A Bold Exploration Into the Importance of Thought


MICROCOSM: THE QUANTUM REVOLUTION IN ECONOMICS AND TECHNOLOGY by George Gilder, New York: Simon & Schuster, 426 pp., $19.95.

IN this book, George Gilder repeatedly writes about ``the overthrow of matter.'' His preface, for example, concludes: ``In overthrowing the thrones of matter, this new epoch - the quantum era - also overthrows the great superstitions of materialism. Worship of things - whether in a Marxist dialectic or a Midas's hoard - collapses in a world in which thought is paramount even at the heart of matter itself.''

Perhaps this book can shake up antiquated thinking a bit. Gilder writes with catchy enthusiasm, freshness, clarity, and a touch of mysticism. These qualities made an earlier book, ``Wealth and Poverty,'' a bestseller. It should be noted, though, that Gilder is not saying matter does not exist. He is saying matter is something different than what most people think it is.

Gilder's first chapter reviews quantum theory, a theory which has been around for decades but has not yet been grasped sufficiently in popular thinking to explode the Newtonian concept of matter as something solid, made up of tiny discrete particles.

As he complains, ``...the most profound discoveries of the 20th century failed to penetrate the public consciousness, intellectual life, or natural philosophy. Most people continued in the old materialist idiom, forcing the new concepts into the old frame.''

He quotes Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg as stating that the ``inhabitants of the universe were conceived to be a set of fields - an electron field, a proton field, and electromagnetic field - and particles were reduced to mere epiphenomena.'' The central dogma of quantum-field theory is that ``the essential reality is a set of fields subject to the rules of special relativity and quantum mechanics.''

For the individual thinking of traffic on the way home, quantum theory may seem remote. But Gilder's book shows it is not. He writes extensively about the theory's application to the ``microcosm,'' that is, to computer chips, computers, artificial intelligence, and all the other wonders of electronic science.

In his final chapter, Gilder bravely puts his toe in the waters of metaphysics. He cites the research of neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield, who reported in 1975 on his explorations with an electronic probe of the exposed brains of hundreds of epileptic patients (a painless procedure). The electrode could present to the patient various crude sensations, causing him or her to turn head and eyes, move the limbs, etc.

Or the probe could recall vivid re-experiences of the past, or present illusions. But the patient remained aloof, passing judgment on it all. As Gilder puts it: ``Penfield found that the content of consciousness could be selectively altered by outside manipulation. But however much he probed, he could not enter consciousness itself. He could not find the mind or invade its autonomy. ... Instead, he showed that the critical elements of the mind - consciousness, will, commitment, decision, reason - are not locally manifest in the brain.''

Gilder does not jump from there to ask where, if not in the brain, is man's mind? Is it outside of matter? Is there a separate intelligence? Like Penfield, he leaves these questions basically unanswered, though at one point he refers without expansion to a ``controlling intelligence'' that transcends the ``wetware'' of the brain.

Gilder does use the findings of Penfield and others to take a poke at ``materialistic determinism'' - the theory that matter controls everything, even the workings of the human mind. He sees failure for one agenda of computer science: ``By building a material brain, the computer scientist would confirm the possibility that intelligence could emerge from matter. Thoughts as well as things would succumb to the determinist scheme. ... The computer seemed to subordinate thoughts themselves to things, mind to matter, soul to solid state physics. It seemed to unmask the mind and demystify it, and thus to banish sacred and spiritual powers from the world.''

Gilder argues that quantum theory has overthrown such gloomy materialistic claims, a hypothesis some quantum experts may dispute. ``To comprehend nature, we have to stop thinking of the world as basically material and begin imagining it as a manifestation of consciousness,'' he writes. That sounds like something purely mental or even spiritual, but then Gilder retreats and talks about thought dominating things. Referring to the atomic domain, he says, ``Things combine and collapse, emerge and vanish, like tokens of thought more than like particles of mass.'' Matter may be more ephemeral, but it is still there, acting in strange ways.

Most of this book is dedicated to an intelligent and deeply researched history of the astonishing developments in the computer business.

Gilder renews his praise of capitalism, especially venture capitalism. He maintains that the United States computer industry is in better shape than most observers believe in its battle with Japanese companies. At points, the book slips just slightly into a ``gee whiz'' style of science writing.

However, the book may be most noted for its bold exploration into the importance of thought, especially in this realm of the microcosm, despite the fact that he leaves the scene puzzled: ``In science and technology, religion and life, we can triumph only by understanding that truth is a paradoxical and redemptive cross at the heart of light, radiant in the microcosm and in the world.''

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