Wednesday, November 3, 2010
The Possibilites of Scientific Prophecy
The Possibilites of Scientific Prophecy
by Sylvester Baxter
Reprinted from “Theosophical Siftings” Volume 2
The Theosophical Publishing Society, England
THE statement that prophecy is founded upon knowledge seems hardly the truism which it is, so accustomed are we to regard it as something based upon the miraculous. The more extensive and accurate our knowledge of the past, the more confidently we may predict the future. Science, as yet, has no way to peer back into vanished ages and perceive those tokens of their existence which, in combination, would serve as keys to unlock the gates of the future: but, by close and systematic observation and recording of the facts of the present, thousands of its trained disciples are founding therewith a past which will be of mighty potency to this end.
The oldest form of scientific prophecy known to us is that by which astronomy unerringly predicts the movements of the heavenly bodies; showing us exactly where they will be thousands of years hence as well as where they were thousands of years ago.
By a patient recording of the myriads of facts whereby Nature manifests herself, we are tracing more and more clearly the laws through which she operates. The science of meteorology is rapidly establishing itself upon an exact prophetic basis. It is but a few years since the system of weather-predictions was established by the Government of the United States; the electric telegraph, penetrating to nearly all parts of the vast area of the country and the regions adjacent, making possible the accumulation of numerous data bearing upon the state of the weather at various points, as recorded by a series of simultaneous observations. The character of the weather is thus indicated in general outlines for a day, or more, in advance, and warnings of notable chances are occasionally given several days before they occur. These weather predictions are already of immense economic value, and as the meteorological laws upon which they are based become more accurately known, the future may be covered to a further extent, and mistakes will continually grow less frequent.
A few years ago Professor N. S. Shaler, in one of those brilliant papers which he has the gift of making entertaining as well as edifying, advocated that there be instituted under Government auspices elaborate and permanent observations of the Gulf Stream as it sweeps through the comparatively narrow channel between Florida and Cuba, with a view to ascertain its variations in volume, etc., from year to year. This would be an indication of the amount of heat received by the earth from the sun in a given twelve month, the quantity varying, as he holds, considerably in different years. The climatic of a large part of the earth depending upon the influence of the Gulf Stream, there might in time be accumulated a sufficient amount of data to enable the prediction of the general character of a season; whether it would be mild or severe, warm or cold, a year in advance. Professor Shaler would, of course, find other existing factors, by their interaction, materially modifying the influence of the one set under consideration. But these other factors, in turn, would by degrees be finally determined, so that the desired results might be reached with considerable accuracy.
Observations thus far made indicate the existence of cyclic laws governing the rainfall in various parts of the world, the amount of precipitation increasing and diminishing with apparent regularity in successions of wet and dry years. If there really be such laws, patient observations over a sufficient period, and extent of territory, will bring them to light. We may assume that, through systematic observations of this kind, made in all parts of the globe, meteorology will eventually become a science so exact that the course of the weather may be predicted for a year, and even for years, with the greatest closeness and accuracy. A like future may be predicated for other departments of natural science. Every scientist becomes a prophet in his own department in proportion to the scope of his knowledge.
There are indications that other occurrences besides meteorological changes happen in cycles. Should these indications have a substantial basis, it is likely that persistent research will discover the laws at their root. Starr King once told us about the “laws of disorder". Many of the most casual of newspaper readers have noticed how frequent it is that crimes and accidents of the same description occur at nearly the same time, and often in groups of certain numbers, as if the world were periodically swept by waves of influences governing such events. Some of the most learned of modern astronomers find ground for believing that the periodicity of the sun-spots is attended by certain phenomena upon the earth, such as the recurrence of wet and dry seasons, the spread of famine, pestilence, etc. May it not be that a faith in astrology has its basis in observations made by the ancients, extending over long periods — that the cycles in which particular classes of events occurred were coupled with certain aspects of the firmament. That accurate observation of natural phenomena is not a new habit, evolved by the European civilization of the nineteenth century, is shown by the remarkable astronomical knowledge possessed by nations of dim antiquity, knowledge which could hardly have been attained otherwise than by long and exact observations of facts and by deductions therefrom. The admirable calendar possessed by the Aztecs, immensely superior to the defective method of time measurement prevailing in Europe at the time of the conquest of Mexico, must have been based upon close scientific observation. Its possession hardly accords with the semi-barbarous character of the Aztec people. Possibly it may have been a heritage from a high civilization. To trace the descent of knowledge which could have hardly had its origin otherwise than in scientific observation that seems ill-consistent with the low grade of culture prevailing among races possessing that knowledge, and vestiges of which are found even at the base of superstitious beliefs and customs, is one of the most important and interesting problems for ethnological research.
It may be said in general terms that the future may be predicted in the same degree in which we know the past; while, according to our knowledge of the present condition of anything, we may, to the same extent, judge what the past has been. Tyndall, in his lectures on “Light” gave fine expression to this idea in the words: — “Laying the theoretic conception at the root of matters, we determine by deduction what are the phenomena which must of necessity grow out of this root. If the phenomena thus deduced agree with those of the actual world, it is a presumption in favour of the theory. If, as new classes of phenomena arise, they also are found to agree with theoretic deduction, the presumption becomes still stronger. If, finally, the theory confers prophetic vision upon the investigator, enabling him to predict the occurrence of phenomena which have never yet been seen, and if those predictions be found on trial to be rigidly correct, the persuasion of the truth of the theory becomes overpowering." In the conclusion of the same lectures, Professor Tyndall relates a remarkable instance of such prophecy. The late Sir William Hamilton, taking up the theory of the polarization of light where Fresnel had left it, arrived at the conclusion that at four special points of the “wave surface " in double-refracting crystals, the ray was divided, not into two parts, but into an infinite number of parts-forming at these points a continuous conical envelope instead of two images.” No human eye had ever seen this envelope when Sir William Hamilton inferred its existence. He asked Dr. Lloyd to test experimentally the truth of his theoretic conclusion. Lloyd, taking a crystal of arragonite, and following with the most scrupulous exactness the indications of the theory, cutting the crystal where theory said it ought to be cut, observing it where theory said it ought to be observed, discovered the luminous envelope which had previously been a mere idea in the mind of the mathematician". Another splendid example is that of Liebig, who, discovering an important law of crystalization, predicted to his students the achievement of a series of momentous discoveries in chemistry, which discoveries in chemistry were afterwards made in the exact order which the great chemist had given.
Turning from the assurance that the occurrences of natural phenomena may, with the advance of science, be accurately predicted, let us consider the possibility of applying the same principles to humanity.
Man is an organism so complex that it is hardly possible to consider, in their involved relations, all the factors bearing upon the career of an individual. Yet an experienced observer, given the requisite data concerning the temperament, heredity, and environment of a person, may gain a fairly trustworthy idea of what his past has been, and what his future will be. If it were possible to attain an exact knowledge of the facts bearing upon a person's career, with the faculty of drawing correct conclusions from facts, we might look back into the past and forward into the future of that person with equal facility; we could perceive at once how his whole life-course may be changed by a call from across the street, a jog from a passing elbow, a turn of the head to the right or the left. To accomplish this result, however, there would be demanded an equal knowledge of the lives of all those who are brought into contact with this person; again of all affecting these others, and so on to the conclusion of the entire human race and all beings and things on and of the earth.
Were this knowledge possible, we might picture its source as an immense fabric of countless interwoven threads. Taking any one thread at any one point, by tracing it backwards or forwards, we should find through such a perfected faculty of deduction, at each of the innumerable points of contact with other threads, a picture of a certain moment in the life, past or to come, of the individual represented by that thread, and of all others represented by the intersecting threads. Let us bear this figure in mind.
Meanwhile, to follow out the line of thought upon which we have entered, we must change our field from the physical to the psychical plane. Possibly, however, we may be brought to see that there is no gulf lying between the two; that there is only a shading off and merging, as in the prism one colour shades and merges into that which is its natural sequence.
We will first, however, note that whatever a man is today, he has become by sharing the individuality of his fellow men. All human progress — material, mental and spiritual — is based upon this fact. In a certain sense, therefore, each man is made up of all humanity — his predecessors and his contemporaries — and the degree of completion of the individual is measured by the degree to which he may have assimilated the experiences of others, as well as learned the lessons imparted by all things with which life has brought him into contact.
If there be planes of existence higher than that upon which we are living, they must of course be characterized by conditions quite different from those of our present life. One of the attributes of a higher plane is believed by many to be a sharing of consciousness among individuals; it is held that, in the progress of the soul, this condition approaches completion more and more, until the state is attained where individuality, as we usually understand it, ceases, the consciousness of the one becoming included in that of the many, while the collective consciousness of the many becomes that of the one. Considered in its true aspect, therefore, the attainment of this state involves not the destruction, but the illimitable expansion of the individuality. It is the becoming "one with God" of the Christian Bible, and it is the "Nirvana" of the Orient. Under this conception, the end is a state of omniscience, of which we, in our present condition, can have hardly the faintest comprehension. The fundamental factors of a problem being given, the rest must follow of necessity, just as the beginning of a thread placed in our hand argues the continuation of the same. Is there not a beginning, or at least a point of departure, to indicate that this state of universal consciousness may be something more than a mystical fancy, but a possibility with an evident basis of actuality? Even some of those who have hitherto most stoutly denied their actuality, now admit that investigations in the field of psychical research have shown the existence of the phenomena of “telepathy," or thought-transference. And, assuming the truth of this fact of mind acting upon mind through the agency of the will, more or less accurately and intensely according to circumstances, we have therein the example of a sharing of consciousness to a certain extent between individuals not in physical communication with each other.
Many materialistic scientists who have denied the possibility of this action have done so because they could conceive of no means by which a thing so imponderable as the mind could directly produce tangible results; or, in other words, how the operation of the brain of one person could by any possibility affect the operation of the brain of another without communication between the two by means of the operation of some one of the five senses. They have, however, not to go beyond the realm of their material science to find a key to the problem.
The universal ether, adopted as a hypothesis by which phenomena such as light, heat, and electricity may alone be satisfactorily accounted for, is now accepted by science as a really existing substance, inconceivably more attenuated than the rarest of gases, permeating all things, from the densest solid to the extremest vacuum, so called, and extending through all space. The extreme divisibility of matter is also set forth, and in connection with the complicated activities of the atom and the molecule there must be subtle modes of energy not cognizable by ordinary methods.
A thing so inconsiderable as a piece of common wire has a magnetic field extending about it to an indefinite distance. An electric current sent through a wire stretched beside a railway track may effect a telegraphic instrument in a train twenty feet away, so that messages are transmitted to and fro with the same facility as if direct contact between wire and instrument were maintained. This is by the operation of that kind of electrical action technically called "induction" The magnetic field may be increased in the extent of its activity according to the force of the current sent through the wire. It might be called the “aura" of the wire. All things in which activity of any kind is in operation, must, it may be seen, have their “aura" or sphere in which the force thereby generated may operate. For activity necessarily causes an expenditure of force, and as all phases of matter are conceded to be modes of motion, it follows that all particles of matter must be constantly producing energy in a greater or less degree, and consequently must have more or less of a field in which energy is manifest, and may be perceived according to the degree of its intensity and the efficacy of the means applied for its detection. Simply because no instrument has been devised that is susceptible to the action of a certain force, it does not follow that, that force has no existence.
As we ascend in the scale of vital organism, the field of energy must naturally become more considerable according to the energy expended by the life-processes of the organism. It seems not unlikely that the sympathies and antipathies of certain animals and human beings may be accounted for through the different qualities of their respective fields of energy. Considering these fields as portions of the individuals whom they surround, it is evident that the centres of force comprised in animals or persons may come into mutual communication without near approach of their respective bodies, and thus exert an influence whose operation may not be perceived by the ordinary senses. Just as a person may feel the heat radiating from the body of another in passing, it is not unreasonable to suppose that the more subtle manifestations of energy may be exerting an influence perceptible at a greater or less distance by persons of acute sensibility. The fact has often been observed that there are persons who are made violently ill if certain animals chance to come into their neighbourhood, although there appears nothing tangible to the ordinary senses to tell that the objects of their aversion are near. Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, in his last novel, finds the existence of the human “aura", or this field of energy, necessary to account for the strange antipathy of the hero.
An inert organism would not have much of a field of energy in comparison with an active one, and, just as the field of the wire is expanded according to the strength of the electric current sent through it, so the influence of the human aura, there seems reason to believe, may be extended and directed according to the will-force of the individual, either consciously or unconsciously exerted. At least, this appears to afford a good working hypothesis to account for the operation of certain phenomena of thought-transference which otherwise would seem exceedingly mysterious.
As the vibrations caused by the action of the human voice upon the transmitter of the telephone institute corresponding vibrations in the receiver, miles away at the other end of the wire, and as the vibrations of one musical instrument may be made to produce similar vibrations in another instrument that is in harmony therewith, so it may be assumed that the force made active by the will of an individual causes a set of vibrations in his own sphere of energy, and that these vibrations, through the medium of the universal ether, are transmitted to the field of another individual; if the latter be harmoniously receptive, similar vibrations would be established therein, thus transmitting the action of the brain of the former to the brain of the latter.
May not this account for the mystery of “mind-reading," and how one person, under certain conditions, may think the thoughts of another as if they were his own? After all, the transmission of thought in this way seems no more wonderful than is the transmission of speech along a ray of sunlight or lamplight, instead of over a wire, by means of the photophone (or perhaps, more properly, the radio-phone) and through the mediumship of the same universal ether.
We may also conceive how it is possible that all individuals cannot in this way affect the thoughts of other individuals, since all are not in harmony with each other, just as all musical instruments are not attuned to the same pitch.
It is difficult to comprehend the truth of the statement often made, that on a higher plane of existence time, as we understand it, is not — that there is neither past nor future, but that all is one universal now — until the idea of a community of consciousness as an attribute of that plane is grasped. Then its meaning may become clearer. We may perceive that under such conditions the mind is omniscient, seeing past and future in the present very much as we may behold a picture, unconscious of any difference in time in our perception of the various parts composing it.
A perfect memory would mean a perfect imagination, and if gifted with that power we could summon back the past and give it over again as vividly as though it were actually occurring. Thus the past may, to all intents and purposes be made present.
That the great drawback to the operation of the imaginative faculty exists in the distracting influences of the senses is demonstrated by the recent elaborate investigations of the phenomena of hypnotism made by Dr. Charcot and his colleagues in Paris, and by various other investigators. The hypnotic subject, withdrawn from these external influences, recalls most minutely past events which had, seemingly, been wholly lost to the memory for years; not only this, but the imagination is so exalted under these conditions that the subject seems to behold and experience whatever is suggested by the operator. It appears likely that the phenomena of dreaming are largely due to the involuntary workings of the imagination while we are released from consciousness of external influences. Could we voluntarily withdraw ourselves from the action of these external influences, it follows that we might dream, so to speak, while in the waking state; that is, that imagined things might to our normal consciousness seem to be realities. Is not all artistic activity — the work of poets, painters, sculptors, composers — due to the possession of this faculty to a greater or less degree, according to what we call the genius of the individual? What is known as creative power appears to have its source in the imaginative, or image-making, faculty.
If we, in our present state, could be conscious of all laws governing certain events, we might trace those "events back to their sources or forward to their consequences, and frame a conception of the conditions existing at any given moment along the path followed. In a minor way, this is the method which the scientist follows with his special subject, and the fulness of his knowledge is according to the completeness with which be may adopt this course.
We may therefore conceive that if there exists the universal mind, knowing everything, it may with instant perception at once grasp the workings of all laws and trace out their paths of action, running swifter than light along any thread and along all threads in the great fabric of life, beholding the careers of all persons and things, ever conscious alike of all that was, all that is, and all that is to be.
This mode of perception is what we call intuition, and its source may, perhaps, be defined as concentrated knowledge; the stored-up results of the experiences through aeons of myriads upon myriads of individuals. Might not the faculty of intuition, therefore, be attained by the individual according to the degree in which he brings himself into harmony with the universal mind, thereby gaining the power to draw from its store that which he truly wills?
There are often manifested, in various individuals, what seem like abnormal faculties. How is it that certain persons have the gift of instantly solving intricate mathematical problems, giving the answer at a flash, as it were? Many of us have had the experience of jumping unerringly at conclusions, seeming to bridge over, in an instant, the gap ordinarily filled by an elaborate process of reasoning to reach the result. It may be that the reasoning is nevertheless gone through with, but so rapidly as to be imperceptible, like the operation of certain mechanical devices which accomplish by a simple movement results formerly reached only by a slow and complicated process of manipulation. What is known as instinct appears to be the working of the intuitive faculty; that marvellous instrument, the physical organism, having been trained by the activities of generations to respond with instant obedience to the needs of its operator, activities once consciously exercised having become habitual, by practice, and therefore automatic. May not the abnormal human faculties alluded to likewise be the result of experiences acquired by the individual — or that power which stands behind and above the physical instrument — if not in this life, then perhaps in some other? The person may not remember the processes by which he attained such knowledge, but he has the result of processes which must have been gone through with somewhere and at some time.
Possibly a hint of how this faculty of intuitive perception is acquired may be obtained from the history of a famous conjurer, who, in giving his experiences, told how, when a boy, a favourite amusement pursued by himself and his brother was to run past shop windows in the city streets, and then see who could best describe the number and character of the articles displayed therein. A marvellous facility was acquired by this practice; scores of various articles filling a window would be accurately described after a swift passing glance, and it is related how, after a look of a second or so into a gentleman's library, the conjurer enumerated every volume on the shelves! This shows the possibility of acquiring, in a measure, practically instantaneous perception.
There are facts that point to the existence of a mysterious law of perception which enables glimpses of the future, more or less vivid, to be caught by certain persons, and under which, to many others, coming events cast their shadows before in the shape of premonitions.
According to the testimony of those who have experienced them, such visions are distinct from common dreams in the vividness with which they impress themselves on the memory, not as sports of the fancy when reason has relinquished the reins, but as events which seem actually to occur in logical sequence, and which are afterwards realized. History has recorded many instances of such glimpses into the future, one of the most familiar being the celebrated prophecy of Cazotte, who predicted with accuracy the fate which in the French Revolution would overtake various members of the brilliant company assembled with him one evening in a certain salon. The writer personally knows two gentlemen of high scientific reputation who have, in this way, beheld exact presentations of important moments in their lives, experienced years afterwards.
May not the operation of this law be accounted for by supposing the instance of natural conditions, akin to the hypnotic state, during which the individual mind, withdrawn from external influences, comes into harmony with the universal mind, sharing its consciousness ?
Afterwards, through some contiguity of events producing associations of ideas similar to those by which memories are recalled, the material veil that hides the future is lifted for the moment, revealing some particular phase of that which exists in the universal mind, which, as we have seen, must behold all things, in the future as in the past, appertaining by association to the physical condition of the moment. It may be likened to the magical operation of some chance physical combination, or adjustment; as, by the casual bringing about of certain chemical combinations, results that seem marvellous, because hitherto unattained, are reached. It seems, in fact, to be the operation, under exceptional conditions, of the same general law of memory, all events being contained in the storehouse of the universal mind, whether to us they be past or future.
In the same way a more common phenomenon might be accounted for — that of feeling that one has experienced the events of certain moments before — generally moments of little consequence; and the experience quickly vanishes and leaves no trace. This explanation seems more rational and satisfactory than the ingenious but far-fetched theory of the unequal operation of double cerebration, devised to account for the same phenomenon.
In the present stage of the world's development it is, of course, well that these principles of prediction or prevision are not capable of universal application.
Like all other attainments of mankind, their possession as universal attributes of the race would have to be the product of gradual evolution. It may readily be perceived that their consequence would involve an organization of human institutions entirely different from anything which we may now conceive. Possibly, as the world ripens, the faculty of prescience may become an attribute more and more common to individuals. Appearing now to be hereditary in certain families, and more common with certain nationalities — for instance, as “second-sight" among the Scotch — it seems reasonable to suppose that in the gradual course of evolution it may extend to larger groups and even to entire races. As we may safely assume a time, perhaps less than a century distant, when the occurrence of a wide variety of natural phenomena may be foreseen for long periods with exactness, so there may ultimately come an epoch, untold ages hence, when the processes of intellection shall be resolved into intuition, and the faculty of scientific prophecy become the property of all humanity.