Cosmology – and all that … part 2

Cosmology – and all that … part 2

Towards a Baha’i Cosmology – Part 2

Stephen Friberg, July 22, 2016

For a paper I’m writing on Baha’i cosmology – an attempt to look at what a post-secular cosmology for the modern world might look like  – I’ve been reading a lot of books on the topic.

A book by Leonard Mlodinow – a Caltech physicist turned writer – illustrates something I’ve been seeing again and again. The book is The Upright Thinkers: The Human Journey from Living in Trees to Understanding the Cosmos and I had been entertaining high hopes for it.  However, I just read his introduction, dashing those hopes. Let me tell you why they were dashed, and then say a few things in general about what I think is going on.

(Just so you know, I’m a physicist and an experienced experimentalist with a background in quantum optics, entanglement, optics, and I am currently working in the Silicon Valley semiconductor industry. I grew up on a college campus immersed in the world view that Mlodinow inhabits and am looking for where we need to go as we move past science and technology’s adolescence. I think a lot of scientist – including Mlodinow – are doing this as well.)

The Upright Thinkers AmazonCosmology, Cliches, and Cluelessness

Mlodinow is not a bad writer, nor is he a slouch when it comes to understanding and conveying an understanding of physics. But, in the  introduction to this book he uses cliches, wrong “facts”, and seems either clueless about the non-scientific side of intellectual history or he ignores it. He sounds like a press agent for the non-thinking side of Silicon Valley. Here are two examples:

  • As an example of a wrong fact, he say that fastest way to travel between cities in 4000 BC was by camel. Camels, Wikipedia notes, weren’t domesticated until 1000 years later. This suggests poor editing and fact checking, not a good thing for a book on science.
  • His description of progress is (a) first prehistorical – evolution and all that – followed by Aristotle, then (b) a jump to science with Galileo, then (c) a jump to the modern world.  This is kid’s stuff!!

And, of course, very little to nothing about religion. Mlodinow seems to have not availed himself of any opportunity to learn what the experts say about these thing – not a good sign!  Or maybe he knows about these things and is keeping quiet about them – also not a good sign!

Now, interestingly, he does address some of these issues later in the text, and reviewers suggest he isn’t presenting the usual enlightenment story of the emergence of a science triumphing over all other forms of understanding as a kind of gleeful outpouring of northern European excellence (before its spasms of butchery known as the world wars). We will see.

Some Historical Background

Islamic Architecture in Spain

A bit of historical background is in order. Almost all of science until the last one hundred and fifty years was closely associated with religion, historians tell us. For example, Copernicus – inventor of the heliocentric cosmology that replaced geocentrism until it was in turn displaced by modern perspectives – was a distinguished and powerful Catholic clergyman with an education at elite Catholic Italian universities and an exposure to Islamic mathematical models of the universe. Galileo was a close confidant of cardinals and popes. Descartes – Jesuit educated – was intensely interested in theological truth and strove to put it on a sound physical and metaphysical basis. He was closely followed and supported by eminent French churchmen. Newton, the greatest scientist of all, was a completely engaged Christian who spent more time on religious issues than he did on science. He saw his science – as did Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes and many very distinguished scientists to this day – as celebrating and revealing God’s creation and the divine lessons therein.

And, the impetus to modern science, as we have known for some time, were the advances in mathematics, the sciences, engineering, and in empirical methods of the Islamic world, the main inheritor of the Greek and Hellenistic traditions. It was in Muslim, Christian and Jewish Spain and the four centuries of nurturings in the great religious universities of European Christianity that the religious and philosophical traditions that gave rise to the modern science were laid out and cobbled together.

Has Religion been Erased from Mlodinow’s Radar Screen?

The University of Paris
The University of Paris

So we have to ask. Has religion been erased from Mlodinow’s radar screen? Is he cursed by the carpenter’s hammer syndrome? (For a carpenter with a hammer, all problems are nails.)

“The greatest triumphs of human intellectual history [are] writings and mathematics, natural philosophy, and the various sciences,” he writes. This is a carpenter speaking. Although he mentions religion in passing, there is no acknowledgement of, among other things, the intellectual brilliance and profusion of the great Buddhist and Hindu dialogues of 1500 years ago in the universities of India, of the extraordinary impact of Buddhism in China and East Asian intellectual life, or the incredible intellectual output of European Christian philosophy. Imagine if you wrote a history of relativity and ignored Einstein. This would be a bit like what Mlodinow is doing with intellectual history. Nor is there a mention of the freeing of slaves – an accomplishment of evangelical Christianity – or the civil rights movement. Are we to imagine that the moral virtues, the espousal of the unity of humanity, and that the emergence of modern democratic system of government and related topics are not triumphs of the human intellect?

Of course, he is not the only one from an academic background to have gaping holes in his or her version of the world’s intellectual history. And holes they are, because academics in the humanities – historians, for example – are very knowledgeable about this history. The information is, in fact, readily available to those who have the will to spend a little time and effort to learn.

Purposeful Ignorance

A Scientific Elite

To me, the enemy here is purposeful ignorance – a willingness to ignore realities outside the realms of the physical sciences and a dogmatic and blind belief in the grand narratives of science as the sole source of true knowledge. This, in my view, is a mindset lifted wholesale from the religious systems of humanity’s infancy and adolescence,  a carpentering perspective that holds that all problems can be addressed by the physical sciences with a scientific elite deciding what is true or not in realms far outside their areas of competence.  It is new wine in the old barrels of ideological intolerance

Scientists and their acolytes – if they believe in this one-sided ideological perspective – aren’t yet fully educated. Scientists – and science writers too – need training about what religion is, about its history, and especially about its narratives and traditions that were borrowed by the promoters of modern science and incorporated into their sales pitches. Only then will we start to see, I hold, the true flowering and full benefits of science for humanity.

Another Example and an Analysis

I’m being hard on Mlodinow here, maybe unfairly, and I shouldn’t single him out. The problem is much bigger than him, and is multiple-faceted. And Mlodinow appears to be sincere in his attempt to recognize that there are indeed problems and that they should be addressed.

Let me give you an another example, this from another recent book. Once again, there is a typical feeble, cliched introduction. Once again, after you get past this, the book is excellent.

Its Caleb Scharf’s The Copernicus Complex: Our Cosmic Significance in a Universe of Planets and Probabilities. His introductory chapter on physics describes the life and significance of Copernicus in glowing and celebratory terms – deserved in my opinion, although the saints might blush at its excessiveness – and manages to totally ignore Copernicus’s day job as an elite Catholic cleric.

Once he delivers this seemingly obligatory half-baked sermon on the European origins of modern astronomy, he moves on to start his own excellent survey of the modern studies of the origins of the planets – and why we need to ignore some of the claims to our insignificance in the universe associated with the rise of the Copernican model.

So, what’s going on here?

Two things, I think. First of all, many scientists or science writers who write these otherwise excellent books don’t know the history of science very well, or the story of science in civilizations other than that of western Europe at all. Nor are they interested in it. They are interested, mainly, in what they find compelling and interesting in the new science they are describing. Once they get passed this seemingly obligatory homage to Copernicus and Galileo, they then start their story.

The other thing is that they are believers. The stories they tell of western science, beginning with Copernicus, then moving through Galileo, Descartes, and Newton – the religious aspects carefully subtracted out – is what they truly believe to be the case. This is their creation narrative, their story of the origins of their beloved sciences and signifying its importance in conquering the dragons of ignorance, superstition, and the church.

And here is the thing. Their view of science is wrong historically and unstable as a meaningful narrative in the 21st century. It doesn’t hold up. What we really need is something more than science – we need to know how to use it for everyone’s betterment. We need a story that encompasses all of humanity, not just northern Europeans. And the scientists and science writers who write these books all kind of know this in their bones and in their guts. And many of them are looking for a way to move forward that doesn’t abandon science’s very real accomplishments.


Scharf, Caleb. The Copernicus Complex: Our Cosmic Significance in a Universe of Planets and Probabilities. New York: Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014.

Mlodinow, Leonard. The Upright Thinkers: The Human Journey from Living in Trees to Understanding the Cosmos. Vintage, 2016.

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One thought on “Cosmology – and all that … part 2

  1. Of course many scientists, especially if they are not religious, are interested mainly in progress of science, rather than in progress of religion. They might not think there has been any progress of religion, especially if they don’t belong to any religion. Of course if a scientist believes in some religion, he will think his religion is superior to others, is the right progress. Like a Christian might think that the religion of Christ is the climax of the progress of religion, it can’t be improved on, Christ was perfect.
    You mention the religious life of men like Copernicus, Galileo, Newton and Descartes. Sure, religion was important to them. But none of them founded some new religion which would be progress over previous religion. So it would be hard for me to believe they made progress in religion. The progress they made lay elsewhere than in religion.

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