Vanity thought #1220. Spiritual Luddites

Added clarification about Newton and limited universe

The author of The Island of Knowledge might be a very knowledgeable person himself, holding multiple degrees and working at prestigious universities, writing books etc. but when it comes to spiritual matters he looks completely shallow and out of depth. For a book extolling virtues of atheism he should know something about religions beyond a few simplistic, Christianity based notions which look naive even to Christians themselves.

There’s, of course, a whole world out there besides Christianity, and any serious writer should be fairly cognizant of all major traditions but that appears to be too much to ask from self-proclaimed “popularizers” of science, no matter how many degrees they hold. They never seem to have a place in their brains to learn fundamentals of any religion besides Christianity, but that doesn’t stop them from pontificating on deficiencies of religions, of course. Fools leading the fools indeed.

When Marcelo Gleiser mentioned Brahman I thought this book would be an exception but I was wrong. Actually, Brahman was introduced quite nicely, in a paragraph about limits of scientific endeavors. There’s a lot that science doesn’t know and, possibly, can’t know. The author here deals with inability of science to grasp the “ultimate reality” and he says that he still talks about knowable, physical reality, not God. He excluded God as being ungraspable by definition and listed Brahman as a kind of transcendental reality that is beyond the reach of empirical tools. Great, but then it went downhill from there.

First, mentioning Brahman (and also Tao and nirvana) as transcendental reality is not that great display of knowledge. It’s okay for the purpose here but Brahman ended as being juxtaposed to personal God, which is, of course, unacceptable to us. The bulk of Hindu vaiṣṇavas might let it go but, strictly speaking, it should be unacceptable to all vaiṣṇava traditions regardless of the flavor of dvaita they profess. The relationship is complicated, we should admit, but excluding personal God from Vedic tradition altogether is still ignorant. The author probably knows Hinduism from the likes of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda.

There’s another distinction here that totally eluded the author – between transcended and supernatural. To science, and to myself before meeting devotees, it was all the same, too, so I understand author’s confusion but that doesn’t excuse the ignorance. A lot of supernatural stuff has nothing to do with spirituality at all, it might blow the minds of new agey potheads but chakras, auras, prana, etc are all material phenomena. There are also all kinds of gods in all sorts of religious traditions who are as materially conditioned as us humans. Śrīla Prabhupāda was correct in using the term “demigods” here. He got a lot of rap from critics for inventing it but it places these devas exactly where they are – as material administrators of the universe who can’t even approach Lord Viṣṇu on their own.

Having said that, authors critical approach to science is still remarkable. In the last paragraph of the introduction he drops another bombshell – we don’t know the difference between subject and object, we don’t know where “I” is, where it ends, and where the outside world begins.

It’s a big admission that usually escapes promoters of science. They all talk about science as a tool for us to study the world but what is this “us”? On what grounds do we see ourselves as subjects, as knowers, as being distinctly different from the object of our knowledge? The author rightfully calls the separation artificial but doesn’t explain exactly why. I’m not sure I can express it correctly either, but it has to do with mechanical nature of our brains which makes them behave as parts of and under the laws of the universe they are supposed to study.

Mechanical brains can’t produce anything independently, they do not produce any truly original thoughts, only reactions to external stimuli filtered through their memories. Sometimes people have visions or get help from Goddess Sarasvatī but this kind of revelation is supernatural only by the standards of science, and visions are presumed to be mechanical, too. Just electrons bouncing off neurons or something.

After stating that, however, the author again retreats to the safety of science. First he reduces artificial separation of subject and object to people simply having different experiences and then brings up science as a universal tool to unite everybody around, as some sort of “objective” knowledge. Well, as I said, our innate subjectivity is not about being different, it’s about being subjective to the same nature we intend to study “objectively”.

This kind of one step forward one step back is characteristic of all of author’s insights into inner workings of science. For example, the author admits that lots of people understand his critical arguments but they call him defeatist for that. “What’s the point of trying to expand our knowledge if it leads to expansion of our ignorance?” The author promises to answer that question and says that his approach, rather than being defeatist, fills him with inspiration to know more, and he calls the idea of finding the ultimate truth a downer. I already mentioned it yesterday – modern, atheistic science has dismissed man’s eternal quest for Absolute Truth and instead lures us with taste of temporary victories. This will never satisfy the soul but popularizers of science shut themselves out from big aspirations like that.

What’s the difference between a top scientist jumping with joy after figuring out a complex problem and a random grandma feeling all up to date after discovering what a mysterious button in her computer does? It probably opens up another menu with tons of options she will never have time to understand.

Another example is the matter of belief. The author compares religions belief with what is practiced by scientists and finds no principal difference. Fine, and very helpful to our case, but it’s not how we actually believe in our spiritual lives.

He assumes that people use beliefs to fill gaps in their knowledge. There’s more to say on his approach to “mythology” but I’ll leave that for another day. For now I’ll just focus on this particular aspect of belief, using it to answer the same questions that scientists do. Based on this assumption he looks at several examples of scientists relying on their own beliefs (sans God) that were essential to their discoveries.

Newton believed that his theory, which he developed from observing the solar system, should be applied to the rest of the cosmos. “Believed” being the key word here – in authors’ view it’s what scientists subconsciously assume when developing any new theories. There was no rational reason for Newton to assume that laws observed here work exactly the same way for the distant stars. Now we know that they don’t, btw.

Interestingly, Newton lived in an Earth centric universe. Still, he argued that, due to gravity, all celestial bodies in a limited universe would eventually collapse on each other. So he concluded that for stars to be spread around the space, the space must be unlimited. That’s how the idea of unlimited universe first came into science, before that the universe was contained and covered by several layers of stuff, with God’s kingdom being right outside of it edit: there was, however, Nicholas of Cusa who talked about unlimited cosmos centuries before, and he made cardinal.

Einstein did the similar thing, expanded his theory to the rest of the universe, but instead of unlimited cosmos he proposed a “cosmological constant”, At the time his theory of relativity was tested only within solar system and that cosmological constant was only an idea, he believed it would work but had no experimental basis for its existence.

“Cosmological constant” still exists but it plays an entirely different role from that which Einstein intended it for.

So yes, it seems scientists naturally believe all kinds of stuff about their theories, and it’s a great point, but it’s not the same kind of belief as practiced in spiritual pursuits. It’s not the same faith that leads people to God, doesn’t the author know that?

As I said, there are more examples of primitive understanding of religion in this book, but I’ll leave them for another day.


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