Six Questions — March 19, 2014, 6:29 pm

The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew

Alan Lightman on the theory of everything, technology as mediator of human experience, and empathizing with the religious impulse

Alan Lightman © Michael Lionstar

For the majority of his writing career, Alan Lightman has been quietly introducing fissures of ambiguity into the scientific community’s pronouncements on art, religion, technology and American culture. The Accidental Universe (Pantheon), Lightman’s recently published collection of essays, belongs to this endeavor, establishing thematic connections between scientific abstractions and inner experience with the warmness and rationalist melancholy that’s characteristic of his work. I put six questions to him about his new book.

1. I suppose my first question has to concern the assembly of this collection. Did you write these essays in thematic isolation at first? Did you have any notion of employing the Universe as their organizing agent?

I wrote “The Accidental Universe” and “The Spiritual Universe” first, both concerning areas of thought that had been under my skin and disturbing me for some years. I published the first in Harper’s and the second in Salon. At that point, it occurred to me to write a series of connected essays, all with “Universe” in the title, that explored the philosophical, moral, and theological issues raised by modern science.

2. You repeatedly return to the apparent duality of your intellectual life. It hadn’t occurred to me until reading this book that this duality is not so much a reflection of you as a whole human being but of the social roles you’ve undertaken — novelist + physicist — which necessarily restrict one’s thinking in unique ways. You insist that you personally “need such distinctions to make sense of my spiritual and scientific lives” but I wanted to press you on that. Does this admixture of the spiritual/artistic and the rational/scientific feel real to you in your “lived life,” or is it an artifice that you use in writing because it yields so much discordance?

Great question, and one hard to answer. Let me first restate the duality you are talking about: it is the duality between the scientist and the artist, between the rational and the intuitive, between the physical and the spiritual. Of course, all of us have all of these pieces in us; we differ only in the relative proportions. The different “social roles” I have taken on as a physicist and as a novelist, I think, originate in my lived life as well as in my intellectual life. In childhood, I had two quite different groups of friends. I had my science friends. These were the (mostly) guys who loved algebra homework, loved to build rockets, demanded a logical explanation for why people put pennies in their loafers. And I had my “art” friends. These were the people who read unassigned novels and poems, acted in school plays, and reacted impulsively to people and events. I hung out with both groups and really enjoyed being part of both communities. I built rockets, and I also wrote poetry and acted in school plays. I never felt like I was not being myself in either group. The intellectual expression of these dualities in my life came later.

3. You touch briefly on the physicist’s hope for a Theory of Everything — a complete, unified theory of reality. Perhaps, being a physicist, you could illuminate the appeal of such an apocalyptic achievement. Once an unassailable theory of nature is established, scientific inquiry is effectively over. Obviously, this is purely hypothetical, but let’s assume it were possible. Why would anyone want such a theory, especially the physicist whose creative engagement depends on mystery?

First of all, I do not think we will ever have a complete theory of nature. The history of science has been a continuing progress of deeper and deeper understanding, of theories with greater and greater accuracy and predictive power. I see no reason why this progression will come to an end. But even if it did come to an end, in the sense that we had one master equation that contained all the fundamental principles of nature, there would still be a great deal for science to do. The working out of that equation and application of it to all the zillions of different physical situations of matter and energy on earth would occupy scientists for eons. That ultimate master equation would be like knowing the rules of chess. Once you know how the bishop moves and the pawn moves and the queen moves, you have not conquered the game. There are still zillions of different possible configurations on the chessboard, and lots of different strategies that need to be analyzed and explored — requiring renewed creativity. So, I see scientists in business for a long time, at least for the next 5 billion years until our sun burns out.

4. You mention Sherry Turkle, who studies social-media culture, in the final essay, “The Disembodied Universe.” You and Turkle both seem to oppose the general cultural drift toward mediated experience and the radically superficial ways by which technological apparatus characterize human personality. But is literature — something I feel safe in saying you and I treasure — not a form of mediation? No one could ever sensibly argue that reading books is a replacement for being with other people. Yet both experiences yield a different richness. Is there some sort of distinction to be made between forms of mediation?

You make a good point. And I do not think there is much real difference between reading books and looking at words on a computer screen — both offer the opportunity to learn new things and to have new emotional experiences, and both can be abused and empty of content. I would have the same misgivings about a person reading a book while walking through a beautiful forest as I would a person fixated on their iPhone instead of paying attention to their physical surroundings. I believe that we need to have balanced lives. We need to have direct, immediate experience with the world and with people, in addition to inner and solitary experiences. Like Turkle, I think that there has been a cultural drift toward indirect, mediated experience with the world, brought about by the unthinking use of technology.

From The Accidental Universe:

To my mind it is one of the profound contradictions of human existence that we long for immortality, indeed fervently believe that something must be unchanging and permanent, when all the evidence in nature argues against us. I certainly have such a longing. Either I am delusional, or nature is incomplete.

5. One thing I’ve admired in your science writing is your treatment of what’s often called the “religious impulse” — the rooted, sensible intuition that life ultimately matters, even if we can’t see why. You’re frank about your own atheism — as Stephen Jay Gould was, or Richard Lewontin is — but like those scientists you don’t seem to equate atheism with nihilism, nor do you posture as an adversary to all things metaphysical. You even express some sympathy for revealed and scriptural religion in this book. A surprising sympathy, I thought. Is there any particular motivation for this approach, other than traditional decency?

There is certainly more than traditional decency. I do not think spirituality and atheism are contradictory. For me, spirituality includes the belief in things larger than ourselves, an appreciation of nature and beauty, a sensitivity to the world, a feeling of shared connection with other living things, a desire to help people less fortunate than ourselves. All of these things can occur with or without God. I do not believe in the existence of God, but I consider myself a spiritual person in the manner I have just described. I call myself a spiritual atheist. I would imagine that many people are spiritual atheists.

The Accidental Universe6. Speaking of science and religion, you may have heard that Bill Nye recently debated creationist Ken Ham at the Creation Museum’s Legacy Hall in Cincinnati. Evidently, it was quite the theatre: sold-out; moderated by CNN’s Tim Foreman; streamed live through over 10,000 outlets. I’ve always seen a gladiatorial quality in these debates, which are extremely popular. This is a terribly leading question, but given the subtlety with which you approach these issues, I’m wondering if you see any particular reason for our culture’s preference for these venues?

Now you are getting into sociological and anthropological territory, where I am certainly no expert. For whatever my amateur opinion is worth, it seems historically clear that we like entertainment writ large, on stage (e.g., the early development of theater, public orations, parades, etc.). We also like combat, which appeals to our primitive instincts to defend our turf and to fight. Public combat is the best of all. We can sit back and watch others go for each other’s throats, on stage, while we comfort ourselves with the knowledge that, “It’s them, not me. I’m safe.”

To be fair, we also like some intellectual stimulation, we’re not complete animals. A public debate about significant issues, like science versus religion, satisfies all of these desires. Unfortunately, public debates do not have much room for subtlety.  The audience wants a quick thrust at your opponent, not a slow and convoluted series of moves. Whenever Obama uses subtleties in discussing a complex issue, he gets creamed.

Single Page

More from Trevor Quirk:

Six Questions August 28, 2014, 12:56 pm

William Deresiewicz on Excellent Sheep

William Deresiewicz discusses the miseducation of the American elite

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

  • G

    Alan Lightman is spot-on about this: the distinction between spirituality as he defines it, on one hand, and the axis between theism and atheism on the other hand. He stands on common ground with Einstein, who embraced “the sense of the mystical” (properly defined: the direct encounter with the Ground of Being or ultimate reality) and at the same time utterly rejected the Abrahamic concept of the deity.

    At the other end of the spectrum are those who conflate spirituality with theism, and in rejecting the latter, reject the former by association. One needn’t mention names, but this is at work wherever you see someone assert that there is no meaning or purpose in the universe, to the degree that you can envision them pounding the podium for emphasis whilst saying in a raised voice, “it’s dead, dead, dead!”

    In point of fact, meaning and purpose exist in human minds, which in turn are part of nature (the alternative being that minds are supernatural); thus meaning and purpose do exist in the universe. That is not the same thing as asserting that the universe has any sense of meaning or purpose aside from as these sensibilities manifest themselves to our minds. Nonetheless, the subtle shades in these different descriptions have important ramifications.

    The possibility that we may live in a multiverse does not change that. But the use of the word “accident” also implies a value judgement that isn’t justified. Of the may-as-well-be-infinite quantity of universes with potentially different physical laws, universes that have the capacity to harbor life were necessary and inevitable, and we find ourselves in one of those. If even a minority of universes, and a minority of star systems in them, can give rise to life: it may be that these, taken together, represent the greatest proliferation of life that is possible given all of the potential sets of physical laws. If anything this is more likely: there are not universes or multiverses that could give rise to a greater proliferation of life than the universes and multiverse in which we live.

  • acct066 *

    I’m a Christian who feels a deep spiritual kinship with Mr. Lightman. When he describes his spirituality as “the belief in things larger than ourselves, an appreciation of nature and beauty, a sensitivity to the world, a feeling of shared connection with other living things, a desire to help people less fortunate than ourselves,” I feel he has exactly expressed my own experience of drawing closer to God. I realize, of course, that we hold different beliefs and subscribe to different worldviews, ones that cannot be easily reconciled, and perhaps not reconciled at all. But certainly it must mean something that our expression of our spiritual realities draws us to such a convergent place, at least linguistically. And while it strains my own tradition a bit, it’s not difficult for me to imagine that God’s will for each of us is to attain the kind of spiritual maturity Mr. Lightman appears to have attained (in his writing, anyway); our ideations and idolizations of God likely mean more to us than they do to God.



September 2015

Weed Whackers

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Tremendous Machine

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Goose in a Dress

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Genealogy of Orals

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content


Romancing Kano·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:

The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.


Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.

The Prisoner of Sex·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“It is disappointing that parts of Purity read as though Franzen urgently wanted to telegraph a message to anyone who would defend his fiction from charges of chauvinism: ‘No, you’ve got me wrong. I really am sexist.’”
Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Gangs of Karachi·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In Karachi, sometimes only the thinnest of polite fictions separates the politicians from the men who kill and extort on their behalf.”
Photograph © Asim Rafiqui/NOOR Images
Weed Whackers·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Defining 'native' and 'invasive' in an ever-shifting natural world poses some problems. The camel, after all, is native to North America, though it went extinct here 8,000 years ago, while the sacrosanct redwood tree is invasive, having snuck in at some point in the past 65 million years.”
Photograph by Chad Ress
The Neoliberal Arts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“College is seldom about thinking or learning anymore. Everyone is running around trying to figure out what it is about. So far, they have come up with buzzwords, mainly those three.”
Artwork by Julie Cockburn

Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:


An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.

A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!


Subways Are for Sleeping


“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today