Spiritual traditions, including Theosophy, say that a human being is a hierarchy of several bodies other than the physical. Some names that have been given to them are etheric, astral/emotional, mental, causal, and soul. The causal body has been described as being responsible for the generation of the lower bodies. The etheric body is seen as a bridge between the physical and astral bodies, which tries to maintain the physical body in health, therefore responsible for the regeneration of the body.
All these bodies are usually invisible to us, and can therefore only be inferred from their effects. Here I’ll consider what evidence there is to suggest their existence. I’ll focus on the biological issues of generation and regeneration but first I’ll briefly consider other evidence. The strongest is perhaps the phenomenon of out-of-body experiences, the most obvious explanation for which is that the astral body has temporarily escaped the material plane. Along similar lines would be the parapsychological phenomenon of remote viewing, where consciousness has apparently left the body, since it can ‘see’ things in far away places which the physical eyes cannot. The viewer, however, has no sense that he or she has actually left the body; what is ‘seen’ is visualised internally (perhaps by the astral body?).
I’ll now consider the question of whether the physical body is generated from higher levels. Evidence comes from the problems associated with biological morphogenesis, as discussed by Paul Davies in The Cosmic Blueprint: “Among the many scientific puzzles posed by living organisms, perhaps the toughest concerns the origin of form… How is a disorganized collection of molecules assembled into a coherent whole that constitutes a living organism, with all the right bits in the right places? … Morphogenesis, despite decades of study, is a subject still shrouded in mystery”.
Here are some of his key points:
- “The enigma is at its most striking in the seemingly miraculous development of an embryo from a single fertilized cell into a more or less independent living entity of fantastic complexity, in which many cells have become specialized to form parts of nerve, liver, bone, etc. It is a process that is somehow supervised to an astonishing level of detail and accuracy in both space and time. In studying the development of the embryo it is hard to resist the impression that there exists somewhere a blueprint, or plan of assembly, carrying the instructions needed to achieve the finished form. In some as yet poorly understood way, the growth of the organism is tightly constrained to conform to this plan… It seems as if the growing organism is being directed towards its final state by some sort of global supervising agency”.
- If the information is stored in the DNA, “the problem is then to understand how the spatial arrangement of something many centimetres in size can be organized from the molecular level… How do some cells ‘know’ they have to become blood cells, while others must become part of the gut, or backbone? … How does a given cell know where it is located in relation to other parts of the organism, so that it can ‘turn into’ the appropriate type of cell for the finished product?
- “If every molecule of DNA possesses the same global plan for the whole organism, how is it that different cells implement different parts of that plan? Is there, perhaps, a ‘metaplan’ to tell each cell which part of the plan to implement. If so, where is the metaplan located?”.
- “The real challenge is to demonstrate how localized interactions can exercise global control. It is very hard to see how this can ever be explained in mechanistic terms at the molecular level”.
If the last point is true, then we presumably have to look to higher levels in order to explain this phenomenon. The hierarchy-of-bodies theory would fit the bill, especially the causal body.
Davies observes that the traditional approach is based on the particle concept of physics, but that particles as primary objects have been replaced in physics by fields. However, “the field concept has made little impact on biology”. His suggested solution to the above problems “is to suppose that somehow the global plan is stored in the fields themselves, and that the DNA acts as a receiver rather than a source of genetic information”. This would seem to be the case, and we are dealing with downward causation. Are these ‘fields’ a scientific way of describing what esotericists call etheric or astral bodies, or even the soul? And, like DNA, is the brain also the receiver of information from these bodies, rather than the programmer that scientists assume?
Further evidence for these other bodies is that, even though all the molecules in our bodies are continually dying and being regularly replaced, so that nothing of our previous physical self remains, our sense of identity, and memories nevertheless remain intact during this process of regeneration, of which we are completely unaware. Memory seems immune to molecular turnover. How can this be possible?
The problem is addressed by Rupert Sheldrake in The Science Delusion. Materialists believe that the brain is the source of everything to do with consciousness, and therefore that memories must be stored in the brain as material traces. However, as he points out: “Attempts to locate memory traces have been unsuccessful despite more than a century of research, costing many billions of dollars”. He provides details of some specific experiments, in which animals’ memories survived the destruction of the associative areas, or cross-connections, of the brain, and the removal of subcortical structures such as the cerebellum. Also, when a caterpillar is metamorphosed into a moth “in the pupa, almost all the caterpillar tissues are dissolved before the new structures of the adult develop. Most of the nervous system is dissolved as well”. Yet a team of scientists “found that moths could remember what they had learned as caterpillars in spite of all the changes they went through during metamorphosis”.
Erik Kandel, Nobel Laureate in 2000, said in his acceptance speech that these problems of understanding how memory works “will require more than the bottom-up approach of molecular biology”. This obviously means that they would require a top-down approach, otherwise known as downward causation, exactly what is claimed by the hierarchy-of-bodies theory under discussion. Perhaps memories are stored in one or more of these higher bodies, or ‘fields’ as Davies might say. (This is also Sheldrake’s conclusion, namely morphogenetic fields.) Further evidence that this might be the case is that there are numerous examples of children who remember details from their past lives. This obviously could not happen if memories are stored in, and die with, the brain.
I’ll turn now to evidence for the etheric body. Our physical bodies are capable of extraordinary feats of self-healing, for example blood clotting, broken bones mending, wounds healing. Materialist biologists would say that these abilities have emerged and evolved through a process of natural selection. I have my doubts. The body acts as if it were being directed by some hidden intelligence, a mysterious healer, perhaps the etheric body. Interestingly, blood clotting was one of several items that Michael Behe identified, in Darwin’s Black Box, as being impossible to have come about by the gradual process of natural selection. He says that “blood coagulation is a paradigm of the staggering complexity that underlies even apparently simple bodily processes”, and that “no one at Harvard University, no one at the National Institutes of Health, no member of the National Academy of Sciences, no Nobel prize winner — no one at all can give a detailed account of how… blood clotting , or any complex biochemical process might have developed in a Darwinian fashion”. He advocated Intelligent Design as a better explanation. Perhaps the etheric body is part of this intelligent system which maintains the health of the body.
Further evidence can be found if we consider sleep. We know that it’s essential for our health, that sleep deprivation has a seriously bad effect upon us. We take it for granted, we all do it, and don’t even think about it; we just become tired and fall asleep. You may be surprised to discover, therefore, that scientists do not really understand why we need to sleep. Various scientists involved in sleep research have been quoted as saying this.
Every time I hear a scientist say that something is a mystery, my first reaction is to wonder whether the answer lies in a more spiritual understanding. That may well be the case here. Why do scientists find the need to sleep mysterious? Perhaps because they cannot see beyond the body and the brain, and think that these alone are responsible for the maintenance of health. The scientists can therefore see no reason why the brain cannot do its job just as well when we are awake.
This does not seem to be the case, however. One might think that brain activity would be reduced when we are unconscious and resting. The opposite is the case, however; brain activity increases while we are asleep, a surprisingly active and fertile time for the brain. This increased activity may well be the etheric body working on the brain and the body. Since sleep is essential for our well-being, my suggestion is that this etheric body can do its work better when the ego-self is asleep. One scientist has been quoted: “While your brain is able to engage in some of these chores while you’re awake, the hours you spend asleep seem to do all this more thoroughly and efficiently”. On this point, it’s also worth noting that, when people have a life-threatening condition, doctors sometimes put them into an induced coma. Why? Presumably because they know the body is better able to be healed while unconscious.
When contemplating the existence of these etheric and astral bodies, there is a suggestion of the supposedly discredited theory of Vitalism, the belief in some kind of animating principle. Perhaps death comes when the etheric and astral bodies are no longer capable of maintaining the physical body in being. Many people present at the bedside of someone dying report their impression that something appears to leave the body. That doesn’t of course mean that it’s true, but it certainly makes a lot of sense.
Vitalism is currently a biological ‘heresy’; everything about a human, so many scientists claim, or would like to believe, can be explained solely by reference to the body and the brain. My observation would be that when you rule out spiritual explanations, you may well end up with mysteries you can’t explain, as here in the case of sleep.
Another mystery is that of homeopathy, which has been rejected by materialist scientists. The problem is that homeopathy claims that a proposed remedy can be distilled, sometimes up to the point when not one molecule remains of the healing agent. Despite this, it is said that it still works. Perhaps it is the etheric body that absorbs some kind of memory of the distilled healing agent, and the healing is taking place there. This would be something similar to memories being stored at higher levels.
Is this dismissal of homeopathy just another example of materialism being unable to contemplate a more esoteric, spiritual understanding? The great German dramatist and philosopher Gotthold Lessing wrote of the esoteric healer Paracelsus: “Those who imagine that the medicine of Paracelsus is a system of superstitions that we have fortunately outgrown, will, if they come to know its principles, be surprised to find that it is based upon a superior kind of knowledge that we have not yet attained, but into which we may hope to grow”. Perhaps we also need a superior kind of knowledge to understand homeopathy, other alternative medical practices like acupuncture, and for that matter biology. That superior knowledge would, of course, be a more spiritual understanding.
This article is a condensed version of one found on my website, click here.