Orlando Humanist Association Message Board › Einstein's Dreams, book review

Einstein's Dreams, book review

A former member
Post #: 19
I've just finished reading a great little book called _Einstein's Dreams_ by Alan Lightman (Vintage Books, 1993, 140 pages, isbn #1-4000-7780-x).

It's a beautifully written, metaphysical novella about time and living in the present, the only time that really exists. "A world without memory is a world of the present," Lightman writes, and "The past exists only in books, in documents. In order to know himself, each person carries his own Book of Life, which is filled with the history of his life...[w]ithout his Book of Life, a person is a snapshot, a two-dimensional image, a ghost." Lightman also examines the notion of freewill and turns it on its head:

"Long ago, before the Great Clock, time was measured by changes in heavenly bodies: the slow sweep of stars across the night sky, the arc of the sun and variation in light, the waxing and waning of the moon, tides, seasons. Time as measured also by heartbeats, the rhythms of drowsiness and sleep, the recurrence of hunger, the menstrual cycles of women, the duration of loneliness. Then in a small town in Italy, the first mechanical clock was built. People were spellbound. Later they were horrified. Here was a human invention that quantified the passage of time, that laid ruler and compass to the span of desire, that measured out exactly the moments of life...Every action, no matter how little, is no longer free...each person knows that at some time he must confront the loose intervals of his life, and must pay homage to the Great Clock...they have been trapped by their own inventiveness and audacity. And they must pay with their lives."

Thus we atheists and free thinkers should beware of the perils of worshiping science and technology lest we become Prometheus.

Interpreting Einstein's Theory of Relativity, Lightman says time is recursive, like a circle, and that every action is repeated infinitely. The implications of this on the notion of free will are paradoxical: "In a world of fixed future, there can be no right or wrong. Right and wrong demand freedom of choice, but if each action is already chosen, there can be no freedom of choice. In a world of fixed future no person is responsible...[a man] breathes the moist air and feels oddly free to do as he pleases, free in a world without freedom."

I don't think Lightman is defending moral relativism here, but rather he is reminding us not to sweat the small stuff (or even the big stuff) that traps us into regretting the past or feeling anxious about the future and prevents us from living in the here and now.

Whatever your politics or views on religion, Lightman's _Einstein's Dreams_ is a great read.

-Stu
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