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Conversations on Science and Spirituality
By John David Ebert
Council Oak Books, 1999

The Twilight of the Clockwork God brings together interviews with eight leading scientists whose work John David Ebert believes is helping to "shape the imagination of the twenty-first century": cosmologist Brian Swimme, biologist Rupert Sheldrake, mathematician and chaos theorist Ralph Abraham, evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis, ethnobotanist Terence McKenna, psychiatrist Stanislav Grof, physician Deepak Chopra, and cultural historian William Irwin Thompson.

As Ebert sees it, these scientists embody a cultural shift now underway as the mechanistic outlook of classical science gives way to a new worldview, one that gathers into its framework insights not only from "hard" science but also from mythology, the arts, even age-old mystic traditions. New scientific theories and hypotheses such as James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis's conception of the earth as a living organism, Rupert Sheldrake's notion of morphogenetic fields, and Ilya Prigogine's work on self-organizing structures herald the emergence of a more mythic and open-ended cosmology.

This phenomenon is not a product of pop culture or new age narcissism, Ebert insists, for it has been gaining ground steadily throughout the twentieth century, expanding into larger and larger spheres of influence in the culture at large. While "a new species of scientist is beginning to proliferate," he writes, "mechanists remain in abundance, and this book is about how their magnificent ship has not only hit its iceberg, but is sinking. Slowly."

The eight interviews which make up the core of the book cover a broad spectrum of ideas. Swimme observes that the scope and subject matter of science needs to be expanded to include ethical, religious, and philosophical questions. So long as scientists persist in trying to understand the cosmos on the basis of purely quantitative data, he says, they will fail to appreciate its inherent beauty and meaning. Sheldrake extrapolates on his theories of morphic resonance and morphogenetic fields which offer a radical new way of thinking about biological evolution. Abraham discusses the paradigm shift, or "phase change," wrought by chaos and dynamical systems theory. He urges scientists to put more of their effort into finding common frameworks and unifying theories: "Science has been afflicted by a disease of reductionism that manifests as an actual repression of synthesis." Lynn Margulis comments on the broader implications of her research on bacterial evolution, particularly the theory of symbiosis. She also offers some wry commentary on the work of Sheldrake, Thompson, and other frontier scientists. The dialogues with McKenna and Grof explore the implications of consciousness research for the future of medicine, psychiatry, and psychology. Chopra makes a case for incorporating alternative healing practices into Western medicine. Finally, Thompson discusses what he sees as a major historical shift from an industrial civilization modeled on the nation-state to a "planetary society" governed to an increasing extent by ecological imperatives. "The new culture," he says, "isn't based on nation state turf, it's based more on biological, ecological processes, so the atmosphere is more the model than the land. And the sciences that would describe the processes of the atmosphere are more the new complex dynamical sciences, chaotic systems of clouds, rather than the clods."

The interviews are a delight to read, particularly where Ebert strays off his main topic to discuss popular movies, say, or controversial figures such as Carl Sagan or Ken Wilber. But, taken together, they do not make much of a statement. The only thread that ties the conversations together is Ebert’s somewhat grandiose introduction about there being a tide in the affairs of men. How exactly the interviews substantiate that thesis is anyone’s guess.

As an interviewer myself, I’m sensitive to this problem. Books of interviews almost invariably suffer from a lack of focus and direction (unless they are heavily edited, of course, in which case they are no longer interviews in any true sense). Because of this, authors and editors of these sorts of books often find themselves groping for a unifying theme — something, anything, to tie it all together! Or, worse, they set out with a clearly defined argument at the start and then make sure, damn sure, that each interview more or less supports it. (Celebrity interviewers, especially the political sort, are notorious for this type of sleight-of-hand.)

In Ebert’s case, I think he had a strong hunch — as many of us do — that one age is coming to an end and another is about to begin. Unfortunately, the eight conversations in the book do little to expand or elaborate on that idea. As an interviewer, Ebert seems more content to ask polite questions about ideas, books, and scientific concepts than to press the really challenging notion that our culture is in the throes of an historic upheaval.

Another problem is that Ebert’s questions do not arise from the conversations themselves but seem, almost without exception, to have been formulated in advance based on earlier interviews and written texts. As a result, there is not a lot of new information here. There are a few exceptions though, to be fair. The dialogues with Lynn Margulis and William Irwin Thompson, for example, seem considerably more extemporaneous than the others.

In spite of these shortcomings, the book does add to the growing recognition that the Age of Reason is clearly coming to a close and that something new — as yet unnamed — is rising to take its place. As such, The Twilight of the Clockwork God deserves a place next to other recent works in the genre by Huston Smith, Richard Tarnas, Bryan Appleyard, Paul Ray and Sherry Anderson, and other prophets of the emerging culture.

Copyright 2000 by Scott London. All rights reserved.