19 December 2007

An interesting idea, but not always an interesting read

The Self-Aware Universe: How Consciousness Creates the Material World
Amit Goswami
Tarcher, 1995

The author, famous/infamous for his appearance in the film What the Bleep Do We Know?, begins with a fascinating premise-that the only metaphysical interpretation of quantum physics that accounts for all data is monist idealism. This monist idealist interpretation of quantum physics is akin to the worldview of Advaita Vedanta, in which there is, absolutely speaking, one fundamental reality-Mind/Conciousness (the Sanskrit word is Atman or Brahman, depending on whether one approaches it from the perspective of the individual or the whole). This nondual, nonlocal fundamental reality is apprehended dualistically as the subject of experience (the noumenal world of the individual mind) and the object of experience (the phenomenal world of individual objects). Goswami's most interesting thesis is that the quantum level of mind is that empty silence wherein free choice and novel creativity occur, whereas the classical level of mind is the conditioned chatterbox that operates on habit and repetition; this "two truths" approach allows his model to include and transcend the insights of behaviorism, etc.

As I said, this is a fascinating interpretation, and one that resonates with the philosophical-religious worldview that has been called the perennial philosophy. Alas, this book is not as well written as I would have liked; sometimes the parables he relates don't connect meaningfully to the material at hand and at other times each paragraph seems only slightly related to those preceding and following. As well, the prose is often stilted and occasionally even embarassing (although, in his defense, he is a professor of physics and not creative writing). He only spends 1/3 of the book developing his thesis, a big mistake when you are rocking the boat so thoroughly. Another problem with this book is that the last 1/3 is a completely unnecessary (in my opinion) application of this interpretation to the spiritual path. There are scores of better books on the religious/spiritual practice of nondualism, so why bother? Is it to give the imprimatur of science to something that had previously been merely religious, and therefore suspect? Or is to fill pages?

In short, Goswami's book expresses an interesting idea, although it is not always an interesting read.

(This review was originally written March 28, 2006.)

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