas of humans which replicate by being communicated and remembered by human minds.
ii) Biological/Darwinian: To understand life on earth it is necessary to understand its evolution (over several billion years) and the complex ecology of life that evolves in both competition and cooperation with other life (Nature). This is obviously critical to understanding our own life and health in conjunction with all other life on earth. e.g. humans have more non-human cells than human in their body, where this ecology of life that has evolved within us is necessary for our survival.
iii) Physical Reality: Modern physics confirms that matter is interconnected with all other matter in the universe (both locally and non-locally) and that the universe is in a continual state of change. It is this fundamental evolution and ecology of physical reality that drives both our biological and cultural evolution. – Geoff Haselhurst & Karene Howie