A conversation with Alan Lightman about his new book, Mr. g
What was God thinking as he created the universe, and what does he think of humanity? A new novel offers one interpretation. Alan Lightman, humanities and physics professor at MIT and author of Einstein's Dreams, provocatively tells the story of creation from God's perspective in Mr. g, released this this week from Random House. A tour through astrophysics and morality, Mr. g shows God wrestling with the same questions humans have debated for years: Why must there be suffering? How can we come to terms with mortality? And where do organisms get that sense of self we call consciousness?
Debating with Mr. g are his Aunt Penelope and Uncle Deva, along with a curious and problematic by-product of creation: a practically minded and highly intelligent Satan-like character named Belhor. Yet in a place where time is measured in the "ticks" of hydrogen atoms, music is also a preoccupation of gods and humans alike, and Mr. g and his relatives find tunes from intelligent life in the universe stuck in their heads.
Here, we've asked Alan Lightman about the inspiration for this novel, and how some of these themes fit together in his own life.
Where did the idea for this book come from? Is it something you've had in your head a while, or a relatively new idea?
There are several impulses that formed the idea for Mr. g. I have always loved magic realism as a form of writing. I have also been fascinated for a long time with the intersection of science and religion. And finally, I am a fan of Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics, which portrays a group of celestial beings who, even though powerful, are willing to deal with the mundane affairs of mortal beings.
Any inspiration in particular lead to God having an 'Aunt Penelope'? Any reason in particular that God, or Mr. g, would have an aunt and uncle as opposed to a grandmother and grandfather or a brother or cousin or friend?
From the beginning of my conception of the novel, it was clear that Mr. g would need some divine sparring partners, both to give a narrative to the book and to flesh out Mr. g's ideas. The idea of an aunt and uncle, without any other relatives, seemed to me much more provocative and comic than a regular family. Of course, once you create characters, you need to give them personalities and complexity to make the interactions more believable and compelling.
Music is granted a nearly divine status in this novel. It is present before creation and complexifies afterwards; music is the most striking way in which humans change God. It's also during a poorly performed opera that we first see Belhor and his minions cause trouble on earth. Music plays a role in Mr. g's emerging definition of good versus evil. What role does music play in your life?
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Music is, of course, a universal emotional experience, cutting across cultures and languages. I studied piano for ten years as a child and consider that experience one of the most valuable in my life. I still will sit down at the piano and play when I am wrestling with something emotionally or just want to move into the musical world.
It appears that the single thing about intelligent life that most disturbs Mr. g and his relatives, and most intrigues Belhor, is the creatures' longing for immortality, and their grief at being mortal. Mr. g winds up granting humans a fleeting consciousness of his own presence and immortality as a sort of balm to this grief. We also see the dispersion of a human's atoms, upon death, and the beauty of their reabsoprtion into the completeness of creation. What is the challenge of mortality to which you are speaking here?
I will speak for myself here, not for Mr. g. (Mr. g can speak for himself.)
For me, coming to terms with our mortality is the greatest challenge of being alive. Through the mysteries of evolution, our brains have developed such a strong since of "I-ness," of being a special entity separate from the rest of the universe, that it is extremely difficult to accept the fact that we are just material atoms, which will at some point lose the particular arrangement that gives rise to consciousness. (Indeed, some religious traditions do not accept this idea of total materiality.) From a purely physical standpoint, it is natural that our atoms will eventually disperse and our existence as conscious entities be ended, but this eventuality is extremely disturbing to most people. The Buddhists have developed a much better way to live with mortality - believing that all is impermanent and that our souls will be reborn countless times.
Mr. g spends quite a while experimenting with consciousness, adding cells to an organism to see when it becomes conscious. What intrigues you about consciousness?
For me, consciousness is the most interesting unsolved problem of science, and, in fact, we may never know what it is about a particular arrangement of neurons that gives rise to consciousness. Our consciousness, like the air we breathe or like the passage of time, is central to our existence as intelligent beings.
The idea of music being the closest intelligent life comes to immortality and the notion of neighborliness or connection between souls being the instance in which humans most carry out God's are two cases in which the novel comes close to articulating a sort of humanist theology: God creates the universe, and life flows naturally through scientific law; humans are mortal, but their creations and deeds live on in God's mind forever. Is a humanist theology in fact what you think the novel articulates?
This is a question of interpretation, which I leave to the reader. Personally, I consider myself a spiritual atheist. My views here were spelled out in much detail in a recent essay I wrote for Salon magazine:
Although I do not believe in God, and I do believe that all events in the universe follow cause-and-effect relationships supported by scientific law, I also believe that there are things larger than ourselves, that there are values that we live by, and that there are situations where we must act out of faith rather than logic.
This novel is simultaneously a vast lesson in physics--the current scientific story of the universe--and a set of musings on morality, beauty, and the important things in life. How do you think these two aspects of the novel fit together?
For me, all aspects of human thought are connected through the human mind, including science. Science has the additional, and unique quality, that it refers to a physical reality outside the human mind, and scientific propositions (created by humans) can be tested against that reality.
I do not think that questions of ethics, morality, and beauty can be logically dissected in the same way as the conservation of energy or the second law of thermodynamics. Logic and rationality might contribute a bit to these questions but cannot answer them. For one thing, in science all questions have definite answers, whereas in the arts and humanities many interesting and important questions to do not have definite answers. For example, there is no single answer to the question: "What is love?" or "Is it ethical to kill another human being in war?" or "Why is Beethoven's Second Symphony beautiful and powerful?" We need both questions with answers and questions without answers. Both kinds of questions are part of being human.