What are we and why are we here? Humans have been asking these questions throughout recorded history. Before writing came along, I have no doubt they were a topic of conversation around the fire as our ancestors roasted their mammoth steaks.
In the last few centuries, we’ve been using a new tool, science, to help us find answers, and it has proved remarkably effective. John Hands acknowledges this, but the main focus of Cosmosapiens is to argue that science has still not provided conclusive answers to these fundamental questions and, more importantly, that it cannot.
The first point is true. Life, the universe, and everything began a very long time ago—almost 14 billion years, judging from the evidence we currently have. Much has happened since then. Science looks for evidence, clues, facts—things that can be observed, analyzed, and measured. The data we gather today can provide good information about the results but not about the causes. Those must be inferred. Imagine you’re a detective and your job is to discover who committed a murder. Given a pristine crime scene, a skilled investigator (say someone like Sherlock Holmes) can gather clues and conclusively demonstrate that the murderer was Mr. Green in the library with the wrench. But what if the crime happened a thousand years ago in a house that has since been burned to the ground, razed, replaced, and the plot later razed again to build a parking lot? Multiply the detective’s difficulties by whatever astronomical figure you wish, and that’s the kind of problem scientists have in discovering the origins of life and the universe. Extracting a conclusive answer from the remaining clues is difficult. Does this mean it’s impossible? Of that, I’m not so sure.
Whereas I can appreciate the considerable effort it took to write Cosmosapiens, I can’t say that it demonstrates its central thesis, and it’s certainly not enjoyable. The prose is stiff, academic, and it does not express either the joy or the enthusiasm for discovery that you find in some popular books on science. On the contrary, it carries a defeatist tone like that of a disillusioned fan over the latest disappointing movie in a once-favorite series.
I have no objecting to pointing out open issues, flaws, and inconsistencies in and between current scientific theories. Challenging popular beliefs, ideas, and assumptions is a key component of science, after all. But some of the criticisms Hand offers seem exaggerated or a case of picking nits. He also fails to explicitly offer alternatives.
He does, however, imply support for conjectures that, to me, seem dubious at best. One is the idea that ‘reflective consciousness’ represents a phase change, which he claims is demonstrated by the human ability to ask the questions posed at the beginning of this review. Such questions are so qualitatively different from those that other animals ponder (such as: Where are the best bananas?) that the emergence of our capacity to ask them must have been relatively sudden and is possibly inexplicable by the process of natural selection. I do not find his argument convincing.
I am also left unconvinced by his distinction between superstition and insight, which he seems to offer as an alternative to science for obtaining knowledge. Superstition, which falsely attributes natural events to supernatural causes, and insight, which he defines as ‘Seeing clearly the essence of a thing’ are, I think, much less distinct than he claims them to be. Insight is a subjective impression, an aspect of intuition, but it does not provide knowledge in the way that science can. Different people in different cultures will interpret their insights differently. One may attribute them to the influence of ancestral spirits. Another to the word of God. A scientist from our age will probably regard his or her insights as possibilities and attempt to develop theories based on them. Insights in and of themselves, do not provide ‘direct understanding’ in any objective way as he seems to claim.
Another of his less than convincing speculations is the possible existence of ‘psychic energy’. No clear definition is offered, but he also infers the existence of a psychic field. This seems ironic in that the first part of the book derides theoretical physicists for posing the existence of alternate universes, dark matter, and other highly speculative notions.
His summaries of, and objections to, existing scientific theories are interesting, and he is quite correct in that they have so far not provided conclusive answers to fundamental philosophical questions about the origins of life and the universe. But science as we currently practice it is still young. Whether you mark its beginning with Galileo or Darwin, it’s only been around a short time. But in those few centuries, science has revealed far more useful information than have all of the insights and speculations in our recorded history. Science may not be the only tool available to help us understand our existence, but it has proved to be the best we’ve ever developed.