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The low-carb soul


What would happen if science and religion were to be boiled together in a beaker, then centrifuged, amalgamated, shaken and stirred into a slurry of superstitions, unwarranted presuppositions and outright alchemical quackery? Let's say, just for discussion of course, that we let religious dogma trump scientific evidence. Or that, when we encountered questions we couldn't readily answer, we pronounced them unknowables, mysteries forbidden to us by the sovereignty of the sacrosanct divine? What if we just resolutely refused to accept any information that didn't match our own premeditated conclusions, banishing from our presence anyone who offered a contrary view?

Our modern world being the Utopia of enlightened rationalism that it is, I guess we can only look to history for the answers, and particularly to Len Fisher's Weighing the Soul. A doctor weighs the souls of dying patients; Galileo pinpoints the size and location of hell; Thomas Young's breakthrough theory of light is suppressed with lies and character assassination; Robert Boyle condemns alchemy then steals all its secrets. The book is a light-hearted popular science account of theoretical advances in the physical sciences (many of them involving arcane apparati such as corsets, kites and cannonballs) and of the high priests of both souls and science who branded as heresy every challenge to accepted ideas.

Author of the delightful How to Dunk a Doughnut, Fisher is not one of those more-empirical-than-thou scientific scoffers prone to self-satisfied chuckles at the errors of those who came before him. An engaging and entertaining storyteller, he honors the methodology of scientists who came to wrong conclusions based on generally sound scientific methodology and even revels in the inadvertent breakthroughs occasionally reached through deeply flawed experiments.

He also deeply respects the realms of religion and philosophy, and cautions that science should not presume to answer questions it was never designed to ask. "There is a whole host of questions that are too important to ignore but too difficult or impossible to answer from physical observation alone." The scientific and the sacred: "The two forms of belief can exist within one person and ... they need not be contradicted if the holder is honest about the nature of each."

And what about the soul? It weighs one-half to three-quarters of an ounce.

Weighing the Soul, Len Fisher. $25. Arcade Publishing. 264 pages.

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