The Galactic Inquirer

Book Review: Alan Lightman’s The Accidental Universe, The World You Thought You Knew

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Note: the author of this review, Anthie Shulman, is a practicing observer of Judaism, so any time the name for a higher Being is mentioned, it will be written as G-d.

There has always been a lot of conflict and contention between religion and science, arguably since the beginning of human abstract thought. Everyone has an opinion on how the two interact, intermingle, or completely repel against each other. The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew is simply one man’s opinion written into a book. Granted, this man is extremely qualified and undoubtedly intelligent, but when you examine the book as a whole, it really is just a book about opinions and conjecture with next to no scientific basis. That being said, the book is filled with passion and excitement for the mystical connection between science and religion, and overall is an interesting read, if you enjoy reading the rantings of an atheist physicist. The book is compiled of a series of essays written by Lightman discussing multiple different viewpoints of the universe that we live in.

Alan Lightman is a renowned author and physicist who is obviously intelligent and well-informed in all areas of astronomy and cosmology. He is a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, MA, and has written many books and essays, both fiction and non-fiction. Lightman has studied and worked at schools such as Princeton, Cornell, and Harvard, and has received five honorary degrees. He has been studying the connection between science and humanities for practically his entire life. His success is almost overwhelming. It seems impossible that anyone would dare argue against him!

There is absolutely no argument that Alan Lightman is not qualified or un-versed in this area of study. The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew is an incredibly well-written book that makes many amazing points about the connection of science and religions, and even discusses many complex theories such as the multiverse theory, the Honeycomb Conjecture, and faith itself, which can be thought of as a collection of theories in a way. This topic is monumentally complicated and difficult to understand in the first place, but if you don’t understand physics and science all that much then it is nearly impossible to follow Lightman’s train of thought sometimes.

This book is definitely not written for the layman such as myself. But, it was possible for me to follow Lightman’s musings on faith, specifically concerning monotheistic religions such as Christianity, Judiaism, or Islam. Religion is more abstract and subject to interpretation than science, so someone who is not well-versed in either topic can still find enjoyment and learn something from this book. After all, Alan Lightman is an accomplished writer in the fiction genre as well as non-fiction, so his loose and colloquial writing shines through in the sections about faith and spirituality. This is slightly ironic considering Lightman is a self-proclaimed atheist, meaning he does not believe in any omniscient higher power that controls or governs the world.

In the essay titled The Spiritual Universe, Lightman states, “I will put my cards on the table. I am an atheist myself. 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 Collins and Hutchinson and Gingerich 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,” (Lightman 44). Lightman may not believe in any Being, but he still acknowledges the importance and gravity of spirituality in understanding the world, granted that he has been studying this for many years. If he came across any concrete evidence proving or disproving the existence of G-d, there would be no need for this book. Lightman also adds a nod to this idea, stating “Science can never prove or disprove the existence of G-d, because G-d, as understood by most religions, is not subject to rational analysis,” (Lightman 64). Lightman expands upon this idea of course, but as a general blanket statement, this is a very solid foundation in which to discuss this topic. If you go into interfaith scientific discussions such as these, it is important to acknowledge that G-d, real or not in your mind, has not been scientifically proven or disproven, and that is perfectly well and good because He isn’t supposed to be reduced down to something humans can analyze or critique, according to most major monotheistic religions.

As briefly mentioned, The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew is separated into sections, each one representing an essay written by Lightman breaking down the idea of our universe as a whole. These sections are as follows: The Accidental Universe, The Temporary Universe, The Spiritual Universe, The Symmetrical Universe, The Gargantuan Universe, The Lawful Universe, and the Disembodied Universe. I found the most important and interesting sections of this book to be the Accidental, the Spiritual, and the Lawful essays.  The Accidental Universe essay discussed the idea of a multiverse, meaning multiple universes and realities, concepts that used to be only in science fiction movies. Now, it is an unsettling prospect to me that perhaps our universe wasn’t planned by a higher being; instead it could have been an accident. We just got lucky that all of the complicated elements needed to maintain human life came together on a very specifically placed planet in a completely random solar system. We know that solar systems and stars are created from these giant clouds of cold molecular gas and dust and that each system is unique. We might never find one similar to ours, let alone a planet with life. People who follow a religion use their beliefs to comfort that idea, to validate the potential that we were made for a reason, to find a purpose in life. But, the reality is a question that Lightman posed, “We cannot prove the meaning of our life, or whether life has any meaning at all,” (Lightman 45). Lightman gets more into this idea in the Spiritual Universe section.

In the Spiritual section of this book, Lightman dives into a lot of existential questions that would make anyone’s head spin. It was confusing and almost overwhelming for me. People find comfort in faith, in spirituality, in some sort of universal truth. This worldview is what gives us a reason to get out of bed every morning and make the best of the day. For a lot of people, faith is all they have. When you pose these questions of purpose from an arrogant point of view that there is nothing higher, and no law of the world governed by something other than us, the subsequent discussion tends to make people feel invalidated, misunderstood, and attacked. Lightman tries to convey in this section that this shouldn’t be the case. There is no need to attack other worldviews because you think yours is right, especially when there’s no way to prove it. Lightman writes, “Faith, in its broadest sense, is about far more than belief in the existence of G-d or the disregard of scientific evidence. Faith is the willingness to give ourselves over, at times, to things we do not fully understand,” (Lightman 51). Who are we to take that away from people, just because we don’t understand it?

This concept reemerges in the Lawful Universe section of the book, where Lightman discusses the governance of the world, whether it be from faith or from human laws. Humans like to have control over their life, they like being able to plan and prepare for anything that comes their way. Back during the times of the Greeks and Romans, there was polytheistic religion. This means that there were many gods above that had free reign over humans and could do whatever they wanted, and the humans just had to roll with the punches. Then some people started breaking off from the mainstream and started wondering, what if there was one all-powerful G-d up above who oversees us and only intervenes when necessary or when asked? Thus, monotheism was born. In short, humans wanted to limit divine capriciousness, to be ruled over by one G-d that wasn’t going to mess with them, just protect them in times of need. A perfect dictatorship, if you will.

Lightman proposes that this shift in belief changed the “laws of nature” or the ways in which humans perceive how the world works. Lightman states, “The laws of nature are the polar opposite of capriciousness and whim. With many gods, each with his or her own personality and whims, there is much more room for unpredictable divine behavior and consequent surprises on Earth than with a single god. With a single god, we human beings need to understand only a single divine consciousness. Little wonder that Lucretius, a believer in the pantheon of divinities of Roman mythology, was so eager to preach a philosophy that would liberate human beings from the intervention of the gods,” (Lightman 111-112). The concept of using religion as a sort of governance may be hard to understand for those with no faith, but for people who spend their life living for, dressing for, behaving for G-d, it comes naturally to believe that G-d rules over you, commands you to do these things, and steps in only when needed or prayed to. This all-seeing judge oversees the lives of the many, while intervening in the lives of the few who disobey or break the laws.

Now, a lot of people with no religion, or very specific religions like immanentism, believe that the laws of nature stem from nature itself, the world we live on, the chemical processes that take place here, in short, the science of the planet. Lightman does not discredit these people as he finds himself among them. This is a different kind of law system, more of an environmental ethos, where the world you live in determines the outcome of your actions. There are a lot of unknowns within both of these views on the laws of life, but the goal isn’t to convince anyone that one belief system is right and one is wrong. It is important just to discuss these ideas and make it known that your beliefs are not the only ones in the world. There is diversity in thought and faith, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

All of these concepts and ideas can be difficult to understand and sort through sometimes. It is okay not to understand a single thing Lightman says. He is not G-d, he does not have all of the answers either. Lightman simply wants to start this conversation, keep people discussing the connection between science and religion, and maybe inspire some new points of view. There is no known answer to life’s essential questions, but that mystery is what makes life fun and intellectually stimulating. Lightman doesn’t want us to stray from the spontaneity of life, he says to tackle it head on, and enjoy the ride. I would recommend this book to anyone who is curious about the connection between religion and science and who wants to learn more from a very credible source such as Lighman. However, if you are looking for an easy and lighthearted read then this book is not for you. This book is composed of very serious topics and conversations not intended for an uninterested audience. 

References

Lightman, A. P. (2014). The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew. London:

Corsair.

Figure Credits

Book cover and author portrait:  Vintage Books

Other images:  universetoday.com for the Big Bang; remainder from google.com searches

Anthoula (Anthie) Shulman is an undergraduate student at Endicott College in Beverly, MA majoring in Art Therapy.

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