This is the third in a series of posts about my growth in learning to challenge conventions, explore the world of religion, science, spirituality, philosophy, and more. In these posts, I am candid about my experiences and thoughts on these topics. I hope it generates conversation in a productive and civil way, not in a divisive way. I consider my role as a writer to be somebody capable of broaching heavy topics in a gentle way. I hope I’ve done so here. The following parts will be posted over the next few days. Part 1 is here; Part 2 is here.
Just last week, I finished reading a book titled Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, written by astrophysicist and writer Alan Lightman. Like most books I read, I can’t fully recall how I stumbled upon this book. Sometimes I wander mindlessly through Barnes & Noble and see covers or titles that interest me, then I take a quick picture on my phone, before deciding to buy a stack of books on Amazon weeks later. In a poetic way, I do believe that books find us in times that we need them. Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine is the type of book that I read exactly when I needed it, written in precisely the way I needed to read it.
Searching for Stars is a not singular book with one message or goal and it isn’t supposed to be. It is a more of a collection of cohesive essays than it is a book. Lightman is both a scientist and a humanist; he is somebody whose mind is compelled by logic and reason, but his heart is connected to the essence of the world that’s not so easily explained. This series that I’m writing is based on the feelings and thoughts I have in the immediate aftermath of reading the book that I will reflect on as the book that gave me the approval to finally write in my voice.
Science and religion haven’t always been at odds. In fact, some of the world’s best scientists used to also be employed by the church or were pious churchgoers themselves. It wasn’t until scientific beliefs started to undermine biblical and church teachings that their paths diverged. I do not personally believe science and religion are inherently incompatible. Lightman, in Searching, explores the conflicting feelings within in his own mind, mirroring and demonstrating the relationship of the macrocosmic world from the microcosm in his head. He does not write patronizingly; not once did he condemn the beliefs of others (revised: I don’t recall if he ever straight up condemns, but I think he makes it clear that if your beliefs harm others, those likely aren’t good beliefs, or is this my mind and my thought process? I don’t totally remember).
The title of his book – Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine – comes from a night where he was motoring to his dock on that island in Maine. He was alone in the dark when in a moment of spontaneity, decided to shut off the boat, lie down on his back, and gaze upwards at the sky. In his words below, he explains what would end up becoming a transcendent moment:
When I read the passage for the first time a few days ago, I got chills. As I just re-read it to type it out, I again got those chills. Those words are poetic and personal, to the point where those words feel like they could have come from my own brain.
About two weeks ago, before I read Searching, I walked a friend to his car outside of my parents’ house around 10pm. I was outside for a few moments, thus allowing my pupils to dilate and adjust to the darkness. It was a clear winter night, with a slight chill. I looked up and, for what felt like the first time in years, I gazed at the stars. My mind and body became awash with memories from my childhood that I hadn’t thought of in years. I recall playing manhunt with friends outside or riding bikes until late in the evening, then becoming exhausted and just lying in the grass, gawking at the sky, lost in the moment of childhood euphoria. During those days, it never occurred to me that those moments would later become transcendent moments that I would reflect on over a decade later. It never seemed to me that those moments would become fewer as the years wore on. There was probably a time I did that for the very last time, and then went weeks or months before finding that feeling again.
The feeling that Lightman described is the one I felt that night and the same one I reference in part 2. When I walk through a park with Duncan and look at a leaf: The rods and cones in my eyes absorb the light reflecting off the leaf, causing neurons to fire in my brain where my brain processes what I’m seeing. In other words, the phenomenon of brain matter enables my consciousness to observe and contemplate the infinitesimal world of a leaf and the opposite, infinity of the cosmos.
When put into these terms, I’d venture to say that science and religion aren’t that much different. When people describe their connection with a god, they often explain these feelings of something bigger, grander, beautiful, limitless, and absolute. Lightman hints at this throughout Searching when he admits that there exists an element of faith in science and scientists.
One of the core theses in Searching is that humans have the tendency to “long for Absolutes in a Relatives world,” as Lightman puts it. It may even be that this longing is what drives humans towards science and religion. At their cores, both science and religion are seeking to explain something bigger than humanity. From an early age, humans are aware of their own consciousness and the results of their actions. Children wonder why something happens in response to knocking a glass off the countertop to its shattered demise. This consciousness, this awareness, is what sets humans apart from other animals. There are intelligent animals capable of creating hierarchical societies, using tools, and partaking in monogamous relationships, but none that have the ability to consciously question their own consciousness and existence like humans. It’s important that humans recognize other animals’ intelligence, but it’s unequivocally true that human sentience is one of the most marvelous products of the universe’s existence and evolution.
Lightman points out that the workings of the brain are fascinating and exhausting to consider. I’m going to try to paraphrase one of the most compelling passages in the entire book. Lightman explains how materialists – people that believe that everything in the universe is composed of matter, including the brain, which would imply that the soul is nonexistent – believe that the trillions of neurons in brain matter collectively represent our “I-ness” or our sense of being alive and aware. He recognizes there are parts of the brain that provide us different parts of ourselves, and he poignantly compares this to how dementia heartbreakingly robs its victims of those parts bit-by-bit. At some point, if you were to continuously remove neurons one by one, you would reach a point that any personality that was once recognizably you would cease to exist. To materialists, this is good enough to denounce any notion of a soul or something more to humanity than to our other earthly cohabitants. Detractors of this argument claim that the very definition of a soul is impossible to prove because it’s more ethereal than it is concrete. This is where science and religion can have issues; Lightman admits he can’t accept anything on blind faith and requires a testable hypothesis followed by quantifiable and qualifiable data, whereas religion typically operates on faith.
Lightman concedes that science, however, also operates to some degree on faith. He references friends and other scientists who believe there will one day be “Final Theory” in physics that mathematically explains everything: how the universe came to existence, the smallest matter that comprises the universe, quantum mechanics, special relativity, and more. To Lightman, believers of this “Final theory” are operating on the same wavelength as those who unequivocally believe in a god and an afterlife.
Scientists, religious folks, and everybody in between can gain something from this. This book is written by somebody with a conflicted mind and heart, who feels connected to something bigger but can’t quite put to words what that may be. At its core, Searching for Stars on an Island Maine is a story of humanity’s greatest tragedy: Its desperate need for something more with no real way of knowing there is something more.
Part 1 is here.
Part 2 is here.