Miracles, mysteries and other visions from the beyond have been articles of faith for eminent scientific minds for millennia. Galileo, Newton, Max Plank and other scientific luminaries have comfortably embraced the co-existence of cause-and-effect and a world beyond.
Yet the science-vs.-religion relationship is often an intellectually fraught tug-of-war. Into the fray of natural vs. supernatural, certainty vs. uncertainty comes theoretical physicist-turned-novelist Alan Lightman, the former head of MIT’s Program in Writing and Humanistic Sciences. Author of 12 books, including six non-fiction science works, the bestselling novel Einstein’s Dreams (1993) and National Book Award finalist The Diagnosis (2000), Lightman has long been captivated by the murky area between the knowable and unknowable.
Now an adjunct professor who divides his time between writing, teaching writing, and running the Harpswell Foundation, a nonprofit organization in Cambodia, Lightman continues his exploration of the two disparate realms in his most recent novel, Ghost (Pantheon, 2007). The story builds its argument through the voice of 42-year-old protagonist David Kurzweil, a divorced law school dropout. Kurzweil has devoted his entire professional life to a mid-level bank position when he gets laid off and takes a job at a mortuary. One evening in the funeral home’s “slumber room,” the place corpses are on view for families and friends, Kurzweil sees an unsettling image — “A vapor. But more than a vapor. It seemed alive. It had… intelligence.” Kurzweil, a man who believes that “without logic… the entire world might come apart piece by piece, like when you pull a stray thread on the sleeve of your jacket,” begins to “search for something” he can’t describe, but which haunts his once-staunch empirical worldview. His spectral sighting soon becomes fodder for the local media, then the pivot for a philosophical joust between an array of spiritualists and skeptics, including dogmatically high-minded academics, self-absorbed scientists and earnest believers spouting scientific-sounding catechisms.
Though personally an atheist, Lightman is quick to point out that “I didn’t come down on either side [in Ghost]. I tried to take a balanced point of view, sympathetic to both sides. I tried to get inside the heads of diverse people and understand where they’re coming from.” The friction between the various groups is what energizes Lightman. “It’s a creative tension. It’s unresolvable, but thrashing around with it produces interesting results.”
The thrashing around in Ghost centers primarily on the reactions of the motley cast of characters to the ghost; the ghost itself barely gets a description. “I thought it would be more powerful that way,” explains Lightman. “In all fiction writing there’s a participatory creative act that goes on. When you tell the readers too much, you block their ability to create,” adding that “my main character had an experience that was totally off the map of his previous experiences, and he couldn’t find the words to describe it. He was caught in this nexus of certainty and uncertainty.”
As is Lightman himself. The theoretical physicist clearly sees the limitations of science, whose purview is to pursue questions subject to cause-and-effect relationships. “The issue of God is something science cannot really address. There’s no way science can answer what caused the universe to come into existence; it can have theories, but it can’t definitively prove them one way or another.” Also on the unanswerable side of the ledger are value judgments and ethical issues: Is a particular Rembrandt painting superior to one of DaVinci’s? Is it acceptable to kill in warfare but not in peace time?
Lightman’s current work — a long, metered poem in two parts — puts the certainty/uncertainty nexus center stage. Part one, “Questions with Answers,” draws on his experience with the scientific way of looking at the world; part two, “Questions without Answers,” draws on “my experience with life, with humanities, with love affairs… everything that is important but doesn’t have an answer.”
This no-clear-answer territory is not only Lightman’s subject matter and muse, it drives his approach to writing as well. In his devotion to the uncertainty principle, Lightman works to surrender control to his characters. “I try to let the characters be real people and not to over-plot them. Once a character comes alive, which I struggle very hard to do, I try to listen to them instead of telling them what to say.” Creating plot-driven novels leads to wooden, unbelievable characters, he says, which amounts in his mind to squandering a great power — “the potential to get into the psyche of your reader, to affect the reader on a deep, visceral, emotional level.” At bottom, that’s the power Lightman yearns for — “the power to change people’s thinking, to give people new ideas they haven’t thought of before. I want people to be left haunted, vibrating, disturbed, and provoked about ideas.”