Book Reviews - Random Review
The Holographic Universe
Category: Science | Published: 1992 | Review Added: 25-03-2006
In this intriguing and readable, but ultimately incoherent book, Michael Talbot explains why he thinks the universe is a giant hologram, converted by our brains from waveforms to sensory perceptions.
Talbot didn't invent this notion: it was first postulated by neurophysiologist Karl Pribram and physicist David Bohm. Indeed it doesn't really constitute a theory at all: rather, it's a model that may ultimately, it seems, offer new inroads into understanding the nature of reality, consciousness and perception.
Unfortunately, Talbot takes the anology literally, while at the same time being very vague about the picture of reality he's painting. He says "the brain is a hologram" and also that "the cosmos is a hologram" - apparently unaware of the contradiction, and without ever addressing the question of what the "film" is on which either of these "holograms" is supposedly recorded.
Talbot, it should be noted, is not a scientist: he's a novelist-cum-mystic, and his real interest in the holographic model is clearly almost entirely down to its ability, according to him, to account for paranormal phenomena. Most of the book in fact is devoted to anecdotal accounts of hallucinatory or mystical experiences, and other "psi" phenomena such as psychokinesis. Every now and then he'll throw in a claim that "the holographic model offers a way to understand these experiences" or suchlike, but he rarely lingers long on the "explanation" holography offers and, when he does, the "explanation" is again so hopelessly vague as to seem nothing of the sort (for example, he uses as evidence the descriptions of people who've had near death experiences (NDEs) of entering a world of "light" and "higher frequencies").
As it nears its end, the book starts filling up with the most tedious, saccharine new age mumbo-jumbo. "We live in a universe that is far more benevolent than we realise," he croons; and a little later, "We are indeed on a shaman's journey, mere children struggling to become technicians of the sacred". He takes the experiences of NDEers at face value and seems to accept uncritically the idea that the "purpose" of life is moral edification - which leaves as something of a mystery what the life lesson of, say, a Nazi concentration camp guard, or a wasp, is meant to be.
Still, I can't deny that I found many of the descriptions in this book of mystical and paranormal phenomena intriguing, even if Talbot is altogether too uncritical of his sources. To account for this is perhaps his own apparently extensive first-hand paranormal experience: to him the case is already proven, so he doesn't necessarily appreciate how improbable it all sounds to the more sceptical reader.
One aspect of the holographic model that, I felt, might prove genuinely useful in investigating the ultimate nature of matter and consciousness is the notion of "the part containing the whole". As Talbot shows, each area of a holographic film contains an image of the whole, albeit a fuzzy one: the bigger the area of the film we use to generate the holographic image, the sharper the image is. The parallel with an idea of Bohm's is tantalising: that in some sense, the whole of the universe is manifest in every quantum particle. Might consciousness, then, be the "sharpening" of an image of the world through the activity of billions of particles acting in concert? To me, the idea definitely sounds neat enough to have mileage.