And now let’s embark on a journey through Alan Lightman’s essay collection, The Accidental Universe, in which he explores visions of the universe with a robustly informed dual lens of science and philosophy.
Beginning with the accidental nature of our existence (“our” here applying to all life as we know it, not just human life), Lightman ponders the strange reality of the Goldilocks conditions that made way for our ability to ponder…the strange reality of these conditions. As we encounter this great unknown, namely the origin of it all (life, that is), what sense may we make of it? Into the fray enters a slew of players: Intelligent Design, eternal inflation, string theory, multiverse, among them. For a long time, science operated on the principle assumption that the universe was purposeful and calculable, that there were fundamental laws that necessarily created a single, unique universe. In other words, science was driving toward an achievable destination, a solution to the origin and persistence of life as we know it, a comprehensive map of how everything works (understandable through mathematics and logic and the best instruments of humanity’s mind). But if our universe is accidental (and incalculable), if it is one of many universes, then to what end are we striving in our scientific pursuits? If we are pulling back the veil only to find an infinite regress of veils, at what point do we stop? Why this and not that? Why something rather than nothing? If our response is ultimately relegated to some smug sarcasm like, “well…why not?”, then what? Sure, such ideas are pure conjecture, which is why they’re so frustrating, or simply laughable, to scientific thinkers, but we all dismiss what unsettles our worldview; at the same time, to accept that it’s all accidental and incalculable would be to evade the paramount value of the pursuit. That we are exploring the universe, that we are coming up with ways of understanding its infinitely complex mysteries, that we are able to reduce natural phenomena to relatively simple laws…all of this is reason enough. Who cares if we discover some other answer later on? New knowledge does not make old knowledge insignificant; old knowledge is always significant precisely because new knowledge is always on the horizon. Or at least for those still curious enough to seek it.