Is Lightman in the Dark about Nature?

It’s distressing when you come across something written by one of your literary heroes and find you disagree with them entirely.  That happened to me the other day when I came across a piece by Alan Lightman in the May 2, 2014 New York Times called Our Lonely Home in Nature.

Lightman is a distinguished physicist  – and the first person to receive a professorship in both the sciences and the humanities at MIT. You may know him from a wonderful little book of his called Einstein‘s Dreams.   It became an international best seller back in the early ‘90’s and in it,  each chapter has time behaving in a different way.  Sometimes it moves at different rates for different people.  Sometimes it moves forward in fits and starts.  Sometimes it flows backwards.  You get the idea.  It is a wonderful book.

Early on in his NYTimes essay, Lightman and I are on the same page. For all of recorded history, he says, humankind has had a conflicted view of nature.  In ancient times, we made awesome and frightening gods of the natural elements.  But, “Aren’t we a part of nature, born in nature, sustained by the food brought forth by nature, warmed by the natural sun?  Don’t we have a deep spiritual connection with the wind and the water and the land that Emerson and Wordsworth so lovingly described, that Turner and Constable painted in scenes of serenity and grandeur?…….In the other direction, nature is constantly given human qualities.”

If he had left it at that, he would still be one of my heroes, but he spoiled it all in the last few paragraphs.  Just because he and his wife have a close call while sailing during a storm, he goes way out on the wrong limb. “We are fooling ourselves”, he writes. “Nature is neither friend nor foe, neither malevolent nor benevolent.  Nature is purposeless.”

To this I would respond, “Lightman doesn’t know what he’s talking about “ but I say this not in a way to put the distinguished professor down or make him out to be any less brilliant than he certainly is.  It’s not really his fault.  As I have argued in an earlier post ( “Nature” Doesn’t Do the Job), the fault lies with our language.

Lightman’s close call at sea was with the “nature” of natural selection.  Enough bad judgements about being out on the ocean in uncertain weather and that “nature” will gradually rejigger the genes involved in our species’ ability to asses risk.  But the thing which drew him out on the ocean in the first place had something to do with the elation he says he experienced:  the “nature” of vistas, mountains, soaring trees, birdsong.  And there are so many others.

Lightman says later on,  “We may find nature beautiful or terrible, but those feelings are human constructions. Such utter and complete mindlessness is hard for us to accept.”   How’s that again?  Our human constructions are mindless?  Or does our mind, being part of nature, make nature mindful?

I feel like I’m jogging on a Möbius strip.  And maybe that’s not a bad analogy. Maybe being on one side of the choice (Nature = Randomness) and being on the other side (Nature = Mindfuness) are really the same thing.  To stretch things a bit further let’s treat that as an algebra problem:  Randomness = Nature = Mindfulness.  Or…..Randomness = Mindfulness!  Wow!  That’s beginning to sound like another one of my previous posts ( Random:Thoughts).  But if you’re not mathematically inclined perhaps there’s another way of thinking about it.  If you accept your own thoughts as real and mindful and you accept that you are a small subpart of the natural universe then there you are.  There are at least sparks of mindfulness in nature.

Personally, I think those sparks are just part of a much larger conflagration. In fact if I try to let go of the idea that my species is the central entity of the cosmos (an idea which has led us astray more than once in the past) I start imagining my mindfulness as a temporarily detached bit of a much larger source of enlightenment.

But I’m straying from my story.  Eventually Lightman does redeem himself and I have to give him a lot of credit for where his essay ends up – even though I don’t like how he gets there.  For Lightman’s final point is that since “nature” is not about to look out in any special way for us humans and the things we value, we jolly well better look after ourselves.  And that means taking care of the planet we depend on for everything.


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