From the acclaimed author of Einstein’s Dreams comes a rich, fascinating answer to the question, Can the scientifically inclined still hold space for spirituality?
Gazing at the stars, falling in love, or listening to music, we sometimes feel a transcendent connection with a cosmic unity and things larger than ourselves. But these experiences are not easily understood by science, which holds that all things can be explained in terms of atoms and molecules. Is there space in our scientific worldview for these spiritual experiences?
According to acclaimed physicist and novelist Alan Lightman, there may be. Drawing on intellectual history and conversations with contemporary scientists, philosophers, and psychologists, Lightman asks a series of thought-provoking questions that illuminate our strange place between the world of particles and forces and the world of complex human experience. Can strict materialism explain our appreciation of beauty? Or our feelings of connection to nature and to other people? Is there a physical basis for consciousness, the most slippery of all scientific problems?
Lightman weaves these investigations together to propose what he calls “spiritual materialism”— the belief that we can embrace spiritual experiences without letting go of our scientific worldview. In his view, the breadth of the human condition is not only rooted in material atoms and molecules but can also be explained in terms of Darwinian evolution.
What is revealed in this lyrical, enlightening book is that spirituality may not only be compatible with science, it also ought to remain at the core of what it means to be human.
ALAN LIGHTMAN earned his PhD in physics from the California Institute of Technology and is the author of seven novels, including the international best seller Einstein’s Dreams and The Diagnosis, a finalist for the National Book Award. His nonfiction includes The Accidental Universe, Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, and Probable Impossibilities. He has taught at Harvard and at MIT, where he was the first person to receive a dual faculty appointment in science and the humanities. He is currently a professor of the practice of the humanities at MIT. He is the host of the public television series Searching: Our Quest for Meaning in the Age of Science.
“Mr. Lightman [has a] gift for distilling complex ideas and emotions to their bright essence. . . . He displays a beautiful economy of language. . . . Mr. Lightman, though, belongs to a noble tradition of science writers, including Oliver Sacks and Lewis Thomas, who can poke endlessly into a subject and, in spite of their prodding, or perhaps because of it, stir up fresh embers of wonder.”
—The Wall Street Journal
“Thoroughly researched, well-written. . . . Moving.”
—The Washington Post
“A revelation about how mere atoms and molecules can give rise to the very persuasive experience of a self, of a soul, of something that feels so vast and complex and magnificently irreducible to matter. . . . Radiant. . . . Largehearted.”
“Scientists don’t do enough to emphasize the mystery of the world behind appearances, and what is so often taken for granted, missed entirely, or unexamined in the domain of human experience. This book is an inspiring and convincing antidote to that trend. It is a rigorous and yet very personal inquiry into and recounting of how scientific knowledge does not preclude, diminish, or extinguish the experience of transcendence, but rather brings it very much to the fore. Lightman provides direct inspiration to the reader to apprehend for oneself and revel in the wonder that is everywhere.”
—Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and author of Meditation Is Not What You Think and Falling Awake
“With scholarly verve and unbounded curiosity, Alan Lightman asks how our experiences of awe, wonder, and the sublime can unfold in a universe—and in our brains—built only of atoms. A fascinating exploration of where science and humanism meet.”
—David Kaiser, Germeshausen Professor of Physics and the History of Science, MIT
“A remarkable meditation on the emergent structures, feelings, and values that arise from the self-organization of neurons, atoms, and creatures. The book is an invitation to reflect on the wonder of firefly group flashes, sociality and, ultimately, consciousness itself.”
—Peter Galison, University Professor of the History of Science and of Physics, Harvard University and author (with Lorraine Daston) of Objectivity
"Science and spirituality converge in this probing examination of humanity’s connection to the divine. . . . The prose is reflective and lyrical, and Lightman’s arguments succeed in walking the fine line between honoring spiritual experiences without lapsing into pseudoscience. Thoughtful and intellectually rigorous, this treatise impresses."
“A scientist explains experiences that seem inexplicable. . . . Never shy about tackling big, complex issues. . . . Lightman urges readers to accept a scientific view of the world while embracing experiences that cannot be understood by material underpinnings. We need to balance a yearning to know how the world works with a willingness to surrender ourselves to things we may not fully comprehend.”
“Lightman writes with passion and panache about how the search for knowledge need not inhibit moments of transcendence, offering a poignant reminder that wonder is everywhere, if we only look.”