As I said (more or less) in a previous review:
“First things first: I consider myself a very hopeful agnostic. Also, I do not care at all for angry atheists (or theists), who by the way, are waaaaay different from genuinely thoughtful, polite people who happen to be atheists (or theists). For more on this thought as well as for my current views on spirituality please go here. It is only fair to state from the very beginning that I am very interested on the topic of this book for intellectual as well as for emotional reasons. Moreover, I have no academic training in theology or any related discipline. On the other hand, I am a very well trained practicing scientist and educator, as well as an author. You have been warned!”
This book was at times inspiring, at other times confusing, and yet at some other times infuriating. I actually waited a couple of months to write this review for reasons that will become apparent soon enough.
I will not cover every single aspect of the book in this review because I do not want to give too much away. Book reviews are tricky this way. Also, it is always best for you to make your own mind about it. Thus, I will limit myself to a few good and a few not-so-good aspects of the book.
Here we go….
I had very high hopes for this book when I began reading it. The book takes off with a very poignant story about the author examining the brain of a deceased child. A very powerful way to start! This is actually the part that made me purchase the book once I read the first few pages of the free preview. This was a very emotional story, a story that sets the stage for some of the “Big Questions” that keep most of us awake in the middle of the night. Questions of transcendence, on how the brain makes us who we are, and where do we go (if anywhere at all) when we leave our human existence, among many other such questions. Right there, this is a book that would interest most people. There are other parts of the book that are very moving as well, particularly when he talked about his late father. Many of us can relate to these feelings. The book is in parts witty and funny, and it would have been a much more enjoyable reading if it had not been for its sheer mishandling of basic scientific principles.
The book subtitle is “Neuroscience, Faith, and a Search for the Soul”. As it happens, the neuroscience part is fairly minimal, there is a lot about faith, although is more metaphysical musings at best, and I guess that the search of the soul was implicit; it was certainly not self-evident to me from what I read. As expected from the author’s medical (specifically neurology) background, his brief explorations of the anatomy and functions of the brain were pretty good (at least at the beginning of the book). As he veers off his own area of expertise, things begin to stand in much flimsier ground. Here are some examples:
Page 37: “Our capacity for empathy requires belief… that all life… has purpose and meaning.” Not exactly. I know more than one person who does not believe in any kind of ultimate meaning in the universe and yet they show perfectly good empathy in every sense of the word.
Page 40: “If life is only about the survival of the fittest…” Anyone with the most rudimentary understanding of evolutionary theory is aware that the aforementioned phrase has no meaning even within technical discussions of evolution.
Page 55: “As per the laws of thermodynamics, all living biological systems seek their most stable state.” This is simply not true. The phenomenon of life is far, quite far from chemical equilibrium. In fact, when a biological system reaches equilibrium, it dies. there’s even bumper stickers about it (“Old chemists don’t die… they just reach equilibrium”).
There are also some assorted non-scientific statements, which are simply unapologetic speculations using scientific words, obviously targeted to a non-scientific audience. For example, page 98: “Purpose is coded right into the smallest subatomic components of our very being.“, page 104: “…knowing a god of empathy and compassion whose very DNA is reflected in our lives.“, page 110: “Thus, each individual is the realization of a certain concept within the divine intelligence.”
There are many, many more…
As a neuroscientist, one of the parts that shocked me the most was the wrong description of what the hippocampus (a part of the brain) does; look it up before reading the relevant part of the book and compare both explanations… you’ll see what I mean.
There is a part that I truly think was an oversight that betrays a lack of thorough proofreading. On page 168, the author states that the premise of the book is that “What is essential is invisible to the human eye“. Does this paraphrased sentence remind you of something? It did remind me indeed and yet there was no mention of Mr. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, none whatsoever. The book’s notes are otherwise pretty detailed; why this oversight? I know I am nitpicking, I am aware of that, but since the phrase was put between quote marks in the book, I can only assume that an attribution was intended, yet was never included. Any self-respecting editor would have caught that.
All authors have an agenda, implicit or explicit, and that is all right. Throughout the book, the sense I got was to reject the current scientific paradigms, with subtle and not so subtle barbs at Charles Darwin and the process of biological evolution and admiringly allusions to intelligent design (ID, the “flagship” phrase of ID, “irreducible complexity” is mentioned in the book more than once). Enough said.
I do not even know how to continue; I could nitpick many more parts of the book, but I think that I have made my point already. To conclude, you may enjoy this book if you do not care too much about the seriousness and thoroughness of the stated topic of the book. Neuroscience, faith and the soul must be related somehow, but this relationship is not truly explored in this book.
Picture credit: Harmony books.
Note: I will post an abbreviated version of this review at the”-azon” website (:-)…
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