January 2001

How do Spirit and Matter Relate?

Katinka Hesselink

I am intrigued by this question as one of the many questions that theosophy poses. I have no ready answers, but will share some thoughts and literature. How does the mind acts on matter? How do spirit and matter relate? Side issues include how psychosomatic illnesses work and how they are best treated. Science could profit by looking more into it. How did mankind evolve? What is the evolutionary role of language, culture, schools, knowledge, and art? Why are we strongly affected by music? Also relevant: What consciousness is there in other beings beside humans? Is a physical body like ours necessary for consciousness? Then again: How should we define consciousness? What are its limits? Consider a computer. It can do what humans do, but easier and quicker. It can calculate, play chess, see if one's spelling is correct, and store a seemingly endless amount of information. This without flaw if programmed correctly, which is the crux of the problem with a computer. A computer can do many things, but the impulse, the command, and the programming all have to be done by a human being. Compared to computers, we are lousy at calculating, our memory is very limited and subject to distortion, but we can act on our own impulse. We can decide that something is necessary and then do it. A computer will do only what we tell it to do, but we have the capacity to choose.

In my search for the relation between spirit and matter, this seems like an important step. Spirit has the capacity to make decisions, a quality called "will" in theosophy. (In my discussion, I shall avoid theosophical terms like Atma, Buddhi, Manas, and Kama, feeling that the western words are fine.) Scientists have argued that evolution is by chance. They would prove that matter is all, and that certain genes in seeking reproduction cause the illusion of thought. This theory is taught in school, except in a few Christian schools. The paradox is obvious. Why would genes WANT to reproduce themselves? Biologists do not consider this. There is a splendor of life forms. Biologists see how they are related, how they evolve out of others, how they function biochemically, and in higher animals how they function socially. Biologists would object to using the word "want" in connection with reproduction. They tell us that organisms only reproduce so the organisms will not die out. This is a mechanical thing for them. The impulse is only there because those organisms that do not have the impulse to reproduce, will automatically die out. This is the biological viewpoint. In Buddhism, the will to live, called Tanha, is seen as the sole reason for reincarnation. Our consciousness is an observed fact, but many scientists do not look at it that way. Luckily, there are exceptions, though.

Where does consciousness start? Do the genes already have it, or are individual cells the first to have some form of consciousness? If we judge based upon the will to live, viruses are alive. Biologically, viruses are at the border of the definition of life, since they do not eat, and they only reproduce with the help of other organisms. Add the will to live to our list of qualities. We now have the will itself and the will to live. Both qualities are absent from a computer, though theosophically everything has consciousness. I suppose in that way a computer has as much (or as little) consciousness as any mineral. A virus is a set of molecules grouped together to effectively ensure that other organisms copy it. This is as far as science goes.

In psychology, the medical approach is winning out. In this approach, every problem is seen as physical. Solutions are sought by treating the body. This attitude drives away more and more patients, sending them into the realm of new age healing. This brings me back to the main questions: What is spirit? What is matter? How do the two relate? Are they ever separate? The revealing answer comes in THE MAHATMA LETTERS TO A.P. SINNETT. We find that they are never separate. Spirit divorced from matter is a mere abstraction.

But what is "Spirit" pure and impersonal per se? Is it possible that you should not have realized yet our meaning? Why, such a SPIRIT is a nonentity, a pure abstraction, and an absolute blank to our senses -- even to the most spiritual. It becomes SOMETHING only in union with matter -- hence it is always SOMETHING since matter is infinite, indestructible, and NON-EXISTENT without Spirit, which in matter is LIFE. Separated  from matter it becomes the absolute negation of LIFE and BEING, whereas matter is inseparable from it.

page 155 (Letter 23B, Answer 6).

Spirit and matter cannot be separated. Listening to this the question changes. It is no longer how spirit and matter relate to one another. We can now ask why we perceive spirit and matter as separate. We come back to the questions that we started with, but slightly changed. How does consciousness work on different levels of physicality? What is matter? What is spirit? I am intrigued by these questions. I have no ready answers, but hope that in sharing some thoughts and literature, I can help readers approach the subject with the same sense of wonder, and find some answers for themselves.