Though we here in the West now commonly acknowledge that our whole earthly world, with all its vast continents and even larger seas, actually seems atomic in size compared to the galaxy, such a humble outlook was not always so ordinary. For centuries the church pronounced with invincible authority that the earth was at the center of the universe, and that all the immense expanse of earth and heaven was created solely for mankind's use and edification.
Fortunately not everyone was convinced by ecclesiastical declarations. In his masterwork, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, Nicolaus Copernicus challenged this very ungodlike human conceit. While he had essentially completed the book as early as 1530, the political and religious climate of his time was so stifling that he delayed its publication until the year of his death, 1543. This book exerted such a great influence on Western culture that it not only established Copernicus as one of the founders of modern astronomy, but also opened a doorway into the investigation of nature through which other unbiased minds, such as Kepler and Newton, could later enter and further dispel the darkness of human dogmatism.
But today, of course, we pride ourselves on being far too scientifically sophisticated to take seriously the world view of our medieval counterparts. Yet have we not perhaps simply recast our self-centered presumptions into a slightly more subtle but just as dogmatic mold? As astronomer Carl Sagan points out in his book The Cosmic Connection, (Doubleday, New York, 1973, $7.95.) it is only very recently that more than a handful of astronomers have been openly willing to suppose that, in the vast majority of cases, stars have planets circling them. Consequently, the larger question of living, evolving and particularly of intelligent beings inhabiting other solar systems had been considered a fine subject for science fiction, but not for genuine science. Dr. Sagan and others like him are now drastically changing this prejudicial attitude in the scientific community. Indeed, the entire spectrum of researchers now seem to be trying to rise above the atmosphere of negativism, the tendency toward unsubstantiated denial that has hung over them for so long. For example, astronomers believed for decades that solar systems were rare simply because little evidence of them was available. Now, however, new studies favor the idea of a multiplicity of solar systems. In fact, current astronomical theories are beginning to resemble the earlier nebular hypothesis of solar system formation. In this old belief stars and planets were thought to slowly condense from very tenuous 'clouds' of matter into the relatively concrete globes we see today. Although the modern conception is limited to the purely material aspects of this idea, both the present and the ancient views hold planetary systems to be the rule rather than the exception throughout the universe.
Modern biology has also aided in broadening the scientific perspective. It teaches that wherever the necessary chemicals are present in approximately the right proportions, and under appropriate pressure and temperature, amino acids, the so-called building blocks of life, will eventually form. From these a few types of simple reproducing organisms are supposed nearly always to result. Then, the theory goes on to say, a myriad of living beings proceeds to evolve by fits and starts through the process of 'natural selection.' Furthermore, as the modern Darwinian evolutionists believe in no special theological creation of mankind, they postulate that perhaps thousands, if not millions, of potentially life-bearing planets have existed long enough to produce beings whose intelligence is equal to or greater than our own.
Yet this theory is not without its inconsistencies. For instance, it officially insists that none of the matter which forms the bodies of living organisms is in any way alive itself. Rather, life is defined in terms of certain physical processes -- such as eating, growing, reproducing, and so on. Hence the paradox of this way of thinking: life is seen as some sort of superexistence that spontaneously springs up from that which has not the slightest hint of this quality itself. Moreover, while conditions favorable to life are thought to occur on a great many planets, only an infinitesimal fraction of any planet's bulk is considered to be directly utilized by living organisms. As such, life becomes the rarest of exceptions in an overwhelmingly lifeless universe.
The ancient view began with quite different premises and ran along different lines of thought. Instead of seeing life as unusual, the early belief was that life is the universal rule of the cosmos, and that 'matter' or substance, of whatever grade or quality, is only one manifestation of life per se. In other words, it was held that the universe is filled with life in the form of consciousness centers, hence of "living atoms" having varying ranges of activity. So pervasive were these ideas in antiquity that many authors could assume that any serious student would surely consider their writings within this background of thought. For instance, when we use this context to interpret the sometimes obscure "atomistic" teachings of the Greek philosopher Democritus, we can readily discover that what we call physical atoms, he saw as the veils of substance, of concreted consciousness, that surround a spiritual center of being. Moreover, his writings contain implicitly the idea that we too are 'atoms,' consciousness centers of such relatively vast power and complexity that we include within us a virtual galaxy of these tiny atomic beings; and that we in turn are star-like atoms within a correspondingly far vaster being.
From this perspective the overall outline of the evolutionary path is the same for all members of every hierarchy. Every atomic center, of whatever degree from the elemental to the supergalactic, initially lies latent, seemingly " hidden in the darkness." Actually "darkness" or "the void" are only symbols for that which we as manifested beings are utterly unable to perceive. Gradually the centers waken into manifested life, bringing forth from themselves tenuous veils of substance. In the course of aeons these robes become more and more concrete, ever more dense and confining. In the later stages of this process a great drama begins as some of these centers quicken to the comparative freedom and responsibility of self-consciousness. Regardless of the globe or sphere of action involved, any beings newly entered into this state were considered to be at a level analogous to the earliest races of mankind. Since this process was described as recurring cyclically on all the various planetary and solar globes, the idea of many, many mankinds evolving throughout the galaxies followed quite naturally.
Yet the ancient understanding did not stop there. It held that eventually a midpoint of manifestation would be reached. Thereafter the process of denser and denser veils forming around the centers reverses, and substance begins to etherealize back into spirit. As the medieval alchemists expressed it, the base, leaden, personalized matter is to be transmuted into the gold of benevolent spiritual individuality. Those who make the effort, it was believed, would rise up with this grand flow of substance involuting back into spirit.
From the standpoint of a being in manifestation, the end of this cycle occurs when everything seemingly dissolves back into what, once again, we can only call "the void," because completely unknowable to us now. This ebb and flow of material being was believed to recur throughout eternity -- that which had been less perfect ever lifting itself up, expanding the scope of its consciousness and growing into greater and truer harmony with all that is.
These timeless conceptions are a far cry from the relatively materialistic disputations of present-day science on the subject of extraterrestrial life. Yet it would be foolish to suggest that our scientific theories are consequently valueless. For they tell us with a strong and clear voice that we are indeed children of the cosmos. In fact, the name Dr. Sagan uses for the human kingdom is 'starfolk,' referring to the modern astronomical notion that the very matter which makes up our bodies once helped to form the body of a star. Thus the current attitudes of Western mankind represent a huge advance in the range and power of thought over that of the commonly accepted medieval orthodoxy. Perhaps the process will continue. Perhaps a new and wide-ranging philosophy will develop when men begin to recognize the overlooked implications present in the cautiously drawn conclusions of today's science. Who knows, in time the cycling streams of thought may flow full circle, and those very old ideas and ideals once again be found ever new, ever young, ever alive and growing.
(From Sunrise magazine, August-September 1974; copyright © 1974 Theosophical University Press)