Just finished this book. At first, I confess, I wasn't used to the author's style; I was expecting a somewhat lengthy cosmological science introduction (the author is an astrophysicist) before perhaps wading into options of what the science might open up for us...usually, popular works by scientists tend to rely on this type of formula.
Instead, Dr. Frank chose a more "literary" approach, weaving in various ancient myths as alternative tales of the cosmos...I didn't grasp his style that much on first reading, although he certainly isn't the first scientist to use literary dialogue on a popular level. However, a careful re-reading of certain chapters started opening up his main ideas, and his synthesis of science and so-called "spirituality" and what he sees as shared aspirations between the two. As other reviewers have noted, Dr. Frank rejects the typical sterility of the more-militant sector of the anti-religious crowd, which is a welcome relief in this type of popular science writing. Why relief, you ask? Personally, I get as tired of the religion-as-the-root-of-all-evil routine as I do the mentality of religious fundamentalism (actually, these mentalities are very similar, but I'll leave that alone now). Maybe you're like me, tired of seeing ANY diatribe from extreme opinions, from whatever end of the spectrum they may be.
Both science and human mythology, after all, share (if from different avenues) a common goal in a search for the "True", the "Real". If this sounds a bit Platonic, it need not be, as even non-Platonists can easily admit to a real universe out there that can inspire awe and wonder...just as it did for ancient mankind in the creation of myths across the broad spectrum of human history. The best of both science and our mythology points to a common shared experience of awe and wonder toward our universe. Religious skeptics, such as fans of Richard Dawkins's books, might object that a purely "physicalist", reductionist approach alone can produce the same awe and wonder without recourse to a "symbolic" approach. And indeed Dawkins himself raptures about the delights of waking up and exploring the biological world on a daily basis. This looks suspiciously like a sales talk to me (but maybe he does), yet in any case I'd argue there is a tremendous difference in orientation between someone like Dawkins vs. our author Dr. Frank, the latter at least appreciating the broad human history of myth-making.
The vast majority of humanity down through history seems prone to create symbolic representations of reality, alas...which probably tells us something about how humans construct their worlds. The chase for empirical data, which seems to dominate the worldviews of many moderns, is but a fairly recent phenomenon in human history....a mere blip on the human time-line. Not only that, it seems doubtful (to me at least), in our modern urban concrete sprawl and hectic lives, that many moderns experience the rich inner-world of the symbolic that seemed to be a matter-of-course for many of our ancestors...who of course didn't share our modern demand for rigorous empirical data. Something is missing here, which eternally resists our efforts to isolate and quantify. Our modern world seems ill-equipped to reach out and touch it.
Folks should be critical when certain scientific authors get arrogant and want you to adopt their rather narrow lens for YOUR worldview. Scientific empiricism is essential, nothing can take it's place, but the methodology itself is only one part of what makes us human. Stay out of the poverty sphere, folks...your human existence is too complex to fit into comfortable boxes and limited methodologies. Human experiences- i.e., the matters that concern us daily as human beings, do NOT fit neatly into the tier of physics, chemistry, nor even basic biology very well. We shouldn't even expect that they would.
As wonderful as physics and chemistry and evolutionary biology are, these really have little to offer to "experience" on the human level. If you doubt that, just consider your relationships with your family and friends. Is "empiricism" (TM) the defining criteria here? Not at all. I maintain that our human symbolic tendencies and recurring religious motifs are relevant precisely on this level, hence their constant recurrence throughout human history...to the continual dismay of skeptics :-).
The great quantum physicist Erwin Schrodinger pondered the limits of the scientific method deeply (perhaps more deeply than many of his modern colleagues seem to do today), and recognized the scientific attempt for complete "objectivity", as necessary as it is, has some serious "holes" as an adequate description of the human experience. Here is a wonderful quote in this regard: "I am very astonished that the scientific picture of the real world around me is deficient. It gives a lot of factual information, puts all our experience in a magnificently consistent order, but it is ghastly silent about all and sundry that is really near to our heart, that really matters to us. It cannot tell us a word about red and blue, bitter and sweet, physical pain and physical delight; it knows nothing of beautiful and ugly, good or bad, God and eternity. Science sometimes pretends to answer questions in these domains, but the answers are very often so silly that we are not inclined to take them seriously."
Accordingly, to Schrodinger, we shouldn't be allowing critiques primarily coming from these basic physical and evolutionary science areas to override matters that are germane only at a higher, "human" level. Skeptics, please take note. Personally, I am in complete agreement with Schrodinger's observations. It baffles me how certain (vocal) scientists with backgrounds in the physical or basic biological sciences fool themselves concerning the (in)ability of basic physical science to render judgments on the elements that make us human. And if you look closely, many scientific writers feel uncomfortable talking about this angle - you see, the "human" level is not part of their training or expertise... nor is this realm smooth sailing for the usual methodologies of quantification. Ergo, a "qualitative" - i.e., symbolic, poetic or "metaphorical" - approach doesn't seem to be a strong point in many popular science descriptions :-). This "inexperience" in dealing with metaphorical language is important to remember, lest we look at mythological motifs the wrong way and judge them by entirely inappropriate criteria.
Let's think about another issue. The search for a (mythical) "pure objectivity" is too limited if we're truly seeking a non-haphazard picture of "reality"...which obviously includes the human dimension. We're interested in a "reality" that - by necessity - includes the subjective element of human beings, yes? As Schrodinger so aptly observed, there is a bit of a con game going on in science when folks assume the old "pure objectivity" dream of classical physics is really the case. In an unavoidable sense, we create our own "myths", including our own constructions of space, time and causality given the limited data we have. A maturity at looking at these issues should occur with this realization; we're doing what we've always done throughout history...i.e., construct worldviews with the current knowledge we have at our disposal :-). Ergo, one should be able to arrive at a point where mythological and religious history can be appreciated for what it is...simply evidence of the creative history of humankind, looking out over the cosmos.
The irony here is that minimizing (or even dismissing) the rich symbolic/metaphorical creativity of humanity is sometimes seen even in fields where caution should be in order, such as modern cosmology. Cosmology is a discipline rather unique in physics, in that there is no available experimental evidence for much of it, to the on-going skepticism of many physicists working in other areas of physics (which have been more solidly verified by experiment and technology). Don't tell anyone, but areas such as multi-dimensional superstring theory, multiverses, cosmic landscapes, etc. etc., are heavy on speculations and very light on experimental data :-). Certain superstring theorists, for example, have created some mathematical inventions that have won the admiration of those working in pure mathematics, but unfortunately, these mathematical tricks haven't helped with any real-world verification, as of yet. The hard-nosed experimentalists, I would suppose, probably aren't as happy as the theorists with these developments in mathematical technique... Even more pointedly, for progress, physics is a science - not a sub-field of pure mathematics. Physicists are expected- and rightly so- to come up with descriptions that match the situation in the real physical world. Mathematical technique is wonderful in itself, Plato and his ancient Greek friends would be proud, but we're expecting something more concrete here from folks wearing the label "physicist", especially so from those who are particularly hostile toward any "metaphorical" approach to worldviews :-).
It may be somewhat fair to consider modern cosmology to be more a branch of philosophy than a branch of science, alas (hoping that someday the experimental side might catch up). Examples can readily be found of the comedy world that can happen in cosmological speculations... One that readily comes to mind is the saga of the French Bogdanov twin brothers, who produced some highly-speculative ideas - using exotic "string" buzzwords - on supposed "pre-spacetime" conditions before the Big Bang. This proved to be a perfect area - given the lack of experimental data and the freedom to wildly speculate- to pull a hoax (which is exactly what some critics suspected they did). Their articles found their way into establishment physics journals, to the (delayed) chagrin of orthodox critics- but cosmology has hardly fared better today, and hindsight is always easy afterward, eh? The Bogdanov affair and resulting backlash is a highly entertaining story (no matter if hoax or sincere attempt), illustrating just how difficult it is to distinguish novel insights from nonsense even for established physicists, as theory gets so far ahead of experiment in exotic areas. And in general, incidents like these reveal just how far forward cosmology needs to go as an empirical science.
All the more odd, then, when we see a theorist working in these gray cosmological areas disrespecting something like human mythology. Pot- black, kettle- black :-).
In a nutshell, what is mythology, if not an expression of mankind's creativity in trying to make sense of the cosmos down through the ages? It should be celebrated, not shunned. (We should embrace our past, instead of ridiculing it).
Be that as it may, this is actually a gem of a book, one that deserves wide reading in this day and age of polarized, narrow-minded thinking. It won't convince the hard-nosed skeptic with an automatic knee-jerk reaction toward anything smelling of religion or spirituality, but we already eliminated this crowd early on. We want to stay out of human experiential poverty, so we're looking here at broader-minded approaches to human experience. Five stars.