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Cosmic Memory

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Sketch of Rudolf Steiner lecturing at the East-West Conference in Vienna.

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Cosmic Memory

On-line since: 31st March, 2008

Contemporary Civilization in the Mirror of the Science of the Spirit (1904)

THE OBSERVER of the course of scientific development in the last decades cannot doubt that a great revolution is in preparation. Today when a scientist talks about the so-called enigmas of existence, it sounds quite different than it did a short time ago.

Around the middle of the nineteenth century some of the most daring spirits saw in scientific materialism the only creed possible to one familiar with the then recent results of research. The blunt saying of that time has become famous: “Thoughts stand in about the same relationship to the brain as gall to the liver.” This was stated by Karl Vogt, who in his Köhlerglauben und Wissenschaft (Blind Faith and Science) and in other writings, declared everything to be superannuated which did not make spiritual activity and the life of the soul proceed from the mechanism of the nervous system and of the brain in the same manner in which the physicist explains that the movement of the hands proceeds from the mechanism of the clock. That was the time when Ludwig Buechner's Kraft und Stoff (Force and Matter) became a sort of gospel among wide circles of the educated. One may well say that excellent, independently thinking minds came to such convictions because of the powerful impression made by the successes of science in those times. A short time before, the microscope had shown the synthesis of living beings out of their smallest parts, the cells. Geology, the science of the formation of the earth, had come to the point of explaining the development of the planets in terms of the same laws which still operate today. Darwinism promised to explain the origin of man in a completely natural way and began its victorious course through the educated world so auspiciously that for many it seemed to dispose of all “old belief.” A short time ago, all this became quite different. It is true that stragglers who adhere to these opinions can still be found in men like Ladenburg at the Congress of Scientists in 1903, who proclaim the materialistic gospel; but against them stand others who have arrived at a quite different way of speaking through more mature reflection on scientific questions. A work has just appeared which bears the title, Naturwissenschaft und Weltanschauung (Science and World Conception). Its author is Max Verworn, a physiologist of the school of Haeckel. In this work one can read the following: “Indeed, even if we possessed the most complete knowledge of the physiological events in the cells and fibers of the cerebral cortex with which psychic events are connected, even if we could look into the mechanism of the brain as we look into the works of a clock, we would never find anything but moving atoms. No human being could see or otherwise perceive through his senses how sensations and ideas arise in this mechanism. The results which the materialistic conception has obtained in its attempt to trace mental processes back to the movements of atoms illustrates its efficiency very clearly. As long as the materialistic conception has existed, it has not explained the simplest sensation by movements of atoms. Thus it has been and thus it will be in future. How could it be conceivable that things which are not perceptible by the senses, such as the psychic processes, could ever be explained by a mere splitting up of large bodies into their smallest parts? The atom is still a body after all, and no movement of atoms is ever capable of bridging the gulf between the material world and the psyche. However fruitful the materialistic point of view has been as a scientific working hypothesis, however fruitful it will doubtless remain in this sense in the future — I point only to the successes of structural chemistry — just as useless is it as the basis for a world conception. Here it shows itself to be too narrow. Philosophical materialism has finished playing its historical role. This attempt at a scientific world conception has failed for ever.” Thus, at the beginning of the twentieth century, a scientist speaks about the conception which around the middle of the nineteenth was proclaimed as a new gospel demanded by the advances of science.

It is especially the 'fifties, the 'sixties, and the 'seventies of the nineteenth century which may be designated as the years of the high tide of materialism. The explanation of mental and spiritual phenomena on the basis of purely mechanical processes exercised a really fascinating influence at that time. The materialists could tell themselves that they had won a victory over the adherents of a spiritual world conception. Those also who had not started from scientific studies joined their ranks. While Buechner, Vogt, Moleschott and others still built on purely scientific premises, in his Alten und neuen Glauben (Old and New Belief, 1872), David Friedrich Strauss attempted to obtain bases for the new creed from his theological and philosophical ideas. Decades before he had already intervened in the intellectual life with his Leben Jesu (Life of Jesus) in a manner which caused a sensation. He seemed to be equipped with the full theological and philosophical culture of his time. He now said boldly that the materialistic explanation of the phenomena of the universe, including man, had to form the basis for a new gospel, for a new moral comprehension and formation of existence. The descent of man from purely animal ancestors seemed about to become a new dogma, and in the eyes of scientific philosophers, all adherence to spiritual-soul origin of our race amounted to an antiquated superstition from the infancy of mankind, with which one did not have to disturb oneself further.

The historians of culture came to the aid of those who built on the new science. The customs and ideas of savage tribes were made the object of study. The remains of primitive cultures, which are dug out of the ground like the bones of prehistoric animals and the impressions of extinct plants were to bear witness to the fact that at his first appearance on earth man was distinguished only in degree from the higher animals, and that mentally and spiritually he had risen to his present eminence from the level of animalism pure and simple. A time had come when everything in this materialistic edifice seemed to be right. Under a kind of coercion which the ideas of the time exercised on them, men thought as a faithful materialist has written: “The assiduous study of science has brought me to the point where I accept everything calmly, bear the inevitable patiently, and for the rest help in the work of gradually reducing the misery of mankind. The fantastic consolations which a credulous mind seeks in marvelous formulas I can renounce all the more easily since my imagination receives the most beautiful stimulation through literature and art. When I follow the plot of a great drama or, under the guidance of scientists, make a journey to other stars, an excursion through prehistoric landscapes, when I admire the majesty of nature on mountain peaks or venerate the art of man in tones and colors, do I not then have enough of the elevating? Do I then still need something which contradicts my reason? The fear of death, which torments so many of the pious, is completely unknown to me. I know that I no more survive after my body decays than I lived before my birth. The agonies of purgatory and of hell do not exist for me. I return to the boundless realm of Nature, who embraces all her children lovingly. My life was not in vain. I have made good use of the strength which I possessed. I depart from earth in the firm belief that everything will become better and more beautiful.” Vom Glauben zum Wissen. Ein lehrreicher Entwickelungsgang getreu nach dem Leben geschildert von Kuno Freidank. (On the Belief in Knowledge. An Instructive Course of Development Described in a Manner Faithfully True to Life by Kuno Freidank.) Many people who are still subject to the compulsive ideas which acted upon the representatives of the materialistic world conception in the time mentioned above, also think in this manner today.

Those however who tried to maintain themselves on the heights of scientific thought have come to other ideas. The first reply to scientific materialism, made by an eminent scientist at the Congress of Scientists in Leipzig (1876), has become famous. Du Bois-Reymond at that time made his “Ignorabimus speech.” He tried to demonstrate that this scientific materialism could in fact do nothing but ascertain the movements of the smallest material particles, and he demanded that it should be satisfied with doing this. But he emphasized at the same time that in doing this it contributes absolutely nothing to an explanation of mental and spiritual processes. One may take whatever attitude one pleases toward these statements of Du Bois-Reymond, but this much is clear: they represented a rejection of the materialistic interpretation of the world. They showed how as a scientist one could lose confidence in this interpretation.

The materialistic interpretation of the world had thereby entered the stage where it declared itself to be unassuming as far as the life of the soul is concerned. It admitted its “ignorance” (agnosticism). It is true that it declared its intention of remaining “scientific” and of not having recourse to other sources of knowledge, but on the other hand it did not want to ascend with its means to a higher world-conception. In recent times Raoul Francé, a scientist, has shown in comprehensive fashion the inadequacy of scientific results for a higher world-conception This is an undertaking to which we would like to refer again on another occasion.

The facts now steadily increased which showed the impossibility of the attempt to build up a science of the soul on the investigation of material phenomena. Science was forced to study certain “abnormal” phenomena of the life of the soul like hypnotism, suggestion, somnambulism. It became apparent that in the face of these phenomena a materialistic view is completely inadequate for a truly thinking person. The facts with which one became acquainted were not new. They were phenomena which had already been studied in earlier times and up to the beginning of the nineteenth Century, but which in the time of the materialistic flood had simply been put aside as inconvenient.

To this was added something else. It became more and more apparent on how weak a basis the scientists had built, even as far as their explanations of the origin of animal species and consequently of man were concerned. For a while, the ideas of “adaptation” and of the “struggle for existence” had exercised an attraction in the explanation of the origin of species. One learned to understand that in following them one had followed mirages. A school was formed under the leadership of Weismann which denied that characteristics which an organism had acquired through adaptation to the environment could be transmitted by inheritance, and that in this way a transformation of organisms could occur. One therefore ascribed everything to the “struggle for existence” and spoke of an “omnipotence of natural selection.” A stark contrast to this view was presented by those who, relying on unquestionable facts, declared that a “struggle for existence” had been spoken of in cases where it did not even exist. They wanted to demonstrate that nothing could be explained by it. They spoke of an “impotence of natural selection.” Moreover, in the last years de Vries was able to show experimentally that changes of one life-time into another can occur by leaps, mutation. With this, what was regarded as a firm article of faith by the Darwinists, namely that animal and plant forms change only gradually, was shaken. More and more the ground on which one had built for decades simply disappeared beneath one's feet. Even earlier, thinking scientists had realized that they had to abandon this ground; thus W. H. Rolph, who died young, in 1884 declared in his book, Biologische Probleme, zugleich als Versuch zur Entwicklung einer rationellen Ethik (Biological Problems, with an Attempt at the Development of Rational Ethics): “Only through the introduction of insatiability does the Darwinian principle of the struggle for life become acceptable. Because it is only then that we have an explanation for the fact that wherever it can, a creature acquires more than it needs for maintaining the status quo, that it grows to excess where the occasion for this is given . . . While for the Darwinists there is no struggle for existence wherever the existence of a creature is not threatened, for me the struggle is an omnipresent one. It is primarily a struggle for life, a struggle for the increase of life, not a struggle for existence.”

It is only natural that in view of these facts the judicious confess to themselves: “The materialistic universe of thought is not fit for the construction of a world-conception. If we base ourselves on it, we cannot say anything about mental and spiritual phenomena.” Today there are already numerous scientists who seek to erect a structure of the world for themselves, based on quite different ideas. One need only recall the work of the botanist, Reineke, Die Welt als Tat (The World as Deed). However, it becomes apparent that such scientists have not been trained with impunity amidst purely materialistic ideas. What they utter from their new idealistic standpoint is inadequate, can satisfy them for a while, but not those who look more deeply into the enigmas of the world. Such scientists cannot bring themselves to approach those methods which proceed from a real contemplation of the mind and the soul. They have the greatest fear of “mysticism”, or “gnosis” or “theosophy.” This appears clearly, for example, in the work of Verworn quoted above. He says: “There is a ferment in science. Things which seemed clear and transparent to everybody have become cloudy today. Long-tested symbols and ideas, with which everyone dealt and worked at every step without hesitation a short time ago, have begun to totter and are looked upon with suspicion. Fundamental concepts, such as those of matter, appear to have been shaken, and the firmest ground is beginning to sway under the scientist's steps. Certain problems alone stand with rocklike firmness, problems on which until now all attempts, all efforts of science have been shattered. In the face of this knowledge one who is despondent resignedly throws himself into the arms of mysticism, which has always been the last refuge when the tormented intellect could see no way out. The sensible man looks for new symbols and attempts to create new bases on which he can build further.” One can see that because of his habits of conceptualization the scientific thinker of today is not in a position to think of “mysticism” otherwise than as implying intellectual confusion and vagueness. What concepts of the life of the soul does such a thinker not reach! At the end of the work referred to above, we read: “Prehistoric man formed the idea of a separation of body and soul in face of death. The soul separated itself from the body and led an independent existence. It found no rest and returned as a ghost unless it was banned by sepulchral ceremonies. Man was terrorized by fear and superstition. The remains of these ideas have come down to our time. The fear of death, that is, of what is to come after, is widespread today. How differently does all this appear from the standpoint of psychomonism! Since the psychic experiences of the individual only take place when certain regular connections exist, they cease when these connections are in any way disturbed, as happens numberless times in the course of a day. With the bodily changes at death, these connections stop entirely. Thus, no sensation and conception, no thought and no feeling of the individual can remain. The individual soul is dead. Nevertheless the sensations and thoughts and feelings continue to live. They live beyond the transitory individual in other individuals, wherever the same complexes of conditions exist. They are transmitted from individual to individual, from generation to generation, from people to people. They weave at the eternal loom of the soul. They work at the history of the human spirit. Thus we all survive after death as links in the great interconnected chain of spiritual development.” But is that something different from the survival of the wave in others which it has caused, itself meanwhile disappearing? Does one really survive when one continues to exist only in one's effects? Does one not have such a survival in common with all phenomena, even those of physical nature? One can see that the materialistic world conception had to undermine its own foundations. As yet it cannot lay new ones. Only a true understanding of mysticism, theosophy, and gnosis will enable it to do so. The chemist Osterwald spoke several years ago at the Congress of Scientists at Luebeck of the “overcoming of materialism,” and for this purpose founded a new periodical dealing with the philosophy of nature. Science is ready to receive the fruits of a higher world-conception. All resistance will avail it nothing; it will have to take into account the needs of the longing human soul.

Last Modified: 28-Apr-2024
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