Another happy random find at the library, Alan Lightman’s Mr G was a surprisingly delightful read. Alan Lightman is a physicist, novelist and writer who was the first academic to receive a double assignment in physics and the humanities at MIT.
Such a description might seem daunting, but Lightman’s writing skills are the kind that I wish all academic writers had.
This is not so much a plot-based book as a philosophical fable. One day, Mr g, living with his Aunt Penelope and his Uncle Deva, wakes up from a nap and makes a decision; thus, time begins.
From this single, original decision cascade a number of further creations like space, universes, the elemental laws of physics, atoms, stars, planets and life. Throughout his exploration of creation, Mr g is challenged by Belhol, a shrewd adversary.
If you’ve ever wondered about current theories of creation, this is a great book to get you started. Sure, it’s told from the point of view of a divinity–and forget about the idea a Christian God that you may have. This Mr g is definitely no old white-bearded man living in clouds. He’s young and naive, a genial but inexperienced deity who suffers moral conundrums and questions his own decisions. He is all-powerful, but not all-knowing. He makes mistakes, too.
There is a lightness to this book, something… luminous. In a sense, it illuminates a lot of fundamental scientific and philosophical concepts that may be hard to grasp in other contexts. Take, for example, Descartes’ cogito ergo sum. Descartes isn’t especially easy to read or understand, and his argument comes from complex ideas and thoughts.
In this passage, Mr g discusses a planet where the inhabitants have such advanced technology that they transferred their consciousness into small balls of titanium, finally getting rid of their bodies and living a life that’s purely of the mind.
I know that many of these bodiless creatures yearn for the bodies and physicality they once had. They are tormented. They worry that because their entire existence is now interior existence, then the exterior might be only an illusion. Carrying this logic one step further, they worry that even their interior world might be illusion, thatall is illusion. For how could they tell, within the confines of their little spheres, whether anything exists? All they know for sure is that they think. In a certain sense, isn’t this true of creatures with bodies as well?
There you go, Descartes in a paragraph.
Some people have criticised this book for avoiding to answer big moral questions such as “why would a benevolent God let evil and suffering exist”, but I think that one of the points of the book is to show two things: that these questions will never be fully answered and that it is our responsibility as living creatures to figure it out for ourselves. This deity is so large, so powerful, has seen millions of species and civilizations rise and fall–why would it be concerned with the petty wishes of singular entities?
Being more or less atheist myself, I find that his version of God is a version I can live with–the Prime Mover. But beyond that, we’re on our own, and questions of morality and ethics belong to us, not God.
I read this book in two sittings–it’s a short read, and the language, and the concepts, are clear as crystal. It won’t cause anyone any difficulty. It was a nice little philosophical interlude between two more frivolous reads, and I really enjoyed it. I think it’s best borrowed from a library–I wouldn’t buy it, but it’s worth reading nonetheless.