Science, Meaning, and Evolution

Foreword to Basarab Nicolescu. Science, Meaning, and Evolution. The Cosmology of Jacob Boehme. Tr. Rob Baker. New York: Parabola Books, 1991.

Science, Meaning, and Evolution. The Cosmology of Jacob Boehme. by Basarab Nicolescu

(By Joscelyn Godwin)

Since this is a book about the union of opposites and the reconciliation of contraries, it will probably appeal to two distinct types of readers. First, there will be those who suspect that modern science may be teetering on the edge of an abyss of discovery as formidable as the Copernican Revolution. To them this Foreword is addressed. Second, there are those already familiar with Jacob Boehme or with Western esotericism, who feel that their philosophic studies cannot be isolated from the scientific problems of today. Antoine Faivre's Afterword will speak to that constituency.

What common ground could possibly serve for a conversation between Basarab Nicolescu, a modern physicist, and Jacob Boehme, a Renaissance visionary? To most people science is fact, imagination is fiction, and that is the end of the matter. Yet this very split, which was opening in Boehme's century and which may begin to close in our own, is the symptom of a perilous disharmony in our inner and outer worlds. Several decades ago there was a noisy debate, opened by the British scientist C.P. (later Lord) Snow, who was also a popular novelist, concerning what he called “the Two Cultures.” Snow warned that the scientific and the humanistic communities were growing further and further apart, to the degree that a member of one “culture” was not only incapable of understanding the language and interests of the other, but did not even value them. The scientists had become enmeshed in a world of technology and quantitative thinking, to which the qualitative world of arts and letters, philosophy, and religion was at best a pleasant garnish; while the humanists were quite {1} content to be mathematically and scientifically illiterate, secure in the superiority of their pursuits to dirty jobs like engineering. Snow left his audience in no doubt about the potential danger of such a cleavage.

If there has been any improvement in the situation since those early 1960s, it is probably thanks to the scientists, and especially to physicists, many of whom have been driven by the discoveries of this century to become “metaphysicists.” There is a certain hierarchy among scientists, in the sense that the principles on which one science is based serve another as materials for study. Engineers and other technicians do not need to argue about the principles handed to them by the theoretical sciences, such as biology, chemistry, and physics. Biologists, generally speaking, rely on the laws of chemistry, while chemists take for granted the principles of physics. Yet the chemists' useful models of atomic structure are fictions to the contemporary physicist. Can one go a stage further, and say that the principles taken for granted by the physicist are studied by the metaphysicist? In some circles, one might be forgiven for such talk, since at its highest and most speculative levels, physics now investigates what is beyond (meta) the physical world, and treats — with what surprise at its own audacity! - the very questions of being and non-being that were once reserved for philosophers.

Humanists might object to the idea of a parallel hierarchy being drawn among their own disciplines, unless they remember that Theology was traditionally regarded as reigning like a queen over the Liberal Arts, the latter being based on human investigation rather than on divine revelation. But what discipline is it that studies the principles of theology? It is a delicate question, to which a number of answers are possible. First, and least likely to be of interest today, is the denial that any discipline could exist above the “revelations” of scriptures such as the Torah, Quran, or New Testament. That is the exoteric view. Second, and more positively, there is metaphysics, the study of the principles of existence and nonexistence, including those of God. This is unbounded by the dogmas of any one religion, since its principles, if true, must be universal. Metaphysics is an esoteric study, in the sense that it concerns not the outward forms but the “inward” (eiso) side of religion. Basarab Nicolescu refers to one particular development of it, associated with the name of René Guénon, under the name {2} of “Tradition.” Third, there is theosophy, broadly definable as the experiential study of things divine.

The theosophical investigation of the powers behind and within the universe, which some call God or the gods, is rightly held in suspicion: history is too full of cranks and fanatics who have pretended to such intimacy. Very occasionally, however, a theosopher appears whose claims demand serious attention by those in search of wisdom. Jacob Boehme is such a one: his claim rests both on his unimpeachable personal integrity, and on the spiritual fruitfulness of his theosophic findings. Now, if Basarab Nicolescu is correct, there is a third warrant, in the applicability of Boehme's system to the problems facing modern science, and indeed modern humanity.

The reader will find in this book an admirably lucid summary of some of Boehme's findings, supplemented by primary sources from the theosopher's own writings. If fruitfulness is at issue, then this book is one of the richest fruits to grow from the Boehmian tree. Put as simply as possible, its thesis is that Boehme, through some faculty of supersensory vision, was able to behold the principle behind the creation and evolution of the cosmos. If that were in any way true, such knowledge should definitely be of interest to contemporary science. Moreover, Boehme does not stop at explaining how the cosmos came into existence-an unsolved question, but one with which physics is at least comfortable, but continues to explain how and why it has evolved since then. In order to discuss this, he is obliged to touch on the ultimate qualities of good and evil and on their deepest roots in the divine nature. The time has come, Basarab Nicolescu suggests, for science to stop cutting itself off from such matters and concerns, as if they were any less “real” than the waves and particles to which physics has reduced our world.

Boehme's first principles are the three metaphysical forces behind the universe's existence. They begin not with God, which is the first Being, but with the Ungrund of Non-being (or Beyond-being) in the sight of which even the Creator and its cosmos are as nothing, yet which paradoxically gives rise to them both. Here Boehme raises to its uttermost limit the hermetic principle of polarity as the generator of existence, and also plumbs to its depths the problem of what we experience as evil. Boehme's second series of principles, seven in {3} number, unfurl the development of the cosmos and of its creative witness, the human mind and soul, revealing the tragedy and the promise that underlie cosmic and human evolution.

In his deservedly popular work, A Brief History of Time (New York: Bantam Books, 1988), Stephen Hawking concluded with enigmatic musings on the existence or non-existence of God, in a dramatic demonstration of how physics precipitates such questions nowadays. Unfortunately the dialogue between Hawking and his readers could not proceed further, because it was couched in the language of theology, not that of metaphysics and still less of theosophy. Hawking was writing for people who, if they had any religious beliefs, were likely to have exoteric ones. Hence the question of what God is and whether it “exists” could not be treated with the requisite subtlety.

While Hawking's book began with an exposition of physics and astronomy, and ended with a theosophic question, this book begins with an exposition of Boehme the theosopher and ends with a questioning of science no less searching than the challenge Hawking offered to the theists. Yet there is perhaps more hope for the present approach, since it is founded on the principles of esotericism. Physics itself has been compelled to become “esoteric,” i.e., to go beyond the nineteenth-century images of reality that are still acceptable to the majority of mankind. This compulsion has come from what one can justifiably call the visions and illuminations of Max Planck, Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, et al. — all men of a distinctly metaphysical temperament. Religion, on the other hand, has declined to listen to theosophers such as Plotinus, Meister Eckhart, and Boehme, and is thus mired in exoteric stagnation. Only within a doubly esoteric framework can the two cultures be reconciled.

It is moving to witness this encounter of a sophisticated and cosmopolitan physicist with a man from the opposite end of the modern age: blunt, unschooled, and untraveled except on inward paths. Especially impressive is Nicolescu's humility in the face of the shoemaker's revelations. That it might fall to the destiny of Boehme's work to break the imaginal and moral impasse of modern science borders on the incredible. Yet within these pages, the inconceivable has actually taken place.

- Joscelyn Godwin