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Review on "War of the Worldviews"
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Review By Dr. Vemuri Ramesam  On 11/3/2011 8:49:37 AM

The Background:

There are a total of 36 essays in the book, eighteen by each author. They begin with a joint Foreword but end with separate Epilogues. The 18 pairs of essays cover five topics:

The War ( 2 essays);

Cosmos (10 essays);

Life (10 essays);

Mind and Brain (8 essays); and

God (6 essays).

The scientific case is upheld by Dr. Leonard Mlodinow and the spiritual brief is advocated by Dr. Deepak Chopra. The authors have taken care to see that no one view gets an advantage in projection by dividing the number of pages almost evenly between them under each essay and also by yielding precedence to be the opener alternatively  under each topic head in writing the essays. If Leonard ends with an essay rebutting Deepak, the next essay will be authored by Leonard first so that Deepak gets a chance to refute Leonard. Thus they tried to even out the fire power (though this rule gets violated five times).

The two authors claim they were strangers to each other when they accidentally met at a TV debate, though Deepak is a popular author with sixty books and innumerable public appearances and Leonard authored over half a dozen titles. As they communicated and exchanged views, they discovered the scope for making their slugfest into a book. And here it is.

The book carries recommendatory and laudatory blurbs from twenty five famous authors, spiritual leaders, scientists and others raising the decibel level of the war cry.

The Battleground:

The ostentatious purpose of the book is to fathom whether science is capable of understanding the world or the ancient teachings and techniques only can unravel its mysteries. Science is said to be limited (though incorrectly) to the five senses in its comprehension of the world whereas spirituality is believed to go much beyond by striving to know the purpose and meaning behind the universe. Both the authors admit that they are firm believers in their respective views (p: xix).

The authors have not cared to clearly explain why the five specific topics as listed were chosen by them to write the essays on. Their presentations also do not illuminate whether the chosen topics are the most defining parameters for their respective positions. Nor the topics appear to be the most important and burning problems for the society at large.

Some topics are obviously redundant and or have a good overlap between them (e.g. What is Life? and Is the Universe alive?; How do genes work? and Did Darwin go wrong). Further, they wasted a whole page space just giving the title of the topic for each pair of the essays. It would have been much more beneficial to the reader if both the authors gave the definition or at least a general span of the term they were going to write about in the essays. For example, the topic at p: 39 is ‘Is the Universe conscious?’ Both the authors could have, upfront, given what they mean by ‘conscious’ from their respective stands so that the reader would have been forewarned what to expect from their discussions. Same thing can be said about Life at p: 91 or Design p: 106 and so on.

Post skirmish:

No war leaves a good taste in the mouths of anyone, particularly the innocent bystanders. It may at best provide an ego satisfaction to the slugging warriors. The outcome of the ‘War of Worldviews’ is no better.  Out of the galaxy of celebrities’ comments, the one by Dr. Michio Kaku appealed to me the best. He says: ‘… This book dares to ask some of the deepest, most profound questions, and comes up with some surprising, even shocking answers.’

Yes the hollowness of the answers was a surprise and the shallowness of futuristic projections is a shock!

Dr. Alfred North Whitehead, the British Mathematician and Philosopher said: ‘When we consider what religion is for mankind, and what science is, it is no exaggeration to say that the future course of history depends upon the decision of this generation as to the relations between them.’ The essays in the book or the debating points of the authors hardly project any bold roadmap to inspire us or to inform us on the future course of humanity. There is nothing new or already not known to a discerning responsible citizen. The authors fail to meet the prescription of the visionaries like Dr. Whitehead. There is little in the book for the future generations to thank us, the present generation, for our effort to bringing about a convergence of the two human faculties -- the investigative searching scientific attitude and the soothing assimilative spiritual stance.

Right from the word go, the book has been a disappointment. The title itself is quite inept. Could the authors not think of any other term than ‘War’ to spell their respective POVs? By the time I covered half the book, I regretted having to read it.

It is a pity the hype built up around the book only goes to promote the authors. Plans are afoot to carry forward the debate by the authors to cover such highly misunderstood and rarely comprehended term like Consciousness during the famous Tucson conferences of Arizona University, ‘Toward A Science of Consciousness’, in April 2012.

Like a typical cult propagandist, Deepak scares us with the prediction that our ‘foreseeable future looms grimly over us’ (p: 5) and recommends that we make a choice of transcending to ‘reality’ – but unfortunately he has precious little to say in unambiguous terms what that reality is. Leonard, on the other hand describes the ‘wonder’ with which our ancients watched the night sky and talks about our continuing wonder how ‘we, ensembles of almost uncountable numbers of unthinking atoms, can become aware, and understand our origins and the nature of the cosmos in which we live’ (p: 12).

Leonard does not hesitate to admit in all humility, ‘Yes, scientists, and science are fallible’ (p: 15). However, he reasons out that ‘Humans study science because we have an urge to know and how our lives fit into the greater scheme of the universe’ (p: 18-19).  He reminds us the sage advice of one of the greatest scientists, Richard Feynman: ‘the first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest to fool’ (p: 19). A picture of hope and zeal to discover emerges from these words but not doomsday prophecy.

Dr. D. Chopra’s presentation resembles often like the arguments in a high school debating society, mundane, mediocre and less informed about cutting level scientific research.  He constructs many straw men misrepresenting what science is and what it stands for – science is reductionist, science builds boundaries, science separates, science dehumanizes emotion etc. etc.  He then goes about shooting down his imaginary paradigms. Leonard very ably and with evidence disproves the constructs of Deepak and educates him on the scientific method of unbiased investigation.

Deepak doesn’t deter to argue like a small time village priest to say, ‘[M]etaphysics doesn’t build high-tech weapons.’ (p:101) to bolster his view to say spirituality is superior. Does one not know whether it is the scientists who are the decision makers or the governments of the day who lay down the country’s policy? Do you like to throw the baby with the bathwater simply because a scientific invention has the potential to be misused by the head of a state? Is this the level of argument one would like to read?

Matters like how much genes or environment influence behavior are issues that are understood even by scientifically-literate general public these days. As Dr. Donald Hebb inimitably expressed, ‘the question was akin to asking which feature of a rectangle—length or width—made the most important contribution to its area.’ But Deepak writes as if scientists believe that genes only decide the behavior. He says, ‘There is supposedly a love gene, a criminal gene, even a faith gene’ (p: 104). The present day scientific research findings actually tell us the opposite:  ‘an organism's behavior and environment may indeed influence the genes it passes to its offspring.’

Leonard, time and again, page after page, painstakingly and patiently explains the method of science to Deepak. Deepak even had to be reminded that he was a Physician. Leonard comes out, to his credit, with the only quotable quotes in the book:

‘Science is open to accepting new truths. What it resists is accepting untruths.’ (p: 296)

‘Science is open-minded because it has no agenda.’

‘I cannot let the way I want the world to be drive my apprehension of the way the world is.’

‘[S]cience’s ultimate triumph lies in the integrity of its method, the openness of its point of view, the eagerness of its embrace of the truth.’ (p: 299)

‘Science may never have all the answers, but it will never stop looking for them.’

Deepak blithely declares that abstract things like creativity or love cannot be tackled by science from a study of the brain (p: 182). And Deepak is a trained Endocrinologist saying that! There are innumerable studies on the emotion of love from many institutions in Europe, the USA, and Australia. The role of a variety of hormones in emotions is progressively being understood. Okay, science is not yet there, but attempts to tease out are on. A beginning has been also made to understand even creativity in brain by Dr. Charles Limb. His work explores creativity in music, the starting postulate being ‘artistic creativity is a neurologic product.’  It is just an initial approach and will be modified or discarded as the work progresses (see the video at: http://www.ted.com/talks/charles_limb_your_brain_on_improv.html). Though Dr. Chopra denies the attempts of science to understand love from a study of the brain, he acknowledges that the effect of meditation can be seen in the brain structure leading one to a lasting transformation (p: 263). Agreed in natural systems, more so in human beings, correlation is not causation. But that is not a reason to give up scientific investigation to understand ourselves or to unfold the mysteries of nature, as Deepak would seem to advocate.

The readiness and humility on the part of science in inviting a fresh air of breath as presented by Leonard stands in stark contrast to the asphyxiating and confusing mixed-up argument of Deepak, sometimes quoting from Abrahamic religions, sometimes from god-neutral spiritualism and sometimes from a shallow understanding of the deepest ancient Indian philosophical thought. Playing to the gallery of monotheistic religious views, Deepak insists on a purpose to life. But the sages of yore did not attribute any specific purpose for the universe and creation. At the best, the ancient Indian scriptures come up with some explanatory artifacts to appease a curious mind on the question of the purpose for creation.  

Deepak bemoans, ‘All around us people ache with emptiness and yearning; there’s a vacuum to be filled…’ (p: 304).  Merely calling it a spiritual vacuum by him hardly serves any purpose.  We do not see any bright ideas or new grounds explored by him to bring out a wholesome view that is beneficial to the overall good of the society.

Deepak may come up with high sounding bravado statements like, ‘A baby, a galaxy, photon, and the ecology of the rain forest look nothing alike, yet when you examine life at the deepest level, nothingness is creating every aspect of the living universe’ (p: 83). Does the sentence convey anything meaningful? Does it not betray that his knowledge of Buddhism too is mixed up? The concept of ‘nothingness’ as used by Nagarjuna does not tally with this expression. Incidentally, Deepak uses all these terms – religion (in some places), spirituality, consciousness, metaphysics – as if they are all synonymous. His arguments too hop from one to the other in the discussions without consistency. Even the great Advaita is projected with a poor understanding.  For example, at p: 264-265, Deepak lists the qualities of Pure Consciousness gleaned from ‘great wisdom traditions.’ He does not, of course, care to tell us what those great wisdom traditions are. But the misrepresentation of Advaita is obvious. At point # 4 he says that the Pure Consciousness contains infinite potential. According to him, ‘The greater your experience of pure potential, the more creative you become.’ Does one experience Pure Consciousness? When it is Pure Consciousness, is anybody there to experience? If somebody happens to be there, is it any more Pure Consciousness?

At point # 7 he says ‘Pure Consciousness is dynamic.’  No. If Consciousness is dynamic, it is mind in the eastern tradition. Consciousness is ‘sthira’, unmoving.

He quotes Bhagavad-Gita winding up his argument at p: 267: ‘This entire universe is pervaded by Me, the unimanifest Brahman ……… I am inside and outside all that exists.’ But it is a pity from that utterly inarguable Truth, he ends his essay with the words, ‘Belief becomes knowledge that can be trusted, and on that basis God once again be revered.’ The less said on it, the better.

The true Upanishadic message is: You are the world and the world is you. The Advaita Vedanta, the pinnacle of ancient Indian sages and seers tells that you are the God. The amelioration from affliction, as the Upanishads teach us, is in the realization that I am that God (aham brahmasmi) and spontaneously acting responsibly from that unequivocal understanding. A serene world can never come from any belief structure or by hiding behind a godhead in order to escape the evils and praying for selective benevolence.

There has been a rash of books recently on matters related to spirituality and science. In his book on the partnership of science and religion, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks captures the spirit much better. He says, ‘they both share a willingness to travel to an unknown destination beyond the visible horizon, to attempt dimly to discern an order beneath the seeming chaos, to hear the music beneath the noise’. The Radio debate on science and spirituality brought out by the BBC is much more refreshing and balanced (at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b015yr4h).

‘War of the Worldviews’ can safely be given a miss, unless one would like to know the spirit of scientific method in exploring and understanding the nature.

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About this book

In War of the Worldviews the two authors battle over the cosmos, evolution and life, the human brain, and God, probing the fundamental questions that define the human experience.

Leonard Mlodinow Chopra Deepak and Order from amazon.com

Harmony Books, New YorkISBN
978-0-307-88688-0Date Of Publication