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The Poetic Physicist Alan Lightman on Spirituality for the Science-Spirited – The Marginalian

The Transcendent Brain: The Poetic Physicist Alan Lightman on Spirituality for the Science-Spirited

“That is happiness,” Willa Cather wrote, “to be dissolved into something complete and great.” We have many names for that dissolution, all revolving round some sense of spirituality and so they all involving what Iris Murdoch so splendidly termed “unselfing” — experiences, most frequently furnished by artwork, music, and nature, that permit us to “pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is.”

At the coronary heart of each our spirituality and our science lies this everlasting craving to know the world because it actually is lies — a craving with an infinite vector, pointing at all times simply previous the horizon of our data, anchored at all times in the most elemental nature of the human animal: our curiosity, our restlessness, our starvation for reality and transcendence.

And but the reflex of selfing, which stands so usually between us and elemental reality, between us and transcendence, is hard-wired in our physiology — our complete expertise of actuality is lensed by means of our particular person consciousness, housed in the mind and tendrilled by means of the physique. Coursing by means of our nervous system as electrical indicators beckoning to neurons are the tremors of falling in love and the anguish of grief, all of our emotions meted out by charged particles shifting at eighty toes per second. The stuff of poetry and the stuff of desires, all a particulate cloud of coruscating matter.

Art by Francisco de Holanda, 1573. (Available as a print and as stationery playing cards.)

In The Transcendent Brain: Spirituality in the Age of Science (public library), the poetic physicist Alan Lightman units out to light up how these atomic constellations could be able to such exultant non secular experiences, aglow with such shimmering emotions. From the prescient atomic materialism of Lucretius to Maxwell’s equations, from the poems of Emily Dickinson to the synchronized firing of neurons in recognizing a cherished one’s face, from the Hindu idea of darshan — the beholding of a deity or sacred object — to the cosmic wonders we now have beheld by means of the “oracle eye” of our majestic house telescopes, he argues that non secular experiences “are as natural as hunger or love or desire, given a brain of sufficient complexity.” Radiating from the millennia-wide inquiry is a revelation about how mere atoms and molecules can provide rise to the very persuasive expertise of a self, of a soul, of one thing that feels so huge and sophisticated and magnificently irreducible to matter.

He writes:

I’m a scientist and have at all times had a scientific view of the world — by which I imply that the universe is made of fabric stuff, and solely materials stuff, and that stuff is ruled by a small variety of elementary legal guidelines. Every phenomenon has a trigger, which originates in the bodily universe. I’m a materialist. Not in the sense of in search of happiness in automobiles and good garments, however in the literal sense of the phrase: the perception that the whole lot is made out of atoms and molecules, and nothing extra. Yet, I’ve transcendent experiences. I communed with two ospreys that summer time in Maine. I’ve emotions of being a part of issues bigger than myself. I’ve a way of connection to different folks and to the world of residing issues, even to the stars. I’ve a way of magnificence. I’ve experiences of awe. And I’ve had transporting inventive moments.

The combination of those very several types of experiences, echoes of which reverberate by means of each human life, is what he phrases “spirituality” — a notion he nests inside the paradox of materiality and irreducibility:

I imagine that the non secular experiences we now have can come up from atoms and molecules. At the similar time, a few of these experiences, and definitely their very private and subjective nature, can’t be totally understood when it comes to atoms and molecules. I imagine in the legal guidelines of chemistry and biology and physics — in reality, as a scientist I a lot admire these legal guidelines — however I don’t assume they seize, or can seize, the first-person expertise of creating eye contact with wild animals and related transcendent moments. Some human experiences are merely not reducible to zeros and ones.

Therein lies the paradox — provided that “all mental sensations are rooted in the material neurons of the nervous system and the electrical and chemical interactions between them,” how can this inescapable materiality wing us with such emotions of spirituality?

Art by Francisco de Holanda, 1573. (Available as a print and as stationery playing cards.)

He provides a radiant reply in an orientation he calls “spiritual materialism” — the concept that even with a lucid understanding of how nature works, and the way we work as materials miniatures of nature’s legal guidelines, we’re able to transcendent experiences arising from the dazzling tessellation of atoms we name consciousness. Those experiences contour our highest humanity: our funding in residing an ethical life and stewarding the happiness of others, our capability for awe and surprise, our sensitivity to magnificence.

Recounting his personal earliest reminiscence of a non secular expertise as a baby enchanted with the scientific methodology, he writes:

Although as a baby I developed a scientific view of the world, I additionally understood that not all issues have been topic to quantitative evaluation… I used to be about 9 years outdated. It was a Sunday afternoon. I used to be alone in a bed room of my dwelling in Memphis, Tennessee, gazing out the window at the empty avenue, listening to the faint sound of a prepare passing an amazing distance away. Suddenly I felt that I used to be taking a look at myself from outdoors my physique. For a short few moments, I had the sensation of seeing my complete life, and certainly the lifetime of the complete planet, as a short flicker in an amazing chasm of time, with an infinite span of time earlier than my existence and an infinite span of time afterward. My fleeting sensation included infinite house. Without physique or thoughts, I used to be one way or the other floating in the gargantuan stretch of house, far past the photo voltaic system and even the galaxy, house that stretched on and on and on. I felt myself to be a tiny speck, insignificant. A speck in an enormous universe that cared nothing about me or any residing beings and their little dots of existence — a universe that merely was. And I felt that the whole lot I had skilled in my younger life, the pleasure and the unhappiness, and the whole lot that I’d later expertise meant completely nothing in the grand scheme of issues. It was a realization each liberating and terrifying directly… Despite the dismal feeling that the universe didn’t care a whit about me, I did really feel linked to one thing far bigger than myself.

One of teenage artist Virginia Frances Sterrett’s 1920 illustrations for outdated French fairy tales. (Available as a print.)

Again and once more, he returns to this sense of connection to one thing past the self as the crucible of our transcendent experiences and the beating coronary heart of the whole lot we name spirituality:

A standard function of all features of spirituality is a lack of self, a letting go, a willingness to embrace one thing outdoors of ourselves, a willingness to pay attention moderately than speak, a recognition that we’re small and the cosmos is massive.

And but this too is a psychological paradox rooted in our physiology:

Most transcendent experiences are utterly ego-free. In the second, we lose monitor of time and house, we lose monitor of our our bodies, we lose monitor of our selves. We dissolve. And but… spirituality emerges from consciousness and the materials mind. And the paramount signature of consciousness is a way of self, an “I-ness” distinct from the remainder of the cosmos. Thus, curiously, a factor centered on self creates a factor absent of self.


More self, much less connection to the bigger world.

Since the daybreak of our species, myths and religions have tried to resolve this paradox with the idea of the soul — a vessel of I-ness that exists past the materials realm, usually conceived of as a type of supra-energy. And but regardless of the lengthy cultural and theological historical past of perception in an immaterial soul, in actuality all power is accounted for by the forces of nature and their descriptive equations. He considers how our mortality — the entropic destiny of all matter, the antipode of the fable of the immortal soul — is the true crucible of our connection to one another and the immensity past us, the wellspring of all of our creativity:

For me, the notion that our atoms have been as soon as a part of different folks and can once more turn into a part of different folks after we die supplies a significant connectedness between us and the remainder of humanity, future and previous.


Our inescapable dying could also be the single strongest reality of our temporary existence on this unusual cosmos the place we discover ourselves. Indeed, one might argue that a lot of our pondering, our view of the world, our creative expression, and our non secular beliefs contain coming to phrases with this elementary reality.

The reality of our dying can also be what binds us to all life, stretching all the approach again to the Big Bang, reminding us of the borrowed stardust that we’re:

If you would tag every of the atoms in your physique and observe them backward in time, by means of the air that you just breathed throughout your life, by means of the meals that you just ate, again by means of the geological historical past of the Earth, by means of the historic seas and soil, again to the formation of the Earth out of the photo voltaic nebular cloud, after which out into interstellar house, you would hint every of your atoms, these actual atoms, to specific large stars in the previous of our galaxy. At the finish of their lifetimes, these stars exploded and spewed out their newly solid atoms into house, later to condense into planets and oceans and vegetation and your physique at this second.

Art by Dorothy Lathrop, 1922. (Available as a print and as stationery playing cards.)

Drawing on his splendid earlier writings about what truly occurs once we die, he tasks this atomic tagging ahead right into a future through which his I-ness is not any extra:

The atoms in my physique will stay, solely they are going to be scattered about. Those atoms won’t know the place they got here from, however they are going to have been mine. Some of them will as soon as have been a part of the reminiscence of my mom dancing the bossa nova. Some will as soon as have been a part of the reminiscence of the vinegary odor of my first condo. Some will as soon as have been a part of my hand. If I might label every of my atoms at this second, imprint every with my Social Security quantity, somebody might observe them for the subsequent thousand years as they floated in air, combined with the soil, grew to become components of specific vegetation and timber, dissolved in the ocean, after which floated once more to the air. And some will undoubtedly turn into components of different folks, specific folks. So, we are actually linked to the stars, and we are actually linked to future generations of individuals. In this fashion, even in a fabric universe, we’re linked to all issues future and previous.

Radiating from the the rest of The Transcendent Brain, because it traces the historical past of science and the historical past of tradition, is a largehearted invitation to “stand on the precipice between the known and the unknown, without fear, without anxiety, but instead with awe and wonder at this strange and beautiful cosmos we find ourselves in.” Complement it with Rachel Carson on science and our non secular bond with nature, then revisit the nice naturalist John Burroughs’s century-old manifesto for spirituality in the age of science.


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