A physicist explores mystical experience

Alan Lightman asks great questions about science and religion. His answers are sometimes frustrating.

Alan Lightman has made a name for himself as a physicist and a humanist who can communicate across the worlds of science and the humanities. His best-selling speculative novel, Einstein’s Dreams, enters into the mind of a young Einstein as he rethinks time and space. Lightman is a risky thinker, and his latest book of short essays wanders widely over aspects of science, philosophy, and religion. For Lightman, these territories are not non-overlapping magisteria, as proposed by Stephen Jay Gould. They are disciplines that encounter one another intimately by asking such questions as: What is the human? What is the nature of the universe? What can be explained and what cannot?

Lightman roots his desire to explore these questions in an experience that he had in a small boat off the coast of his favorite island in Maine. It was a summer night, moonless and quiet. He turned off the engine in his boat and lay down, looking up at the stars. “After a few minutes, my world dissolved into that star-littered sky. The boat disappeared. My body disappeared. And I found myself falling into infinity. . . . I felt an overwhelming connection to the stars, as if I were a part of them. And the vast expanse of time . . . seemed compressed into a dot.” When the experience ended and he sat up, he had no idea how long he’d been in the boat.

As he considers this mystical experience, Lightman does not know how to makes sense of it. “As both a scientist and a humanist,” he believes that “the transcendent experience is the most powerful evidence we have for a spiritual world. By this I mean the immediate and vital personal experience of being connected to something larger than ourselves, to feeling some unseen order or truth in the world.”