By Our Own Bootstraps

By H. R. Opdenberg

Ethics today seems at a dead end. On one side, we find the notion that the world, in spite of its orderliness and beauty, is yet the outcome of blind forces, working mechanically, without design and without aim. Moderation and high moral standards look silly in the face of such a materialistic attitude: after all, in a soulless universe, why shouldn't the descendants of the apes get away with anything as long as they are smart enough to keep out of jail? On the other side, we find the conflicting claims of the many forms of dogmatic thinking. However thickly veiled in theologies and fancies, who can guarantee that these systems are not merely human institutions? Despite their assumed lineage from some divine revelation, are they not just conventions, based on convenience and the common wish for security? So for all our intuition that harmony somehow does prevail in the cosmic spaces, otherwise a symmetrical and ordered universe would never have developed, there seems little basis for a truly scientific approach to ethics.

All ancient cultures recognized the antipodes of light and darkness, benevolence and malevolence, health-bringing and death-dealing forces in nature, and symbolized them as the conflict of Pandavas and Kurus or as Osiris and Set. But nowhere in nature do we find codes of conduct based upon mankind's limited conceptions of good and evil: positive and negative, light and darkness, antidote and poison, are embraced in the supreme law of inseparableness. The natural laws of ethics transcend human conventionalities as a living organism transcends a piece of machinery; and for us to decipher first principles means to study nature in an open, unbiased frame of mind. Universal laws must inhere in realms of spirit as well as be reflected in the most material of conditions. We are sure to find universal principles, excluding nothing, down to the very particles that make up our physical bodies. The world of these particles turns out to be as profound and unexpected as everything else we have so far found out about nature. Up to a hundred varieties of these corpuscles have been discovered at present. Most of them are extremely short-lived, and display properties far removed from the habits of matter as we know it -- or think we know it -- in everyday life. In one place particles, colliding at fantastic speeds, vanish as such and continue in the form of energic radiation. In another place a gamma ray suddenly disappears to be replaced by a pair of material particles, such as an electron and a positron, its antimatter counterpart. In short, the "basic building blocks" of the universe, so firmly believed in by generations of Western thinkers, not only have been broken down into smaller particles in high-energy physics, but these particles themselves have taken on a more fluidic look with every fresh experiment. By bringing to light the equivalence of matter and energy, by unveiling the objects of our senses as the result of the action of imponderable forces, Western thinking has once again stepped inside the circle of metaphysics. "Monads," Plato or Leibniz would have called these discrete "packages" or quanta of interacting energy, but they would not have stopped at the mere observation of energy patterns, for to them nature was not divided in watertight compartments, the one called matter, and the other called spirit.

To the penetrating insight of Leibniz the world is produced by centers of active force, which really have no extension in this world of appearances. To emphasize this he called them "mathematical points," indicating that they have no physical dimensions whatever, but are centers of action where even the division between mind and matter has disappeared. Every one of his monads is seen as a living mirror of all the others, so that in one lie concealed all the possibilities of the universe. These centers of action are as "immaterial" as the ephemeral particles described in modern physics which continually change into other particles, change into each other, and are evidently mere phases in a process of intricate interaction, endlessly extending in every direction, ultimately involving everything else in the universe. Neither energy quanta, nor elementary corpuscles, are permanent entities, but may come and go in various numbers and in various, rather unpredictable, modes.

It is now recognized that the "smallest" particles, once believed to exist independently, have only existed in our minds as idealizations convenient to work with, but without real significance. In the words of Niels Bohr, "isolated material particles are abstractions, their properties . . . being definable and observable only through their interaction with other systems (Atomic Theory and the Description of Nature, pp. 56-7.) Interaction is here the key to a universe seen as a dynamic web of interrelated events. The parts of this web take all the properties they exhibit from their relations with all the other parts of a unified whole -- "each particle helps to generate other particles, which in turn generate it" ("Strongly Interacting Particles," Scientific American, Feb. 1964, p. 93). Thus the uncountable hosts of corpuscles of the universe generate each other, that is, each center of energy plays a part in the formation of every other one. In some vital way even the tiniest center of energy interpenetrates the entire universe, and is present in every other center.

With everything participating with everything else in a self-consistent whole, nature cannot be reduced to unchanging, fundamental particles, or fundamental entities of any sort. All things perceived by the senses, and vastly more, are connected manifestations of the same ultimate reality, where everything goes into the building of everything else. As Heisenberg observed, "the universe is a participatory universe." There are no separate, disconnected things in space-time, which is organic and "ecological" throughout. The properties and structures of all natural phenomena are determined, not by eternally unchanging souls or corpuscles of matter, but by intricate interaction in the fabric of events we call nature.

It is clear that the "bootstrap philosophy" -- as this branch of modern scientific speculation is called -- has built a bridge to Buddhist and other mystical world views which have maintained all along that the universe is nothing but the outcome of karma, that is, the product of endless "action" and interaction, pulling itself up, as it were, by its own bootstraps. The creative principle, itself without form or property, wells up in every single point in space, acting from within outwards. All things are the dynamic outcome of an infinity of creative forces, controlling and shaping from within. The subtle interplay of forces never stops weaving both the visible world and the invisible, interpenetrating realms of reality, with their own beings and modes of existence, whose influences affect us deeply. Here the typically human webs of karma are woven, both the healing influences of goodwill and wisdom at one end, and the devilish influences of darkness and hatred at the other end of the scale.

In this self-determining process, without beginning or end, good and evil are productions, outcomes, like everything else, without finality, and eternally fluidic, changing for the better or for the worse, according to the quality of the action taken. Evil is discord, disharmony, the energies flowing forth from imperfect beings, pitting their self-will against each other and against nature. And precisely because these beings are part of the entire complicated tissue of events, they themselves cause misery, strife, and calamity to be the prevailing patterns of interaction. In the same way the forces and powers emanating from harmonious, relatively perfect beings, bring peace and happiness in their trail, "as the cart follows the ox." For earth's multitudes of creatures mystically constitute One Body, where mind is interlinked with mind in ever enlarging circles, eventually reaching out into regions of Cosmic Mind, the majestic fields of interaction of intelligences utterly beyond the confines of our self-imposed limitations. Neither tyrannical creator nor blind chance caused the present deplorable condition of the human race; we ourselves are responsible for it.

Somebody once remarked that mankind is motivated mainly by egoism and envy, marring human relationships individually and collectively. To expose egoism is easy enough, but tracking down envy requires a great deal more insight and searching of heart, for it is a devious master of disguise. We find it even behind activities outwardly respectable, yet always crippling creativity and freedom. However, reaction equals action in all departments of nature, and the person who blocks his neighbor in his self-expression evokes antagonism for which one day both will suffer. Not unlike environmental pollution, the effects tend to widen out and finally act and react on the whole body of humanity.

Every thought of man upon being evolved passes into the inner world and becomes an active entity by associating itself -- coalescing, we might term it -- with an elemental; that is to say with one of the semi-intelligent forces of the kingdoms. It survives as an active intelligence, a creature of the mind's begetting, . . . Thus, a good thought is perpetuated as an active beneficent power; an evil one as a maleficent demon. (First Letter of K.H. to A. O. Hume, Combined Chronology for use with the Mahatma and Blavatsky Letters to A. P. Sinnett, p. 33.)

For eternity, as essential parts of the creative forces, it is in our power to develop our full potential in a truly ecological way, unhampered and free. Certainly, one cannot be generous in any field of activity if one has nothing to give; and the moral nonentity has nothing to give. Only growth, real inner growth, will yield the strength and beauty of character, enabling one to contribute to the quality of the whole. So, restricting others means restricting oneself, means robbing all. As an exponent of the universal creative principle, everybody has his unique function in the living whole, and should be given full scope to learn his own lessons by firsthand experience, and eventually reveal his own treasures of mind and heart.

The most important manifestations of our inborn drive to self-expression are yet to come on our journey into a more mature future, and only self-piloted, full development into ever higher forms of thought-power and vision can really meet the purpose of life. All men, who are living cells in the vast body corporate of the cosmos, should be allowed to dream their own dreams, plan their own lives, and be responsible for them and, finally, grow into sturdy loveliness like the glorious wildflowers on the mountainsides.

Think of the wonderful civilization that would bloom if people would once again recognize themselves as self-conscious participants of evolution, instead of disconnected flotsam on the waves of time and matter. For we are here not as mere guests in an alien universe, whose prospect -- at best -- is to be put on the dole forever in some medievalist heaven, Copartners of cosmic life, it is up to us to raise ourselves to the ranks of the gods. After all, we are not the only thinking entities in the universe. The vast, throbbing fields of space evidently generate sentient, living beings -- from where else could our mind have sprung? Endless duration must have developed intelligent beings in wave after wave of evolutionary cycles, the harvest of all the best produced in eternities of evolution. With us lies the choice to raise ourselves to realms of light and harmony, or by wrong thinking to debase ourselves to levels of ignoble existence.

By adding to the general sum of enlightenment and loving respect for the deep purpose of every life, we will gradually establish a new continent of thought, a new mind for the human race. Then, not only unprecedented liberty and mutual helpfulness will develop, but also a new communion with the heart of nature. The earth will be reshaped by its inhabitants into one of the islands of the blessed. The modern bootstrap philosophy is, no doubt, but a fledgling compared with its ancient prototype, yet its birth could well presage a reawakening to deeper realities, with riches of heart and intellect surpassing anything in known history.

(From Sunrise magazine, February 1980. Copyright © 1980 by Theosophical University Press)

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