Alan Lightman on Cosmology and Human Meaning

Yesterday I mentioned the Harper’s essay by Alan Lightman, What Came Before the Big Bang?, which concerns a couple different theories for that question: one by Sean Carroll and Alan Guth, a so-called “Two-Headed Time” theory, and another by Ukrainian/US physicist Alexander Vilenkin, expanding on the Hawking’s idea that asking anything about ‘before the beginning of time’ is nonsensical.

In either case, this issue is central to my theme that human intuitions are primed for our position midway between atom and cosmos, and the discoveries in physics about the very large and the very small, about a state of the universe so tiny and dense we cannot conceive it terms we understand, reveal the limitations of our comprehension, while that incomprehensible universe nevertheless exists.

One long para near the end of this piece captures this brilliantly:

In our short century or less, we generally aim to create a comfortable existence within the tiny rooms of our lives. We eat, we sleep, we get jobs, we pay the bills, we have lovers and children. Some of us build cities or make art. But if we have the luxury of true mental freedom, there are larger concerns to be found. Look at the sky. Does space go on forever, to infinity? Or is it finite but without boundary or edge, like the surface of a sphere? Either answer is disturbing, and unfathomable. Where did we come from? We can follow the lives of our parents and grandparents and their parents backward in time, back and back through the generations, until we come to some ancestor ten thousand years in the past whose DNA remains in our body. We can follow the chain of being even further back in time to the first humans, and the first primates, and the one-celled amoebas swimming about in the primordial seas, and the formation of the atmosphere, and the slow condensation of gases to create Earth. It all happened, whether we think about it or not. We quickly realize how limited we are in our experience of the world. What we see and feel with our bodies, caught midway between atoms and galaxies, is but a small swath of the spectrum, a sliver of reality.


Immediately following this essay by Alan Lightman is a “from the archive” essay by none other than Fred Hoyle, from 1951, called Our Truly Dreadful Situation, in which that acclaimed astronomer (and science fiction writer) reacted to the then current discoveries of cosmology, the idea that those discoveries shed no light on “whether our existence has any real significance”, and how people got “very angry” by astronomers pointing this out.

But I do not like the situation any better than they do. The difference is that I cannot see how the smallest advantage is to be gained from deceiving myself. We are in rather the situation of a man in a desperate, difficult position on a steep mountain. A materialist is like a man who becomes crag-fast and keeps on shouting ‘’I’m safe, I’m safe!” because he doesn’t fall off. The religious person is like a man who goes to the other extreme and rushes up the first route that shows the faintest hope of escape, and who is entirely reckless of the yawning precipices that lie below him.

So these questions about the meaning of human existence, vs the increasingly apparent incomprehensible greater universe, have been around for more than half a century.

This entry was posted in Cosmology. Bookmark the permalink.