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Intro. [Recording date: October 11, 2018.]
Russ Roberts: My guest is author and physicist Alan Lightman. I first encountered his writing years ago with his extraordinary novel, Einstein's Dreams, which I recommend highly. His latest book is Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, which is our topic for today.... This is a short book that bristles with ideas and some beautiful poetic writing. It's a book about being a thinking human being. It's about the relationship between religion and science. I enjoyed it very much. I want to start with our desire as human beings for absolutes that you write about, and how science has systematically dismantled many of those absolutes, if not all of them, and made them harder to believe in. What do you mean by that idea of an absolute and how science has affected it?
Alan Lightman: By 'absolute,' I mean belief in qualities that cannot be proven but seem to be anchors for our existence, like permanence, immortality, eternity, certainty, unity. These are some of the qualities that I mean. Indivisibility. And, although those qualities, those concepts, most of them, are abstract, they have sometimes been associated with physical objects. For example, the idea of unity and indivisibility, indestructibility--that idea--I should just go back and mention of course that the immortal soul and God are some of the absolutes. But the physical atom has been associated with the idea of unity and indestructibility and indivisibility. And stars have been associated with the idea of eternity, divinity, indestructibility, permanence, for example. And modern science has shown that most of the absolutes that are associated with physical ideas, physical objects, that is--at least the physical object has been shown not to embody the absolute. So, for example, stars have been shown to be finite, to eventually burn up their nuclear fuel and die. So, stars are not permanent; they are not indestructible. They are not divine, because we've shown that stars are made out of material stuff like we have on earth. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, atoms were split; and we continue to find smaller and smaller parts of the atom. The atom is not permanent, either; it is not indestructible; it is not indivisible. Probably the greatest absolute for unity is the universe as a whole. You can't get a bigger unity than the universe as a whole. Uni-verse, and in the last 20 years or so, there's been evidence--both theoretical and experimental--that there are, that there may be a large number of universes in addition to ours. So, even in our universe, we find that there's a multiplicity rather than a unity. And, these scientific discoveries don't disprove the absolutes; but they bring them into question, since their physical counterparts do not embody the qualities of the absolute.
Russ Roberts: One of the poignant and powerful parts of this book is that, as you write those things--in different ways and different examples--the book remains an incredible testament to awe, and the awesomeness, in the old sense of the word, of the physical world, and the world we live in that we have to confront as thinking human beings. So, as you describe, the loss of these absolutes from the scientific perspective, you concede at various places the natural yearnings that we have to hold onto them. So, talk about that. Because I think you describe in very powerful ways the tension that a thinking person has to have, I think religious or not, about this reality that--we understand more and more about the world; the more we understand, the less it seems to be permanent, reliable, and spiritual. It seems to be mainly physical. So, talk about that tension.
Alan Lightman: Well, I think that for thousands of years there has been a tension between the material and the immaterial. That is, on the one hand, the desire to understand the universe as made out of material--as a physical thing--and all of our science is based upon that: the reduction of phenomena to, by rationality, by method, by quantifying. And all of those deductions lead us to believe that nothing is permanent. That everything passes away. Nothing is unified. But, I think at the same time, for thousands of years, we have had a yearning for permanence. For something that outlasts our brief human life. And you can go all the way back to the Cro Magnon caves, where you can see burial sites near the caves where the Cro Magnon people prepared their dead for the next life. I think that our own impending death, our own mortality, is one of the greatest drivers of our longing for immortality. That longing for the soul, for God, for something, this permanence that outlives our fleeting lives. And so, that's where the tension comes about: Our observation and our experience with the physical world that seems to be material and impermanent, and yet, and our own impending deaths; and yet our desire to live forever--at least to have some part of us that lives forever. Or even if it's not part of us--if it's not our immortal souls--that there be something in the universe, or even maybe perhaps beyond the universe, that is eternal. And that thought brings us comfort in the face of our own impending death.
Russ Roberts: Why do you think we care? Obviously, our impending death is a fact. Our awareness of our impending death is somewhat--maybe totally, almost unique. Maybe there are some animals that are aware of death. They watch their fellow creatures die. I don't know whether they can look forward, if they can expect their own deaths. But, we have that awareness. We also are, of course, a brain inside a physical body, a physical body that's very appetite-driven--like all animals. And yet we find some conflict between an urge to satisfy those appetites, in all kinds of different ways, and at the same time desire that there's more to life than just the satisfying of those appetites. Why would that be?
Alan Lightman: Well, I think there are two factors there. It's a wonderful question. And I imagine that some animals with higher levels of consciousness must be aware of their own deaths. But one factor, I think, is our fear of nothingness. And you can read this all the way back in the writings of Lucretius, and the Nature of Things. One of the reasons why Lucretius invoked atoms and materiality is because he wanted to assuage the fears of people about nothingness. The void--nothingness--is a very fearsome prospect. And the other, I think, is our search for meaning. And, I think that the desire to find meaning in the world, meaning for both yourself and meaning for the cosmos, require a very high level of intelligence and brain development and consciousness. I know that dolphins and chimpanzees are very smart animals; but I don't know whether they have a quest for meaning the way that human beings do; and it would be hard to document that. But, I know that homo sapiens, at least, want to find meaning in their lives. Whether you are consciously searching for meaning or whether you are unconsciously searching for meaning. And many of us do that by making friends, by devoting ourselves to our family; by trying to write books. And so on. But, I think--and I'm speaking now personally of me, but I think it's true of other people as well, that I think that in our search for meaning, that permanence is a quality that we associate with meaning. If something lasts a very long time, that has a possibility of more meaning than something that's very fleeting. If you have a good meal at a Shoney's Restaurant, you feel happy and satisfied and content for a few hours. And then it passes away. It's a fleeting experience. But if you think that your children and your grandchildren and your great-grandchildren are going to remember you and fondly look at photographs of you and be proud of you if you'd done good deeds in the world, that seems to have more meaning. And so, we associate meaning with permanence. Whether that's valid or not, we do that. And I think that's one of the reasons why we have a yearning for something that's permanent.
Russ Roberts: So, I want to take a depressing but fascinating example from the book. You talk about an ant colony that somehow develops art and music under the ground, and somehow lasts for a hundred years--just an incredibly long time for an ant colony. It speculates--the ants speculate about their role in the cosmos. But then, a flood comes along and wipes them out. Even though it lasted a hundred years--does it have any?--there's nothing left. And you raise the specter--and I found this deeply haunting--and actually, I don't find it as depressing as I might, but, maybe that's because I have some religious faith--the specter that the universe's life is finite. As you said: All the stars with burn out. King Lear will be forgotten. Even Lady Gaga will be forgotten. Even if we go to a different--I know, it's hard to believe. But even if we go to a different galaxy, but if we develop the ability to get off this planet when our star burns out: They are all going to burn out. Slowly, inexorably. And then they'll be gone. And this thing, whatever it is--and I guess--in a way there's something deeply depressing about that, just like death is challenging to confront. But, at the same time, it forces you to realize that there's a deeper mystery at the heart of that, that can't be avoided or ignored. It can't be the whole thing. Something else is there. [?] what it is.
Alan Lightman: Well, yeah. Well, I mean, that's one view: that there must be something more than that. And there are other people who say, 'No. That's the whole ball of wax. That's all there is.' So, I think many of us would like to believe that there's something more than that. But, we don't know.
Russ Roberts: Well, I would say it differently, then, maybe. I would say--clearly; and I think you hint at this in the book, and maybe say it in a different way--our minds--well, I guess Einstein's. I'm going to read the quote from Einstein. Einstein clearly suggests that our brains can't wrap themselves around the idea, just like the ant--you don't say it this way, but the ant in that colony that's about to get swept away, you know, they are talking and someone hears thunder and thinks, 'Well, this could be the Big One'; or, 'Let's all huddle together and enjoy these last few seconds,'--there's something else going on, whether it's the storm or whatever it is. I'm not suggesting it's--you know, by definition, God, or a personal God. That's a huge leap, obviously. But, the idea that the universe comes into being and dies out, can't--I don't know. I'm having trouble thinking of that as "the whole thing." I know that you're right: I understand there are people much smarter than I am who feel that way. But I say that, not: 'Oh, it's therefore God.' I say that because it seems deeply, intellectually unsatisfying.
Alan Lightman: Oh, it's very unsatisfying. And it's unsatisfying for me, as well, that that would be the whole thing. I mean, even if you take the point of view that there are other universes out there--and many physicists now have this view--and that universes are constantly coming into being by fluctuations in the quantum foam which we--you know, we can't prove that, but that's what a lot of physicists believe. Even if you take that view, that there's been an infinite number of universes and ours is just one, that still doesn't answer the question: Why is there something rather than nothing?
Russ Roberts: That's a simpler way to ask my question.
Alan Lightman: And that's a--if you ponder that for a few minutes, it starts to get--it stretches your mind. You start going around in circles, and you start getting upset. At least, I do. And I think one of the deep reasons why people believe in God or a spiritual world is they want to answer the question: Why is there something rather than nothing?
Russ Roberts: Here's a quote from the book that I love. You write:
The most profound question seem to have this fascinating aspect: Either they have no answer at all, or all possible answers seem impossible.
And that kind of captures it beautifully.
Alan Lightman: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
Russ Roberts: Well, let's--I mentioned I was going to read an Einstein quote. I'm going to read it; and then we'll shift gears after this. But I'll let you respond to the Einstein quote. But, it's a quote you bring into the book. It goes like this:
I'm not an atheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books, but doesn't know what it is. That, it seems to me is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God, to see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws.
And, you know, to some extent this is the Watchmaker argument. It's a more poetic version of it, that there is order in the universe. But I think the more interesting--that's not a very compelling argument to somebody today. But I think that the poetry of that insight is captured, I think, in what you call the Central Theorem of Science, which is that we can fundamentally understand the laws of nature, and that they happen to be written in mathematics--that also boggles my mind. Mathematics seems to be something we made up. And yet, it is how we understand the reality that we find ourselves in.
Alan Lightman: Yeah. Well, first of all, if I may, I call it the Central Doctrine of Science--
Russ Roberts: Sorry--
Alan Lightman: not the--but that's very close to what you called it. I don't think that mathematics is made up. Because, we find a lot of surprises in mathematics. I don't think that we make it up, that the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter is the same number for all circles. That's a truth about the nature of geometry. And so I think there's--and I don't think that physicists make up the laws of nature, either. Because we sometimes discover things in physics that surprise us. In fact, that contradict previous beliefs--
Russ Roberts: Yeah. That's not what I mean by 'made up.' I meant they are--we perceive the world through our consciousness. And we see that as reality. And that's not obviously the case--
Alan Lightman: Yeah. Yeah. Right. Yeah. Of course, a lot of philosophers, like George Barkley have claimed that we have no evidence that there is an external reality outside of our minds. That everything that we believe is a human construction. But I think that all scientists have to believe in order to set pen to paper, or set the first ball swinging in motion for the experiment: that, all scientists have to believe that there is an external reality out there, that's independent of our minds, that exists whether or not we see it or hear it. It's certainly true that we are limited and stuck within the three pounds of gray matter in our skulls: that we see and think everything through our own consciousness and sensory apparatus. But I think that we have been able to probe a world that is external to our own consciousness.
Russ Roberts: Well, it certainly feels that way. We get empirical confirmation of that all the time. Of course, that may be deceptive. But, it feels that way. You write: "Is it not a testament to our minds that we little human beings with our limited sensory apparatus and brief life spans, stuck on our planet in space, have been able to uncover so much of the workings of nature?" Extraordinary.
Alan Lightman: Well, if I could just interject one thing: One of my favorite movies is The Matrix. I don't know whether you saw it.
Russ Roberts: Yep. Sure.
Alan Lightman: And what I found so profound about the movie, [?] the imagination that went into it, is the suggestion that everything that we see is an illusion. That we're sort of being manipulated by some giant computer somewhere. And it's very hard to disprove that hypothesis.
Russ Roberts: Yes, it is. And it's of course been the basis for mysticism as well, in religious life--that there is a reality that this is masking; that we are living in the dream of God. That we're--I find it fascinating, and this is not a very novel observation, but certainly the willingness of extremely smart people to suggest the possibility that we are actually living in a giant computer simulation, to me is an example of the--I would call it the dogmatic nature of human beings. We've replaced the belief in God--many of us have--with a view that's a lot like it. Just without the obligations or many of the things that are difficult to rationally accept. And yet, that vision--that techno-vision--is analogous to a divine vision.
Alan Lightman: Yeah. It is. And also, like a divine vision it's impossible to prove or disprove. It's just one of those sort of recreational musings that comes along with high intelligence.
Russ Roberts: Ah, it's a great line.
Russ Roberts: Well, let's shift gears. I want to talk about consciousness more explicitly. You write:
For me, the human body is the most amazing and baffling phenomenon of the material world. How could it be that the exquisite and indescribable experience of consciousness, of thought and emotion, of the overpowering sense of an "I," is simply the result of so many electrical and chemical flows between neurons which are themselves nothing but atoms and molecules? I am constantly struck dumb by this mystery. Surely, the first single-celled creatures moving about in the primeval seas did not have consciousness or thoughts. Evidently, those qualities emerged with increasing complexity and natural selection.
I want to start with this question of whether you think advancing artificial intelligence will simulate, replicate a brain. Will we be able to build a brain in a box that will have--
Alan Lightman: Self-awareness.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. And the key I like is from Harry Frankfurt. He applied it to animals, but I mentioned it in a previous episode with Rodney Brooks; and I should have attributed it to a teacher of mine, James Jacobsen-Maisels, who says that the desire about our desires might be the real test of consciousness. Will a robot built as a smart vacuum cleaner yearn to be a driverless car in 50 years? I have trouble imagining that, but that just could be my challenge. What are your thoughts on that?
Alan Lightman: Well, I don't think that we know whether we can build a brain--a brain made out of silicon. We don't know. The experience of consciousness is so unusual, it is so unique--I mean, you really can't even talk about the world except through your consciousness. It seems impossible that you could build an artificial consciousness. But, if the brain is nothing but material, and consciousness is just the sensation of all of the electrical and chemical flows between material neurons, then it seems in principle that it would be possible to build a machine that has consciousness. Now, I don't know how we would, could prove for certain that a particular computer was conscious in the same way that I can't prove for certain that there are other minds besides mine. There's no way that I can prove--I can design certain benchmarks that I will say something and you will respond to it. Or you will do something that surprises me. But, I can't prove that there is any other thinking mind in the universe besides my own. And, in the same way, we could design certain benchmarks for a computer, analogous to the Turing Test or the various tests to say whether a machine is intelligent or not. But any such set of benchmarks that we design would be finite, would be limited. We could have 10,000 or a million different steps in it, but we couldn't do an infinite number of steps. And so, we're never going to know for sure whether we have created a computer that fully matches human consciousness. But on any limited task, like the ability to drive a car, or the ability to give interesting answers as a psychologist would on the other side of a curtain--any limited task, I am sure--
Russ Roberts: Write a song--
Alan Lightman: Write a song. Right. Write a novel. I am sure that any finite task, we will eventually be able to build a computer that can do that. And whether that computer has self-awareness and consciousness is something else.
Russ Roberts: I just mention to listeners, if you haven't seen the movie Ex Machina, it's a somewhat--it's the beginning of a thoughtful look at some of these issues, and I enjoyed it.
Alan Lightman: I liked it also.
Russ Roberts: You know, you mentioned something I've never thought about--which disturbs me a lot--but it's a beautiful and incredibly provocative--[?] you said that you can never be sure that there are other minds besides your own. And you also can't be sure that the world didn't come into existence a second ago, with all the memories that we have of the past. And that's sort of irrelevant except for justice and punishment: it would be a weird, horrible thing to punish somebody for something that was actually only a memory. So, that's one place where it matters. But in general, it doesn't matter. But I guess you'd also have to ask how you could know. You said, 'other than my own.' You also really don't know--I'll speak for myself. I don't really know that I'm thinking. I have the illusion, perhaps, of consciousness. I certainly have the feeling of free will, which we know could be and illusion. So, the fact that I feel as if I'm a thinking being may simply be a deception I'm perpetrating on myself or that has been perpetrated on me. Right?
Alan Lightman: Right. Well, people have been worrying about this problem since Descartes, cogito, ergo sum; before Descartes as well. It's one of those questions where you go round and round in a circle, and maybe in the end you come to the conclusion that it doesn't matter.
Russ Roberts: Well, yeah. It's always--that's one of my views on--I mean, there are a lot of things you can think about on these questions; you can't really articulate or, as you say, you are in the circle and you struggle to have a coherent description of it. But it's certainly--we act as if we have free will and that the people around us do. I treat you as if you have free will, and you treat me that way. That's a fascinating thing, also, in and of itself.
Russ Roberts: But let me move on to--the philosophers David Chalmers and Thomas Nagel have been deeply troubled by, what they claim--and others take the other view--but they claim that our current scientific structure, particularly the biology and nature of evolution, natural selection, cannot explain what they call Qualia--the texture of daily life, the joy of a blue sky and the poignancy of the ending of a movie, the look in a loved one's eyes across a table. These don't seem to be related to fitness--would be one way to think about this. What are your thoughts on that?
Alan Lightman: Well, I think it's--I don't think that's a very good argument, or question, because I think that it's very plausible that some of our aesthetic sense, our moral sense, our creative imagination is a by-product of qualities that do have selective value. And, I mean, you can think of many other things that are by-products. I'll come up with an example in a minute. But, once you develop the brain to have a certain level of intelligence, which we do think has selective value--you might not be able to outrun a sabre tooth tiger, but you can outsmart it--once you have a brain of sufficient level of intelligence, then many of these other things, these Qualia, like the joy of looking at a sunset and so on, the pleasure in creating art--those are by-products of the high intelligence. So, I think that you don't need a direct selective mechanism in order to explain some of the pleasures of daily life. They are just by-products.
Russ Roberts: Gravy.
Alan Lightman: They are gravy. Yeah.
Russ Roberts: But Chalmers doesn't seem to think so. I don't know why--I've read a variety, a little of his work, some of his work; I've seen him lecture. He claims we are going to need a "different biology." He's not a religious person. He's an atheist. But he claims that we're going to need a biology that--here's the way I would say it that I think is the most provocative version of it. It's a little bizarre that the thing that we use to understand the cosmos is the only thing that we struggle to fully understand scientifically; and that's troubling--is the way I would say his challenge to the current level of understanding of consciousness. Do you think that's a good description, and if so, do you agree?
Alan Lightman: The thing that we use to understand the cosmos is he's speaking about the human brain?
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Well--yeah, that's the question. Consciousness, our minds.
Alan Lightman: Consciousness.
Russ Roberts: He says--I think his claim--I don't know if I'm being fair to him. I think his claim is that it seems to reside--it's hard for us to get outside ourselves. All this weird conversation we're having right now, or the last 5 minutes, is the fact that we're stuck with the 3 pounds of gray matter. And it's a little strange that that's the only thing we struggle to fully comprehend. That's the way I understand his criticism of the state of science about consciousness. And it raised the possibility that we won't ever--some people claim that, also. Which is--that's a disturbing aspect of the theory: We can understand everything about the evolution of the Big Bang except for the Planck--is that epoch? 'Ee-poch'--is extraordinary; but we can't understand why we have this urge to, all the things we've been talking about, the [?] of meaning, the connections we have across the dinner table, all the longings we have to survive. All this seemingly unnecessary stuff for survival, even if it's just a by-product, it's a little strange. It's kind of, for us it's the whole show. Or 90% of it, 80%.
Alan Lightman: Well, I understand it--I do understand it as the byproduct. That's the way that I understand it. And that does not seem to be mysterious to me. It seems perfectly logical that you design a tool to do one thing, and then you find out that it can do some other things as well. That--you might design a hammer to hammer a nail, but you find that you can also use it as a paperweight and other uses as well. And, of course, when we talk about design here, I'm speaking about natural selections--emergence--or you could say design by God, or you could--whatever your preference is. But, it doesn't seem unusual to me at all that an organ--in this case, the human brain--that evolved to solve immediate life-or-death problems by a certain strategy that in this case is very high intelligence, that that high intelligence would also lead that brain to ask questions about what is the meaning of the cosmos, and so on. That doesn't seem surprising to me, and I don't think that we need a new biology to explain that. So, I'm afraid that, although I'll respect Mr. Chalmers very much, I disagree with him on this. I don't think that we need a new biology. There's a lot that we don't understand about biology. We still don't understand exactly how memory is stored and the neurons; we don't understand completely how cells learn how to specialize in the embryo. But, there's no evidence, yet, that we need a new biology to understand those, or a non-material aspect of our biology. It's just that, you know, we have a--science is constantly progressing and revising its theories and learning more with new data. And that's the way science works. Even when physics was overthrown, the ideas of physics in the 20th century with quantum physics and relativity, those new conceptions still fit within a basic understanding of cause-and-effect relationships, forces, and so on.
Russ Roberts: I've invited both Chalmers and Nagel to be on EconTalk. I don't fully--I may not be representing Chalmers's view as eloquently or accurately--I know I'm not--as he would. So, maybe that's something that could change down the road. I don't know--I can't defend his argument against your challenge.
Alan Lightman: Well, it's interesting, and I think it's very important that people like Chalmers are constantly thinking and questioning what we know and how we know it. And I hope that we always have intellectuals and thinkers like that.
Russ Roberts: One of the beautiful ideas in the book that this is related to, as you just described the scientific method, essentially, is the belief that scientists have in what I think you call a final theory, a full, unified everything. And yet you say that when we have it, we won't know for sure. Talk about that.
Alan Lightman: Well, it's a wonderful irony: Science is--everything that we believe in science is provisional, that we consider all of the equations that we write down and the laws for electricity, magnetism, and so on to be approximations to deeper laws. So, science is a process, a provision and ever-better approximations. There are some physicists who believe that there is an ultimate set of laws which are not approximations, which need no further revision. And Steve Weinberg, who is a Nobel Prize winning physicist, calls that 'the final theory,' and in fact wrote a whole book called Dreams of a Final Theory. And there are a number of physicists, but not all physicists, who believe that such a set of laws exists. The delicious irony of that, is that even if there is a final set of laws that require no further approximation, that are exact, we would never know for sure if we had found them, because you can never be certain that tomorrow you might not find, might have found some physical phenomena that disagrees with your theory. You can never be sure of that. And so, even if we were in possession of Weinberg's final theory, we would never be certain that we had it. So, we'd never be able to sort of break out the champagne and pop the cork.
Russ Roberts: I think I've mentioned this example before--mentioned it on EconTalk--but, Charles Peirce, the philosopher, built a house; and I think it was described as the--he left the second floor empty for a ball. It was a ballroom. And the ball was going to be held when he, the celebration would be held when he discovered the secret of the universe, the meaning of the universe. And in the description of this in the essay I was reading, the next sentence was very nice. It starts off, "While the ball was never held, [comma]"--so we won't always know when we get there. And yet, my impression, and I'd love your reaction to this, is that we might feel we were close or at least have a candidate for a final theory if we found it aesthetically pleasing, and not a wild agglomeration of add-ons and additions and caveats and footnotes.
Alan Lightman: Right.
Russ Roberts: And I find that really, both beautiful and strange.
Alan Lightman: Yeah. Well, one of the beauties of modern science, and especially modern physics, is that, because we are constantly searching for theories to explain gravity and electricity and magnetism and so on, is that aesthetics, our own human sense of aesthetics, has been a very good guide to finding the best--the most correct--theory. When I say 'most correct' I mean the one that agrees with experiment the best. That theories or laws, equations that appear to be a jumble of add-ons and ad hoc propositions don't agree with nature as well as theories that are built on a single unifying and simple idea, like Einstein's theory of gravity. Now, aesthetics has not always 100% guided us the right way. Back in the 1920s and 1930s, we thought we believed in something called 'parity conservation,' which basically says that for everything that you see in nature, the mirror image of that also exists in nature. So, nature is symmetrical under reflection in a mirror. And that seems like a very beautiful, simple idea.
Russ Roberts: And there are examples of it. So, it seems--
Alan Lightman: Yeah. There are plenty of examples. But, I think in the 1960s that we found certain experiments that showed that that's not true--that the mirror image of nature is not precisely like the first image. Then another example of that is the belief for centuries and centuries that the orbits of planets were perfect circles--
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Just thinking about it. So much more satisfying than an ellipse.
Alan Lightman: It is.
Russ Roberts: It's illusory[?].
Alan Lightman: So, sometimes our sense of aesthetics leads us astray. But, most of the time it's been a very accurate guide to the more correct laws.
Russ Roberts: We recently had John Gray on the program, the British philosopher; and he's a big opponent of this idea of progress that many of us hold as, he claims, and I think often correctly, as dogmatic. You have a thought on that? Do we make any progress? We certainly make scientific and technological progress: we know more about many things. We also know less about many things, because we know more about what we don't know. But I'm curious if you think in terms of human existence, whether it's made--maybe it's not even a meaningful question, given the impermanence issue you raised earlier.
Alan Lightman: And the question is whether we're making progress--
Russ Roberts: Yeah, as a species--
Alan Lightman: as a civilization--
Russ Roberts: as a species, as a civilization. He claims that this is a leftover from our religious heritage that we should reject. It's a fascinating point. And I think many of do, without thinking, dogmatically assume that life is getting better. And, of course, in many dimensions, it is. Of course, in some dimensions it's not. So, it's a little--
Alan Lightman: Well, it makes me think of Steve Pinker's book--
Russ Roberts: Yes, it does.
Alan Lightman: and I think that he and his assistants have compiled a fair amount of evidence that show that in some ways life has gotten better on the planet: That there are fewer wars, fewer deaths due to starvation; people live longer. So, clearly there's some measures which things have gotten better. But I imagine that there are other measures in which they have not. I'm not sure that our moral life is better than it was a thousand years ago--
Russ Roberts: That's Gray's point, mostly.
Alan Lightman: And I'm not sure that we are happier than we were a thousand years ago.
Russ Roberts: That's Gray's point.
Alan Lightman: So, it depends on how you define progress.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. There's been a critique of Pinker's work on death and war by Nassim Taleb. We'll put a link up to it for those who want to read it. It's quite provocative, as listeners will not be surprised to hear.
Russ Roberts: Before we move on to some physics issues, I want us to [?] one more idea from the book, which is the idea of transcendence. And, I often think that people who--people's ability to experience transcendence is something akin to their musical ear. There may be people who are tone deaf, who can't find it; and there may be people who swim in it all day long. I think you give, in fact you mention it in an example of someone in the book who is just--his life is brimming with a feeling of transcendence. Talk about your own, if you can, your own personal encounters with that, and how it relates to the issues we've been talking about.
Alan Lightman: I've had many, what I call transcendent experiences, and I define that sort of loosely as feeling a connection to something much larger than yourself. It may or may not involve God. An experience that I mention in the book, although I've had many, is lying in a boat on the ocean at night, lying on my back looking up at the stars and feeling like I'm connected to the stars, and I'm falling into infinity, and I'm part of the stars and part of the cosmos. And I would imagine that many people have had experiences like that. That feeling of being connected to something larger than yourself is not a feeling that can be analyzed scientifically. Even though ultimately it might be reducible and rooted in the atoms and molecules in your neurons, you could hook a giant computer up to my brain and read out the electrical output of every one of my hundred billion neurons when I was lying in that boat looking up at the stars and it would not have conveyed the experience, or not have described[?] it. And, that kind of experience, which is very personal, it's very vital, it's immediate; it cannot be invalidated by anybody else--that, for me is part of my spiritual universe. And what I did in that book and what it sort of represents the tension I have in my entire life is reconciling my life as a scientist with my life as a human being who has these transcendent experiences and feels that there is a spiritual world in addition to the physical world.
Russ Roberts: Even though, of course, we have no evidence for it. Except--
Alan Lightman: We have no evidence for it--
Russ Roberts: Except for that personal--could just be the neurons firing, as you say. I've talked about it before on here, on the show. It's one of my favorite things in the world, which is when Andrew Wiles, having discovered that his proof of Fermat's Last Theorem had actually been flawed, spent a year trying to reconstruct it; and then one day it just came to him. The right answer, the correct proof. He didn't work on it intensely. He did; but that didn't work. It's just, one day, he saw it. It is--you know, I think the closest thing that a person--it doesn't make sense, but it's a transcendent experience, certainly. It is something akin to a spiritual/religious experience. It's certainly part--you know, I'm a mere economist, but my creative work as a writer and other areas, I experience that at times. And I think--nothing like that--but that extraordinary--it's a physical feeling. It's not just relief. It is an explosion of, an expansion of awareness of your place in the world, that your boat experience [?]. I have those, too, in the natural world. And the stars do a lot for me. But, certainly, intellectual activity has that character. And you mention that in the book, as well.
Alan Lightman: Yeah. I've had that, with intellectual activity. I've experienced similar to what Andrew Wiles described, although not as monumental as his discovery, of course. But it is a beautiful, beautiful experience. It's a majestic experience. And, the--I'm trying--Hinduism--I think that Hinduism has a concept called 'dakshan[?]'--an experience they call 'dak shan[?]'--which is sort of opening yourself up to the divine. Being open to the divine. And recognizing it and being open to it. And I think that these transcendent experiences that we're talking about, you've had, that Andrew Wiles had, that I've had, and many people have had, is really opening yourself up to the sublime. 'Sublime' might be a better word than 'divine.' But, being open to that.
Russ Roberts: In Judaism, the word, I think, would be duvakut[?], which is a cleaving. Strange and interesting word, because 'cleave' is to both separate from and attach to. Which is permanent for all the paradoxes, intentions that we're talking about.
Russ Roberts: I want to turn toward just some general issues in physics that I've love to hear your thoughts on. We had Chuck Klosterman on, a long, a while back. He wrote a book called, But What If We're Wrong? where he speculates--you know, it's very hard for us to imagine that we are wrong about all the things we know are true. But we know that in the past, things that people thought were true weren't true any more. After a while. And one of the ones, the examples he gives in there, if I remember correctly, is gravity. What do you think of our current understanding of gravity? And, do you think it has any possibility of having to be revised?
Alan Lightman: Well, I'd like to slightly revise that word 'Wrong.'
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Sorry. That--well, he's selling books. Gotta--
Alan Lightman: Yeah. Right. No, that's--that's a good word for 'selling books.' And maybe my books haven't sold as well because I haven't come up with words like that. But, it's--what I like to--the way I like to think about our endeavor in science is that we are finding better and better approximations to the way that nature behaves. And getting back to gravity--that, Newton's theory was very accurate for its time. And very successfully predicted the orbits of planets and many other phenomena. And then, in the 19th century, with better telescopes, we were able to show that the orbit of Mercury did not quite fit Newton's theory. And then--
Russ Roberts: Describe the magnitude of that inaccuracy, because it blew me away.
Alan Lightman: Yeah. Well, it was--the displacement of the orbit of Mercury from where it was supposed to be, the displacement in the sky was about 1/100th of one degree every century.
Russ Roberts: It's amazing.
Alan Lightman: Yeah. It is amazing. But, and it is amazing that we had telescopes--
Russ Roberts: Exactly. Of that precision--
Alan Lightman: that were precise enough, precise enough to be able to find that minute discrepancy. But anyway, in 1950, Einstein proposed a new theory of gravity that was a better approximation to nature than Newton's theory. And, so, rather than saying that Newton's theory was wrong, I would say that Einstein's theory was a better approximation to whatever the underlying truth is in nature. And we do believe that there is any underlying truth. But we know that Einstein's theory also will be replaced by an even more accurate theory. We know that Einstein's theory of gravity, called general relativity, does not include quantum. And, we think that all--we think that nature is quantum and must be described by quantum theories; and so Einstein's theory will ultimately be replaced. There are a number of candidates for replacing it, but we don't know now which one is the best candidate. And that's sort of the way that science proceeds, with better and better approximations.
Russ Roberts: But do you think there are things about gravity in the non-quantum area that we don't understand or that we'll improve our understanding of?
Alan Lightman: Well, of course, you can have--you can't be sure. But, we think that Einstein's theory is a very, very accurate theory for all gravitational physics phenomena that doesn't involve quantum. It's made many predictions: black holes, gravitational waves, the very precise orbit of the planet Mercury and other planets. So, of course, we can never be sure that there might not be some phenomena that don't fit into Einstein's theory. But, I can just say that physicists are very, very happy with Einstein's theory--except for quantum phenomena.
Russ Roberts: So, I'm going to get the details wrong, but when--but the point is pretty clear--when there was the test of whether the gravitational force of the sun was bending the light coming from--I forget which planet or star--
Alan Lightman: It was a star. Yeah--
Russ Roberts: there is some question as to whether those data were accurate. And that, Einstein, when asked, 'What would you have done if the results had contradicted your theory?' he said, 'Well, I wouldn't have believed them, because I know my theory is right.' Which is not a very scientific attitude.
Alan Lightman: No, it wasn't. And I think that that was tongue in cheek. I mean, Einstein was known to have been very witty and display some things tongue in cheek. And I think that that was one of them. Einstein was, you know, ultimately, a scientist: Which means that he was ultimately swayded[sic], persuaded by experimental data. And so, if the experiment come out to disagree with his theory and the experiment was repeated many times and always disagreed with his theory, he would have given up his theory. But we know that Einstein was able to revise his theories when faced with persuasive experimental evidence contradicting the theory. Einstein's theory of cosmology was that we had a static universe that was not changing. And, when Edwin Hubbel, in 1929 discovered evidence that the universe is not static, but expanding--all the galaxies are moving away from each other--Einstein was willing to revise his cosmological model. So, I think that ultimately--although Einstein was an artist, he was a philosopher, he was a person of certain moral standards--he was most important a scientist. And I think most scientists are, eventually bow down to experimental evidence, no matter how fond they are of their theories.
Russ Roberts: Well, my favorite--you've said--one of your beautiful things in this conversation--but, one of my favorites as long-time listeners will not be surprised to hear, is, I think you've said the phrase, 'You can't be sure' more than once. And certainly that is part of the scientific mindset. In response to your book, by the way, I was googling around about Planck. Because I was just shocked by how many things are named after him. And, I saw--I don't know if this is true, but it was alleged to be a quote from Freeman Dyson, who has been a guest on this program, saying that Einstein, who was at the time a "mere patent clerk," a patent office clerk, sent 5 papers to Planck, who was the editor of a journal, and Planck published them all without getting referee reports. Which, if true, I love that, because it means they weren't peer reviewed. I mean, how would we know they're true? Do you have a favorite physicist or two, not living, who inspired you, who continue to inspire you?
Alan Lightman: Who are not living?
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I'm not talking about your thesis advisers--not a--I'm sure influential person in your [?].
Alan Lightman: Yeah. I would have to say Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. I think those are the two greatest physicists who have ever lived. And both of them completely overthrew contemporary thinking--at a young age, I should add. Which, I think took tremendous courage but is also one of the reasons why we celebrate youth. And we celebrate youth not only in science and mathematics: we celebrate it in sports, we celebrate it in Hollywood. And youth is capable of wonderful things. So, Einstein and Newton were my two greatest heroes.
Russ Roberts: Well, youth is ignorant. That's one of the great disadvantages and advantages, right?
Alan Lightman: Right.
Russ Roberts: Which is amazing.
Alan Lightman: Yeah. It is. One of my favorite books on Buddhism is called the Beginner's Mind. It's that notion of having a mind that is willing to be a beginner, to question authority, and to start from scratch.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Huge part of, I think, being a successful human being is to keep that naivete, that aliveness, that ecstasy at new experiences that after a while become less ecstatic, and we need to try to capture that.
Alan Lightman: Yeah.
Russ Roberts: Now, you've spent--you've dabbled in multiple worlds. You're a world-class physicist, on the faculty of Harvard and MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology]; but you are also a great writer. Do you have fiction writers--authors who have inspired you, who you think particularly fondly of?
Alan Lightman: Well, Virginia Woolf would be one. I think that she introduced, sort of, stream of consciousness writing in which we feel like we are literally in the mind of a character. Dostoyevsky is another hero of mine of France. Kafka, is a hero of mine. These are writers who are no longer living--I'm assuming that you are talking about that.
Russ Roberts: Well, in this case you can say whoever you like. Do you like some living writers, particularly?
Alan Lightman: Oh, I love many. Many living writers. I would mention Michael Ondaatje, Annie Proulx. Those are just a couple of my favorite writers.
Russ Roberts: Are you a Faulkner fan?
Alan Lightman: Faulkner?
Russ Roberts: Yeah.
Alan Lightman: Yes. He's one of my favorite writers, too. And, of course, he's from the South, as you and I are--
Russ Roberts: A near neighbor.
Alan Lightman: A near neighbor. That's right, in Oxford, Mississippi.
Russ Roberts: But he also, I was thinking when you mentioned Virginia Woolf--because if you pick up The Sound and the Fury, you will not understand it at first, until you understand the project. That's true of a number of his books. And he was also young and taking a leap there that was brave.
Russ Roberts: So, I want to close with a quote from a play that I asked you, before we started recording, that you are familiar with, which is Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard. It's my favorite play, I'd say. Period. I've seen it three times. I encourage listeners to check it out. You can read it. It's not the same. But, try to see it if you can. And, this quote has--it's from a character, Bernard, who is the humanities defender at various times. He's not a very likeable character through much of the show. But, Stoppard puts in his mouth a defense of the humanities in the face of science. And, I want to read it and then get your reaction. Bernard, he's talking about science versus the humanities; he says,
BERNARD: Oh, you're going to zap me with penicillin and pesticides. Spare me that and I'll spare you the bomb and aerosols. But don't confuse progress with perfectibility. A great poet is always timely. A great philosopher is an urgent need. There's no rush for Isaac Newton. We were quite happy with Aristotle's cosmos. Personally, I preferred it. Fifty five crystal spheres geared towards God's crankshaft is my idea of a satisfying universe. I can't think of anything more trivial than the speed of light. Quarks, quasars--big bangs--black holes--who gives a shit? How did you people con us out of all that status? And why are you so pleased with yourselves?... If knowledge isn't self knowledge it isn't doing much, mate. Is the universe expanding? Is it contracting? Is it standing on one leg singing 'When father painted the parlour'? Leave me out. I can expand my universe without you. 'She walks in beauty, like the night of cloudless climes and starry skies, and all that's best of dark and bright meet in her aspect and her eyes'.
And that's a quote from Shelley [should be Byron, 'She walks in beauty...'--corrected per commenter alert.--Econlib Ed.] who has a role in the show, in the play. But, it's an attack on, to some extent, your worldview. But--not really, in my take on it. But I'm curious how you'd react to it.
Alan Lightman: Well, I think it's extremely hypocritical. Because I think Bernard probably profits a lot from science and technology. I mean, he--when was the time period of this?
Russ Roberts: This is in the modern era of the play. The play takes place in two time periods. I'm pretty sure this is, would be in like the 1970s.
Alan Lightman: Yeah. Well, but, well yeah, okay. I know that there are two times--[?]--I'd like to see--[?]
Russ Roberts: [?]
Alan Lightman: what Bernard would say if he got pneumonia or something and resisted medical treatment, what he would say about. So, I think it's an incredibly hypocritical quote. I agree with the general sentiment that the humanities are a vital part of human life. But I think that his dismissiveness of science and technology is completely off base and hypocritical. And I think that Stoppard wrote that just to be provocative. I can't believe that Stoppard really has that view, himself. He was trying to provoke the audience and the--the comment by Bernard is so blunt and direct that you wouldn't really hear those words come out of a real human being's mouth, I don't think.
Russ Roberts: I think the issue he's trying to get at there--which I take, a different take, on it. I think the issue he's trying to get at is the transformation of what is prestigious in our lives. Which used to be more the humanities. And as science advanced from bloodletting to penicillin, we, as you point out, are desperately eager to have it, and have more of it. And we've somehow lost--I think, two things. I think we've lost some of the value of the humanities. And, at the same time, we've failed to appreciate the poetry of science, and the aesthetics that are there. So, if I may pay you a compliment, I think your work unites both of those things in very elegant and life-enhancing ways.
Alan Lightman: Well, thank you.