But the known world in which we live is not the Universe, only a universe of our own contriving."" This relativistic point...



But the known world in which we live is not the Universe, only a universe of our own contriving."" This relativistic point of view dominates the text of this excursion into cosmology by U. Mass physics professor Harrison. For Harrison there are universes and gods and The Universe and God. The implication is that the plural forms are always changing, always reflecting a given time and culture. In contrast, individuals at various times and places have conjectured that there is an ""Ideal Universe"" and for some thinkers this is equated with God. Overall, the masks of the title are the guises that each culture constructs based on its metaphysical concepts. With that, Harrison presents a sort of culture survey course, spending a third of the book in a rapid transit from ""primitive"" societies with magical views of the universe (animism, sorcery) to magico-mythic to mythical to current schemes. Ethnographers and anthropologists who have gained a measure of respect for the complexity of so-called primitive society may well find Harrison's treatment too superficial, smacking of the kind of Golden Bough point of view of a century ago with its easy assumption that as settled communities and larger domains developed, more sophisticated masks evolved. By the time of the Greeks, Harrison has many laudatory things to say about the pre-Socratics, but then discusses subsequent declines with the beginnings of Mithraism, Oriental thought and Christianity. Some time later, with the advent of the mechanistic universe and deism, Harrison moves on to his own turf, devoting several chapters to a fair description of atomic theory and astrophysics in order to arrive at our present somewhat anxious-making masks. In these later sections he reveals his intellectual kinship with Nicholas of Cusa, whose writings on ""learned ignorance"" seem best to sum up for Harrison the limits of the scientifically knowable (shades of Godel incompleteness theorems here). He concludes with a denial of traditional proofs of the existence of God, replacing them with a cosmological precept that speaks of the Universe in a ""Cloud of Unknowing""--to be gotten and held by love and by a learned ignorance that leads to ""wonderment in a quest of endless wonderment."" Neither orthodox history of science nor religion then, but a personal, somewhat quirky credo that mixes cynicism with a zest for the pursuit of a 20th-century mask.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 1985


Page Count: -

Publisher: Macmillan

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 1985