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Rudolf Steiner and the Atom

By Keith Francis. Adonis Press, Hillsdale, New York, 2012, 267 pgs.

Review by Frederick J. Dennehy

My disappointment after finishing 'Rudolf Steiner and the Atom' was this: that I had not had the experience of having Keith Francis as a science teacher in school. Readers who, like me, have only a peripheral scientific background will be grateful for Mr. Francis’s ability to anticipate a reader’s questions and weave his responses into the book. The writing is so clear that even a reader without interest in anthroposophy will be excited by the history of the atom presented here, from the high days of ancient Greece; through the pioneer work of the 19th century leading to the development of the familiar Rutherford atomic model; to the imaginative daring of scientists such as Bohr, Einstein, Heisenberg, Born, Jordan, Dirac, and Schrödinger, who shaped and colored the quantum era. (9)

What was Rudolf Steiner’s opinion of atomic theory? And what would that opinion have likely been following the anni mirabiles 1925–1930, immediately following his death? Although Mr. Francis pursues these questions throughout the book, he does not come to final judgment, because to produce a definitive answer would be to satisfy a need other than that for the truth. But the hunt itself is altogether worthwhile.

In his books and public lectures, Rudolf Steiner was emphatic in his opposition to atomic theories. He said that the atom was a mental construct, and accordingly extended beyond the domain of the perceived world. For Steiner, as for Goethe, scientific theory must be limited to the perceptible, and must seek its connections within the perceptible.

But in the lectures he gave for members of the Theosophical Society, and later, the Anthroposophical Society, Steiner referred to atoms as physical realities, and cautioned his listeners about the demonic (ahrimanic) consequences of endowing the atom with the characteristics of “coagulated electricity”—the “same substance of which thought itself is composed.” Someday, said Steiner, “a man standing here, let us say, will be able by pressing a button concealed in his pocket, to explode some object at a great distance—say in Hamburg!… What I have just indicated will be within man’s power when the occult truth that thought and atom consist of the same substance is put into practical application.” (10)

This raises two distinct questions. First, how does one reconcile Steiner’s public and private pronouncements? Second, what would Steiner say now about atomic theory, which today is less a “theory” than it is the standard vocabulary of science, accepted by virtually every physicist in the world?

Mr. Francis approaches the apparent contradiction between Steiner’s public position that the atom is a mere mental construct and his private reference to atoms as constituents of the physical world by reminding us that Steiner himself said more than once that anthroposophy was “difficult” and also “strange.”

It may be helpful to understand it this way. The image of the electronic atom that Bohr worked with is in fact an intellectual artifact that does not correspond to anything in the physical world. Yet it may be “real” because the worlds of soul and spirit have reality just as does the physical world. Steiner said repeatedly that a wrong thought can do real damage. Thus, while the physicist’s mental representation of the atom in Steiner’s time may never have existed in the physical world, it may nonetheless be real if it has penetrated the general thought environment and become a vehicle for conceptions “for the future of a humanity bound to the physical world and unconscious of the spirit.” While unfortunately Steiner did not address the apparent contradiction for us, his latterday readers, he surely was not engaging in “double think.”

We should not treat categorically Steiner’s 1904 statement that “thought is composed of electricity.” Haven’t many of our thoughts been degraded by beings whose function it is to take control of them, and who use the very energy of divine intelligence descending into human intelligence to do so? But we know that in the Michael age, “hearts begin to have thoughts.” We may be very confident that “heart thinking” is not an electrical composition.

Mr. Francis’s attempt to reconcile Steiner’s public and private expressions about the atom is not designed to produce satisfaction or relief. It succeeds powerfully, however, in calling attention to what we do not fully understand. And what we do not understand is a gate through which we can go further spiritually—what Georg Kühlewind called a “sacred gate.”

The second question is even more challenging: How would Steiner have viewed the quantum revolution that began in the year of his death? During Steiner’s lifetime, it had become “close to heretical” to question the notion that the atom, in something very close to the Rutherford/ Bohr model, existed independently. Atomic science was believed to provide an objective account of the world governed by deterministic laws. But following the quantum revolution, the border between subject and object had been blurred, determinism had fled before probability, and the Copenhagen Interpretation, initiated by Bohr, eventually won the field. According to his most brilliant pupil, Werner Heisenberg, Bohr’s own insights did not come from mathematical analysis or discursive reasoning, but from an observation of actual phenomena so open and unprejudiced that it was possible for him to sense relationships intuitively. Mr. Francis presents Bohr as a scientist with enormous spiritual patience, someone capable of remaining in the question and struggling to define it rather than answering it in a linear fashion. For Bohr, “the question and the answer grow together through the interplay of inner and outer.” His methodology was to grasp the outer world in a familiar way and then to penetrate further after learning inwardly to construct the purely mathematical aspect. His third step, in Steiner’s terms, would be “the entirely inner experience, like the mathematical experience but with the character of spiritual reality.”

So far, Bohr’s methodology might suggest a modern version of Goethean science. But the comparison can be taken only so far, because the experimental methodologies employed by the leaders of the quantum revolution were made by intrusions into the natural world clearly antithetical to the Goethean spirit.

It cannot be sufficiently emphasized that for Bohr and Heisenberg, the scientific project was not to discover a reality behind the phenomenal world or to construct mental images of particles and waves to serve as substitute realities. The giants of the quantum era stand fast at the threshold, preventing the monster of all-embracing reductionism from sweeping the field. As Mr. Francis puts it, “modern psychology depends on physiology, physiology depends on biology, biology depends on chemistry, and chemistry depends on physics; and, deep down, the wonderful thing is that nobody understands physics.”

Perhaps Niels Bohr was not, as Mr. Francis poses the question, a Goethean physicist. Certainly, quantum physics is in no way a proto-anthroposophical approach to reality. The atomic theory that came to flourish immediately after Rudolf Steiner’s death was initiated by scientists who, in the main, gave everything—often to the point of mental breakdown—for what they perceived to be the truth. The result of their efforts stands fast against the overwhelming lust in our day for determinism and reductionism. Perhaps one day, in ways that are not now apparent, it will lead to a science of the spirit.


9 I found myself wishing that Mr. Francis had also dealt with David Bohm’s approach. But then, as he observes, this is not a “book about everything.”

10 “The Work of Secret Societies in the World: The Atom as Coagulated Electricity.” Berlin, December 23, 1904.