- From Modernity to Cosmodernity: Science, Culture, and Spirituality by Basarab Nicolescu
The rise of neuroscience in recent years has resurrected a centuries-old debate over the relationship between science and philosophy. Although there are various positions in this debate that fall along a complex spectrum, the voices at either end have garnered the most attention. At one end, many scientists, and even some philosophers, argue that everything can be explained in terms of our biology, especially our brains. We are, as neuroscientist Sam Harris has suggested, “biochemical puppets,” and philosophy is obsolete. At the opposing end, many philosophers, and even some scientists, counter that science may be able to explain how the world works but it comes up short when grappling with why the world works that way. “One cannot make the claims for science that many philosophy-jeerers make,” Rebecca Goldstein points out, “without relying heavily on claims…which belong not only to philosophy, but to that ‘worst part of philosophy,’ philosophy of science.” Basarab Nicolescu’s From Modernity to Cosmodernity: Science, Culture, and Spirituality sets out to reconcile these combatant viewpoints. [End Page 520]
Whereas Goldstein’s Plato at the Googleplex is a more popular treatment of philosophy’s continued relevance, Nicolescu’s study takes a more technical approach. Working steadily through the development of classical and quantum physics, Nicolescu argues that while the symbolic thinking associated with philosophy and spirituality may have been at odds with science under the classical model, the two resonate in the quantum era. The quantum revolution makes this resonance possible by revealing a fundamental discontinuity, rather than what general relativity posited as an underlying continuity, between matter and space-time. Nicolescu explains this discontinuity by making a case for the existence of multiple levels of reality, which allow for the possibility of an included rather than an excluded third under the traditional principles of logic. In other words, the existence of multiple levels of reality can provide a rationale for how seemingly contradictory proofs might be simultaneously true.
For Nicolescu, one of the great intellectual failures of our time is that we continue to live as if the quantum revolution had not happened. Under the rules of classical physics—wherein nature required uniformity, and contradiction always meant that one of two opposing views was false—the zero-sum relationship between science, philosophy, and spirituality makes sense. The quantum leap in the first part of the twentieth century should have shattered this dichotomous understanding, but “nothing has really changed,” Nicolescu maintains. He associates the classical view with modernity and the quantum view with what he calls cosmodernity, and the book takes a linear approach to the evolution of the cosmodern out of the modern. Nicolescu intersperses historical and biographical vignettes with analytical prose that sometimes leaps into technical explanations of mathematics and physics without sufficient context for the non-specialist. The overarching argument at turns suffers and prospers from this approach as Nicolescu zooms out to analyze historical developments in physics or art history and zooms in to provide lucid descriptions of how the personal relationship between a physicist and an artist led to the creation of a famous work of art.
At a time when so many interdisciplinary studies interested in the antagonisms and intersections between science and philosophy are skewing toward a pure materialism (think of the various neomaterialisms recently articulated by speculative realists and object-oriented philosophers such as Quentin Meillassoux, Graham Harman, Levi Bryant, Ian Bogost), Nicolescu’s study is at once a breath of fresh air and a bit of a disappointment. From Modernity to Cosmodernity is a breath of fresh air because it makes a case for resonance between science and philosophy that might allow for metaphysics in a way that many of these increasingly-influential interdisciplinary neomaterialist studies do not. But from the standpoint of a humanities scholar the book is also somewhat of a disappointment because it oftentimes seems written exclusively with an audience of scientists in mind. For instance, in his examination of the confusion over scientific language, Nicolescu betrays a philosophy of language...