The interview took place in November 2018, in Vilnius, when Alan Lightman, an American writer, physicist and social entrepreneur, was invited to speak at a literature festival. The interview was recorded during filming at the Vilnius Planetarium, hoping to use its fragments for the film “A Random Event”. The photo was taken earlier, in March 2016, when Ignas, then a photographer at “Rigas Laiks”, first visited Alan Lightman at his and his wife’s Jean’s elegant home in Concord, MA.
So I would like to touch two areas in our conversation. One is physics, and another is art and life related to art. Why don’t we start with physics? My first question would be about . What is your opinion? Does such a thing exist or not?
Well, I’m a materialist, so I think that the body and the brain, in particular, is made out of material and nothing more. It’s atoms and molecules. I also feel that those atoms and molecules behave according to the laws of physics, chemistry, biology and a cause and effect relations.
So in principle, if you had a very, very big computer that could map all of the electrical and chemical activity of all of the in the brain, I think that the computer could predict what your next action would be. Given the initial state and any outside stimulus, the machine could predict what the next step would be at the atomic and molecular level which would then translate up to the neuron level which would then turn to the electrical impulse that would move the hand or kiss the woman or whatever.
But — there’s a but here — the question of free will is partly a question of whether we are aware of all of the mechanisms that are going on at the neuronal or molecular level. I believe that we are not aware of everything that’s going on, that our conscious mind is not aware. So even though causal relations are happening in the material of the brain, we are not aware of many of those processes, and so it appears to our conscious mind that we are making decisions freely.
So it’s not a simple question, to that the answer is not completely simple. There is a mathematician who has proven that for the brain to be aware of itself being aware, the brain would have to have an image of another mind that is aware. But that other mind that is aware would need to have a picture of itself that’s aware, and you have an infinite sequence of awarenesses. It would be like seeing an unlimited number of reflections in a mirror, and it’s not possible.
So it becomes a very, very interesting question. I know that philosophers and theologians have debated this question for centuries and centuries and centuries, and it’s very interesting to ask the question in modern times with our modern understanding of the way the brain works and even this mathematical proof of the of awarenesses.
Yes. Yes, everything is determined. There are some caveats there, too. If my answers are too long for your questions, please cut me out.
Okay. I’m not worried about that. There are a couple of caveats there about everything being predetermined.
One, just at the classical level without considering at all, just going back to Newtonian physics, 17th, 18th, 19th-century physics, you have to understand what Newton told us is that you can predict the future behaviour of a system if you know the current conditions. If I see where the pendulum starts, I can predict where it will be three seconds from now if it’s swinging.
But when you have complicated systems, more complicated than a pendulum, it turns out that you have to know the initial conditions very, very precisely. If you have 10 billion atoms that are moving around in this room and you want to predict where the 10 billionth and first… when one atom is going to be a few seconds from now, you need to know where all of these 10 billion atoms are that might bump into it in the next second.
What modern has shown, which is a branch of mathematics, and this is just in the last 25 years, is that very, very slight uncertainties in the initial conditions can have significant effects in predicting the future. This is sometimes called the butterfly effect. One of the reasons why it’s difficult to predict the weather is because a butterfly moving in one location can disturb the air just a little bit, but it can have a significant effect a week later somewhere on the other side of the Earth. So that’s one caveat to the difficulty in predicting the future or everything being predetermined.
The other caveat comes from quantum physics which was developed in the 1920s. Quantum physics has shown us that at the atomic level that it’s impossible to know the initial conditions of a system even in principle. Also, if you had infinitely precise equipment, that you cannot measure and predict and determine the initial conditions of a system with complete accuracy. So both of these effects make it, in practice, impossible to have complete predetermination of the future.
Well, for one thing, it makes life more interesting. I don’t like the idea that I am a complete machine, and I am just a bunch of material of atoms and molecules bumping into each other and that some big computer can predict what I’m going to be doing an hour from now. Even if that’s true, I don’t like the idea. So that’s one reaction that I have.
That’s understandable. Yes, so you prefer to live like nothing is determined and you have a certain freedom in making a choice, even when you as a scientist know or consider a possibility that is not at all like that.
That’s right. I mean, we all like to think that we’re acting freely and that we have independent thoughts and can choose to turn left in the road instead of right. We want to believe that we… The exciting thing about the history of science to me is that even though the progress, you can view science as reducing the world into smaller and smaller pieces that are all understandable as mechanisms, that when we apply that reductionism to ourselves, we resist it.
That’s very human. So the same humans who discover all of the science resist having it applied to themselves.
Okay. So let’s keep staying human, and let’s try to find some hope for our free will. What if I ask you about the Universe? Do you consider it a closed system or there might be a possibility of interference from outside?
Well, when you use the word Universe the way that a physicist would use the word, it’s by definition a closed system. So a physicist means by the word Universe a region of space and time which is closed, which cannot communicate with any other thing from the infinite past to the infinite future. It cannot be affected by anything else. Anything else that can affect our Universe, we include it within the Universe. We enlarge the space and time that make the Universe. So I think it’s a closed system.
However, in the last 25 years, physicists have proposed both because of experimental considerations and theoretical considerations that there might be many other universes out there, each its closed system. So there’s no way that we can prove that these other universes exist because we can’t contact them in any way or feel any effect from them. But we think that they might be there.
Well, just the fact that we could conceive of them, you could say, is an effect on us. But there are certain properties of our Universe… This was first brought up by a scientist in the 1960s. It appears that there are many features of our Universe that are finely tuned to allow the existence of life. I’ll give one example of that.
The nuclear force, which is the force that holds the neutrons and protons together in the nucleus of an atom, if that force were a little stronger, then in the early Universe, all of the would have fused to make helium. There would have been no hydrogen left. With no hydrogen, no water because water has hydrogen in it, and we think that water is probably necessary for life.
But if the nuclear force were a little weaker than it is, maybe 10% weaker, then you would not be able to hold all of the neutrons and protons together in the nucleus, and you would not be able to form carbon and oxygen and other elements that we think are necessary for life. There are a bunch of other parameters that are like that. If they were a little bigger or a little bit smaller, you would not be able to make life in our Universe.
So is that just an accident? Is that random? There are two possible explanations for this. We call it the problem. One explanation is the theological explanation that the Universe was created by God, and God wanted there to be life for some reason, and therefore, God made these parameters like the strength of the nuclear force just what they needed to be to allow for life to form, for water and other things that we think are necessary for life.
The other explanation is that there are lots of universes out there — and this is called the Multiverse, the collection of universes — with many different parameters. Some have nuclear forces that are much stronger than ours. Some have nuclear forces that are much weaker than ours. Most of them do not have the right conditions for life. But our Universe, by definition, has the right conditions for life because otherwise, we wouldn’t be here to discuss it.
So this is the explanation that most scientists favour. The one fly in the ointment is the expression we have in English, and the one problem is that there’s no way to verify the existence of these other universes. We hypothesize them to exist to explain this fine-tuning situation that we find in our Universe.
Well, there’s not much we can do other than what we’ve done. I mean, if you’re a person of faith, if you’re a believer, the solution is simple. You don’t have to invoke all of these other universes. You say God made the Universe and God created with special properties a certain value of the nuclear force, etc. to allow life to form.
If you’re not a believer, then you have to either assume that our Universe is one gigantic accident, or that there are these other universes out there with many different properties, just like there are many different solar systems, and some have planets that have the right distance from the central star to have liquid water and some are not, and ours has the right parameters to allow life.
So those are the options. For me, none of the options looks pretty. I’m not happy with any of those options. I don’t like the theological option just because I’m not a believer although I certainly respect people who are, I’m not myself. I would not say I like the Multiverse option because we have to believe in something that we can’t prove. We have to believe in the existence of these other universes, and we have no way of proving that they exist. So that makes me a little bit uncomfortable as a scientist.
I don’t like the random explanation just because the scientist part of me doesn’t like accidents. I want to be able to explain that things are as they are because they have to be that way, like a crossword puzzle that has one solution. That’s the way I like things. I don’t like crossword puzzles that have many solutions. I don’t like to go into a shoe store and the salesperson to tell me, “Well, the size 9 fits you very nicely, but the size seven also fits you nicely, and the size 12 fits you nicely.”
Wow, that’s interesting what you say. But I would like to finish with Multiverse thing first. I read , a big promoter of this theory, saying that more and more scientists tend to support the . But you are firmly stating that…
I think it might well be true, but it doesn’t make me comfortable. I mean, there are things that we know are true, but they don’t make us comfortable. They make us uncomfortable.
Yes. I want to take a hot bath right now. It’s been very cold today. Yes, but there are some things where I’m seeking comfort, but I know that I will never find it and…
There is suffering. The Buddhists tell me that all suffering is caused by attaching my ego to things, so I try to make this impersonal, but I still suffer.
Well, as you’ve mentioned Buddhism, there is one school, Prāsaṅgika-Madhyamaka, which is very extreme in explaining things. There is a law of interdependent arisal they promote. Are you familiar with it?
No. Can you explain a little bit more about what this is?
Well, for me, it would be extreme nihilism, that nothing exists in its essence except that it may appear if there is a cause for that. According to that doctrine, there is always a need for multiple things or subjects to make each of them happen or appear or…
Is it going to be a thinking subject, an observer?
Yes, perhaps. In some cases, at least. But also, other examples of interdependent arise might probably be presented, where there is no observer. Just even without an observer, if something happens, always - not independently.
Everything depends upon everything else.
I think speaking as a physicist, you can’t have a single particle in isolation. You need a space and time in which the particle appears, and if you have space and time, then according to quantum physics, there would be other particles that also appear. So in that sense, things are interdependent because the underlying space and time sort of unifies everything that comes out of it.
Many things. Yes.
We don’t like uncertainty. Yes, the stock market goes down when there’s uncertainty etc.
As an artist, I would say that uncertainty and ambiguity are much more important, that it’s critical to the work of art. Yes, and I know that a good character in a novel, for example, is one that you don’t understand completely. Even the writer doesn’t understand the character completely.
I read some famous writer, I’m sorry, I can’t remember his name, who said that once the novelist fully understands the character, the character is dead. Because real people have layers of complexity and you never fully understand them. I mean, even your spouse or your lover, you don’t understand them. So if the character is understandable, totally predictable, the reader will feel that they’re not authentic.
Well, sure. In terms of the recipient, art in general and your art in particular perhaps could be an example where one piece fits all because different people see different beauty in the same piece of art.
Yes, so that’s another aspect, that different people react to work of art differently. They bring their sensibility, their own life experiences. I think that’s what makes it powerful. That contrasts with an equation and science. There, the power of an equation has only a single interpretation.
You distilled the physical, the system, whatever it is, the object to an equation that expresses in precise quantitative terms everything that is known about that system or that object. The power of science to have such a disembodied expression in which there’s only a single interpretation which is exactly the opposite of what you want in a novel or a painting or a piece of music where you invite many different interpretations. That’s what gives it its richness.
I think that every reader — and I’m just speaking from literature now because that’s the art that I know the best — every reader reads a novel differently. And a novel is not completed until a reader reads it, and every reader completes the novel in a different way. So it’s almost like a participatory creative act. The reader of the book is also creating because they’re bringing their life experiences to book.
That’s beautiful. As we agreed that being humans, we operate in a so-called illusion of free will and many events seem random to us. Could you please describe a random event in your life which had major consequences for you?
Well, I wasn’t quite prepared for that question so it will take me a minute or so to think about that.
Of course, many events had major consequences, but I have to think of one where there was a random event. Okay, I’ve got one.
When I was a postdoctoral fellow at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, I was single, and I was very interested in meeting women. It was in the mid-1970s. So in those days, the way that you programmed the computer was that you had cards that you punched holes in.
So you would figure out what program you wanted to write, and in my case, it was solving a physics problem, and what are the logical steps, and then you would go to what’s called a keypunch room where they had these machines that punched the holes in the cards, and you would manually punch holes in the cards to indicate the logical statements of your program. Then you would take a stack of cards, and you would put it in this container. The computer would read the cards and then it would perform the operations according to what you had punched in the cards.
So I had tried many things to meet women at Cornell, and most of them failed. I’m not good at small talk, talk in bars, and that didn’t work at all. So I was in the keypunch room working on my problem, on a physics problem. I was sitting at this machine that punched holes in the card, and by chance, there weren’t many people in the room. It was maybe a Sunday.
There was a woman there, a young woman who was also punching cards. Much later, this woman told me that she rarely went to this keypunch room, but she had just gotten this assignment where she had to write a program for this problem that she was working in, urban planning. We both needed to do these computer programs. That woman turned out to be my wife later on.
So we just had vast consequences, and I consider that to be a random event. If I had not gone on that particular day, if she had not gone, we wouldn’t have met, and nothing would have happened there. I would have probably met another woman because I was determined, but it would not have been that particular woman and the particular children that I have now would not exist because they have the DNA from my wife and me, and it would have been… They wouldn’t have existed. And their children wouldn’t exist. And their children won’t exist, and so on. So the creation of particular human beings to me is the most consequential event that one can imagine.
Oh, that’s beautiful and thank you for sharing this particular event with us. I want to ask then about your writing and, let’s say, your best-known novel, “”. Do you consider that a result of your will?
Yes. But I’m sure that there were accidents there as well. There’s a certain amount of reading that I had done before writing that book. There were certain writers that I liked, especially the magic realist writers. I liked Gabriel García Márquez and Borges and , and I had read certain books of theirs years earlier to writing “”. So all of that was in my sort of literary landscape.
Then the title of the book came first to me, which is a very unusual way for a title of a book to come. Because usually, you write the book, and then you and the editor come up with a title to fit the content. But in this case, just the two words, , dropped into my head and it certainly appeared to be a random thing. I mean, I don’t know why those two words came together at that moment.
This would have been about 1990. I was walking around outside, and these two words came to me, and that was the beginning of the book. But I think that I realize that there was much energy in those two words together, and one representing our sort of rational side and one representing our intuitive side. So I felt something in my body when those two words came to me. That propelled the rest of the book.
So after one accident… So this is a case where accident and intentionality come together. There are the accident and the intentionality after it. The accident came first wherever the title came. But once those two words came to me, from then on, I knew that I had a project. So I was very intentional from that point on.
Around the mid to late ’90s, I did a study of great scientific discoveries of the 20th century, about 30 or 40 of them in all different fields, and I looked into the discovery process of how the scientists made the discovery. I found that in many cases, there was an accident at first, but then the scientist recognized that it was something important and then went on to make the discovery, to follow up the accident.
This is the way that Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, that he had some lying around his lab and he noticed one morning that the place where he had. He had some bacteria that had been killed, and he realized that there was some agent that was killing them and eventually located it, isolated to be penicillin.
The scientists had a prepared mind in all cases of these scientific discoveries where there was an accident first and then an intentional project after that. That is, they were ripe for an accident. They had done all their homework. They had done research. They had learned the craft of their trade. They knew where the frontiers of their science were. They knew what was known and what was not known. So when the accident occurred, they were ready for it.
So you could say that the discovery process, first, you have the prepared mind, then you have an accident, and then you have the intentional work that leads to the final product. So it’s a three-step process. If you don’t have a prepared mind, you won’t know how to react to the accident. You won’t know that it’s significant. If I hadn’t been a writer when the two words, “Einstein’s Dreams”, dropped into my head, I wouldn’t have written a whole book. If I hadn’t read Italo Calvino, maybe I wouldn’t have written that book.
I would like to stay in the Universe that has good toilet paper. [Laughs]
Soft toilet paper. That’s the Universe I want. [Laughs]
Yes. But this was beautiful what you described. It’s not only regarding scientific discoveries but also the story you told about meeting your wife, your future wife. There was an intention, and one accident, and one action, and probably…
It follows the same pattern.
Yes, the same pattern. When you were writing another novel of yours, “Mr g”, were you playing… You must have been playing with those ideas. How did you choose to restrict yourself of this specific approach?
Well, I’ve always been interested in the dialogue between science and religion. I think these are the two greatest forces that have shaped human civilization, science and religion. I don’t want to offend religions and people who are parts of religious traditions, but I think that some religions take themselves too seriously. The God as is envisioned by most religions and is portrayed in the most sacred text is a very strict and stern being. “You follow my commandments or else.”
So I wanted to challenge that a little bit but also, to be playful. We’re always looking… We have our theories of what God is, and I wanted to sort of look through the other end of the telescope from God’s point of view.
So in the book, the narrator of the story of creation is God himself, but God is a very modest fellow. He makes mistakes. He has an aunt and an uncle who are constantly giving him advice about how to do things. By making God a being who sometimes makes mistakes, is aware that he sometimes makes mistakes, is willing to take advice occasionally from his aunt and uncle, I have a different portrayal of the almighty being. He still is all-powerful. He can make anything happen that he wants to happen.
At the beginning of the book, he creates time and space and then goes on from there. Time did not exist at the beginning. You can’t even use the word beginning because there was no time. But he’s all-powerful, but he’s limited, in a way, because he makes mistakes. I described the creation in some detail, the creation of matter and energy and the way that the atoms and molecules were formed and planets and stars, and it all follows strict scientific knowledge.
But God himself and his aunt and uncle live in the void, a realm that’s outside of the physical Universe, and they don’t directly interfere. So the portrayal of God is completely consistent with science as God does not enter the physical world to perform miracles. He lets the world spin on its own although he’s not completely happy with some of the developments.
So it was a way to portray a possible marriage of science and religion that was completely consistent with the scientific point of view. It was a way to have fun with the aunt and uncle and the playful dialogue. It was also a way to slightly challenge traditional religious beliefs about the nature of God while still trying to be respectful of religious belief. So I attempted to do all of those things.
Well, I think that he would consider his worst mistake was to allow intelligent beings to suffer. He didn’t want… Once he created atoms and molecules and so on, various life forms started forming on their own without his intervention. Eventually, through the process of natural selection, you got intelligent life forms with brains.
They weren’t… There were many different planets, and the book does not focus on Earth, but intelligent life forms began to have ethical and moral dilemmas, and there was some suffering. “Mr g” was sad about that. He didn’t want to create creatures that were suffering. So I think that he would have considered that to have been a mistake.
But then to prevent this suffering, he would have had to intervene, and he didn’t want to intervene for various reasons. So he was stuck with his creation. But I think he would consider that to be his biggest mistake, that he didn’t know how to correct it satisfactorily, so he was stuck [Laughs].
Yes. There was a devil figure. I think I called him Belhor or something like that. He did do some meddling. He was very mischievous, and he was constantly having a sort of an intellectual duel with “”. The interesting thing about Belhor is that when God created time and space and the Universe, Belhor was created as a side effect.
Belhor was not a completely evil character. He’s a complicated character. I was inspired by the devil in Bulgakov’s great novel, “”, in which the devil there is a very complicated figure, and you couldn’t say that he’s all evil. Evil and good mixed together. So that inspired me to create my devil in “Mr g”.
No, not scientific. That’s right.
I loved it that you didn’t have a script, that you just knew what you wanted to talk about and just sort of thought through it as we went along. I thought that was wonderful.
Yes. You were responding to what I was saying and interacting in real-time.
So that’s wonderful.
You’re welcome to use it; however you wish.
Oh, good. Will it be a predictable future or not? [Laughs]