Are There Boundaries to Science?

“Science can’t ask the question why. Why is there something rather than nothing? I don’t think science can touch that question.”

These are the words of Alan Lightman, American physicist and prolific author. He was joined onstage at Pioneer Works last September by philosopher Edward Hall and moderator Ayana Elizabeth Johnson in order to celebrate the publication of Lightman’s book Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine (which is released in paperback today). The topic of discussion was Science vs. Spirituality.*


Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine 
recounts Lightman’s experience staring up at the stars while lying in his boat, engine and lights off. He has what he claims is a spiritual experience. Losing track of his body and of time, he merges with the infinite. This book explores what Lightman knows as a physicist and the seemingly contradictory experience he had in his boat.


“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, his eyes are closed.” —Albert Einstein


Someone in the audience even suggests that in order to have a spiritual experience, one must let go of analysis. (For example, if Lightman had tried to analyze his spiritual experience as it happened, he may not have been able to maintain it.) How can science study the spiritual if science is unable to let go of analyzing what they are studying? Is the spiritual, therefore, out of bounds for science?

As an example, Lightman says that love is an emergent property of the neurons and atoms in the brain, but the brain is not merely neurons and atoms anymore than the Rembrandt self-portrait he painted when he was 53 is merely brushstrokes.

What do you think? Are there some questions that are outside the realm of science? How do we know what is out of science’s reach and what should be scientifically studied more?


Author recommendation

Janna Levin, author of Black Hole Blues, introduced the evening. Of all of Alan Lightman’s dozens of books, Levin recommends Problem Book in Relativity and Gravitation (1975).


*To be clear, Lightman’s definition of spiritual is a broad one and does not mean “religious experience.” He specifically states that a religious god that has an effect on the world today is at odds with modern science. He is not talking about that.

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