Tag: Rainer Maria Rilke

The Boundaries Between Science and Religion: Alan Lightman on Different Kinds of Knowledge

“The physical universe is subject to rational analysis and the methods of science. The spiritual universe is not. All of us have had experiences that are not subject to rational analysis. Besides religion, much of our art and our values and our personal relationships with other people spring from such experiences.”


Alan Lightman, whose beautiful meditation on our yearning for permanence in a universe that offers none, looks at the tension between science and religion in The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew.

In the essay, “The Spiritual Universe,” Lightman sets out to reconcile his personal struggle between religion and science. In so doing he sets out the necessary criteria for science to be compatible with religion:

The first step in this journey is to state what I will call the central doctrine of science: All properties and events in the physical universe are governed by laws, and those laws are true at every time and place in the universe. Although scientists do not talk explicitly about this doctrine, and my doctoral thesis adviser never mentioned it once to his graduate students, the central doctrine is the invisible oxygen that most scientists breathe. We do not, of course, know all the fundamental laws at the present time. But most scientists believe that a complete set of such laws exists and, in principle, that it is discoverable by human beings, just as nineteenth-century explorers believed in the North Pole although no one had yet reached it.

Our knowledge of scientific laws is provisional. We do not know all the laws but we believe in a complete set of them. We further believe, in principle anyway, that humans will uncover these laws. An example of a scientific law is the conservation of energy.

The total amount of energy in a closed system remains constant. The energy in an isolated container may change form, as when the chemical energy latent in a fresh match changes into the heat and light energy of a burning flame— but, according to the law of the conservation of energy, the total amount of energy does not change.

Even scientific laws that we already know about are updated and refined over time. Lightman offers the replacement of Newton’s law of gravity (1687) by Einstein’s deeper and more accurate law of gravity (1915). These revisions are part of the very fabric of science.

Next, Lightman provides a working definition of God.

I would not pretend to know the nature of God, if God does indeed exist, but for the purposes of this discussion, and in agreement with almost all religions, I think we can safely say that God is understood to be a Being not restricted by the laws that govern matter and energy in the physical universe. In other words, God exists outside matter and energy. In most religions, this Being acts with purpose and will, sometimes violating existing physical law (that is, performing miracles), and has additional qualities such as intelligence, compassion, and omniscience.

Lightman then offers a continuum of religious beliefs based on the degree to which God acts in the world. At one end is atheism — or denying the existence of god. Moving along the spectrum, we find deism, which was a prominent view in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that God created the universe but has not acted since this spark.

Voltaire was a deist. As God’s role expands we find immanentism, which holds that God created the universe and its scientific laws. Under this view, God continues to act through the repeated application of those laws. We can probably put Einstein in the immanentism camp. (Philosophically both deism and immanentism are similar because God does not perform miracles.)

Opposite atheism lies interventionism. Most religions, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism subscribe to this view, which is that God created the universe and its laws and occasionally violates the laws to create unpredictable results.

Lightman argues that all of these views, except interventionism, agree with science.

Starting with these axioms, we can say that science and God are compatible as long as the latter is content to stand on the sidelines once the universe has begun. A God that intervenes after the cosmic pendulum has been set into motion, violating the physical laws, would clearly upend the central doctrine of science.

Lightman cites Francis Collins, who offers some thoughtful advice on reconciling a belief in an interventionist God and science, or at least, deciding which to turn to for answers to the right kinds of questions. They are often very different.

“I’ve not had a problem reconciling science and faith since I became a believer at age 27 … if you limit yourself to the kinds of questions that science can ask, you’re leaving out some other things that I think are also pretty important, like why are we here and what’s the meaning of life and is there a God? Those are not scientific questions.

Under this reconciliation, miracles cannot be analyzed by the methods of science. This is an echo of Richard Feynman, who put it most clearly in one of his letters, saying that science only tells us if we do something then what will happen? Cause and effect. It doesn’t give us any guidance on the question of should we do it?

Lightman, himself, falls in the atheist camp.

I am an atheist myself. I completely endorse the central doctrine of science. And I do not believe in the existence of a Being who lives beyond matter and energy, even if that Being refrains from entering the fray of the physical world. However, I certainly agree with (Other Scientists) that science is not the only avenue for arriving at knowledge, that there are interesting and vital questions beyond the reach of test tubes and equations. Obviously, vast territories of the arts concern inner experiences that cannot be analyzed by science. The humanities, such as history and philosophy, raise questions that do not have definite or unanimously accepted answers.

And yet we must believe in things we cannot (yet) prove. Lightman himself believes in the central doctrine which cannot be proven. At most we can only say there is no evidence to contradict it. This is what Karl Popper called real science – a process by which we hypothesize and then attack our hypotheses. A scientific “fact” is one that has stood up to extraordinary scrutiny.

With much of life, and much meaning in the world, there are often things outside of the scientific realm. These are worth considering.

I believe there are things we take on faith, without physical proof and even sometimes without any methodology for proof. We cannot clearly show why the ending of a particular novel haunts us. We cannot prove under what conditions we would sacrifice our own life in order to save the life of our child. We cannot prove whether it is right or wrong to steal in order to feed our family, or even agree on a definition of “right” and “wrong.” We cannot prove the meaning of our life, or whether life has any meaning at all. For these questions, we can gather evidence and debate, but in the end we cannot arrive at any system of analysis akin to the way in which a physicist decides how many seconds it will take a one-foot-long pendulum to make a complete swing. The previous questions are questions of aesthetics, morality, philosophy. These are questions for the arts and the humanities. These are also questions aligned with some of the intangible concerns of traditional religion.

Lightman recalls his time as a grad student in physics and the concept of a “well-posed problem” — a question with “enough clarity and precision that it is guaranteed an answer.” Put another way, scientists are trained not to “waste time on questions that do not have clear and definite answers.” And yet questions without clear and definite answers are sometimes just as important. Just because we can’t apply the scientific method to them doesn’t mean we shouldn’t consider them.

[A]rtists and humanists often don’t care what the answer is because definite answers don’t exist to all interesting and important questions. Ideas in a novel or emotion in a symphony are complicated with the intrinsic ambiguity of human nature. That is why we can never fully understand why the highly sensitive Raskolnikov brutally murdered the old pawnbroker in Crime and Punishment, whether Plato’s ideal form of government could ever be realized in human society, whether we would be happier if we lived to be a thousand years old. For many artists and humanists, the question is more important than the answer.

The question is more important than the answer — just as the journey is more important than the destination and the process is more important than outcome.

As the German Poet Rainer Maria Rilke put it a century ago:  “We should try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue.”

“As human beings,” Lightman argues, “don’t we need questions without answers as well as questions with answers?”

The God Delusion, a widely read book by Richard Dawkins, uses modern tools to attack two common arguments for the existence of God: Intelligent Design (only an intelligent and powerful being could have designed the universe) and that only the action and will of God explains our morality and desire to help others. Dawkins convincingly shows that Earth could have arisen from the laws of nature and random processes, without the intervention of a supernatural and intelligent Designer. Our sense of morality and altruism could be a logical derivative of natural selection.

However, as Lightman reminds us, refuting or falsifying the arguments put forward to support a proposition does not necessarily falsify the proposition itself.

Science can never know what created our universe. Even if tomorrow we observed another universe spawned from our universe, as could hypothetically happen in certain theories of cosmology, we could not know what created our universe. And as long as God does not intervene in the contemporary universe in such a way as to violate physical laws, science has no way of knowing whether God exists or not. The belief or disbelief in such a Being is therefore a matter of faith.

Lightman is troubled by Dawkins’ wholesale dismissal of religion.

Faith, in its broadest sense, is about far more than belief in the existence of God or the disregard of scientific evidence. Faith is the willingness to give ourselves over, at times, to things we do not fully understand. Faith is the belief in things larger than ourselves. Faith is the ability to honor stillness at some moments and at others to ride the passion and exuberance that is the artistic impulse, the flight of the imagination, the full engagement with this strange and shimmering world.

Indeed, William & Ariel Durant have argued that we need religion; it is part of our fabric of understanding and living in the world.


With that, Lightman brings the essay to a beautiful conclusion.

The physical and spiritual universes each have their own domains and their own limitations. The question of the age of planet Earth, for example, falls squarely in the domain of science, since there are reliable tests we can perform, such as using the rate of disintegration of radioactive rocks, to determine a definitive answer. Such questions as “What is the nature of love?” or “Is it moral to kill another person in time of war?” or “Does God exist?” lie outside the bounds of science but fall well within the realm of religion. I am impatient with people who, like Richard Dawkins, try to disprove the existence of God with scientific arguments. Science can never prove or disprove the existence of God, because God, as understood by most religions, is not subject to rational analysis. I am equally impatient with people who make statements about the physical universe that violate physical evidence and the known laws of nature. Within the domain of the physical universe, science cannot hold sway on some days but not on others. Knowingly or not, we all depend on the consistent operation of the laws of nature in the physical universe day after day— for example, when we board an airplane, allow ourselves to be lofted thousands of feet in the air, and hope to land safely at the other end. Or when we stand in line to receive a vaccination against the next season’s influenza.

Some people believe that there is no distinction between the spiritual and physical universes, no distinction between the inner and the outer, between the subjective and the objective, between the miraculous and the rational. I need such distinctions to make sense of my spiritual and scientific lives. For me, there is room for both a spiritual universe and a physical universe, just as there is room for both religion and science. Each universe has its own power. Each has its own beauty, and mystery. A Presbyterian minister recently said to me that science and religion share a sense of wonder. I agree.

The Accidental Universe is a mind-bending read on the known and unknowable, offering a window into our universe and some of the profound questions of our time.

The Art and Science of Doing Nothing

Idleness is a lost art. That’s the message behind Andrew Smart’s book: Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing. “Being idle,” he writes, “is one of the most important activities in life.”

“I have often wondered whether especially those days when we are forced to remain idle are not precisely the days spent in the most profound activity. Whether our actions themselves, even if they do not take place until later, are nothing more than the last reverberations of a vast movement that occurs within us during idle days. In any case, it is very important to be idle with confidence, with devotion, possibly even with joy. The days when even our hands do not stir are so exceptionally quiet that it is hardly possible to raise them without hearing a whole lot.”

— Rainer Maria Rilke

We’re asked to do more, work harder, and strive to make every moment efficient. The message behind this book is just the opposite. You should do less, not more.

Neuroscientific evidence argues that your brain needs to rest, right now. While our minds are exquisitely evolved for intense action, in order to function normally our brains also need to be idle— a lot of the time, it turns out.

Chronic busyness is not only bad for your brain but can have serious health consequences. “In the short term,” Smart writes, “busyness destroys creativity, self-knowledge, emotional well-being, your ability to be social— and it can damage your cardiovascular health.”

Our brain, much like an airplane, has an autopilot, which we enter when resting and “relinquishing manual control.”

The autopilot knows where you really want to go, and what you really want to do. But the only way to find out what your autopilot knows is to stop flying the plane, and let your autopilot guide you. Just as pilots become dangerously fatigued while flying airplanes manually, all of us need to take a break and let our autopilots fly our planes more of the time.

Yet we hate idleness, don’t we? Isn’t that just a waste?

Our contradictory fear of being idle, together with our preference for sloth , may be a vestige from our evolutionary history. For most of our evolution, conserving energy was our number one priority because simply getting enough to eat was a monumental physical challenge. Today, survival does not require much (if any ) physical exertion, so we have invented all kinds of futile busyness. Given the slightest or even a specious reason to do something, people will become busy. People with too much time on their hands tend to become unhappy or bored.

Yet, Smart argues, boredom is the key to self-knowledge.

What comes into your consciousness when you are idle can often be reports from the depths of your unconscious self— and this information may not always be pleasant. Nonetheless, your brain is likely bringing it to your attention for a good reason . Through idleness, great ideas buried in your unconsciousness have the chance to enter your awareness.

A brief history of idleness.

At least since Homer we’ve been ambivalent on the subject. In the Odyssey, the Lotus-eaters lolled around all day “munching lotus” and were both hospitable and seemingly quite content. But they were a threat to Odysseus and his crew. When he arrived at the land of the Lotus-eaters, the workaholic captain sent a couple of his men to investigate the locals. The Lotus-eaters “did them no hurt” but instead offered Odysseus’s men some of their brew, which was so overpowering that the Greeks gave up all thought of returning home. Odysseus, the personification of the heroic CEO, forced the affected men back to the ship and then tied them to the ship’s benches. He recognized that if the rest of the crew got a taste of the drug, they would never leave the island, and ordered the ship to cast off. In Samuel Butler’s translation, “they took their places and smote the grey sea with their oars.”

Despite the Western cliché of China as a country where work, productivity, and industry are enshrined as the greatest of ideals, during Confucian times idleness wasn’t a sub-culture but an integral part of the culture. A Confucian gentleman grew long fingernails to prove that he did not have to work with his hands. Confucianism actually disdained hard work and instead idealized leisure and effortlessness. According to Lawrence E. Harrison, a senior research fellow at Tufts, “for the Chinese, Sisyphus is not a tragedy but a hilarious joke.” Harrison writes that the highest philosophical principle of Taoism is wu-wei, or non-effort, which means that a truly enlightened person either spiritually or intellectually goes about life with the minimum expenditure of energy. In military matters, the ancient Chinese held that a good general forces the enemy to exhaust himself and waits for the right opportunity to attack, using the circumstances to his advantage while doing as little as possible. This is in contrast to the Western idea of trying to achieve some predefined objective with overwhelming effort and force. It is thus paradoxical that in spite of China’s long history of embracing idleness, it’s currently thought of as the world’s factory. This might be because, as a Chinese physicist told me recently, China has only “overcome” Confucianism in the last half century or so.

With the coming of the Enlightenment in the West, as work became mechanized, bureaucratized, and de-humanized, philosophers fought back. At that point, as the capitalist world system started an unprecedented period of expansion, Western culture popularized the concept of the “the noble savage,” one of whose particular attributes was lounging around and eating the fruit that supposedly fell into his lap. The incomparable Samuel Johnson published a series of essays on the benefits of being idle in the periodical The Idler from 1758 to 1760. He wrote that, “Idleness … may be enjoyed without injury to others; and is therefore not watched like Fraud, which endangers property, or like Pride, which naturally seeks its gratifications in another’s inferiority. Idleness is a silent and peaceful quality, that neither raises envy by ostentation, nor hatred by opposition; and therefore no body is busy to censure or detect it.”

But the capitalists could not be stopped. The 19th century saw the advent of the global industrial economy. As human beings came to function like cogs in the complex machine called the factory, Frederick Taylor, godfather of the efficient American work ethic, introduced “scientific management” to capitalist overseers in The Principles of Scientific Management. His goal was to integrate the life of the worker with the life of business, by the means of what was then considered scientific understanding of humans. Taylor sought to increase production efficiency by minutely measuring the time and motion of tasks. Anticipating modern productivity fads like Six Sigma, Taylor looked to replace each tradesman’s knowledge and experience with a standardized and “scientific” technique for doing work. While Taylorism was and still is hugely popular among the business class, humanists of all stripes were unenthusiastic. In 1920, perhaps in reaction to increasing Taylorization, the concept of the robot— a fully mechanized, soulless worker, physically as well as spiritually dehumanized— was introduced by Czech playwright Karel Čapek. The very word “robot” means “worker” in Czech. The same year, American humorist Christopher Morley published his now-classic essay On Laziness. “The man who is really, thoroughly, and philosophically slothful,” he wrote, “is the only thoroughly happy man. It is the happy man who benefits the world. The conclusion is inescapable.”


With the advent of the 1980s and Ronald Reagan, the mantra that productivity was essential to self-esteem took hold. It was good for America, it was good for business. Laziness, on the other hand, was anti-American …

Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing goes on to explore the benefits and history of idleness in more detail.