BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Wagering with Pascal?

I had really high hopes for this when I “won” it from the “Early Reviewer” program, as I was anticipating some nice logical presentation about a rational society's “God substitute” coming out of Science. Eh, not so much. Not that it doesn't have its moments, but Nancy Ellen Abrams' A God That Could Be Real: Spirituality, Science, and the Future of Our Planet suffers from being something of a self-therapeutic exercise that bizarrely floats off into the sorts of mushy introspection that is typical of new-age writers and not what one would expect of “hard science” folks. I guess I got confused by her extensive referencing of her “famed astrophysicist” husband, Joel Primack, and how she starts off the book in nearly “full Dawkins” mode:
I have no interest in a God that has to be believed in. If I am going to have God in my life, it has to be a God that cannot help but exist, in the same way that matter and gravity and culture exist. We don't need to believe in these things; they just exist.
However, her personal struggles with addiction (in her case, “food addiction”) hang heavy over the book, as what ultimately drives her to seek out an otherwise unnecessary deity is the notorious “God stuff” of popular addiction management … as without a God to release her responsibility to, she could not keep from over-eating, plain and simple, so “science be damned”, there was going to BE a God in her universe. In retrospect, I suppose I am being harder on Abrams than I should, as it's her husband who's the scientist ... she has a philosophy degree from University of Chicago, and is a lawyer - so weaseling around the theistic 12-step doctrines to make them look less creepy is what's she's trained for. This doesn't make them any more palatable from where I'm sitting, however.

Needless to say, I would have found this a MUCH better book without those elements … and maybe somebody without a “doughnut problem” is out there who will take the useful concepts of this and run with them, generating an actual “rational deity” that could, indeed, enhance “the Future of Our Planet” by freeing it from the bronze-age insanities of the big-ticket monotheisms. There is a core of logic here which could be built on … hooked into the concept of “emergence”. Noted cosmologist and science writer Paul Davies provided a Foreword to this (the other is by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, to throw an additional bone to the theists, I suppose) and in it he frames the idea in Abram's conceptualization:
The core of her bold challenge to the atheist position is that because emergent phenomena can be real in their own right, even if they depend on a lower-level substrate to instantiate them, a God that is the product of the human mind and human society can also be real. After all, life emerges from and is dependent on, the chemical substrate of organic matter, and life is not only real but has its own (emergent) agenda consistent with, but transcending, the chemical substrate that hosts it. So too can it be for an emergent God. … Her God is not even cosmic but planetary, being tied (until now at least) to our particular terrestrial species. … For those steeped in traditional monotheism, a God that springs solely from the collective human intellect seems like heresy. But for those who reject the idea of God entirely as ridiculous and superfluous, an emergent God holds many attractions.
The first part of the book looks at the evolution of the idea of God, from the earliest flat-world-with-a-dome conceptions, through the great ancient polytheisms, into the Dark Ages, the Medieval period, and on into the Renaissance, when God and Nature began to diverge. Abrams argues that up till then, our vision of God moved in lockstep with our understanding of the cosmos, with God being the element that harmonized humanity with the cosmos “as the culture best understands it”. Living in an astrophysics/cosmology household, the author obviously has a better grasp on the “twenty-first-century scientific” understanding of the universe (with dark matter, dark energy, and other hard-to-get cosmic realities) than most, but it's her belief that we need to develop a concept of God that fits that universe.
...the idea of God has persisted through thousands of years and thousands of cultural changes neither because God is an independently existing being in control of the universe nor because it's a purely psychological need. God persists and always will because it's a fundamental characteristic of the connection between ourselves and the universe. That we're connected to the universe is inevitable and indisputable, but until we had a scientific understanding of the universe, we could not imagine how.
She argues that the disconnection of the idea of God from the realities of the cosmos is the seed of the present insanity of most religions …
In each subset of these belief systems, a somewhat different version of God's character and expectations of us is held not only to be true for the believers but to be universally and eternally true.
In the next section she picks apart those ossified version of deity in relation to our current understanding of the universe, and how various aspects of physics rule out most of the cherished “God stuff” that the believers (of assorted stripes) hold so intensely to. This is then followed by a section in which she starts to set up a justification of God, returning to the “emergence” theme. Looking at how the laws of thermodynamics were largely framed on emergent phenomena (entropy being an averaged factor of trillions of atoms – which at the time were purely theoretical), and how scaling is important to understand the whole. An example she gives is of an ant colony … on the level of the individual ant, everything is a response to some chemical signal, but over the entire colony we perceive an intelligence expressing as a system. This is due to having a sufficiently higher level consciousness“We humans are able to do this because our kind of intelligence discerns abstract patterns in social behavior and constructs theories.” She goes down a bit of a rabbit-hole here, looking at culturally inherited expectations and aspirations which shape how we see God, even to the point of suggesting that God is, from generation after generation of people working with the concept, hard-wired into our neurological make-up … an idea that I might disparage if it wasn't for my study of shamanic expressions across cultures, where certain key elements appear in widely differing contexts, leading me to posit that there is, likewise, a real (and physically hard-wired) “otherworld” in which the shaman is able to operate.

On the subject of familiar belief systems, perhaps my favorite part of the book is how Abrams borrows the Nordic concept of Midgard (that's Earth to the Marvel Comics' Asgardians such as Thor), and blends this with the Uroboros – the snake eating its tail. On this “Cosmic Uroboros”, there are three realms, the extremely small on the tail end, the extremely large on the head end, and “Midgard” inbetween … that “Goldilocks” zone of “just right” sizes for us to be able to understand them without too much difficulty – from about the size of an ant to the size of the Sun. On the extremes are things as small as 10-25cm and as large as 1025cm, with the head/tail coming in at the GUT – grand unified theories – zone around 10+/-30cm … creating a scale which essentially encompasses the entire of the universe. It's in Midgard, however, that we can have a meaningful God.

Abrams tries to fit a lot of traditional religious thinking into the following bits, including life after death (she has an interesting thing about being an “honored ancestor”, and how we should live our lives as “our great-great-grandchildren's keeper”). Unfortunately, she sort of lost me as she tried to sort things out ... for every reasonable suggestion that we (and any other similarly sentient alien life forms) are the universe's “brain” (by which it explores and understands itself), there were a handful of things that felt more like her working through a need for something to pray to. As Dennis Miller would have it, however, your mileage may vary.

A God That Could Be Real is brand new (it just came out last month), so it's possibly in a book store near you, and the on-line big boys have it available for about a quarter off the cover price. I liked a lot about this book, but really resisted a similarly large amount of it. Again, I felt that had the author not been dealing with her addiction issues via 12-step theism-based approaches, and came to the subject from a more solidly science-based perspective without that other baggage, it would have been a far, far better book.

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Tags: book review
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