Book Review: The Forbidden Universe: The Occult Origins of Science and the Search for the Mind of God
Like many young people, I rebelled against my religious upbringing—in my case, Roman Catholicism—when I learned to think for myself and question some of the bizarre dogmatic beliefs of my family's faith (virgin birth, transubstantiation, sex outside of marriage as a mortal sin, and the like). I have always been mystically inclined, however, and have never rejected spiritual insights or the possibility of realities beyond those that can be quantified by our current scientific theories and instruments. (I've written about my mystical experiences elsewhere, and one has been chronicled in a book.) So I was drawn, like so many, to the wisdom traditions of the East—Buddhism, Zen, Taoism, Tantra, and yogic teachings, as well as to indigenous shamanic practices and the ritual use of entheogens. For most of my adult life I have found deep meaning and practical applications from these traditions, though I remain non-dogmatic and do not consider myself "religious" by any means.
But in the past few years, I've come to appreciate another, frequently neglected, body of teachings and traditions that are equally valuable—sort of the missing hemisphere of esoteric lore. And so I've immersed myself in the fascinating realm of Western esoterica—which, at its roots, emerges from the body of ancient wisdom known as the Hermetica that originated in ancient Egypt but was shaped by the Greeks and, later, European alchemists and scientific luminaries like Bruno, Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and Elias Ashmole. My recent immersion in Freemasonry led to further and deeper understandings of how this lore has been transmitted through the centuries.
Out of all my readings, one recent book by Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince—The Forbidden Universe: The Occult Origins of Science and the Search for the Mind of God—masterfully illustrates how the ancient teachings gave rise to modern science and, more importantly, how they are still meaningful in the human quest to understand the bigger questions of our existence.
The first half of this book explains the importance of ancient Hermetic knowledge in the birth of science. An early scientific pioneer, Giordano Bruno, was burned at the stake by the Catholic Church for suggesting that the universe was infinite, the stars were other suns, and those suns were surrounded by planets populated by other beings. In an era when most people believed the sun revolved around the stationary Earth, and stars were God's lamps hanging in the sky, Bruno's idea was as far-seeing as it was blasphemous and led to his gruesome execution. But where did Bruno get such a revolutionary and insightful idea? From the Hermetica, attributed to the legendary magician Hermes Trismegistus, or Thrice Great Hermes (Thoth, to the Egyptians). Hermeticism had an enormous influence on scientists like Kepler and Galileo—men revered by modern scientists for their achievements—but it is rarely mentioned in discussions of their lives and work. This well-documented book explains why science has been scrubbed of the "occult" influences on the birth of the scientific method.
But it's the second half of the book that is likely to upset the proponents of the brand of atheistic/reductionist/neo-Darwinian scientism currently in vogue among academics (and Dawkins, Gould, Hitchens, and other dogmatic materialists, if they deigned to lower themselves to read it, will find this book infuriating). The authors collect a wealth of information from renowned physicists, biologists, and cosmologists that points to the possibility of a universe imbued with meaning and a built-in evolutionary momentum towards the propagation of consciousness, and not just a happenstance construct as a product of random particle collisions. This is by no means a Creationist argument, however, but one based upon hard scientific data, a nuanced understanding of evolutionary theory, and well-established (if controversial) tenets of quantum physics.
Since the 70s, it has been fashionable to explain quantum physics and other mind-bending scientific theories with metaphors drawn from Eastern spiritual traditions. And rightly so, as those systems provide metaphors that can help us understand the maddeningly complex and often illogical conclusions of quantum science. But as the authors of this provocative work point out, the West also has an ancient tradition that can serve as a guide in understanding the universe and the role of conscious beings within it. And it's time to blow off the dust from some of these ancient books and bring their knowledge to the light of day once again. The Forbidden Universe is an excellent introduction to the subject, and highly recommended.