Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Thanks But No Thanks to Dan Brown for His Early Modern Science

Over this weekend I finally got around to reading Dan Brown's Lost Symbol, the sequel to the Da Vinci Code. I certainly expected a predictable plot with Robert Langdon spending several hours running around a city discovering ancient secrets with a female companion while being pursued by a creepy mystically inclined assassin while pontificating on all sorts of historical silliness. At this point I have come to believe that Brown takes pleasure in mocking us historians and that he sticks in historical absurdities just to rub our noses in the fact that most of the public does not know, could not care less and would gladly accept his version of history over ours. This time around, though, Brown actually managed to offend me. Perhaps it was because he brought his brand of historical silliness to my area of history and makes claims that really do have the power to cause harm if taken seriously.

Take the following conversation between Langdon's mentor Peter Solomon (Peter is a Mason so the last name is a play on the Temple of Solomon, an important Masonic symbol) and his sister Katherine, who ends up serving as Langdon's female companion in this adventure, for example:

[Katherine's] brother [Peter]  ran a finger down the long shelf of cracked leather bindings and old dusty tomes. "The scientific wisdom of the ancients was staggering ... modern physics is only now beginning to comprehend it all."

"Peter," she said, "you already told me that the Egyptians understood levers and pulleys long before Newton, and that the early alchemists did work on a par with modern chemistry, but so what? Today's physics deals with concepts that would have been unimaginable to the ancients."

"Like what?"

"Well ... like entanglement theory, for one!" Subatomic research had now proven categorically that all matter was interconnected ... entangled in a single unified mesh ... a kind of universal oneness. "You're telling me the ancients sat around discussing entanglement theory?"

"Absolutely!" Peter said, pushing his long, dark bangs out of his eyes. "Entanglement was at the core of primeval beliefs. Its names are as old as history itself ... Dharmakaya, Tao, Brahman. In fact, man's oldest spiritual quest was to perceive his own entanglement, to sense his own interconnection with all things. He has always wanted to become 'one' with the universe ... to achieve the state of 'at-one-ment.'" Her brother raised his eyebrows. :To this day, Jews and Christians still strive for 'atonement' ... although most of us have forgotten it is actually 'at-one-ment' we're seeking."


"Okay, how about something as simple as polarity - the positive/negative balance of the subatomic realm. Obviously, the ancients didn't underst -"

"Hold on!" Her brother pulled down a large dusty text, which he dropped loudly on the library table. "Modern polarity is nothing but the 'dual world' described by Krishna here in the Bhagavad Gita over two thousand years ago. A dozen other books in here, including the Kybalion, talk about binary systems and the opposing forces in nature.


The showdown continued for several more minutes, and the stack of dusty books on the desk grew taller and taller. Finally Katherine threw up her hands in frustration. "Okay! You made your point, but I want to study cutting-edge theoretical physics. The future of science! I really doubt Krishna or Vyasa had much to say about superstring theory and multidimensional cosmological models."

"You're right. They didn't." Her brother paused, a smile crossing his lips. "If you're talking superstring theory ..." He wandered over to the bookshelf again. "Then you're talking this book here." He heaved out a colossal leather-bound book and dropped it with a crash onto the desk. "Thirteenth-century translation of the original medieval Aramaic."

"Superstring theory in the thirteenth century?!" Katherine wasn't buying it." Come on!"

Superstring theory was a brand-new cosmological model. Based on the most recent scientific observations, it suggested the multidimensional universe was made up not of three ... but rather of ten dimensions, which all interacted like vibrating strings, similar to resonating violin strings.

Katherine waited as her brother heaved open the book, ran through the ornately printed table of contents, and then flipped to a spot near the beginning of the book. "Read this." He pointed to a faded page of text and diagrams.

Dutifully, Katherine studied the page. The translation was old-fashioned and very hard to read, but to her utter amazement, the text and drawings clearly outlined the exact same universe heralded by modern superstring theory - a ten dimensional universe of resonating strings. As she continued reading, she suddenly gasped and recoiled. "My God, it even describes how six of the dimensions are entangled and act as one?!" She took a frightened step backward. "What is this book?!"

Her brother grinned. "Something I'm hoping you'll read one day." He flipped back to the title page, where an ornately printed plate bore three words.

The Complete Zohar.

Although Katherine had never read the Zohar, she knew it was the fundamental text of early Jewish mysticism, once believed so potent that it was reserved only for erudite rabbis.


Katherine didn't know how to respond. "But ... then why don't more people study this?"

Her brother smiled. "They will."

I don't understand."

"Katherine, we have been born into a wonderful times. A change is coming. Human beings are posed on the threshold of a new age when they will begin turning their eyes back to nature and to the old way ... back to the ideas in books like the Zohar and other ancient texts from around the world. Powerful truth has its own gravity and eventually pulls people back to it. There will come a day when modern science begins in earnest to study the wisdom of the ancients ... that will be the day that mankind begins to find answers to the big questions that still elude him." (Pg. 58-60.)

First let us deal with that little howler about the Zohar. The Zohar was not written until the late thirteenth century. It was not printed until the mid-sixteenth century. Christian Knorr von Rosenroth's Kabbalah Denudata, which translated large segments into Latin, was not until the seventeenth century. You have to wait until the nineteenth century for an English translation. I thought string theory dealt with eleven dimensions but I will leave that one to the science people.  

At a more fundamental level I am concerned with what Dan Brown is doing to science. Now do not get me wrong, as an early modern historian I think it is important that people understand the odd paths that created modern science. Contrary to the standard Whig narrative, science did not come about from people waking up after a thousand years in the Renaissance and deciding to be rational once again. As Frances Yates argued, the scientific revolution came about as an extension of renaissance magic which turned to texts such as the Codex Hermeticum and the Zohar in order to "recover" the "true" religion of the ancients and their magical secrets. In my 111 class I certainly enjoy teaching my students about Giordano Bruno and how he was and was not like a modern scientist. Under no circumstance though do I wish for the science people in my class to turn around and try to be like Giordano Bruno. There are good reasons why science evolved away from turning toward ancient texts and it should stay that way.   

I do not care if Mary Magdalene carried Jesus' baby. Trying to bring back early modern science does concern me.


no one said...

The aspect of the Kabalah that is important is the human aspect. this is the aspect of content as opposed to form. in this area mystics have insight.
it is not that you will find secrets of science in kabalah but rather you can find deep insights into the meaning and purpose of life and relationships and the difference between right and wrong. Things that science does not address.

eli said...

history disproves the theory that the zohar was written by rabbi shimon bar yochai of the talmudic era? or does it simply show that its not a definite assumption because their are more plausible explanantions as to the author and era. There is a difference beyween the two.

Izgad said...

If I were speaking to a secular audience I would simply say that the Zohar was a product of thirteenth century Spain. Speaking to a Haredi audience I would be more careful and say that the evidence points to the thirteenth century. These statements really mean the same thing as historians make no claim about objective reality, just what evidence we have and in what direction it points to. History is not about the search for truth, but for verifiability.

If you are interested in the topic of the origins of the Zohar I suggest you start with Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. It was written in the 1940s and the picture today is a bit more complex, but he sets forth the basic issues. Today scholars lean more to talking about a Zoharic circle in thirteenth century Spain instead of simply Moshe de Leon.

eli said...

iv read some of scholem and he ascribes the basest of motivations for the style and aim of kabbalah, specifically lurianic and chassidic.