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Science, God, and the Human Quest For Reality

Beyond Belief's exciting live conversation with Brian Greene.


Adam Jacobs: Greetings from Beyond Belief headquarters in Midtown Manhattan. My name is Adam Jacobs, and I would like to give you a brief introduction to a really amazing conversation I had a number of weeks ago with one of the world's great scientists. Dr. Brian Greene agreed to speak with me in person. We actually filmed it at MCM Studios where I am, and it was a tremendously exciting opportunity to speak to one of the world's great scientists of our day.

He's a prolific writer, he's a brilliant thinker, and he has an amazingly huge social media following For a scientist, it's actually quite astounding how popular he is, and it was a pleasure to be able to speak with him. So what I discovered is that there are some areas in which we really agree and connect on and a couple of areas in which we don't. And I thought it was important to highlight what those distinctions are.

But to start with, here's where we agree, the universe is a wondrous and fascinating place. Whether you're a materialist as Dr. Greene is, or you come from a more spiritual perspective like I do, one thing that we all agree on is we inhabit a wondrous and beautiful place. And also within that wonder and beauty, we both believe that people should be happy and should be fulfilled in life. And that's a great thing no matter where you're coming from. The fact that we can agree on that it seems to me is the most important thing.

At the same time, we have a couple of areas of disagreement. Dr. Greene is a physicalist. He believes that material reality is the totality of reality. That physical stuff is all that exists. The corollary to that is that, and he says this in the discussion, that life has no ultimate purpose, no meaning that there is no ultimate morality and no free will. And that makes sense from a certain perspective, from his perspective because those things are not detectable in a lab. It's not part of the scientific reality as he understands it.

So I believe, and I believe a lot of people probably believe this, that that's a very bleak assessment of reality and that's something that he's had to contend with in his thinking and in his books, and he acknowledges that freely. So I tried to point out in our discussion that it seems to me that there are many physicists and scientists who say things that sound awfully spiritual, such as when you look very closely at material reality, you see that it really doesn't even seem to exist, that maybe it's just energy or information so that physical things maybe even aren't really there in the way that we think of them. And two, that maybe time doesn't really exist either.

Three, I've read physicists who say that the universe is one ultimate oneness, that it's this totality, this whole. So to me, when I look at that, no time, no matter ultimate oneness, that starts to encroach on very spiritual-sounding areas. To me, (he didn't agree), but I think it's important to at least bring it up, he readily admitted that science does not have all the answers at least yet. And that ideas like the multiverse and string theory, while interesting and popular, don't have any actual scientific backing at the moment. They're just theories. They're just ideas, but they may be unprovable.

And so we have a lot of questions from both sides of the aisle. And so with these and many other questions standing unsolved, it seems to me why conclude prematurely that there isn't a transcendental nature of reality because maybe there is, and maybe it's physics and science itself that is going to point us in the right direction and ironically to show us that there is more to reality than meets the eye. And that's where I'm coming from. So what follows is the exploration that we had together of these concepts and more. And I hope that you enjoy them.


Adam Jacobs: Hi everyone. Hi to you. Thank you, Dr. Greene. Thank you so much for being here for this special live version of Beyond Belief. This is actually kind of a dream of mine. As I told Dr. Green earlier tonight when he autographed my book, I have been following his career for more than almost 25 years. I have loved everything that you've written and I've learned a tremendous amount from you already. So to have the opportunity to speak directly about pretty intense matters, the deepest questions of reality is really an amazing treat. So thank you. (So…I feel like we're going to sing a duet first), but just to start off. Let's start where I'm sure that we agree.

You've written about the reverence you have for the physical world, for outer space, for planets and stars, and I think that that's something that a lot of people share. Religious people definitely have it. And one of the things that I've had the privilege of speaking to several physicists about a lot of different matters, and the one thing that we really, really connect on is we are living in an incredible, beautiful, and elegant reality. Could you reflect for a moment on how that inspired you to get involved in physics and what does it mean to you that the world is beautiful?

Brian Greene: Well, I think all of us, as you mentioned, have had that experience of being out on a dark night and just being overwhelmed by the immensity of space, the grandeur of the stars, and the sheer wonder of floating in this immensity that is filled with things that are just emotionally overwhelming if you open yourself up to it as a physicist, just to bring it to a more particular perspective.

When I have that experience, I'm also having the experience of seeing a little bit behind the scenes, seeing the mathematics that we've developed that we think is a pretty good approximation to what allows the stars to exist, what allows space to expand. And when you put all that together, it's deeply gratifying to recognize the incredible order, the incredible coherence that all of what we see can be summarized in a handful of mathematical equations that we humans have somehow had the capacity to develop and write down. So somewhere in there is the origin of that particular feeling for me.

And perhaps I would be incomplete in my answer if I weren't to say that a big part of my inspiration came from the Friday night blintzes of this woman right over there, Anna Freiberg, who without that I don't think we would be having this conversation at all. I just needed to get that out there. Okay

Adam Jacobs: So okay, we agree on that. Let's drill down a little bit into a layperson's understanding of physics and the physical world. And I will tell you upfront, I can't do the equations. I have read a lot of books on this topic as a layperson, enjoyed them tremendously, and had the privilege of, as I said, interviewing some significant people. So let me map it out like this with your permission. So there's one quote, (I need my glasses for this, I'm sorry. Okay).

There was an essay entitled Particles Do Not Exist by physicist Paul Davies. And it says that “We find that the particle concept is nebulous and ideally it should be abandoned completely.” John Gribbin agrees and writes that “What we call particles for want of a better name, what they are, we do not know. The particle concept is simply a crutch ordinary mortals can use to help them towards an understanding of mathematical laws.”

So what I learned from that is the fundamental underpinning of everything that I know, all the physical reality that I touch and feel is somehow much more elusive than I imagined, which I find to be odd to begin with. Of course, I grew up thinking (they taught us) that there are these little balls that spin around in space, and apparently that's not correct. But what I find is that when you drill down into physical matter, the less of it actually seems to be there.

And then when I couple it, (I brought a couple of books with me). I know you know, this is Carlo Rovelli. There's a book called The Order of Time, (which is fantastic by the way if you want to read it), in which I learned from him that time doesn't exactly exist. And then I read this book called The One by Dr. Pas, a German particle physicist. And he makes the assertion that the entire universe is a oneness, is one thing. And so again, as a layman, I look at all of that, and here's what I put together. When you look at physical reality, it's not really there. When you look at time, it's not really there. And you put the whole thing together and you have one. And all I can think is like, my gosh, does that sound like something I know?

What do you make of that? And my experience of it as a non-professional,

Brian Greene: I'd say a couple things. First, there's an integrity to your experience because it's real for you. And if it gives you insight and helps you find an understanding of things all the better. So I'm not here to pass judgment on the particular things that you find useful to overlay the world, but what I will say is we, human beings have brains that evolved under the pressures of survival in the African Savannah. And the things that we were led to be able to understand were the things that helped us get a leg up in the competition for survival.

And among the things that we needed to survive, you will not find listed an understanding of a particle or an understanding of the deep nature of time, or an understanding of quantum mechanics or general relativity. In fact, those of our forebearers in that environment who sat down for a moment and took a break from hunting the next meal to think about quantum mechanics or electrons or the very members of our species who got eaten because they weren't paying attention to things that really mattered back then, which is just to say that we shouldn't be surprised that concepts that human beings come up with to try to describe the external world are incomplete or fuzzy or approximate or in some cases even misleading.

So to me, the wonder is quite the reverse of the failure to fully articulate the nature of reality. The reverse is how far we've been able to get with this reptilian brain that was not developed to make predictions about what particles would slam into each other at the Large Hadron Collider and what would come out of those collisions. And yet we can sit down with the equations of quantum mechanics, which within does have a notion of particles, does have a notion of fields. We do these calculations and we then look at the predictions. We build a big machine and we test those predictions.

And for instance, there's a magnetic property of electrons called the magnetic dipole moment. It doesn't matter exactly what it is, but I raise it only because we've been able to calculate that number decimal by decimal to more than 10 places after the decimal point. That's mathematics that we humans, I believe, invent, come up with the concepts, and do the calculation. We then measure reality. The thing that's out there, whatever it is we measure, the magnetic properties of whatever this thing called an electron fundamentally is. I like to think of it as a particle, but that's clearly just an approximation. I agree. But decimal place by decimal place to 10 decimal places, it agrees with the mathematical calculation.

That's incredible that we've been able to do that. And so yes, our concepts are approximate, they can be useful. They're not the fundamental truth I don't think yet or perhaps ever. But how far we've gotten is breathtaking.

Adam Jacobs: A hundred percent. And I don't if I implied that…

Brian Greene: No, no, no. I wasn't being defensive about that, just being impassioned about it.

Adam Jacobs: Okay. Yes. So without question, what science has accomplished, especially in physics, the predictions, the effectiveness of it, the technology that's come from it is extraordinary. What seems wondrous to me as somebody who's coming with a spiritual bent towards this whole thing is how reminiscent of spiritual ideas some of the physics seems to be.

Brian Greene: And so I should say at the outset that I'm completely open to that idea. I'm completely open to at some point, maybe it's already in existence or in the future, finding some deep revelation that I think is unlikely. But I'm open to the possibility that we will find that in the end the answers have always been there and they're in scripture, properly interpreted. I allow that as a real possibility. And I don't mean that as a pejorative or some kind of, I really, in fact, I have to tell you, if that were to happen, I'd be far happier and more excited than I've ever been in my entire life. If we were able to actually establish some wow. I mean, that would be spectacular. I think it's unlikely, but just that's where I'm coming from. But I also think it's quite likely that we human beings who are in the end pattern recognition devices, we're pattern recognition gadgets that look out into the world and try to find some order, some coherence, some explanation.

Naturally, it's conceivable. And to me, likely that if you are coming from a spiritual orientation, you'll pick and choose those aspects of the scientific worldview that resonate and align with your perspective. I mean, let me not even talk specifically about yours, but for instance, my brother comes from a different spiritual discipline, Hare Krishna, and he has spent an enormous amount of energy over the course of his life, immersed in the Vedic texts and all through my graduate career and my early research career as I would sort of excitedly tell him about this or that discovery or understanding and general relativity or cosmology, he would often say we already knew that Vedic text nine, Vedic text thirteen. And I found it slightly deflating, but also potentially interesting. And when I pushed a little bit further, and perhaps he will disagree with that, so perhaps I shouldn't even be talking without having the opportunity to respond in real-time.

But whenever I looked in detail, there was a resonance of language and description. We would talk about vibrations and there'd be a notion of vibrations. In the spiritual text, we would talk about uncertainty and there would be a notion of uncertainty in the spiritual text. So there was a resonance of ideas, but it's a very superficial and general resonance. So at times I did ask, and perhaps it was out of turn, but I would ask Ken, show me Schrodinger's equation in the Vedic text. Show me Einstein's field equations of the general theory of relativity in the Vedic and that I've never seen done. So can there be a resonance of ideas at a superficial level? For sure. Does it suggest that they are the same? Not necessarily.

Adam Jacobs: I totally hear that. And I also have some general interest in the Vedic text, and I think there's a lot there, of course, being Jews with a particular interest. And I think you would feel that we were coming at it maybe in a similar way, but I would just throw out for whatever it's worth since it would make you very happy if it was such a thing. We also feel that we have a pretty good case to make and that there are some very surprising aspects and a little bit more than just resonance, especially with string theory, which I don't know if it is ultimately real. I know there's a mathematical formula that seems to support it and I'm fascinated by it. But when I consider that the Kabbalah, for instance, talks about a 10 or 11-dimensional universe and know that strength theory seems to suggest something similar or that we also have a concept of a 26-dimensional universe, it's not a knockout blow, it's not mathematical proof.

But I will tell you for whatever it's worth that there is a lot of fascinating coincidences and they may exist across culture. I haven't had the opportunity to do the research. And maybe that's part of the thing that can twist the dialogue in a particular direction. And maybe it's worth talking about at some point in the future if it's very compelling or doesn't hold water. And by the way, if it didn't hold water, I wouldn't be particularly interested in it. And I figured I would throw that out because I find some of it extremely compelling, but that's not the main thing that I wanted to tell you or ask you about. Did you want to say something?

Brian Greene: No, again, I was going to say that there's all sorts of interesting numerology that I've encountered, and it has always felt to me a little bit, and again, not in a pejorative sense, but it almost feels like confirmation bias. You're looking for a place of contact and you focus in on the points that seem to coalesce, but you throw away all the ones.

Adam Jacobs: Yes. And some of it is like that honestly, but some of it is not. And the part that is not, and I would love to bounce it off you at some point just because I know you would approach it from a scientific perspective if I would be totally happy to hear that it was bogus. I don't feel that it is, but it would be fascinating to know. Maybe that's for a part two sometime.

Brian Greene: Another thing I would also say is it's not like we scientists hold the ultimate standard of truth that human beings should strive for. And so part of me does wonder why it matters to you that there's resonance potentially between these different perspectives. Because it's not like we are the gold standard on every issue of importance to human beings. We're pretty good when it comes to understanding the fundamental ingredients and the fundamental laws, but we're not all that good at understanding how those ingredients and those laws come together to yield interesting macroscopic structures that we care about and that we love and that make life worth living.

Maybe one day we'll be able to fully describe a human being at the level of their fundamental ingredients and how they come daily, but certainly, we can't do it now. And I don't know that it'll ever be insightful. I don't think we're ever really going to talk about any major. I don't think we'll ever understand World War II at the level of the particles governed by Schrodinger's equation. It just won't be insightful at the level of human relationships and human antagonisms and the need for tribal association. Those sorts of issues I think are going to give us far more insight into things that matter at a human scale. And so some of me wonders why you even have the urge to connect with something that operates in a different domain.

Adam Jacobs: The reason is because so much of culture is in what I would call the throes of scientific thinking, that it's not possible to communicate value from a spiritual perspective often if there's no scientific basis associated with it.

Brian Greene: Yeah, no, I can't hear that.

Adam Jacobs: And so a lot of, (first of all, outside of finding it fascinating), a lot of people try to ground their spiritual thinking in scientific thinking. It's a very old idea. By the way, Maimonides held very strongly that there was no contradiction between the Torah and science as he understood it in his day. And I think that's ultimately the reason is the strength of the scientific worldview is so dominant that unless you deal with it, you're not taken seriously.

Brian Greene: But I guess the flip side is if one takes a literal interpretation of certain scriptural texts, it's very difficult to align a literal interpretation with the reality of science has explicated it.

You take a metaphorical and interpretive exegesis of those ideas, then we, human beings are pretty good at mapping a whole variety of ideas expressed in one language, say in scripture to other things in the world. And I find that a fascinating capacity of the human brain to link up things that perhaps were developed for one purpose and align them with things in another. I mean, there's a wonderful capacity of the human brain to do that, but to me, it speaks more about the human brain than it does about the veracity of say the scripture.

Adam Jacobs: It definitely has something to do with the human brain and our interpretive abilities, which are applied across the board. And I don't know if you agree with me on this or not, but in my experience of considering science, which used to be called natural philosophy, right? So science is in the business of producing data, doing experimentation, making hypotheses, and it produces a body of information. And then it seems to me that the interpretation begins. And as a layperson, again, I've noticed that you can have experts in this field on this side, and on this side, they're using the exact same data on the same studies, and they're coming to wildly different conclusions.

And I've actually gone to scientists in the past and asked, how am I supposed to deal with this? I'm thinking of paleontology specifically—same studies, same concepts. And this guy says, it means this, and this guy says it means this. And they're both credible. And so one person I went to at actually a brain guy at Harvard, and he said, well, the reason is because you are dealing with psychological realities. You have one scientist who wants the data to mean this, and one scientist who wants the data to mean this, and therefore they're talking, they're philosophically talking about it. It's no longer a scientific matter. How does that strike you?

Brian Greene: Well, I think there are episodes of that sort for sure, but there are also disagreements and debates in science which are not driven by what we want to be true, but rather by our educated scientific judgment regarding what the data is trying to tell us. In the early days of quantum mechanics, that's a really good example because we were entering a domain of physics that no one had ever experienced in any direct way before the realm of molecules in atoms and subatomic particles.

And in that realm, we found that the ordinary physics that Newton gave us, that allowed us to understand the trajectory of a macroscopic object very simply and very intuitively, all of those ideas failed in this microscopic realm. So new paradigms, new concepts, new mathematical ideas needed to be developed and introduced and aligned with the data. And there were different ways that people pursued it, and there were rich scientific arguments.

But ultimately, by 1927, those arguments largely came to a close, not completely, but largely came to a close. And the scientists came together behind what we now call quantum mechanics. That's healthy science. And I wouldn't say that any of those arguments were really driven by a psychological desire for the universe to be one way or another. It was really people following different mathematical trajectories. In particular, Heisenberg had his way using a mathematical gadget called a matrix. Schrodinger had his way together with other collaborators using a gadget called differential equations and wave motion. It turned out that they both were correct, even though they were framing the ideas in radically different approaches. So it was a beautiful example of a debate, but in this particular case, it wasn't someone who was right, someone who was wrong. They were just following different mathematical languages to get to the same destination.

Adam Jacobs: That's the Copenhagen School versus the…

Brian Greene: No, not even it's matrix mechanics that you never hear about any longer because Heisenberg's approach was a little ungainly mathematically, but he actually got to a version of what's now called Schrodinger's equation before Schrodinger, but he didn't express it in a form that was particularly easy for the mathematicians and physicists of the times to fully grasp.

Adam Jacobs: Interesting. Can I ask you about the constants of nature for a moment, please? So for the audience, if you don't know what this concept means, there are certain parameters in which the physical universe is set up by the rate of gravitation, how strong or weak and nuclear force is. There's a series of parameters of how physical matter is governed, and there are some fascinating things associated with them.

So one thing that I learned about was that stars produce energy by fusing two hydrogen atoms into a single helium atom. And during that reaction, 0.007% of the mass of the hydrogen atom is converted into energy. So now if the percentage was 0.006, the universe would be filled only with hydrogen, and if it was 0.008, the universe would have no hydrogen and therefore no water and no stars like the sun. So commenting on this theoretical physicist, Richard Feynman said the following, he said, “It's one of the greatest damn mysteries of physics, a magic number that comes to us with no understanding by man. You might say the hand of God wrote that number, and we don't know how he pushed his pencil.”

Does it bother you? Does it give you a moment of pause that this strange setup for life seems to exist in our universe where so many things have to align and each thing is so unlikely? Where do you go when you hear that kind of information?

Brian Greene: Well, it could have been the hand of God. And again, as I said, if that truly is the answer, wow, right? That will be a wonderful insight into the nature of reality, but without any evidence for that directly, we're driven to try to find other explanations, more pedestrian explanations. And you're right, we've not come up with an answer to that fully yet, but there are some very interesting ideas on the table, and I find them particularly interesting, not because I think that they're necessarily right, but because they don't need God's hand to push anything.

And that at least suggests an interesting alternative to the, I think, fairly jocular description that Richard Feynman gave it. But it's possible that there are many universes, we don't know this, but let's just follow where this idea leads, and it's possible that these other universes have values for those numbers that you mentioned that differ from our universe.

And so in those other universes, you're right, the hydrogen, they never fuse together to create heating, and you don't have stars in those universes. And because you don't have stars, you probably don't have planets, you probably don't have life in those universes, but if there are enough universes and those numbers are sprinkled randomly across all of those universes, something that is compatible with certain mathematical theories that we have, so this is not just a wild imaginative scheme.

If you imagine all these different universes with these numbers sprinkled randomly, then they're going to be some in which the numbers happen to have the right value for the processes that yield stars to actually take place. We necessarily would live in one of those universes because we couldn't live in any of the other universes.

Adam Jacobs: Is that a scientific assertion or a philosophical one?

Brian Greene: The boundary between them is not sharp, and it's also quite porous, and it's not obvious to me that there's much fruit to be born from trying to articulate what's philosophy and what's physics per se. But I will say that there are mathematical ideas that yield the description that I just gave, and usually if there's a mathematical motivation for an idea, we typically describe it as coming from the arena of physics. It's certainly hypothetical, highly speculative physics. It's not the same kind of physics that we understand why water has its particular form because of the polar covalent molecule. I mean those things we understand at a level of depth and detail that we don't for these more speculative ideas, but it's not just an imaginative notion that pops out of some physicist's mind.

Adam Jacobs: Okay, so either there's a multiverse which has its own questions. What's it doing there? Is it testable? Therefore, is it a scientific concept? And so it seems to me that even if that's the reality, it just pushes the question back one more layer.

Brian Greene: It is, but I just want to quickly interject that I'm not committed to the idea of a multiverse. I agree that it is yet to be tested. Maybe it can't ever be tested. There are potential ideas, but the reason I bring it up is not so much to take it seriously as a description of reality, but rather to show that there are certain problems that seem insoluble without the hand of God, and yet I just gave you a potential solution that doesn't invoke the hand of God, and 10 years from now, we may have a thousand better versions of that kind of idea. It's really just an existence proof that certain ideas that would seem to cry out for a creator don't necessarily require one.

Adam Jacobs: Let's take it one step back just for one second. If there is no multiverse, what do these numbers mean to you?

Brian Greene: Well, it implies that our universe may be quite special and that specialness conceivably could arise. For instance, if the degree of latitude that we think those numbers could in principle have, like you said, 0.6 or 0.4 or 0.7, that's an assumption that those numbers in principle could have been different. But Einstein had this vision that maybe our universe was utterly unique, I mean fully unique, that is any other quality of our universe change the numbers even by a little bit, and it would be an inconsistent universe, a logically impossible universe.

Now, we don't have evidence for that Einsteinian vision, but that's another potential answer. If 500, 1000, or 10 years from now we have a deeper understanding and we're like, oh, wow, we were so confused 10 years ago, we thought these numbers could have had different values, and we were really perplexed as to how they had just the right values for us to exist. Now we see they couldn't have had any other values. They're locked to their particular values because of this or that understanding of physics that as yet we've not developed. So that's a non-multiverse solution in principle. But again, all of this is chatter because we don't have the evidence for the multiverse, we don't have that other idea as yet. So I agree this is a beautiful conundrum that drives us to try to understand things better.

Adam Jacobs: Fair enough. I like that. Okay, so I have a couple more questions and then we're going to take some questions from the audience. You've spoken about free will and from what I've gathered, you don't necessarily accept it as it's commonly understood, which is common to many physicists I've seen, and you've spoken about some of the implications of that reality. So my understanding is if we truly don't have free will from the beginning of time, it was set in motion that every particle is going to act in the way it's going to up till every single one of us. Then you and I were going to have this conversation from the beginning of time. You were going to say what you were going to say. I was going to say what I was going to say, and that's just the way it is. If that's true, does that rob us of all moral choice? And if that's the case, does that undercut the entire concept of morality itself?

Brian Greene: So one quick thing I'll say is I wouldn't completely agree with your summary of my perspective on free will. So just as a footnote, it won't actually matter to addressing the question that you ask, but I don't think that this conversation was preordained from the Big Bang onward because we live in a quantum universe, and so only the probability of us having this conversation was preordained. But reality in principle could have evolved to one of the other possibilities allowed by the probabilities that pertain to a quantum reality. So point number one, point number two, maybe it's worth saying why I don't believe in free will before addressing your question, because otherwise the force of my answer to your question will be minimized because people say, well, yeah, it's nonsense that we don't have free will. Why don't we have free will? The quick answer is I believe but cannot prove it.

So I say that straight out, I believe, but cannot prove that consciousness is not some other quality beyond the physical. I don't think there's something out there infusing conscious awareness in us human beings. I believe that we are large collections of ingredients, call them particles or fields. The name doesn't matter to me at all, but we're large collections of ingredients that are fully governed by physical law, and that physical law to our best understanding is articulated in the language of mathematics.

Now, those particles, they go about doing what they're doing because of the laws of physics, and it's not like those particles go along doing what they're doing, including the ones in my head that generate the thoughts and sensations and feelings that we call consciousness. It's not that those particles do what they do, and then at some point they say, hang on, wait for Brian to make a decision. Okay, he's decided. Keep on going, doing what he wanted you to do. That to me is an incoherent position.

I don't know what force of nature I would be using to infuse or infect the particles with whatever I wanted them to do. I mean that's utter nonsense. The particles or ingredients do whatever they do because of physical law, which means that even though I have the feeling that I chose to lift up this glass, this bottle of water, the particles in my hand are being governed by the particles in the muscles which are ultimately being stimulated by particle motion inside my head, which is fully governed by physical law. There is no Brian to intercede and cause this motion. It is the stuff that's doing it, and I am an observer watching it happen, and that's what reality is. I firmly and strongly believe that with the one assumption being that consciousness doesn't need anything else good.

That's now the basis of where I come at the question that you ask, which is, okay, if there's no free will, what's the basis of morality? Where does morality come into the story? And here's my answer, it echoes what I said earlier. There are many ways of analyzing reality. Physicists tend to, at least my ilk of physicists, analyze things at the level of the ingredients, the fundamental ingredients in the fundamental laws, but there are other levels that are equally important and for some issues more insightful.

So for instance, the chemist comes along and starts to talk about molecules and atoms made up of the ingredients. The biologist comes along and aggregates things into cells and large multicellular organisms, and the neuroscientist comes along and begins to analyze things at the level of the processes inside this gloppy gray thing inside of our heads. And each of these stories that we tell gives us some insight into the nature of the world.

And so when it comes to morality, that's a story told at the human level that allows us to have an interesting and fruitful discussion of human behavior. And so we should use that language. It's a relevant language for that higher-level story because it gives us insight into what human beings do. Much more insight than if I was to describe some egregious act of yours. Let's say you smite the wicked, you do something, right? If I were to describe that in terms of the motion of your 10 to the 27 particles, the person I described it to, I said, those 10 to the 27 particles over there banged into those other 10 to the 27 particles, and because of that interaction, those 10 to the 27 particles fell over. It would be an incongruous and incomprehensible description of what's going on. But if I talk about it at the level of human behavior and human motivation, all of that is relevant.

None of it requires a freedom of will. It's simply a description at a certain level of human engagement. And so it's useful. That's all that it is. It's useful. Okay. Now, if you want to talk about responsibility, perhaps that's where you want to. Well, because why would you be responsible for something if you don't have free will? That's a natural question that people ask. Sure. What is the answer? You are responsible for anything that your particles or ingredients are an integral part of the causal chain resulting in that act and my responsible for moving this, of course, I am because my particles are a vital part of the causal chain resulting in this action. Am I responsible for it? I am absolutely responsible for it. Should I be punished if what I do causes some destruction or some kind of behavior that we frown upon? Of course, I should be punished if the punishment has the capacity to instruct other collections of particles to not engage in that behavior, not for retribution.

That is an incoherent reason for any kind of punishment because of the lack of free will. But even without free will, aggregates of particles can have their behavior changed by interactions and recognition of things that are happening in the world, right? I mean, I have a Roomba at home, okay? The Roomba bangs into certain pieces of furniture first go around, but once it bangs in its internal organization, changes next go around, it doesn't bang into that furniture. Does the rumba have free will? I don't think any of us would suggest that it has free will. Can the Roomba learn? Of course, it learns. We don't have free will either, but can we learn? Certainly, and that's why you should hold accountable certain kinds of actions to instruct the future behavior of other aggregates. That's the answer.

Adam Jacobs: We have to stop in a second, but that opens up so much. I wish we could have more time to talk about it sounds almost sort of Pavlovian.

Brian Greene: No, Pavlovian speaks to conditioned response, but this is instructive response, and so it's a broader kind of learning.

Adam Jacobs: But do I have the capacity to be instructed?

Brian Greene: Yes, just like the Roomba does,

Adam Jacobs: But I'm not choosing anything. It's being imposed upon me, correct?

Brian Greene: Well, impose is a little bit strong, but you are a collection of particles whose future behavior is in part determined by your past engagements.

Adam Jacobs: Last question. Yes. If I'm just a collection of particles, the universe is going to come to an ultimate heat death by which everything in creation will be completely lost and forgotten. Does it matter what I do ever?

Brian Greene: It depends on the level and the means by which you're judging. Does it matter? Does it matter to the cosmos in some cosmic sense? Of course not. The universe doesn't have a sense of caring. And so in poetic language, I'll say that the universe does not care what you do, but do you care what you do? Does your family care what you do? Does your society care what you do? Does this moment in time care what we as a species do? Of course it does.

So in a very local sense, everything matters profoundly. So in fact, I'd go even further. The fact that there is no cosmic accounting, the fact that there is no cosmic scale by which we're judged, whether what we did was right or wrong or good or bad, there aren't such concepts in the universe. They don't exist. These are human-made ideas that we invented in order to have a better understanding of society and civilization that doesn't denigrate the things that matter to us, that doesn't denigrate love and compassion, and empathy at all. In fact, it aggrandizes it because it doesn't come to us from on high. We invent it and we live by it. And that makes it all the more wondrous that collections of particles governed by physical law can do that.

Adam Jacobs: I want to thank you for a very exciting discussion. I have so many more questions when I came in and I only was able to ask a couple of them, but that was great. So thank you very much.


Question 1: Thank you. Thank you very much for your thoughts, and I'm with everyone else. I'm very honored to be able to be here and listen to your ideas. Just looking at this whole scientific endeavor and the idea of trying to get at the truth of reality through science, I'm familiar a little bit with some of the desires to codify mathematics as a formal system and to understand all the truths about mathematics early in the century. And then I'm a little familiar with the ideas of Godel that essentially said, look, there are not only truths that you'll never know within your system, but potentially you can't even break out of your system to learn even bigger truths. So is it possible that this whole scientific endeavor is ultimately going to fail to give us the truths about the universe?

Brian Greene: I'm not sure I would agree that we're after the truths of the universe, even though I've used that. I probably used it here tonight in a sort of free-form poetic description. I think what we're really after is the deepest explanation that this thing inside of our heads. Anyway, so that word which brings all our brains together into a friendly investigation, I think what we're trying to do is go as far as we can. Is that really the truths of reality? I wish it was. I suspect it's not. I suspect it's our best approximations to that truth.

Now, to the question of Godel and the relevance of incompleteness and mathematics to our description of the world, it may be that there are questions about the physical world that will never be able to answer, and I'm pretty much willing to accept that as a possibility. I don't feel that that undercuts the scientific program. We go as far as we can. There are so many things that we don't understand yet. I don't think they're Gordian sentences that we've been unable to decide upon because of Godel’s undecidability theorems. But I can imagine in some future, maybe we will encounter such things. But I will say there are certain assumptions that go into Godel’s argument, and it could be that they're not relevant for physical reality. There are other kinds of logics different from the logic that Godel focused upon. And in those logical systems, there isn't necessarily incompleteness. So there are definitely ways out, but if there aren't and there are some questions that forever remain unanswered, so be it.

Questioner: I was going to say the same thing. So I don't mean to ask this question by saying that if your description of the meaning of things given your premises, you're basing your vision of reality on the evidence, on the scientific evidence as you've seen it in your own experience. At least for me, it left me very profoundly wanting as, and I've had this experience as a teacher, as enthusiastic as you were about how meaningful it is. I was like, it doesn't seem meaningful. And it seemed to me that you hit against what you said earlier, which was science. Maybe it only goes so far, maybe it really can't provide us with answers. My question is, are you fully satisfied with your description of the meaning that you find or are there still gaps?

Brian Greene: Let me go. If you don't mind, I'll give you a little bit more on that. So I would say that early on when I began to think along the lines of what we just briefly touched the surface of here, I found it deeply, deeply distressing. So don't get me wrong, I've gone on a journey to get to the particular point of view that I have now, and there were times when I would in retrospect describe it as a dark place that that journey took me. So I totally get where you're coming from, but I certainly found a way out on the other side along the lines of what we described here because I stopped looking for the answers to be found out there and was satisfied by recognizing that it's not even looking for the answers inside.

It's inventing the answers inside. That's all it is. We are nothing but collections of particles that have somehow been given the capacity to have self-awareness. We are groups of atoms that can contemplate atoms. We're massive mountains of molecules that have this capacity to invent a word called meaning. And since we're inventing the word, it's up to us to figure out how to satisfy the urge that we all have for that thing that we invent called meaning. And to me, the fact that we are in full control of that is deeply satisfying, ultimately.

Question 2: The spirit of this evening is nice. So this is a question for both of you. This is a discussion that's been ongoing for a couple hundred years now between monotheism and science. What is it in your own fields, whether it's halakha or a conceptual understanding of God or in science that you think would not have emerged without this dialectic, without this conversation that's happening?

Brian Greene: You got it. Yeah. That's a tough one. That's a great question. Yeah. And I have to admit that I don't know the history of the ideas and the conversation well enough to really articulate things that, as you say, have happened, but wouldn't have happened without the conversation as an individual. Certainly, I know that I would be on a different trajectory without constantly banging into a whole variety of different perspectives on the world. And I really do agree with what I said before in terms of science, not giving all the answers.

But really what I mean by that is making reference to what I said earlier. The richest description comes from a blending of descriptions of reality at different levels of the hierarchy, from the ingredients to the sensations. And you shouldn't place more value on one versus the other because it's comparing apples and oranges. Certain questions need to be answered at the level of the particles and the ingredients. Certain other questions are simply not illuminated by that description. So that's the sense in which science is limited, and that's a sense as well in which the conversation needs to fill out our grasp of reality at different levels of understanding.

Adam Jacobs: I agree with that. My issue is the concept of creating meaning for ourselves often sounds like it's something very positive. But when I think deeply about it, to me it seems no different than just making stuff up.

Brian Greene: That's all we ever do. I'm sorry to say.

Adam Jacobs: And for me, it would be very difficult to live in a reality in which I felt that we were just living a story that we invented. I would find that to be absolutely bleak. Richard Dawkins says that we live in a world of blind pitiless indifference. And that's hard. That's hard. And I would think that somebody who is really living that reality would be suicidal. Everything that they've ever cared about has no intrinsic meaning and will not last or have any lasting value, nor will it be remembered in the course of time as if it had never existed. So if people can walk around and have happy lives despite all of that, I'm impressed. But there have been philosophers who have admitted that it is very, very depressing, and therefore that's not a good enough reason to say it's false. But…

Brian Greene: Even go further, just this is not a straw man answer. You are describing me. That is how I live. I am fully committed, not by virtue of some unguided belief, but because of the chain of reasoning that we've alluded to here tonight. I fully commit and believe that there is no intrinsic value or meaning or purpose. I fully commit to it all going away in the fullness of time and fullness of time, by the way, is a blink of an eye on cosmological timescales. Nabakov said, “The cradle rocks above the abyss, life is nothing but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.”

The only thing that he got wrong there is the eternity in the past, but the eternity in the future, absolutely the case. And that's how it is. And yeah, it can be dark and depressing, and for some, it may result in suicidal ideation. I don't know. But the point is, if you're willing to face the truth squarely and not cover it up with other stories, it can be deeply illuminating. And I'm nothing against using other stories as a means for avoiding that darkness, but I would encourage being willing to look at the darkness squarely.

Adam Jacobs: Fair enough.

Moderator: Brian, I want to thank you for making the greatest argument against the scientific perspective that I've ever heard in my life. You also heard it here first this evening, Brian Green, theoretical physicist renowned for saying that we only make things up. That's all we ever do. No, but I don't mean to, this is in a jocular sense. I'm not putting anything down. Okay. We have time for just a couple more questions, so please, please come on up.

Question 3: Hi, Dr. Green. So you expressed your belief that a consciousness is emergent from the physical world, and so presumably you're not dissuaded by the hard problem of consciousness and have some comfort with the idea that this mystical, magical, miraculous experience of qualia, which in no way seems to resemble charge or spin or anything in the physical world. So you have some intuition that it's possible that that gap can be closed scientifically. Can you talk about that intuition or how you close that gap for yourself?

Brian Greene: Happy to, and it's a great question, and it is in fact, the reason I called out exactly that assumption. I mean, there are other assumptions in the view that I was expressing, but the most important one is indeed the notion that consciousness is nothing but the physical and for the very fact that it all hinges on that point. I call that out, and it's a great question to ask. I don't have the answer and nobody on planet Earth does at the moment to the hard problem of consciousness, but it does strike me as intuitively more likely that it's less surprising than we think it is. It's very difficult for a self-referential being to fully analyze the very thing that it is referencing, which is itself. And so it's a difficult place to be, right. Each and every one of us only experiences this feeling of quality from one perspective.

I can't get inside your head. You can't get inside my head. I don't even know if you are actually a conscious being experiencing things right now based on your behaviors and the way you're looking at me. I think you are, but it's a guess. And so yes, there's a huge gap in our understanding here. An analogy helps me feel better about it. And the analogy is this. There was a time not that long ago when life was so mysterious that we said it can't possibly emerge from the fundamental ingredients. And some in here would still ascribe to that perspective, but the scientific worldview has shifted in that regard. We no longer talk about Ellan Vitale. We don't talk about some vital force that needs to be injected in from the outside in order for collections of ingredients suitably ordered to surge with the occurrence of life.

We just think it's one of the things that organized collections of matter can do, and the issue has evaporated over time. We've not yet created life in the laboratory from scratch. When that happens, it'll obliterate that issue completely. But nobody holds to the perspective that life is anything more than matter organized correctly. My suspicion, and again, I call it out because this is the one link in the argument that I can't fully grasp. My suspicion is exactly the same cotton pattern is going to happen with consciousness.

We sit here in awe of the fact that particles seemingly endowed only with mass charge and spin without any inner conscious experience, can somehow come together and yield the inner experiences that we all presumably experience as consciousness. But I think that that awe and wonder will begin to evaporate when, for instance, we have AI systems that really convince us that, they're feeling love and regret and remorse and guilt, and we recognize that this is just an inner quality. When certain collections of particles gain a certain degree of complexity and order, allowing them to behave in the way that our brains provide one example, that's my intuition about where it goes. I wish I could go further than that. I wish somebody on this planet could go further than that at the moment. But nobody really can.

Feed Your Head
Feed Your Head
Adam Jacobs