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!)

Columnist: 
Kuruvilla Pandikattu