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How does a scientist who grew up only believing in what could be lab-tested come to find meaning through transcendental experience and deep conversations with a Buddhist monk? Recently we sat down with MIT Professor Dr. Alan Lightman to find out. 

The acclaimed physicist, author, and John Templeton Foundation grantee joined our Director of Public Engagement, Christopher Levenick, to talk about his career in science, and his long journey to find meaning in his own life. 

A transcendental moment on the water

At the beginning of the video, Levenick reads a passage from Lightman’s book, Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, in which the author describes laying on his back in his boat and having a mystical experience. “My boat disappeared. My body disappeared. And I felt myself falling into infinity….I felt a merging with something far greater than myself.” 

The transcendental moment he describes is an experience Lightman says that many people have encountered — indeed, one that lies at the foundation of many sacred religious texts and religious beliefs. Lightman tells us that he has come to embrace the transcendental experience as a valid and essential moment of “intensely personal” understanding and meaning that simply cannot be reproduced or verified in a lab setting. 

‘I insist on one thing’

Lightman explains how his lifelong journey in science and spirituality has led him to deepen his perspective on how meaning and truth are divined. He says that “science and religion differ profoundly in the way that truths are discovered.” Lightman respects the conviction of believers, but insists that statements made about the material world — including such statements in sacred works — must where possible be subject to the experimental testing of science. 

‘The Smart Ant Conundrum’

As humans we think about the meaning of life through our own lens. Lightman shares a thought experiment he uses to widen this perspective. He calls it “The Smart Ant Conundrum.” Imagine a century-old ant colony that looks not unlike our own: it has seen many generations of ants, is highly cultivated, and has established a unique culture of science and art, having written its own symphonies and documented its own history. Then a flood washes every sign of its existence from the earth. Did the colony ever have meaning? 

The thought exercise leads to a question: To have meaning, must something have permanence? Can one momentary transcendent experience truly give us meaning? In the latter decades of Lightman’s life, he has opened up his mind to considering just such a possibility. 

More on Dr. Lightman’s Work

Dr. Alan Lightman has served on the faculty of Harvard, and is currently a professor at MIT, where he was the first person to serve on the faculties of both the humanities and sciences. He is the author of the international bestseller Einstein’s Dreams, which has been translated into over 30 languages and adapted in various productions worldwide. Recently he was awarded a grant by the Templeton Foundation to produce a feature-length documentary on the search for “meaning in the age of science.” 

Still Curious? 

Watch Dr. Tyler Cowen’s interview with the Foundation, where he lays out a vision to transform and accelerate scientific funding

Learn more about other projects funded by our Public Engagement department.