From the acclaimed author of Einstein's Dreams and Mr. g comes a meditation on the unexpected ways in which recent scientific findings have shaped our understanding of ourselves and our place in the cosmos. With all the passion, curiosity, and precise yet lyrical prose that have marked his previous books, Alan Lightman here explores the emotional and philosophical questions raised by discoveries in science, focusing most intently on the human condition and the needs of humankind. He looks at the difficult dialogue between science and religion, the conflict between our human desire for permanence and the impermanence of nature, the possibility that our universe is simply an accident, the manner in which modern technology has separated us from direct experience of the world, and our resistance to the view that our bodies and minds can be explained by scientific logic and laws. And behind all of these considerations is the suggestion - at once haunting and exhilarating - that what we see and understand of the world is only a tiny piece of the extraordinary, perhaps unfathomable whole.
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This is a set of related essays ruminating on humanities relation to modern science and is more rambling lyrical personal reflections than explanatory science. The essays are: The Accidental Universe; The Temporary Universe; The Spiritual Universe; The Symmetrical Universe; The Gargantuan Universe; The Lawful Universe; The Disembodied Universe.
The narration is excellent, slow paced, emotional, and poetic.
The author declares he is an atheist, but seems to believe that God, transcendent personal experience, and what created our universe are all beyond the realm of scientific analysis. I agree that such things may currently beyond complete scientific analysis, but they are not beyond scientific analysis in principle. If God, or transcendental personal experiences have any practical effects, these effects can, eventually, be tested. History is full of the phenomena that were once fervently believed beyond the realm of thoughtful enquiry (the motion of planets, weather, disease, heredity, plant growth, hallucinogenic substances, and many others). These have all, one by one, succumbed to various levels of scientific analysis. There are only a very few phenomena left that some believe are still beyond the realm of science. Many, including Lightman, have a deeply emotional desire (without fully understanding why) that some part of human experience will remain forever beyond the realm of science. Lightman seems excited that the rest of the universe follows scientific laws, yet revolts against the idea these same laws control his own essence. He is saddened by the temporality of life and seems to view the connectivity allowed by cell phone technology as disembodiment. At some level I fully understand such attitudes, but nevertheless I find them mildly quaint. Reading Lightman’s last chapter lamenting the disembodiment caused by texting I pondered if some old foggy at the dawn of humanity lamented how spoken language disembodied people from real pre-linguistic communication.
I did not dislike this book, but did not get a lot out of it. I love art and literature and music and myth and my life, but I don’t feel any need to separate these things into a spiritual realm beyond scientific analysis. There is some discussion of science in the book, but it is just a bit sloppy (like convolving quantum superposition with multi-position). When I finished this book I recalled how the end of A Brief History of Time resonated more with me than anything in The Accidental Universe; “if we discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable by everyone, not just by a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason -- for then we should know the mind of God."