How can we situate ourselves in the enormously vast cosmic space? Can science instill in us a sense of awe and wonder, which later takes us to religion? Can religious exploration of space help us to clarify our scientific view on space?
Alan Lightman, a distinguished American physicist, writer, social entrepreneur and novelist, provides one response. He has served on the faculties of Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and is currently professor of the practice of humanities at MIT. He is widely known as the author of the international bestseller “Einstein’s Dreams”
In an interview to PBS News Hour, he asserts: “I have always held a purely scientific view of the world. And by that, I mean that the universe is made of matter and nothing more, that the universe is governed by a small number of laws, and that everything in the world eventually disintegrates and passes away.”
Then he recounts how on one summer night, he was out in the ocean in a small boat. It was a dark, clear night, and the sky vibrated with stars. He lay down in the boat and looked up. After a few minutes, “I found myself falling into infinity.” He adds: “I lost all track of myself, and the vast expanse of time extending from the far distant past to the far distant future seemed compressed to a dot. I felt connected to something eternal and ethereal, something beyond the material world.”
Some scientists have been attempting to use scientific arguments to question the existence of god. Lightman thinks these people are missing the point. “God, as conceived by most religions, lies outside time and space. You can’t use scientific arguments to either disprove or prove god.” In the same way, “you can’t use scientific arguments to analyse or understand the feeling I had that summer night when I lay down in the boat and looked up and felt part of something far larger than myself.”
He is emphatic: “I am still a scientist. I still believe that the world is made of atoms and molecules and nothing more. But I also believe in the power and validity of the spiritual experience.”
He really thinks that it is possible to be committed to both without any contradiction. “We understand that everything in the physical world is material, fated to pass away. Yet we also long for the permanent, some grand and eternal unity.”
A reader by the name “jdawg” responds to Lightman: “This opinion seems to appeal to personal experience to validate their position. And given the state of neuroscience, philosophy of mind, and phenomenology, you cannot appeal to your personal experience for any truth other than the fact of that experience occurring.”
The response goes on: “We would all be much better off accepting our completely pointless, futile existence. The one in which it is up to us to make the best of it. Our lives don’t matter; humanity is a suspect project with horrific consequences. Thinking that a power greater than us lurks just behind the veil only perpetuates our suffering. Science and religion may not be in conflict but this doesn’t change the fact that we live in an existentially nihilistic universe.”
The outer space, immensely vast and mind-boggling, can help us connect “to something eternal and ethereal, something beyond the material world.” It is truly life affirming, if we refuse to accept a nihilistic, pessimistic approach of the respondent. At the same time, our inner space, also infinitely vast, offers us the same possibilities, much more intimate and immense! We need to pay attention also to our inner space, which is also a source for spiritual awakening.
(The writer is professor of science and religion and author of Death: Live it!)