The Accidental Universe | Notes & Review

Posted on November 21, 2016


Alan Lightman. The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew. Vintage Books, 2013. (157 pages)


Boston Globe review by Emily Rapp; Harper’s Magazine, by Trevor Quirk; Harper’s Magazine, by Alan Lightman; Salon by Laura Miller; New York Journal of Books by Richard Cytowic.


The mind is certainly its own cosmos. As Milton wrote in Paradise Lost, “It [the mind] can make a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven.” (x)

The word “universe” comes from the Latin unus, meaning “one,” combined with versus, which is the past participle of vertere, meaning “to turn.” Thus the original and literal meaning of “universe” was “everything turned into one.” (xi)

The Accidental Universe

The multiple universe idea severely limits our hopes to understand the world from fundamental principles. – Alan Guth

Theoretical physicists are Platonists. (6)

Evidently, the fundamental laws of nature do not pin down a single and unique universe. According to the current thinking of many physicists, we are living in one of a vast number of universes. We are living in an accidental universe. We are living in a universe uncalculable by science. (7)

Not only must we accept that basic properties of our universe are accidental and uncalculable. In addition, we must believe in the existence of many other universes. But we have no conceivable way of observing these other universes and cannot prove their existence. Thus, to explain what we see in the world and in our mental deductions, we must believe in what we cannot prove.

| Sound familiar? Theologians are accustomed to taking some beliefs on faith. Scientists are not. Such arguments, in fact, run hard against the long grain of science. All we can do is hope that the same theories that predict the multiverse also make other predictions that we can test here in our local universe. But the other universes themselves will almost certainly remain a conjecture. (22)

We had a lot more confidence in our intuition before the discovery of dark energy and the multiverse idea. There will still be a lot for us to understand, but we will miss out on the fun of figuring everything out from first principles. – Alan Guth

The Temporary Universe

Physicists call it the second law of thermodynamics. It is also called the arrow of time. (26)

To my mind, it is one of the profound contradictions of human existence that we long for immortality, indeed fervently believe that something must be unchanging and permanent, when all of the evidence in nature argues against us. I certainly have such a longing. Either I am delusional, or nature is incomplete. Either I am being emotional and vain in my wish for eternal life for myself and my daughter, or there is some realm of immortality that exist outside nature.

| If the first alternative is right, then I need to have a talk with myself and get over it. After all, there are other things I yearn for that are either not true or not good for my health. The human mind has a famous ability to create its own reality. If the second alternative is right, then it is nature that has been found wanting. Despite all the richness of the physical world – the majestic architecture of atoms, the rhythm of the tides, the luminescence of the galaxies – nature is missing something even more exquisite and grand: some immortal substance, which lies hidden from view. Such exquisite stuff cannot be made from matter, because all matter is slave to the second law of thermodynamics. Perhaps this immortal thing that we wish for exists beyond time and space. Perhaps it is God. Perhaps it is what made the universe. (34-35)

A man can do what he wants, but not want what he wants. – Schopenhauer

The Spiritual Universe

The first step in this journey is to state what I will call the central doctrine of science: All properties and events in the physical universe are governed by laws, and those laws are true at every time and place in the universe. (39)

…for the purposes of this discussion, and in agreement with almost all religions, I think we can safely say that God is understood to be a Being not restricted by the laws that govern matter and energy in the physical universe. In other words, God exists outside matter and energy. In most religions, this Being acts with purpose and will, sometimes violating existing physical law (that is performing miracles), and has additional qualities such as intelligence, compassion, and omniscience. (40)

Starting with these axioms, we can say that science and God are compatible as long as the latter is content to stand on the sidelines once the universe has begun. (41)

atheism: God does not exist, period. (41)

deism: God created the universe but has not acted thereafter. (41)

immanentism: God created the universe and the physical laws and continues to act but only through repeated application of those fixed laws. (41)

interventionism: from time to time, God can and does act to violate the laws. (42)

Devoutly religious scientists, such as [Francis] Collins, [Ian] Hutchinson, and [Owen] Gingerich, reconcile their belief in science with their belief in an interventionist God by adopting a worldview in which the autonomous law of physics, biology, and chemistry govern the behavior of the physical universe most of the time and therefore warrant our serious study. However, on occasion, God intervenes and acts outside of these laws. The exceptional divine actions cannot be analyzed by the methods of science. (44)

I will put my cards on the table. I am an atheist myself. I completely endorse the central doctrine of science. And I do not believe in the existence of a Being who lives beyond matter and energy, even if that Being refrains from entering the fray of the physical world. However, I certainly agree with Collins and Hutchinson and Gingerich that science is not the only avenue for arriving at knowledge, that there are interesting and vital questions beyond the reach of test tubes and equations. (44)

Finally, I believe there are things we take on faith, without physical proof and even sometimes without any methodology for proof. (45)

We cannot prove the meaning of our life, or whether life has any meaning at all. (45)

As human beings, don’t we need questions without answers as well as questions with answers? (47)

…falsifying the arguments put forward to support a proposition does not falsify the proposition. Science can never know what created our universe. Even if tomorrow we observed another universe spawned from our universe, as could hypothetically happen in certain theories of cosmology, we could not know what created our universe. And as long as God does not intervene in the contemporary universe in such a way as to violate physical laws, science has no way of knowing whether God exists or not. The belief or disbelief in such a Being is therefore a matter of faith. (50)

Can we not accept their [Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela] value as powerful thinkers and doers even if we do not agree with all of their beliefs? (51)

Faith, in its broadest sense, is about far more than belief in the existence of God or the disregard of scientific evidence. Faith is the willingness to give ourselves over, at times, to things we do not fully understand. (51)

Faith is the belief in things larger than ourselves. Faith is the ability to honor the stillness at some moments and at others to ride the passion and exuberance that is the artistic impulse, the flight of the imagination, the full engagement with this strange and shimmering world. (52)

Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of knowledge in science: the properties of physical things, and the laws that govern those physical things. The latter we call the laws of nature. (55)

Were one to characterize religion in the broadest and most general terms possible, one might say that it consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto. – William James

I would suggest that there are two kinds of knowledge in religion: the transcendent experience, and the content of sacred religious books, such as the Old Testament of Judaism, the New Testament of Christianity, the Koran of Islam, and the Upanishads of Hinduism. (58)

It is sometimes useful to distinguish between a physical universe and a spiritual universe, with the physical universe being the constellation of all physical matter and energy that scientists study, and the spiritual universe being the “unseen order” that James refers to, the territory of religion… (63)

I would argue, again, that the distinction between the spiritual and physical universes closely aligns with the axes of the personal and the impersonal. … Although many of us believe in a spiritual universe that hovers beyond our own personal being, the evidence of that universe is highly personal. (63)

Science can never prove or disprove the existence of God, because God, as understood by most religions, is not subject to rational analysis. (64)

Some people believe that there is no distinction between the spiritual and physical universes, no distinction between the inner and the outer, between the subjective and the objective, between the miraculous and the rational. I need such distinctions to make sense of my spiritual and scientific lives. For me, there is room for both a spiritual universe and a physical universe, just as there is room for both religion and science. Each universe has its own power. Each has its own beauty, and mystery. A Presbyterian minister recently said to me that science and religion share a sense of wonder. I agree. (64-65)

The Symmetrical Universe

One physical principle that governs nature over and over is the “energy principle”: Nature evolves to minimize energy. (75)

…a sphere is the particular geometrical shape that has the least surface area for a given volume. (76)

It is a mathematical truth that there are only three geometrical figures with equal sides that can fit together on a flat surface without leaving gaps: equilateral triangle, squares, and hexagons. Any gaps between cells would be wasted space. Gaps would defeat the principle of economy. (76)

Varro’s conjecture; the Honeycomb Conjecture. (78)

I would claim that symmetry represents order. (78)

Symmetry is also economy. Symmetry is simplicity. Symmetry is elegance. (79)

Viewed in this way, our human aesthetic is necessarily the aesthetic of nature. Viewed in this way, it is nonsensical to ask why we find nature beautiful. Beauty and symmetry and minimum principles are not qualities we ascribe to the cosmos and then marvel at in their perfection. They are simply what is, just like the particular arrangement of atoms that make up our minds. We are not observers on the outside looking in. We are on the inside too. (83-84)

The Gargantuan Universe

Aristotle argued that all terrestrial substances were composed of four elements: earth, fire, water, and air. He reserved a fifth element, the “ether,” for the heavenly bodies, which he considered immortal, perfect, and indestructible. (96)

“vitalists” claimed that animate matter had some special essence, an intangible spirit or soul. (97)

“mechanists” argued that living things were elaborate machines and obeyed precisely the same laws of physics and chemistry as inanimate material. (97)

The Lawful Universe

In some perplexing and ill-understood manner, we human beings with our oversized craniums seem to have a fondness both for the predictable and the unpredictable, the rational and the irrational, regularity and irregularity. Yes, we are certainly a difficult mess of self-contradictions. (105)

For Lucretius (~50 B.C.), atoms were a defense against the two greatest fears of human beings at the time (and possibly still today): fear of the capricious meddling of the gods in human affairs, and fear of everlasting punishment of the sol after a questionable life on Earth. Atoms, because of their materiality and indestructibility, countered both fears. Since everything was held to be made of atoms, and atoms could not be created from nothing, the gods could not make things appear out of thin air, could not act on Earth without due process of cause and effect. (11)

I believe that our physical universe is somehow wrapped within a broader and deeper spiritual universe, in which miracles can occur. We would not be able to plan ahead or make decisions without a world that is largely law-like. The scientific picture o the world is an important one. But it does not apply to all events. – Owen Gingerich

The change of religious belief from the polytheism of the ancient Romans and Egyptians and Babylonians to the monotheism of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam must have played a role in the understanding of the laws of nature. The laws of nature are the polar opposite of capriciousness and whim. With many gods, each with his or her own personality and whims, there is much more room for unpredictable divine behavior and consequent surprises on Earth than with a single god. With a single god, we human beings need to understand only a single divine consciousness. Little wonder that Lucretius, a believer in the pantheon of divinities of Roman mythology, was so eager to preach a philosophy that would liberate human beings from the intervention of the gods. (111-112)

Although I am a scientist myself, I would hope not. I cannot explain exactly why. I do not believe that the physical universe is governed completely by rational laws, and I also do believe that the body and mind are purely physical. Furthermore, I don’t believe in miracles or the supernatural. But, like Dostoevsky’s character, I cannot bear the thought that I am simply a piano key, thinking and doing what I must when I’m struck. I want some kind of unpredictability in my behavior. I want freedom. I want some kind of “I-ness” in my brain that is more than the sum of neurons and sodium gates and acetylcholine molecules, a captain who can make decisions on the spot–good or bad decisions, it doesn’t matter. Finally, I believe in the power of the mysterious. (123)

The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and science. – Einstein

I believe that it is bracing and vital to live in a world in which we do not know all the answers. I believe that we are inspired and goaded on by what we don’t understand. And I hope that there will always be an edge between the known and the unknown, beyond which lies strangeness and unpredictability and life. (124)

The Disembodied Universe

Foulcault’s pendulum, along with the first microscope two hundred years earlier, marked the beginning of a new era in the history of human civilization, in which our knowledge of nature arises not from our own sensory experience but from instruments and calculations. (128)

We find ourselves here on the very path taken by Einstein of adapting our mods of perception borrowed from the sensations to the gradually deepening knowledge of the laws of nature. The hindrances met with on this path originate above all in the fact that..every word in the language refers to our ordinary perceptions. – Niels Bohr

Consciously and unconsciously, we have gradually grown accustomed to experiencing the world through disembodied machines and instruments. (137)

We have trained ourselves not to be present. (140)

The twentieth-century digital technologies have certainly helped enable our techno-selves. But the more penetrating development has been the gradual psychological adaptation to a disembodied experience of the world. (141)

— via reflections —

Alan Lightman, a theoretical physicist has served on the faculties of Harvard and MIT, where he was the first person to receive a dual faculty appointment in science and the humanities. That, the resumé alone, is descriptive of what this particular book is all about. And, given the vitriolic nature of many who write about science and religion (from both sides), and the commodification of conflict for the marketing of books and speaking gigs, I found Lightman’s work a breath of fresh air.

I met someone today who, when I asked him how he would categorize himself in this subject, said that he is a “possibilitarian.” I was quite amused by that term, and have grown in my fondness of it since hearing it. I believe that term respectfully describes Lightman in this work, and gives me hope for the future of discourse around contentious issues such as science and faith.

At times, I found his arguments to be not too dissimilar from Gould’s famous “NOMA” (Non-Overlapping MAgesteria), in which science and religion hold to different kinds of “authorities,” even when talking about the same “realms.” I have yet to still fully understand why Gould’s thesis is so philosophically agreeable, but so popularly disdained. Perhaps someone can enlighten me.

In the quest to find a “unified theory” of science and faith (eh, not really), Lightman is a recommendation I would make to anyone who is one or two steps down the path.

Posted in: Philosophy, Science