One of our most reliable interpreters of science offers a slender book of ruminations that venture wide and deep.
Theoretical physicist Lightman (Practice of the Humanities/MIT; Screening Room, 2015, etc.) rarely ponders a scientific principle or development without considering its significance in human terms, an approach that is very much in the tradition of Lewis Thomas. Lightman focuses on the logical and mathematical underpinnings of the material world as it relates to concepts of “reality” and to spirituality broadly defined. Throughout, the author makes his points clearly. Discussing the finality of death vs. notions of immortality, for example, he writes, “I accept that science and the scientific view of the world may not encompass all of existence….Still, I ask for some kind of evidence for all things I believe.” So remarkable is the material world we experience, the author suggests, that humans persist in finding supernatural explanations for its wonders. Lightman also acknowledges that while “the materiality of the world is a fact…facts [alone] don’t explain the experience.” To him, after millennia of philosophical and theological speculation, the most profound questions about the origins of the universe may open themselves to science or may have no answers that seem possible. Lightman makes cogent, generally unassailable arguments, provided readers share his basic precepts. He weighs in on free will vs. determinism, the vitalistic vs. mechanistic concepts of human life, the multiverse, the grandeur of consciousness, and the illusion of “self.” A leitmotif of the book is humanity's innate desire for absolutes, even though few exist in a relative world. Lightman locates those that do in science and philosophy rather than religion.
From Newton and Galileo to Einstein and Aristotle, from St. Augustine and the Buddha to contemporary theological thought, Lightman presents a distilled but comprehensive survey of the search for meaning, or the lack thereof, in our longing to be part of the infinite.