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The Transcendent Brain

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This book explores the concept of spiritual materialism, which aims to give a philosophical framework by which one can embrace spirituality without compromising their scientific worldviews. As someone who’s always been interested in both Spirituality and Science (especially neuroscience), and the ways they overlap, I was excited to read this book. 

While I did find all the different ideas in this book interesting, most of it felt like I was just reading a really long review of other peoples ideas, which made the book feel a lot less engaging than I had hoped it would be.
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The Transcendent Brain: Spirituality in the Age of Science, by Alan Lightman, addresses that area where, to put it in the terms of many public debates, religion meets science. That is a bit of a simplification, both of the arguments and of what Lightman does here, but for many readers that is how they are coming to this topic. Lightman will have plenty of readers who disagree with some or even most of his viewpoints, but he presents his research and ideas in ways that won't offend readers even if they disagree. In other words, he respects where others are coming from and genuinely tries to understand.

In coming to the topic, he looks primarily at those areas where humans have, through our time here, attributed events and feelings we couldn't explain to some higher power, all the way down to how we can understand what has commonly been called a soul. We are treated to a wonderful historical survey of thoughts on the matter as well as where Lightman stands on them. In presenting perspectives other than his own, he chooses examples that are well-formed and considered and not those that simply come down to "have faith." So he doesn't take the easy, and less interesting, way out, he engages with the ideas.

I would recommend this to anyone who likes to think about how these transcendent moments and these "universal" concepts (soul, for example, by various names) fit into how one views the world and life. I would recommend, no matter how you feel about the topic, that you bracket your ideas and let Lightman present his argument, consider it carefully before bringing your preexisting ideas back into discourse with them. Otherwise, you may as well only read books you know you already agree with.

Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley.
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I approached this one with some trepidation. Lightman's Searching For Stars On An Island In Maine was a wise and beautiful book about reconciling a scientific understanding of the universe with a sense of the spiritual. But it was also a book of essays, and as soon as one moves from that personal and questioning form to anything programmatic, the risk of grave error increases vastly. Was this going to be another Descartes or Wordsworth, and end up dragging all the impedimenta of organised religion back in through the side door? Lightman reassured me with his opening incident, a moment of connection between human and bird - but then shook me again with the first of his emblematic figures, Moses Mendelssohn, polymath and grandfather of the composer. Whose attempt at a scientific argument for the existence of the soul Lightman admits doesn't work, but still treats with more respect than it deserves given it is, not to put too fine a point on it, shit. Which is only to be expected, given it comes from a book purporting to be an update of Plato, and to the best of my recollection all of Plato's arguments for anything are shit.

And so it continues. To his credit, Lightman is not here attempting either to shore up the creeds which have caused so much destruction over recent millennia, and nor is he peddling woo. His thesis is unobjectionable and at times wonderfully put: in short, what we think of as the spiritual sense of life is a by-product of awe and a sense of beauty, things which themselves have evolutionary benefits. Explaining it this way needn't be the same as explaining it away, given it does still enrich our lives - but nor does it argue against consciousness as an emergent property of purely biological structures (indeed, at one point he quotes a colleague's suggestion that asking where consciousness resides is like asking where in a speeding car is its motion). I'm not sure I wholly agree with him on this, but it seems a better basis than most on which to proceed.

The thing is, Lightman seems like a really nice guy. Which in many ways is a good thing: when he observes that we largely lose the sense of the self in transcendent moments, he was never going to follow Peter Watts and conclude that maybe the sense of self is humanity's big problem, and while that may fall short logically, it certainly leaves me feeling less bleak. But at its worst, niceness can degrade into mushy both-sides-ism:
"Scientists could do a better job of reaching out and trying to understand the anti-science camp. And the anti-science camp could do a better job at trying to understand the methods of science and the manner in which scientists acquire knowledge."
Yeah, except only one of these camps consists of dangerous idiots and grifters who have doomed us all, so actually, fuck 'em.

Related to this is that, as is so often the way in philosophy, he seems to be too kind to his predecessors, on which I've already touched - and also, when he does criticise them, to pick bad angles of approach. Quoting Descartes' insistence that "One cannot in any way conceive of a half or a third of a soul" only reminds me quite how limited Descartes' imagination was, notwithstanding the grand thought experiment with which he is normally, undeservingly credited. Or: "But to further claim that the world is a mental fabrication - as proposed by Bishop Berkeley and other philosophers - does not seem at all tenable to me. If that view were true, then we would never be surprised by what we find in the outer world." Now, leaving aside whose mind Berkeley conceived the world to be within, surely it follows from this that either we would never be surprised by our own dreams, or that dreams also have external reality? Not that the philosophical material here is entirely a blind alley: yes, it is intriguing that Wang Chung and Lucretius speak of souls in very similar language, despite the distance between them. And there is something beautiful in the notion that mathematics can hold the same central, abstracted purity for Lightman as ideas of the good or the divine did for his predecessors. But his grasp of the material is maddeningly inconsistent, even down to silly little mistakes like John 'Stewart' Mill* (though of course I was reading a Netgalley ARC, so hopefully the final copies will fix that).

Not that all the inaccuracies were simple typos, though. Mentioning the amyloid hypothesis regarding Alzheimer's as simple fact, despite recent fraud revelations, is hardly Lightman's fault, just an unfortunate collision of publishing schedules with how science (and capitalism) work. But saying that conservation of energy is "one of the sacred cows of science" feels like entirely the wrong phrase. Elsewhere it's generalisations or simplifications which go so far as to become outright wrong, as when Lightman says "The ancient Egyptians believed that each human being was composed of three parts:" body, ba, and ka. Now, possibly at the time of the Fifth Dynasty pharaoh whose inscription is being discussed in this section that was true, because it's important to remember that what we blithely call 'ancient Egypt' encompasses a greater span than that from Julius Caesar to Greta Thunberg, and while it had much continuity, there were also changes. But certainly there were large stretches of that time where the composition was much more variegated - I generally think of it as nine parts, though I can only remember another two offhand (the name is one, and another becomes a star). 

One of the more annoying recurring forms this broad brush takes is manufacturing an 'us' from which I recoil with 'Speak for yourself, mate', as in "What happens in the brain that enables us to ignore a leaking faucet but pay attention to a knock on the door?" Or "We are awed by Superman, Albert Einstein and Marie Curie, Pablo Picasso, Carl Lewis and Michael Phelps, Jane Austen, Beethoven, Abraham Lincoln, Angela Merkel, Jack Ma." Just over half of them for me, and beyond my own preferences, surely Merkel in particular is a category error? Quiet, unshowy competence feels like a weird thing to inspire awe, rather than respect, for all that it is now a vanishingly rare quality in politics. Which brings me to the most harrowing example, where Lightman talks about how a greater sense of connectedness to nature has been shown to make people happier, because it means we feel like a part of something bigger than ourselves. Which is all presented as part of a traditional sense of the cycle of the seasons and so forth, and yes, I'm sure that must have been very reassuring back before the cycle's wheels came off, but there's no acknowledgement of how the connection has a very different impact now, because feeling a part of something vast and ancient isn't so reassuring when that beautiful, complex system is dying all around you and most of your wretched species doesn't seem to give a toss.

Still, for all its blips and blitheness, it is clearly a book that means well, one which intends to get Lightman out of the niche space of literary essays and on to the non-fiction tables at the front of bookshops. And if it were to become a runaway bestseller, it could conceivably do a lot of good. I just don't think that in itself it is terribly good. 

Although I am unaccountably tickled by the idea of a neuron which deals specifically with recognising pictures of Bill Clinton. 

*Quoted regarding emergence, where Mill pointed out that knowing the properties of hydrogen and oxygen doesn't offer a good guide to the properties of water. Which is true, but as a fan of The Persuaders! I couldn't help longing for the Judge's far funnier if dangerously inaccurate "Mix two relatively harmless compounds like nitro and glycerine, and you've got yourself a very potent combination."
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This book on spirituality without religion does exactly what it sets out to do. It's full of insight and beauty. At the same time, it didn't feel particularly well organized to me. There was no through-line that I could detect. As far as I could tell, it was a jumble of the author's reflections and some fairly standard philosophy. The book really has nothing to do with science.

If you're struggling to reconcile spirituality and atheism, this book is for you. If you're not, it might not hold your interest. 

Thanks, NetGalley, for the ARC I received. This is my honest and voluntary review.
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What. A. breathtakingly. Awesome. Book. I would call this a book on very rational spirituality. 
While I do realize that my review now might be as much about me as it is about this book. I feel like I have to add some of my own story to the review so it makes sense why exactly I loved this book as much as I did. 
This book validates spiritual experiences.
It validates being spiritual without being religious.
It talks about being spiritual all while not believing in any deity.

The book feels like a conversation with someone I have always been looking for - someone who sees the world as a scientist, with a strong grip on logic, who is well aware of how the world is built, yet who has spent a great deal of their time thinking about things that go way beyond molecules and atoms. 

I have tried to have this sort of conversation with so many people in my life - I never found a single one who I could connect with on this level. And then? Here? This book? Wow. A whole book that speaks in my language. A whole awesome book that feels like this one conversation I have longed to have with someone, anyone, for forever. 

As a cherry on top - and the author being a scientist – REFERENCES at the end of the book. Love! 

My absolute favorite part was the one where the author talks about his wish to talk with Mendelssohn about his many ideas. How he speculates how that conversation might go. 

There have been only really few authors who have made me feel this way with their writing. And now I feel like I have a brand new all-time favorite author. Alan Lightman. I want to know everything there is to know about him now. I want to read everything and anything he has ever written. I want to read anything and everything he will ever write.

I have always been fascinated by people who speak of books they have read - when those are the very same books I have read also. Unfortunately, so far the only (and very few, and very far-fetched) cases like this have been within academia, from those who have also studied philosophy at university (and have a university degree in it). Yet in most cases, those have been very sad and lacking conversations, as even those who have their degrees in philosophy, usually merely skim through most books. But not this person. Not the author of this book. He knows so damn well what it is he is talking about. 

This is a book I will be telling about to everyone who has any background in philosophy or any deeper interest in philosophy and also to anyone who has deeper questions regarding spirituality in general, and who prefers to see the world through the lens of reason.
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With a PhD in theoretical physics and as “the first person at MIT to receive dual faculty appointments in science and in the humanities”, Alan Lightman is well poised to think and write about the intersection of science and spirituality (and his writing has often addressed this intersection, as proven by his backlist). The Transcendent Brain reads like a final synthesis of this lifetime of thinking and writing — for a shortish book, it has countless references to the scientists, psychologists, and philosophers who have influenced Lightman’s thinking — but as interesting as I found the material, I don’t know if it really answered his own questions around whether the scientific method necessarily precludes a belief in God (or anything “spiritual” beyond the material world of what can be tested). Still a very interesting read that gave me much to think about and I can enthusiastically recommend it.
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