SARAH DI­TUM

The Irish Mail on Sunday - - MORE -

Search­ing For Stars On An Is­land In Maine Alan Light­man Cor­sair €18.19

At the start of this cen­tury, the re­la­tion­ship be­tween science and faith seemed strained be­yond res­cue, with the ‘New Athe­ism’ move­ment declar­ing God thor­oughly de­bunked by rea­son. Physi­cist Alan Light­man tracks a dif­fer­ent path.

‘In my view,’ he writes, ‘prom­i­nent sci­en­tists who use sci­en­tific ar­gu­ments to at­tempt to dis­prove the ex­is­tence of God are miss­ing the point.’

From such a gen­tle, grace­ful writer, this qual­i­fies as a strong re­buke. Light­man sees science and faith not as com­pet­ing forces, but as dif­fer­ent realms of knowl­edge, both nec­es­sary and nei­ther in con­flict with the other.

He di­vides the world into ‘Ab­so­lutes’ and ‘Rel­a­tives’. Ab­so­lutes are un­der­pin­ning cer­tain­ties: things we know from in­ter­nal ex­pe­ri­ence or re­ceived teach­ings, of­ten though not al­ways re­li­gious. A be­lief in God, the idea of in­fin­ity and a per­sonal sense of awe when look­ing up into the sum­mer sky are all kinds of Ab­so­lute, ac­cord­ing to Light­man. Rel­a­tives are things we learn through ex­per­i­ment and en­quiry. They can be dis­ori­ent­ing – Light­man de­scribes how Galileo’s tele­scopic ob­ser­va­tions up­set not just the idea of the Earth’s cen­tral­ity to the uni­verse, but also the idea of heav­enly per­fec­tion when he re­ported sunspots for the first time.

Framed by his in­ves­ti­ga­tions of a place called Lute is­land (the ‘is­land in Maine’ of the ti­tle), Light­man’s book looks for a way of un­der­stand­ing the world that can also ac­count for those things be­yond science. His take on re­li­gion tends to stress the gen­eral and benign over the spe­cific and dif­fi­cult. ‘The spir­i­tual world, and the world of the Ab­so­lutes, have their own do­main. The phys­i­cal world should be the prov­ince of science,’ he writes. This is an el­e­gant ar­gu­ment that we should make room for both.

‘He looks for a way of un­der­stand­ing the world that ac­counts for things be­yond science ’

awe in­spir­ing: Some see God in Na­ture

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