Alan Lightman Is Delusional

Alan Lightman and I are delusional.

Lightman is a physicist, a professor at MIT, and a world-class writer. His literary works, including the novel Einstein’s Dreams, have won many awards, and his essay, “The Accidental Universe” has become a clarion call for neo-atheists.

Sequestered as I am in my faith-bubble, I’ve only recently become familiar with Lightman’s writing which I find engaging and familiar. The professor invites readers into his thoughts — into the internal dialog whereby he decides on what to believe. I identify with this dialog. I have asked myself many of the same questions, but I arrive at radically different conclusions. There is much to say about Lightman’s philosophy and its intersection with faith, but what strikes me most is his confession of belief.

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 (and my wingtips), or there is some realm of immortality that exists outside nature.

Here we have the literary outcome of a mind that is both philosophical and scientific. Lightman is honest enough with himself to admit that he longs for permanence, that he finds it unsettling to accept an accidental origin and a hollow existence. But, sequestered as he is in his science-bubble, he can’t allow himself to imagine an explanation beyond the empirical. So strong is this psychological block, in fact, that it prevents him from applying reason to his condition. He says so himself.

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 could not 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.
Of these two alternatives, I am inclined to the first. I cannot believe that nature could be so amiss. Although there is much that we do not understand about nature, the possibility that it is hiding a condition or substance so magnificent and utterly unlike everything else seems too preposterous for me to believe. So I am delusional. In my continual cravings for eternal youth and constancy, I am being sentimental. Perhaps with the proper training of my unruly mind and emotions, I could refrain from wanting things that cannot be. Perhaps I could accept the fact that in a few short years, my atoms will be scattered in wind and soil, my mind and thoughts gone, my pleasures and joys vanished, my “I-ness” dissolved in an infinite cavern of nothingness. But I cannot accept that fate even though I believe it to be true. I cannot force my mind to go to that dark place. “A man can do what he wants,” said Schopenhauer, “but not want what he wants.

I looked up “delusion.” Here’s the definition: a belief held with strong conviction despite superior evidence to the contrary.

Alan Lightman’s faith in the philosophy of science is so strong that he can’t open his mind to anything larger than science, despite “superior evidence to the contrary.” He, like so many others who idolize science, has confused the most reasonable explanation for things with the most likely.

C.S. Lewis famously wrote,

Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud.

Lewis was not bound by the same scientific dogma that binds Lightman, so he was free to trust in the unseen, to plumb the depths of the unempirical, to believe the unbelievable, to embrace the most reasonable delusion.

To believe that science can explain all the philosophical mysteries of life is delusion. To trust in impossibly unlikely scenarios like an all-powerful God and resurrection from the dead is likewise delusion. All of us — you and me, rigorous and religious, Lightman and Lewis — are delusional. We all believe in fairy tales. But some of us are open to the idea that the most beautiful fairy tales are also the most true; that the most reasonable explanation for our longings is also the most unlikely.