On The Accidental Universe by Alan Lightman – Book Club Reflections

My daughter, Danielle, invited me to join her book club meeting recently for the reading of

The  Accidental Universe, a collection of essays by Alan Lightman.  This collection of essays is written for the average (non-physicist) reader, providing background and his own personal perspective on many aspects of what is called the Standard Model of Cosmology – a rather boring title for what physicists have generally come to accept as a summary of our general knowledge of our universe.

I have to give credit to Dr. Lightman for making the endeavour to relate in layman’s terms (non-mathematical and in clear language) a fairly broad perspective on our current understanding of our universe, as well as his speculations about where we go next. In these days of “fake news” and in a time when some accepted paradigms of Science, such as climate change, are under attack, it is more important than ever that Scientists of all types make their work and knowledge as understandable to the general public as possible.

The focus of each of seven essays in the book is on one specific aspect of the universe – or Lightman’s perspective on that aspect.  I found his personal discussions interesting and thought provoking – while also finding areas I disagreed with or at least would perceive differently.

As he states, Dr. Lightman had an unusual teaching load – Physics and Humanities, an orientation that fits well with the purposes of this blog.  At the beginning of his essay, “The Spiritual Universe” he describes a monthly meeting he attended of a “small group of scientists, actors and playwrights” and writes: “What continues to astonish me is the frequency with which religion slips into the room, unbidden but persistent.” A bit later Lightman states, “I am an atheist myself.”

Notwithstanding this statement, Lightman does a decent job of balancing the pros and cons of arguments for or against the existence of God in this essay.  In particular, he gives enough background information (and his own criticism) of Richard Dawkins to arouse my interest in Dawkins. I am not familiar with this writer, who apparently is not only an atheist and scientist but very anti-religion.

At the book club meeting, outside in the beautiful gazebo in my daughter’s and son in law’s backyard, on a beautiful summer evening, I was impressed with the responses of the young people who had come to discuss the book. Like the monthly meetings Lightman describes, religion slipped into the room. Although no one at our discussion declared categorically, as Lightman did, their stance on religion, I sensed there was a sensitivity and appreciation towards religious belief by most of those present. There was even some discussion about what some saw as Lightman’s ambivalence – even though he declared himself an atheist.  One member of the book club suggested, based on what and how he wrote about religion and God, that he was not really a committed atheist.

I found this line of discussion very interesting since it appears to me that the vast majority of scientists (and I would say academics generally) are atheist, agnostic or non-religious. The statistics that Lightman cites support this perception. Interestingly, when he gives his stats, Lightman professes to be impressed that in one study of 1700 scientists at elite American universities,  “25% of his subjects believe in the existence of God.”  Of course this means that 75% of that same group of academics do not believe in the existence of God.

Lightman discusses the classic notion of a dichotomy between religious belief and science.  He quotes Francis Collins, (“leader of the celebrated Human Genome Project”) from a Newsweek article, “…is this a faith question or a science question? As long as one keeps that distinction…I don’t see a conflict.”

As I stated at the book club meeting however, I disagree with this particular perception of science and religion. To me, if one has a faith and is also excited by – or “believes in” – science, then each of these precepts informs and supports the other.

For example, in an earlier blog on The Jazz of Physics by Stephon Alexander, Alexander discusses how his love of music, and jazz in particular, shapes and frames his Physics ideas, while his Physics knowledge deepens his appreciation and experimentation in the music.

In a similar way, I find the evolving frontier of knowledge in Physics, and in science generally, forces me to re-examine and engage in new and different ways, important aspects of my Christian faith. My perspective on Physics interacts with and changes my perspective on my Christian faith. As a quick example, consider the Standard Model of Cosmology which Lightman discusses in several essays – with our Universe conceived as starting from the Big Bang with inflation. Now there are many technical as well as philosophical problems with this model which are beyond the scope of one blog, and which Lightman also touches on, but taking the concept at simple face value it means that after several hundred years of science research we can be reassured that we human beings are all intimately related, materially and historically to each other and to our immense Universe. To me this underscores our most profound and lasting insights from a couple of thousand years of religious and philosophical meditation. I see it as encouraging us to respect our own lives and the lives of others and of all creatures in an even more profound way.

Likewise my Christian faith motivates and drives my engagement with Physics. The writing of this blog is one example of how my faith has directed me  on how I respond to what I learn and understand from Physics.

All the world’s major religions were formed before the current paradigm of scientific discovery evolved. Therefore the language, images and concepts of our major religions are all “pre-scientific”. We need to ask ourselves – if we appreciate the riches of our faith life – what aspects of our belief survive in – or even thrive in – a science based culture. For me, my faith in Jesus is able to do this, even though it means some traditional aspects of the faith need to be “put on the shelf” or re-examined. A distinction has to be made as well between the traditions built up by the established churches and the actual teachings and life of Jesus and his followers.

Also, as I mentioned at the book club meeting, there are many actions and practices done by the traditional church in the name of Jesus which clearly contradict his original  teachings, but because of the awful nature of some of these deeds people have turned from the faith or have become opposed to religion. Examples could include the Crusades, the Inquisition, the persecution of Galileo, and more recently in Canada, residential schools.

There have been formal apologies from the Roman Catholic Church for many of these “sins of the Church” , and it is beyond the scope of this one blog explore these in any depth. Many established Protestant christian churches have long adopted a scientific approach to their theology. On the other hand, some Christian churches – the so-called far right Evangelical or Fundamentalists continue to see in science and the scientific paradigm something which must be opposed as contrary to their religion.

Many people, scientists in particular, see the recent election of Trump as president of the US as alarming because it signals a strong undercurrent of anti-scientific bias in a substantial portion of the US population – much of it supposedly in the name of Christianity. For those who are atheist such a development probably lends support to their own views.

At the book club meeting the issue was raised that some scientists in Canada and the US are actually engaged in archiving US data on environmental science outside the US in the face  of fears that the Trump administration could actually threaten to eliminate US Government archives of scientific research that supports climate change, for example.

Mention was also made of Neil deGrasse Tyson and his update of a program called Cosmos, a science program originally made by Carl Sagan. One of the participants at the meeting said they preferred the original version, but the main point of the discussion was that it appeared that scientists like Tyson were “panicking” about the anti-scientific bias or just plain ignorance of much of the US population.

It was obvious that Lightman’s book provided grist for a deep, thought provoking and wide-ranging discussion on Physics and religion in particular and on Science in our society generally.  While I disagree with his perspective in some areas – and obviously on religious issues  – I would have to say that it served as a great catalyst for examining these issues, especially in light of what is happening in our society socially, politically, and environmentally.

To me it makes it all the more imperative to articulate how the scientific method – which to me involves an open and honest search for truth – has to also become imbedded in all religious faiths, and in my own Christian faith in particular.

One thought on “On The Accidental Universe by Alan Lightman – Book Club Reflections

  1. I shall add this to my list. I do recommend reading Dawkins, not because of his atheism but because he does a superlative job of explaining evolution for a non-biologist.

    Since evolution is the main battleground between the evangelicals and understanding how the world really works Dawkins frequently expresses frustration at their refusal to open their eyes.

    Blind Watchmaker and Ancestors Tale are my two favorites. I can’t recommend God Delusion as a starting point; it would be like reading the last page of a novel without enjoying the character development first.


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