Why IS Stephen Colbert just like a Sufi Master Mystic?
That is one of the questions that pop up when a “liberal yankee buddhist” and a “conservative agnostic southern scientist” collaborate to write a book.
“Seeking Truth: Living with Doubt”
by Steven Fortney and Marshall Onellion
Seriously, I was half-way through this book when the last of the Harry Potter’s arrived (I’m a purist and order the english adult editions in hardback to avoid bowdlerized versions), but I finished this book first.
The book is an attempt to draw lines in the science/religion culture wars, and to redraw the lines somewhat.
In particular they argue that art belongs firmly on the side of science, and that the “mystical religions”, especially buddhism and hinduism are on the side of the scientists, opposed to the levantine religions – islam, christianity and judaism. They also push to place the authoritarian political systems, especially fascism and communism on the side of the “religions of the book”, with some justification, arguing for the paternalistic authoritarians vs the individualistic liberal schools of thought.
It is an interesting, short book, albeit with an astonishing number of appendices (22) of variable utility.
Some of their points are well made, thought provoking and hit home; some go off in directions that have been visited, such as with the “Tao of Physics”; and, some miss the mark. For example, their highlighting of hindu cosmology as parallelling modern cosmology is true at the metaphorical level, but, how were we to ever know that without actually doing cosmology, as science? With a multitude of creation myths, some were likely to be reasonably close metaphors to reality, but there is no way to select those without actually looking.
Their main point is to highlight the essential difference in approach between doctrinal authority and reliance on a fixed and absolute text, versus an open ended search for truth through logic, introspection and debate.
In addition to the Colbert point (they like jokers and challengers of authority), there is a nice reflection on the Buddha as Scrooge.
They really dislike Islam and evangelical christianity, as well as some of the minor variants; the cut judaism some considerable slack for being open to argument and an ongoing search for truth. They also cut the Sufi schools within Islam some slack, although I suspect they are being a little bit wishful there.
For some reason I cannot quite pin down, they are also hostile to post-modernism movement in art, too nihilistic I infer. The rationale is not well presented, from my perspective.
The problem with the book is that it is poorly structured and very uneven.
It could have used a firm editor.
In many places the “joint” in writing of two different authors is very apparent and quite jarring.
The chapters have a myriad of subsections, which are quite inconsistent and break the flow of the readers line of thought. The authors might have been well served by a different structure, rather than try to rotate science/art/religion/mysticism in each chapter, with punctuated anecdotes.
The other flaw in the book is that the anecdotes are inconsistent – in many places they are offered as argument, when they are really instances, more hard numbers would have made the case better; and in too many places the anecdotes have annoying errors, which usually do not detract from the argument but which ruin the case for the informed reader. For example, the cause of the 1918 ‘flu epidemic is referred to as a bacterium; the discussion of cosmology uses old (pre-WMAP) data and inaccurate numbers, and makes a curiously strong assertion on the Higgs field and its role, which is plausible but not at all proven; most damaging they get the details of one of their Feynman anecdotes badly wrong (the Challenger investigation: the “o-ring” issue was discovered by NASA engineers and leaked to Feynman via the general who was a member of the panel, Feynman’s role was to illustrate to point decisively and publicly, further, the issue was not fuel mixing, the o-ring protected a joint on a monopropellant booster and its failure permitted exhaust burn-through of the joint).
The book would be much more readable and ultimately more convincing if re-edited quite thoroughly.
The appendices are similar: the one on Ramanujan is useless, with far too little elucidation, random plopping down of ill-defined formulae alternated with trivia (why define “prime number” after a cursory proof of Cauchy’s theorem by appeal to Stoke’s theorem?! and what was Ramanujan’s role in any of this or the later examples, and why does it matter?). On the other hand the appendix on “mathematics of altruism” is very nice, and the “problems for the 21st century” would have made a good chapter, better than many already there.
There is also a curious swipe at Amartya Sen’s “multiple identities” argument, their point that one of the “identities” may so override all other aspects of the personality that appealing to their ordinariness is futile; but the authors themselves then make an almost identical argument to Sen’s later, when they discuss scientists and the fact that they have lives and social roles outside of their identity as scientists.
The book was worth perservering with, although with some professional editing it could be so much better. It will appeal to some of the “pharyngula crowd”, although some there would have little patience for the appeal to Buddhism.
I am inspired to finally get around to reading Karen Armstrong’s stuff.