Since he first earned wide acclaim with his 1993 debut novel, Einstein’s Dreams, Memphis native Alan Lightman has been known as a writer concerned with the troubled intersection of rationality and mystery, the place where reason encounters a human truth or experience it cannot explain. It’s a subject for which Lightman is well-suited: although he won recognition for his writing while still in high school, he originally pursued a career in physics, and he was a research scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics when he first began publishing essays and short fiction in the 1980s. Einstein’s Dreams, which considers the human consequences of time’s relativistic possibilities, was a brilliant melding of abstract concept and vivid story, and it showed Lightman’s gift for creating fiction that engages head and heart on equal terms. His subsequent work, including four novels and a book-length poem, is also often concerned with negotiating between the known, quantifiable world and the realm of what we feel or intuit.
In his most recent book, Mr g: A Novel About the Creation, Lightman takes on the ultimate questions of mind and spirit, writing a twenty-first-century creation story which features a God who works within the laws of physics. Although Mr g is more whimsical in character than most of his work, the book is really another exploration of the same questions that have always fascinated the author. A creation story is, in a sense, the ultimate convergence of rationality and mystery, and the origin of the universe is, of course, intellectual home turf for an astrophysicist. It might seem strange that Lightman, who firmly identifies himself as an atheist, would write a novel starring a divine being, but Lightman’s choice to employ a God in his story is a reflection of his fundamental respect for spiritual experience. As he explained in a 2011 essay at Salon, Lightman disagrees with the anti-religion rhetoric of Richard Dawkins and other prominent atheists. Lightman believes there are questions that science and reason can’t answer, and he thinks we ought to value those questions, as well as the many spiritual paths we take toward confronting them.
In a recent email exchange, he answered questions about Mr g, which was recently released in paperback, and he shared some thoughts about the cultural divisions he would like to see bridged.
Chapter 16: In Mr g, you’ve told a creation story that is informed by science, and yet it is as fanciful as a folk tale. Was it difficult to reconcile those two modes of thinking — the analytical and the imaginative — as you wrote the book?
Lightman: I have been combining these two modes for many years—each has its own place. Since Mr g is largely a fantasy, in the tradition of such writers as Calvino and Saramago, it was important to make sure that the analytical portions of the narrative were not didactic and as poetic as possible.
Chapter 16: One of the most interesting sections of Mr g is the debate with Belhor about the necessity of evil. Have you decided what you think about the question of whether evil is necessary?
Lightman: Mr g is a novel, of course, and does not necessarily reflect my personal views on the various ethical, theological, and philosophical issues raised in the book. Personally, I would agree more with Mr g than with Belhor on the question of evil. I do not see it as a necessary partner to good, but I also feel that what we call “good” is culturally dependent and also relative to the situation. For example, under certain circumstances, it may be “good” or at least “right” to kill someone who is about to murder your family.
Chapter 16: Your Mr g has a youthful quality, and he also seems like a gentle being, if not an actively benevolent one. How did you settle on that characterization for God?
Lightman: Since Mr g is a novel, I wanted my God to be an interesting character—one the reader can identify with. So, for starters, Mr g cannot be a perfect being, as God is in most religions. He should be imperfect, vulnerable, and possibly even flawed in certain ways. I like the idea of a God who is amazed by his own creations, not an all unknowing or complacent God. I like the idea of an energetic God, with youthful enthusiasm. I also like the idea of a compassionate and gentle God.
Chapter 16: You’ve long described yourself as a spiritual atheist. Was there ever a point, even in childhood, when you believed in a supernatural divinity? Has your attitude toward conventional religious faith evolved over the years?
Lightman: I have never, even as a child, believed in the idea of a supernatural being who created or governs the universe. That idea just did not square with my own observations and study of the way that nature works. However, I do have some understanding of the religious experience—as it is similar to the spiritual and creative experiences that I’ve had—and I do understand and respect the role that conventional religious belief has played in human civilization and in the human psyche.
Chapter 16: In your essay for Salon, “Does God Exist?,” you took on the anti-religion rhetoric of people like Richard Dawkins. How do you answer people on the other side of the debate who feel that science is a threat to faith? Advocates for creationism seem pretty immovable in their hostility to science.
Lightman: Science and religious faith each have their own domains. Science can never disprove the existence of God, and theology can never prove the existence of God. The physical world lies in the domain of science. Factual statements about the physical world should be tested by science. If creationists make statements about the physical world, then they should be willing to have those statements tested by science, or they should not make such statements in the first place. If creationists feel threatened by science, then they should think more clearly about the domains of science versus the domains of religion and faith. By the same token, scientists cannot really make definitive statements about the spiritual world. The transcendent spiritual experience is a personal experience that is not subject to quantitative analysis and cannot be invalidated by science.
Chapter 16: Do you have any ideas for how our education system might encourage the kind of tolerance and nuanced understanding you described in the Salon essay?
Lightman: Great question! For starters, I would suggest that our humanities courses emphasize the wide range of beliefs of different human cultures. I would not want to tamper much with existing science courses and religion courses, but I would recommend that we add courses to the curriculum in the area of “science and religion” and discuss the distinction between the physical world and the spiritual world, discuss the differences in the kinds of knowledge in science and in religion, and discuss the differences in the ways that science and religion arrive at that knowledge. If such discussions are respectful of both science and religion, I think that mutual understanding and tolerance will follow.
Chapter 16: Which writers have influenced your spiritual thinking the most? When you want to ponder those “questions without answers,” what works do you turn to?
Lightman: I am a big fan of William James’s book The Varieties of Religious Experience and George Frazer’s The Golden Bough, both studies of the origins and experience of religion. Some of my favorite writers who incorporate spirituality in their work are the poets Emily Dickinson, William Blake, Rabindranath Tagore.
Chapter 16: What are you currently working on, either in your writing or elsewhere?
Lightman: I am finishing a collection of essays, titled The World You Thought You Knew, about the way that modern science has shaped our understanding of who we are. Themes include the difficult dialogue between science and religion, the conflict between our human desire for permanence versus 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. Behind all of these considerations is the haunting suspicion that what we see and understand of the world is only a tiny piece of the whole.
I am also continuing to work on the Harpswell Foundation, a nonprofit organization with a mission to empower a new generation of women leaders in Cambodia and in the developing world. That project takes up at least fifty percent of my time.