What links Christian iconography, the theosophist concept of aura, and the notion of morphogenetic fields formulated by the British biologist Rupert Sheldrake? The borders between science and metaphysics aren’t always clear cut, and not all phenomena can be explained on the basis of the materialist world view. Aura is one of those problems that escapes scientific explanation.
Christian art has depicted auras since the mid-4th century; initially they were only used on images of Christ, but over time artists began to use them when depicting angels, saints and martyrs, symbolic figures and personified allegories, such as the Lamb of God, the Divine Spirit, the griffin or the phoenix. However, this wasn’t an invention of Christian art, the luminous halos are inspired by various ancient and oriental representations, in which the shining rays and ovals encircle images of heroes, emperors or gods – in particular those associated with the sun, like Helios or Mitra.
And this isn’t just a game of artistic devices, either: myths and hagiographies are full of descriptions of visible miracles, curious light phenomena, as well as solemn and calming moods enveloping saints, sages, wise women, etc. Numerous Western mystic and esoteric traditions have always included descriptions of subtle, etheric or astral bodies.
Some people believe that these phenomena are related to experiences we are all familiar with. David Lynch has said that he senses a feeling of calm in a room where someone has just been meditating. We often speak of ‘the magic of places’ and these are observations that go beyond aesthetics. Perhaps even more commonly, people believe a certain place has a bad energy, although it’s difficult to say why or where the sense of unease comes from. What we’re dealing with here is a group of rare occurrences that take place somewhere at the edge of our perceptive capacities.
This all brings us to the esoteric concept of aura, which made great waves in new religious movements, mainly those inspired by oriental beliefs. One important contributor to the popularity of this term was the theosophist Charles Webster Leadbeater (1854–1934). He perceived it as colours enveloping a person; he claimed to be able to see them himself and understand the spiritual and moral significance of these hues. Furthermore, he linked aura to the Indian concept of chakras; this association is still often made to this day. Given the great historical significance and authority of the Theosophical Society in the development of 20th-century religious movements and spirituality, the popularity of aura should come as no surprise.
Leadbeater advanced many imaginative ideas. In his book, The Inner Life, he wrote about the aura emanating from a book; it’s worth taking a look at his advice. If the book has been read by many people, it is easier to understand, because it has a “fuller” aura, which is the result of the impressions and reflections of all previous readers. On the other hand, a book borrowed from a library may be “psychologically unpleasant” because it is imbued with a different sort of magnetism, and therefore sensitive people should avoid that kind of book, or at least place it on the table to read, not hold it in their hands.
Of course, the objective existence of aura is difficult to ascertain, because it comes down to a subjective feeling. How could we prove that Leadbeater didn’t see aura emanating from his book? By way of example, we might ask ourselves: how can we be certain that the colour yellow exists? Avoiding the exceptionally complicated philosophical problem of what exists and what does not, and remaining on the grounds of common sense – acceptance of the existence of the colour yellow occurs via social agreement. The presence of this colour is generally accepted, because most of us, seeing the same shade in various objects, describe it with one name. But imagine if there were only one person in the world who could see it, and then you start to have a problem.
Gaps in the science
Advocates for the existence of aura, who aim to find scientific justification for their beliefs, often cite the English scientist Rupert Sheldrake’s controversial concept of morphogenetic fields. Let’s take a closer look at this idea. As a scientist, Dr Sheldrake put a lot of effort into undermining what he calls the dogmas of modern science: convictions that are habitually accepted as the prevailing way of thinking, without – in his view – any justification. One of these is the belief in eternal laws of nature. He claims that this view derives from theology and an unjustified projection of the human world onto the natural one. Western science arose in the context of an imagined almighty God, conceived of as a great monarch who dictates his laws to his subjects (that is, the whole world). But actually, these laws are merely established by people, and perhaps not universally, only in more complex civilizations. There is no reason to believe that laws of nature exist that are eternal and independent of time and space. Indeed, since the 1960s, in cosmology, it has been accepted that the universe is actually an expanding ‘energy-organism’ that has a beginning point in time (that beginning – the Big Bang – is also the beginning of time). So how could eternal laws exist before the universe? Strictly speaking, there can be no ‘before’, because time did not exist then.
In the last century, physics and astrophysics have wrought havoc with the common-sense picture of the world. There is no more objective, linear time and objective space. The existence of black holes is accepted. A hundred years ago, Albert Einstein introduced a fourth dimension. Other physicists have added further dimensions. Speculation about other dimensions is no longer the domain of esotericism or psychedelic travellers. And yet, in Sheldrake’s opinion, many modern scientists remain bogged down with old-fashioned notions.
Alongside the belief in eternal laws, another essential point is the conception of the world as a mechanism. In this outlook, ‘vital forces’ (or energies acting in nature) have to be excluded. Human beings, for instance, are reduced to certain chemical-physical mechanisms. Sheldrake does not reject this view, because its methodology has proven to be very fertile cognitively and technologically, but he points out its limitations – among others things, it cannot explain how life was created or where consciousness comes from. In his opinion, analysing the ‘mechanics’ of genetic codes cannot give us answers to these questions.
In the 1980s, people believed it would be possible to definitively understand the genetic code, making it possible to control the synthesis of proteins, and yet the effects of the laborious and time-consuming sequencing of the genetic code’s ‘letters’ have been – in Sheldrake’s opinion – disappointing. Sequencing the genome has not explained why we are so different to chimpanzees. It was a surprise to discover that there are about 25,000 human genes (they expected 100,000); a fruit fly has 17,000, a sea urchin has 26,000, and rice – about 38, 000. Deciphering the ‘language’ was supposed to explain the difference between certain species, and it has not.
What’s more, no explanation has been found for why a certain organism takes the form it does and not another; differences in body shapes of different species of animal are not reflected in the genetic code (the discovery of homeotic genes in fruit flies caused a sensation, because these were supposed to be the genes responsible for the development of limbs, for instance, but it turned out that humans have almost the exact same genes). And explaining these gaps with ‘genetic programs’ is, according to Sheldrake, just another explanation using equally ‘non-mechanical’ terms and a return, under a different guise, to the metaphysical concept of ‘vital forces’ acting in nature; furthermore, the program metaphor is also not totally satisfactory because it suggests the existence of someone doing the programming.
Rats and morphic resonance
For Sheldrake, the concept of the morphogenetic field fills in the gaps in our knowledge. Without completely rejecting the mechanistic view of the world, he suggests that behind those mechanisms lie fields, understood as a different type of cause, somehow acting ‘from the outside’ and ‘from inside’ (perhaps in another dimension, in a different ‘tunnel’ of reality, and so on). Morphogenetic fields (morphe – ‘form’, genesis – ‘origin’) are supposed to fill in the gap between molecular biology and what we see. They make plants and animals grow, change shape, and regenerate. In a word, they do everything that cannot be explained on the basis of a physical-chemical analysis.
Sheldrake’s concept includes several striking components – among others, morphogenetic fields do not have energetic nature or mass, and so they are not subject to the laws applying to things with energy and mass (bodies, particles, etc.). They are created as a result of a process called morphic resonance: this resonance (without mass or energy) is not weakened by distance in space or time. And so it can impact beings found millions of kilometres or just a centimetre apart; it can affect events that took place 10 minutes apart, but also several centuries.
Furthermore, morphogenetic fields have some kind of consciousness and memory, they are changeable and dynamic. Sheldrake uses them to explain many phenomena, for instance the process of learning or adopting behaviour. He says that if a member of a species learns something, another member of the same species is able to learn the same thing more quickly, without coming into contact with it. For instance, if a rat in New York is taught a certain behaviour, rats in Moscow ought to adopt it more quickly. Sheldrake and his colleagues work on this kind of experiment. Apparently, the ease with which children learn foreign languages is the consequence of morphic resonance (after all, there are no genes responsible for language learning), which is a kind of collective memory (Sheldrake justifies his theory by observing linguists).
Science or metaphysics?
The British biologist’s concept has not met with euphoria from other biologists. But we should point out that his investigations have been repeatedly supported by physicists, sometimes brilliant ones, such as the quantum physicist David Bohm or the Nobel laureate Brian D. Josephson.
Inspiration for Sheldrake’s concept comes from Eastern religious doctrines; the man himself admits that various mystic movements have always been of interest to him. His critics accuse him of not dealing in science, but in metaphysics. He replies – quite rightly – that there can be no science without accepting, more or less openly, certain metaphysical assumptions. The materialism of modern science is an impossible-to-prove metaphysical doctrine, as well as being old-fashioned.
Let’s get back to aura. Its advocates say that aura, understood as a ‘hidden’ factor organizing and determining certain aspects of life, could have something to do with morphogenetic fields that actually perform the same function.
But Sheldrake himself has taken a rather sceptical approach to this matter. He once carried out an experiment with the participation of the legendary comedian John Cleese (he’s a great supporter of Sheldrake’s work). They were both sitting in a room, into which aura ‘reading’ specialists came one by one and independently described the aura of the biologist, comedian and other people taking part in the experiment. But the result was that the colours and characteristics of the energetic fields, and so on, never really matched at all.
So once again we come up against the difficulty we mentioned earlier: a fully satisfactory experiment is probably impossible because there’s no way of getting around the issue of the subjective nature of perceiving aura, just as no-one is able to lend someone else their eyes.
Translated from the Polish by Zosia Krasodomska-Jones
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