Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd, (2016)
Reviewed by Ian Mowll
The intention of this book is to look at the science behind the Universe story (from the big bang to the present day) and to see what it shows us about what we are, where we come from and why we exist.
In terms of answering ‘what we are’, little is offered; John concludes:
The short answer to the question what are we? is that, uniquely as far as we know, we are the unfinished product of an accelerating cosmic evolutionary process characterized by collaboration, complexification and convergence, and the self-reflective agents of our future evolution.
This statement has strong resonances with Teilhard de Chardin. In fact, John refers to Teilhard’s ideas in the book, along with other writers that may be familiar to GreenSpirit people such as Rupert Sheldrake, James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis.
John also looks at collaboration and altruism, concluding that these are aspects of our human journey. Touching on world religions, he says:
When thinking focused on how we should behave towards each other, nearly all ancient philosophers, whether using insight or reasoning, taught that we will only achieve tranquillity and fulfilment by acting unselfishly and treating all others as we would wish to be treated.
In terms of meaning making, John sticks far too closely with the current scientific paradigm – which he admits is insufficient to answer the questions he has posed. For me, writers such as Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry go far further in integrating science, spirituality and meaning.
However, in terms of explaining the science behind the Universe story and providing a detached view of it, this book is first class. Whilst the book is far too long (it could easily be reduced substantially in size) John understands very complex subjects (such as the big bang) and explains them in accessible ways. But more than that, he critiques the science.
For instance, the science behind the big bang is more tenuous than I realised. One of the reasons for this is that there is little hard evidence to rely on. The beginnings of the Universe is a field day for theorists who can come up with many different ideas which cannot easily be dismissed because of the lack of data to test them. Furthermore, John observes that sometimes scientists get stuck with their own beliefs rather than being open to new ideas and evidence.
In my view, saying that science and spirituality are separate feels unsatisfactory: both seek understanding in complementary ways. Science is grounded in facts and can help stop spirituality wafting into the clouds and being of no earthly use. And spirituality, when applied well, brings values and ethics into the debate and helps with the search for meaning. Science and spirituality need each other and for this, I applaud this book’s attempt to bring the two areas together. I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the science behind the Universe story.