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Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

27 JANUARY, 2014

The Ego and the Universe: Alan Watts on Becoming Who You Really Are

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The cause of and cure for the illusion of separateness that keeps us from embracing the richness of life.

During the 1950s and 1960s, British philosopher and writer Alan Watts began popularizing Eastern philosophy in the West, offering a wholly different perspective on inner wholeness in the age of anxiety and what it really means to live a life of purpose. We owe much of today’s mainstream adoption of practices like yoga and meditation to Watts’s influence. In The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are (public library), originally published in 1966 and building upon his indispensable earlier work, Watts argues with equal parts conviction and compassion that “the prevalent sensation of oneself as a separate ego enclosed in a bag of skin is a hallucination which accords neither with Western science nor with the experimental philosophy-religions of the East,” exploring the cause and cure of that illusion in a way that flows from profound unease as we confront our cultural conditioning into a deep sense of lightness as we surrender to the comforting mystery and interconnectedness of the universe. Envisioned as a packet of essential advice a parent might hand down to his child on the brink of adulthood as initiation into the central mystery of life, this existential manual is rooted in what Watts calls “a cross-fertilization of Western science with an Eastern intuition.

Alan Watts, early 1970s (Image courtesy of Everett Collection)

Though strictly nonreligious, the book explores many of the core inquiries which religions have historically tried to address — the problems of life and love, death and sorrow, the universe and our place in it, what it means to have an “I” at the center of our experience, and what the meaning of existence might be. In fact, Watts begins by pulling into question how well-equipped traditional religions might be to answer those questions:

The standard-brand religions, whether Jewish, Christian, Mohammedan, Hindu, or Buddhist, are — as now practiced — like exhausted mines: very hard to dig. With some exceptions not too easily found, their ideas about man and the world, their imagery, their rites, and their notions of the good life don’t seem to fit in with the universe as we now know it, or with a human world that is changing so rapidly that much of what one learns in school is already obsolete on graduation day.

Watts considers the singular anxiety of the age, perhaps even more resonant today, half a century and a manic increase of pace later:

There is a growing apprehension that existence is a rat-race in a trap: living organisms, including people, are merely tubes which put things in at one end and let them out at the other, which both keeps them doing it and in the long run wears them out.

He considers how philosophy might alleviate this central concern by contributing a beautiful addition to the definitions of what philosophy is and recognizing the essential role of wonder in the human experience:

Most philosophical problems are to be solved by getting rid of them, by coming to the point where you see that such questions as “Why this universe?” are a kind of intellectual neurosis, a misuse of words in that the question sounds sensible but is actually as meaningless as asking “Where is this universe?” when the only things that are anywhere must be somewhere inside the universe. The task of philosophy is to cure people of such nonsense. . . . Nevertheless, wonder is not a disease. Wonder, and its expression in poetry and the arts, are among the most important things which seem to distinguish men from other animals, and intelligent and sensitive people from morons.

At the heart of the human condition, Watts argues, is a core illusion that fuels our deep-seated sense of loneliness the more we subscribe to the myth of the sole ego, one reflected in the most basic language we use to make sense of the world:

We suffer from a hallucination, from a false and distorted sensation of our own existence as living organisms. Most of us have the sensation that “I myself” is a separate center of feeling and action, living inside and bounded by the physical body — a center which “confronts” an “external” world of people and things, making contact through the senses with a universe both alien and strange. Everyday figures of speech reflect this illusion. “I came into this world.” “You must face reality.” “The conquest of nature.”

This feeling of being lonely and very temporary visitors in the universe is in flat contradiction to everything known about man (and all other living organisms) in the sciences. We do not “come into” this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean “waves,” the universe “peoples.” Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe. This fact is rarely, if ever, experienced by most individuals. Even those who know it to be true in theory do not sense or feel it, but continue to be aware of themselves as isolated “egos” inside bags of skin.

(A curious aside for music aficionados and fans of the show Weeds: Watts uses the phrase “little boxes made of ticky-tacky” to describe the homogenizing and perilous effect of the American quest for dominance over “nature , space, mountains, deserts, bacteria, and insects instead of learning to cooperate with them in a harmonious order.” The following year, Malvina Reynolds used the phrase in the lyrics to her song “Little Boxes”, which satirizes suburbia and the development of the middle class. The song became a hit for Pete Seeger in 1963 and was used by Showtime as the opening credits score for the first three seasons of Jenji Kohan’s Weeds.)

Religions, Watts points out, work to reinforce rather than liberate us from this sense of separateness, for at their heart lies a basic intolerance for uncertainty — the very state embracing which is fundamental to our happiness, as modern psychology has indicated, and crucial to the creative process, as Keats has eloquently articulated. Watts writes:

Religions are divisive and quarrelsome. They are a form of one-upmanship because they depend upon separating the “saved” from the “damned,” the true believers from the heretics, the in-group from the out-group. . . . All belief is fervent hope, and thus a cover-up for doubt and uncertainty.

In a sentiment that Alan Lightman would come to echo more than half a century later in his remarkable meditation on science and what faith really means, Watts adds:

Irrevocable commitment to any religion is not only intellectual suicide; it is positive unfaith because it closes the mind to any new vision of the world. Faith is, above all, open-ness — an act of trust in the unknown.

[…]

No considerate God would destroy the human mind by making it so rigid and unadaptable as to depend upon one book, the Bible, for all the answers. For the use of words, and thus of a book, is to point beyond themselves to a world of life and experience that is not mere words or even ideas. Just as money is not real, consumable wealth, books are not life. To idolize scriptures is like eating paper currency.

Instead, Watts proposes that we need “a new domain, not of ideas alone, but of experience and feeling,” something that serves as “a point of departure, not a perpetual point of reference” and offers not a new Bible but a new way of understanding human experience, “a new feeling of what it is to be an ‘I.’” In recognizing and fully inhabiting that feeling, he argues, lies the greatest taboo of human culture:

Our normal sensation of self is a hoax, or, at best, a temporary role that we are playing, or have been conned into playing — with our own tacit consent, just as every hypnotized person is basically willing to be hypnotized. The most strongly enforced of all known taboos is the taboo against knowing who or what you really are behind the mask of your apparently separate, independent, and isolated ego.

And yet, he argues, the sense of “I” and the illusion of its separateness from the rest of the universe is so pervasive and so deeply rooted in the infrastructure of our language, our institutions, and our cultural conventions that we find ourselves unable to “experience selfhood except as something superficial in the scheme of the universe.” The antidote lies in recognizing not merely that we belong to and with the rest of universe, but that there is no “rest” in the first place — we are the universe.

'Möbius Structure of Relationships' by David Byrne. Click image for details.

Still, Watts cautions that this is not to be confused with the idea of unselfishness promoted by many religions and ideologies, “which is the effort to identify with others and their needs while still under the strong illusion of being no more than a skin-contained ego”:

Such “unselfishness” is apt to be a highly refined egotism, comparable to the in-group which plays the game of “we’re-more-tolerant-than-you.”

Echoing C.S. Lewis’s advice to children on duty and love, Watts writes:

Genuine love comes from knowledge, not from a sense of duty or guilt.

[…]

Our whole knowledge of the world is, in one sense, self-knowledge. For knowing is a translation of external events into bodily processes, and especially into states of the nervous system and the brain: we know the world in terms of the body, and in accordance with its structure.

One thing that reinforces our isolated sensation of self, Watts argues, is our biological wiring to err on always either side of the figure-ground illusion, only ever able to see one half of the whole and remaining blind to the rest. He illustrates this with a beautiful analogy:

All your five senses are differing forms of one basic sense—something like touch. Seeing is highly sensitive touching. The eyes touch, or feel, light waves and so enable us to touch things out of reach of our hands. Similarly, the ears touch sound waves in the air, and the nose tiny particles of dust and gas. But the complex patterns and chains of neurons which constitute these senses are composed of neuron units which are capable of changing between just two states: on or off. To the central brain the individual neuron signals either yes or no — that’s all. But, as we know from computers which employ binary arithmetic in which the only figures are 0 and 1, these simple elements can be formed into the most complex and marvelous patterns.

In this respect our nervous system and 0/1 computers are much like everything else, for the physical world is basically vibration. Whether we think of this vibration in terms of waves or of particles, or perhaps wavicles, we never find the crest of a wave without a trough or a particle without an interval, or space, between itself and others. In other words, there is no such thing as a half wave, or a particle all by itself without any space around it. There is no on without off, no up without down.

[…]

While eyes and ears actually register and respond to both the up-beat and the down-beat of these vibrations, the mind, that is to say our conscious attention, notices only the up-beat. The dark, silent, or “off” interval is ignored. It is almost a general principle that consciousness ignores intervals, and yet cannot notice any pulse of energy without them. If you put your hand on an attractive girl’s knee and just leave it there, she may cease to notice it. But if you keep patting her knee, she will know you are very much there and interested. But she notices and, you hope, values the on more than the off. Nevertheless, the very things that we believe to exist are always on/offs. Ons alone and offs alone do not exist.

Indeed, he argues that the general conditioning of consciousness is to ignore intervals. (We’ve seen the everyday manifestation of this in Alexandra Horowitz’s fascinating exploration of what we don’t see.) We register the sound but not the silence that surrounds it. We think of space as nothingness in which certain somethings — objects, planetary bodies, our own bodies — hang. And yet:

Solids and spaces go together as inseparably as insides and outsides. Space is the relationship between bodies, and without it there can be neither energy nor motion.

What further fuels this half-sighted reliance on intervals is the way our attention — which has been aptly called “an intentional, unapologetic discriminator” — works by dividing the world up into processable parts, then stringing those together into a pixelated collage of separates which we then accept as a realistic representation of the whole that was there in the first place:

Attention is narrowed perception. It is a way of looking at life bit by bit, using memory to string the bits together — as when examining a dark room with a flashlight having a very narrow beam. Perception thus narrowed has the advantage of being sharp and bright, but it has to focus on one area of the world after another, and one feature after another. And where there are no features, only space or uniform surfaces, it somehow gets bored and searches about for more features. Attention is therefore something like a scanning mechanism in radar or television. . . . But a scanning process that observes the world bit by bit soon persuades its user that the world is a great collection of bits, and these he calls separate things or events. We often say that you can only think of one thing at a time. The truth is that in looking at the world bit by bit we convince ourselves that it consists of separate things, and so give ourselves the problem of how these things are connected and how they cause and effect each other. The problem would never have arisen if we had been aware that it was just our way of looking at the world which had chopped it up into separate bits, things, events, causes, and effects.

Nature and nurture conspire in the architecture of this illusion of separateness, which Watts argues begins in childhood as our parents, our teachers, and our entire culture “help us to be genuine fakes, which is precisely what is meant by ‘being a real person.’” He offers a fascinating etymology of the concept into which we anchor the separate ego:

The person, from the Latin persona, was originally the megaphone-mouthed mask used by actors in the open-air theaters of ancient Greece and Rome, the mask through (per) which the sound (sonus) came.

Indeed, this bisection is perhaps most powerful and painful not in our sense of separateness from the universe but in our sense of being divided within ourselves — a feeling particularly pronounced among creative people, a kind of “diamagnetic” relationship between person and persona. While the oft-cited metaphor of the rider and the elephant might explain the dual processing of the brain, it is also a dangerous dichotomy that only perpetuates our sense of being separate from and within ourselves. Watts writes:

The self-conscious feedback mechanism of the cortex allows us the hallucination that we are two souls in one body — a rational soul and an animal soul, a rider and a horse, a good guy with better instincts and finer feelings and a rascal with rapacious lusts and unruly passions. Hence the marvelously involved hypocrisies of guilt and penitence, and the frightful cruelties of punishment, warfare, and even self-torment in the name of taking the side of the good soul against the evil. The more it sides with itself, the more the good soul reveals its inseparable shadow, and the more it disowns its shadow, the more it becomes it.

Thus for thousands of years human history has been a magnificently futile conflict, a wonderfully staged panorama of triumphs and tragedies based on the resolute taboo against admitting that black goes with white.

Returning to our inability to grasp intervals as the basic fabric of world and integrate foreground with background, content with context, Watts considers how the very language with which we name things and events — our notation system for what our attention notices — reflects this basic bias towards separateness:

Today, scientists are more and more aware that what things are, and what they are doing, depends on where and when they are doing it. If, then, the definition of a thing or event must include definition of its environment, we realize that any given thing goes with a given environment so intimately and inseparably that it is more difficult to draw a clear boundary between the thing and its surroundings.

[…]

“Individual” is the Latin form of the Greek “atom” — that which cannot be cut or divided any further into separate parts. We cannot chop off a person’s head or remove his heart without killing him. But we can kill him just as effectively by separating him from his proper environment. This implies that the only true atom is the universe — that total system of interdependent “thing-events” which can be separated from each other only in name. For the human individual is not built as a car is built. He does not come into being by assembling parts, by screwing a head onto a neck, by wiring a brain to a set of lungs, or by welding veins to a heart. Head, neck, heart, lungs, brain, veins, muscles, and glands are separate names but not separate events, and these events grow into being simultaneously and interdependently. In precisely the same way, the individual is separate from his universal environment only in name. When this is not recognized, you have been fooled by your name. Confusing names with nature, you come to believe that having a separate name makes you a separate being. This is — rather literally — to be spellbound.

'Man as Industrial Palace,' by Fritz Kahn, 1926. Click image for details.

So how are we to wake up from the trance and dissolve the paradox of the ego? It all comes down to the fundamental anxiety of existence, our inability to embrace uncertainty and reconcile death. Watts writes:

The hallucination of separateness prevents one from seeing that to cherish the ego is to cherish misery. We do not realize that our so-called love and concern for the individual is simply the other face of our own fear of death or rejection. In his exaggerated valuation of separate identity, the personal ego is sawing off the branch on which he is sitting, and then getting more and more anxious about the coming crash!

And so we return to the core of Watt’s philosophy, the basis of his earlier work, extending an urgent invitation to begin living with presence — a message all the timelier in our age of worshipping productivity, which is by definition aimed at some future reward and thus takes us out of the present moment. Watts writes:

Unless one is able to live fully in the present, the future is a hoax. There is no point whatever in making plans for a future which you will never be able to enjoy. When your plans mature, you will still be living for some other future beyond. You will never, never be able to sit back with full contentment and say, “Now, I’ve arrived!

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for Ruth Krauss's 'Open House for Butterflies.' Click image for details.

Traditionally, humanity has handled this paradox in two ways, either by withdrawing into the depths of consciousness, as monks and hermits do in their attempt to honor the impermanence of the world, or servitude for the sake of some future reward, as many religions encourage. Both of these, Watts argues, are self-defeating strategies:

Just because it is a hoax from the beginning, the personal ego can make only a phony response to life. For the world is an ever-elusive and ever-disappointing mirage only from the standpoint of someone standing aside from it — as if it were quite other than himself — and then trying to grasp it. Without birth and death, and without the perpetual transmutation of all the forms of life, the world would be static, rhythm-less, undancing, mummified.

But a third response is possible. Not withdrawal, not stewardship on the hypothesis of a future reward, but the fullest collaboration with the world as a harmonious system of contained conflicts — based on the realization that the only real “I” is the whole endless process. This realization is already in us in the sense that our bodies know it, our bones and nerves and sense-organs. We do not know it only in the sense that the thin ray of conscious attention has been taught to ignore it, and taught so thoroughly that we are very genuine fakes indeed.

The failure to recognize this harmonious interplay, Watts argues, has triggered a lamentable amount of conflict between nations, individuals, humanity and nature, and with the individual. Again and again, he returns to the notion of figure and ground, of a cohesive whole that masquerades as separate parts under the lens of our conditioned eye for separateness:

Our practical projects have run into confusion again and again through failure to see that individual people, nations, animals, insects, and plants do not exist in or by themselves. This is not to say only that things exist in relation to one another, but that what we call “things” are no more than glimpses of a unified process. Certainly, this process has distinct features which catch our attention, but we must remember that distinction is not separation. Sharp and clear as the crest of the wave may be, it necessarily “goes with” the smooth and less featured curve of the trough. … In the Gestalt theory of perception this is known as the figure/ground relationship.

Noting “our difficulty in noticing both the presence and the action of the background,” Watts illustrates this with an example, which Riccardo Manzotti reiterated almost verbatim half a century later. Watts writes:

A still more cogent example of existence as relationship is the production of a rainbow. For a rainbow appears only when there is a certain triangular relationship between three components: the sun, moisture in the atmosphere, and an observer. If all three are present, and if the angular relationship between them is correct, then, and then only, will there be the phenomenon “rainbow.” Diaphanous as it may be, a rainbow is no subjective hallucination. It can be verified by any number of observers, though each will see it in a slightly different position.

Like the rainbow, all phenomena are interactions of elements of the whole, and the relationship between them always implies and reinforces that wholeness:

The universe implies the organism, and each single organism implies the universe — only the “single glance” of our spotlight, narrowed attention, which has been taught to confuse its glimpses with separate “things,” must somehow be opened to the full vision

In recognizing this lies the cure for the illusion of the separate ego — but this recognition can’t be willed into existence, since the will itself is part of the ego:

Just as science overcame its purely atomistic and mechanical view of the world through more science, the ego-trick must be overcome through intensified self-consciousness. For there is no way of getting rid of the feeling of separateness by a so-called “act of will,” by trying to forget yourself, or by getting absorbed in some other interest. This is why moralistic preaching is such a failure: it breeds only cunning hypocrites — people sermonized into shame, guilt, or fear, who thereupon force themselves to behave as if they actually loved others, so that their “virtues” are often more destructive, and arouse more resentment, than their “vices.”

In considering how an organism might realize this sense of implying the universe and how we might shake the ego-illusion in favor of a deeper sense of belonging, Watts expresses a certain skepticism for practices like yoga and meditation when driven by striving rather than total acceptance — a skepticism all the more poignant amidst our age of ubiquitous yoga studios and meditation retreats, brimming with competitive yogis and meditators:

An experience of this kind cannot be forced or made to happen by any act of your fictitious “will,” except insofar as repeated efforts to be one-up on the universe may eventually reveal their futility. Don’t try to get rid of the ego-sensation. Take it, so long as it lasts, as a feature or play of the total process — like a cloud or wave, or like feeling warm or cold, or anything else that happens of itself. Getting rid of one’s ego is the last resort of invincible egoism! It simply confirms and strengthens the reality of the feeling. But when this feeling of separateness is approached and accepted like any other sensation, it evaporates like the mirage that it is.

This is why I am not overly enthusiastic about the various “spiritual exercises” in meditation or yoga which some consider essential for release from the ego. For when practiced in order to “get” some kind of spiritual illumination or awakening, they strengthen the fallacy that the ego can toss itself away by a tug at its own bootstraps.

In asserting that the ego is “exactly what it pretends it isn’t” — not the epicenter of who we are but a false construct conditioned since childhood by social convention — Watts echoes Albert Camus on our self-imposed prisons and reminds us:

There is no fate unless there is someone or something to be fated. There is no trap without someone to be caught. There is, indeed, no compulsion unless there is also freedom of choice, for the sensation of behaving involuntarily is known only by contrast with that of behaving voluntarily. Thus when the line between myself and what happens to me is dissolved and there is no stronghold left for an ego even as a passive witness, I find myself not in a world but as a world which is neither compulsive nor capricious. What happens is neither automatic nor arbitrary: it just happens, and all happenings are mutually interdependent in a way that seems unbelievably harmonious. Every this goes with every that. Without others there is no self, and without somewhere else there is no here, so that — in this sense — self is other and here is there.

(Perhaps this is what Gertrude Stein really meant when she wrote “there is no there there.”)

And therein lies the essence of what Watts is proposing — not a negation of who we are, but an embracing of our wholeness by awakening from the zombie-like trance of separateness; not in resignation, but in active surrender to what Diane Ackerman so memorably termed “the plain everythingness of everything, in cahoots with the everythingness of everything else,” that immutable recognition of the sum that masquerades as parts:

In immediate contrast to the old feeling, there is indeed a certain passivity to the sensation, as if you were a leaf blown along by the wind, until you realize that you are both the leaf and the wind. The world outside your skin is just as much you as the world inside: they move together inseparably, and at first you feel a little out of control because the world outside is so much vaster than the world inside. Yet you soon discover that you are able to go ahead with ordinary activities—to work and make decisions as ever, though somehow this is less of a drag. Your body is no longer a corpse which the ego has to animate and lug around. There is a feeling of the ground holding you up, and of hills lifting you when you climb them. Air breathes itself in and out of your lungs, and instead of looking and listening, light and sound come to you on their own. Eyes see and ears hear as wind blows and water flows. All space becomes your mind. Time carries you along like a river, but never flows out of the present: the more it goes, the more it stays, and you no longer have to fight or kill it.

[…]

Once you have seen this you can return to the world of practical affairs with a new spirit. You have seen that the universe is at root a magical illusion and a fabulous game, and that there is no separate “you” to get something out of it, as if life were a bank to be robbed. The only real “you” is the one that comes and goes, manifests and withdraws itself eternally in and as every conscious being. For “you” is the universe looking at itself from billions of points of view, points that come and go so that the vision is forever new.

You do not ask what is the value, or what is the use, of this feeling. Of what use is the universe? What is the practical application of a million galaxies?

Watts ends with a wonderful verse by the infinitely inspiring James Broughton:

This is It
and I am It
and You are It
and so is That
and He is It
and She is It
and It is It
and That is That

No words can describe just how profoundly perspective-shifting The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are is in its entirety, and with what exquisite stickiness it stays with you for a lifetime.

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16 JANUARY, 2014

Kurt Vonnegut on the Secret of Happiness: An Homage to Joseph Heller’s Wisdom

By:

The meaning of life, in a short verse.

“Don’t make stuff because you want to make money — it will never make you enough money. And don’t make stuff because you want to get famous — because you will never feel famous enough,” John Green advised aspiring writers. “If you worship money and things … then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth,” David Foster Wallace admonished in his timeless commencement address on the meaning of life. But what does it really mean to “have enough?”

There is hardly a better answer than the one implicitly given by Kurt Vonnegutman of discipline, champion of literary style, modern sage, one wise dad — in a poem he wrote for The New Yorker in May of 2005, reprinted in Robert Sutton’s The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t (public library) with Vonnegut’s permission:

JOE HELLER

True story, Word of Honor:
Joseph Heller, an important and funny writer
now dead,
and I were at a party given by a billionaire
on Shelter Island.

I said, “Joe, how does it make you feel
to know that our host only yesterday
may have made more money
than your novel ‘Catch-22′
has earned in its entire history?”
And Joe said, “I’ve got something he can never have.”
And I said, “What on earth could that be, Joe?”
And Joe said, “The knowledge that I’ve got enough.”
Not bad! Rest in peace!”

Complement with Vonnegut on how to write with style, the writer’s responsibility and the limitations of the brain, the shapes of stories, his daily routine, his heart-warming advice to his children, and his favorite erotic illustrations.

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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

15 JANUARY, 2014

Godliness in the Known and the Unknowable: Alan Lightman on Science and Spirituality

By:

“Faith is the willingness to give ourselves over, at times, to things we do not fully understand… the full engagement with this strange and shimmering world.”

“If we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from,” Carl Sagan wrote in his timeless meditation on science and religion, “we will have failed.” It’s a sentiment that dismisses in one fell Saganesque swoop both the blind dogmatism of religion and the vain certitude of science — a sentiment articulated by some of history’s greatest minds, from Einstein to Ada Lovelace to Isaac Asimov, all the way back Galileo, and one that Sagan echoed a decade later, three months before his death, writing: “The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.” Yet centuries after Galileo and decades after Sagan, humanity remains profoundly uneasy about reconciling these conflicting frameworks for understanding the universe and our place in it.

That vital discomfort is precisely what physicist Alan Lightman — celebrated author of both nonfiction and novels, one of the finest science essayists writing today, the very first person to receive dual appointments in science and the humanities at MIT, an extraordinary storyteller, and one of my favorite minds — explores in one of the essays in his entrancing new anthology, The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew (public library).

Alan Lightman (Photograph courtesy of MIT)

In the foreword, Lightman recounts attending a lecture by the Dalai Lama at MIT, “one of the world’s spiritual leaders sitting cross-legged in a modern temple of science,” and hearing about the Buddhist concept of sunyata, translated as “emptiness” — the notion that objects in the physical universe are vacant of inherent meaning and that we imbue them with meaning and value with the thoughts of our own minds. From this, Lightman argues while adding to history’s finest definitions of science, arises a central challenge of the human condition:

As a scientist, I firmly believe that atoms and molecules are real (even if mostly empty space) and exist independently of our minds. On the other hand, I have witnessed firsthand how distressed I become when I experience anger or jealousy or insult, all emotional states manufactured by my own mind. The mind is certainly its own cosmos. As Milton wrote in Paradise Lost, “[The mind] can make a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven.” In our constant search for meaning in this baffling and temporary existence, trapped as we are within our three pounds of neurons, it is sometimes hard to tell what is real. We often invent what isn’t there. Or ignore what is. We try to impose order, both in our minds and in our conceptions of external reality. We try to connect. We try to find truth. We dream and we hope. And underneath all of these strivings, we are haunted by the suspicion that what we see and understand of the world is only a tiny piece of the whole.

[…]

Science does not reveal the meaning of our existence, but it does draw back some of the veils.

This tension between internal and external reality is also what lies at the root of the age-old tension between science and religion. In one of the best essays in the collection, titled “The Spiritual Universe,” Lightman sets out to lift the veil of this immutable inquiry. He cites a discussion that took place at a monthly gathering of scientists and artists at MIT, aimed at exploring the interplay of science and art, wherein a playwright proposed that science is the religion of our century. Lightman considers the inherent challenges to this notion:

If science is the religion of the twenty-first century, why do we still seriously discuss heaven and hell, life after death, and the manifestations of God? Physicist Alan Guth, another member of our salon, pioneered the inflation version of the Big Bang theory and has helped extend the scientific understanding of the infant universe back to a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after t = 0. A former member, biologist Nancy Hopkins, manipulates the DNA of organisms to study how genes control the development and growth of living creatures. Hasn’t modern science now pushed God into such a tiny corner that He or She or It no longer has any room to operate—or perhaps has been rendered irrelevant altogether? Not according to surveys showing that more than three-quarters of Americans believe in miracles, eternal souls, and God. Despite the recent spate of books and pronouncements by prominent atheists, religion remains, along with science, one of the dominant forces that shape our civilization. Our little group of scientists and artists finds itself fascinated with these contrasting beliefs, fascinated with different ways of understanding the world. And fascinated by how science and religion can coexist in our minds.

As a scientist and self-professed humanist himself, Lightman exorcises his lifelong struggle to reconcile these conflicting worldviews by proposing a set of criteria for the kind of religious belief that would be compatible with rather than contradictory to science:

The first step in this journey is to state what I will call the central doctrine of science: All properties and events in the physical universe are governed by laws, and those laws are true at every time and place in the universe. Although scientists do not talk explicitly about this doctrine, and my doctoral thesis adviser never mentioned it once to his graduate students, the central doctrine is the invisible oxygen that most scientists breathe. We do not, of course, know all the fundamental laws at the present time. But most scientists believe that a complete set of such laws exists and, in principle, that it is discoverable by human beings, just as nineteenth-century explorers believed in the North Pole although no one had yet reached it.

[…]

Next, a working definition of God. I would not pretend to know the nature of God, if God does indeed exist, but for the purposes of this discussion, and in agreement with almost all religions, I think we can safely say that God is understood to be a Being not restricted by the laws that govern matter and energy in the physical universe. In other words, God exists outside matter and energy. In most religions, this Being acts with purpose and will, sometimes violating existing physical law (that is, performing miracles), and has additional qualities such as intelligence, compassion, and omniscience.

Starting with these axioms, we can say that science and God are compatible as long as the latter is content to stand on the sidelines once the universe has begun. A God that intervenes after the cosmic pendulum has been set into motion, violating the physical laws, would clearly upend the central doctrine of science. Of course, the physical laws could have been created by God before the beginning of time. But once created, according to the central doctrine, the laws are immutable and cannot be violated from one moment to the next.

With these criteria in mind, he offers a taxonomy of religious beliefs, based on the degree of control they assign to their highest deity: At the extreme end, denying the existence of a God, is atheism; up the sliding scale of faith is deism, whose God created the universe but has not interfered since that initial spark — a favorite model in the 17th and 18th centuries, with such prominent proponents as Voltaire; then comes immanentism with yet more divine intervention, which holds that God created the physical universe and its laws, and continues to propel it but only through the stringent and consistent application of these permanent laws; at the other extreme end, opposite atheism, is interventionism — God created the universe and its laws, and can occasionally interfere with their predictable function to produce unpredictable results, commonly called miracles. Because most major religions — including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism — are built upon an interventionist view of God, Lightman points out that they are incompatible with science and observes the logical conclusion:

Except for a God who sits down after the universe begins, all other Gods conflict with the assumptions of science.

The situation is further muddled by the fact that the majority of laypeople who are both religious and understand the value of science don’t subscribe to its central doctrine — that same logical foundation that renders an interventionist God impossible. Lightman cites a sociological study which found that 25% of scientists at elite American universities believe in the existence of God and don’t consider science the only framework for explaining the world. Lightman, who considers himself an atheist, illustrates the conundrum with his own beliefs and points to the humanities — that essential anchor of the human experience — as the spiritual complement to science:

I completely endorse the central doctrine of science. And I do not believe in the existence of a Being who lives beyond matter and energy, even if that Being refrains from entering the fray of the physical world. However, I certainly agree with [such scientists] that science is not the only avenue for arriving at knowledge, that there are interesting and vital questions beyond the reach of test tubes and equations. Obviously, vast territories of the arts concern inner experiences that cannot be analyzed by science. The humanities, such as history and philosophy, raise questions that do not have definite or unanimously accepted answers.

This is where Lightman’s exquisite touch as both an essayist and a humanist springs so vibrantly alive:

There are things we take on faith, without physical proof and even sometimes without any methodology for proof. We cannot clearly show why the ending of a particular novel haunts us. We cannot prove under what conditions we would sacrifice our own life in order to save the life of our child. We cannot prove whether it is right or wrong to steal in order to feed our family, or even agree on a definition of “right” and “wrong.” We cannot prove the meaning of our life, or whether life has any meaning at all. For these questions, we can gather evidence and debate, but in the end we cannot arrive at any system of analysis akin to the way in which a physicist decides how many seconds it will take a one-foot-long pendulum to make a complete swing. The previous questions are questions of aesthetics, morality, philosophy. These are questions for the arts and the humanities. These are also questions aligned with some of the intangible concerns of traditional religion.

Reflecting on his early days as a physics grad student, where he was taught that the concept of a “well-posed problem” — a question stated so clearly that it would guarantee an answer — he turns to Rilke’s famous wisdom and considers both the difference and the margin of complement between art and science:

At any moment in time, every scientist is working on, or attempting to work on, a well-posed problem, a question with a definite answer. We scientists are taught from an early stage of our apprenticeship not to waste time on questions that do not have clear and definite answers.

But artists and humanists often don’t care what the answer is because definite answers don’t exist to all interesting and important questions. Ideas in a novel or emotion in a symphony are complicated with the intrinsic ambiguity of human nature. … For many artists and humanists, the question is more important than the answer. As the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote a century ago, “We should try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Then there are also the questions that have definite answers but which we cannot answer. The question of the existence of God may be such a question.

As human beings, don’t we need questions without answers as well as questions with answers?

Indeed, this tolerance for the unanswered — and possibly the unanswerable — is not only at the heart of creativity and the secret of happiness, but also, Lightman argues, the essence of faith:

Faith, in its broadest sense, is about far more than belief in the existence of God or the disregard of scientific evidence. Faith is the willingness to give ourselves over, at times, to things we do not fully understand. Faith is the belief in things larger than ourselves. Faith is the ability to honor stillness at some moments and at others to ride the passion and exuberance that is the artistic impulse, the flight of the imagination, the full engagement with this strange and shimmering world.

Adult and baby ospreys in nest, Maine, 2007. (Photograph courtesy of Alan Lightman)

Once again, Lightman envelops us in his enchanting storytelling to make this point as dimensional as it is when it manifests in life: He tells the story of a family of ospreys that nested near his home in Maine for many years, arriving from South America each spring to lay eggs, then raising their babies until the little ones took their first flight in late summer. Lightman and his wife recorded these cycles of life obsessively year after year in their “osprey journals” filled with notes, photographs, and lovingly collected data on that “small part of the universe.” But while Lightman might describe himself as a humanist, this final anecdote exposes him as a true “creaturist” who lives with remarkable respect for non-human beings and our shared existence:

One August afternoon, the two baby ospreys of that season took flight for the first time as I stood on the circular deck of my house watching the nest. All summer long, they had watched me on that deck as I watched them. To them, it must have looked like I was in my nest just as they were in theirs. On this particular afternoon, their maiden flight, they did a loop of my house and then headed straight at me with tremendous speed. My immediate impulse was to run for cover, since they could have ripped me apart with their powerful talons. But something held me to my ground. When they were within twenty feet of me, they suddenly veered upward and away. But before that dazzling and frightening vertical climb, for about half a second we made eye contact. Words cannot convey what was exchanged between us in that instant. It was a look of connectedness, of mutual respect, of recognition that we shared the same land. After they were gone, I found that I was shaking, and in tears. To this day, I do not understand what happened in that half second. But it was one of the most profound moments of my life.

Adult osprey, 2012. (Photograph by courtesy of the Dyfi Osprey Project)

Lightman closes the chapter with a beautiful meditation on where all of this leaves us:

Some people believe that there is no distinction between the spiritual and physical universes, no distinction between the inner and the outer, between the subjective and the objective, between the miraculous and the rational. I need such distinctions to make sense of my spiritual and scientific lives. For me, there is room for both a spiritual universe and a physical universe, just as there is room for both religion and science. Each universe has its own power. Each has its own beauty, and mystery. A Presbyterian minister recently said to me that science and religion share a sense of wonder. I agree.

The Accidental Universe is a sublime, mind-bending, soul-expanding read in its entirety, exploring such magnificent mysteries of our world and the cosmos as dark matter, multiverses, and the arrow of time, all considered through the dimensional lens of a mind at once voracious for knowledge and at peace with the unknown. Complement it with Dorion Sagan, son of Carl, on why science and philosophy need each other.

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