Searching the Stars for Transcendence and Faith

Why science does not rely on faith.

Posted Dec 03, 2018

Alan Lightman is the first person ever to receive a dual appointment in science and the humanities at MIT. So, as expected, his Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine combines poetic sensibility with scientific rigor. Though Lightman surveys a variety of topics, I would like to focus on two: transcendence and faith.

The book’s title comes from an experience that Lightman describes as follows:

It was a moonless night, and quiet. The only sound I could hear was the soft churning engine of my boat. Far from the distracting lights of the mainland, the sky vibrated with stars. Taking a chance, I turned off my running lights, and it got even darker. Then I turned off my engine. I lay down in the boat and looked up. A very dark night sky seen from the ocean is a mystical experience. After a few minutes, my world had dissolved into that star-littered sky. The boat disappeared. And I found myself falling into infinity. A feeling came over me I’d not experienced before. … I felt an overwhelming connection to the stars, as if I were part of them. … I felt connected not only to the stars but to all of nature, and to the entire cosmos (5-6).

Source: Pexels
Source: Pexels

Lightman’s image is moving. After reading about him lying on his back in a boat looking at the stars, I laid down in my backyard and looked at the clouds. I should do that more often, but I did not achieve the sense of oneness that Lightman describes. Maybe the water helps. Later in the book Lightman hints at the connection between his ocean experience and prenatal existence (126). For the child in the womb, all is one and there is no separation between self and world. Birth is a rude awakening. No wonder we find comfort in the feeling of oneness.

Lightman describes his sense of oneness with the stars as a transcendent experience, “the immediate and vital experience of being connected to something larger than ourselves” (83). We do not need to be alone to have a transcendent experience. Doing something with others, such as singing in a choir or playing on a basketball team or cheering for a football team can produce that elusive feeling of connection to something larger, though Lightman does not mention this possibility. Perhaps the neglect comes from Lightman’s belief that, “the transcendent experience, unlike the received wisdom acquired from sacred books, is intensely personal. And the authority of that experience and the understandings gained from it rest in the experience itself. No other person can deny the validity of what you have felt. The feelings cannot be disproved” (85).

Lightman is correct that the feelings cannot be disproved, but they can be explained. Psychedelic drugs can produce feelings of oneness and transcendence for reasons that can be explained. Likewise, the brain can produce feelings of oneness and transcendence without the aid of drugs. Indeed, time spent in a sensory deprivation tank can produce such feelings.  

Lightman describes himself as a materialist. Although he is open to the possibility that there could be something beyond the material world, he does not see any reason to think there is anything.  Demonstrating epistemic humility, he says, “We don’t know what we don’t know” (127). Atheists like Lightman (and me), who are interested in transcendence, are sometimes described as “spiritual but not religious.” Lightman does not describe himself this way, though, and I resist that description for myself. The reason is clear: for a materialist, there is no such thing as spirit. Spirit is not material, not physical. A better phrase to describe Lightman (and me) would be “philosophical, but not spiritual.” Atheists of our variety are open to feelings and experiences of transcendence, but we do not attribute the feelings and experiences to non-material causes. Lightman can give a clear scientific explanation as to why he feels transcendence in looking at the stars. He does not, however, dismiss the experience on that account. The experience is nonetheless real and worth cherishing, despite its lack of a supernatural source.

Atheists of the Sam Harris variety are uncharitable to faith when they describe it as belief contrary to evidence. Religious faith does indeed lack scientific evidence but at its heart, it is a matter of passionate commitment based on insight. Like transcendence, faith is an affective experience. Real faith is inflected by a feeling of doubt and a sense of struggle. Science too is inflected by a feeling of doubt and a sense of struggle, but not in the area that Lightman has in mind when he says religion and science “share a degree of faith, a belief and commitment to the unprovable” (100). Believing something unprovable is not necessarily an act of faith. Faith is not just about a belief but about a feeling. Thus, Lightman is mistaken in thinking that the foundations of science require faith.

Scientists rightly struggle with the feeling of doubt and they may even be said to have faith about particular theories, but not about the Central Doctrine. Lightman defines the Central Doctrine of Science as saying, “All properties and events in the physical universe are governed by laws, and those laws hold true at every time and place in the universe” (97). Looking closely, we can see that the Central Doctrine contains three principles.

One principle is that the future will resemble the past. According to the philosopher David Hume, we cannot know this. We cannot observe the future and hence cannot know that the future will resemble the past. Lightman concludes that science relies on a kind of faith, saying that the Central Doctrine of Science “cannot be proved. It must be accepted as a matter of faith. No matter how lawful and logical the material cosmos has been up to now, we cannot be sure that something illogical, unexplainable, and fundamentally unlawful might happen tomorrow” (99). But, really, the belief that the future will resemble the past is not a matter of faith. There is no feeling of doubt about it. Rather, it is an unavoidable, dispassionate, commonsense belief. We would not have survived long if we weren’t hardwired to develop it. One can doubt this defeasible principle intellectually but not affectively.

Significantly, we are not hardwired to develop the two other principles of the Central Doctrine: that the universe is governed by laws and that the regularity holds in all places. Today scientists assume these as foundational principles, but before modern science, humans did not assume them. Like the first principle, these two principles cannot be proved and they are defeasible. It is at least possible that there are no laws but only regularity, what Hume called “constant conjunction.” Similarly, it is a defeasible assumption that the supposed laws of science will apply at all places throughout the universe. Once understood, though, these principles can only be doubted intellectually, not affectively. So the Central Doctrine of Science shares epistemic uncertainty with faith, but it lacks affective uncertainty—it lacks the feeling of faith.

Today scientists take the three principles of the Central Doctrine for granted, and when an observation appears to contradict the Central Doctrine they will look for an explanation that solves the apparent contradiction. But taking something for granted as foundational is not the same as having faith in it. In fact, when people take God for granted they do not have faith, but simply belief. Faith involves the feeling of doubt mixed with the passion to believe.

Individual scientists may have faith when an insight leads to a theory and when they committedly, passionately struggle to prove that theory despite feelings of doubt. And, as noted, science rests on the unprovable claims that constitute the Central Doctrine. But nothing like the experience of faith is required to believe those fundamental yet defeasible claims. All that is required is common sense and scientific literacy. “Thank God” for that.

William Irwin is the author of God Is a Question, Not an Answer: Finding Common Ground in Our Uncertainty.