"Our ancestors worshiped the Sun, and they were far from foolish. And yet the Sun is an ordinary, even a mediocre star. If we must worship a power greater than ourselves, does it not make sense to revere the Sun and stars?" - Carl Sagan, Cosmos
Good-humored and well-intentioned collection of loosely related meditations ("an unpretentious book of wisdom," according to John Allen's back cover blurb) on various New Agey subjects, oriented around the notion that consciousness, mindedness, and even intelligence are hard-wired into the nature of the cosmos. The author rants about organized religion while discussing the proto-religious, animist orientation of our human ancestors, in which the entire world is experienced as alive and intentional. He discusses various discoveries in astronomy, physics, and mathematics that underscore the interconnectedness and miraculousness of the natural world we take for granted. He calls for a re-orientation of our values, from a selfish and shallow consumerist materialism to a worldview in which everything (from bacteria to water to fire to the Sun itself) is seen as sacred, living, and loving, and to which gratitude and reverence are the sanest responses. Even if the reader does not accept as factual an animist worldview, it is hard to deny the benefits of living as if the world was suffused with love, mind, and meaning.
Alas, the title is misleading, which is why I had to finally give the book two instead of three stars. The author only dances around the subject of the sentience of the Sun and never really provides any evidence in support of his conjecture that it is a living, thinking being. That said, whether the Sun knows it or not, it IS the source of all our light and life, and it wouldn't hurt if we said thanks once in a while.
As is my wont, I would like to share a few exemplary quotes with the reader of this review:
On the practice of gratitude to the Universe:
Perhaps all the effort that primitive men and women put into saying "thank you" for the blessings of life was not a total waste of time. This sort of "superstitious" behavior went on for thousands of years and just might have been sustained for so long because people noticed the difference that it made to their lives and to the world around them....
Gratitude is good, whatever lies at the receiving end. Of course, we should not let ritualized gratitude detract from the enjoyment of that for which we are being grateful, since that enjoyment is probably the best feedback we can give. (165)
On the difficulties of understanding intelligence with intelligence:
One of the most difficult types of intelligence for our rational intelligence to understand is, ironically, our own, based as it is upon the free interaction of hundreds of billions of independent neurons distributed throughout our brain. They organize and make associations with whatever other neurons they choose and nowhere is there any sign of central control.
If we cannot even understand our own process of intelligence, how can we be expected to understand how trillions upon trillions of drifting hydrogen and helium atoms in a pre-stellar cloud managed to engineer their own amazing feat of star formation? But they did it, as we and a bright Universe are able to witness. It is time to acknowledge other vehicles of intelligence that are beyond our comprehension, and not just the incomprehensible version that we personally experience and accept. (174-5)
On a "third way" between Creation-ism and Darwin-ism:
Six years into this book, the whole Intelligent Design vs. Evolution story was going off big-time, with lawyers and conflict and lots of headlines. After reading the positions of both sides, I couldn't help thinking that each side of the argument seemed as blinkered and chained to their positions as the other. It was high time that another option was thrown into the current either/or debate. Intelligence from the bottom up is that other option--a system in which everything, from a molecule of water to a neuron in our brain to the Sun itself, is a pat of the bottom that is subtly steering a greater whole. (179-80)
On the specialness of being human:
We are special--can't you feel it? But can you accept as possible that otters and eagles, butterflies and cats, trees and dolphins all feel it too[?] Maybe mice and worms and sardines do not feel special, but for all we know they might be thinking the same thing about ticks and lice. But my interest is declared, I am a human and naturally biased. If any blue whales are reading this, then please forgive my arrogance in taking such a position. (224)
The essays in this book are the best part, which is unfortunate, since it is primarily a book of photography. The first essay discusses the science of...moreThe essays in this book are the best part, which is unfortunate, since it is primarily a book of photography. The first essay discusses the science of interplanetary collisions, and the history of that science. The second essay discusses the notion and aesthetics of the "sublime" and locates this collection of images in that artistic tradition, where the awe-some and the awe-full come together to remind the onlooker of her relative insignificance in the face of Universe.
As for the images, though, they lacked (in my estimation) the sense of the awesome and numinous that they were supposed to possess. Many of the images were flat and in some it was difficult to tell where the landscape ended and where the horizon began. I wondered if the need to discern the difference was my "insignificance" in the face of the awesomeness of nature, but I don't think so. I just didn't think the photos were all that good. (I also wonder if the photographer used B&W, rather than color, to "re-contextualize" the images and make them more like craters on the Moon than terrestrial impact sites.)
Worth a read, definitely, but the images just didn't work for me as much as I'd hoped they would.(less)
Real vs. Fake. Genuine vs. Counterfeit. Hoaxes. Experts. Art Forgers. The Federal Reserve. Radical Feminism. Political correctness. Postmodernism. Sci...moreReal vs. Fake. Genuine vs. Counterfeit. Hoaxes. Experts. Art Forgers. The Federal Reserve. Radical Feminism. Political correctness. Postmodernism. Scientific absolutism. Wilhelm Reich. Philip K. Dick. The Priory of Sion. All forms of the verb "to be".
Bob plays with all these ingredients in this, the final installment of the Cosmic Trigger trilogy. Alas, compared to the first two volumes, this book left me relatively cold. It's not that there weren't lots of brilliant points scattered throughout. It's that there were lots of brilliant points scattered throughout, instead of the whole book comprising one extended, interwoven, brilliant exploration of the crazy world in which we find ourselves. The fact that I can find the brilliant points in this book by citing a particular page is what makes it different from its predecessors, both of which were seamless, integrated. It also felt like this one was written to fulfill a contractual obligation. Sadly Wilson's attacks on "Political Correctness" seemed as shallow as most of the other attacks on that vaguely defined concept, and while I often expect Wilson to be glib, I never expect him to be shallow.
Enough grumbling, here are some of the brilliant points:
"The mathematically normal labels that idea which no actual event exemplifies." (pp. 33-4)
In reference to his use of multiple calendars:
Once you have given up asking 'what day is it?' you will soon find it easy to give up asking what anything really "is." Then, in Melville's fine phrase, you can strike through the mask—pierce the veil of cultural conditioning (emic tunnel-reality) and see and hear with your own eyes and ears. (p. 109)
Personally, I don't trust mystical experiences, including my own—although I seek them and enjoy them. I think Altered Consciousness offers new ways of perceiving/conceiving and should start philosophical investigation, not stop it. (p. 113)
"Kindness remains, to me, the most wonderful miracle in this incomprehensible universe." (p. 123)
On the final Orson Welles film F for Fake:
I love this film because it forces viewers to think as I believe we must all learn to think in this post-quantum age: not in Aristotelian either/ors, but in probabilities. (p. 184)
On the book Higher Superstition and the notion that science provides a meta-perspective from which to adjudicate the truth claims of all other perspectives:
Gross and Levitt believe the current scientific model (i.e., the most popular one...) stands above all other perspectives, in the way one might claim the architects' view "stands above" the other drawings of the room. I hold to the contrary that we must at leaser partially remember, all all times, that the "absolute" or architect's blueprint has its own kind of relativity, its own "perspectivism," or else we risk going totally mad.
On linguistic precision and neuro-semantic honesty (in the specific case of the abortion debate): "Due to the philosophy I hold at present, I currently [do/do not:] classify the fetus as a human person."
Quoting Korzybski: "Allness is an illness."
We live, existentially and phenomenologically, in a universe of infinite aspects. Whether the model-universe of science, in its extensions in space-time, extends to infinity, or has infinite boundaries, of fits the Einstein model of an unbounded but finite Reimanian geometry, the sensory universe of our experience remains stubbornly infinite, in the sense that we can never exhaust the number of things we may "see" in it or the number of ways we can organize our individual perceptions into models or reality-tunnels. (p. 242)
Based on the short film of the same name, Powers of Ten takes the reader on a voyage into the biggest and smallest frames of reference we can currentl...moreBased on the short film of the same name, Powers of Ten takes the reader on a voyage into the biggest and smallest frames of reference we can currently imagine. Packed with notes and artwork, this book makes a perfect supplement to a classic, mind-blowing short scientific film.(less)
It has been sometime since I read this book, and yet I remember clearly my basic response, which was either that the author had failed in trying to ex...moreIt has been sometime since I read this book, and yet I remember clearly my basic response, which was either that the author had failed in trying to explain contemporary cosmology to a literate nonscientist (i.e., me) or that the contemporary cosmology was itself inexplicable, at least to a non-mathematician, and more or less meaningless. I was struck by the relationship between high-energy particle physics and this contemporary cosmology, and how the study of both is resource intense and apparently far removed from everyday human concerns. One vaguely remembered factoid from the book involved the insanely fine-tuned nature of the universe's starting conditions, which is more or less shrugged off. To my way of thinking, the flabbergasting odds that led up to a universe in which I am keyboarding these thoughts deserves a better origin story than the one Barrow provides here, whatever the cloud chambers and equations suggest. (less)
I have always had a fondness for images (infographics!) which give a sense of the relative sizes of different objects, including mountains, skyscraper...moreI have always had a fondness for images (infographics!) which give a sense of the relative sizes of different objects, including mountains, skyscrapers, and statues. This book presents the extremes in scale—from the quantum-scale to the galactic super cluster—and does so in a delightfully San Francisco-centric way, by using a baseball in Candlestick Park as its initial unit of reference. A baseball-sized Sun hovering over home plate, for example, would have outer planets passing through Oakland, and a cell the size of the same baseball would result in state-sized insects! Not as information dense as Powers of Ten, but their approaches to visualizing relative size and scale complement one another nicely.(less)