Friday, February 3, 2012

Mr. g: A Memoir by God

Alan Lightman is a professional physicist and a published poet. He is the first professor at MIT to receive a joint appointment in the sciences (astrophysics) and the humanities. His scientific research has focused on relativistic gravitation theory, the structure and behavior of accretion disks, stellar dynamics, radiative processes, and relativistic plasmas (don’t ask; in Wiki I trust). His literary output includes poetry, essays, and novels, including the best-selling Einstein’s Dreams (which I haven’t read).

Lightman’s latest imaginative effort, Mr. g, A Novel About the Creation, is a short pseudo-memoir authored by God. In it, Mr. g does not tell us where or when he was born, or who his parents were, although we do meet his Uncle Deva and Aunt Penelope. These near relations allow the author to inject humor, mostly about the couple’s eternally feuding relationship (she nags, he shrugs). They also dodge the question of who begat Mr. g. 

God does explain, more or less, how and why he created the world, or worlds, since theoretical physics allows for infinite parallel universes. With a distinctly Buddhist view, the author has God starting out in the Void, before time or space existed and “practically everything slept in an infinite torpor of potentiality.” Aunt Penelope advises her nephew to leave well enough alone, but then, with a typical aw-shucks attitude that characterizes God throughout the book, Mr. g says to himself, “I think I’m going to do it,” as if all creation were a whim.

First he creates time, which “necessarily came before light and dark, matter and energy, even space.” So much for Genesis. Then come universal constants like π and a fixed ratio of frequencies for a musical scale. Then comes space, a single universe, then multiple universes, and then, of course, “I decided to create quantum physics.” What God wouldn’t? Eventually, after creating “some organizational principles,” like cause and effect, Mr. g focuses his loving attention on a single universe, presumably ours, named Aalam-104729, and in it arise galaxies and solar systems and eventually, thanks to chemistry, us. It turns out that 104729 is the 10,000th prime number in base 10. I’m taking Lightman’s word for it.

I found it remarkable to read a theoretical physicist taking the idea of God seriously—although the question of who created God, or Deva or Penelope, hangs unanswered in the Void. In his notes at the end of the book, the author states, “The physical creation of matter and energy, galaxies, stars, and planets, and the emergence of life [as presented here] follow the best current data and theories in physics, astronomy, and biology. All quantitative discussion of various cosmic events is scientifically accurate.” In other words, religion and science are not incompatible.

So God might actually exist, or Lightman seems to say. But after he has rolled out the clever business of creating the universe(s) as God would have done if he were a theoretical physicist, Lightman faces other questions. Here his answers are less satisfying.

What is evil and where did it come from? 

There is a Satan figure in Mr. g, who goes by the name of Belhor (a variant of Belial or Baalial) and has two henchman, Baphomet the Larger and the Smaller. Baphomet, the notes tell us, “is a twelfth-century deity in Christian folklore, appearing in the nineteenth century as a Satan-like figure.” God himself doesn’t seem to know who created Belhor. It is Belhor, generally smarter than God throughout, who explains that in creating multiple universes, God created Belhor.

What is free will? 

God created free will, not because he loves us but because Belhor, the devil, suggested it. “Do you mean to say,” Belhor says to God, “that every action and every thought of an intelligent creature in your universe will be determined by preexisting physical laws?” God nods. “In that case,” continues Belhor, “your intelligent beings will have no independence of movement or thought. They will be completely controlled by you, or rather, by the physical laws that you have created, which is tantamount to the same.”

One can almost hear God thinking, “Doh! Never thought o’ that!” Lightman’s God often has no clue—although Belhor accuses him of having a big ego.

What is human self-awareness? 

God says, “I was fascinated to understand how consciousness had arisen in the new universe. What an amazing and unexpected phenomenon! You start with some dull lifeles material, you let it knock about on its own, bumped around and shaekn by other dead stuff, you let it change and evolve by haphazard events, and suddently it rears up on its hind legs and says, ‘Here I am. Who are you?’”

Consciousness is nothing more than a “cooperative working together of individual cells to create a sensation of wholeness, of being alive, of existence, of I-ness…

Does the soul exist? 

Lightman’s universes have universal souls, like Atman, I guess, not being a Buddhist myself, but individual beings have no souls.

Does immortality exist?

No, not without souls.

There is some very interesting science for laymen in Mr. g, and there is some truly sophomoric humor. Aunt Penelope is a cliché who quickly loses her power to please. When Belhor and his henchmen attend a performance of opera, their big joke on humanity is to make the soprano’s dress fall down.

There is a point in the story when God takes a striking personal interest in the fate of an eighteen-year-old woman caught in a moral quandary: her mother has asked her to steal in order to support her family after the death of her father. Perhaps the most touching quality of Lightman’s Mr. g is God’s persistent interest in this young woman, a single mortal being without a soul. He feels sorry for her.

So, in the end then, what is religion?

Religion, says God, is when his creatures make up ideas about him. Uncle Deva immediately sees the problem, asking God, “Did you straighten them out? Did you make an appearance?” The Incarnation is apparently out of the question for Lightman, the Buddhist poet-physicist. God answers Deva with typical diffidence, “A personal appearance! That would be way too much for them. And showy. I could never make a personal appearance.”

Scientific yet improvisational, sympathetic but shy, Alan Lightman’s God is a quirky, unconvincing creation, with great taste in music.

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