on 19 September 2012
This review is for the book written by Lord Martin Rees. (There happens to be another book with the same title). By the way, I have amended my first version of this review.
I was encouraged to read this book after I read a long article by Rees, entitled "Even a theory of everything has limits", in the (London) Daily Telegraph, 11 September 2012, which was by way of a puff for a TV programmed (3 one-hour episodes) to be presented by Stephen Hawking on the Discovery Channel, beginning on 13 September ('Stephen Hawking's Grand Design'). I found the Telegraph article quite difficult to follow. It largely reproduces, I discovered, the speech made by Rees when he was awarded the Templeton Prize in 2011.
In fact, the speech/article refer back to the series of 4 Reith lectures delivered by Rees in 2010 on BBC Radio 4, and the book 'From here to Infinity' is in turn an expanded version of the Reith lectures. The longer text of the book is far more comprehensible than the shortened versions in the speech/article.
The book (150 uncrowded pages) was a delight to read, in attractive well-spaced type, and in perfectly understandable plain English. And with much of what the author has to say, I am in complete agreement. He stresses the importance of the discoveries and applications of science since, say, Galileo and Newton, and with increasing speed in the 20th and early 21st centuries, in changing (and improving) the way we (and the world's populations in general) live. He stresses the need to update and propagate the knowledge of these scientific benefits, from primary school through to post-graduate research.
He also gives space, as a thinking member of society, in what one may call a sociological role, to studying the role of science in face of the dangers faced by humanity right now, with a rapidly expanded and still-expanding human population, potential shortages of fossil fuels and the harm that even now their use may cause to the environment, notably through global warming and the acidification of the oceans, the need to find alternative energy sources, and the threat of the misuse of nuclear energy (which may well become economically essential) as a source of weapons of destruction not only in global but even in relatively localized wars. On all such issues Rees's calm and scholarly views and warnings are to be applauded.
One problem however (occurring confusingly in the Telegraph article, but more clearly dealt with in the separate chapters 1 and 3 in the book) is that Rees uses the `theory of everything' idea, aka The Grand Design, in two contexts within his overarching vision that `science' has to deal with `everything'. Some of the time `everything' means THIS universe in which we live and which modern science actually (though imperfectly) describes; but some of the time Rees takes it to include all the most (currently) far-fetched ideas of M-theory and multi-dimensional string theory and multiverses and the wildest visions not only of the cosmological community but of science fiction writers too: anything and everything MIGHT be possible in POSSIBLY ALREADY EXISTING or STILL-TO-COME or NEVER-TO-COME universes of which we now know absolutely nothing, and perhaps simply could never know or understand anything, but which some now-unthinkable post-human `rational' beings might be able to understand.
It seems to me that a `theory of everything' in `our' universe is a reasonable topic for research among the top echelon of biologists and cosmologists, but a `theory of everything' imaginable and unimaginable, which gets a lot of Rees's time, seems like a target too far.
In fact Rees tells us that even the search for a `limited-to-our-universe' Grand Design is of little interest to the vast majority of scientists. He says in the Telegraph article (closely repeated in the book, pages 88,89): " ... the Grand Design would be irrelevant to the 99 percent of scientists who are neither particle physicists nor cosmologists, and who are challenged by the baffling complexity of our everyday world. It may seem incongruous that scientists can make confident statements about remote galaxies, or about exotic sub-atomic particles, while being baffled about issues closer to hand - diet and disease, for instance. Yet even the smallest insects embody intricate structures that render them far more mysterious than atoms or stars".
So much for those studying `our' universe. For the most part they don't even look for its `Grand Design'.
But he ends his Telegraph article by writing: "Whether the really long-range future lies with organic post-humans or with intelligent machines is a matter for debate. But we would be anthropocentric to believe that all of science is within humanity's grasp, and that no enigmas will remain to challenge our descendants. There may be things that humans will never understand - but that doesn't mean that they will never be understood".
That's the field of study for those seeking a `Grand Design' in the second sense - the understanding of what is currently wholly unknown and perhaps even will always be non-existent. In the book, this is the subject of Chapter 3: "What We'll Never Know".
My overall verdict on Rees's interesting book is that it fails, because of what it omits, and which it cannot be excused for omitting.
It fails because Rees's vision, in seeking for a `Grand Design', a `Theory of Everything', never rises above the `hard' sciences of biology and chemistry and cosmology, above the microscope and the geological record and the laws of gravity and relativity and quantum mechanics. Do not be misled, because Rees repeatedly declares that he welcomes the beauty of the architecture and the chant and the ceremony of Ely Cathedral and the Anglican tradition, into thinking that Rees sees the Grand Design as including anything more than a better understanding of physical science. On page 92 he does say: "Understanding the brain - the most complicated thing we know about in the universe - is of course a supreme challenge". But even here Rees thinks only in terms of `scanning techniques' for the material brain. He does not rise to examining whether there is a distinction between the material brain and the immaterial mind (the `soul'?), a key distinction that is at the heart of what it means to be human.
An article by Mark Vernon in the (London) Guardian newspaper of 6 April, 2011 is headlined: "Martin Rees's Templeton Prize may mark a turning point in the `God wars'", making a considerable point of the fact that Rees strongly disapproves of Dawkins's aggressive attacks on religion, while Dawkins considers Rees to be a traitor and a turncoat to the cause of science and atheism, because he (Rees) declares that he appreciates his Anglican upbringing. Twice in his short article Vernon calls Rees an `atheist', and I have no reason to doubt this description.
Rees's analyses of the successes and the problems associated with science never transcend the purely material. His love for Ely cathedral and for his Anglican roots seems to imply that this transcends the material, but he never states this clearly. Dawkins and other atheists are equally capable of sharing such perceptions, but are equally unable - and indeed unwilling - to attempt to explain them by anything more than the action of the blind clashing of material atoms (e.g. Hawking) or the absurd `memes' of Dawkins. Rees says nothing.
Rees's and Hawking's books are necessarily failures, because they try to envisage a Grand Design but omit from serious consideration the huge reality which must be the central feature of any Grand Design: the self-conscious, understanding, rational, thinking, religious, scientific, logical, philosophizing, theologizing, artistic, musical, literary, remembering, planning, loving, hating, altruistic, selfish, moral, immoral, peak-of-creation human being. And they omit, disastrously, all philosophy and theology.
Rees warns us that our overall life-style, and the misuse of science, could lead this 21st century to destruction. He fails to consider another threat already destroying mankind, which is the destruction of the concept of rational human nature made in the image of God. Thus e.g. abortion.
I have much more to say on these matters, which I will add as `Comments' to this already long review.