On Thursday at CIIS, I’ll interview physicist and novelist Alan Lightman, author of the just published Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine (2018). As of this writing, Lightman’s book is #1 in Metaphysics on Amazon.com.*
Lightman begins his reflections in a cave in Font-de-Gaume, France, famous for its adornment of ochre and charcoal painted animal forms left behind by its long deceased Paleolithic inhabitants. Lightman’s cave visit inspires musings about how these primal people may have imagined the meaning of their existence. It is as though our species has always been inspired by two great mysteries, even if each age further refines its understanding of each: by the unconscious depths within our psyches and by the ever-expanding edges of the evolving cosmos. We are lured deep into dark labyrinthine caves to paint Living Forms on fire-lit walls, and we are drawn skyward toward ancestral light in an attempt to calculate the spiraling of stars. Creation and discovery, art and science. Homo sapiens seems caught in a “necessary tension” between the two. With one foot aloft in a spiritual world of eternal Absolutes and the other firmly planted in a perpetually perishing material world, we stumble along through history.
Lightman doesn’t pretend to have any answers, but his ruminations functioned to heighten my sense of the importance of the questions. Is there any meaning in it all? Or is it just material? Even if it is all just material, isn’t it still beautiful, anyway? Depending on our personal proclivities, the existential tension produced by such questions can either release us into enchantment with mysterious paradox or entrap us in the frustration of irresolvable contradiction. Our nature is not a unified essence. We are tripartite: artists striving to enjoy and express nature’s beauty, scientists trying to explain its necessary truths, and priests longing to embrace and be embraced by its goodness. Expression, explanation, embrace. Beauty, truth, goodness. Art, science, religion. How are these human ideals connected? Must one or the other of them dominate, or is some integral harmonization possible? Can our search for hard scientific truth be made to cohere with our longing for meaning and our love of beauty?
Lightman moves from curiosity concerning the spirituality of the ancients to recounting his own mystical experience. One night, while he was piloting a small boat on the way to his cabin on Pole Island, he was struck by the desire to turn off the lights and cut the engine of his vessel. He laid down on the deck to gaze up at the stars in silent contemplation. It wasn’t long before the boat, his body, and any sense of separation from nature dissolved. He began to feel like he was “falling into infinity.” A spiritual sensation of cosmic kinship with the stars overtook him.
Unlike many theists, whose faith in a personal God originates in such experiences of overpowering transcendent unity, Lightman did not draw religious conclusions from his celestial vision. He remains committed to a purely scientific view of the world, a view he has held since his childhood experiments with petri dishes and pendulums. He references Freud’s reductive view of such “oceanic feelings,” accepting that his experience of the infinite may be nothing more than an infantile desire to crawl back into his mother’s womb. Despite this possible interpretation, his personal experience of being swallowed whole by the sky has allowed him to at least understand the power and allure of religious belief.
“The materiality of the world is a fact, but facts don’t explain the experience.”
Lightman admits that even science is founded on a kind of faith, a faith in what he calls “the Central Doctrine of Science,” that all physical events are governed by universal and necessary laws, or mathematical patterns, that hold everywhere in observable time and space. Because of this scientific faith, he can imagine no “miracles,” or seemingly unexplainable supernatural events. Any such event, while perhaps surprising at first, should be treated as nothing more than an opportunity to refine and expand the laws of physics.
He contrasts the theological certainty of Augustine with the geometrical certainty of Euclid. In Lightman’s view, Augustine’s certainty, rather than a product of divine revelation, is nothing more than fervently held personal opinion. Science, on the other hand, is empirically validated and mathematically proven.
“Theoretical physics is a temple built of mathematics and logic and aesthetics.”
Lightman contrasts the process of scientific discovery with that of artistic creation. Whereas the artist’s creativity, even if rooted in some sort of transcendent experience, remains purely subjective or internal, transcendent moments of discovery in science are both inner and outer, at once subjective and objective. Scientific inspiration has a “vital connection to the physical world,” and thus operates as a kind of “double discovery”: the inner mental world aligns with and thus reveals to consciousness the mathematical truth of the outer material world.
Lightman recounts the history of modern science and the way its discoveries decentered and humbled the human being. After Copernicus, Kepler, Bruno, Galileo, and Newton, it became more difficult for humans to imagine themselves as the uniquely special creation of a personal God. We now know (as Bruno was among the first to speculate) that there are countless other planets that are potentially habitable. Life, even intelligent life, may be pervasive in the universe. We are hardly special.
Lightman views death not as an on/off switch, but as a gradual process of disassembly of the atomic assemblage that, for a time, constitutes who and what we are. Consciousness, he wagers, is just an illusion, a word we use to describe the “mental sensation” of electrochemical flows of neurons in the brain. He claims to be “content with the illusion of life,” with the idea that he is but a “self-referencing machine.” Strangely, however, he is a machine with feelings. Even if illusory, our “mental sensations” remain undeniable. Lightman reframes Descartes’ argument for the reality of the soul: instead of “I think, therefore I am,” it becomes “I feel, therefore I am.” He accepts that, since he cannot escape the feeling of being alive, of life’s joys and sorrows, it hardly matters whether he is actually a soulless machine or not. He may as well find ways to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Despite the illusory nature of consciousness, the neural sham of selfhood, Lightman thinks morality can still be grounded on this simple hedonistic principle.
Lightman ponders the source of our universe’s apparent “fine tuning,” the fact that, were any of the fundamental physical constants even the slightest fraction different from their observed values, life and consciousness could never have emerged. The multiverse theory is offered as one possible explanation, that is, that our universe is just one of infinitely many universes to have randomly emerged from the quantum vacuum, and we just happen to be in one of the rare worlds where the constants aligned just right so as to produce creatures capable of reflecting on this fact. But since it is impossible to test whether or not other universes exist, and because the theory offers a pseudo-explanation rooted in pure chance rather than causal necessity, Lightman is unsure whether it can really be considered scientific. In the end, when physical science reaches the question of the origin of the universe, of why there is something rather than nothing, Lightman admits that philosophy and religion still have a role to play.
While I have some problems with his view of humanity’s place in the universe, I appreciate Lightman’s acknowledgement that philosophy, and even religion, still have a place in human life (at least so long as they avoid making false claims about the physical world). This is far better than some popularizers of science, like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Lawrence Krauss, and Richard Dawkins, who tend to dismiss philosophy and ridicule religion.
I would like to ask Lightman whether he thinks we could ever finally define the meaning of “physical” without doing metaphysics. Physicists can bracket many of philosophy’s more nebulous questions to pursue their precisely defined experimental measurements and build their mathematical models, but at the end of the day, their theoretical definitions inevitably fade off into metaphysics around the edges. I have a few philosophical objections to some of what Lightman seems to take to be incontestably scientific claims. He sometimes wanders into metaphysics without explicitly realizing it, particularly when he discusses consciousness and the mind/body problem.
Lightman emphasizes the mere materiality of everything we experience: our personal identity is nothing but neurochemistry; the enchanting beauty of an island-enveloping fog is really just minuscule droplets of water adrift in the wind; the magical bioluminescent shimmering of the ocean is just little bugs in the water, etc. “It’s all material.”
He grants that “the human body is the most amazing and baffling phenomenon of the material world,” but still, he reminds us, it is all just molecules and chemicals, just atoms out for a swerve in the void.
Nearly a century ago, just as the relativistic and quantum revolutions in science were beginning to sink in, another mathematical physicist-turned-philosopher Alfred North Whitehead offered an alternative reading of the scientific evidence:
“It is the accepted doctrine in physical science that a living body is to be interpreted according to what is known of other sections of the physical universe. This is a sound axiom; but it is double-edged. For it carries with it the converse deduction that other sections of the universe are to be interpreted in accordance with what we know of the human body” (PR 119).
“We think of ourselves as so intimately entwined in bodily life that a man is a complex unity–body and mind. But the body is part of the external world, continuous with it. In fact, it is just as much part of nature as anything else there–a river, or a mountain, or a cloud. Also, if we are fussily exact, we cannot define where a body begins and where external nature ends” (MT 21).
“The human body provides our closest experience of the interplay of actualities in nature…Analogous notions of activity, and forms of transition, apply to human experience and to the human body. Thus bodily activities and forms of experience can be construed in terms of each other. Also the body is part of nature. Thus we finally construe the world in terms of the type of activities disclosed in our intimate experience” (MT 115).
I am in agreement with Lightman that Descartes’ mind/body dualism is unacceptable. Somehow, the mental activities disclosed in our personal experience must be intimately connected with the physiological activities of our body. Like Lightman, I reject vitalistic interpretations of living organisms, where some extra spirit or vital force is thought to inhabit and organize the material body. Physical activity is the same, whether it takes place inside or outside the skin of a living organism. It’s all matter. But “just” matter? “Mere” matter? “Nothing but” matter? Why must we take such a deflationary view of materiality when, as the evidence of our own intimate experience makes clear, matter is capable in some of its forms of nothing less than conscious reflection and intelligent deliberation? What is to prevent us, like Whitehead, of generalizing from our own experience so as to recognize that all matter is to some extent experience-imbued?
Even if we were to accept Lightman’s deflationary view of matter as just dead stuff, and of our consciousness as a linguistically produced illusion, we are still left having to explain how mere molecules could give rise to the illusion of consciousness. Whether the mind has real causal influence, or is merely an epiphenomenal hallucination, how is it that neurons generate mental sensations at all? Feelings arise as self-evident, with their own phenomenological warrant, regardless of any materialist conjectures regarding their real underlying causes. Even if they were ultimately “illusory,” reducible to some purely material level of reality, we still feel them. The “illusion” at least appears, and is thus real enough to require explanation. But I’ve yet to come across a scientific theory of how extensional lumps of matter could produce even the illusion of emotions and mental intentions. Rather than trying to solve this “hard problem,” what is to prevent us from accepting Whitehead’s converse deduction, that our bodily experience grants us insight into the intrinsic nature of matter, a nature that the overly abstract Cartesian view of its extrinsic nature totally misses? What if matter is itself somehow intrinsically mindful or sentient, and gradually increases its experiential intensity as more complex organic forms evolve? Such a view would in no way contradict the known scientific evidence. It just offers an alternative metaphysical interpretation of what we already know about the physical world, an interpretation that allows us to avoid the absurdity of having to deny the reality of our own most intimate experience of being alive. Instead of the reductive nihilism of eliminative materialism, why not the re-enchantment of evolutionary panpsychism?
Such an alternative interpretation is strengthened by revisiting the origin story of modern science. The early modern founders of the scientific worldview were not as soberly positivistic as they are often made to seem. Copernicus’ acceptance of the heliocentric theory was motivated not by its improved predictive power (Ptolemy’s model remained more accurate until Kepler’s and Newton’s later adjustments), but by his spiritual commitment to Neo-Platonism. Similarly, Kepler perceived not just mathematical harmony in the heavenly orbits, but their archetypal music. His astronomical science was practiced right alongside his astrological divination. Galileo, too, was a practicing astrologer. His book Starry Messenger includes a dedication to Cosimo de’ Medici that details the prominent placement of Jupiter in his natal chart.Giordano Bruno was a panpsychist magician (not to mention a political radical). Newton was an alchemist. Sure, we could dismiss their strange mystical proclivities by saying they were all transitional figures, not yet fully modern. But we could also acknowledge that an enchanted cosmology need not preclude scientific investigation. Indeed, in the case of these early founders, it seems to have motivated it!
For these early scientists, the lawful mathematical order of the universe was highly suggestive of its intelligent construction by God. From Whitehead’s perspective, there is a direct line of descent from the medieval theological doctrine of an omniscient and omnipotent God concerned with and in charge of every detail of the created world to the modern scientific faith in the lawful ordering of nature (“faith in the possibility of science is an unconscious derivative from medieval theology” [SMW 13]).
Lightman’s compromise between science and religion has it that the former concerns objective truths about the physical world, while the latter concerns subjective or personal truths about the spiritual world. The truths pursued by each need not compete since they exist in entirely distinct domains. While this position, similar to Stephen J. Gould’s notion of non-overlapping magisteria, is far superior to the aggressive atheism proffered by the likes of Dawkins and Sam Harris, I prefer to seek a more integral solution that situates human spirituality within the same evolving cosmos known to science. Rather than two worlds, one physical and the other spiritual, I inherit Schelling’s view:
This is not to say that the claims made by religious believers ought to be treated as epistemologically equivalent to the claims of natural scientists, especially when it is a question of experimentally testable hypotheses. If the claims of a religion are in conflict with those of a widely accepted scientific fact or theory, it is religious dogma that must bend. Whitehead again:
“Religion will not regain its old power until it can face change in the same spirit as does science. Its principles may be eternal, but the expression of those principles requires continual development” (SMW 234).
That said, modern materialistic cosmology must find a way to make room for human meaning and consciousness. Our meaning-making must of course be informed by modern scientific discoveries, but it cannot be explained away as entirely illusory. [I unpack Whitehead’s attempt to make room in Physics of the World-Soul (2016)].
At least on our planet, cosmic evolution has produced conscious human beings. All the evidence suggests that something similar may be happening on countless other planets. Life and consciousness may be just as pervasive as atoms and stars. To my mind, this fact is not evidence against the existence of a meaningful cosmos or even of a personal God. It could also be interpreted as evidence for an immanent evolutionary aim toward personalization**, and for a far less provincial, truly infinite divinity.
Even in such an enchanted cosmos, our species may be doomed to go extinct. We may be no more than a passing evolutionary phase, as Lightman suggests, destined to be replaced by “Homo techno” in a few generations. But letting go of our anthropocentrism need not leave us with a sense of purposelessness. Even if our species goes extinct, other intelligences surely populate this universe. And even if death is the end of our individual egos, in a panpsychist cosmos, sentience never fully evaporates.
*Interestingly, #2 is Sarte’s Being & Nothingness and #3 is Robert Lanza’s Beyond Biocentrism: Rethinking Time, Space, Consciousness, & the Illusion of Death–two radically different philosophical orientations on ultimate reality.
**As William James suggested, we can view nature as composed “of personal lives (which may be of any grade of complication, and superhuman or infrahuman as well as human), variously cognitive of each other…, genuinely evolving and changing by effort and trial, and by their interaction and cumulative achievements making up the world” (Collected Essays and Reviews, 443-444).