About the Book by Alan Lightman Titled “The Transcendent Brain: Spirituality in the Age of Science”

From a Wall Street Journal story by Danny Heitman headlined “Beyond Ones and Zeroes”:

For much of the year, Alan Lightman lives less than a mile from Walden Pond, the Massachusetts spot where Henry David Thoreau popularized transcendentalism and its ideas about a direct connection to the divine through nature.

Mr. Lightman, a theoretical physicist and professor of humanities at MIT, has had some vivid experiences with nature himself. In “Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine,” his 2018 essay collection, he recalled immersing himself in a starry sky as his small boat bobbed off the shore of his summer home in New England. “I felt an overwhelming connection to the stars, as if I were a part of them,” he wrote. “And the vast expanse of time—extending from the far distant past long before I was born and then into the far distant future long after I will die—seemed compressed to a dot.”

Such moments bring illumination, but also puzzlement. As a physicist, Mr. Lightman would rather look to science instead of a supernatural deity to explain why he sometimes feels lifted out of himself. But if there’s no God, then what’s causing his radical change of perspective, and what purpose could it have? It’s a question Mr. Lightman attempts to address in “The Transcendent Brain: Spirituality in the Age of Science.”

Now in his 70s, Mr. Lightman is at an age when such ultimate questions of life—and a possible afterlife—resonate more deeply. That urgency sharpens the focus of “The Transcendent Brain,” which departs from the more loosely discursive sensibility of the author’s recent books, such as his 2021 essay collection, “Probable Impossibilities.”

Here Mr. Lightman tackles his quandary like a scholar charting out a class syllabus. “In the first two chapters,” he announces, “I’ll explore a bit of the history of the subject, starting with the nonmaterialist view of the world and then moving to the materialist view.” While such throat-clearing might suggest the dry detachment of a lecture hall, Mr. Lightman’s gift for distilling complex ideas and emotions to their bright essence quickly wins the day. He displays a beautiful economy of language, describing one of his moments of transcendence as succinctly as Thoreau ever could: “Something had grabbed hold of me, but there was no ‘me.’ ”

These revelatory interludes are easier to account for, Mr. Lightman concedes, if we assume a higher being and the existence of a soul. But in detailing the arguments for such a spiritual presence by thinkers as varied as Socrates, St. Thomas Aquinas and Moses Mendelssohn, the author predictably concludes that “all rational arguments for the soul are on shaky ground. You either believe or you don’t.” Science “can never disprove the existence of God, since God might exist outside the physical universe.”

After wading through the intellectual thicket of how human consciousness might work—a riddle that defies clear analysis because we “can’t be inside the box and outside the box at the same time”—Mr. Lightman advances an evolutionary rationale for feelings of transcendence that’s centered in the human brain. Many of these episodes, he suggests, involve a heightened perception of nature because awareness of natural surroundings was critically important for ancestors who lived close to the land. The great rush we feel when cultivating art, literature, music or science might stem from our evolutionary impulse toward exploration and discovery—what Mr. Lightman calls “the creative transcendent.” He also argues that in making us feel part of something larger than ourselves, transcendent moments might be linked to some ancient biological imperative to connect with other humans, another evolutionary benefit.

A big challenge in placing a subject as ineffable as transcendence under the microscope is that even with the best intentions, the result can feel aridly reductionist. As E.B. White remarked many years ago about humor, it “can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.”

Mr. Lightman, though, belongs to a noble tradition of science writers, including Oliver Sacks and Lewis Thomas, who can poke endlessly into a subject and, in spite of their prodding, or perhaps because of it, stir up fresh embers of wonder. “If you pull on the thread far enough,” Mr. Lightman writes, “you ultimately arrive at the mysterious. When at age twenty I learned why the sky is blue, my awe of the universe did not diminish.”

An endearing sense of intellectual modesty rests at the heart of “The Transcendent Brain.” Although Mr. Lightman is clearly not persuaded that God exists—he has, over the years, described himself as an atheist or “pretty close to an atheist”—he’s respectful of religious faith. “I believe that the capacity for awe also includes an openness to the world,” he observes. “Openness, in turn, requires a certain humility.”

It echoes with one of his earlier sentiments: “I believe in the laws of chemistry and biology and physics—in fact, as a scientist I much admire those laws—but I don’t think they capture, or can capture, the first-person experience of making eye contact with wild animals and other transcendent moments. Some human experiences are simply not reducible to zeroes and ones.”

Meanwhile, within his own household, opinions vary regarding the nature of the universe—and possible realms beyond. “When I talk to my wife about the soul,” he tells readers, “she says that she likes to keep her options open.”

On this topic, as in so many other matters, wives just might know best.

Danny Heitman, a columnist for the Baton Rouge Advocate, is editor of Phi Kappa Phi’s Forum magazine.

Speak Your Mind