Sunday, 20 July 2008

God Is Not Dead: Book Review


In this book the quantum physicist Amit Goswami promises much, but delivers little. Or to be more accurate, delivers quite a bit but not nearly as much as he tells you he is going to. He tells us that he is going to prove the existence of God and establish a new spiritual paradigm. Well.....

Amit Goswami has, in the past, written a very conventional textbook on Quantum Physics and has several other titles to his credit, mostly dealing with his somewhat innovative cosmology. He's the Indian guy featuring in the movie What The Bleep Do We Know!?

The subtitle, What Quantum Physics Tells Us About Our Origins And How We Should Live, is what sold the book to me, and the first section of the book is all about Quantum Physics or at least Goswami's version of it. This first section was, to me, worth the purchase price of the book, as Goswami makes comprehensible the down the rabbit hole reality which underlies the Newtonian physics we are used to encountering in daily life. Start looking at the structure of the universe on a scale smaller than an atom, and Toto, we ain't in Kansas anymore. Goswami allowed me to convince myself that I could understand this stuff - no mean feat. Initially his description of Quantum Physics is quite conventional (if QF can ever be thought of as conventional), but as the book progresses he makes one or two innovations.

His first innovation is small, but, to me, helpful. He reframes the concept of Quantum Probability as Quantum Possibility. Let me briefly explain: Quantum Probability is the concept that when you start to examine the little quarks and muons and other doohickeys that make up matter you never can actually tell where the little blighters are. All you can do is give a mathematical guess at where they might probably be. So, you can't point to a spot and say "yup, it's there, alright!" You can, instead, point to an area, called the Quantum Probability Field, and say, "the chances are, it's in there somewhere." So how big is a Quantum Probability field? Well, actually, how big is the Universe? The thing you are looking for could possibly be anywhere, and all you could say is that there is a certain mathematical probability that you will find it here, and a smaller probability that you would find it there. It's a small shift from Probability to Possibility, but in making the shift Goswami is underscoring the point that the object might possibly be anywhere in the field, that is, anywhere in the universe. He is laying the foundation for the claim that virtually anything is possible, and that it is consciousness which makes it exist or not.

Goswami tells us that the object in its Quantum Possibility field does not exist as a thing at all. It exists as a wave - a possibility wave - and is actually present simultaneously in every part of the Quantum field. He is not making up some weird new age theory here: this is simply a rephrasing of standard Quantum Physics. Again, in keeping with standard thought he says that when the thing is observed, it changes. It stops being a wave, present in every part of the field, and becomes a particle present in one particular place in the field. The possibility wave is "collapsed" into a particular time and place as a particle.

Goswami's next innovation is the one which he bases his book around. He notes that the consciousness which does the collapsing is itself a particular thing. Any individual consciousness is a conglomerate of possibilites, and to exist it has itself been collapsed from a field of quantum possibilities: Quantum Consciousness. Goswami says that Quantum Consciousness is God, and spends most of the book trying to prove it. He says that the Quantum Consciousness field, and not matter is the Ground of Being. This means that rather than the customary idea circulating in Western Culture that consciousness is a sort of by product of a certain arrangement of matter, matter is to be thought of as a sort of by product of consciousness. He identifies the process by which possibility becomes actuality through the process of observation with the Divine Creation, and says this is the means by which our universe exists. This is an intriguing idea, and is perfectly in keeping with, for example Meister Eckhart and many other mystical writers. If Goswami stopped here he would have contributed immensely to the work of reconciling scientific and spiritual paradigms of truth. Unfortunately he doesn't stop here.

Most of the book is concerned with Goswami trying to prove his theory, and thus, to prove the existence of God. He does about as well as you might expect ie not very. His great error is in making authoritative sounding statements with little to back them up. For example, when talking of the process of emergence as an explanation of life, Goswami says this:

" But in view of what we know about how simple systems make up complex systems, such as atoms making up molecules, with no irreducibility there (since we know that molecules can be reduced to atoms and their interactions) the holists' claim sounds preposterous."

That's not an introductory sentence. That is his entire argument against the Holism of, for example, Francisco Varela and Humberto Maturana. This example is typical of the whole book, where mere assertion is passed off as definitive proof. The book comes nowhere near proving the existence of God, but who should be surprised at that? Those who know God need no proof, those who need proof are incapable of knowing God.

There are some useful ideas in the book; his theory ties in nicely with a Jungian theory of personality for instance. There are also some things in the book which seem to me to be just plain silly: Goswami's guess at the age of the universe, for example. The book finishes with a section on living a life of Quantum Activism which is an acknowledgment that a spiritual life must be an ethical life. Quantum Activism turns out to be a fairly standard restatement of the Buddha's Noble Eight Fold Path, but hey? What's wrong with that? You can't go far wrong sticking to the Noble Eightfold Path.

It's an interesting book, and the first 61 pages are very helpful: intriguing, cogent and illuminating. The rest of it? Worth a flick through, but I might advise trying to borrow a copy rather than buying it.

(Details of the book, including publication data and pricing are found on the carousel widget to the right of this entry)

3 comments:

Simon said...

Thanks for this useful review. I find it fascinating but also frustrating to study the interface between science and spirituality. The frustration is partly due to my own shortcomings in understanding the concepts involved, but also due to this blurring of the boundaries between fact and opinion which is often present in the material.

Tillerman said...

Thankyou for the review - a copy of this book is deep in the bowels of a big metal bird winging its way across the Pacific from Amazon Dot Com to my letterbox as I type.
It is being keep company in the hold of the aircraft by another book I ordered by the same author. I look forward to reading them both.

Mark said...

Thanks for the thoughtful review