In an op-ed in the New York Times this morning Alan Lightman speaks of Nature. The article is “Our Lonely Home in Nature,” and its thematic is that “nature doesn’t care one whit about us.” Lightman’s context is natural disasters of recent memory: mudslides, tornadoes, and the like. Lightman is a physicist who teaches humanities at MIT. He is also the author of The Accidental Universe. He belongs to a kind of coven of modern thinkers who are hard atheists because they can’t reconcile the observations of science with an interventionist God. By intervention here we can think about miracles, say. Our “Home in Nature” is a lonely place because, as Lightman says, “Nature, in fact, is mindless.” His atheism is coupled with an aesthetic view of the cosmos, something that recalls Carl Sagan, another member of that coven, and his exultations over galaxies.
Is Nature really mindless? Here we encounter that curious Now-You-See-It-Now-You-Don’t that always arises when materialistic scientists engage in philosophizing. The philosophizing itself is obviously the activity of a mind. Yet according to the materialistic doctrine, mind arises as a consequence of the “accidental collocation of atoms” (per Bertrand Russell). That’s when “Now-You-See-It” applies. But mind considered as a radical power outside the reach of matter, even when it manifests inside the cosmos, that sort of mind is denied; then we have the “Now-You-Don’t.”
The truth is that there are two Natures. There is as radical a divide between “living” and “non-living” as there is between “mindful” and “mindless.” Living Nature quite observably is a tour de force in an environment that itself “doesn’t care one whit”—and can’t: it’s mindless. When we speak of Mother Nature, we speak of life, not of rocks or galaxies. And when such life has achieved a certain status, it does care—and it cares a lot.
So long as we adhere to the belief that matter is all there is, we cannot explain life and, therefore, cannot explain mind. In that situation Lightman’s Lament is true. But it may be premature. Science has thus far only described the living, always sticking to life’s tooling, which is material, ignoring its essence, unable to explain it. Such explanations are beyond the methods of science, but our minds continue to demand some answers. These will come after we’ve passed on—and to all of us, no matter our beliefs. Then we’ll also know why life, in this inhospitable environment, must have its own material tooling.
Science has succeeded because, abandoning natural philosophy, it has limited its subject to the easy part—which is, itself, monstrously extensive. The hard part is still there, daily experienced, but science cannot handle it.
Now regarding humanism, it comes in a rather extensive color-scheme. I’ve outlined that on this blog here.