Top positive review
25 people found this helpful
Science comes full circle
on 14 May 2012
This book is in two parts which add up to a single theme: modern scientists are clawing their way back to insights that were intuitively obvious to medieval thinkers, and before them the ancient Egyptians.
The book's first part describes how the great thinkers who developed the modern scientific worldview, such as Copernicus, Galileo and Newton, took seriously and were inspired by esoteric ideas, especially the Hermetica, a collection of religio-philosophical writings compiled in the early centuries AD. It argues further that the Hermetic writings draw on and express much older concepts taken from ancient Egyptian thought. Finally, it suggests that esoteric concerns became suppressed largely for political reasons, not because scientists saw them as intrinsically without merit, but that this then led to the modern mindset in which spiritual speculations--about the meaning and purpose of the cosmos, its creator and humanity's place within it--are seen as almost diametrically opposed to the mechanistic and materialist scientific method. Of course, many people will know that Newton devoted as much energy to mystical issues like biblical prophecy and the dimensions of Solomon's temple as he did to his theories of optics and gravitation. However, what this part of the book does is show that the influence of esoterica was much more fundamental and far-reaching than we are generally led to believe. It suggests that we have been treated to a sanitised version of scientific history according to which scientists heroically threw off the befuddlement of esoteric thinking, whereas the truth is that early modern scientists could not have done what they did without the groundwork laid by esoteric texts such as the Hermetica. [The statement of one reviewer here that Newton succeeded in spite of not because of his occult influences is precisely what the authors attempt to show is a distorted modern myth.] A key aspect of the argument is that early scientists' problems with the Catholic church stemmed not from the 'scientific' content of their work but from its esoteric underpinnings, which conflicted with Christian orthodoxy and more importantly undermined the church's authority. Thus, Copernicus cited the Hermetica as a source of his heliocentric theory. In his lifetime, the church was not hostile to the specific claim that the earth went round the sun. The pope even listened with interest to a lecture on the subject and it was a Roman cardinal who encouraged Copernicus to go public. The church only became hostile later on because of the close association of the heliocentric theory with the Hermetic world-view and its claims that humans were or could become divine in their own right. That the Catholic church was fighting the Lutheran reformation at this time made it especially touchy about independent theological speculations occurring outside its purview.
The second part of the book describes how modern scientists are increasingly finding that the universe seems to have been contrived (or designed) to support the existence of life. There appear to be numerous quirks in the laws of physics without which anything like the universe we know could not exist. For instance, the triple alpha process that leads to the creation of carbon in stars relies on an apparent coincidence in the energy levels of certain atomic nuclei, and if this were not the case the universe would consist of nothing but hydrogen and helium. Meanwhile, in biology, some crucial events in the history of life, such as the origins of the genetic code or the eukaryotic cell, are very difficult to explain in evolutionary terms and look more not less mysterious as time goes on, with theoreticians having no better explanation than a lucky turn of events. We then move on to quantum mechanics and the 'observer effect' whereby a quantum system's behaviour (specifically whether it acts like a particle or a wave) depends on the way in which it is observed. It seems the observer effect can even work backwards in time: the way a system must have acted in the past depends on how we choose to observe it in the here and now, and, although this has only been demonstrated over very tiny intervals, in principle it might apply on cosmological timescales. This suggests that the universe needs conscious minds to observe it in order to come into existence: not only does our observation of it cause the universe to be one thing or another, rather than a diffuse combination of all possibilities, but this applies back through time to the universe's very beginning even though we weren't ourselves around at that time. These ideas are not the personal ravings of the authors but represent the trains of thought of some very eminent scientists, most notably John Archibald Wheeler. And what is remarkable is how they echo the Hermetica's occult ideas such as that humans have a unique place in creation and are themselves part of the divine creative force.
The neat aspect of this book is that the notions described in the second part as growing out of consideration of modern scientific problems are seen to be very close to the notions of the Hermetic esoterica out of which modern science grew in the first place as described in the first part. I believe very little of this is the authors' own original work, and I would suggest going back to the sources they cite to get a fairer view of how far it is supported by evidence, but what they have done is create an accessible synthesis of a diverse but ultimately connected range of scholarly discoveries and speculations from the last fifty or so years. The proposal that, by being conscious, we are the creators of our own cosmos seems hugely important as a way of unlocking the fundamental conundrum of why the universe should exist at all. That said, such a proposal could be considered philosophically old hat, but this is largely the authors' point: the insights of ancient esoterica get at deep scientific truths and we should not assume that when brilliant minds like Newton took them seriously it was because they did not know what they were doing. The book's implication, that spiritual and materialist ways of understanding reality are not inimical to each other but intimately related, should be welcome to all those who are dissatisfied with the jejune vision of modern militant secularism.
The book has a readable style, good notes, an extensive bibliography and a useful index.