Complexity Explorer

21 May 2015

The Accidental Universe

Horn lightman post

A Summary of Alan Lightman's SFI Community Lecture

By Gabrielle Beans

Science and religion—can one exclude the other? Is there such a thing as free will? Does our universe care about life? On May 6th, at the Santa Fe Institute’s Community Lecture at the James A. Little Theater, I sat in a full room pondering these questions as Alan Lightman spoke to us on the subject of the accidental universe.  Lightman is one of those rarest of creatures, gifted in science, art and communication.  A physicist, novelist, essayist and professor at MIT, he delves into some of the deepest questions we as humans have, with a thoroughness and thoughtfulness that is apparent as he speaks.

The Accidental Universe

Lightman’s lecture was given in three intertwining sections.  Initially he focused on what he has coined the “accidental universe”, delving into the increasing consensus amongst theoretical physicists that our universe is but one of many.  This multiverse theory flies in the face of the previously held belief that all phenomena in the universe can be explained as the necessary consequences of a few fundamental laws and constants.  Telling a physicist that there are multiple universes with different fundamental constants (e.g., the speed of light) would be like, according to Lightman, “going into a shoe store and finding that a size 9 shoe fits you, and a size 12 fits you equally well”. It’s rather upsetting!

The multiverse accounts for one of the apparent mysteries of our own universe:  it appears to be finely tuned, in multiple ways, to allow for the existence of life. Tiny changes in certain factors would have prevented life from ever coming about.  For example, if the universe had contained just a little bit more dark energy, planets and stars would never have formed because the rate of expansion of the universe would have been too rapid to allow them to coalesce.  If, on the other hand, there had been a bit less dark energy, the universe would have collapsed in on itself and stars would never have been formed. Either way, there would be no life as we know it.  

This fine-tuning of the universe, apparently fulfilling our needs perfectly, becomes less remarkable in the context of multiple universes in which those finely tuned parameters are different.  Life exists in our universe because this happens to be one of the universes that allows life.  It’s no more than an accident.  This multiverse has been predicted in string theory, and eternal inflation theory, and yet, it cannot be proven—we must accept its existence as a matter of faith.  Faith and Science? It seems paradoxical to consider that scientists, governed by logic and data, ever resort to faith in their work.  And yet, as Lightman says, even “the central doctrine of science is a matter of faith”. This has shaken quite a number of today’s scientists, as has the inability (so far) of modern science to be able to explain all of the properties of the universe as necessary consequences of a few fundamental laws and constants.


Moving on from this weighty subject, Lightman took a few moments to read aloud one of the beautiful essays contained in his book “The Accidental Universe”. In “The Temporary Universe” we are transported into his thoughts as he contemplates his daughter’s aging and the impermanence of everything.  In the context of his eldest daughter’s wedding, Lightman paints a bittersweet picture: utter joy and utter tragedy walking hand in hand down the aisle as images of the past sweep through.  

Why does the fleeting nature of things disturb us? We cling to objects and the idea of everlasting life, despite the shifting, evaporating reality surrounding us. Unending examples of change upon change upon change are laid out as Lightman reads on. “Physicists call it the second law of thermodynamics. It is also called the arrow of time. Oblivious to our human yearnings for permanence, the universe is relentlessly wearing down, falling apart, driving itself to a condition of maximum disorder.”

With time (and the universe has nothing if not time) everything falls apart. Planets fall out of orbit, genes accumulate mutations rendering them useless, stars count down their own existence by consuming their finite nuclear fuel. Yet despite all the evidence of inevitable decay, we continue holding on to dreams of immortality and never cease searching for eternal life. To Lightman, this is one of the profound contradictions of human existence.  “Either I am delusional, or nature is incomplete”, and he is inclined to believe the first.  The possibility that nature is hiding some immortal, unknown substance that doesn’t follow the second law of thermodynamics seems preposterous.  Yet despite admitting to believing that his, and the majority of humankind’s, grasping for permanence is a delusion, he, and probably most of us, cannot let it go. He calls us, instead, to seek the majestic in the brevity of things, like a flower blooming for only one night, or a star shooting through the sky.  

Science and Religion

In the final third of Lightman’s talk, he bravely and rather mischievously asks if we would like to hear him continue speaking, this time daring to open the can of worms which is the subject of science and religion.  Lightman, with the utmost delicacy and humanity, manages to open up the subject of the existence of God without causing the roof to cave in from dissenting audience members—a rare feat.  

He begins by disarming the crowd by stating that, in his view, science can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God, that God lies outside of science, time and space.  However, he also holds that "except for a God who sits down after the universe begins, all other Gods conflict with the assumptions of science."  So what does Lightman mean by this? If you adhere to the central doctrine of science (accepted by most, if not all, scientists), that “all of the phenomena in the physical universe obey laws of nature and those laws of nature hold everywhere and at all times in the universe”, then the only God compatible with this law is one that does not interfere with the workings of the physical universe.  In other words, God cannot perform miracles. Most traditional religions do hold that God can and does interfere in our world, and so, most traditional religions in their orthodox form are not compatible with science.

Despite this, Lightman estimates that about 5% of scientists believe in an intervening God. How do they reconcile these two contradictory beliefs? They feel that science correctly describes the workings of the physical universe most of the time, but every once in a while God intervenes and those interventions are not analyzable with the methods of science. What Lightman’s listeners and readers should believe he leaves entirely up to them. Lightman himself does not tell us (during this lecture at least) where his beliefs lie, though he does believe that there is such a thing as a spiritual universe, composed of the collections of our experiences and feelings that he describes as “transcendent”.  These experiences, which I can imagine as an alpine vista suddenly viewed through rolling clouds after a long day’s mountain ramble, cannot be fully analyzed or understood with the methods of science.

Life as an accident, impermanence as the highest form of beauty there is, and a spiritual experience that transcends the conflicts of science and religion are the concepts I came away with. Decide for yourself what Alan Lightman has to offer you by watching his SFI Community Lecture on Youtube at .

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