“As I remember, I had just woken up from a nap when I decided to create the universe.” So begins Alan Lightman’s latest work, Mr g: A Novel About the Creation. Lightman, a theoretical physicist, is noted for his international best-selling novel, Einstein’s Dreams, which has been translated into thirty languages. Lightman is the only person ever to hold a dual appointment at MIT in both science and the humanities.
In a recent article, (http://life.salon.com/2011/10/02/how_science_and_faith_coexist/) Lightman reveals his own view about God: “I am an atheist myself. I completely endorse the central Doctrine of science. And I do not believe in the existence of a Being who lives beyond matter and energy, even if that Being refrains from entering the fray of the physical world.” Unlike so many of the “new atheists,” however, Lightman writes warmly and approvingly of the sense of transcendence that makes up the fabric of meaning for so many people. Part science and part philosophy, this transcendence is the starting point for the novel.
The main character, Mr g, exists in the Void, eternal and immortal. He struggles with the kind of universe he wants to create. He sets into motion the organizational principles that define the universe he will create, such as, there will be no absolutes (other than Mr g himself), only relatives; time and space will be tied together, since motion involves them both; and others. But as the novel unfolds, Mr g discovers that these organizational principles contain within themselves infinite potentialities, some of which will result in tragedy and sorrow. Unwilling to intervene in the lives of the intelligent beings that have evolved over eons of time, Mr g chooses only to give them hints of his existence and of a world beyond the material.
Lightman’s universe is closed and unfolds according to the laws set up by Mr g. Though these laws can be discovered, no mortal can get behind them to uncover the first cause. “They cannot get outside the sphere they inhabit” (206). Nothing in the universe can last forever. There is no immortality. One’s “permanence” exists only as individual atoms get recycled into subsequent generations, making a whole out of the parts. Free will, like immortality, is an illusion (105). Whether intelligent beings know it or not, they are following the same laws as inanimate objects. Except for the slight modifications of quantum, all is prescribed.
Mr g’s shadow side, a character named Belhor, delights in pointing out the unforeseen consequences of Mr g’s creation, including suffering. But like all things in Lightman’s universe, evil and suffering require a particular context. Without any absolutes, what is evil or good, beautiful or ugly, is relative. Since evil came into being as a result of creation itself, it can only be eradicated by destroying creation. Mr g accepts the responsibility for suffering since he made the universe, but as he comes to learn, the unfolding of these laws inexorably lead to suffering, the shadow side of good.
Who exactly is Mr g? God? Goodness? Greatness? Big Guy? “I am all that is, and all that is not” (162). Although the Void is distinct from the created order, it is all connected. But is there no meaning for intelligent beings? How can mortals have meaning if they are mortal and can know nothing of infinity? asks Belhor (156). Mr. g’s answer: it is up to the individual to find “something” that gives coherence and meaning to life. Ultimately the meaning and purpose of life falls to mortals as they create their own pockets of meaning. Religions are attempts to understand the Mystery, and this enterprise can be good, even if misguided, because it inspires humanity. “I admire their dreams of immortality. It is noble to try to imagine the unattainable” (129).
So, what are we to make of this? Like Lightman’s other novels, Mr g is entertaining, clever, and well-written. Ultimately, its philosophy is that of a scientist who believes science does exceptionally well what it seeks to do—explain the fundamental laws of nature through its methodologies. Yet, Lightman is far from dismissing the importance of the transcendent in life, sought in religion, the arts, the humanities, and other areas where meaning in life is pursued. In Lightman’s article referenced earlier, he notes that “there are things we believe in that do not submit to the methods and reductions of science. . . Faith is the willingness to give ourselvs over, at times, to things we do not fully understand.” While recognizing that religion can be and has been a destructive force in human civilization, he notes that science also can and has been employed for ill. Mr g is a delightful interplay of faith and science that ultimately renders science absolute but without reducing the human experience to only the material.