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Making space for the spiritual in our natural world: Philosophical scientist Alan Lightman on transcendence in the age of science

Podcast & Video

This episode of Hub Dialogues features Sean Speer in conversation with leading philosophical scientist Alan Lightman about his fascinating book, The Transcendent Brain: Spirituality in the Age of Science. They discuss the emergence of consciousness, how spirituality and science interact, and why so many people yearn to believe something beyond the material world.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, and Spotify. The episodes are generously supported by The Ira Gluskin And Maxine Granovsky Gluskin Charitable Foundation and The Linda Frum & Howard Sokolowski Charitable Foundation.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Alan Lightman, an author, physicist, and longtime professor. He has written several books that sit at the interesting nexus between science and the humanities. His most recent is The Transcendent Brain: Spirituality in the Age of Science. I’m grateful to speak with him about the book, including how we ought to think about moments of transcendence in a scientific framework. Alan, thanks for joining us at Hub Dialogues, and congratulations on the book.

ALAN LIGHTMAN: Thank you, Sean, for inviting me.

SEAN SPEER: You describe in the book a profound experience that you had watching birds from your home in Maine. As the birds flew above, there was this split second in which you made eye contact. The moment left you shaken and tearful. You write, “To this day, I don’t understand what happened in that half-second, but it was a profound connection to nature and the feeling of being part of something much larger than myself.” Talk about how you felt in that moment and how it relates to the book.

ALAN LIGHTMAN: Well, these weren’t just ordinary birds. They were two adolescent ospreys that are the next biggest bird after eagles. They have very powerful claws, and the two birds were taking their maiden voyage from the nest after watching them all summer. I’d been watching them grow up, and they could have ripped my face off in this maiden voyage. They did about a half-mile loop around the island, and then headed straight for me. I was standing on my circular deck, which to them looked like my nest, probably. And for about a second or less, when they got very close to me before zooming over the house, we made eye contact. It was an amazing experience of communion. I mean, almost sacred communion. I felt like they were talking to me through that eye contact, like they were saying, “We’re not afraid of you; I don’t think you’re afraid of us. We’re kindred spirits. We’re brothers. We’ve been sharing this island together.” It was something like that in that look.

SEAN SPEER: There have long been efforts to reconcile religion and science. I think, for instance, of Francis Collins’ work, including the founding of the organization BioLogos with the mandate to bridge the divide. You argue, in part, that these efforts may be wrongheaded. Why?

ALAN LIGHTMAN: Well, I think that there are a number of people trying to use scientific arguments to prove the existence of God. I won’t go into details unless you want me to. There are other scientists who take the opposite approach; they try to use scientific arguments to disprove the existence of God. By God, I mean an all-knowing, omniscient being who created the universe with purpose. That’s what I mean by God.

I think that all of these arguments, both pro and con, are misguided because I believe that such a being, as understood by most religions, exists outside of time and space. You can’t really use scientific arguments to either prove or disprove the existence of such a being. You have to either take its existence as a matter of faith or reject it as a matter of faith. So I just think that these people—although I respect them, they’re distinguished scientists. Richard Dawkins, by the way, is the leader of the other camp. I respect them, but I think that they’re barking up the wrong tree here, to use an American expression.

SEAN SPEER: If spiritual experiences like the one you described aren’t an expression of metaphysics, what are they? What is consciousness, and where does it come from?

ALAN LIGHTMAN: Well, I think spiritual experiences, which for me are the feeling of being part of something larger than yourself—the appreciation of beauty, feeling, and being connected to nature—I think that they are produced by and consequences of a very well-developed brain.

Of course, consciousness is the fundamental mental experience that we have and spiritual experiences are a subset of consciousness. And although we can’t fill in all the blanks, neuroscientists, and I agree with them, believe that all mental experiences are the result of the hundred billion neurons in our brains and the interconnections between them. The human brain is probably the most complex object in the universe that we know about and is capable of all kinds of amazing phenomena. Consciousness being one of them; our ability to write symphonies and poetries, our ability to build cities. All of these things that we humans do are a consequence of a very highly developed brain.

I think that consciousness, whatever it is, is a graded phenomenon. I don’t think that it’s an all-or-nothing thing. I think that the crows and dolphins clearly have some level of consciousness, and other non-human animals as well. But it appears that human beings have the highest level of consciousness that we know of, and there are probably other intelligent creatures living out in the universe somewhere that have even more developed brains than we do and have even a higher level of consciousness than what we have.

SEAN SPEER: Talk about the differences in terms of consciousness across species. What explains them? Is higher levels of consciousness a reflection of intelligence or some other factors? Maybe put differently, Alan, why would you have the extraordinary experience of connecting with your natural surroundings and others may not?

ALAN LIGHTMAN: Well, I think that human consciousness, which includes self-awareness, the ego, the strong sensation of being present in the world, the ability to plan for the future: these are all aspects of human consciousness. I think that they are byproducts of other traits that had survival benefits. Biologists have talked about some traits that we have that had direct survival benefits, like fear, but other traits that are byproducts of traits with direct survival benefit. For example, the ability to write poetry probably did not have a direct survival benefit, but a sensitivity to sounds and rhythms, which is at the core of poetry, probably did have a direct survival benefit.

We know that the human brain went through a rapid period of development between about 800,000 years ago and 200,000 years ago when our brain increased very dramatically in capacity. And we also know that that period of time is closely connected to a period of time when the weather changed dramatically. So anthropologists think that the development of a very high capacity of the human brain has survival benefits in being able to adapt to rapidly changing weather conditions. And once you have that highly developed brain capacity, other things are a consequence of that. So that’s what I mean by a byproduct of a trait that had direct survival benefit. I think that spirituality and other functions that we have are a natural result of having a brain with a very high capacity.

SEAN SPEER: Alan, if I can just follow up on your response. In understanding the evolutionary development of consciousness, you cite Mill’s theory of “emergence.” What is emergence, and how does it fit into your story?

ALAN LIGHTMAN: Emergent phenomena are phenomena that arise from systems of many different parts working together that cannot be understood on the basis of understanding the individual elements of the system.

For example, there’s a certain species of fireflies that, when they get together in a field on a summer night, that initially blink randomly and without connection to each other at random times. But after a few moments, they begin blinking in synchrony. That’s a qualitative phenomenon of a lot of individual fireflies, but you can’t understand that synchronous blinking by analyzing a single firefly. You can study a single firefly to death but still not be able to predict or understand exactly why a group of fireflies will begin blinking in synchrony.

There are many other examples in the physical world where systems of many parts have overall qualitative behaviour that can’t be understood on the basis of the individual parts. And our brain, of course, is the paramount example of that, where we can understand the workings of individual single neurons very well. We can understand the chemicals that flow through them, the electrical currents that are produced of individual neurons, but we can’t possibly, on that basis, predict all of the amazing things that a hundred billion neurons are capable of.

SEAN SPEER: One thing I wondered throughout the book is the seeming disconnect between our yearning for spirituality and your case that spiritual experiences are ultimately rooted in materialism. You describe that yearning as “natural as love, hunger, or desire.” What explains this innate search for spirituality? Why do so many people want to believe in something beyond the material world?

ALAN LIGHTMAN: Well, that’s a great question, and I think ultimately the yearning that you’re speaking of is an attempt to cope with our mortality. The knowledge of our mortality, that we have limited lifetimes, I think, is one of the principal drivers of everything that we do; all of human civilization. I believe that the desire, the belief in an afterlife—more than 50% of the world’s population believes in an afterlife, the belief in an eternal soul, the belief in heaven, the belief in God, that all of those beliefs are driven by an attempt to cope with our mortality.

SEAN SPEER: Let me follow up if that’s okay. If I understand correctly, you argue that these spiritual experiences themselves actually serve something of an evolutionary function. How? What’s their purpose besides, say, splendour or joy?

ALAN LIGHTMAN: Well, let’s take one elementary spiritual experience, and that’s the feeling of being connected to nature. And I think all of us have that feeling at different times—taking a walk through the woods, without our cell phones of course, looking at a sunset, looking at the stars at night. I think that our strong feeling of connection to nature probably is hardwired into our brains from the time a couple of million years ago when we were very dependent upon understanding nature for our survival. A million years ago, we didn’t live in the brick buildings that we do today, which is a very recent phenomenon; we lived out in the open. We had to be attuned to our natural habitat to survive. One of the most fundamental parts of surviving in the open is where you choose to live, habitat selection. And if you choose the right place to live, maybe by a stream of water or a place where you understand what the natural predators are so that you’re not eaten, a place that has a good food supply. If you understand the climate changes and all of that, all of those bits of knowledge increase your chance of survival.

And so an affinity for nature would’ve had a direct survival benefit. I think that that affinity was hardwired into our brain and is the reason why all of us today, a million years later, feel connected to nature, and feel happy when we’re outside and walking in the woods or looking up at the sky. We feel happier. A number of psychologists have studied that and have confirmed that we human beings feel more fulfilled, feel replenished, feel happier, and more content when we have a direct experience with nature. So I think that that has a long evolutionary history, that particular element of spirituality. And the other elements, they’re similar evolutionary origins for them, I believe.

SEAN SPEER: I want to read a short passage from the book that almost struck me as a form of materialist metaphysics. It may be my favourite representation of your notion of spiritual materialism. You write, “For me, the notion that our atoms were once part of other people and will again become part of other people after we die, provides a meaningful connectedness between us and the rest of humanity, future and past.” Can you talk a bit about this idea? How does materialism ultimately connect us to others, including in the past and the future?

ALAN LIGHTMAN: There’s very good evidence that the atoms in our bodies other than the two smallest atoms, hydrogen, and helium, were manufactured at the centres of stars, where small atoms fused together to make heavier atoms like oxygen and silicon, and carbon, and all the elements that make life. And we know that massive stars after, a billion years or so, explode and spew their elements out into space. We’ve seen these explosions with our telescopes. They’re called supernovae. We believe that the material in which our solar system formed several billion years ago was a condensation of this material blown out by a number of stars, in other words, seeded with the carbon and oxygen and other elements, and then condensed to form planets and oceans and trees, and other living things. So we believe that all of the atoms in our bodies, except for the two lightest ones, came from stars.

In fact, if you could label each of the atoms in your body and trace them backwards in time, back to the formation of the Earth, the formation of the solar system and beyond, you would find that each of the atoms in your body, except for hydrogen and helium, originated in particular stars. Those stars are now long gone. Likewise, if we could tag each of our atoms, maybe with our social security number after we die, we could follow those atoms as they are mixed with soil and air, and in oceans. We would find that many of our atoms would become parts of other people not yet born, but people of the future. So that we will be literally connected to other human beings of the future. And likewise, all of our atoms in the past—when I say all, I mean all of human beings living on Earth now—all of our atoms originated with a common origin at the centres of stars.

SEAN SPEER: We’ve briefly touched on the subject of death. I want to come back to it now. You’ve previously written in one of your novels about what you think happens to us when we die. How does death fit in the new book and, in particular, how does it similarly connect us with people and time?

ALAN LIGHTMAN: Well, I take the view that we human beings, and I guess genus homo is two million years old and our particular species, homo sapiens, is a few hundred thousand years old. I think of human beings as part of a long chain of connectedness. I mean, we study the books and artifacts of people that were written before us, and they studied the books that were written before them, and they studied stories before there was writing that we’ve passed down to each other, not only knowledge but a view of the world, a sense of being alive in the cosmos. I think that this connects all of us in a long chain of being.

There’s another connection, and that is that life in the universe can exist only during a relatively narrow period. You have to have stars to make life for the reasons that we discussed earlier, but the stars in the sky will eventually burn out, and eventually, there will no longer be any energy source to support life in the universe. In cosmic terms, it’s a relatively short period of time in which life of any kind can exist in the universe.

Materially, life is also rare because if you look at all of the material in the universe and you ask what fraction of it is in living form, and we extrapolate up here from our biosphere on Earth, you find that only about one billionth of one billionth of all material in the universe is in living form. That’s like a few grains of sand on the Gobi Desert. So, we, living beings are very rare in both time and space.

We are the only means by which the universe can observe itself. We, living things, which are very rare both in time and space, are the only way that the universe can describe itself, can be aware of itself. So that also seems to me to connect us. I know it’s a very abstract concept, but I think, in some ways, life itself is pretty abstract. I mean, it’s pretty amazing that a group of atoms and molecules can get together and produce consciousness. I mean, that, to me, is one of the most amazing things in the physical world. So all of these things are pretty amazing once you really think hard about them and don’t just take them for granted.

SEAN SPEER: Yes, indeed. Well, one of the obvious questions that stems from the book and its ideas is what it ultimately means for mystery. One of the reasons I liked it so much is that it doesn’t read like a dogmatic rejection of mystery or our instinct toward the mysterious. You write, for instance, that “If you pull on the thread far enough, you ultimately arrive at the mysterious. When, at age 20, I learned why the sky was blue, My awe of the universe did not diminish.” There’s a counterintuitive case, in fact, that the book helps us to enjoy mystery. Do you want to talk about how we should think about mystery and its compatibility with spiritual materialism?

ALAN LIGHTMAN: I think that mystery is an opportunity to be open to the world. There’s a Hindu concept called “darshan”, which can be loosely interpreted to mean being open to the divine. And the divine doesn’t necessarily have to mean God. It can just mean the majesty of the universe or the majesty in a grain of sand. It’s being open to things that you don’t fully understand.

One of my favourite comments of Einstein is “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It stands at the cradle of true science and true art.” I think by the mysterious, Einstein didn’t mean something supernatural. He didn’t mean something frightening. He meant something like standing at the edge between the known and the unknown and feeling awe. I think that mystery fuels our creativity and our desire to explore the world. If we had all the answers to everything, I think that the motivation of a lot of our activity would end. I think when a painter paints a painting or when a writer writes a novel they are discovering things about themselves; it’s a process of self-discovery.

I think that the unknown is also one of the motivations in science. There are some scientists who think that, ultimately, we will have the final theory that does not need any revision: the ultimate equation. I personally hope that we never get there, that we will continue to unravel new secrets about nature and about the universe.

SEAN SPEER: What has been the reaction, Alan, to your notion of spiritual materialism? Are people open to the idea, or do they reject it because it could close them to the potential of mystery and, in some cases, faith or religious traditions?

ALAN LIGHTMAN: I think most people are open to the idea. Of course, the word ‘spirituality’ is a loaded word, and some people are put off by that word just by itself. There are, of course, many people, probably the majority of people in the world, who believe that there are non-material parts of existence; who believe in the soul, which is a non-material thing, believe in other non-material essences. So that group does not completely buy my concept of materialism, which is that the world is made of atoms and molecules and nothing more.

But I do think that the concept of being materialist, that is, the belief that the world is atoms and molecules and nothing more, which is more or less the scientific view, and the acknowledgement of the grandeur and importance of spiritual experiences. I think that the concept of having both of those worldviews or affinities or abilities does offer a way to make science fully compatible with spirituality. So I’ve got mixed reactions depending on the worldviews of the particular people, but I do think it’s a reasonable point of view to take, especially for a scientist.

SEAN SPEER: I agree. As a materialist, do you think there’s anything, any form of evidence, that might cause you to revisit some of these assumptions; to cause you, as you write about your wife, to be open to the possibility that we even have souls?

ALAN LIGHTMAN: Well, I think that every scientist has to be open to all possibilities, and the whole scientific method is based upon a certain amount of skepticism of not accepting any theory without testing it or doing experiments. So I think that all of us, including scientists, need to be open to discovering new things.

Personally, I don’t think that there is any evidence so far in the long history of recorded human civilization, including the history of science, of a non-material essence, but I think that I could be convinced, given sufficient evidence. I don’t think there’s been any evidence so far. And so my worldview that the world is made of atoms and molecules and nothing more is based upon all of the experience and experiments with the natural world that we’ve had so far.

SEAN SPEER: It’s a fascinating answer. This has been a fascinating conversation about a fascinating book. It’s called The Transcendent Brain: Spirituality in the Age of Science. Alan Lightman, thank you so much for joining us on Hub Dialogues.

ALAN LIGHTMAN: Thank you, Sean, for having me as a guest on Hub Dialogues.