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Our Yearning for Immortality: Alan Lightman on one of the most Profound Contradictions of Human Existence
“Science does not reveal the meaning of our existence, but it does draw back some of the veils.”
“Be not deceived,” Epictetus writes in The Discourses, “every animal is attached to nothing so much as to its own interest.” Few things are more in our nature than our yearning for permanence. And yet all evidence argues against us.
In the foreword to The Accidental Universe, Lightman tells a story of attending a lecture given by the Dalai Lama at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Among other things, the Dalai Lama spoke on the Buddhist concept of sunyata, which translates as “emptiness.” More specifically this doctrine means that objects in the physical universe are empty of inherent meaning — objects only receive meaning when we attach it to them with our thoughts and beliefs. This calls into question what is real.
As a scientist, I firmly believe that atoms and molecules are real (even if mostly empty space) and exist independently of our minds. On the other hand, I have witnessed firsthand how distressed I become when I experience anger or jealousy or insult, all emotional states manufactured by my own mind. The mind is certainly its own cosmos.
As Milton wrote in Paradise Lost, “It [the mind] can make a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven.”
In our constant search for meaning in this baffling and temporary existence, trapped as we are within our three pounds of neurons, it is sometimes hard to tell what is real. We often invent what isn’t there. Or ignore what is. We try to impose order, both in our minds and in our conceptions of external reality. We try to connect. We try to find truth. We dream and we hope. And underneath all of these strivings, we are haunted by the suspicion that what we see and understand of the world is only a tiny piece of the whole.
Science does not reveal the meaning of our existence, but it does draw back some of the veils.
We often think of the world as the totality of physical reality.
The word “universe” comes from the Latin unus, meaning “one,” combined with versus, which is the past participle of vertere, meaning “to turn.” Thus the original and literal meaning of “universe” was “everything turned into one.”
In the first essay “The Accidental Universe,” Lightman argues there is a possibility of multiple universes and multiple space-time continuums. But even if there is only a single universe, “there are many universes within our one universe, some visible and some not.” It all depends on your vantage point.
The challenge arises from explaining what we cannot see in a physical sense but can reason from deductions. We are like a pilot — relying our our incomplete mental instruments to guide us. We must believe what we cannot see and to a large extent we must believe what we cannot prove.
The Temporary Universe
In, The Temporary Universe, one of the best essays in the collection, Lightman sets out to explore our attachment to youth, immortality, and the familiar, despite their fleeting nature. The essay explores a profound contradiction of human existence — our longing for immortality.
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?
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.
We can’t live forever. Our lives are controlled by our genes in each cell. The raison d’être for most of these genes is to pass on instructions for how to build.
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 the 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.
Most of our bodies are in a constant cycle of dying and being rebuilt to postpone the inevitable. The gut is perhaps the most fascinating example. As you can imagine it comes in contact with a lot of nasty stuff that damages tissues.
To stay healthy, the cells that line this organ are constantly being renewed. Cells just below the intestine’s surface divide every twelve to sixteen hours, and the whole intestine is refurbished every few days. I figure that by the time an unsuspecting person reaches the age of forty, the entire lining of her large intestine has been replaced several thousand times. Billions of cells have been shuffled each go-round. That makes trillions of cell divisions and whispered messages in the DNA to pass along to the next fellow in the chain. With such numbers, it would be nothing short of a miracle if no copying errors were made, no messages misheard, no foul-ups and instructions gone awry. Perhaps it would be better just to remain sitting and wait for the end. No, thank you.
Despite the preponderance of evidence against it, our culture strives for immortality and youth. We cling to a past that was but a moment in time in Heraclitus river— photographs, memories of our children, old wallets and shoes. And yet this yearning for youth and immortality, the “elixir of life,” connects us to every civilization that has graced the earth. But it’s not only our physical bodies that we want to remain young. We struggle against change — big and small.
Companies dread structural reorganization, even when it may be for the best, and have instituted whole departments and directives devoted to “change management” and the coddling of employees through tempestuous times. Stock markets plunge during periods of flux and uncertainty. “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” Who among us clamors to replace the familiar and comfortable incandescent lightbulbs with the new, odd-looking, “energy-efficient” compact fluorescent lamps and light-emitting diodes? We resist throwing out our worn loafers, our thinning pullover sweaters, our childhood baseball gloves. A plumber friend of mine will not replace his twenty-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 irreversible 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 thirty 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 twenty-three feet away. And she loved her house. She couldn’t bear moving. Twenty years. Thirty. Forty. Now the bluff was only three feet away. Still she hoped that somehow, some way, 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 that way. In the photograph I am looking at, 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.
One constant over Earth’s 4.5-billion-year history is upheaval and change.
The primitive Earth had no oxygen in its atmosphere. Due to its molten interior, our planet was much hotter than it is now, and volcanoes spewed forth in large numbers. Driven by heat flow from the core of the Earth, the terrestrial crust shifted and moved. 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 ten 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 a hundred million years or so, and carbon atoms are recycled through rocks, soil, and oceans as well as plants.
Shakespeare’s Julius 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.”
We can forgive his lack of knowledge on modern astrophysics or the second law of thermodynamics. The North Star, like all stars, including the sun, is slowing dying as they consume fuel. They too will eventually explode or fade into the universe. The only reminders of existence will be cold embers floating in space.
The Three Signs of Existence
Buddhists have long been aware of the evanescent nature of the world.
Anicca, or impermanence, they call it. In Buddhism, anicca is one of the three signs of existence, the others being dukkha, or suffering, and anatta, or non-selfhood. According to the Mahaparinibbana 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 only we could detach. “But,” Lightman argues, “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, after countless trials and reincarnations, and finally achieved total enlightenment. The ultimate state of Nirvana is described by the Buddha as amaravati, meaning deathlessness. After a being has attained Nirvana, the reincarnations cease. Indeed, nearly every religion on Earth has celebrated the ideal of immortality. God is immortal. Our souls might be immortal.
Lightman argues that either we are delusional or nature is incomplete. “Either I am being emotional and vain in my wish for eternal life for myself …. 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 either not true or not good for my health. The human mind has a famous ability to create its own reality. 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, my “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.”
If we are stuck with mortality can we find a beauty in this on its own? Is there something majestic in the brevity of life? Is there a value we can find from its fleeting and temporary duration?
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, which encircle yellow lacelike threads, and another whole flower like a tiny sea anemone 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.
The Accidental Universe is an amazing read, balancing the laws of nature and first principles with a philosophical exploration of the world around us.