Alan Lightman on the Longing for Absolutes in a Relative World and What Gives Lasting Meaning to Our Lives
By Maria Popova
“Every formula which expresses a law of nature is a hymn of praise to God,” pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell wrote as she contemplated science, spirituality, and our conquest of truth. A century later, Carl Sagan tussled with the same question shortly before his death: “The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.”
It is, of course, an abiding question, as old as consciousness — we are material creatures that live in a material universe, yet we are capable of experiences that transcend what we can atomize into physical facts: love, joy, the full-being gladness of a Beethoven symphony on a midsummer’s night.
The Nobel-winning physicist Niels Bohr articulated the basic paradox of living with and within such a duality: “The fact that religions through the ages have spoken in images, parables, and paradoxes means simply that there are no other ways of grasping the reality to which they refer. But that does not mean that it is not a genuine reality. And splitting this reality into an objective and a subjective side won’t get us very far.”
Nearly a century after Bohr, the physicist and writer Alan Lightman takes us further, beyond these limiting dichotomies, in Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine (public library) — a lyrical and illuminating inquiry into our dual impulse for belief in the unprovable and for trust in truth affirmed by physical evidence. Through the lens of his personal experience as a working scientist and a human being with uncommon receptivity to the poetic dimensions of life, Lightman traces our longing for absolutes in a relative world from Galileo to Van Gogh, from Descartes to Dickinson, emerging with that rare miracle of insight at the meeting point of the lucid and the luminous.
Lightman, who has previously written beautifully about his transcendent experience facing a young osprey, relays a parallel experience he had one summer night on an island off the coast of Maine, where he and his wife have been going for a quarter century. On this small, remote speck of land, severed from the mainland without ferries or bridges, each of the six families has had to learn to cross the ocean by small boat — a task particularly challenging at night. Lightman recounts the unbidden revelation of one such nocturnal crossing:
No one was out on the water but me. It was a moonless night, and quiet. The only sound I could hear was the soft churning of the engine of my boat. Far from the distracting lights of the mainland, the sky vibrated with stars. Taking a chance, I turned off my running lights, and it got even darker. Then I turned off my engine. I lay down in the boat and looked up. A very dark night sky seen from the ocean is a mystical experience. After a few minutes, my world had dissolved into that star-littered sky. The boat disappeared. My body disappeared. And I found myself falling into infinity. A feeling came over me I’d not experienced before… I felt an overwhelming connection to the stars, as if I were part of them. And the vast expanse of time — extending from the far distant past long before I was born and then into the far distant future long after I will die — seemed compressed to a dot. I felt connected not only to the stars but to all of nature, and to the entire cosmos. I felt a merging with something far larger than myself, a grand and eternal unity, a hint of something absolute. After a time, I sat up and started the engine again. I had no idea how long I’d been lying there looking up.
Lightman — the first professor at MIT to receive a dual faculty appointment in science and the humanities — syncopates this numinous experience with the reality of his lifelong devotion to science:
I have worked as a physicist for many years, and I have always held a purely scientific view of the world. By that, I mean that the universe is made of material and nothing more, that the universe is governed exclusively by a small number of fundamental forces and laws, and that all composite things in the world, including humans and stars, eventually disintegrate and return to their component parts. Even at the age of twelve or thirteen, I was impressed by the logic and materiality of the world. I built my own laboratory and stocked it with test tubes and petri dishes, Bunsen burners, resistors and capacitors, coils of electrical wire. Among other projects, I began making pendulums by tying a fishing weight to the end of a string. I’d read in Popular Science or some similar magazine that the time for a pendulum to make a complete swing was proportional to the square root of the length of the string. With the help of a stopwatch and ruler, I verified this wonderful law. Logic and pattern. Cause and effect. As far as I could tell, everything was subject to numerical analysis and quantitative test. I saw no reason to believe in God, or in any other unprovable hypotheses.
Yet after my experience in that boat many years later… I understood the powerful allure of the Absolutes — ethereal things that are all-encompassing, unchangeable, eternal, sacred. At the same time, and perhaps paradoxically, I remained a scientist. I remained committed to the material world.
Against our human finitude, temporality, and imperfection, these “Absolutes” offer infinity, eternity, perfection. Lightman defines them as concepts and beliefs that “refer to an enduring and fixed reference point that can anchor and guide us through our temporary lives” — notions like constancy, immortality, permanence, the soul, “God.”
Building on his earlier reflections on why we long for permanence in a universe of constant change, he writes:
A fascinating feature of the Absolutes — in fact, a defining feature — is that there is no way to get there from here, that is, from within the physical world. There is no gradual, step-by-step path to go from relative truth to absolute truth, or to go from a long period of time to eternity, or from limited wisdom to the infinite wisdom of God. The infinite is not merely a lot more of the finite. Indeed, the unattainability of the Absolutes may be part of their allure.
The final defining feature of these Absolutes, Lightman notes, is their unprovability by the scientific method. He writes:
Yet I did not need any proof of what I felt during that summer night in Maine looking up at the sky. It was a purely personal experience, and its validity and power resided in the experience itself. Science knows what it knows from experiment with the external world. Belief in the Absolutes comes from internal experience, or sometimes from received teachings and culture-granted authority.
Conversely, however, notions that belong to this realm of Absolutes fall apart when they make claims in the realm of science — claims disproven by the facts of the material world. With an eye to how the discoveries of modern science — from heliocentricity to evolution to the chemical composition of the universe — have challenged many of these Absolutes, Lightman writes:
Nothing in the physical world seems to be constant or permanent. Stars burn out. Atoms disintegrate. Species evolve. Motion is relative. Even other universes might exist, many without life. Unity has given way to multiplicity. I say that the Absolutes have been challenged rather than disproved, because the notions of the Absolutes cannot be disproved any more than they can be proved. The Absolutes are ideals, entities, beliefs in things that lie beyond the physical world. Some may be true and some false, but the truth or falsity cannot be proven.
Generations after Henry Miller insisted that “it is almost banal to say so yet it needs to be stressed continually: all is creation, all is change, all is flux, all is metamorphosis,” Lightman adds:
From all the physical and sociological evidence, the world appears to run not on absolutes but on relatives, context, change, impermanence, and multiplicity. Nothing is fixed. All is in flux.
On the one hand, such an onslaught of discovery presents a cause for celebration… Is it not a testament to our minds that we little human beings with our limited sensory apparatus and brief lifespans, stuck on our one planet in space, have been able to uncover so much of the workings of nature? On the other hand, we have found no physical evidence for the Absolutes. And just the opposite. All of the new findings suggest that we live in a world of multiplicities, relativities, change, and impermanence. In the physical realm, nothing persists. Nothing lasts. Nothing is indivisible. Even the subatomic particles found in the twentieth century are now thought to be made of even smaller “strings” of energy, in a continuing regression of subatomic Russian dolls. Nothing is a whole. Nothing is indestructible. Nothing is still. If the physical world were a novel, with the business of examining evil and good, it would not have the clear lines of Dickens but the shadowy ambiguities of Dostoevsky.
Indeed, Dostoevsky himself may be the prophet laureate of Absolutes, for he asserted a lifetime ahead of Lightman that “nature, the soul, love, and God, one recognizes through the heart, and not through the reason.” The discoveries of reason, which Lightman terms the Relatives — “the relativity and impermanence and multiplicity found by modern science” — stand in counterpoint to the Absolutes, but these are not binary categories. Pointing to examples like the novelist Marilynne Robinson, whose highly spiritual writing is infused with science, and the Nobel-winning physicist Steven Weinberg, an atheist who nonetheless believes in a “final theory” that promises absolute answers to all of existence, Lightman notes that individual people weave Absolutes and Relatives into their worldview in varying degrees. He writes:
The Absolutes and the Relatives can be considered a large frame in which to view the dialogue between religion and science, or between spirituality and science. But I suggest that the issues go deeper, into the dualism and complexity of human existence. We are idealists and we are realists. We are dreamers and we are builders. We are experiencers and we are experimenters. We long for certainties, yet we ourselves are full of the ambiguities of the Mona Lisa and the I Ching. We ourselves are a part of the yin-yang of the world. Our yearning for absolutes and, at the same time, our commitment to the physical world reflect a necessary tension in how we relate to the cosmos and relate to ourselves.
Echoing Rachel Carson’s stunning meditation on the bioluminescent wonder of fireflies — something she saw as “one of those experiences that gives an odd and hard-to-describe feeling, with so many overtones beyond the facts themselves” — Lightman recounts a kindred formative experience of his own:
When I was seven or eight years old, growing up in landlocked Memphis, I visited my grandparents for a week at their little beach house in Miami. One dark and moonless night as I sat at the end of their dock, for some reason known only to children I grabbed a stick and stirred up the ocean beneath me. I was astonished to see the water shimmer with light. To my mind, the ocean was already a mysterious place, with its changing colors, its infinite gray skin stretching out to the sky, and its waves flowing in one after another, like the breathing of some large sleeping animal. But the glow of the seawater was magic of a different order. My imagination flared. Was this fairy dust? Was this some kind of galactic energy? What other secrets and powers lay below the ocean’s surface? Excited, I ran into the house and commandeered my grandparents to witness the discovery. Again I stirred the water with my wand, and it happened again. Pure magic. I scooped up some of the supernatural liquid in a glass jar and took it into the house for further inspection. I’m not sure what I was hoping to find. What I did find, after the water settled, were tiny organisms floating about. In a dark room, they glowed faintly like fireflies. They felt slightly grainy in my hand. I was crestfallen. The magic was just little bugs in the water.
That dual fascination with wonder and reverence for fact never left Lightman. He reflects sixty years later:
As did Thoreau in Concord, I’ve traveled far and wide on Lute Island. I know each cedar and poplar, each clump of beach rose, Rosa rugosa, each patch of blueberry bushes and raspberry brambles and woody stems of hydrangeas, all the soft mounds of moss, some of which I touch on my ramblings today. The tart scent of raspberries blends with the salty sea air. Early this morning, a fog enveloped the island so completely that I felt as if I were in a spaceship afloat in outer space — white space. But the surreal fog, made of minuscule water droplets too tiny to see, eventually evaporated and disappeared. It’s all material, even the magical fog — like the bioluminescence I first saw as a child. It’s all atoms and molecules.
The materiality of the world is a fact, but facts don’t explain the experience. Shining sea water, fog, sunsets, stars. All material. So grand is the material that we find it hard to accept it as merely material… Surely, there must be more. “Nature,” wrote Emily Dickinson, “is what we see / The Hill — the Afternoon / Squirrel — Eclipse — the Bumble bee / Nay — Nature is Heaven.” In the last line, the poet leaps from the finite to infinity, to the realm of the Absolutes. It is almost as if Nature in her glory wants us to believe in a heaven, something divine and immaterial beyond nature itself. In other words, Nature tempts us to believe in the supernatural. But then again, Nature has also given us big brains, allowing us to build microscopes and telescopes and ultimately, for some of us, to conclude that it’s all just atoms and molecules. It’s a paradox.
For millennia, we have been aiming our range of tools — from mythology to science — at this paradox, but remain suspended between Absolutes and Relatives even as we make progress in fathoming the reality of nature on its own terms. Lightman writes:
Nature may at times appear to be a Painter or a Philosopher or a Celestial Spirit. But deep down she is a Scientist. She is quantitative. She is logical. And nothing better illustrates her ruthless and unyielding adherence to that logic than the law of the conservation of energy. Energy does not appear out of nothing. Energy does not disappear into nothing. The energy law is a sacred cow of physics.
Two thousand years ago, the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius suggested that the power of the gods over us mortals is limited by the constancy of atoms. Atoms could not be created or destroyed, said Lucretius. The gods could not make objects suddenly appear out of nothing or vanish into nothing because all things are made out of atoms, and the number of atoms remains constant… Lucretius’s idea was a conservation law. The poet did not know how to tally up the number of atoms, as we tally up the number of joules in a box, but something was constant, and that constancy clearly provided great psychological comfort as well as understanding of nature. Let the gods and the supernatural have their sway, but they cannot alter the number of atoms here in our earthly world.
Lightman observes that when modern physics arrived at the law of conservation of energy, affirmed by the discovery of the neutrino, it provided the same psychological comfort:
With this law and others like it, nature can be made sense of. Nature can be calculated. Nature can be depended on. If you know the initial energy of the unstruck match and then measure the energy in the heated air, you know how high the weight must be lifted. The total energy is constant.
Ironically, we have traded one constancy for another. We have lost the constancy of the stars but gained the constancy of energy. The first is a physical object, the second a concept. Scientists cannot prove without a doubt that the total energy in a closed system is constant. But any violation of that principle would destroy the foundations of physics and suggest an unlawful universe. The idea of a lawful universe is itself an Absolute.
The material of the doomed stars and the material of my doomed body are actually the same material. Literally the same atoms… It is astonishing but true that if I could attach a small tag to each of the atoms of my body and travel with them backward in time, I would find that those atoms originated in particular stars in the sky. Those exact atoms.
Human life may be a beautiful fact, but it is a tiny subset of the facts of the universe — a universe we took for millennia to belong to us. We are only just beginning to recognize that we belong to it. There is disquiet in this recognition that bleeds into denial — denial encoded in the statistic that the vast majority of people in the world still believe in a personal God who intercedes on their behalf, a belief predicated on the delusion of human centrality and our special status amid a cosmos of incomprehensible vastness. Lightman calibrates that notion with the facts of reality:
Data from the Kepler astronomical satellite, launched in 2009 and specifically constructed to search for planets in the “habitable zone” — that is, the right distance from their central star to possess liquid water — suggest that something like 10 percent of all stars have at least one “habitable” planet…
There are several hundred billion stars in our galaxy alone, and a hundred billion galaxies just within the observable universe. Overwhelmingly, the odds favor life forms elsewhere in the universe. Although we do not know in detail how life developed on earth, the odds that no life exists on the billions and billions of other habitable planets would be as improbable as no fires ever starting in a billion trillion dry forests. Almost certainly life elsewhere in the universe would not be like ours. But biologists and even perhaps artists and philosophers would recognize it as life. And with so many life-bearing worlds and billions of years of cosmic evolution, there must be a range of civilizations, some less advanced than ours and some more.
What God, Lightman asks, would be able to meet the demands of so many worlds and still prioritize the particular needs of each individual in our particular civilization orbiting our particular third-rate star? What gives meaning to our existence, he suggests, is not the guarantee of Absolutes or the favors of some imagined cosmic deity but something else entirely — something that fills the smallest units of our temporality with life until they themselves expand into a testament to the age-old insight that “all eternity is in the moment.” He writes:
Nothing is absolutely motionless, says Einstein, but I’m centered in this island. Wherever it goes, hurtling through space as the earth orbits the sun and the sun orbits the galaxy, I go with it. I’ve planted myself here, like the Rosa rugosa down the hill, stubborn and thorny. At this moment, I can hear the call of a gull and the wind blowing through trees like the sound of a distant waterfall and the tiny purr of a boat engine far off in the bay. Then there’s the steady and slight sound of the waves, playing counterpoint to the soft music of birds. But all of it slips into the silky silence of this place. I embrace that silence. I breed silence and am bred by it. On this island, I am light years away from the noise and heave of the world. Like Thoreau, I came here “because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what life had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” I choose to live. Now, this body of mine, this old animal, is sixty-seven years old.
Echoing Montaigne — “To lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago,” observed the father of the essay as he contemplated mortality and the art of living in the same century Galileo unsettled the universe — Lightman writes:
When we approach Lute Island by boat and gaze at it from a distance, a dollop of rock and green rising out of the sea, I am acutely aware that it will last far longer than I will. A hundred years from now, after I’m gone, many of these spruce and cedars will still be here. And the wind going through them will sound like a distant waterfall. The curve of the land will be the same as it is now. The paths that I wander may still be here, although probably covered with new vegetation. The rocks and ledges on the shore will be here, including a particular ledge I’m quite fond of, shaped like the knuckled back of a large animal. Sometimes, I sit on that ledge (more sitting) and wonder if it will remember me. Even my house might still be here, or at least the concrete posts of its footing, crumbling in the salt air. But eventually, of course, even this island will shift and change and dissolve. In geologic time, there may be no trace of Lute Island. Twenty-five thousand years ago, it didn’t exist. Maine and most of North America were covered with ice, thousands of feet thick. Two hundred and fifty million years ago, the Atlantic Ocean didn’t exist. Europe, Africa, and North America were joined together in a single landmass. Nothing persists in the material world. All of it changes and passes away.
As I lie in my hammock now on this late afternoon in August, I can feel the seconds ticking away to my end, and I believe it to be a final end. But that finality does not diminish the grandeur of life. As the seconds tick by, I breathe one breath at a time. I inhale, I exhale. These spruces and cedars I cherish and know, the wind, the sweet scent of moist and dark soil — these are my small sense of enlightenment, my past life and present life and future life all in one moment.
Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine is a splendid read in its entirety. Complement it with Carl Sagan on science and spirituality, Richard Feynman on why uncertainty is essential for morality, and Simone de Beauvoir on the moral courage of nonbelief, then revisit Lightman on the transcendence of creative work and his poetic ode to science and the unknown.
Published March 27, 2018