15 September 2010


Bernard Haisch. The Purpose-Guided Universe: Believing in Einstein, Darwin, and God. New Page Books. 2010

Although it is written for the general reader, this book is not an easy read. At first glance, it seems to be an attempt to reconcile science and religion, but the author soon makes it clear that most organised religion is part of the problem and that "... the reconciliation of science and spirituality is a different matter. That is not only possible, it is essential".
Bernard Haisch is an astrophysicist and he uses his scientific knowledge to argue that, as the laws and constants of nature are such as to make the evolution of living creatures possible, then these were determined for that purpose. With different values, life would be impossible.

It could, of course, be a statistical matter. Many scientists suppose that there exist a vast, or infinite, number of universes, and a very small proportion of them have conditions suitable for for life, as ours is, or we would not be here to argue about it.

Haisch favours the idea that the laws of our universe are not accidental, but determined by God. He uses the theory of quantum mechanics to construct his argument. I think it is important here for the reader to distinguish between scientific theories and their interpretation, by keeping in mind the distinctions between science and the philosophy of science. In quantum theory nothing is fixed until it is measured. It can thus be argued that nothing can exist without awareness. This makes consciousness fundamental, like gravity, unlike Newtonian mechanics where everything proceeds by the operation of a basically simple process of cause and effect, leaving consciousness as something entirely incidental and unnecessary, so that everything in the world would be just the same if there were no conscious entities in it.

Newtonian science, in which every event is caused by previous events, also leaves no room for free will, a problem which has led to endless arguments among philosophers and theologians.

Haisch supports the view that the notion that the universe and life in it are purely accidental is untrue, but he does not argue for creationism or intelligent design, as both of these suggest that God micromanages the world. He agrees with those who suppose that God merely created the conditions which made the universe and life as we know it possible and that God works in the world through his creatures. All conscious beings are thus thought to be, in a sense, at one with God, although very few are are aware of this.

This idea is associated with the Indian spiritual tradition called Vedanta, where what we call God is Brahman and our spiritual self is Atman. The mystic achieves enlightenment by coming to realise that Brahman and Atman are one. This mystical experience can neither be imagined nor described. Such experiences are not confined to Indian tradition, of course, but are found in most religions, the attempts to describe them being influenced by tradition, culture or doctrine. The author discusses the differences between these and the apparently similar but superficial experiences obtained by taking psychedelic drugs.

Haisch's attempts to reconcile spirituality with scientific discoveries and theories will not convince all readers but will provide them with plenty to think and argue about. -- Reviewed by John Harney.

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