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The Philosopher’s Stone: Chaos, Synchronicity, and the Hidden Order of the World

By F. David Peat. New York: Bantam, 1991. xii + 243 pages.

Browsing through shelves of scholarly and other non-fiction texts in a bookstore or library will without a doubt lead one to books with interesting—and occasionally fascinating—titles that have little to do with the apparent topic of the book, which is then better explained with a subtitle. While marketing reasons exist for flashy titles, difficulty sets in when both the title and subtitle promise something they can’t deliver—such is the case with F. David Peat’s Philosopher’s Stone.

A woefully unsatisfying read, Peat’s book is a vague rhapsody through eight chapters loosely connected to quantum physics, chaos theory, and the nature of scientific inquiry, but strongly tied to mysticism (Eastern, Western, and other) and New Age philosophy. The saying goes that one should not judge a book by its cover, but that maxim does not apply to the excerpts from reviews printed on back and inside covers to promote a book; thus one should cautiously note that The Philosopher’s Stone was praised by the authors of Space, Time and Medicine, Recovering the Soul, Creating Alternative Futures, Parallel Universes, and The Eagle’s Quest. The book’s greatest fault is not its subject matter, but its circular logic, unsupported claims, and conclusions that stand in conflict with the material covered.

This is unfortunate precisely because Peat’s book does contain sparks that could lead to a more rigorous, insightful, and provocative text, such as the growth of crystals, superconductors and superfluids, and the differences between scientific and human-perceptual models of space and time; instead of exploring these topics in detail and then teasing out ways in which they point toward the book’s thesis, they are merely superficial evidence for a conclusion the author never doubted. When scientists write about the history and philosophy of science, an in-depth knowledge of the history and philosophy of science should be a prerequisite. Peat cites Bacon and Newton, but leaves out Hume and Kant—two philosophers important not because they are “correct” but because they deal with the questions of time, space, and causality at stake in quantum mechanics (QM). The author, however, engages in a naive romanticism by referring constantly to “ancient wisdom” (of Native Americans, Asian peoples, and others), by assuming an a-critical position regarding mankind’s supposed Ur-connectedness with nature, and by misrepresenting both the harmony of the medieval world and the hyper-rationalism of the Renaissance and Enlightenment.

Although not entirely clear, Peat’s explanation of fractals and of “fractional dimensions” is refreshing, as is his exposition of the Verhulst equation in connection with the size of insect colonies. Other books, however, provide more lucid discussions of strange attractors and non-linear dynamics in general. The seventh chapter is the point at which “chaos” makes its first and only appearance in the book; unfortunately it is not truly taken into account in the book’s final chapter, in which the author proposes an ethics of “gentle action.” The Jungian concept of “synchronicity” (the subject and title of Peat’s previous book) is poorly developed and vaguely defined here, although the author throws the term around uncritically in every chapter: phenomenon after phenomenon is labeled an “example of synchronicity.” David Bohm’s “implicate order” likewise suffers from superficial coverage; instead, one should read Bohm’s own works, or get a good introduction in Peat’s biography of Bohm, Infinite Potential (Addison-Wesley, 1997), a vastly superior book.

General statements about the nature of mind and consciousness, and of nature itself, will strike many readers as dogmatic, naive, and unsupported by any evidence in the book; other books that discuss the failures of artificial intelligence (AI), for example, describe or at least cite relevant efforts and experiments, and then conclude that computers and computing as we understand them are not able to imitate the mind—Peat states this as a categorical impossibility. The book begins with an assertion of the intrinsic and essential meaningfulness of the universe, and whenever scientific results (e.g. the double-slit experiment in QM) threaten objective truth and meaning, Peat searches for a way to salvage meaning, for he ontologizes meaning in such a way that it is connected with truth. The Philosopher’s Stone rightly calls into question the truth-claims of “traditional” science—a task undertaken more credibly in other works—but insists upon its own truthfulness; thus it is neither insightful nor refreshing, neither challenging nor provocative.