In Plato's Allegory of the cave human beings live confined and restricted in a subterranean cave which has a mouth open at one end to the light outside. The human occupants of this cave have been there since childhood and are shackled in such a way that there heads are immobile, with there gaze constantly fixed on the back of the cave, opposite the opening, upon which are projected shadows. Knowing no different, the constrained humans take the shadows on the cave wall to be reality. Some of the cave dwellers, being of a scientific disposition, spend their whole lives studying the movement of the shadows, recognising regularities and patterns, speculating as to their origins. Some shadows exhibit such regularity that laws of shadow behaviour are developed. So hypnotised by the shadow play are these cave dwellers that they little suspect the reason for there being any shadows at all is due to the light - that non of them have ever directly seen - coming from the mouth of the cave.
This scenario pretty much sums up the theme of this book. Deepak Chopra considers materialistic science to be engaged in the study of shadows. At the same time he feels science is ignoring, and indeed hostile to, the very thing that gives the shadows any reality at all, the light i.e. consciousness or spirit (both words are used interchangeably by Deepak as pointers to THAT which is itself formless and empty but which gives rise to all forms and potential).
Leonard Mlidinow argues that, without good reason to think otherwise, we must confine our interests, our studies, our investigations and inquiries to the shadows (the material world), limiting our hopes, dreams and desires to the shadow world. It is a naïve and vain hope to think there is anything else. Besides, the shadows are infinitely fascinating, varied and awe inspiring and offer the prospect of beguiling us for many years to come. By contrast, Deepak argues, to limit our gaze to the shadows is to limit the potential for greater discovery.
The book is essentially about knowledge, the different ways of knowing, and how we can be certain that our claims to knowledge are true. Leonard comes from the perspective of radical empiricism in which only that which is amenable to the senses (and their extensions), and that which can be measured, quantified, predicted and verified through third person confirmation, can be considered a legitimate truth claim. Deepak considers that science, technology and the media have conspired to produce a view of the world that is profoundly materialistic and competitive and which claims exclusive rights to being "right". Deepak argues that the scientific worldview is missing an essential ingredient i.e. spirit. However, Deepak is at pains to distance his version of spirituality from religion. He writes: "Organised religion may have discredited itself, but spirituality has suffered no such defeat." He then contrasts organised religions with the "profound views of life" propounded by spiritual teachers such as the Buddha, Jesus and Lao-tzu who pointed to a "transcendent domain", beyond the reach of the five senses, "mysterious, unseen" but which could be known by diving deep into one's own awareness, to the source of both the inner and outer reality.
Thus, in essence, Deepak's spiritual perspective is one in which he equates spirituality with consciousness. Deepak believes that "consciousness" is the ordering, creative and intelligent principle at the heart of reality, without which there would be no reality at all (the light at the mouth of the cave). "We need to go back to the source of religion. That source isn't God. It's consciousness". Deepak breaks down his spiritual perspective into three parts:
1. There is an unseen reality that is the source of all visible things.
2. This unseen reality is knowable through our own awareness.
3. Intelligence, creativity, and organising power are embedded in the cosmos.
Deepak argues for a worldview in which consciousness and the material universe are seen as two aspects of an indivisible whole. He writes: "Reality is reality. There is only one and it is permanent. This means that at some point the inner and outer must meet; we won't have to choose between them". This desire to unite science and spirituality through a grand synthesis is at the heart of Deepak's philosophy. The main obstacles to this synthesis, in Deepak's view, are religion and materialism. Most religions (mainly the monotheistic western religions of Judaism, Islam and Christianity) posit an extra-cosmic God who "tinkers" with reality as and when it suits Him, judges, condemns or loves you (depending on what mood He's in) and is completely "other" and unknowable, revealed to us solely through "sacred" texts which must be believed unquestioningly if one is to achieve salvation. Such a view of the world, Deepak argues, is rightly shunned by all reasonable and thinking individuals. Similarly, he argues, the "superstition of materialism", the belief that only the world revealed to us via our five senses is real, is hostile to the "inner journey". Deepak perceives science as aiding and abetting this materialistic worldview as it reduces the universe to a closed physical system of purely physical cause and effect, ungoverned by anything other than blind purposeless laws of nature. The question for Deepak is fundamentally: "What is reality? Is it the result of natural laws rigorously operating through cause and effect, or is it something else?"
Leonard writes: "We would all like to be immortal. We'd like to believe that good triumphs over evil, that a greater power watches over us, that we are part of something bigger, that we have been put here for a reason. We'd like to believe that our lives have an intrinsic meaning." Leonard recognises these as legitimate human concerns. He views the answers that religion provides as mankind's earliest attempt to address these concerns within the limits of incomplete knowledge. "Today science can answer many of the most fundamental questions of existence. Science's answers spring from observation and experiment rather than from human bias or desire. Science offers answers in harmony with nature as it is, rather than nature as we'd like it to be." In terms of inspiring awe and wonderment as well as addressing questions of ultimate concern Leonard believes science, despite its limitations, to be the "triumph of humanity" and of our "capacity to understand". He resents Deepak's implication that scientific explanations are "sterile and reductive". He goes on: "Scientists are often guided by their intuition and subjective feelings but they recognise the need for another step: verification." He then loosely outlines the "scientific method" with its emphasis on observation and experimentation; and, while acknowledging the part spirituality has to play "regarding human aspirations and the meaning of our lives", he highlights the lack of verifiable evidence as being the main reason religion and spirituality are excluded from scientific consideration; or, more to the point, religious and spiritual doctrine make "pronouncements about the physical universe that contradict what we actually observe to be true." So Leonard's view is that the knowledge claims of science are open to verification, refutation and testing and as such we have every right to place our confidence in science as opposed to religion/spirituality when it comes to our understanding of the world and our place in it.
As much as I enjoyed the exchanges between Leonard and Deepak, and as much as I commend Leonard for engaging in communication with someone I'm sure many of his colleagues would run a mile from, I found the book on the whole disappointing (hence the three stars). Essential to a debate such as this is the necessity of defining terms explicitly and to the satisfaction of both parties. The problem with this book is that terms are so sloppily defined (if at all) and so ambiguously employed, that both Deepak and Leonard spend a great deal of their time talking passed each other. Deepak uses terms such as "spirit", "consciousness", "mind" etc so loosely and vaguely as to render them meaningless at times, while Leonard, though more diligent in his effort to define terms, is similarly guilty of obfuscation (this is to be expected from someone who co-authored "The Grand Design" with Stephen Hawkin in which it is claimed, Nietszchian like, "philosophy is dead". It was premature of Leonard to bury philosophy because philosophy, at the very least, is the art of conceptual clarification). In fairness to Deepak, terms such as spirit, consciousness and mind are notoriously slippery and science has yet to agree on a working definition of consciousness. Notwithstanding, I feel Deepak could have made a greater effort to be more precise in his definition of these terms, if for no other reason than, by not doing so, Leonard had all the ammunition he needed to dismiss many of Deepak's arguments on the grounds of ill-defined terminology. Leonard, too, would have aided the reader had he more specifically defined what he meant by "science". To make claims about a "scientific worldview" already obfuscates because science is not philosophy, it is a method of inquiring into the physical world (methodological naturalism). Science should be philosophically neutral. To talk of a "scientific worldview" in the manner in which Leonard does is to conflate science (the study of the physical world) with the philosophy of physical naturalism (which states that the physical world is all there is). If, however, Leonard means something more by the term "science", then he should have made it clear in what sense he was using the term.
The level of argument was also unsatisfactory. One example will suffice. Deepak writes: "Creation without consciousness is like the fabled roomful of monkeys randomly striking the keys on a typewriter...No matter how small the scale or how large, the cosmos is seamlessly exact in a way that randomness cannot account for. Something must have caused this, and it must exist beyond the physical universe." Simply insisting that something "must" be the case does not make it so and Deepak is intelligent enough to realise that to employ such language is to weaken his case. To address this "random-typing" argument of Deepak's, Leonard invokes the computer "selection" programme from Richard Dawkins' book The Blind Watchmaker in which "a mechanism analogous to natural selection" is used to arrive at Shakespeare's phrase "Methinks it is like a weasel". Through the random typing of letters that is believed to imitate the evolutionary process, this programme supposedly demonstrates how the process of natural selection mitigates randomness. But this does no such thing! The very fact that the programme "chooses" letters in keeping with the "target" phrase shows the programme to be governed by a purpose i.e. achieving the target phrase. Thus "design" is written into the programme in a way that is supposedly absent in nature. So this is a rather weak argument and shows Leonard to be unaware of the more sophisticated challenges to Dawkins' Darwinian gradualism. As Stephen Jay Gould wrote: "Natural selection might explain the survival of the fittest, but not the arrival of the fittest".
Throughout the ages there have been individuals who have broken free of their cave bound condition and "seen the light" and who have used that insight to inform the rest of us of our cave dwelling, shadow beguiled existence. Such individuals are the great sages, rishis and mystics of history. There insight is as uncompromising as it is consistent: We are not who we think we are and the world is not as it seems. Unfortunately, the word "Mysticism", through loose popular usage, has become synonymous with magic, mystification and even self-delusion and it is this debased usage of the term that falls so readily from the lips of both Deepak and Leonard (Deepak preferring the word "spiritual" to "mystical" and Leonard not showing any evidence that he's given the true meaning of mysticism any serious consideration whatsoever). The rationalistic bias of contemporary science, which equates the verifiable with the true, links the "mystical" with superstition, self-delusion and the avoidance of life. But Mystics ask you to take nothing on faith. Even Sam Harris acknowledges this. In The End Of Faith he writes:
"Mysticism is a rational enterprise. Religion is not. The mystic has recognised something about the nature of consciousness prior to thought, and this recognition is susceptible to rational discussion. The mystic has reasons for what he believes, and these reasons are empirical. The roiling mystery of the world can be analyzed with concepts (this is science), or it can be experienced free of concepts (this is mysticism). Religion is nothing more than bad concepts held in place of good ones for all time" The End Of Faith, 2006 edition p 221, emphasis added
Science is the study of the world employing the formidable resources of the mind and human ingenuity. There is nothing wrong with this knowledge and it has indeed rewarded us in the West with unparalleled and privileged lives. However, it is in the nature of the mind to categorise, differentiate, bifurcate, dissect, intellectualise, separate, limit, demarcate etc. Thus, approaching the world with the mind condemns us to viewing the world through an opaque screen of concepts, dualistically splitting the world into that which is seen and that which is doing the seeing. Similar to Plato's cave, we become hypnotised by the shadow play of our abstract knowledge, mistaking our conceptual knowledge for the way things really are. But mysticism offers us an alternative and complementary way of knowing the world, directly, unmediated by any conceptual abstractions, intimate and non-dual. Reality is what is revealed from this non-dual level of knowing. Concepts can no more encapsulate Reality than notes on manuscript paper can encapsulate what it is to listen to a symphony. We can study the shadows on the cave wall all we like but until we break the hypnotic trance, turn around and look, we'll never "see the light".