April 3rd, 2009
Most of the book deals with things we already know yet never learn.
— Huston Smith
This is perhaps one of the most enlightening books I’ve ever read, and yet I feel like I’ve only grasped a small bit of its meaning. It is with that warning that I attempt this review.
I should add at the outset that this is one of those books where no matter what you expect it to be, after reading it, you will find that it wasn’t what you expected.
I heartily recommend it to everyone, from the devoutly religious to the devoutly atheistic.
Science and Scientism
Smith begins with a discussion of science and scientism. He is a forceful defender of science and of the work of scientists in general. But he is careful to separate science from scientism. Paraphrased, he defines scientism as the belief that science is the only (or the best) route to truth about everything. He points out that, through no explicit fault of scientists, scientism has become so ingrained in our modern psyche that even theologians have started thinking in terms of it.
Yet there are some pretty glaring flaws in scientism, particularly where it comes to matters of philosophy, conscience, meaning, and religion. Smith argues that the foundation of science is the controlled experiment and logical inferences derived from it. He then proceeds to make strong case that it is not possible for humans to set up a controlled experiment to either prove or disprove the existence of something “more” than our material world — a transcendence, a metaphysical reality, a spirit, a God. We, with our existence trapped in this finite world, cannot possibly hope to capture and control something so much more than us in every way: intelligence, versatility, and “finiteness”. Thus science can’t even address the question.
That hasn’t stopped people from claiming that religion is just a helpful delusion, for instance, despite not being able to prove whether it is in fact a delusion or reality.
Smith then asks us to indulge a moment in considering two different worldviews: one the “science-only” worldview so common these days, and the other a more traditional religious worldview with a rightful place for science. He defers supporting evidence for each for later chapters.
The science-only worldview is pretty familiar to many, and I have even heard parts of it articulated in comments left on this blog. It goes roughly like this: The universe is x billions of years old. It is, so far as we presently know, a vast expanse with mostly dead matter. Earth is the only exception, which contains some living organisms and even sentient beings, though these make up a small fraction of even the earth. This life arrived by accident through physical and biological processes, some of which are well-understood and some aren’t. In the end, the universe will again become entirely dead, as our planet will be incinerated when our sun goes nova. Or, in any case, the entire universe will eventually expire in one of various ways. This worldview suggests that it is an accident that we are here and that we have consciousness, and that our actions have no ultimate meaning because the earth will eventually be incinerated anyhow.
The traditional worldview holds the opposite: that instead of having our origins in the tiniest and simplest of building blocks, and eventually improving over time, we should more properly think of ourselves as being derived from something greater than ourselves. That greater something is part of our world, but something much bigger than it too. It does not rule out science, but neither is it something that science can ever explain. It suggests that our lives have a purpose, that our work has meaning, and that there are ultimate ends to seek.
Smith is a scholar of world religions, and draws on his considerable experience to point out that virtually all world religions, before the Enlightenment, drew essentially the same picture of our world and the “more”. He reminds us — though perhaps less effectively than Marcus Borg — that there are other ways of knowing truth besides science, and suggests that we pay attention to what the vast majority of humanity had to say about the nature of existence before a human invention started to squelch the story.
The book is filled with personal stories (Smith spent at least a decade each researching and practicing at least four different religions), quotes, and insights. I consider it the most enlightening book on religion I have yet read. Smith has more than a passing familiarity with physics, and the physicists in the crowd will probably be delighted at his discussions of quantum mechanics and the claim that “nonlocality provides us with the first level platform since modern science arose on which scientists and theologians can continue their discussions.”
One passage reads like this:
Again I will let Henry Stapp say it: “Everything we [now] know about Nature is in accord with the idea that the fundamental process of Nature lies outside space-time, but generates events that can be located in space-time.” Stapp does not mention matter, but his phrase “space-time” implies it, for physics locks the three together.
He says that quantum theory of course can’t prove that there is a God, but that recent research seems to disprove the old notion that, given enough time, all questions will be answerable by science.
Even if you disagree with every one of Smith’s conclusions, you’ll be along for a fascinating ride through physics, biology, philosophy, and innumerable religions. One of my favorite anecdotes concerns noted physicist David Bohm (who studied under Oppenheimer and worked with Einstein, among others). He gave a lecture at one point, apparently touching on his hidden variable theories to a great extent. At its conclusion, a senior physics professor asked derivisely, “What does all this philosophy have to do with physics?” Bohm replied, “I do not make that distinction.”
How’s that for something to ponder?
The book is fun to read, and the stories make it all the moreso.
However, it is not a light read. Houston Smith wrote this near the beginning, without any hint of irony:
The first of these differences is that Gass’s is an aristocratic book, written for the literary elite, whereas mine is as plebeian as I can render its not always simple arguments.
I can think of a few simpler ways to express that thought. In any case, it isn’t light reading, but it is accessible even if you, like me, have little formal training in philosophy, theology, or quantum physics.
I would do such a poor job trying to paraphrase Smith’s main points that I haven’t even really attempted to do so here. Get the book — you’ll be in for a treat.
Incidentally, I had been thinking of buying the book for awhile. What finally made me do so was an NPR story about how he helped preserve the sound of the Gyuto Monks Tantric Choir back in 1964, when he (of course) was sleeping in a monastery in the Himalayas and awoke to investigate “something transcendent” — the “holiest sound I have ever heard.”
I pressed the Buy button for the Kindle edition a few minutes later.