Joseph BH McMillan reviews The Science of God by Gerald Schroeder

Joseph BH McMillan reviews The Science of God by Gerald Schroeder

My wife thought this book, and Schroeder’s The Hidden Face of God, would be useful to contrast with my forthcoming book (A ‘Final Theory’ of God), which also touches upon the ‘convergence’ of science and ‘religion’ (the Scriptures), so it was interesting to read Schroeder’s perspective. On the positive side, Schroeder provides a clear and readable analysis of the science which confirmed (to a point) the analysis I had already gleaned from excellent books like Weinberg’s Dreams of a Final Theory, Brian Greene’s Fabric of the Cosmos, and Martin Rees’ Just Six Numbers, amongst others.

Unfortunately though, Schroeder’s obsession with seeking to fit science with a literal reading of the Scriptures, rather than a symbolic interpretation (see Proverbs 1:4-6), means he has missed some of the most fascinating ‘coincidences’ between Genesis and science. I deal with those in my next book.

I did also find a number of other negative aspects to Schroeder’s The Science of God.

First, although it may just be down to Schroeder’s style of writing, I detected a streak of condescension towards those Schroeder appears to consider insufficiently ‘knowledgeable’ about science and Torah to make any comment on such subjects, never mind any meaningful contribution to the debate. The book has just too many comments like the following: “To relate these two fields in a meaningful way requires an in-depth understanding of both.” [Page 3]; “With a superficial reading of Genesis, and certainly with a superficial reading of the text in translation, we haven’t a prayer of understanding the details.” [Page 18] This ‘ignorance’ of both the Bible (as Schroeder often calls it) and science, which he clearly regards as prevalent in the population of the world in general, is what he says he “ … intends, at least in part, to correct …” [Page xiii]

Having explained to the reader the knowledge he has gained from the study of science and Torah, Schroeder then ‘reveals’ what it is all about (and this goes to my second negative which I deal with below). He claims this: “With the stakes so high, life and death, it would seem prudent to make every effort to choose correctly. That takes knowledge, which is fortunately available. We only have to seek it.” [Page 182] Which made me wonder where this knowledge is ‘available’ that we may ‘seek it’? In his books, I guess! Or are we all to become scholars of the Torah and PhD’s in physics, chemistry, biology, paleontology and the like? Who then would make the world ‘go round’?

If I were to be unkind, I might say that Schroeder betrays a degree of ‘academic arrogance’ which, as with the majority of academics, has only been exacerbated by the advent of the web, something they despise and, I suspect, feel threatened by.

But at the heart of Schroeder’s arguments concerning the ‘acquisition’ of ‘knowledge’ as a path to ‘life’ lays a number of fundamental contradictions.

The first contradiction relates to Abraham. At pages 141 and following Schroeder sets out what he claims to be the origins of monotheism. Abraham lived, as I found out from the web, at about the time of Hammurabi (of the Hammurabi Code fame, incidentally also inscribed in stone) and in the same region. Under Hammurabi’s rule there were an abundance of what we would call today scientists, astronomers, philosophers, and a well defined legal Code. And, of course, Hammurabi claimed divine revelation for his Code. Yet, according to Schroeder, Abraham “realized that there must be a supreme ruler, a Creator of the heavens and the Earth who is not limited to the transience of material things. Abraham had discovered God.” [Page 142] But notably, according to Schroeder, this ‘realization’ was not some revelation from God – “God was to choose Abraham only long after Abraham had chosen God” (Page 141). Rather, if I understand the situation correctly, it was Abraham himself, going against all the perceived ‘wisdom’ and ‘knowledge’ and ‘science’ of his time, without the aid of Talmud or Bible, who ‘discovered’ it all on his own. So where did this ‘realization’ come from?? That is another theme of my forthcoming book.

And this fundamental defect in Schroeder’s argument applies equally to Maimonides and Nahmanides whose commentaries Schroeder so extensively quotes. The whole thrust of Schroeder’s argument rests of this statement: “Limiting ourselves to ancient commentators eliminates the possibility of text deliberately bent to match today’s scientific understanding of the world.” [Page xi]

So if we have Talmud, or the Bible, and we can glean all we need to know from them,  why the need to study science as well? And then there’s the question of whether commentators like Maimonides and Nahmanides had any ‘revelation’ to assist in their understanding of Genesis or, like Abraham, simply came to a ‘realization’ of the meaning ‘hidden’ in the text. By extension, the same applies to the author/s of Genesis – was it divine revelation, access to some science from another long-gone civilization, aliens, or simply an Abrahamic-like ‘realization’?

Schroeder could well have quoted from the Bible, New and Old, to find the answer that could cure this fundamental defect in his argument. Take Psalm 46:10: “BE STILL, and KNOW that I am God.” Or if he had gone back a few verses from Deuteronomy 30:19 from which he derives his thesis that ‘free will’ is to choose between life and death, not good and evil [Page 153]. Then he would have read something similar to Psalm 46:10 – “For this commandment which I command thee this day, it is not HIDDEN from thee, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, … Neither is it beyond the sea, …But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth and in thy HEART, that thou mayest do it.” [Deuteronomy 30:11-14] Or we could take some counsel from Christ: “The kingdom of God cometh not with observation; neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is WITHIN YOU.” [Luke 17:20,21]

It seems to me then that Schroeder’s thesis that ‘knowledge’ is derived from the study of Torah and science, is directly contradicted and undermined by the sources he relies on as ‘evidence’. But then I am not a scientist, nor a theologian, nor a philosopher; neither am I a Jew, nor a Christian, nor Moslem, Buddhist, or indeed much else. And certainly, I am not an atheist. It seems then that I would be disqualified from making any comment or contribution to anything. Is my fate ‘death’?

And that brings me to the second negative in the book, and it relates to the ‘conclusion’. I had to read the last few chapters twice to find anything resembling a ‘punch-line’ in the book. Something that would give some guidance as to the import of discovering that there is some convergence between science and Talmud. Something that could provide some guidance for everyday behavior – apart from preferring life above death armed with ‘knowledge’.

But this is all I could find: “The decision-making process [free will] of the human nefesh [animal] now has two sources of information to consider as it strives for PLEASURE [my emphasis]: the desires and needs of the body and the spiritual goals of the neshama [spirit]. How I choose to achieve my PLEASURE [my emphasis] determines the quality of my person.” [Page 179] The neshama is explained like this: “But humans have a source of PLEASURE not evident in other animals. It arises from the neshama, our link to an all-encompassing unity that underlies what superficially appears to be a diverse and multifaceted universe. The neshama whispers to us of PLEASURE that transcends our limited physical existence.” [Page 179 – emphasis in capitals are mine]

I don’t need to study the Talmud, science, Old or New Testament, Buddhism, or anything much else to find something similar to such a ‘philosophy’. This is pure Jeremy Bentham, as ‘refined’ by the arch Utilitarian John Stuart Mill. Bentham ‘discovered’ that man is ‘governed’ by pleasure and pain, and that the goal in life is maximizing pleasure. Mill refined that ridiculous ‘discovery’ with a more ‘profound’ discovery of his own – some pleasures carry more weight than other pleasures – there are ‘higher’ pleasures and ‘lower’ pleasures. I have dealt with the ridiculous ‘philosophy’ of Bentham in my article “Origins of the Modern Liberal Fundamentalist State”, so I won’t make further comment on it here other than to quote Kant (and I note that Schroeder does have a quote of his own from Kant at page xvi). But here is my quote: “”It is surprising that men, otherwise acute, can think it possible to distinguish between higher and lower desires, according as the ideas which are connected with the feeling of pleasure have their origin in the senses and understanding; for when we inquire what are the determining grounds of desire, and place them in some expected pleasantness, it is of no consequence whence the idea of this pleasing object is derived, but only how much it pleases.” [Remark I of Theorem II]

To be fair, though, I suppose we could identify Schroeder’s conception of a neshama induced pleasure as a sort of Buddhist nirvana type pleasure, even though nirvana in Buddhism is to shed pleasure to get to some unity – but at least the words neshama and nirvana rhyme.

But the best quote I have seen on pleasure must come from Philo, the great Jewish philosopher, and ironically, referring to Eve eating from the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil: “And the serpent is said to have spoken in a human voice, because pleasure employs innumerable champions and defenders who take care to advocate its interests, and who dare to assert that the power over everything, both small and great, does of right belong to it without any exception whatever.”

To end this review I should add one final point, and that concerns Nahmanides. It is this. The most important thing any man could write is advice to his own son or daughter. And when Nahmanides did write to his son with an instruction to read it weekly, it focused on one principal theme – HUMILITY, or lack of VANITY. “Through humility you will also come to fear God.” So said Nahmanides to his son. If only that were the message of The Science of God – and not all this Utilitarian nonsense about pleasure.

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