More shadows than light in the recent book by Eduardo Punset
Author: Juan Arana
Published in: Aceprensa, (n.º 66/10) (Extended version)
Date of publication: 8 September 2010
What happens when you get your hands on a book written by a person with a long career and public notoriety, who is over seventy years old, who confesses to suffering from a serious heart condition and has been treated for lung cancer? It is only natural that a feeling of respect and admiration should arise in you. Here, you say to yourself, is a man who has been able to face the challenges of life and who doesn't look away even when death comes his way. You open the volume as if you were looking at a testament, not because you think it will be the last thing he writes - God forbid - but because you hope to find enlightening wisdom there, a financial aid to solve your own problems.
It was in this frame of mind that I began reading El viaje al poder de la mente. Los enigmas más fascinantes de nuestro cerebro y del mundo de las emociones (Barcelona, Destino, 2010, 364 pp.), the most recent work by the economist, politician, populariser and polygrapher Eduardo Punset. One of the thesis he defends in it is that men are reluctant to change their minds. Well, at least in this case, he has managed to change mine: before starting it I thought I was looking at a serious and important work ; now that I have read it, I am convinced that it is a bad book. I say that in no uncertain terms, even if I maintain the consideration and deference that the author deserves. I hope he writes much more and that I have the opportunity to read it to him, but the very gravity of the circumstances I have evoked in the previous paragraph obliges me to dispense with hot air when it comes to calling a spade a spade. Perhaps I am deeply mistaken, but I am not a child either, and I think it is urgent to give you (and me, in case you deign to exercise your right of reply) the opportunity to improve what can be improved, as neither of us are at status wasting time with euphemisms and innuendoes.
meeting firstly, that it is a very sloppy text. It seems incredible that, having a whole battery of documentalists and reviewers (mentioned in the section acknowledgements), it makes so many gross errors. Examples? There are a handful: he makes the Pole Copernicus a Prussian (p. 15); he gives 150 years of life to the Big Bang theory, which began to be sketched after 1920 and was only consolidated in 1965 (p. 27); he attributes to Einstein the theory of the Big Bang (p. 27); he attributes to Einstein the theory of the Big Bang (p. 27). 27); he attributes to Einstein the finding of repelling forms of energy when impenetrable, magnetic and electric forces, which are totally or partially repulsive, have been known since ancient times (p. 30); he attributes thought no longer to animals, but to ammonite fossils (p. 38); he claims that when water is not only repulsive, but also repulsive, it is also repulsive (p. 38); he claims that when water is repulsive, it is repulsive (p. 38). 38); claims that when water evaporates its molecules dissociate into hydrogen and oxygen atoms (p. 46); confuses the concepts of density and weight (p. 48); places the forests of Thuringia "in the middle of the Black Forest", which is at the other end of Germany (p. 148); makes the "garnet" the "black forest", which is at the other end of Germany (p. 148); makes the "garnet" the "black forest", which is at the other end of Germany (p. 148). 148); he makes "garnacha" an unpresentable wine until it was redeemed in the Priorat, when it is a grape with which at least in Rioja and Navarre excellent clarets have always been made (p. 209).... Sometimes the slip-up is prolonged until it becomes a novel: it transforms the good Anglican Emma Darwin into a fervent Catholic (p. 165) and makes the great Charles fall madly in love with her, despite the fact that the private diary of the creator of the theory of evolution shows that there has never been a less romantic and more coldly premeditated wedding (p. 271).
If there is little respect for the facts, neither does meeting show any deference to the rules of logic: he mentions at one point an unsuspected "repulsive force of attraction" (p. 16) by which he perhaps means the "negative gravity" popularised by inflationary cosmological models. No less surprising is that in another passage he asks how to "avoid inevitable crises" (p. 165), or that he claims that the first existing organism on earth was heterotrophic, which means - he clarifies in case there was any doubt - that it "feeds on others" (p. 288). I have serious doubts about what it could have eaten then, given that it was alone on the stage of life. It is also disturbing that, after explaining in detail how life was born in "the seas and lakes" (p. 293), he ends with the assertion: "It all happened in the atmosphere. Life rained down from the sky" (p. 294). If such books abounded, the principle of contradiction would become meaningless.
All of the above constitutes a painful casuistry, but at the same time it is an indication of something of greater significance. We are dealing with an author who has devoted himself with great media impact to the scientific knowledge dissemination , a noble art that demands a great deal from the practitioner work and a considerable dose of modesty. In order to bring to the public at large what is being discussion discussed in the select cenacles of the experts, one must forget oneself. It is a matter of acting as an advocate for the wise before the ignorant, and for the ignorant before the wise. It is understandable that when it comes to making a television programme, the short-term effect deadline should take precedence over moderation and rigour. However, when writing a book, it is necessary to presuppose greater discernment on the part of the target audience, even if the goal is to sell 150,000 copies and more. Otherwise, the result will be a product Pass for mass sale, but which will get old before the ink with which it was printed has dried. It was disappointing for me to see that, instead of taking the opportunity to settle the ideas and delve into their presumed consequences, he chose to boast of his friendship staff with the great gurus of science today and to take hasty summaries of their findings out of context. No wonder he comes to believe that he too has made substantial contributions to the progress of knowledge, on the broad empirical basis provided by the observation of his two granddaughters and his dog Darwin. It would have been more profitable to work a little more thoroughly on the bibliography that those authors have produced, instead of accumulating superficial anecdotes and comments made en passant. This would perhaps have avoided the painful trivialisation of the scientific knowledge that characterises the whole book, as for example when it talks about the uncertainty principle. In quantum mechanics, this principle concerns the limit to the precision obtainable when simultaneously measuring certain pairs of physical quantities, which makes it impossible for the theories that use them to be completely in line with reality. This is very important, but rather technical. However, according to Punset: "Heisenberg's uncertainty principle means that we must live forever with probabilities, not certainties" (p. 84). By the same token, he could have told us that the theory of relativity teaches that everything is relative, or that the principle of conservation of energy obliges us to put double windows in our homes to avoid losing heat energy from the heating.
This way of distorting the true message of science is deplorable enough in itself, but moreover it does not even keep to what it says, since in the case in question, after proscribing any certainty, it literally states on the following page: "A road will have been travelled in a short time from knowing nothing about the functioning of the report... to predicting its exact composition in the course of time" (p. 85). to predicting its exact composition in the course of time" (p. 85). Hadn't we agreed that it was impossible to find out anything exactly? The case in point is one of many. The strategy of extracting from the most abstruse research recipes of immediate application to human life leads to continuous false starts, which then have to be retracted in order to affirm the opposite. Thus, he announces on one occasion that "the precise minute" in which the first replicating organism originated has been discovered, only to qualify in the same paragraph: "although we cannot specify when it arose" (p. 293). I suspect that the resource "where I said I said, I say Diego" must be a trademark of the house, because he uses it even in questions that have nothing to do with science or its curious Philosophy partner -anthropology. The consequences are sometimes humorous: there is a passage where he states that one of the main merits of his favourite writer, Stefan Zweig, is that he (i.e. Eduardo Punset) discovered the life and work of the gynaecologist Semmelweis (pp. 90-1). He then confesses that he has not been able to locate in which of his works the corresponding biography appears, and ends by saying that what he knows about the character "perhaps he learnt elsewhere" (p. 92).
One quality that no one will begrudge Punset is enthusiasm. His book would make a good candidate at award , which has the highest proportion of superlatives per page in world literature. He goes from surprise to surprise, from ecstasy to ecstasy... and from indignation to indignation, because he is convinced that everything he has come to learn in his peregrinations through the world of techno-science is not being taught in schools and is not being disseminated as it should be. quotation Just to illustrate procedure: "How is it possible that no educational institution, no minister has taught any of us what the phase transition was? How is it that we were left from our earliest childhood to explore life without being given the tools, at least conceptual ones, to measure the pH of any medium? (p. 52). And he says so himself, who studied the high school diploma in the United States. I, who prepared it on my own in a small-town high school in Franco's Spain, was naturally provided with both the definition of pH and the litmus paper to make an approximate evaluation . Often the allegedly silenced finding is so well known and so obvious that one wonders if Punset does not confuse his own findings with those of the rest of humanity, as if he were suffering from something like a "Mediterranean finding syndrome", which leads him to sentence: "In this book we are referring to the great discoveries that nobody talks about and yet which have transformed the lives of ordinary human beings to unimaginable levels" (p. 238). To honour his commitment, he repeatedly announces the greatest finding of science, degree scroll ephemeral that passes from one discovery to another (pp. 35, 130, 276), even though it was usually made less than ten years ago by one of the great minds with whom he has an intimate relationship attention and is the object of Judeo-Masonic conspiracies so that it goes unnoticed.
There are people who profess humanistic and/or religious convictions and are wary of Eduardo Punset's messages, because they presume him to be a shrewd defender of materialistic or scientistic views. I wish I could confirm their fears, because I consider both materialism and scientism to be very serious theoretical challenges, which anyone who believes in God or Man should know and discuss in depth. But unfortunately this is not the case. His doctrinal orientation points in these directions, of course, but the substantive arguments he brings to support them are too weak. Although I am neither a materialist nor a scientistic, I know much better ones. At bottom, what best defines their place on the ideological spectrum is syncretism. Like in a blender he mixes almost all the slogans and opinions in common use, without finding out to what extent they fit together. The Leitsmotivs on which he most insists in El viaje al poder de la mente are: the importance of changing one's mind (although without specifying how, when or why); our insignificance in the cosmos as a whole (a sentence repeated ad nauseam from Freud onwards, rooted in old clichés of Christian asceticism and which he now proposes as a great novelty); the convenience of making decisions without being too informed (in which, it must be confessed, Punset is exemplary, see p. 105); the usefulness of leaving our minds uninformed (in which, it must be confessed, Punset is exemplary, see p. 105); the usefulness of leaving our minds uninformed (in which, it must be confessed, Punset is exemplary, see p. 105); the usefulness of ceasing to be rational in order to give way to intuition and at the same time the advantage of continuing to be so in order not to disavow science (he sometimes obscurely suggests that science is the only written request competent to perform a kind of hara-kiri of reason). It is also among the book's capital thesis that intelligence and the unrepeatable specificity of humans are, together with authoritarian and dogmatic thinking, source of unhappiness, violence and terrorism; that it is more important to unlearn than to learn (a front on which, in view of the recent direction of the system educational, we are making a lot of progress). He also advocates going beyond Darwin to rediscover and give new validity to Lamarck. Finally, he advocates changing the Genetics and epigenetic identity of our species, in order to become chlorophyllous entities capable of nourishing ourselves from the sun and the air... If anyone thinks that this last thesis is too insane to be defended by an authority as solvent as Eduardo Punset, go to p. 291, where a quote from a book by Eduardo Punset appears. 291, which shows a sketch of the man of the future with branches and leaves sprouting from his forehead, or p. 309, where he urges progressive parents to baptise their daughters (civilly, of course) with the name of Elysia chlorotica, a green slug which, by ingesting algae and transferring genes, has managed to incorporate chloroplasts into its cells.
It is easy to imagine the basket that will be made from these wickerwork. I don't know how many of the book's numerous buyers will have made it to the final chapters. Those who have made it past test will find some tasty paragraphs in which, in my unauthorised judgement, the author rambles on without the slightest haste: "In any other animal we think that the per diem expenses is very important to make up the organism, and yet people have not taken it for granted, have hardly thought about it, that we cannot live without cooked food. Women cannot reproduce without cooked food. Even a male, if he only eats raw food, stops producing sperm" (p. 250).
The same lack of seriousness is revealed in his attacks on religion, although I have to give him credit for the originality of not bringing up the Galileo case. In fact, the only argument he uses to demonstrate the inevitability of the conflict between science and faith is the prospect - immediate according to him - of synthesising bacteria in laboratories (p. 166). A scarcely understandable scruple, given that the theory of spontaneous generation was in force until the 19th century. Perhaps this is because it was the super-Catholic Pasteur who refuted it. What is certain is that even Thomas Aquinas thought that purely physical causes were sufficient to produce, not microbes, but insects, vermin and even mice.
One would expect to find projectiles of a heavier calibre in the arsenal of an atheist or materialist worth listening to. The most offensive would be to claim that the laws discovered by science or the natural causes glimpsed by reason are sufficient to explain human understanding and will, or the emergence and final destiny of the universe. It is worth remembering that Punset published another book in 2006 with the provocative degree scroll El alma está en el cerebro, but, frankly, saying that the soul is in the brain is no more important than claiming that it is also in the room, city or planet where the brain is located. For that matter, it would be the same to say that man's soul is in the cupboard. What is important, what is decisive, what would challenge the faith of an adult and minimally informed person, is whether or not it is possible to accurately describe and unambiguously predict the set of nerve impulses that, starting from the incidence of light on the retina, leads to the stimulation of the motor neurons that activate the deliberate and conscious response to the information provided by that light. All the rest is metaphor. However, in a world governed by quantum indeterminacy and where the dynamics of complex systems prevail, to claim such a thing is a sheer impossibility. The search for brain locations for the functions of the mind is commendable, although with the available techniques of positron emission tomography or functional magnetic resonance imaging the spatio-temporal resolution is still very poor leave (these tests do not record nerve activity per se, but its metabolic and circulatory concomitants). Hopefully they will come up with more refined procedures. The study of the biological mechanisms associated with report, motivation and even conscious reflection is also to be commended and encouraged, of course! But there are good reasons to question whether this route will soon or late lead to a complete materialistic reduction of the mind. Punset claims that the brain, far from being the most sophisticated mechanism in the universe, is merely an evolutionary contrivance (p. 287), as if the two were incompatible. If other - as far as the word "mechanism" is appropriate in this context - more complex mechanisms were known, it would be good to mention them. And in any case, it would not be a single arrangement, but an unbroken chain of them that has taken billions of years to complete. Until another, more intricate object is discovered, we know of none with so many bifurcations and twists and turns, no structure that constitutes a comparable challenge to any effort at univocal rationalisation. Punset himself ends up acknowledging that when it comes to moral decisions, "it is even an open question to know to what extent we have the option to choose" (p. 170). And he says this immediately after having conjectured the existence of a biologically predetermined mechanism for making moral judgements! (p. 168). There could hardly be a greater inconsistency between a materialist stance and a corollary that opens the door to the presence of deliberation in the strong sense.
In a world increasingly in need of authentic interdisciplinary dialogue, it is a pity that those who are in the best position to carry it out should squander their efforts and leave the clientele without the opportunity to learn about the projection that the work of the academic community has on human life. Flirting with intellectual fads and improvising genius on the fly is not the best recipe for bringing discernment to our troubled world. For all these reasons, I consider the reviewed work to be a failed testament. Bravery does not detract from courtesy, and I will say in conclusion that, despite his years and illnesses, there are few personalities in our country with as much enthusiasm and youth of spirit as Eduardo Punset. This makes me hope that the defects pointed out (insofar as they are such) will disappear in the next submission we receive from him, so that instead of censure we will be forced to applaud him.