A Physicist on ‘Absolutes’ and ‘Relatives’
An Interview with Alan Lightman
Photo Brian Smith
Alan Lightman, Professor in the Practice of Humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is a theoretical physicist, social entrepreneur, and author. He founded the Harpswell Foundation, which works to advance a new generation of women leaders in Southeast Asia. He has written a memoir, novels, poetry, science books, and, in 2018, two book-length extended essays: Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine (Pantheon) and In Praise of Wasting Time (TED Books), which explore how different kinds of knowledge can be obtained from science and religion in today’s wired world. Bulletin contributor Robert Israel interviewed Lightman at his home in Concord, Massachusetts.
In the opening chapter of Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, you describe a transcendent experience while drifting in your boat and gazing at the night sky: “I felt an overwhelming connection to the stars, as if I were part of them” (6). The book’s tone is reminiscent of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, written when he lived at Walden Pond, located just down the road from your home.
My book is written in the style of an extended meditation, like Thoreau’s Walden or Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Since I’ve worked as a physicist for many years, I’ve held a purely scientific view of the world, and I wanted to draw a distinction between what I call “Absolutes”—permanence, immortality, unity, certainty— which we get from religious beliefs, and those we get from what I call “Relatives”— impermanence, fragmentation, mortality, materiality, divisibility—found by science to exist in the material world.
For example, we once thought the atom was indivisible and indestructible, but science has shown the atom can be split. Stars have been shown by science to be objects that will exhaust their nuclear fuel and burn out. Even our universe was once thought to be the largest unity, but leading scientists suggest our universe is just one of many universes, the multiverse. This distinction between Absolutes and Relatives provides the larger framework in which I discuss science and religion.
Can you further describe the multiverse theory, which you state is unproven? Does it qualify as science?
The multiverse idea is plausible because it explains some otherwise unexplainable aspects of our universe, and it is actually predicted in some leading cosmological theories, such as the chaotic inflationary theory. We do not know how to directly test the multiverse theory, since the different “universes” are out of contact with each other. Whether the theory should be considered part of science depends on your philosophy of science. If you hold that, to be scientific, a theory must be confirmed by experiment, or at least testable in principle, then the multiverse idea would not qualify as science. However, if you believe that a theory is scientific if some parts of it can be directly tested and other parts follow as a logical consequence, then the multiverse idea is part of science.
Do you want to unsettle the clear-cut distinctions between religion and science? What is at stake for you in doing this?
Science and religion, like most things, have similarities and differences. They are similar in that they involve passionate commitments to certain beliefs, and to some beliefs that cannot be proven. They both involve a sense of beauty, a connection to the cosmos, an appreciation of the exaltation of human beings. And they both hold certain beliefs. However, the means of arriving at those beliefs vastly differ. Religion arrives at its beliefs by the personal transcendent experience and by the writings in the “sacred” books, which are considered to express the word of God and enlightened beings. Science arrives at its beliefs by experiments with the physical world.
What is at stake in understanding these similarities and differences? Everything. Science and religion are the two greatest forces that have shaped human civilization. Together, they represent the full complexity of the human mind: the rationality, the emotion, the sense of being, transcendence.
Does what propels the religious dimensions of spiritual life also propel your delight in studying the material world?
Yes. Both involve a desire to know and understand, a desire to be part of something larger than ourselves.
You suggest that when all scientific absolutes have become relative, still some sort of absolute persists. You provide the example of Albert Einstein (115–20). Could you expand on the “mysterious order” that Einstein mentions?
Einstein did not believe in a “personal” God, who cares about his creations. But he did believe in an order in the universe, as embodied by the laws of nature. How this order came about, we do not know. It may or may not have involved an intelligent designer. Einstein leaves this last question open, saying that it is too big for our limited human minds. I would agree. However, I would add that we do not have any evidence for a God who intervenes in the physical world—that is, who acts in a way that is not understandable by the laws of nature.
There are times when you depict materiality as mundane and disenchanted, and in so doing you seem to shore up a division between the natural and supernatural (21–29). There seems to be tension between the impact of the material world upon you and the ordinariness of atoms, molecules, etc., and yet you find them anything but “ordinary.” Are you questioning the disenchanting of materiality that has made possible the natural/supernatural, material/spiritual oppositions?
The material world, and the “laws of nature” that we use to describe it, does not capture all of human experience. That is all I am saying. There are experiences we have—such as looking up at the stars on a clear night or listening to a Beethoven symphony—that are not quantifiable, even if these experiences are rooted in the material neurons of our material brain. These experiences seem to rise above their material origins, like consciousness, into an ethereal realm.
In Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1838 Harvard Divinity School Address, he, too, wrote of feeling one with the universe while gazing at the stars: “Through the transparent darkness the stars pour their almost spiritual rays.”1 Yet, his contemporary, author Herman Melville, in a 1851 letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, said he felt that Emerson’s transcendental experiences—he called them the “all feeling”—were fleeting: “The truth is that men will insist upon the universal application of a temporary feeling or opinion.”2 Was your own experience in Maine under the starry sky a “temporary feeling,” as Melville described, or did it have more profound implications for you?
Melville and Emerson are not at odds with each other. There is a profound current, a feeling in the world, that goes back thousands of years. To me, in its most general terms, the transcendent experience described by Emerson and questioned by Melville is the feeling of being connected to something larger. In that letter, Melville wrote that, during summer days, he felt as if leaves were growing in his hair and that his legs were like shoots digging into the earth. That’s a description of a connecting to our world. Both writers were searching for that connection. That feeling may or may not involve God.
You consulted with—and dedicated this book to—two religious leaders: Micah Greenstein, a Reform rabbi, and the Venerable Yas Hut Khemavaro, a Buddhist. What other religious sources, if any, did you draw on while writing your book?
I drew on my experiences as a Jew. I have always identified as a Jew. I am proud to be Jewish. I was brought up as a Reform Jew. I was confirmed instead of becoming bar mitzvahed. I never have believed in a personal God. I never have believed in an interventionist God. My Jewishness influenced my thinking in general, especially in social justice. I value social justice. Judaism impressed that interest upon me. I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, during the time of the civil rights movement, where I had a wonderful rabbi, Rabbi James Wax, who talked about the importance of social justice. This was at the time when Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was preaching. Rabbi Wax and I remained friends. He was a provocative spiritual leader, and he led a deeply spiritual life. He lived his religion. I had many informal chats with him. “God needs man more than man needs God,” he once told me.
Is there a particular branch of Judaism that you think might allow for an embrace of science, or for an ability to remain open to religious beliefs while also being enthralled with science?
Certainly Reform Judaism, and perhaps all Judaism, is consistent with science. I do not see any conflict between belief in science and belief in a noninterventionist God. On the other hand, belief in an interventionist God is incompatible with science.
What does God mean to you, given your background and your training and career as a physicist?
By God I mean an intelligent, purposeful being that exists outside the physical universe, at times. As a scientist, I look into details. I do not believe in a God that performs miracles. I do not believe in a God that intervenes in the physical world but rather in a version of God that is compatible with science. This attitude means I don’t consider God to be a mental construction. For me, God is approachable, just as science is approachable. Science lives on the doctrine that the universe is lawful and that we are capable of discovering it. Everything is accessible. God is accessible. Yet this concept of accessibility is not embraced, or encouraged, by all religions. Some religions ask their adherents to accept what is being preached and not to question it at all. There is a line from Milton’s Paradise Lost (and I’m paraphrasing): “Some questions are not to be asked by mortal men, only by God.” Scientists like myself, however, take the opposite view: there are no limits to legitimate inquiries by human beings. There is no door that cannot be knocked upon when it comes to questioning or seeking to obtain knowledge. As humans, we constantly seek answers to life’s mysteries.
Would you consider your beliefs to be in line with atheism?
I recently debated these points with Richard Dawkins (author of The God Delusion and The Selfish Gene), who is an atheist. The debate took place in a forum held at Imperial College in London. I took the position that belief in God is compatible with science. Dawkins took the position that because he believes that the world is material, and that it is nothing more than that, then spirituality is just an illusion. I disagree with his point of view. I know many rational people—people of integrity—who are spiritual believers in God. But Dawkins takes the point of view that these people are nonthinkers. He sees faith as a great cop-out. I personally find his point of view arrogant, condescending, and offensive.
What do you think of the category “Nones”—a growing trend of religiously unaffiliated individuals?3 Would you ever identify with this category?
While I respect all religious beliefs, including atheism and Nones, I do not personally identify with the category. For me, a religion is more than a particular set of beliefs about God. It also includes a cultural history, a tradition, and an identity; a set of moral principles; a community. I was born into a Jewish family and continue to identify with that tradition. Among other things, I admire the Jewish tradition of respect for education and advocacy for social justice. There is a concept in Judaism called tikkun olam, which means “repair a broken world.” The world today is certainly broken. I think it is an obligation and a privilege for those of us born with advantages to help repair that broken world.
In your book, you leave it to readers to search for and to find their own way, to grapple with these issues, to be engaged in a search for answers.
Yes, I’m hoping that readers will not so much look for answers in my work but embark on their own journey, their own process of questioning. I want them to ask themselves: How do I balance our material world with the spiritual world? How do I place myself in that balance? There is no one answer. Everybody enters into these questions in a different way. I want the reader to question, to see that it is a back-and-forth process, taking the yin with the yang, before arriving at an understanding. When I read a good story, it makes me think. That’s what I’m trying to do in my book. I’m not trying to prove or disprove anything.
I believe one of the reasons we do not embark on this journey is that we take very little time from our busy lives for reflection. We live in a plugged-in world. We are moving faster and faster. We don’t take even 20 minutes in a day for solitude, for silence, for reflection. We’re constantly plugged into our Smartphones. One of the problems with our modern society is that we aren’t more reflective. Because of that, we aren’t questioning the role of religion and materialism in our lives today and our place within our world.
While you do not provide answers, you do leave the reader with a sense of being on that journey. The voice presented is a person who is constantly seeking. Your experience in Maine, drifting in your boat under the stars, indicates from the onset that you see yourself as someone who is constantly evolving and questioning.
I would say that’s true. I see myself as a person who is continually evolving. When you identify yourself as an evolving person, you do not draw conclusions. I don’t expect to come up with conclusions tomorrow or a year from now. This is what you find out about yourself when you live a meditative life. I am constantly questioning myself: What are my values? What should I be doing? What’s important? What should my attitude be toward existence? I expect to be that way for the rest of my life. I expect to be that way so long as I’m breathing air.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson, “An Address,” in The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Brooks Atkinson (The Modern Library, 2000), 63.
- Herman Melville, letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, June 1, 1851, in The Portable Melville, ed. Jay Leyda (The Viking Press, 1952), 434.
- See Becka A. Alper, “Why America’s ‘Nones’ Don’t Identify with a Religion,” Pew Research Center, August 8, 2018.
Robert Israel is a Boston-based writer and editor. His last piece for the Bulletin (Autumn/Winter 2018) was a Q&A with Joan Nathan, about her cookbook King Solomon’s Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World.