Shooting Yourself in the Foot: Sagan, Asimov, and Michio Kaku
There is a Zen story that needs telling here:
A Zen master had become famous for the special tea he brewed, and another master, having heard about this wonderful tea, sauntered into his room one day carrying a cup of his own tea. "I've heard people rave about how delicious your tea is," he announced. "I'd like to try it for myself."
"Very well," said the Zen master, "You are welcome to it. But first you must empty your cup of tea before I can fill it with mine."
There are a few men of science, it seems, who don't get the point of the story. They stand in the doorway of religion, their cups sloshing over with whatever it is they're drinking, and then presume to judge the beverage that's being brewed deep inside the room.
It isn't as if they come prepared to render a disinterested opinion. No, they reached their conclusions long before they approached the door. They examined the dregs they found in the Zen Master's garbage and, regarding themselves qualified to apply inductive methods, they determined that their reconstituted beverage was by nature distasteful. Of course, what was good about it was coursing through the veins of the Zen Master. But when you've already decided that what is garbage always was, there is no need to investigate further.
So they stand in the doorway and gag a bit. No duchess ever looked at bugs, to quote Tarkington, the way that Sagan, Asimov or, unfortunately, Kaku looks at the life of the Spirit.
Years ago I watched a TV interview in which a young and vigorous Carl Sagan who, with titanic, Epimethean gaze, stared back through two and a half millennia into the pious eyes of old Pythagoras and chastised him for having squandered his scientific abilities on mystical superstitions. Pythagoras, (yes, that Pythagoras) you see, was fascinated by the number "3"... he was all atingle with triangles and Trinities.. This made him look very foolish to Carl Sagan. Fermat and Fibonacci had meaningful obsessions. But 3? Pythagoras had imbued the number with a kind of divinity - a magical quality of the same ilk one might expect from a gambler's Lucky 7. Religion had stultified the old man's insights. Think of where he might have gone had not his path been so skewed by mystical tangents.
Never mind that that old man had imbued "3" with a glory that dazzled his eyes in right-angled Trinitarian insight, enabling him to see what no man had seen before - that the square of the hypotenuse was equal to the sum of the squares of the sides. Never mind that Carl Sagan had never once set his well-shod foot inside a building that did not owe its structural integrity to the principle put forth by that old man's sandaled genius.
Sagan could not resist mocking him. He mentioned a few of the old man's ludicrous superstitions. What a waste, he lamented.
One would think that Isaac Newton could escape Carl Sagan's snide comments. One would be wrong. In his book, Intelligent Life In The Universe, speaking of historical perspectives on extraterrestrial life, Sagan says, "Even Isaac Newton thought the sun was inhabited." Really. All that time that Newton messed around with prisms and lenses and light and never once - no not even when he was strolling across the Quad on a July afternoon - noticed the sun was hot... very hot.. maybe even fire-ball hot. Or perhaps Newton was speaking religiously of "that other Sun" (to quote Rumi) the one that alchemists know. It was a point Sagan was not prepared to yield. If you can sneer down Pythagoras, why not Newton?
I pick at random (really, one does not wish to research sarcastic saganisms) as Sagan struts his invective, which he clearly thinks is extremely witty stuff. In the same book he recounts the expert testimony he gave for the prosecution at the trial of a Nebraskan whom he calls "Helmut Winckler", a fellow of German ancestry who sold agricultural implements. Winckler one day encountered a flying saucer that had just landed a party of Saturnians. Eventually, the Saturnians would disclose the location of a quartz mine the contents of which would cure cancer and the shares of stock in which would bring Winckler to the bar of justice. Sagan's testimony was needed to refute Winckler's claims to other adventures with the Saturnians. They took him took him to oceanic Russian missile bases and other Arctic sites, and then, reports Sagan at his most obtuse and insensitive best, -- I reprint it here exactly as he states it:
"On another expedition, the Saturnians took Winckler to that Mecca of the occult, the Great Pyramid of Gizeh in Egypt. They mingled with a group of tourists being guided through the interior of the pyramid. (I have a vivid mental image of this procession: Egyptian guide, two middle-aged ladies from Dubuque, some assorted French and German tourists, six Saturnians in flowing robes, and, brining up the rear, Helmut Winckler in levis.) At a certain intersection of pathways, the tourists went in one direction, and Winckler and the Saturnians in the other. They were confronted with a blank wall. Appropriate pressures were applied to appropriate bricks, and the wall slid open, revealing a chamber within. The party entered, and the stone door slid silently shut behind them. In the room were (1) a small, one-man flying saucer, quite dusty with age; (2) a large and equally ancient wooden cross perhaps ten feet high; and (3) a toroid of thorns about eight inches in diameter. The saturnians offhandedly explained that one of their number had attempted a mission to Earth some two thousand years ago. He had met with somewhat qualified success."
I don't happen to be either a Muslim or a Christian; but if I were either I think I'd explain to at least the ghost of Carl Sagan that Mecca is a holy place to which Muslims make pilgrimages. People of all religions get a little uncomfortable hearing that Sunset Boulevard is a Mecca for whores; for all of us know that, despite Bethlehem's number of pilgrims, we should not like to hear Sunset Boulevard described as a Bethlehem for whores. This flippant appropriation of the name of an Islamic holy place to serve the purpose of rhetoric or some feeble attempt at humor is, and should be, offensive to Muslims. The Pyramid at Gizeh is many things to Islamic Egyptians who are justifiably proud of it; but referring to it as a "Mecca" attractant for weirdoes is doubly churlish. The ladies from Dubuque would have no difficulty, I'm sure, in decking Carl Sagan should they have cared to show what they thought of his big-city hubris; but Christians might be appalled and saddened, I think, to hear Sagan's smart-assed reference to Christ's crucifixion crown as a eight-inch diameter toroid of thorns.
What Sagan had to say - and the way that he said it - mattered. Sagan, a media darling, became the unofficial spokesman for scientists, the missing link between the elite corps of Nobel laureates and what he seemed to regard as the Neanderthal public. But his disdain for religion tinged everything he said. He could not conceal it. And, ultimately, despite the window to science that he opened in everyone's living room, a chill wind would blow through it. That bitter taste of tea-dregs.
Which brings us to Isaac Asimov, an admittedly classier guy than Sagan. Asimov had the greatest respect for Newton, yet he couldn't account for Newton's spiritual bent. What anomaly was this? Surely it was the senility of a "tottered" mind, for in his Chronology Asimov states, "Newton spent much time, particularly later in life, in a vain chase for recipes for the manufacture of gold. He was an ardent believer in transmutation and wrote half a million worthless words on chemistry. He also speculated endlessly on theological matters and produced a million and a half useless words on the more mystical passages of the Bible." Well! That ought to get him chiseled out of Westminster Abbey!
Asimov consigns two million of the great man's written words to the trashbin of mystical alchemy and Christian scripture. Never mind the Principia, Opticks, and the Calculus or a commanding knowledge of metallurgy that enabled him to regulate British coinage when, in the last years of his long life, he agreed to be Warden of the Mint. Asimov decreed that when Newton wrote about spiritual matters what he had to say was either "worthless" or "useless."
But Alchemy is a spiritual regimen despite its being encoded in terminology that is bizarre to us. And if Newton was obsessed with it, so what? How can we ignore our own obsessions, be they science-fiction or football, and both denigrate and challenge Newton's right to occupy himself with whatever fascinated him? But Spiritual Alchemy offers considerably more than sport or hobby. Those arcane yantras, mantras, and chemical changes are still fascinating and as such continue to be used to induce altered states of consciousness. (Fascination leads into concentration which leads into transcendent meditation, and this state leads directly to samadhi's orgasmic ecstasy. Beyond this, it hardly needs a raison d'Ítre.)
Mystical Alchemy is deliberately cryptic because the incredibly erotic nature of it necessitates secrecy. "Our Gold is not the common Gold" was the motto to which all spiritual alchemists agreed. But no uninitiated outsider ever believed them. Why is this now so difficult to understand? If those Saturnians had come down to earth and looked at a play book for an encounter between Bears and Lions and saw those x's and o's and curved lines and arrows, what would they think? And if they saw a video of 70,000 screaming fans, faces painted, wearing peculiar colors and carrying pennants and other regalia, chanting in unison because someone threw an inflated pigskin... what sense would they make of the amount of time, money and emotion expended on such an event?
We cannot examine the box scores of a game with which we are entirely unfamiliar and recreate in our minds the excitation of the participants or spectators. But we ought to yield some recognition to that human obsession that drives participants to physical injury or financial ruin or to acts of heroism regardless of the goal. Does Spiritual Alchemy seem like a terrible waste of a brilliant mind's time? Well, Sir Edmund Hillary is no dunce... but what did he do for the world when he scaled Everest? Precisely nothing. Why did he even want to climb the mountain? "Because it is there." And that is a good enough answer. He didn't need to justify his quest any more than Newton needed to justify his. Elway, Namath, Ali, Jordan and Pele never tried to discover the cure for cancer; and while they may at least have entertained millions, what are we to say about chess players? They don't even do that and yet they "waste" hours or years of their lives pushing little wooden carvings around a chequered board. But we understand these obsessive avocations. Newton's eludes us.
According to the tradition of his day, Newton wrote much in Latin; but he also wrote in English and when we read, in his own hand, such expressions as "Spiritual Semen" we ought to suspect that he's got more than beakers in mind, or when he says "the Menstrual blood of a sordid whore" we really ought not suppose that he's referring to one of Mendeleev's Periods.
Here is a sample of what Asimov finds "worthless" (Mercurius is the androgyne or "hermaphroditic" divine child, called in Zen and Daoism the "Blue Pearl" or Immortal Foetus or, in other religions, the Philosophical Son or Lapis.) Writes Newton, "Our Mercury, by reason of the sulphur which by our art it is impregnated, is an Hermaphrodite, including in it both an active and passive principle distinguishable by the same degree of digestion for alone by a circumambient heat it coagulates itself after the manner of cream of milk, there being, as it were, a subtile earth swimming upon the waters, and in this coagulation gives either silver or (by further decoction) gold according to the pleasure of the operator; but being joyned with sol in the same degree of heat it softens melts and dissolves it... The Magi contemperated the malignity of the air by Diana's Doves and thereby mixed life with life, moistened the dry by the moist, vivified the dead by the living, actuated the passive by the active, and so the heavens became clouded over for a time, and after large showers became clear again. Thus came out an hermaphroditical mercury." This may be worthless chatter to a scientist, but not, I assure you, to a person engaged in the Microcosmic Orbit's or in Kundalini Yoga's discipline.
Talk about Shikantaza or Bodhidharma's wall gazing! I read somewhere that Newton's secretary said at the end of the day he could often leave the old man sitting "concentrating" in his lab, staring straight in front of him at a test tube's contents; and when the secretary returned to work the next morning he could swear the old man had not moved so much as an eyelid. Would anyone be surprised to learn that Newton possessed such prodigious meditation powers?
I leave his million and a half "worthless" words on the Bible to those who are more qualified to interpret them.
Michio Kaku, in one of the mystical life's ironies, (he looks just like the Future Buddha Maitreya/Miroku, i.e., the mercurial child) nevertheless lets a few inanities dribble down his adorable chin. In Hyperspace, after expansively cooing about ten dimensions which, he generously allows, mystics somewhere along the line might have entered, he suddenly contracts and burps, "Higher-dimensional space became the last refuge for mystics, cranks, and charlatans." Now, this isn't quite the same as grouping, say, "Physics teachers, child molesters, and pension fund embezzlers" but it does manage to consign spiritual persons to the garbage heap of the disreputable.
In his concluding chapter, in the section called Science and Religion, he demonstrates his inability to comprehend even the most basic facts of spiritual life. He is totally unable to distinguish between the mystical experience, which by definition is limited to an individual's private, interior existence, and the social-political aspects of religion's public, communal activities.
"Because the hyperspace theory has opened up new, profound links between physics and abstract mathematics," he muses, "some people have accused scientists of creating a new theology based on mathematics; that is, we have rejected the mythology of religion, only to embrace an even stranger religion based on curved space-time, particle symmetries, and cosmic expansions. While priests may chant incantations in Latin that hardly anyone understands, physicists chant arcane superstring equations that even fewer understand. The 'faith' in an all-powerful God is now replaced by 'faith' in quantum theory and general relativity. When scientists protest that our mathematical incantations can be checked in the laboratory, the response is that Creation cannot be measured in the laboratory, and hence these abstract theories like the superstring can never be tested."
(Weaseling in that little possessive "our" at the end I suppose is his equivalent of an ordination certificate.)
This man eats too much Pablum for breakfast.
Kaku has given the God problem a good deal of thought and has decided that God comes only two ways: He is either a God of Miracles or a God of Order, the latter being the one Einstein referred to when he spoke of "The Old Man, the subtle but never malicious God" who maintained Cosmic law, whereas, says Kaku (after no doubt having been stung by the same comedic scorpion that got Carl Sagan) "the God of Miracles intervenes in our affairs, performs miracles, destroys wicked cities, smites enemy armies, drowns the Pharaoh's troops, and avenges the pure and noble." Kaku, having exhausted his repertoire of definitions of the divine, throws his weight behind the God of Law and Order.
Buddhists may insist that the Buddha to whom we externally bow is the Buddha within us, and Christ may have said that the Kingdom of God is within, but Kaku's knowledge of religion does not encompass anything "inside" anybody. Perhaps he supposes that when we take refuge in the Buddha we run to a temple crying "Sanctuary!"
Curiously, Kaku enthusiastically invokes the theories of Biologist Edward Wilson who has actually wondered whether there is any scientific reason why humans cling so fiercely to their religion. Says Kaku, referring to Wilson's works, "Even trained scientists, he found, who are usually perfectly rational about their scientific specialization, lapse into irrational arguments to defend their religion. Furthermore, he observes, religion has been used historically as a cover to wage hideous wars and perform unspeakable atrocities against infidels and heathens. The sheer ferocity of religious or holy wars, in fact, rivals the worst crime that any human has ever committed against any other."
Well, let's see... he says that religion was merely the "cover" for atrocities... are we blaming the "cover", i.e., the pretext or convenient excuse? If so why is he mentioning religion at all while ignoring the relevant "hidden" reason?
But he is not indicting any other cause but religion. And in this century, one cannot speak of religious wars without indicating the pogroms directed against the Jews and those other genocidal acts and atrocities of World War II..
So we wonder, does Michio Kaku labor under the delusion that the men who went down on the Arizona or who were marched to their deaths in Bataan were killed by the Japanese in the cause of furthering Shintoism or Buddhism? Perhaps he thinks Nazi death camps should be renamed "Our Lady of Auschwitz" or "The First Christian Church of Dachau"? But wait... millions died under the atheistic government of the Soviet Union. What was the Gulag? A chain of mandatory Koranic study centers?
And if it isn't too indelicate to ask, didn't science serve the interests of those who carried out WWII and every other religious war we can mention? As I recall, German and Japanese military leaders faced war-crimes trials, while Werner Von Braun moved his V-2 rocket R&D project and personnel to sunny Florida and the Japanese scientists who conducted those horrible medical experiments on prisoners of war and Chinese civilians were given immunity from prosecution in exchange for handing over all their valuable scientific data. Did not many of the men who provided the theory and engineering of nuclear weapons stand tall (and rightly so) in Stockholm to receive Nobel prizes?
Kaku had to excavate "radio debates" in his discussion of scientifically avant garde 10-dimensioned hyperspace to charge the Church with wondering whether Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle would "negate free will, a question that may determine whether our souls will enter heaven or hell." Too bad Marconi followed Galileo or we might have been treated to those debates.
We all know how thoroughly power can corrupt and that power in the hands of religious fanatics doesn't function any differently from power in political or scientific hands. But to suggest that religion is ever the enemy of man and that science is always man's friend is just plain dumb.
Scientists Julius and Ethel Rosenberg betrayed their country in order to provide military benefits to an atheistic enemy nation but we never hear their names being mentioned when these arbiters of religious tea sit down to discuss the subject... unless of course, they wish to insinuate further Christian crimes by implying that the Rosenbergs were convicted more because they were Jews than that they were traitors.
Again, I quote Kaku quoting Wilson: "Religion, Wilson theorizes, is so prevalent because it provided a definite evolutionary advantage for those early humans who adopted it. Wilson notes that animals that hunt in packs obey the leader because a pecking order based on strength and dominance has been established. But roughly 1 million years ago, when our apelike ancestors gradually became more intelligent, individuals could rationally begin to question the power of their leader. Intelligence, by its very nature, questions authority by reason, and hence could be a dangerous, dissipative force on the tribe. Unless there was a force to counteract this spreading chaos, intelligent individuals would leave the tribe, the tribe would fall apart, and all individuals would eventually die. Thus, according to Wilson, a selection pressure was placed on intelligent apes to suspend reason and blindly obey the leader and his myths, since to do otherwise would challenge the tribe's cohesion. Survival favored the intelligent ape who could reason rationally about tools and food gathering, but also favored the one who could suspend that reason when it threatened the tribe's integrity. A mythology was needed to define and preserve the tribe."
Somebody ought to chisel this paragraph in stone and put it over the entrance to the old Reichstag, or on Pol Pot's tombstone, or, for the kicks it would give, near Yale's Divinity School.
Kaku archly concludes, "If correct, this theory would explain why so many religions rely on "faith" over common sense, and why the flock is asked to suspend reason. It would also help to explain the inhuman ferocity of religious wars, and why the God of Miracles always seems to favor the victor in a bloody war. The God of Miracles has one powerful advantage over the God of Order. The God of Miracles explains the mythology of our purpose in the universe; on this question, the God of Order is silent."
And finally, we have the Very Reverend Michio Kaku leading us in a lamentation about the abandonment of the Superconducting Supercollider project near Dallas. He stamps his foot. It could have given us a Higgs particle which would have explained Creation to us.
Michio. Michio. Michio. Millions of citizen taxpayers fervently believed that the Bible had already done that to their satisfaction.
Maybe Christian taxpayers who, like the rest of us ape-like creatures, give their sons and their incomes for the defense of God and Country, do not like to have their Savior or their Bible or their clergy mocked.
Who could blame a Christian if, after reading some of Sagan's, Asimov's, or Kaku's derisive remarks on the subject of his faith, he picked up a phone and called his congressman and said, "That 50-mile wide "toroid" they're building near Dallas... that toroid with all the rebar sticking out of the unfinished concrete like so many thorns... well ...I don't want you to spend another nickel of my tax money on that project."
Perhaps if a scientist wants to get that Supercollider project back on track or get any other massive science project funded, he ought to show a little more respect to the people he expects to pay for it. (You've been praying to the wrong God, Michio. You definitely need a Miracle.)
Sagan and Asimov have gone, unfortunately without benefit of introduction, to meet their respective makers. But Michio Kaku is still with us; and his mind is truly wonderful and his ability to influence the course of science is surely great.
He simply does not seem to realize how very much the public allows expertise in one field, which ennobles a man and gives him such heroic charisma, to metastasize into all other areas into which he directs his presence. We see this happen all the time. Excel at basketball and become an authority on hotdogs. Pitch a no hitter and know quality underwear. Throw a goodly number of touchdowns and become a financial advisor. Advertisers understand the phenomenon. It is called celebrity endorsement. It'll sell toxic waste if packaged properly.
And, Doctor Kaku, the same influence accrues to a man of science when he derogates religion. So don't do it. If you don't understand the life of the Spirit (and trust me, you don't) indulge your scientific curiosity and find out what it's all about. Empty your cup. Cross the threshold. Ask what it is that the Zen Master has which has been so deliciously steeped in the Spirit.
Just don't stand there and shoot yourself in the foot. You know what to do.
Have gun. Will travel. Wire Paladin.
Last modified: July 11, 2004
©2004 Zen and The Martial Arts