Can Science Answer Life’s Biggest Questions?

16:38 minutes

A man shining a flashlight to see the walls of a cave.
Lightman finds beautiful paintings of bison and symbols made by humans thousands of
years ago in a cave near Les Eyzies in the Dordogne, France. Credit: SEARCHING: Our Quest for Meaning in the Age of Science

Dr. Alan Lightman has been around the block a few times. Over the past five decades, he has been a theoretical physicist, professor at MIT, and bestselling author—often at the same time. His most notable novel, Einstein’s Dreams, has been adapted into dozens of plays and musicals since its publication in 1992, becoming one of the most famous examples of mixing art and science. 

Lightman’s work follows a philosophical way of thinking about life’s biggest questions, like the origins of consciousness. His new venture brings this way of thinking to the silver screen. “Searching: Our Quest for Meaning in the Age of Science” consults scientists and faith leaders to grapple with some of these theoretical quandaries. And Lightman gives a good argument for why the journey to these answers can be more impactful than the answers themselves. 

Ira speaks with Alan Lightman about the new program, available to watch now online and on your local public television station. 

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Segment Guests

Alan Lightman

Alan Lightman is the host of “Searching: Our Quest for Meaning in the Age of Science.” He’s based in Concord, Massachusetts.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Have you ever looked up in the sky on a clear night and just gotten lost in the stars? I know I have, and it can really be an awesome and even humbling experience. It can get kind of trippy, right? You wonder where your place in the universe is.

Physicist and author Alan Lightman thinks about this stuff a lot. So much so that, in fact, he has a new TV show all about searching for meaning among the cosmos. It’s called, appropriately, Searching– Our Quest for Meaning in the Age of Science. I want to welcome Alan Lightman, physicist and bestselling author based in Concord, Massachusetts. Welcome back to the program.

ALAN LIGHTMAN: Thank you for having me back, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. There is so much to talk about, so let me see if I can narrow it down to just a few topics for our discussion. Your quest for meaning, as I mentioned at the beginning about my own experience, begins with you lying down in your boat off your home in Maine looking up in the sky at the vast array of stars and having a moment of awe at the beauty and the magnificence of what you see.

And you proceed to try to answer that question using science– having your brain scanned to see where it lights up when you see photos of that sky as if you are in search of what that awe center in your brain is. Where is that emotion located? Would that be correct, the way I described it?

ALAN LIGHTMAN: Yes, that’s correct. The series has a lot of hard science in it, but we also explore the philosophical, ethical, and even theological consequences of science. So that opening scene that you describe very well is the beginning of an exploration for, how do you understand how these kinds of experiences can arise just from atoms and molecules?

IRA FLATOW: In fact, you mentioned that a few times in the show, that you are a materialist. You say that you believe that atoms and molecules make up everything in the world. Do you believe that everything unknown today can ultimately be answered by science?

ALAN LIGHTMAN: I do. That’s not to say that science can fill in all of the blanks. For example, I think most scientists believe that consciousness, which is the most mysterious of our human experiences, arises from the neurons in the brain. But I think filling in the gaps of how the electrical and chemical transfers between neurons results in the sensation that we call consciousness, that’s a much more difficult matter. So I think that science may have trouble filling in all the steps, although we do think that consciousness and, in fact, all human experiences are ultimately rooted in material.

IRA FLATOW: Well, if science can’t fill that in or have difficulty doing that, what can?

ALAN LIGHTMAN: Well, I’m not sure. Of course, philosophers and faith leaders have their own explanations for what consciousness is and, in fact, all kinds of spiritual experiences. I remain a materialist. And, in fact, the whole first episode of the series shows and illustrates the scientific belief that our atoms and molecules were formed in stars, and we trace that all the way back to the Big Bang.

And then the stars exploded after having made complex atoms. And those atoms condensed to form solar systems. That’s an accepted view among scientists. But it actually turns out that we’re pretty cheap, we human beings. There’s a scene where I go to the supermarket, and I buy all the chemical elements needed to create a human being. And it comes out to about $538 or so.

IRA FLATOW: That was at the time you made the show. Now I think it might be a little more.


ALAN LIGHTMAN: Yes, with inflation, right.

IRA FLATOW: You have a question that you ask scientists throughout the first episode of your show. And that is, if you were to press a button and instantly get an answer to a big question in your field, would you press that button? And you get a wide variety of answers. Some scientists say yes. Some scientists say no. And I might point out that the male scientists usually say yes. The female scientists say no. And now it’s my turn to ask you, what would you do? Would you push that button?

ALAN LIGHTMAN: The question that we ask each scientist is if you could find the answer to the most fundamental question in your field. So, in physics, it was the ultimate particle. Or astronomy, it might have been the origin of the universe. Or, in biology, it might have been how life originated.

I would not push the button. So I would side with the women in the series because I think that the quest for answers is really the most exciting part of science. It’s not necessarily finding the answers. But I think scientists are most excited when they don’t understand something, when they’re puzzled. And that kind of excitement and passion, I think, is conveyed by some of our scientists, including the male scientists.

I asked Rai Weiss, who is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who built the detector that detected gravitational waves in, I think, 2015 or so– I asked him what kept him going for 40 years. And he went for 40 years without knowing whether gravitational waves would ever be detected. And he said it was so much fun along the way. It was the journey. And I think it’s the journey of the scientific enterprise that is the most interesting and rewarding and fulfilling.

IRA FLATOW: You know, I have heard other scientists say this. And most of them, for some reason– maybe it’s just coincidental– they have been physicists or cosmologists saying, you know, it’s the search that’s really the most fun part. I’m really disappointed sometimes when we get an answer.

ALAN LIGHTMAN: [LAUGHS] Yes. But I think that that’s true.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. One person, one of your experts interviewed on the show, says that, quote, “Through us, nature has self-awareness.” But I would pose that it’s just the opposite that’s true. Through nature, we have self-awareness. Would you agree with that?

ALAN LIGHTMAN: Well, I think both are true– that we have self-awareness because our brains have evolved to the state where we have this strange sensation that we call consciousness. And I think consciousness is a graded phenomena. I think crows and dolphins probably have some level of consciousness.

But also, the other self-awareness of the universe at itself is we are products of nature. And we are able to observe. We are the intelligent beings, and only a tiny fraction of matter in the universe is alive. A much smaller fraction is intelligent.

We are the only special arrangement of atoms and molecules that can observe and record. We’re spectators. And that is the way that nature is aware of itself. I think if there were no intelligent living beings in the world and the universe, the universe would just come and go without any self-reflection, without any awareness of itself.

IRA FLATOW: You have many experiences throughout the course of the program. You visit the CERN particle accelerator in Switzerland. You converse with a robot named Bina. You explore a cave in France where ancient humans left drawings. What points were you trying to make in sharing these experiences?

ALAN LIGHTMAN: Well, in the cave in France, I was trying to– and when I say I, I mean me and the director, Geoff Haines-Stiles. We were trying to show that our quest for meaning is ancient. And with the robot, Bina48, we were exploring the question of whether a machine can achieve consciousness. And, of course, there’s the famous Turing test, where you put an advanced computer behind a curtain. And can you tell with a conversation whether it’s a human or a machine?

This android that I had the conversation with, Bina48, is one of the most advanced robots in the world with a huge database. And, for a while, I thought it could have been a person. But, ultimately, I think that AI is not yet at the point where we would think that the thing was conscious. I think we’re still a long way from achieving consciousness with artificial intelligence.

But the question is, is that possible in the future? I talked to the Dalai Lama about this and showed him a video of Bina48 and asked him whether he thought that an advanced computer could ever be conscious. And he said, absolutely not. In his view, consciousness is not material– that it’s always existed even before the universe was created and always will exist afterwards.

And I asked a rabbi, Michael Greenstein, whether he thought that Bina48 could ever be conscious or whether any future android could be conscious. And he said something to the effect that it couldn’t because it doesn’t have a soul. So these are the kinds of different views that we had from different disciplines, different thinkers, about what science has uncovered, what we’re capable of, where science ends, and maybe where something else begins.

IRA FLATOW: By interviewing and talking with the Dalai Lama and the rabbi, and them giving you your views, is that not an antithesis of what you believe as a materialist, that we are all just atoms and molecules?

ALAN LIGHTMAN: Well, I don’t agree with the Dalai Lama’s point of view, even though I have enormous respect for him. But I do think that consciousness and, in fact, all mental sensations are rooted in the material brain. I also have enormous respect for Rabbi Michael Greenstein, just as I have great respect for all religious beliefs.

But, personally, I am a materialist. But I don’t think that my materialism prevents me from having amazing spiritual, transcendent experiences, like feeling connected to the cosmos or feeling part of something larger than myself or admiring beauty or having a sense of awe when I look at a sunset. I think that these experiences are all compatible with a scientific view of the world.

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. In case you’re just joining us, we’re talking with Alan Lightman, physicist and author, whose new program on public television is Searching– Our Quest for Meaning in the Age of Science.

Alan, you’ve been around a long time. You’ve written so many books. You have lectured. You’ve talked. You’ve researched. How have your views about science and the quest for meaning in the age of science changed? Have you mellowed? Has your reasoning, has your thought process changed over your lifetime?

ALAN LIGHTMAN: That’s a good question. I think that I have remained a scientist in the sense that I continue to believe that everything is made out of atoms and molecules. But I have become much more appreciative of the wide range of human experience. I’ve fallen in love a number of times, most recently with my wife. And I think that I’ve taken a bigger view of what the human brain is capable of.

IRA FLATOW: Interesting. Please tell me more about that.

ALAN LIGHTMAN: I think that I have known painters, musicians, poets, philosophers, thinkers. And I have a greater and greater admiration for what the human mind is capable of. I mean, even in science, the fact that we are these tiny creatures on a planet orbiting a small, ordinary sun in an ordinary galaxy, that we have such short lifetimes, 100 years or less, and yet we’re able to contemplate things that are billions of light years away and billions of years away.

So that’s just mind-boggling, what we have been capable of doing. I think it makes us both bigger and smaller. One of the themes of the series is, where do we human beings fit in the grand scheme of things?

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. That’s an age-old question, is it not?

ALAN LIGHTMAN: It is. And it’s a question that doesn’t have an answer. I think all of the great, most profound questions don’t have answers. And when Geoff Haines-Stiles and I were conceiving this series at the very beginning, which was like 3 and 1/2 years ago, we decided that we would pose questions that didn’t have answers. We didn’t want to wrap everything up neatly because the greatest questions don’t have answers.

I think that’s one of the reasons why our series is titled the Quest for Meaning. We’re on a quest. And that relates to what we were talking about earlier, that it’s the journey of science– but not just the journey of science, the journey of arts, of everything that it means to be human.

You asked me what have I learned over the years. And one of the things that I’ve learned is that questions without answers are just as important as questions with answers. In science, we’re used to working on questions that have answers, even if it might take us 10 or 20 years to get the answer.

But in the arts and humanities, there are a lot of really interesting, provocative, creative, stimulating questions that don’t have answers, like, would we be happier if we lived to be 1,000 years old? Or, what is the nature of love? All kinds of wonderful questions that don’t have answers. So that’s another way in which I think that I have grown as a human being– that we human beings need questions with answers, and we also need questions without answers.

IRA FLATOW: And you also find, it appears to me, that there is a great joy in your work and in looking for these answers, even though they may not exist yet.

ALAN LIGHTMAN: Yes, there is. And I think that that joy and curiosity of looking for answers is part of what drives science and, I think, in some way, drives artists too because artists do an inner exploration. They’re exploring their inner self and trying to express that in their art. So I think both science and art are explorations and part of what it means to be human.

IRA FLATOW: Well, Alan, thank you for your exploration and your work all these years. And good luck in your new program.

ALAN LIGHTMAN: Thank you, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Alan Lightman, physicist and bestselling author based in Concord, Massachusetts. His new show, Searching– Our Quest for Meaning in the Age of Science, is online on your local public television station. You can find out where to watch the program at searchingformeaning.org.

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