On Howard Bloom’s The God Problem: How A Godless Cosmos Creates
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 2/26/12
In any given month, because of my having a popular arts website, I am literally offered hundreds of published books, videos, and other things to review, aside from thousands of submissions of poems and essays to look through. Because I work a physically demanding 40+ hour day job, run a website, and have my own creative and critical work to pursue, the fact of the matter is that I actually review well less than 1% of all the items offered to me, just as I cannot possibly comment on all of the bad written work submitted to me, even if I were able to make a full time living from Cosmoetica. But, when I encounter something of quality or promise, I am far more apt to look at and/or review subsequent works by that person. Such is the case with the latest offering from Howard Bloom, a writer of works that often straddle disciplines, thus making him difficult to categorize for most critics. To be up front, I have a brief prior history with ‘the good H. Bloom’ (who connects and opens up knowledge, as opposed to ‘the bad H. Bloom,’ who fragments and closes inquiry): almost a decade ago, Art Durkee and I did an interesting and wide ranging Internet radio interview with him regarding his earlier books and ideas, such as The Lucifer Principle and The Global Brain, and while I’ve occasionally followed up on his latest offerings, I was surprised when Bloom contacted me and offered me the chance to read and review his latest forthcoming book: The God Problem: How A Godless Cosmos Creates. This was because few folks ever seem to recall the many minor incidents of their life. Bloom offered me the work, as well thanked me for some personal reasons. I read the book, was impressed, in the main, with its greater depth and even better writing style than his earlier works. Actual wordsmithing is almost always neglected in books of science and history; a point I find odd, since, sans the abstract symbology and ideas of alphabets and language, even the greatest idea remains hermetic. This essay will not only be a review and/or critique of The God Problem, but a mini-memoir of thoughts encountered in its reading, as well as my own ideas on points the book raises.
Let me begin with my exchange with Bloom. I told him I was moved to write not a mere review, but a longer essay that would be part exegesis and part something more. I also offered to help him with a blurb he could use for his book and/or website. I offered long and short versions of 110 and 80 or so words. Here is the short, and I feel better, version:
The God Problem is Bloom’s best, as well the best GOD-titled, book ever. Eschewing obsessive atheistic evangelism (Dawkins, Dennett, et al.), Bloom focuses detailed Linnaean naturalism with Boorstinian narrative to argue for a cosmos not Intelligently Designed, but Emergently Patterned. Bloom does not leave the universe to the stars, but fractally connects natural design to human creativity, bridging seemingly disparate fields as cosmology, mathematics, neuroscience, linguistics, and the arts. The book never mentions Keats’s Negative Capability, but does better; it enacts it.
First, it ends in an active sense, not in a passive sense. It also is not larded with modifiers, and I tried to get it as specific as possible. Too many blurbs read as mere fellatio. To briefly expand upon the blurb, while I am irreligious, such terms as atheist or agnostic, tend to define themselves by that they oppose. Hell, even irreligious does, although more obliquely. Simply put, religion and the idea of God have next to no truck in my existence, save as cultural curios: it’s interesting as to why so many seemingly otherwise intelligent people suckle a notion of why a deity exists, even as they snicker at claims of Alien Abduction, ghostly visitations, Bigfoot and Nessie sightings, and the like. As unlikely as those things are, for all their obvious symbolic content, they seem almost infinitely more likely than an all powerful deity- I won’t digress on to the well worn arguments against a god, especially the Judeo-Christian God. Likewise, despite its title, Bloom rarely mentions old Yahweh, much less his Olympian and Norse cousins.
This emotionally pleased me because, cynic that I am, I underestimated Bloom and was steeling myself for yet another anti-God rant-filled book, like those recently penned by philosopher Daniel Dennett, biologist Richard Dawkins, the late gonzo journalist Christopher Hitchens, or Sam Harris, a man who, best I can tell, is merely a professional anti-Christian. Bloom is a better and more engaging writer than all four of them, and, while, in the main, I agree, intellectually, with these chaps, on religion’s lack, the fact of the matter is that their sort of godlessness is so endebted to religion, and so patterned after its cult of personality that I doubt these fellows realize the grotesque parodies they’ve become. They’ve even, semi-ironically, been dubbed ‘The Four Horsemen of the New Atheism;’ a fact that I can only roll my eyes over, given the backslapping they must have enjoyed over such a Three Stooges level eye-poke. This self-parody has even reached down into the masses, as a good friend of mine, a few years back, even launched the nation’s first Atheist Summer Camp. When I learned of this, I could only exhale a sigh. While I find gods silly, I don’t obsess over them the way the Four Horsemen, or my friend, do. I don’t rebel against tenets just to rebel. I am NOT my brother’s keeper, and feel no need to evangelize, in any manner. Although he was clearly a charlatan himself, the old Black Muslim poobah, Elijah Muhammad probably phrased why evangelism, in any form, is a poor tack, stating, ‘Don't condemn if you see a person has a dirty glass of water….just show them the clean glass of water that you have. When they inspect it, you won’t have to say that yours is better.’ If one cannot see living in material reality is better than fairy tale life, so be it; their loss. I lack the time and will to evangelize- for godlessness or even great art. I enact it. I create great works of art and criticism, and trust society will eventually catch up; as it did with Shakespeare, Ibsen, Whitman, the Impressionists, and many other damned, then lauded, artists and movements. Time, as Ozymandias proves, is the leveler and the revealer: a point that is one of many key posits in Bloom’s book.
Nonetheless, my relief was palpable when I read through Bloom’s 200k word tome with nary a mention of Yahweh. Bloom, while an atheist, seems not to be the fiery Hard Atheist that Dawkins is, and his work is all the better for this lack of dogma (or anti-dogma, if you prefer). While I admire the contributions of Dennett and Dawkins to science, I believe they’ve tarnished their real contributions with this folly of public exhibitionism on a topic that, in a world full of Homer Simpsons snoozing and going through the motions at church, simply is not as important as they make it. Bloom, by contrast, seems to intuit this, and the God he tackles (and I suspect the God in his book’s title was more a marketing ploy than any animus toward religiots) is a theoretical one, a posit, a symbol for that unnamable default force that most people tend to fall back on when faced by things ineffable. Instead, Bloom posits a universe that seems consonant with the latest version of the Big Bang Theory, although he prefers the not so new alternate version- the Big Bagel, wherein the current cosmos is but the latest iteration of a repeated pattern. This is a version of the oscillating cosmos of yore, and, while the details are slightly different, Bloom does a good job of extrapolating the current data-filled universe from this premise, although, implicit in the Big Bagel is the premise that there is an überverse, a multiverse, an omniverse, out there, beyond the cosmos we exist in and see. Personally, I think the current Big Bang model is immanently flawed. I could write thousands of words on why, but I think a good critique of these flaws can be found in Terrence Witt’s book, Our Undiscovered Universe: Introducing Null Physics, The Science Of Uniform And Unconditional Reality. While I don’t buy all of Witt’s counter-premises, this much is clear: he knows what is not working, and he knows that Dark Matter and Dark Energy are ad hoc myths that scientists, desperate to prop the Big Bang up, are grasping at, despite ZERO evidence for it. In effect, mainstream cosmologists make the two Dark entities their own Gods; hence recapitulating the same ‘know thy enemies well’ meme that The Four Horsemen found to be their own tarbaby. I am, however, an artist and writer. I am not on the forefront of physics, so I cannot tell you if Witt’s Null Physics; Julian Barbour’s post-Einsteinian physics- detailed in the article, Gravity Off The Grid, in the March, 2012 edition of Discover magazine; a host of other ideas, including the Brane Theory that Bloom touches upon, or his own espousal of the Big Bagel, is correct, but, knowing human tendency, having a good Bullshit Detector (a highly advanced human trait), and having an ability to read between words, I am certain that the current Big Bang will be long dead by 2100, and likely even by 2050. It simply cannot last in the face of continued advances.
However, if one accepts Bloom’s Big Bagel, it is because, given his premise, he does a fine job of detailing his claims. Yes, as with Witt and Barbour, critics will claim Bloom is dabbling in New Age nonsense or wishful thinking. This may prove so, but he crafts a compelling case because he constructs a great narrative. One of the flaws with Witt’s book, aside from its intellectual content- pro or con, is that he just does not present it well. His writing is dull and block-like, and many times I wanted to just rewrite whole passages myself. Bloom realizes that, right or wrong though his message may be, he needs to craft it well, for a lay audience, to garner attention. This is why I compare his actual writing style to the historian Daniel J. Boorstin, whose works, such as The Americans, The Discoverers, and The Creators, are seminal works because, despite whatever errors future historians might find, factually, they were not the dry historical tomes that schoolchildren dreaded being assigned to read. They made the Spanish explorers of the Enlightenment as real and vibrant as the people you grew up with, or the best characters of fiction. Bloom employs this style, as well- with an added wrinkle. In a real way, The God Problem is an autobiography, or, more precisely, a memoir. This links the book to another of science and writings forgotten heroes: naturalist Loren Eiseley. I have long championed Eiseley’s magnificent prose (he is in the top ten of English prose stylists of the 20th Century, regardless of the genre), even as some of his early and mid-20th Century science has gone outdated. He invented the covert or hidden inner essay, wherein his own existence becomes part of the story of the science. And Bloom uses this technique, as well, although his prose is not as poetic nor his memoir as hidden as Eiseley’s. Still, Boorstin and Eiseley are amongst the best tits to suckle on if one is crafting a work of history and science.
As for Linnaeus? He was a Swedish naturalist who propounded binomial nomenclature for naming living organisms. This is why mankind is called homo sapiens, two words, for the genus- homo, and the species- sapiens, we belong to; even if, colloquially, the two words- homo sapiens- are called our species. This misnomer bespeaks Linnaeus’s success and influence, and Bloom co-opts the detailed eye of the Swede, and applies it in assorted ways, while breaking down things as diverse as subatomic structure and components, or the historical origins of certain mathematics in the Mesopotamian world.
I will touch on the convergences Bloom’s book brings in a bit, but let me end this digression on my proffered blurb with an asides on John Keats’s idea of Negative Capability. Although Keats is referenced a few times in passing, his idea, which is as important as his body of poetry, is never directly mentioned (unless I overlooked or forgot I in the welter of the book’s ideas). It is one of the single most important concepts in not only the arts and sciences, but in any real conception of the human mind and its creativity; especially in those of a truly great order. Yet, despite that it is usually so poorly phrased and paraphrased as to turn many readers off. Wikipedia’s current lowest common denominator rendering of it is this:
Negative capability is the ability to perceive and to think more than any presupposition of human nature allows. It describes the capacity of human beings to reject the totalizing constraints of a closed context, and to both experience phenomenon free from any epistemological bounds as well as to assert their own will and individuality upon their activity.
Go ahead, admit that this will turn off all but a few eggheads. Ok, we all know Wikipedia is one of the most unreliable sources of information online. It is merely a condensation of all the Internet’s misinformation, shepherded by people who can barely tie their own shoelaces without a diagram. Surely, the prime source of all things Keatsian online can do better? Right?:
The concept of Negative Capability is the ability to contemplate the world without the desire to try and reconcile contradictory aspects or fit it into closed and rational systems.
Here is the way I define it, and pray it becomes canonical:
Negative Capability is the capacity to find links between seemingly disparate fields, claims, or ideas, that, once made, in retrospect, seem to have always been obvious.
In effect, Negative Capability is the ultimate Duh! Moment. Now, isn’t that better?
In the rest of this essay I will show, overtly and not, some ways in which Bloom’s book, as I claim, enacts this capacity. And it is hewing to this misunderstood capacity that makes Bloom’s book better than his prior works, and many other such books in similar fields, for he connects things better, again, even if all of his claims and premises are not bought. Imagine if one is debating with someone diametrically opposed to your view, yet they lay out a forceful, detailed, rational, and occasionally elegant counter-response to your claims. Even if you are not persuaded to switch sides, one can only admire the positives in his claims and dialectic. And Bloom’s book also discourses on matters, generally, that, some pages later, specifically are crystallized and dealt with, even as I, at the first raising of general points, thought of them, and wondered if Bloom was going to go in that direction or on that tangent, and I cannot think of a time he did not touch upon the corollary that was earlier hinted at.
The God Problem is a lengthy tome which has over 200,000 words, yet it reads like a much shorter book, and I state this in the best sense since I, like many adept readers I’ve known, know there are two kinds of ‘short reads’ for long books: the first is when reading something vapid and/or lightweight, and the person starts consciously skimming the contents, or, in my case, my mind sort of automatically shifts into the gear of reading whole paragraphs at a time. This is not like the classic ‘speed reading’ courses taught last century, but akin to literally just being able to unconsciously switch into a gear that does it. However, when the writing picks up, the mind automatically lowers gear into normal reading mode. Bad books, in this way, are quick reads to me, and I really have no control over this. I believe it’s somehow akin to intellectual ‘lift,’ like that which helps get an airplane aloft. Years after reading a book, and long after having forgotten its contents (I read so much there is no way I can recall everything I read), I can still qualitatively gauge works by the number of lifts or near-lifts I felt. The second type of short read occurs when a well written work- be it fiction or not, is good, you read it at a normal pace, do not consciously skim or unconsciously get lifted, but, in retrospect, at book’s end, you exclaim, ‘That’s it? It should go on,’ because there was emotional pleasure and intellectual gratification from the work. Bloom’s book falls into this category.
But what is good writing? Especially in a nonfiction work like Bloom’s? I’d mentioned Loren Eiseley earlier, and his prose is a naturalistic poetic sort that Bloom does not match. But, I also mentioned historian Daniel J. Boorstin, and, while he lacked Eiseley’s line by line grace, Boorstin was able to add in realistic human character traits to the wooden caricatures that most historical figures become in what might be termed ‘Classical History.’ Two other writers of popular science- and Bloom is not a ‘hard’ scientist, nor presenting a scientific paper- who share a wordly kinship with Bloom are Stephen Jay Gould and Carl Sagan. It should not surprise that both of those men- paleontologist and astronomer- were the leading popularizers of their fields, and science, in general, during their lifetimes. Gould took over from Eiseley as the leading light of the covert inner essay, often mixing pop culture subject matter with the arcane to draw parallels that were easy for the layety to follow, while Sagan often stripped the abstruse of its verbal accoutrements, to reveal the naked simplicity of the subject. Bloom, while he is not as good at each of the two extremes Gould and Sagan employed, offers a hybrid way of reaching the common reader: metaphors and similes admixed with a stripdown. Let me give you an example, from early in the book, and, yes, believe it or not, in a review of a work of science I am now going to explain why the actual writing is exceedingly important.
Imagine this. You are a twelve year old in a God-forsaken
steel town that once helped suture the Great Lakes to the Atlantic coasts of
America and Europe. A city that, for you, is a desert--a wasteland without other
minds that welcome you. Buffalo, New York.
Your Bar Mitzvah
is coming up. (Congratulations—you are Jewish for a day.) And you are avoiding
a huge confession. One that will utterly change your life. A confession about
one of the biggest superstars of human history. God.
You are not a popular kid. In fact, other kids either ignore
you or try with all their might to keep you from getting anywhere near their
back-yard play sessions, their baseball diamonds, their clubs, and their
parties. When they do pay attention to you, it’s to take aim. They kick soccer
balls in your face. They grab your hat and play toss with it over your head
while you run back and forth trying to yank it out of the heights above your
reach. Or they pry your textbooks from your arms and throw them on a lawn
covered with dog droppings.
No one your age wants you in Buffalo, New York.
But at the age of ten you discover a clique that does welcome
you. Why? It’s a clique of dead men. And dead men have no choice. The two
heroes you glue yourself to, two heroes not in a position to object if you tag
along and join them in their games, are Galileo and Anton van Leeuwenhoek. These
are men who shuffled off this mortal coil nearly three hundred years ago. But
they put you on a quest, a mission, an adventure that will last you a lifetime.
Your task? To pursue the truth at any price including the
price of your life. To find things right under your nose, things that you, your
parents, and all the kids who shun you take for granted. To look at these
everyday things as if you’ve never seen them before. To look for hidden
assumptions and to overturn them. To look for really big questions then to zero
in on them. Even if the answers will not arrive in your lifetime.
Why do this? Because your dead companions have lured you into
science. And the first two rules of science are:
the truth at any price including the price of your life
and look at things right under your nose as if you’ve never seen them before,
then proceed from there.
What’s more, in science the next big question can be more
important than the next big answer. New questions can produce new scientific
leaps. They can tiddlywink new flips of insight and understanding. Big ones.
New questions can even show the people who’ve rejected you
how to think in whole new ways. And that is your mission. Finding the questions
that will produce the next big perception shift. Finding the unseen vantage
points that will allow others to radically reperceive.
So how does God get into the picture? Remember, you are
twelve. Your Bar Mitzvah is coming up. Your dad is going to throw a party for
all the kids you know--for all the kids who humiliate you at PS 64. And this
time you are invited. Yes, your Bar Mitzvah is the very first time that you will
be allowed to attend a celebration with your peers. And it gets better. The
center of attention will be, guess who? You.
But something is rumbling through your mind. Something you
refuse to register. Something that could cancel your Bar Mitzvah. You’ve read
the arguments that Bertrand Russell has made about God. These arguments hit home
with you. God, in Russell’s opinion, is a silly idea. If it took a God to
create a universe, then a thing as complex and as powerful as a God would need a
creator, too. And who or what created God?
In other words,
the notion of a God doesn’t make sense. And it doesn’t appeal to your
emotions, either. So the confession that you are dodging is this. You are about
to become a stone-cold atheist. But if you admit that to yourself right now, you
will blow your Bar Mitzvah.
The result? The question of whether there is a God stays safely hidden in your sub-conscious mind. You never put it in words, even to yourself. But that’s just the beginning.
So, the Eiseleyan hidden inner essay is apparent (and I did mention that this book is a form of memoir). But where are Gould and Sagan? The prose is classic Gould, in that it lacks Eiseley’s poesy, but shifts the discussion to something easily discerned, and emotionally strong: loneliness. Every child, at some point, desires kinship. The young Bloom presents his ‘gang’ as dead scientists, so herein the overarching metaphor of the excerpt, and this then opens up the second half of the excerpt to the questioning of the standard order of theism because, like most children, when in a gang, Bloom is empowered to challenge others’ beliefs. Of course, in real life, this had to be just Bloom’s own internal mechanism for fortification, but how often is such a mechanism deployed in life- when steeling oneself to ask out that cute brunet you’ve desired the last few weeks, or to get psyched up for that chemistry test you need to pass to pass science class? Metaphor is one of the more important aspects of art, and by invoking it, in a primal way- the fear-cum-strength of a child, Bloom gets the readers’ attention and sympathy- an emotional ploy that makes the reader want to believe him throughout the rest of the chapter, and, with repeated personal thrusts of this kind, throughout the book. Thus, even if, from an objective standpoint, one might quibble with Bloom’s claims, by effectively co-opting the emotions of the reader early on, Bloom gains an advantage in trying to convince readers of his later, more detailed claims. There is a field of human endeavor known for deploying this tactic to maximum effect, and it’s not the field of science. It’s called advertising: specifically Madison Avenue’s sort. Bloom, throughout his career, has never been lacking in the skills of promotion. Just Google his name and you’ll see that he made his fame and fortune in promotion of the music industry. Billy Joel, Michael Jackson, Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Marley, Styx, Prince, and many other top rock and pop acts have all benefited from Bloom’s skills in this area.
But where is Sagan in all this? Note the two rules of science part. This is classic stripdown, ala Sagan. We get what is almost a parody of scientific laws, but related to the desperate urge of youth needing succor and acceptance, which- as Sagan often did, turns a stuffy old technique on its end. Hence, before Bloom even gives us the substance of his claims, he has laid an architecture, a foundation, a substructure of emotional connection with the reader that slyly seduces him into a willingness to believe. Now, before one accuses Bloom of Machiavellian Jim Jonesism, recall this is a book pushing an argument, an agenda. It would not bear the term God in its title if it was not trying to be provocative by calling it a Problem. Of course Bloom wants you to believe his ideas at book’s end, and if he cannot fully convince you intellectually, he, at least, wants to plant seeds for the future within, hence the stylistic subterfuge. But, while this is not allowed in straight peer reviewed science, The God Problem is not in that arena, and Bloom’s technique swiftly connects with most readers in its presentation of a scene that could well be lifted from one of Woody Allen’s comedies showing an angst ridden version of his younger self. All of this- all the techniques, and pastiche of sources (I especially appreciated a reference to the currently undeservedly neglected poet Archibald MacLeish, who won three Pulitzer Prizes, back when such awards had some actual merit) and combination of ideas, serve Bloom well throughout the book, especially as they build upon each other.
Bloom then lays out what he deems ‘the five heresies’
Before we probe for clues to the God Problem, we need to
equip ourselves with five tools—the five heresies. Remember the second rule of
science: look at things right under your nose as if you’ve never seen them
before, then proceed from there. Question your assumptions. To question your
assumptions, you have to find them. And that’s the really hard part. But here
are five assumptions conveniently overturned for your edification and delight.
Five heresies we’ll use to crack the code of cosmic creativity.
A does not equal a.
One plus one does not equal two.
The Second Law of Thermodynamics, that all things tend toward disorder, that all
things tend toward entropy, is wrong.
The concept of randomness is mistake. These days randomness goes under the fancy
name of stochasticity. But no matter how it slicks itself up with arcane
terminology, there is far less randomness in this universe than today’s
science believes. And far less randomness than you and I often think.
Information theory is not really about information. Its equations cover only a
tiny sliver of what the theory claims. The real core of communication is what
Information Theory’s founder Claude Shannon calls “meaning.” And
“meaning,” believe it or not, is not covered in Information Theory. Why is
that a big mistake? Meaning is central to the cosmos. Central to quarks,
protons, photons, galaxies, stars, lizards, lobsters, puppies, bees, and human
here are a few of the concepts we’ll use to peel open the robes with which
nature hides the secret curves of her creativity, concepts we’ll use to probe
the implications of the five heresies.
Ur patterns, deep structures of the cosmos, patterns the cosmos repeats over and
Repetition. Better known in mathematics as iteration. When you repeat an old
pattern in a new location, you sometimes make something new.
Which leads to the concept of translation. Translation is just another word for
repeating something old in a new medium. Or is it?
Corollary generator theory. From a few basic rules you can generate a cosmos.
Some call these basic rules axioms. Some call them algorithms. But don’t let
the fancy names fool you. They’re just simple rules.
Implicit versus explicit realities. Here’s a question for you. If you can
generate an entire mathematical system from just a few simple rules (and you
can), was that mathematical system implicit in the rules from the beginning? Was
it hidden in some spooky way? Is the future hovering in your vicinity at this
very minute, immanent and ghostly but just out of reach? Does every blockbuster
invention that the cosmos—and that we—will someday conceive exist in a
possibility space just outside the bounds of reality?
Opposites are joined at the hip. Night and day, poisons and pleasures,
innovation and destruction, are usually different facets of the very same thing.
Despite the battle they wage with each other, they are Siamese twins, children
of the same parents, children that have taken slightly different paths.
Opposites work together in the very opposite of the way they seem—not tearing
each other to bits or threatening to annihilate each other. Opposites are like
the right and the left end of a football defensive line. They work together in
* The bottom line? Sociality. This is a profoundly social cosmos. A profoundly conversational cosmos. In a social cosmos, a talking cosmos, a muttering, whispering, singing, wooing, and order-shouting cosmos, relationships count. Things can’t exist without each other. And the ways things relate to each other can make them radically different from their fellow things. Got that? No? Believe me, as we move forward, you will. And if the muses are with us, you’ll enjoy the ride.
Here, Bloom lays out the template of his book and argument, and starts by talking about the persistence of patterns in things, from the fractal nature of the cosmos, to philosophic ideas on what makes a thing a thing, using the old metaphor of plank by plank replacing pieces of a ship on a voyage until the whole ship has been renewed, and lacks any of the original wood in it. This is akin to the cell by cell replacement in our bodies over a period of years, but we still regard ourselves the same creature as we were in 2005 or 1998 because the pattern of self persists. This metaphor leads to a nice counterattack of the A is A logic of philosophy, and Bloom gets off a nice shot at philosopher Ayn Rand, and this is probably the best of Bloom’s attacks on the five major points he declares heresies, and in doing so, fingers Aristotle as the villain in this heresy’s perpetuation. He details a number of ways that the equation does not work, from the niggling to the silly to the profound, and when he’s done, it’s clear that Bloom did not even need to emotionally co-opt the reader to win this round.
Aristotle’s chief rival, in this battle, was Heraclitus, whose best known quip was, ‘You can not step twice into the same river.’ The real meaning, of course, is that, if you dip your toes into a river, a few seconds apart, there will have been a change of many gallons of different water about your toes between the two dips. Hence, the river is different, in actuality, even as its pattern persists through time. Simply illustrated, Bloom demolishes this heresy. As a reader, I would have liked to have seen Bloom push this even further because, I have often used Heraclitus’s maxim to argue against time travel because, in all the claims for it that I have seen, not a one takes into account that time, like the river, is never the same. I.e.- even were I to try and return to the moments I wrote, ‘But where is Sagan in all this? Note the two rules of science part,’ I could not, because not only have about fifteen minutes or so have passed, but the earth has rotated, revolved about the sun, which has revolved about the galaxy, which has itself moved about in the local cluster of galaxies, which has moved in the local supercluster, which has moved in the visible cosmos which is seemingly expanding, and also rotating, itself, within some possibly larger medium. In short, in a mere quarter of an hour, the Dan Schneider that typed ‘But where is Sagan in all this? Note the two rules of science part,’ the first time, is not only a bit more than a quarter hour away, in time, now, but literally millions of miles behind me (or, at least, away from me), somewhere, in a past that is likely immutable. Perhaps future scientists will be able to view that me, or the details of Abraham Lincoln’s life, whether or not Jesus Christ existed, if there was a real Atlantis, and whether or not it was a comet or asteroid (or vulcanism) that killed off the dinosaurs, but I doubt they will ever be able to shake George Washington’s hand, or kill Hitler as a child. Nonetheless, that is good fodder for Bloom’s next book because if A is not A, clearly time and location are and are not the same thing, as well.
Having demolished A is A, Bloom then tries to apply this to physics, and does a reasonable job of things, although, from my perspective, I wish he, throughout the book, would not rely so heavily on the Big Bang theory, and the idea that the cosmos is only about 13.7 billion years old, because this theory is propped up by the concepts of Dark Matter and Dark Energy which are about as scientifically ‘real’ as God is. Without giving away Bloom’s details, he does make his argument (Big Bang or not) well, and, in doing so, similarly demolishes heresy number two: one plus one does not equal two, on equally well prepared grounds that share enough in common with the first heresy that I won’t digress on it.
The third heresy is not as easily disposed of, in my view, and that is
Bloom’s claim that The Second Law of
Thermodynamics, that all things tend toward disorder, that all things tend
toward entropy, is wrong. Bloom states that
things in the cosmos are getting more complex because information is increasing.
Well, in one sense, yes. Through time, more things occur. But this is only if
you buy the Big Bang in toto. If the cosmos is eternal- be it Steady State, Null
Physics, plasma model, oscillating universe, multiple universes, an omniverse,
etc., then there is no way to prove, currently, if this is an increase in order,
or merely an exchange or leak of order from other parts of the unknown cosmos we
inhabit, or from wholly other universes. In fact, if Bloom is correct, and
entropy’s increase is wrong, and it decreases, then one could make an argument
that the Big Bang, itself, is nullified by that claim, since a singularity is
likely the most ordered state a thing could be in, and everything post-Big Bang
is, in keeping with the Biblical metaphors the book uses, a fall from that
grace. However, granting Bloom his Big Bang generated cosmos, his argument
works well, as does Blooms claims on randomness, the fourth heresy. As with the
entropy posit, I can quibble, here and there, but again granting Bloom his model
of the cosmos, he makes his argument work, and as with the second heresy, I am
not compelled to digress on it.
Thus, of the first four heresies, I see two big wins on the first two
points, and, to borrow a sports analogy, they are absolute knockouts;
whereas on heresies three and four, one might grade them as technical knockouts,
giving the man his own premises, or maybe just split decision victories. Bloom,
however, gets the readers’ benefits of the doubt because 1) he has, through
his writerly skills and metaphors, co-opted folks into wanting to believe
him, and 2) given that you are playing in his background, under his rules, he
wins on those accounts. Thus we see the triumph of one trait- wordsmithing, over
However, heresy number five- that meaning, not information, is central to the cosmos- is where I have a break with Bloom. I will detail this more in a bit, but what is interesting is that this is where Bloom’s theory is closest to Terrence Witt’s. I view both as solipsistic, in a generic human sense, as well as anthropic. My dispute is both logical and semantic. But, before I lay out my objection, let me detail the rest of the book, and add the caveat that I, as a critic, while I might disagree with some of Bloom’s ideas, can and should not allow that breach to corrupt what is otherwise an adept, skilled, forceful, and well backed up argument over several hundred thousand words. Too often, in criticism, especially of science, politics, and history, the critic assails a work over what amounts to a petty disagreement or interpretation. I will not. In short, I will lay out Bloom’s claim, my objection, and let the readers of this essay, and The God Problem, decide on their own. My objections, however, will not cloud my judgment on the writerly nor quantitative and qualitative aspects that make the book a fine read.
After this introduction and debunking of the heresies, the book goes off on many long interludes that recount the lives and ideas of many familiar figures from science. On the one hand, as someone well versed in the lives of Galileo and Kepler, Newton and Einstein, Gamow and Hoyle, I could easily have thought this was gilding the lily, but, while Bloom dabbles in some well known anecdotes, like Boorstin, he also illuminates new aspects of these figures, and new sides and consequences to their ideas.
Here is a good and typical example- one of dozens:
The great American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, writing up
Newton’s childhood obsession with machinery in 1869, said that as a kid,
Newton “showed a capacity to translate something ephemeral into a more solid
the distance the wind carried you when you tried to jump straight up and down,
then using that measure to gauge the wind’s strength and speed was an act of
translation. Turning the power of the wind into the motion of a grinding stone
was an act of translation. And turning grains of wheat into flour was yet
another act of translation. Translation is yet another clue to the God Problem.
But there were more acts of translation to come in Newton’s life. And more uses of metaphor….
First, I had no idea that Newton was even on the radar of someone like Hawthorne. Second, the whole idea of translation, as it applies to science, in this context, is a refreshing twist, and, finally, the link to metaphor. Now, to be fair, my major problem, to be detailed, comes with Bloom’s ideas on metaphor, but the point is that in little more than a paragraph, Bloom has given a lift into a digression that could easily have turned into a stale recitation of the known facts of Newton’s schism between a brilliant mathematical and scientific mind, and his utter hollow shell of a personal being. This is the essence of good writing. And, a final point, on the above brief excerpt, and that is that it is one of many instances in the book that, as I claimed in the blurb I gave for Bloom’s book, Bloom deals with Keats’ Negative Capability without mentioning it. In fact, the whole concept of translation reapplied, in this context, is that enacting I referred to in the blurb, as is Newton’s ‘capacity to translate something ephemeral into a more solid language,’ according to Hawthorne.
And, right after this passage, is another I want to quote:
Newton’s metaphor of the machine-maker and of the
contrivance-crafter’s creation—a mechanism—would stick like glue. Today,
scientists are obsessed with finding an explanatory “mechanism” to open the
mysteries that they are trying to pierce. Without a “mechanism,” they often
won’t accept a new idea. For example, as we’ll see a bit later, Charles
Darwin was not the man who first proposed the idea of evolution. His grandfather
Erasmus had laid out the concept of evolution sixty two years before the
publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species. So why is Darwin the god of
evolutionary theory? Because he provided a “mechanism”—natural selection.
But the concept of mechanism is a metaphor.
Now, what is so telling about this little excerpt? Recall that Bloom is, by dint and nature, a promoter. He knows how to sell. I am not such a mind. I’m a critic and creator. I explain and show. Bloom does his thing. I’ll do mine.
Note how Bloom simplifies the seeming mystery of Charles Darwin’s ‘success’ into the concept of a mechanism. He rightly claims that Darwin’s grandfather lacked this, as did many of Darwin’s rivals, including Alfred Russel Wallace. Some had bits and pieces of the puzzle, but none had all the pieces, like Charles Darwin, and none fit them together. Wallace came the closest, out of dozens of Darwin’s rivals, which is why many, with great legitimacy, argue for him to share a bust with Darwin as co-founder of modern evolutionary theory, but he was never able to simplify his thoughts into a distilled and coherent narrative, the way Darwin did.
Thus, Bloom recapitulates Darwin’s ability in his own claim, and both men employed what, in lowest common denominator terms, is known as a hook. This is a catchy idea or sound or image that connects in that Negatively Capable way, and, again, this is straight off of Madison Avenue. But, I included the last sentence of that excerpt for my later beef with Bloom on metaphor.
The book resumes with more historical animation of events familiar and not to readers of all levels, as well as dipping in and out of the science memoir format that Bloom employs so well. There is a section of the book that I want to address, and here it is. Of Fred Hoyle’s Steady State cosmos, Bloom writes:
Hoyle never really answers that question. In his last book,
written in 2000 and titled A Different Approach To Cosmology, a book that
emerged the year before Hoyle died, Sir Fred confronts the question and answers
it like this: “Where do new particles come from if not from some previously
existing particle? Our answer conceptually is from the basic fabric of space
how is spacetime twisted into knots of matter? Hoyle basically takes a pass. He
says, “Everything is made out of nothing, despite the saying attributed to
Lucretius that only nothing can be created out of nothing.”
Ok, one plus one does not equal two in this
universe. Add nothing to nothing and you don’t get nothing. In fact, you get
something. Interesting idea. But once again how? And why?
Hoyle hypothesizes the existence of a “C-field,” a creative field with negative energy. And how does negative energy crank out its astonishing inventions—Planck particles, quarks, and the three forms of atoms we call hydrogen, helium and lithium? Hoyle did not know.
This passage on Hoyle reminds me much of Terrence Witt’s claims about nothingness in his cosmic model, and Bloom, willfully or not, seems to misinterpret Hoyle. Whereas Bloom believes that Hoyle is stating that adding nothings gets something, in fact, Hoyle was stating what Witt claims, that everything in the cosmos adds up to, or sums, to nothing. As a child, I often thought of this. Witt’s whole model is dependent upon this one idea, and Hoyle, himself, was not the first to claim it. It’s an idea that goes back deep into Classical thought. In short, there is not nothingness, in this cosmos, but nothing, or zero, is the net result of all things negative and positive, from matter and energy, and what might lie beyond. Now, I am not necessarily advocating this reality. As I wrote when addressing Witt’s book, there are some problems to this idea, as elegant as it seems, but the point is Bloom seems to dismiss Hoyle by mistaking Hoyle’s idea of a sum of nothing for nothingness in the constituent parts of everything (or nothing!).
Bloom then dips into Mesopotamian history, Ur patterns, Pythagoras, corollary
generator theory, and this provides the bulk of the book with its interesting
digressions, passages, and ideas. It is also quite entertaining, and too lengthy
to condense to a simplistic distillation. Suffice to say, perhaps the most
interesting, best, and most important idea, specifically, that Bloom concocts,
is that a conception of reality, as we know it, is far more dependent upon a
basic human grasp of metaphor than it is in understanding raw numbers, data,
information, and, in the main, I think Bloom is correct, and this is, in fact,
the best idea in the book, and the one that, decades from now, might be
considered Bloom’s greatest insight revealed within. After all, what is the
mind, but a metaphor for the physical processes of the brain, or what those
Bloom then uses the old Plato’s cave analogy to make his case that
human beings think in patterns, and metaphors are the tool we use to understand
and create patterns.
What is a recruitment strategy? Richard Dawkins, in his 1976
book The Selfish Gene, gave us two powerful ideas: the replicator and the
meme. The replicator is an object that can make copies of itself. Says Dawkins,
the best known replicator is the gene. In Dawkins’ view, a gene is a complex
molecule that can make a spitting image of itself. Why bother to call a gene a
replicator? Why bother to invent a new term for something we all know is in the
reproducing business, the self-copying business? Because the concept helps make
sense of something totally ephemeral. It helps make sense of a self-copying
something that is not a thing at all. That self-reproducing no-thing is the idea.
Or, as Dawkins calls it, the meme.
Genes, says Dawkins, make copies of themselves when they are
let loose in a rich biochemical goop or soup. For example, nearly four billion
years ago they copied themselves frantically in the primordial puddles, pools,
undersea vents, and ooze of the early Earth.
Memes copy themselves in a very different kind of soup. They
copy themselves in puddles of consciousness, in the pools of thought in your
brain and mine. What are memes? Words, slogans, poems, pop songs, religions,
ideologies, opinions, rallying cries, and pleas for peace. All of these are
memes. They slip from molecule to molecule in the brain and from mind to mind.
But they are independent of these mere material things. And memes and genes are
ambitious. Imperialistic. In Dawkins’ word, “greedy.” Why?
that replicate like blazes will launch their pattern into the future, flooding
the landscape of generations yet to come. And what will happen to those genes
and memes that are less ambitious, those that ignore the business of seducing,
recruiting, and kidnapping? Those that ignore the game of grabbing clusters of
molecules then turning them into temporary doppelg舅gers, carriers of
their pattern? This is a fiercely competitive world, says Dawkins. And those
that don’t copy themselves obsessively will insure that their pattern dies
out. The offspring of the gluttonous, the acquisitive, and the grasping self
replicators will take over the resources and nudge the less piggy memes and
genes to the very edge…or beyond. Into extinction. To the most compulsive
self-copiers go the spoils. Or so Dawkins says.
Dawkins concepts have worked powerfully as attractors. As
memes. Dawkins’ phrase the “selfish gene” gets a respectable 330,000 hits
on Google. But his word “meme” gets a colossal thirty eight million. Yes,
thirty eight million hits.
Memes are self-replicators that work without a commitment to any particular team of atoms or molecules, without a commitment to any particular matter. They organize whatever matter of the right kind they run across. They organize a sea of neural tissue, a sea of brain matter, influencing the flow of sodium and potassium that moves a signal down the long, string-like axon of a nerve fiber. They influence the spurts of neuro-transmitters at the neuron’s tip that transfer a signal from one nerve to the next in line. And they influence the things we say to introduce ourselves to strangers, the positions we take on politics, the vocabulary with which we flirt, the content of the texts and emails we send, and even the clichés and stabs at new ideas we weave together when we’re making a speech. They influence the words and phrases that gush between you and me.
This is a good passage, in terms of its spelling out what a meme is and what its history is. However, reread the text. Bloom makes a common error in writing of memes, and it’s one that the term’s creator has also propounded, and that is that both write of memes as if they are real things. They are not. A meme is not a real material thing, like a gene, wherein chemical compounds actually do produce real world results via their interactions. Memes are merely metaphors for a process, or rather, any meme is just a metaphor, not a distinct notional entity, and it’s telling that Bloom gets caught up in this tarbaby of sorts, because it amply demonstrates the very power of metaphor that Bloom earlier claims. It is (you know what’s coming- a metaphor) as if the mad scientist, who makes a brilliant insight, and creates some pill that erases memories, to cure someone of PTSD memories, samples the pill, himself, and forgets where he is, and how to replicate the pill.
A meme is a concept; it is not a thing, materially. The latest craze of people doing something on Youtube, and sharing it with others, is not a consequence of the actions, the videos, or the medium of Youtube. No, it is borne of the workings of the human mind, as governed by brain functions, in turn governed by genes. Humans have evolved certain mimicry habits to survive and foster cultures, because such mimicry shows acceptance, subservience, affection, etc. It is those real world elements that create the consequences that lead to behaviors and ideas that spread, NOT the thing itself. For convenience, in shorthand, we now use Dawkins’ handy metaphor, of the meme, clearly (and brilliantly) patterned after material genes, but a metaphor is all a meme is. It does not and cannot act upon the world. It is a classic epiphenomenon, to the point of possibly being the best and most popular example of modern times, and Bloom seems to have swallowed its Kool-Aid when he writes: Memes are self-replicators that work without a commitment to any particular team of atoms or molecules, without a commitment to any particular matter. They organize whatever matter of the right kind they run across. They organize a sea of neural tissue, a sea of brain matter, influencing the flow of sodium and potassium that moves a signal down the long, string-like axon of a nerve fiber. They influence…. and so on. Why? Because there is no them there.
Now, call me a nitpicker, but this belief in memes as real things, this epiphenomenal influence seems to bear a strong correlation to the very foundations of why people believe in gods and form religions. If an educated irreligiot like Bloom, in the midst of an otherwise excellent passage in bolstering his own ideas, well argued in a cogent work, can make such a slip up, well, is it any wonder that people less intelligent, less well read, less able to command language, than he can should also mess around with tarbabies that produce fear and religion, and their concomitant woes? Of course, one might turn this around on me and state, ‘Well, Mr. Critic, did you not claim that Bloom’s book enacts Keats’ Negative Capability? If so, now you are damning him for, by your own admission, illustrating the same human flaws that led to religion in his mistaking of memes for material things like genes. How about that?’
Good point. But I would plead that while such a claim has some merit, it is mitigated by the fact that I don’t think Bloom, in the book, recognizes this error, and I’ll shortly get into the metaphor tarbaby. But, I will state this, and it’s a problem that occurs most often when confronting great works of art or literature. I often encounter this when reading over the great novel manuscripts of my wife. And that is the problem that great works, and works of excellence, often seem to beg for their minor or dependent or mitigated flaws to be found for the simple reason that excellence, greatness, perfection, and other hallmarks of quality, while beautiful, penetrating, wonderful, profound, etc., can often seem boring, especially in their hermeticism. Wave after wave of metaphor or image or character development or brushstroke or pitch perfection drowns and lulls the percipient into an almost zombified state, so that when one hits that one pothole on mile 98 of a hundred mile stretch of otherwise beautiful desert driving, it sticks out much in excess to the perceived pleasures of the rest of the trip. I’ve often argued, in fact, that the key to understanding great art does not lie in the greatest works, but the near great stuff, wherein the flaws bear out the scaffolding of greatness so that one can study the hows and whys. In the immortal works there tends to seem to be an almost Divine Hand at work that allows no ‘in’ for the common reader. Hence, the focus on excellence’s minor flaws actually serves the purpose of more greatly demonstrating the things that lack these flaws in the work. Earlier I mentioned reading, and linked to, Terrence Witt’s book Our Undiscovered Universe, and how, in comparison to Bloom’s book, it suffers mainly from Witt’s lack of writerly skill vis-à-vis Bloom’s. However, because it’s words pale, and its flaws are so easily bared, its ideas dominate, and my disagreements with it are seemingly less important to the overall thesis, even as I probably disagreed with, percentage-wise, as much with his ideas as I do Bloom’s. But, because Bloom’s book’s superior rendering in prose pulls you in its tide to a far greater degree, and you are lulled into taking his side in arguments, for the reasons I detailed earlier, when you hit that pothole, such as this almost self-constructed metaphoric trap Bloom has set and stepped into (or the earlier one on Hoyle), it blares much louder than similar flaws in Witt’s work.
However, Bloom almost redeems that error when, a few pages later, he writes:
A recruitment strategy is both a noun and a verb. It is a process that maintains a shape. It is an action that turns itself into a thing. And it is a thing that turns itself into an action. Above all, a recruitment strategy is social. It seduces other things into its orbit and puts them through a choreography that dictates how they will bow, twirl, and sway with each other. Then it lets them go and moves on to the next batch of recruits. It is a powerful persuader, a choreographer of particles, of forces, and of complex things from asteroids and nebulae to you and me. It is so powerful that it survives despite obstacles and attacks.
One need only Google my name and a term like ‘art is a verb’ to see how Bloom almost wholly nails my ideas on art. In fact, substitute the word ‘art’ for ‘recruitment strategy’ and Bloom’s words could be mine. However, note the greater space I’ve devoted to what I claim is Bloom’s error versus his excellent insight. Those damned potholes, again!
But, to show that I am not obsessed with potholes, let me give you perhaps my own personal favorite passage in the book, and one which both synchs up with my own beliefs, and one which, again, casts a new light on a tired old staple of Classical thought, Euclid:
After his first day of class, a new student of Euclid’s asked Euclid what practical use he’d be able to make of the geometry he was working so insanely hard to comprehend, Euclid called over “his slave” and said with a tone of airy dismissal, "Give him a coin since he must needs make gain by what he learns." No Babylonian or Egyptian scribe-priest would have said such a thing.
I could go on about just how much that one little apothegm says about modern culture- especially in the arts, and most especially in the publishing industry, but I need no more long digressions in this essay than are necessary.
Now, let me get to metaphor, and how I think Bloom has a problem. While I agree that metaphor is an apt way for how we humans approach the cosmos, I don’t believe meaning derives from it.
Bloom details the history of why metaphoric thinking is deemed unscientific, then counterattacks:
Light, says current physics, is simultaneously a wave and a
particle. And guess what? Though Aristotle says that “metaphorical reasoning
is unscientific,” a wave is a metaphor. So is a particle.
How did the highest of the modern sciences—physics--get the notion that light is both a wave and a particle? From metaphors
After digressing on Leonardo da Vinci, Bloom writes:
What’s more, this battle of the metaphors would go on for
three hundred years. The battle of the metaphor of the wave versus the metaphor
of the “little body.” The battle of the wave versus the metaphor of the
cannonball, the billiard ball, and the bullet. The battle of the wave versus the
particle. Why? Because metaphor is the key to human understanding. And metaphor
is central to something that Aristotle invented: science.
We then get more background, in an attempt to answer this query, and Bloom returns to another common tack, that of the classic two slit experiment, wherein light seemingly ‘chooses’ to go through one slit or another. Of course, the idea of choice is a metaphor, and Bloom is correct on this score, and then he propounds this:
This is not easy to explain in words, so please hang in with
me. You now have two sheets of paper. One that’s got just one slit. Your light
concentrator. And one that has two slits in it. Your light separator. Now set
the candle and sheets up so that light from the candle goes through the one-slit
sheet and is concentrated, and so the light next goes through the two-slit
sheet. Yes, I know it’s confusing. But let the light from the two slits shine
on the wall. Turn off the lights. What will you get? Logically, you should get a
relatively normal wash of light on the wall. You often have two light sources,
two candles, two light bulbs overhead, or two lamps. And a normal wash of light
is the result. But a wash of light is not what you see on the wall. Not at all.
You see stripes. In fact, you see a lineup of stripes. Why?
Young said that the sideways ladder of stripes was due to the
same thing that made the water’s moiré—the water’s hatched and gridworked
plaid. In other words, Young declared that the stripes of light were made by the
same thing that rippled a liquid into a plaid. Said Young, the stripes of light
on your wall are due to interference. Where two peaks of light meet, they add to
each other. They make lines of brightness. Where two troughs meet, they
other. They make lines of darkness. Hence light is not a particle. It is a wave.
A wave like the waves in water. Like the waves in Leonardo’s pond. Like the
waves in the ducks’ wake. And like the waves in Young’s ripple tank.
Now let’s step back and apply the second law of science for
a minute. Let’s look at things right under our noses—yours and mine—as if
we’ve never seen them before. Two swatches of light overlap and
make…darkness? This is an absurd notion. It makes absolutely no sense. How can
light added to light make light’s opposite, a swatch of black? How can one plus
one equal zero? That’s like saying two patches of night make day. But this
is not the only bit of absurdity at work in Young’s claim. It’s not the only
piece of outrageousness in Leonardo’s—and Young’s—idea that light is
like water. And it’s not the only bit of nonsense in Newton’s crazy idea
that light—the insubstantial stuff that you can run your hand through, the
immaterial flood you walk through every day—Newton’s crazy idea that light
is a rain of miniature bullets, billiard balls, or cannonballs. These ideas are
based on a stark-ravingly ridiculous platform, a lunatic assumption. They are
based on the idea that a pattern translates from one medium to another. And they
are based on the assumption that despite this violent displacement into soups,
goops, vacuums, and solids that seem to bear no relationship to each other, the
pattern will stubbornly maintain its identity. That assumption is the bottom
line of metaphor. And as Aristotle said, metaphor is unscientific. Right?
Why is metaphor so outrageous? So utterly unbelievable? Let me repeat. In a rational world, light and water are violently different things. There is no reason whatsoever that water and light should be the same. And in truth, every laboratory demonstration, every chemical reaction in a test tube, every act of genetic analysis in a sequencing machine, every experiment on pigeons, rats, or pygmy chimps, every test of drugs on dogs or rabbits, and every social science study based on sampling makes no sense. Every one of these assumes that you can capture a pattern in one small patch of territory, in one manifestation of nature, and blow it up big. What’s worse, every one of these assumes that you can grab hold of a pattern in one kind of thing and generalize it to radically different things. Every one of these assumes that you can take a basic pattern and translate it the way Young translated the Rosetta Stone. That you can translate it to something that is grotesquely different. And every one of these carries another hidden assumption. That the real translator, the real duplicator of a basic pattern in radically different mediums, is not you. The hidden assumption is that the real translator is nature.
Several problems occur here: the first should be obvious, and that is that, even as a laymen, I know that the Classical war over light, known as wave-particle duality, states that light is not a particle nor wave, but acts like a particle or wave, depending on how one views or measures it; but it cannot act like both simultaneously. Now, forget about the lay difficulty in understanding this materially, and concentrate on the fact that Bloom does not recognize this in the excerpt, even as he previously acknowledged these were metaphors. He seems to vacillate between the two, as if they were particles or waves, not merely acting like they were, which is similar to the earlier lack of recognition that a meme is merely a metaphor. Hence, he seems to have gotten swept up in the very power of metaphor he is illustrating- again, a recapitulative moment, which might seem almost a Postmodern tack, save for the fact that he is speaking of an oft-repeated and confirmed and controlled scientific experiment.
The larger issue is that while it is metaphoric to claim something behaves in a certain way, the actual reduction of such A is like B claims does not reduce it to metaphor but to simile, and simile is a more precise comparison of things than metaphor, often using terms like as and like. There is often some blurring of the boundaries between the two things, but, generally, precise comparisons are similes, and metaphors are less tangible things that use tangible elements to illustrate them. In short, similes are more directly revealers of patterns, whereas metaphors are reductions, enlargements, or sometimes projections that attack and stimulate similar modes of thought re: patterns. Notice, even in describing them, I have used a metaphor actively, that metaphors attack, to make my point. Metaphors can achieve the same ends as similes, which rely on direct patterns, but if a simile can be represented by having two different sized feathers tickling a naked foot’s sole to try and induce laughter, then metaphor is akin to breaking someone’s jaw, first by using a baseball bat, then by using brass knuckles. Like simile, you’ve achieved a similar end, but you’ve used somewhat different means. Now, you’ll note that this paragraph is a mixture of similes and metaphors, so let me try again: similes use like means to achieve an end, whereas metaphors are not so much about evincing patterns as getting similar ends or reactions to those patterns. Bloom seems to not recognize this subtle, but important, difference, and because it crops up several times in the book, I can imagine that someone taking aim at his whole argument, as propounded in the book, might very well see this mixup of metaphors and similes as the dangling thread from Bloom’s sweater that unravels it all. As a critic, that is not my aim, but it is my duty to report this, especially since it recurs.
Bloom sums up his point this way:
But there is. Thomas Young proved it. Thomas Young proved
that a primal pattern, an ur pattern, repeats in two bizarrely separate mediums.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the essence of metaphor. Finding a pattern in
one medium and applying it to another. Finding a pattern in one context and
shifting it to another. Making an absurdly gargantuan leap.
But metaphor works. It works because it captures nature. It works because it capture’s nature’s creativity. It works because of deep structures. Hell, it works because there are deep structures. It works because of Ur patterns. Is metaphor “unscientific.” Far from it. It is the very core of science.
I agree with these two paragraphs, almost completely, and have long thought that most scientists simply do not understand that their pursuits are immersed in the larger human patterns and behaviors. It is similar to conundra involving the observed and the observer, wherein the observer needs to recognize observation is an active agent in a cosmos that includes himself; but, again, that’s too long a digression for my purposes. However, as I’ve shown, the wave-particle duality, and, indeed, much of what Bloom claims as metaphor, is not, but simile. Is this merely semiotics? Should Bloom have stated and posited his book on the idea that simile, not metaphor, is the core of science? I don’t know. It’s not my field, and it’s not something that drives me to pursuit, but, as with most artists who desire order, I loathe dangling threads, and this seems to be one that is begging to be pulled by a rival or detractor, and, unlike Bloom’s ideas’ reliance on the Big Bang- another thread that could unravel portions of his posits, this one is entirely on Bloom.
Or, as Bloom later posits re: physicist David Bohm, when he writes- Bohm had another key truth up his sleeve. One that you and I have used. He made a crucial point few seemed to listen to. A point based on the importance to science of central metaphors. He said that science can go wrong when its math is correct but when the metaphor it uses to interpret that math is wrong- one might counter that science can go wrong when the metaphor it uses should have been a simile. And all this relates to Bloom’s claim that there is meaning in the cosmos. Well, perhaps metaphorically, but really? And if he mixes up metaphor with simile so easily, and metaphor is tied to meaning….?
Bloom then enters the world of art, and digresses on personages from Leigh Hunt to Herbert Spencer to George Eliot, three relatively minor writers whose lives he casts in new light, making them, if not their work, more interesting. Then, after some more history and science, we dip into the idea of the Big Bagel. Again, Bloom is not the idea’s originator, but he does a good job of explaining it, and its consequences, especially in tying it in to such things as light’s redshift, the seeming accelerated expansion of the cosmos, and its ultimate fate, as well as how the Big Bagel differs from Einsteinian physics.
Another good point is made by Bloom, that indirectly refers to art:
It has been said many a time that Einstein is over-rated. He isn’t as original as he’s made out to be. Someone else came up with relativity. Someone else came up with the equations. Someone else came up with the speed of light as a constant. Someone else came up with things scrunching as they moved. And all of that is true. But you don’t look at a new invention like the world’s very first sweater, name the people who made the yarn, and claim that the sweater isn’t an achievement. You don’t claim that the first sweater in history was really invented by the Coptic Christians in Egypt who invented knitting in roughly 200 AD. The fact is that for the next 1,400 years, there was no such thing as a sweater. And you don’t claim that the sweater was really conceived by the twisters of the first yarn in the 1400s. Despite the existence of knitting and of yarn, we still had two hundred chilly years to go before the first sweater would be conceived in the 1600s. The sweater is an accomplishment on its own, a radical upgrade from a mere ball of yarn, no matter who plucked the wool and who twisted it into strands. The latest—and newest—iteration counts. The iteration in a new context. The iteration with a new big picture, with a new unifying concept, with a new grand design.
This is one of the things that bad critics of art often miss. They are either in love with novelty for its own sake, or they are obsessed with the past, to the point that even a brilliantly conceived tale of love, or painted portrait, is deemed clichéd merely because it fits in a genre, irrespective of its brilliance, reiteration in a new context, or the like. But Bloom is correct that Einstein synthesized well worn prior ideas into a new template, and that synthesis, no matter how it is succeeded by later minds, is the achievement that made him great. Simply because Walt Whitman’s poetry went beyond the sonnets of Shakespeare, in terms of content, drama, rhythm, and so on, does not diminish those handful of sonnets he wrote that are, indeed, great, in their own limits of time, mind, and place.
Art is also central to Bloom’s book, as I’ve shown, in his own writing, but also in ways that Bloom likely did not intend.
To repeat, information is the act of getting across a message. It is of little value for you to smuggle out a fortune cookie with a cry for rescue like “help, I am being held prisoner in a Chinese fortune cookie factory” if some bozo mathematician from Michigan uses the fortune cookie for juggling but never opens it. The whole point of the fortune cookie with your urgent plea for help is to get someone to read it and to respond. Preferably with a swat team. You are sending out a stimulus and you are desperate for a response. That is communication. And information, says the Oxford English Dictionary, is communication.
As when Bloom earlier wrote of recruitment strategies and accidentally defined art one way, he does it again, for art is also communication, albeit it its highest level to most simply and easily convey something.
He then goes off on B.F. Skinner and Behaviorism, and defines information as ‘anything a receiver can understand,’ with the word can being the operative word. I would have chosen the term might, because that word prevents the thought and definition from solipsism, for receivers are often unable to extract information, due to their own lack, and bad receivers being the key to information is not a good idea; it reeks of anthropic thought, as well the absurd postmodern claims that reality does not exist without a perceiver. We know that reality predated the mind via science- specifically the scientific method, and the application of certain laws of physics, as well as methods of deduction and induction, therefore it’s an absurdity to think that a receiver’s ability to decode something has any effect on the thing. If Walt Whitman’s Leaves Of Grass had been sitting in a Civil War veteran’s locker for the last century and a half, would his words only have become great once they were read and published? Of course not. There is an immanence to such things as greatness, and even just information. The reality is that reality does not need you! After all, the cosmos did fine sans you for eons, and it will do so long after you are gone.
Bloom takes all of this, and then pulls his toes out of the river of science, and dips them into philosophy, when he writes:
Let’s ignore the fact that there is no such thing as
information without meaning. And let’s focus on meaning alone.
If meaning is anything that a receiver can understand, if
meaning is anything that an entity can interpret, if meaning is in the eye of
the beholder, then how do you know when a thing or a person “understands”
something? Follow the B.F. Skinner rule. Watch his or her behavior. Watch for
the signs of stimulus and response. Watch to see if the receiver does something
in response to the stimulus. Watch to see if the receiver moves. Quarks exchange
meaning with stimulus and response. So do gas wisps competing to swallow each
other. And so do would-be planets using their gravity to snag and cannibalize
comets and space debris. How do we know the receivers get the meaning? All of
them respond to the signals they receive. They move. They move toward each
other. Or away.
And that movement is response to a stimulus. That movement shows that quarks, protons, electrons, and gravity balls in some primitive and utterly non-conscious way, interpret each other. They get the message. They “understand” each other. They translate each other’s signal into action. In other words, movement inspired by another object is the undeniable mark of something we think is uniquely human. It is the undeniable mark of meaning.
On this I disagree- and profoundly. First off, this posits that every act, every thing, has meaning, and this also means that if there is meaning, then there must be intent. Yes, Bloom tries to mitigate this reality, but meaning posits intent- mere information does not. It’s akin to stating that there is an omnipotent God, but he’s not ultimately responsible for evil in the cosmos since he gave Man free will. But, if God is omnipotent, he knows all, he knows the future, so it is laid out, and Man only has the appearance of free will. Similarly, one might argue that some newly discovered dinosaur’s bones have meaning. Yes, in a loose sense, they can mean that there was a type of animal that previously existed that was unknown to Man, but this is not what Bloom means by meaning (is this getting too Abbott and Costello for you?). What he really means is significant meaning: that those new dinosaur bones have some profound impact on the cosmos. And this is evident from his very use of the term meaning in referring to those currently known most basic of particles, quarks, for he does not couch the term in relative terms, not does he use it metaphorically. This is where I disagree.
Most of existence lacks meaning. It just is. In speaking with people of all means on all aspects of their existence, over the years, when I’ve stripped their experiences to the bone (metaphor alert) for them, they are forced to conclude there is no meaning, save for what they bring, via thought or emotion. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that the only thing, re: meaning, that one can safely state of the cosmos is that it has no meaning, at all. It is void of it. There is no active agency to the cosmos (excluding sentient life forms) at large. It is utterly zen, in that sense. It just is. We, as beings endowed of wisdom and intellect, however, imbue meaning into things, but my imbuement is not Bloom’s. His is not yours, the reader of this essay. It may be, and there may be 99.99+% consonances in most things humans encounter. But that is not innate meaning in the things, but what we collectively or individually imbue into them. Imbuement is an act of reaching out into the cosmos, whereas meaning, as Bloom means, is the cosmos reaching in to us. But this would mean the cosmos has agency. This would mean that the cosmos is alive, and if so, then there’s really no substantive difference between that cosmos and a cosmos filled with a God or gods of any creed.
Now, if you think that I’ve reached the best argument against Bloom’s
depiction of the cosmos via his interpretation of information, let me turn to
the idea that behaviorism is the best way to gauge and measure meaning in the
cosmos. This might be so, save for something I learnt long ago in the arts, and
that is that the world of Man is littered with scads of philosophical zombies.
By this, I mean that the bulk of humanity, while they may not be p-zombies, in
the utter technical sense, simply are low humming cognitions afloat in
nothingness when confronted with things like great art, or the ideas that Bloom
traverses in. And, in other ways, there may very well be actual p-zombies at
large, with no way for me, nor you, to tell the difference, because they simply
react rotely to stimulus- it’s what they do, after all. Thus, even if I
realize that Bloom was again merely using a metaphor in the last cited excerpt,
his summation- In other words, movement inspired by
another object is the undeniable mark of something we think is uniquely human.
It is the undeniable mark of meaning-
obviates things as basic as the four fundamental forces of nature. Is there
immanent meaning in the moon’s revolution about the earth, or the earth’s
about the sun? Is their immanent meaning in one end of a magnet attracting, and
the other repulsing, iron filings? I don’t think so.
Bloom has imbued this. Bloom has enacted meaning on otherwise meaningless circumstances. He has opened his ear to hear that tree falling in the forest that no one else has heard. But the bang and thud of the falling trunk was there, its sound waves emanating and echoic all along, until it graced Bloom’s eardrum. Bloom’s definition of meaning reeks of solipsism. These, however, are all acts of imbuement, reaching out. These are deeper acts than a philosophical zombie can do, for p-zombies cannot imbue, reach out, even as they seem to take in (try submitting great writing to a literary agent and then try deny the existence of p-zombies). Granted, one might argue not in the truest sense of the term, but, for all practical purposes, both Bloom’s book and this essay on it, however consonant in most ideas, and divergent in a few, should provide evidence that neither Howard Bloom nor Dan Schneider are p-zombies. This is because we are agents that not only react, but act. We are prime movers, p-zombies are not. P-zombies are reactors, not actors. There is agency that we bear, and not merely metaphoric. In short, I am the meaning I bear. I enact it on my world, as do you, the reader, and Bloom, and, although I am asserting the power of the self, this is not solipsism because it is a recognition of my limits. As mentioned, the cosmos did well before me, and will after me. Cosmic meaning, in all things, however, assumes that there is intent prepared specifically for decoding by some Artificer.
Lastly, information can mean different things to different perceivers. Bloom’s excerpt, above, is an example. He clearly meant it to argue for his view that there is no God in the cosmos. I see it as possibly promoting the very thing he seeks to debunk. I may be wrong in interpreting that information, Bloom may have encoded it faultily, but someone else might have another valid interpretation. Now, this does not mean there are endless interpretations available, as PoMo enthusiasts deem. Great art, as example, has multiple meanings of value. If it has infinite meanings, then the artist has not communicated a damned thing. Multiplicity of meaning is good; infinity of meaning is not, because it means there is no meaning, if something can mean anything. My, Bloom’s, and that third party’s ideas on the last excerpt quoted may be different, but viable; but if a fourth party reads Bloom’s words, and interprets them to mean, ‘Howard Bloom is clearly discoursing on the joy felt by a poodle named Amanda, in 1944, as she was given a bath, outside of Grenoble, France, during the visit of a Vichy official who was ruminating on how to best deport Jews from the nearest province,’ this would clearly be absurd. Now, I could go on, but I think my point is made, from logical absurdities to philosophical zombies to immanent meaning crafting an Artificer being as plausible as reversing that claim. Meaning, and its corollary- intent- have no real place, not only in criticism of art, but in science. And to think, a simple might in place of a can could have avoided this lengthy digression! On the plus side, rare is the book that ever evokes such thoughts as these.
Bloom then ties this up:
If meaning is anything that a translator can understand, anything that a translator can interpret, anything that a translator can decode, then the amount of meaning in this cosmos is constantly increasing. Meaning defies the law of entropy, the second law of thermodynamics. Meaning does not ebb away. It is not erased by disorder. It is on the rise. It is constantly piling up. And its pile is reaching toward the heavens. Not to mention pouring from the skies.
Of course, this is all predicated on the idea that there is immanent meaning. And this is what I meant when I stated, early on in this essay, that Bloom argues his points well, even if you don’t agree with them. What he writes is a logical outcome of his claim, except that, as he defines it, above, the cosmos he posits defies his book’s overarching claim of a Godless cosmos, and, the fact that entropy is a thermodynamic property. Meaning is not. Let me, ahum, use a metaphor. Entropy is not, in this metaphor, a thermodynamic property, but a thing- a ball, a toy, whatever. You, the reader, I, Bloom, and seven other people see entropy in the center of a room. To violate the Second Law, the toy would have to shrink, literally, before our collective ten pairs of eyes, rather than get larger, or multiply (let’s not even go into the how of this posit). But, as Bloom puts forth meaning, our ten sets of eyes are not seeing ten different entropy toys. We are all seeing the selfsame entropy. It is not increasing, only the number of takes on it. This is fundamentally different, and whether using the inner diegetic metaphor of the entropy toy, or the outer non-diegetic metaphor that I, Dan Schneider, have constructed, the fact is that meaning and metaphor are not subject to the physical laws of the universe. Metaphor is also not meaning, it’s a constant redefining of the same thing, or, more accurately, a constant reapplication of the same thing. Metaphor does not add up, it’s pounding the same loose nail that pops up in construction, not different loose nails. Of course, Bloom might be using meaning as a metaphor, but, if so, I see no evidence of it. Meaning, as commonly understood, seems to be as fundamental to his ideas on information, entropy, and the cosmos, as is electromagnetism.
And this leads to Bloom’s claim that:
There’s good reason for calling this a driven, motivated cosmos. A persistent cosmos. This is a cosmos that keeps pushing forward, no matter what. This is a cosmos that’s kept up that push for 13.73 billion years, It’s a cosmos that’s kept up that push for 4.3298928 × 1017 seconds. A number way up there in the hundreds of quadrillions. This is a cosmos that has shown a primitive precursor of will. A primitive precursor of stubbornness. Are photons really persistent? Or is that an idiotic metaphor? And, what’s worse, is it an idiotic reading of a human quality into a mere thing? Let’s answer that question with two more. How many times does a photon flick back and forth? How many times does a photon repeat its pattern of moving from one end of its arc to another? Remember, a photon of yellow light corkscrews from one extreme of its amplitude to the other 540 trillion times a second.1575 It undergoes more back and forths in one second, just one second, than all the booms and crashes mankind has endured in the 2.5 million years since we first fashioned stones into tools. And one second is just a tiny part of a yellow photon’s lifetime. We’ve detected photons that have been traveling from one end of the universe to the other for over thirteen billion years.1576 And those photons have been doing their crazy wobble all the way. They’ve repeated that wobble 2.333 x 1030 times. Roughly 233 billion billion billion times. That’s iteration. That’s persistence beyond belief. No, you are not exaggerating or anthropomorphizing when you say that a photon is persistent.
Simply put, there is no way that one can NOT call this anthropomorphizing, and I think this is all the logical outcome of the errors in thought about the fifth of the five heresies Bloom’s book targets. As stated, he easily did away with the first two, had some struggle with the third and fourth, but number five, on information, meaning, and metaphor is a bitch. The very choice of word that Bloom uses- persist, rather than perdure, suggests that he is imbuing meaning and agency into the cosmos where none exists, and based upon metaphors (or similes) that Bloom may or may not realize he has internalized and projected outward, not unlike those who persist in religious belief. And note, I wrote persist for a reason. The primary definition of persist is to continue firmly or obstinately in an opinion or a course of action in spite of difficulty, opposition, or failure. In other words, persistence implies agency, volition, will. Perdure’s primary definition is simply to continue to exist. There is no taint nor hint of volition nor agency. Photons exist because they do. They perdure because that’s also what photons do, or seem to do. They do not throw Bar Mitzvahs nor root for the New York Giants. Bloom’s word choice is both telling, in his take on the cosmos and his posits, as well as being, at least, consistent.
Bloom returns to the two slit experiment, and writes:
If you rerun Thomas Young’s two-slit experiment, a photon
shooting from your light source has to “decide” which slit to go through.
Should it go through the left slit or the right? Writes Reinhold Blümel,
professor of physics at Wesleyan University, “a photon…has to ‘make up its
puts “make up its mind” in quotes because he is using a figure of speech,
not a scientific description. He is not implying that photons can think. He is
not suggesting that photons have minds. He is using a metaphor. But when
metaphors work, it is often because they capture Ur patterns, patterns repeated
on many levels of emergence. It is often because they capture deep structures of
the cosmos. Structures as deeply embedded as axioms. Why deeply embedded?
Because they are often structures that have been here from the beginning.
Structures on which everything around us has been built. Structures the cosmos
has repeated in new mediums, iterating them the way the sword-maker flattens and
folds his iron. Repeating old rules in a way that makes something very old into
something very new.
The Ur pattern Blümel refers to here is the photon’s
“selection” of a choice. “Selection of a choice?” Isn’t that
unacceptable anthropomorphism? Isn’t that a mindless reading of our own
peculiar emotional experience into emotionless matter? No, it is not mere
anthropomorphism. At least according to Dyson, Kauffman, Koch and
Conway—extraordinarily credible scientists all. They tell you bluntly in their
interviews and their writings that the choice the photon makes is a primitive
precursor of what we call “will.”
Photons are not the only particles with choices. If a particle is an electron, it can spin in one of two different directions. It can spin up or down. And if a particle is a neutron, it can flip through two choices, it can huddle with a proton and retain its identity or it can give up, stay solo, and decay. The photon, the electron, and the neutron exist in either-or states. Either-or states described by the “waveform” of Schrödinger’s equation. According to quantum theory, these particles maintain opposite states simultaneously. But eventually, when they make contact with something that takes their measure, when they make contact with something in their environment, something that “observes” them, something that interprets them as a stimulus and makes a response, something that extracts a “meaning” from them, they are forced to “pick” one option and discard the other.
In the first paragraph, Bloom is aware of the metaphoric content, yet in the second he seems not. And, let’s face it, scientists are not the best people to ask about things philosophical, such as free will and choice. Often they grasp for metaphors, and more often than not they fail, which is why writers of science, like Eiseley, Gould, and Sagan, are rare. But, even putting aside the often frustrating inability of even great scientific minds to convey the concepts they deal with in easy metaphors the layety can grasp, there are other explanations for what Bloom describes. As example, instead of a choice, there could be quantum decoherence, wherein we get the split of the cosmos into two separate universes. I, personally, find this a stretch, but it’s legitimate physics, as we know it, and central to one form of multiple universe posit. There’s also mere randomness. The photon has to go through one or the other slit. No choice is needed. Amid other possible explanations I could offer is that humans simply don’t fully currently understand the process observed. We are, after all, not fallen angels, but risen apes.
But Bloom seems to plunge ahead, and writes, all the while trumpeting anthropomorphism while denying it, and using some powerful metaphors:
The implication of Kauffman, Dyson, Kochen and Conway’s
argument is devastating. Devastating to the notion that anthropomorphism is a
scientific sin. If elementary particles have free will, then will, volition, and
decision-making began in the first tiny nano-sliver of a second that gave birth
to particles. Free will began in the first flick of the Big Bang. How? Remember
how, in the beginning, in the universe’s first 10-35
this cosmos went from a nothing to a hugeness
at a speed that defies belief? That starting burst of superspeed is called
inflation. Physicists like Ignazio Licata and Ammar Sakaji, the co-editors of The
Electronic Journal of Theoretical Physics, and University of Tokyo’s
Tetsuo Hatsuda and University of Tsukuba’s Yasuo Miake, co-authors of Quark-Gluon
Plasma, are among the many theoretical physicists and cosmologists who are
certain that this embryonic cosmos was in several states simultaneously. Hatsuda
and Miake spell out chains of reasoning based on quantum mechanics and
information-theory to prove that the entire cosmos had to make a choice. It had
to decohere. That primal “decision” gave us “a classical universe”—the
universe you and I imagine when we picture the plasma soup and the bump-em car
smash of ricocheting protons that followed the inflationary burst. That was the
first Big Choice. And a tower of choices rose from there. Rose until
decision-making protons, neutrons, and electrons gathered together as you and
We humans have made free will far more elaborate. Far more
ornate and gussied up than it was in the primitive first seconds of the Big
Bang. We’ve brought the hundred billion cells of our brains into the picture.
And we’ve hauled in consciousness. Not to mention the complications of
culture. And ego. But in the end, when we are torn between opening our umbrella
in the rain or taking the chance that the moisture in the air will simply be a
mist, when we try to keep ourselves from eating that raisin brownie in the
kitchen, when we wonder whether we can get away with touching the hand of the
person we are dating for the first time, when we use our will, it all comes down
to decisions. To choose to go left instead of right.
In other words, Dyson, Kauffman, Kochen and Conway’s arguments imply that we did not invent free will. It was passed down to us. We inherited it. From what ancestors? From our great, great, great forefathers and foremothers: neutrons, protons, electrons, and photons. From particles like the protons that keep you from poking the index finger of your right hand straight through your left palm. Talking about free will in particles, according to Dyson, Kauffman, Kochen, and Conway, is not anthropomorphism. It is scientific accuracy. And it is scientific humility. It gives proper credit to the particles whose summed decisions made us what we are today.
Note the quotation marks around decision. One can interpret that for emphasis, literally, or not- that it’s a seeming decision. Bloom straddles the edge here, because, let us assume that decoherence is the progenitor of volition, then free will is a natural outcome of randomness- a quark pops off this way, instead of that way, and a man cheats on his wife, or a woman goes home with a stranger from a bar and is raped. Or, on a larger scale, Genghis Khan decides, as a child, he wants to rule the world, and that choice echoes down human history an eon on. But it was all random. In that sense, we are back to being philosophical zombies. And, maybe we all are. I don’t believe so, but believing, even metaphorically, that some form of consciousness exists in subatomic particles can even bolster many religious arguments about God’s utter immanence, for it is consistent with the notion that God is in all things at all times at all places.
I am a writer, not a scientist, though. I can only listen to the arguments and decide them on their merits and presentation, and I know anthropomorphism FAR better than Dyson and company, and they are anthropomorphizing to the extreme. And I think Bloom places way too much faith in these men, and this logical fallacy of the appeal to authority. In terms of the observations they make, they may be experts; but in interpreting it beyond the material world, and its implications, well, they are out of their domains and leagues. But it is interesting how, in the end, Bloom seems to posit a cosmos not so different from most religiots’ cosmos. Yes, it ultimately may be closest to Buddhism, but- despite that religion’s claims, it’s still a religion.
Bloom then returns to entropy, and I think it’s surprising that he does not believe in an eternal cosmos for that would seem, to many, to be the natural corollary of an ever-complexing cosmos- no matter whether you believe in any of the four levels of multiverses. I mention this because Bloom does not mention that the Second Law of Thermodynamics only applies in a closed system (I searched the text). The seeming increase he believes exists (even discounting meaning) could readily be explained by the known universe simply not being closed, either in space (multiple universes) or time- and this is important, because the Big Bang does, indeed, close time in one direction: the past. If Bloom is correct, and entropy’s increase is seemingly being violated and he is also correct that there was a starting point in time in the cosmos, then the Second Law is toast. Or, the Second Law may be fine and dandy, and we either a) live in an omniverse (a term I prefer to multiverse, which implies more universes like ours), and therefore the increase in complexity in our cosmos is matched by a similar increase in entropy in another (or others), or the Big Bang is a myth, every bit as patchwork and propped up as are any beliefs in deities, and we live in some form of an eternal cosmos. Given the facts that we know of, it has to be one or the other. It’s either a dead Second Law or a dead Big Bang- one must survive at the other’s expense….that’s if Bloom is correct in his claims on entropy. Personally, as I believe the Big Bang is the most prominent example of bad ad hoc science, as currently posited, I think Bloom may be correct on the Second Law’s flaws, but that means his cosmos lacks a Big Bang, and is also permeated with Ur patterned primal volition, not unlike that of the Judeo-Christian God. And, given that I doubt Bloom is willing to accept this, for it undermines his whole book’s posit, I think he has lost his battle against the fifth heresy, and he’s likelier to eventually drop it, and retool his overall argument, or, at least, not load so much into debunking that stubborn (anthropomorphized) fifth heresy, which shows Bloom has many of the same traits that lead others to religion. But this is not bad, nor does it undermine his whole argument, for it 1) gives us a literal Negatively Capable biography of the man’s pursuits, as well as 2) demonstrating that science does not proceed in neat steps, but in jukes and dekes, feints and grasps that sometimes hold and sometimes do not. Bloom therefore shows his and science’s humanity in his quest.
But not to fear, if you think I am tossing Bloom and his book to the wind, for, as stated earlier, I have spent an inordinate amount of time of my dissents from the book, in relation to all I agree with, all that is well written, well argued, and well demonstrated. A 4-1 record in heresy fights is very good. An .800 percentage in wins is something any sports team would take, and for a baseball batter it’s phenomenal success. But that one loss, I think, goes back to those lousy threads sticking out from a sweater. They don’t unravel Bloom’s whole thesis, but they do leave openings for Bloom and others to build upon, and that is the essence of science. That is the scientific method, which is, bar none, the single greatest individual idea and tool that mankind has yet to invent. And, even in that loss, Bloom argues his point well, entertains and enlightens, and generally connects enough dots that most will give him round 5, as well. I cannot.
That stated, let me return to the initial blurb I gave Bloom, and go back to my thesis that The God Problem is not merely another book on science, beating the corpse of a God, but a book that also has deep connections to human creativity, and the way we think, as well as connections to John Keats’ Negative capability- a quality that, if you’ve been reading this essay closely, I think Bloom’s words have demonstrated, even when I think the connections made go awry, as with metaphor and meaning.
In summing up his book, Bloom writes:
We are patterns with ambition. We are big pictures on the prowl. We are spirit-in-action bursting forth in a cosmos devoid of gods, of afterlives, and of immortality. But we are not the first forms that immaterial-pattern, spirit-in-action has donned. Immaterial identities also work their sorcery on quarks, quanta, atoms, stars, and galaxies. Recruitment strategies are alive in the search patterns of bacteria and bees. They are equally alive in stock markets and trees. But we are the most complex social project that protons and electrons have ever attempted to achieve. We are the repeaters of the ancient patterns of attraction and repulsion, repeaters through whom the cosmos has sketched new big pictures and woven new tapestries. We are the cosmos’ tools for fantasy. We are her first vessels of dreams. And yet we are only the foothills. Only the stepping stones. Only the starting blocks for the cosmos’ next big leaps.
In this paragraph alone, one reads how Bloom not only sees connections between things, but posits an almost mirror image to several earlier conceptions of the universe: from animistic to monotheistic to the Classical deities, and even to modern myths, like, I suspect, the Big Bang, even as he still uses it as a prop to his ideas. As mentioned earlier, I believe that time travel is an impossibility, for it entails return to not only a bygone time but physical space. But, I would posit this, something I’ve believed, and which seems like yet another corollary to Bloom’s vision of the cosmos: that existence itself is immortality. That Ur patterns are possibly the only way the past has any form of existence in the present, and that the living are forever extant in the past, meaning that the moment I type this word (word) is forever. I shall always be typing the word word at this moment, and, in however minor a sense, it, too, is, if not an Ur pattern, an iteration of one, or the possible template for another.
And this is an important point: not only does Bloom’s book enact such Keatsian Duh! Moments, but, in reading it, it makes the reader open to, and an enactor of such, as well. In short, and to beg another metaphor, the book reaches out, as if with volition, and infuses its claims within the reader or percipient. And this is where the book has its most important moments, its vitae. The God Problem is a book that makes connections, makes its readers make connections (thus become, at least, in a minor sense, co-creators), and through its arguments on Ur patterns, and demonstrating them in its myriad trips through history, loops back on itself, depositing one in the nooks and crannies of negative Capability.
In a sense, and because the book also functions as a de facto science
memoir, it offers up far more to say on the human mind than many other works in
a similar vein. In fact, despite my spending far more time on the book as a work
on cosmology and cosmogony, it may very well end up having far more to do with
how the human mind, and creativity work, for the very Ur patterns that Bloom
sees as fractal examples of nature gone outward could be interpreted, if one
accounts for Bloom’s belief in meaning, merely projections of Ur patterns in
the human mind and brain. Of course, are these bits of residue from without, or
generated via instinct? And what is instinct? When does a pattern of thought or
behavior become instinct? What was, as example, the first human instinct? And
how did it form? These are corollaries to the very things this book raises, and
ties in to the books last claim: Sometimes new
questions are more important than new answers.
It’s notable that Bloom does not fall back on the cliché that art (or great
art or science) does not answer questions, it asks them, for great art and
science does answer those queries: one merely knows how to get them.
The book also does a better job, historically, of explaining why certain thought patterns arose in human life, and how they have borne out through the centuries. Having recently taken on psychologist Howard Gardner’s ideas on extraordinary minds, I can state that Bloom’s ideas, but more importantly, his mode of transmission (i.e.- his writing and its style) argue more forcefully for the idea that human thought and creativity are the natural consequences of the latent primal patterns extant in nature than Gardner does in positing the nature and source of his own claimed eight sorts of human intelligence, and if I have shortshrifted this aspect of the book it is for two reasons: 1) despite my thinking they may outlast his cosmic premises, Bloom definitively gives these ideas a very minor place in his book, and 2) I do not want to write a book length essay in response to ideas that the book in question, itself, does not give primacy to.
Is The God Problem a great book? It’s difficult to say, for unlike fictive writing, oftentimes nonfiction needs to be encased in its time and place. Many is the work praised to the hilt that falls to the wayside, especially when the book is not hard science, like Darwin’s The Origin Of Species, Lyell’s Principles Of Geology, or Newton’s Principia Mathematica; while others, neglected in their day, rise with time. And often the ideas fail time, or not. But it’s a very well written book that presents cogent arguments in its favor. My two caveats on Bloom’s thesis are on the aforementioned metaphoric dangling threads, and what happens if (and when?) the Big Bang goes bust? Are Bloom’s ideas able to withstand such? These things will tell if Bloom is prescient, and his book joins those mentioned above, or is a modern version of Fontenelle’s Conversations On The Plurality Of Worlds. Positing that, it should be mentioned that Fontenelle’s book- a work for the popular audience, is still, three centuries on, an immensely entertaining and well written mix of fiction and fact.
To conclude, while engaged by the writing, I think Bloom’s overall thesis gets a good way to its goal, and with refinements in his attack on his fifth heresy, may prove vital. But, even if, like Terrence Witt’s Null Physics model of the cosmos, Bloom’s ideas and claims are likely not all correct, and future minds will show this, like Witt, major parts of his thesis seem to point in the right direction that current science (esteemed and peer reviewed though it may be) does not. Books and ideas that matter don’t necessarily have to be 100% correct (The Origin Of Species was not), but they do have to open up ideas, enact defenestral urges, and show why prior iterations are wrong. Bloom’s book fits this model snugly. I would also like to see, from Bloom, in future books, an actual memoir or autobiography, because the glimpses of memoir that dot his narrative are often the most interesting, deeply penetrating, and persistent parts of the book, as they, wittingly or not, present Bloomian Ur patterns that the rest of the book’s quest mirrors. The God Problem is, like all of Bloom’s previous works, a work that straddles disciplines, thus making them difficult to categorize for most critics, but as I stated in the proffered blurb, it is also his best book yet; a sweeping narrative of divergent ideas (only a small portion touched upon in this essay) brought under one umbrella through a Keatsian demiurge. Is it a perfect book? No. Is it a great book? Maybe. But it is an excellent book with import and relevance for these times, and that, alone, should make one want to read and purchase it once it is released, for it may not change your life, but it may change some parts.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Open Salon website.]
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