Last August my oldest daughter got married. The ceremony took place at a farm in the little town of Wells, Maine, against the backdrop of rolling green meadows, a white wooden barn, and the sounds of a classical guitar. Each member of the wedding party stepped down a sloping hill toward the chuppah, while the guests sat in simple white chairs bordered by rows of sunflowers. The air was redolent with the smells of maples and grasses and other growing things. It was a marriage we had all hoped for. The two families had known each other with affection for years. Radiant in her white dress, a white dahlia in her hair, my daughter asked to hold my hand as we walked down the aisle.
It was a perfect picture of utter joy, and utter tragedy. Because I wanted my daughter back as she was at age 10, or 20. As we moved together toward that lovely arch that would swallow us all, other scenes flashed through my mind: my daughter in first grade holding a starfish as big as herself, her smile missing a tooth; my daughter on the back of my bicycle as we rode to a river to drop stones in the water; my daughter telling me that she’d started her first period. Now, she was 30. I could see lines in her face.
I don’t know why we long so for permanence, why the fleeting nature of things so disturbs. With futility, we cling to the old wallet long after it has fallen apart. We visit and revisit the old neighborhood where we grew up, searching for the remembered grove of trees and the little fence. We clutch our old photographs. In our churches and synagogues and mosques, we pray to the everlasting and eternal. Yet, in every nook and cranny, nature screams at the top of her lungs that nothing lasts, that it is all passing away. All that we see around us, including our own bodies, is shifting and evaporating and one day will be gone. Where are the one billion people who lived and breathed in the year 1800, only two short centuries ago?
The evidence seems overly clear. In the summer months, mayflies drop by the billions within 24 hours of birth. Drone ants perish in two weeks. Daylilies bloom and then wilt, leaving dead, papery stalks. Forests burn down, replenish themselves, then disappear again. Ancient stone temples and spires flake in the salty air, fracture and fragment, dwindle to spindly nubs, and eventually dissolve into nothing. Coastlines erode and crumble. Glaciers slowly but surely grind down the land. Once, the continents were joined. Once, the air was ammonia and methane. Now it is oxygen and nitrogen. In the future, it will be something else. The sun is depleting its nuclear fuel. And look at our own bodies. In the middle years, skin sags and cracks. Eyesight fades. Hearing diminishes. Bones shrink and turn brittle.
Just the other day, I had to retire my favorite shoes, a pair of copper-colored wingtips that I purchased 30 years ago to wear at a friend’s graduation. For the first few years, all I had to do to keep the shoes looking spiffy was polish them. Then, the soles began to wear down. Every couple of years, I would take my wingtips to a small shoe repair shop I knew to have new soles installed. The shop was run by three generations of an Italian family. In the early years, the grandfather worked on my shoes. Then he died and his son took over the job. The resoling kept my shoes going another 20 years. My wife begged me to surrender. But I loved those shoes. They reminded me of me in my salad days. Eventually, the upper leather of the shoes became so thin that it cracked and split. I took the shoes back to the shop. The cobbler looked at them, shook his head, and smiled.
Physicists call it the second law of thermodynamics. It is also called the arrow of time. Oblivious to our human yearnings for permanence, the universe is relentlessly wearing down, falling apart, driving itself toward a condition of maximum disorder. It is a question of probabilities. You start from a situation of improbable order, like a deck of cards all arranged according to number and suit, or like a solar system with several planets orbiting nicely about a central star. Then you drop the deck of cards on the floor over and over again. You let other stars randomly whiz by your solar system, jostling it with their gravity. The cards become jumbled. The planets get picked off and go aimlessly wandering through space. Order has yielded to disorder. Repeated patterns to change. In the end, you cannot defeat the odds. You might beat the house for a while, but the universe has an infinite supply of time and can outlast any player.
Consider the world of living things. Why can’t we live forever? The life cycles of amoebas and humans are, as everyone knows, controlled by the genes in each cell. While the raison d’être of the majority of genes is to pass on the instructions for how to build a new amoeba or human being, an important fraction of genes concerns itself with supervising cellular operations and replacing worn-out parts. Some of these genes must be copied thousands of times; others are constantly subjected to random chemical storms and electrically unbalanced atoms, called free radicals, that disrupt other atoms. Disrupted atoms, with their electrons misplaced, cannot properly pull and tug on nearby atoms to form the intended bonds and architectural forms. In short, with time, the genes get degraded. They become forks with missing tines. They cannot quite do their job. Muscles, for example. With age, muscles slacken and grow loose, lose mass and strength, can barely support our weight as we toddle across the room. And why must we suffer such indignities? Because our muscles, like all living tissue, must be repaired from time to time due to normal wear and tear. These repairs are made by mechano growth factor hormone, which in turn is regulated by the IGF1 gene. When that gene inevitably loses some tines … Muscle to flab. Vigor to decrepitude. Dust to dust.
In fact, most of our body cells are constantly being sloughed off, rebuilt, and replaced to postpone the inevitable. Billions of cells have been shuffled each go-round. With such numbers, it would be nothing short of a miracle if no copying errors were made, no messages misheard, no foul-ups, and no instructions gone awry. Perhaps it would be better just to remain sitting down and wait for the end. No, thank you.
Despite all the evidence, we continue to strive for eternal youth and human immortality; we continue to cling to the old photographs; we continue to wish that our grown daughters were children again. Every civilization has sought the “elixir of life”—the magical potion that would grant youth and immortality. In China alone, the substance has one thousand names. It is also known in Persia, in Tibet, in Iraq, in the aging nations of Europe. Some call it Amrita. Or Aab-i-Hayat. Or Maha Ras. Mansarover. Chasma-i-Kauser. Soma Ras. Dancing Water. Pool of Nectar. In the ancient Sumerian epic Gilgamesh, one of the earliest known works of literature, the warrior-king Gilgamesh goes on a difficult and dangerous journey in search of the secret of eternal life. At the end of the journey, the flood god, Utnapishtim, suggests that the warrior king try out a taste of immortality by staying awake for six days and seven nights. Before Utnapishtim can finish the sentence, Gilgamesh has fallen asleep.
We pay good money for toupees and tummy tucks, face-lifts and breast lifts, hair dyes, skin softeners, penile implants, laser surgeries, Botox treatments, injections for varicose veins. We ingest vitamins and pills and antiaging potions and who knows what else. I recently did a Google search for “products to stay young” and found 37,200,000 websites.
But it is not only our physical bodies that we want frozen in time. Most of us struggle against change of all kinds, both big and small. We resist throwing out our worn loafers, our thinning pullover sweaters, our childhood baseball gloves. A plumber friend of mine will not replace his 20-year-old water pump pliers, even though they have been banged up and worn down over the years. Outdated monarchies are preserved all over the world. In the Catholic Church, the law of priestly celibacy has remained essentially unchanged since the Council of Trent in 1563.
I have a photograph of the coast near Pacifica, California. Due to irrevocable erosion, California has been losing its coastline at the rate of eight inches per year. Not much, you say. But it adds up over time. Fifty years ago, a young woman in Pacifica could build her house a safe 30 feet from the edge of the bluff overlooking the ocean, with a beautiful maritime view. Five years went by. Ten years. No cause for concern. The edge of the bluff was still 23 feet away. And she loved her house. She couldn’t bear moving. Twenty years. Thirty. Forty. Now the bluff was only seven feet away. Still, she hoped that somehow, someway, the erosion would cease and she could remain in her home. She hoped that things would stay the same. In actual fact, she hoped for a repeal of the second law of thermodynamics, although she may not have described her desires in that way. In the photograph, a dozen houses on the coast of Pacifica perch right on the very edge of the cliff, like fragile matchboxes, with their undersides hanging over the precipice. In some, awnings and porches have already slid over the side and into the sea.
Over its 4.5-billion-year history, our own planet has gone through continuous upheavals and change. The primitive earth had no oxygen in its atmosphere. Huge landmasses splintered and glided about on deep tectonic plates. Then plants and photosynthesis leaked oxygen into the atmosphere. At certain periods, the changing gases in the air caused the planet to cool; ice covered the earth; entire oceans may have frozen. Today, the earth continues to change. Something like 10 billion tons of carbon are cycled through plants and the atmosphere every few years—first absorbed by plants from the air in the form of carbon dioxide, then converted into sugars by photosynthesis, then released again into soil or air when the plant dies or is eaten. Wait around 100 million years or so, and carbon atoms are recycled through rocks, soil, and oceans, as well as plants.
What about our sun and other stars? Shakespeare’s Caesar says to Cassius: “But I am constant as the northern star, of whose true-fix’d and resting quality there is no fellow in the firmament.” But Caesar was not up on modern astrophysics or the second law of thermodynamics. The North Star and all stars, including our sun, are consuming their nuclear fuel, after which they will fade into cold embers floating in space or, if massive enough, bow out in a final explosion. Our sun, for example, will last another five billion years before spending its fuel. Then it will expand enormously into a red gaseous sphere, enveloping the earth, go through a series of convulsions, and finally settle down to a cold ball made largely of carbon and oxygen. In past eons, new stars have replaced the dying stars by the action of gravity pulling together cosmic clouds of gas. But the universe has been expanding and thinning out since its big bang beginning; large concentrations of gas are gradually being disrupted, and, in the future, the density of gas will not be sufficient for new-star formation. In addition, the lighter chemical elements that fuel most stars, such as hydrogen and helium, will have been used up in previous generations of stars. At some point in the future new stars will cease being born. Slowly, but surely, the stars of our universe are winking out. A day will come when the night sky will be totally black, and the day sky will be totally black as well. Solar systems will become planets orbiting dead stars.
Buddhists have long been aware of the evanescent nature of the world. Annica, or impermanence, they call it. In Buddhism, annica is one of three signs of existence, the others being dukkha, or suffering, and anatta, or nonselfhood. According to the Maha-parinibbana Sutta, when the Buddha passed away, the king deity Sakka uttered the following: “Impermanent are all component things, They arise and cease, that is their nature: They come into being and pass away.” We should not “attach” to things in this world, say the Buddhists, because all things are temporary and will soon pass away. All suffering, say the Buddhists, arises from attachment.
If I could only detach from my daughter, perhaps I would feel better.
But even Buddhists believe in something akin to immortality. It is called Nirvana. A person reaches Nirvana after he or she has managed to leave behind all attachments and cravings, endured countless trials and reincarnations, and finally achieved total enlightenment. The ultimate state of Nirvana is described by the Buddha as am ravati, meaning deathlessness. After a being has attained Nirvana, its reincarnations cease. Indeed, nearly every religion on earth has celebrated the ideal of immortality. God is immortal. Our souls might be immortal.
To my mind, it is one of the profound contradictions of human existence that we long for immortality, indeed fervently believe that something must be unchanging and permanent, when all of the evidence in nature argues against us. Either I am delusional or nature is incomplete. Either I am being emotional and vain in my wish for eternal life for myself and my daughter (and my wingtips), or there is some realm of immortality that exists outside nature.
If the first alternative is right, then I need to have a talk with myself and get over it. After all, there are other things I yearn for that are neither true nor good for my health. The human mind has a famous ability to create its own reality. “The mind is its own place,” wrote Milton, “and can create a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven.” If the second alternative is right, then it is nature that has been found wanting. Despite all the richness of the physical world—the majestic architecture of atoms, the rhythm of the tides, the luminescence of the galaxies—nature is missing something even more exquisite and grand: some immortal substance, which lies hidden from view. Such exquisite stuff could not be made from matter, because all matter is slave to the second law of thermodynamics. Perhaps this immortal thing that we wish for exists beyond time and space. Perhaps it is God. Perhaps it is what made the universe.
Of these two alternatives, I am inclined to the first. I cannot believe that nature could be so amiss. Although there is much that we do not understand about nature, the possibility that it is hiding a condition or substance so magnificent and utterly unlike everything else seems too preposterous for me to believe. So, I am delusional. In my continual cravings for eternal youth and constancy, I am being sentimental. Perhaps with the proper training of my unruly mind and emotions, I could refrain from wanting things that cannot be. Perhaps I could accept the fact that in a few short years, my atoms will be scattered in wind and soil, my mind and thoughts gone, my pleasures and joys vanished, I-ness dissolved in an infinite cavern of nothingness. But I cannot accept that fate, even though I believe it to be true. I cannot force my mind to go to that dark place. “A man can do what he wants,” said Schopenhauer, “but not want what he wants.”
Suppose I ask a different kind of question: if against our wishes and hopes, we are stuck with mortality, does mortality grant a beauty and grandeur all its own? Even though we struggle and howl against the brief flash of our lives, might we find something majestic in that brevity? Could there be a preciousness and value to existence stemming from the very fact of its temporary duration? And I think of the night-blooming cereus, a plant that looks like a leathery weed most of the year. But for one night each summer, its flower opens to reveal silky white petals that encircle yellow lacelike threads, and another whole flower like a tiny sea anemone lies within the outer flower. By morning, the flower has shriveled. One night of the year, as delicate and fleeting as a life in the universe.
Alan Lightman is a novelist, essayist, and physicist, with a PhD in theoretical physics from Harvard University. His new novel, Mr. G, was published in January. Excerpted from Tin House (No. 51), a quarterly which publishes fiction, poetry, and essays by new and established writers.
“Nothing will come of nothing.”
(William Shakespeare, King Lear)
“Man is equally incapable of seeing the nothingness from which he emerges and the infinity
in which he is engulfed.”
(Blaise Pascal, Pensées, The Misery of Man Without God)
“The… ‘luminiferous ether’ will prove to be superfluous as the view to be developed here
will eliminate [the condition of] absolute rest in space.”
(Albert Einstein, On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies)
My most vivid encounter with Nothingness occurred in a remarkable experience I had as a child of 9 years old. It was a Sunday afternoon. I was standing alone in a bedroom of my home in Memphis Tennessee, gazing out the window at the empty street, listening to the faint sound of a train passing a great distance away, and suddenly I felt that I was looking at myself from outside my body. I was somewhere in the cosmos. For a brief few moments, I had the sensation of seeing my entire life, and indeed the life of the entire planet, as a brief flicker in a vast chasm of time, with an infinite span of time before my existence and an infinite span of time afterward. My fleeting sensation included infinite space. Without body or mind, I was somehow floating in the gargantuan stretch of space, far beyond the solar system and even the galaxy, space that stretched on and on and on. I felt myself to be a tiny speck, insignificant in a vast universe that cared nothing about me or any living beings and their little dots of existence, a universe that simply was. And I felt that everything I had experienced in my young life, the joy and the sadness, and everything that I would later experience, meant absolutely nothing in the grand scheme of things. It was a realization both liberating and terrifying at once. Then, the moment was over, and I was back in my body.
The strange hallucination lasted only a minute or so. I have never experienced it since. Although Nothingness would seem to exclude awareness along with the exclusion of everything else, awareness was part of that childhood experience, but not the usual awareness I would locate within the three pounds of gray matter in my head. It was a different kind of awareness. I am not religious, and I do not believe in the supernatural. I do not think for a minute that my mind actually left my body. But for a few moments I did experience a profound absence of the familiar surroundings and thoughts we create to anchor our lives. It was a kind of Nothingness.
To understand anything, as Aristotle argued, we must understand what it is not, and Nothingness is the ultimate opposition to any thing. To understand matter, said the ancient Greeks, we must understand the “void,” or the absence of matter. Indeed, in the fifth century B.C., Leucippus argued that without the void there could be no motion because there would be no empty spaces for matter to move into. According to Buddhism, to understand our ego we must understand the ego-free state of “emptiness,” called śūnyatā. To understand the civilizing effects of society, we must understand the behavior of human beings removed from society, as William Golding so powerfully explored in his novel Lord of the Flies.
Following Aristotle, let me say what Nothingness is not. It is not a unique and absolute condition. Nothingness means different things in different contexts. From the perspective of life, Nothingness might mean death. To a physicist, it might mean the complete absence of matter and energy (an impossibility, as we will see), or even the absence of time and space. To a lover, Nothingness might mean the absence of the beloved. To a parent, it might mean the absence of children. To a painter, the absence of color. To a reader, a world without books. To a person impassioned with empathy, emotional numbness. To a theologian or philosopher like Pascal, Nothingness meant the timeless and spaceless infinity known only by God. When King Lear says to his daughter Cordelia, “Nothing will come of nothing,” he means that she will receive far less of his kingdom than her two fawning sisters unless she can express her boundless love for him. The second “nothing” refers to Cordelia’s silence contrasted with her sisters’ gushing adoration, while the first is her impending one-room shack compared to their opulent palaces.
Although Nothingness may have different meanings in different circumstances, I want to emphasize what is perhaps obvious: All of its meanings involve a comparison to a material thing or condition we know. That is, Nothingness is a relative concept. We cannot conceive of anything that has no relation to the material things, thoughts, and conditions of our existence. Sadness, by itself, has no meaning without reference to joy. Poverty is defined in terms of a minimum income and standard of living. The sensation of a full stomach exists in comparison to that of an empty one. The sensation of Nothingness I experienced as a child was a contrast to feeling centered in my body and in time.
My first experience with Nothingness in the material world of science occurred when I was a graduate student in theoretical physics at the California Institute of Technology. In my second year, I took a formidable course with the title of Quantum Field Theory, which explained how all of space is filled up with “energy fields,” usually called just “fields” by physicists. There is a field for gravity and a field for electricity and magnetism, and so on. What we regard as physical “matter” is the excitation of the underlying fields. A key point is that according to the laws of quantum physics, all of these fields are constantly jittering a bit—it is an impossibility for a field to be completely dormant—and the jittering causes subatomic particles like electrons and their antiparticles, called positrons, to appear for a brief moment and then disappear again, even when there is no persistent matter. Physicists call a region of space with the lowest possible amount of energy in it the “vacuum.” But the vacuum cannot be free of fields. The fields necessarily permeate all space. And because they are constantly jittering, they are constantly producing matter and energy, at least for brief periods of time. Thus the “vacuum” in modern physics is not the void of the ancient Greeks. The void does not exist. Every cubic centimeter of space in the universe, no matter how empty it seems, is actually a chaotic circus of fluctuating fields and particles flickering in and out of existence on the subatomic scale. Thus, at the material level, there is no such thing as Nothingness.
Remarkably, the active nature of the “vacuum” has been observed in the lab. The principal example lies in the energies of electrons in hydrogen atoms, which can be measured to high accuracy by the light they emit. According to quantum mechanics, the electric and magnetic field of the vacuum is constantly producing short-lived pairs of electrons and positrons. These ghostlike particles pop out of the vacuum into being, enjoy their lives for about one-billionth of one-billionth of a second, and then disappear again.
In an isolated hydrogen atom, surrounded by seemingly empty space, the proton at the center of the atom draws the fleeting vacuum electrons toward it and repulses the vacuum positrons, causing its electrical charge to be slightly reduced. This reduction of the proton’s charge, in turn, slightly modifies the energy of the orbiting (non vacuum) electrons in a process called the Lamb shift, named after physicist Willis Lamb and first measured in 1947. The measured shift in energy is quite small, only three parts in 100 million. But it agrees very closely with the complex equations of the theory—a fantastic validation of the quantum theory of the vacuum. It is a triumph of the human mind to understand so much about empty space.
Sadness, by itself, has no meaning without reference to joy.
The concept of empty space—and Nothingness—played a major role in modern physics even before our understanding of the quantum vacuum. According to findings in the mid 19th century, light is a traveling wave of electromagnetic energy, and it was conventional wisdom that all waves, such as sound waves and water waves, required a material medium to carry them along. Take the air out of a room, and you will not hear someone speaking. Take the water out of a lake, and you cannot make waves. The material medium hypothesized to convey light was a gossamer substance called the “ether.” Because we can see light from distant stars, the ether had to fill up all space. Thus, there was no such thing as empty space. Space was filled with the ether.
In 1887, in one of the most famous experiments in all of physics, two American physicists at what is now Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio attempted to measure the motion of the earth through the ether. Their experiment failed. Or rather, they could not detect any effects of the ether. Then, in 1905, the 26-year-old Albert Einstein proposed that the ether did not exist. Instead, he hypothesized that light, unlike all other waves, could propagate through completely empty space. All this was before quantum physics.
That denial of the ether, and hence embrace of a true emptiness, followed from a deeper hypothesis of the young Einstein: There is no condition of absolute rest in the cosmos. Without absolute rest, there cannot be absolute motion. You cannot say that a train is moving at a speed of 50 miles per hour in any absolute sense. You can say only that the train is moving at 50 miles per hour relative to another object, like a train station. Only the relative motion between two objects has any meaning. The reason Einstein did away with the ether is because it would have established a reference frame of absolute rest in the cosmos. With a material ether filling up all space, you could say whether an object is at rest or not, just as you can say whether a boat in a lake is at rest or in motion with respect to the water. So, through the work of Einstein, the idea of material emptiness, or Nothingness, was connected to the rejection of absolute rest in the cosmos. In sum, first there was the ether filling up all space. Then Einstein removed the ether, leaving truly empty space. Then other physicists filled space again with quantum fields. But quantum fields do not restore a reference frame of absolute rest because they are not a static material in space. Einstein’s principle of relativity remained.
One of the pioneers of quantum field theory was the legendary physicist Richard Feynman, a professor at Caltech and a member of my thesis committee. In the late 1940s, Feynman and others developed the theory of how electrons interact with the ghostly particles of the vacuum. Earlier in that decade, as a cocky young scientist, he had worked on the Manhattan Project. By the time I knew him at Caltech, in the early 1970s, Feynman had mellowed a bit but was still ready to overturn received wisdom at the drop of a hat. Every day, he wore white shirts, exclusively white shirts, because he said they were easier to match with different colored pants, and he hated to spend time fussing about his clothes. Feynman also had a strong distaste for philosophy. Although he had quite a wit, he viewed the material world in a highly straightforward manner, without caring to speculate on the purely hypothetical or subjective. He could and did talk for hours about the behavior of the quantum vacuum, but he would not waste a minute on philosophical or theological considerations of Nothingness. My experience with Feynman taught me that a person can be a great scientist without concerning him or herself with questions of “Why,” which fall beyond the scientifically provable.
However, Feynman did understand that the mind can create its own reality. That understanding was revealed in the Commencement address he gave at my graduation from Caltech in 1974. It was a boiling day in late May, outdoors of course, and we graduates were all sweating heavily in our caps and gowns. In his talk, Feynman made the point that before publishing any scientific results, we should think of all the possible ways that we could be wrong. “The first principle” he said, “is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.”
In the Wachowski Brothers’ landmark film The Matrix (1999), we are well into the drama before we realize that all the reality experienced by the characters—the pedestrians walking the streets, the buildings and restaurants and night clubs, the entire cityscape—is an illusion, a fake movie played in the brains of human beings by a master computer. Actual reality is a devastated and desolate planet, in which human beings are imprisoned, comatose, in leaf-like pods and drained of their life energy to power the machines. I would argue that much of what we call reality in our lives is also an illusion, and that we are much closer to dissolution, and Nothingness, than we usually acknowledge.
Let me explain. A highly unpleasant idea, but one that has been accepted by scientists over the last couple of centuries, is that we human beings, and all living beings, are completely material. That is, we are made of material atoms, and only material atoms. To be precise, the average human being consists of about 7 x 1027 atoms (7,000 trillion trillion atoms)—65 percent oxygen, 18 percent carbon, 10 percent hydrogen, 3 percent nitrogen, 1.4 percent calcium, 1.1 percent phosphorous, and traces of 54 other chemical elements. The totality of our tissues and muscles and organs and brain cells is composed of these atoms. And there is nothing else. To a vast cosmic being, each of us would appear to be an assemblage of atoms. To be sure, it is a special assemblage. A rock does not behave like a person. But the mental sensations we experience as consciousness and thought are purely material consequences of the purely material electrical and chemical interactions between neurons, which in turn are simply assemblages of atoms. And when we die, this special assemblage disassembles. The total number of atoms in our body at our last breath remains constant. Each atom could be tagged and tracked as it subsequently mingled with air and water and soil. The material would remain, scattered about. Each of us is a temporary assemblage of atoms, not more and not less. We are all on the verge of material disassemblage and dissolution.
All that having been said, the sensation of consciousness is so powerful and compelling that we endow other human beings—i.e. certain other assemblages of atoms—with a transcendent quality, some nonmaterial and magnificent essence. And as the assemblage of atoms most important to each of us is our own self, we endow ourselves with a transcendent quality—a self, an ego, an “I-ness”—that blooms far larger and more significant than merely a collection of atoms.
“The first principle” Feynman said, “is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.”
Likewise, our human-made institutions. We endow our art and our cultures and our codes of ethics and our laws with a grand and everlasting existence. We give these institutions an authority that extends far beyond ourselves. But in fact, all of these are constructions of our minds. That is, these institutions and codes and their imputed meanings are all consequences of exchanges between neurons, which in turn are simply material atoms. They are all mental constructions. They have no reality other than that which we give them, individually and collectively.
The Buddhists have understood this notion for centuries. It is part of the Buddhist concepts of emptiness and impermanence. The transcendent, nonmaterial, long-lasting qualities that we impart to other human beings and to human institutions are an illusion, like the computer-generated world in The Matrix. It is certainly true that we human beings have achieved what, to our minds, is extraordinary accomplishment. We have scientific theories that can make accurate predictions about the world. We have created paintings and music and literature that we consider beautiful and meaningful. We have entire systems of laws and social codes. But these things have no intrinsic value outside of our minds. And our minds are a collection of atoms, fated to disassemble and dissolve. And in that sense, we and our institutions are always approaching Nothingness.
So where do such sobering thoughts leave us? Given our temporary and self-constructed reality, how should we then live our lives, as individuals and as a society? As I have been approaching my own personal Nothingness, I have mulled these questions over quite a bit, and I have come to some tentative conclusions to guide my own life. Each person must think through these profound questions for him or herself—there are no right answers. I believe that as a society we need to realize we have great power to make our laws and other institutions whatever we wish to make them. There is no external authority. There are no external limitations. The only limitation is our own imagination. So, we should take the time to think expansively about who we are and what we want to be.
As for each of us as individuals, until the day when we can upload our minds to computers, we are confined to our physical body and brain. And, for better or for worse, we are stuck with our personal mental state, which includes our personal pleasures and pains. Whatever concept we have of reality, without a doubt we experience personal pleasure and pain. We feel. Descartes famously said, “I think, therefore I am.” We might also say, “I feel, therefore I am.” And when I talk about feeling pleasure and pain, I do not mean merely physical pleasure and pain. Like the ancient Epicureans, I mean all forms of pleasure and pain: intellectual, artistic, moral, philosophical, and so on. All of these forms of pleasure and pain we experience, and we cannot avoid experiencing them. They are the reality of our bodies and minds, our internal reality. And here is the point I have reached: I might as well live in such a way as to maximize my pleasure and minimize my pain. Accordingly, I try to eat delicious food, to support my family, to create beautiful things, and to help those less fortunate than myself because those activities bring me pleasure. Likewise, I try to avoid leading a dull life, to avoid personal anarchy, and to avoid hurting others because those activities bring me pain. That is how I should live. A number of thinkers far deeper than I, most notably the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham, have come to these same conclusions via very different routes.
What I feel and I know is that I am here now, at this moment in the grand sweep of time. I am not part of the void. I am not a fluctuation in the quantum vacuum. Even though I understand that someday my atoms will be scattered in soil and in air, that I will no longer exist, that I will join some kind of Nothingness, I am alive now. I am feeling this moment. I can see my hand on my writing desk. I can feel the warmth of the sun through the window. And looking out, I can see the pine-needled path that goes down to the sea. Now.
Alan Lightman is a physicist, novelist, and professor of the practice of the humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His latest book is The Accidental Universe.