Tag Archives: philosophy

The Most Astounding Fact

I love this speech. Neil deGrasse Tyson was interviewed by a TIME journalist for their 10 questions page, and was asked by one reader: “What is the most astounding fact that you can share with us about the universe?” Neil deGrasse Tyson’s response was as lucid and as awe-inspiring as always. He answered the question in a relatively modest three minutes, starting with:

“The most astounding fact… is the knowledge that the atoms that comprise life on Earth—the atoms that make up the human body—are traceable to the crucibles that cooked light elements into heavy elements in their core…”

Tyson is a world-famous astrophysicist and currently serves as director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York. He’s very popular on social media and recently hosted the hit TV series Cosmos, which had the biggest launch day in TV history (and featured a 30-second introduction speech by Barack Obama).

I love Neil deGrasse Tyson’s videos because they inspire people to pursue Science. I show one or two Tyson videos to as many of my students as I can, usually at the beginning of the year. Happy New Year.

Here are some of my other favourite Tyson videos on YouTube:

Book: The Science Delusion

The Science Delusion
This book balances Dawkins’ The God Delusion with science

Credible, groundbreaking, happy next step for science.
400 pages, ★★★★★

Rupert Sheldrake has a talent for captivating his audiences. His soothing, eloquent lectures mesmerise and astonish those who listen. Watch him introduce his book below:

He also has an impressive academic background: a PhD from the University of Cambridge, and a fellowship at Harvard University. He has written ten books, given countless lectures and published dozens of academic papers in peer-reviewed journals. He’s a well-respected scientist.

His theories, however, are not considered ‘mainstream’. This book challenges ten fundamental (and groundless) assumptions in modern science:

  1. Everything is essentially mechanical. Dogs, for example, are complex mechanisms, rather than living organisms with goals of their own. Even people are machines, “lumbering robots”, in Richard Dawkins’s vivid phrase, with brains that are like genetically programmed computers.
  2. All matter is unconscious. It has no inner life or subjectivity or point of view. Even human consciousness is an illusion produced by the material activity of brains.
  3. The total amount of matter and energy is always the same (with the exception of the Big Bang, when all the matter and energy of the Universe suddenly appeared).
  4. The laws of nature are fixed. They are the same today as they were at the beginning, and they will stay the same forever.
  5. Nature is purposeless, and evolution has no goal or direction.
  6. All biological inheritance is material, carried in the genetic material, DNA, and in other material structures.
  7. Minds are inside heads and are nothing but the activities of brains. When you look at a tree, the image of the tree you are seeing is not ‘out there’, where it seems to be, but inside your brain.
  8. Memories are stored as material traces in brains and are wiped out at death.
  9. Unexplained phenomena like telepathy are illusory.
  10. Mechanistic medicine is the only kind that really works.

Sceptics would say that to refute these assumptions verges on “pseudo-science” or “mysticism”. Supporters would say that because the claims in this book are backed by strong evidence, these theories are more scientific than mainstream science itself.

Sheldrake is most famous for developing the theory of Morphic Resonance. This theory states that the presence of existing forms in the universe (e.g. biological fields that guide biological development, behavioural and mental fields that organise animal behaviour and mental activity; social and cultural fields that organise societies and cultures) makes similar forms easier to create in the future. Information about the existence of these forms is carried across the universe instantaneously, rather like the mysterious linkage between a pair of entangled photons, or the (possibly-)particle-less effect of gravity.

One of the implications of Morphic Resonance is that all “constants” are actually capable of change. In this book, Sheldrake proves that many scientific constants have changed over time. Most notably, the speed of light, c, decreased by 20 m/s between 1928 and 1940, and increased again in the late 1940s. The gravitational constant, G, has also fluctuated by over 1%. While most mainstream scientists agree with the data, none of them can provide a plausible explanation for this phenomenon.

Morphic Resonance also predicts that the boiling points of new, artificial compounds should increase as the solid forms become more stable with time (solids and liquids have more ‘form’, or less entropy, than gases). Substances that have already existed for a long time (such as water) will show no change in boiling point over time. Sheldrake has an astonishing wealth of historical data to support this theory, and his results are published in the new edition of his book, A New Science of Life.

This book makes attempts to rescue science from its pessimistic, materialist path and revert it to a happier, more comforting, and possibly more scientific one. I agree 100% with Sheldrake’s thesis that the ten assumptions above have coagulated into unquestionable dogma. I also agree 100% that holders of established “scientific” beliefs and are rejecting any challengers to the status quo, which undermines the very essence of science, which is to look at the evidence. I have no idea whether the theory of Morphic Resonance is correct, but I do know that it would be incredibly unscientific to deny it without any evidence, as some of the critics (e.g. Richard Dawkins) have done.

Sheldrake’s argument is very convincing, in no small part because it is delivered by a man as eloquent and captivating as Sheldrake himself. I recommend introducing this book, and its context, to all science students. Despite what the critics claim, It’s more scientific than a lot of “science” literature out there. Even if you disagree with this book, you’ll at least learn the persuasive power of a well-written argument by reading it. ★★★★★

Book: The Case for God

I love Goodreads. It makes it so easy to discover new books and create reading lists.

Sometimes, it’s too easy to select books on Goodreads. Recently, I made a few selections based solely on the book’s title because my small, shattered iPod screen makes reading Goodreads reviews inconvenient. I say “never judge a book completely by its cover”, but on three occasions recently, I did just that—and I regret it.

If the title were an accurate representation of the book, however, then this wouldn’t happen… if only books were labelled as strictly as, say, medicines or wines. Never mind.

The Case for God
The Case for God

376 pages, ★

I found this book inaccessible partly due to my disappointment that it was not a “case for God” at all. The title was lying and I never really forgave it.

This book should be called, “A meticulous history of some major religions” instead.

What did I learn? That religion requires “perseverance, hard work and practical action”. We Buddhists agree.

I read half of this book then skimmed the rest when I realised that not only is it an academic book rather than a religious one, but also that it contains no “case for God” whatsoever. I recommend this book for Philosophy of Religion students only.

Book: The Art of War (Sun-Tzu)

Poetry about relationships.
(but write your own footnotes)

374 pages, ★★★★

The Art of War is poetry about relationships. It teaches us about romantic relationships, work relationships and family relationships. It is certainly not a book about war.

The original text speaks volumes and the commentaries are not needed, so I’ll keep this review very short. The Art of War serves as a guide, and it guides everyone uniquely. Any generation (in any situation) can easily interpret The Art of War into relevant, timely advice.

The Art of War is written in poetry rather than prose. The Chinese say that ancient texts were written like this for two reasons: first, writing materials were expensive; and second, that the essence of an idea stands the test of time much better if it is stripped of any transient cultural prejudice. Ancient texts are being constantly re-analyzed as can be seen from this book’s sometimes contradictory interpretations at different historical periods. The introduction reminds of the importance of cultural change in the passage,

“he who misunderstands change is like the man who loses his sword in the water, and makes a mark on his boat to denote its position… both are wasting their time!”

This book changes every time you read it. Or, more accurately, your situation and your outlook change. Repeated reading of this book over time doesn’t just teach change; it demonstrates it.

The American military could learn much from this book. “Better to take a state intact than destroy it”; “no nation has ever benefitted from a protracted war”, and “only a foolhardy general conscripts twice” undermine the current Iraq war.

What else did I learn from this book? I learned only to act when there’s something to be gained. Read it yourselves. Everyone will learn unique, personal lessons by reading The Art of War. ★★★★