Brian Greene is a theoretical physicist, mathematician, string theorist, and Professor at Columbia University. His latest book, Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe, explores the question of how life can be meaningful in a universe destined for extinction. It is a brave, profound, wise, and erudite work.
“… a moment after the Big Bang, life arose, briefly contemplated its existence within an indifferent cosmos, and dissolved away.” ~ Brian Greene
Green believes that religion, science, philosophy, art, and more proceed from fear of death. We are fleeting, hence we feel the attraction of participating in something that we think might be timeless. For Greene, this has manifested itself in his lifelong pursuit of scientific and mathematical laws. “We fly to beauty,” as Emerson said, “as an asylum from the terrors of finite nature.”
In other words, we are at once splendidly unique—capable of literature, art, music, and science, and more—yet we return to dust. As Ernest Becker wrote in The Denial of Death, “Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever.”
Knowing all this we try to prevent death from erasing us, not just by our creations, but by connecting to a family, team, religion, nation, social movement, etc. Or we try to gain wealth, power, or status. Through our actions and connections, we hope to suppress what William James called “the worm at the core of all our usual springs of delight.” For sanity’s sake, we try to forget death and go about our usual concerns.
Our coping mechanisms typically also involve religious narratives about the afterlife, reincarnation, and the like. But science too has a story about where we came from, where we’re going, our struggle to survive and understand, and our search for meaning.
The Scientific Story
The scientific story hinges on two salient universal influences. Entropy, the continual increase of disorder in the universe, and evolution, which explains how organized life took hold in the universe. Much of the book explains this scientific story: from the Big Bang to the molecular Darwinism that results from our sun raining light and heat on the molecules of the earth, to life developing under evolutionary pressure according to the Darwinian rules that eventually result in self-conscious beings who plan, organize, learn, teach, and communicate.
The acquisition of language, in turn, made possible the telling of religious and scientific narratives. Our behaviors evolved under evolutionary pressure too; some enhanced our chance at survival and reproduction, others did not. The evolution of our brains allowed us to dominate the world, but these brains became aware of their own mortality. This is disconcerting, but we learned to cope with the stories we told ourselves.
And what lies in the future according to our best scientific knowledge? While Green admits “there are significant uncertainties … and … I live for the possibility that nature will … reveal surprises … we can’t now fathom” what science tells us about the far future isn’t heartening. It seems that mind simply can’t exist in the distant future because entropy will make thought physically impossible. Life is most likely unimaginably transitory on cosmic timescales; all will someday disappear into the void.
How then to avoid the dread of really feeling this in our bones? That all thought and accomplishment, all hopes and dreams will end forever? In response, Greene suggests marveling and being grateful that we are conscious at all. The universe will host life and mind only temporarily so appreciate it by living in and revering the now. (This is easy to say for someone in Greene’s or my position with adequate food and shelter; almost impossible for the many who are constantly suffering.) In short, we must find our own meaning. But is this possible?
The problem is that while we “have a pervasive longing to be part of something lasting, something larger” all our somethings will become nothing. Everything dies—you and I, our species, life and mind, and the universe. The key here is the idea of universal death. Greene grants that we may defeat death technologically and become “well-adjusted immortals” but avoiding the death of the cosmos is probably impossible. (For reasons he explains in great detail.) And this realization is devastating for any conception of meaning. Why?
Consider the difference between all life dying in 30 days after your death or in 102500years. Most people think that if all life were to end in 30 days life would be rendered meaningless. But if this is true then so should the fact that all life will end in the unimaginably distant future. The truth is that we are evanescent, the universe doesn’t care about us, and nothing of us will (probably) survive.
Yet Greene refuses to be forlorn. It is still extraordinary that we exist as conscious beings who can step outside of time. Perhaps we can’t solve the great questions (why is there something rather than nothing, how did consciousness emerge, etc.) because our brains were designed mostly for survival. Or maybe minds will eventually figure it all out.
But either way, Greene says, we have deciphered much, especially about how math and logic hold the universe together. And what we can say about the meaning of life is that
There is no final answer hovering in the depths of space awaiting discovery … Instead, certain special collection of particles … can create purpose. … in our quest to fathom the human condition, the only direction to look is inward … to the highly personal journey of creating our own meaning.
Greene does discuss some fantastic scenarios where mind might find a way to escape universal death. He admits that “A big unknown … is whether intelligent life will be able to intercede in the cosmic unfolding …” However, he regards speculating about such matters over cosmic time scales as “a fool’s errand.” His philosophical response is to the future that physics now reveals as most likely, not in speculative scenarios.
But others like Ray Kurzweil in The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence have argued that “the laws of physics are not repealed by intelligence, but they effectively evaporate in its presence … The fate of the Universe is a decision yet to be made, one which we will intelligently consider when the time is right.”
Or as I have written previously,
Now we might avoid our cosmic descent into nothingness and its implications if, for example, one of these conjectures is true: the death of our universe brings about the birth of another one; the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is true; other universes exist in a multiverse; or, if all descend into nothingness, a quantum fluctuation brings about something from this nothing. Or maybe nothingness is impossible as Parmenides argued long ago …
As for the cosmos, our posthuman descendants may be able to use their superintelligence to avoid cosmic death by, for instance, altering the laws of physics or escaping to other universes. And even if we fail to do something like this other intelligent creatures in the universe or multiverse might be able to perpetuate life indefinitely in ways we can’t now imagine. If superintelligence pervades the universe, it may become so powerful as to ultimately decide the fate of the cosmos. Perhaps then cosmic death isn’t foreordained either.
I understand the highly speculative nature of these conjectures but they do give us a small ray of hope that universal oblivion isn’t inevitable. Still, as I have said before,
… if nothingness is our fate—no space, no time, nothing for all eternity—then all seems futile. We may have experienced meaning while we lived, and the cosmos may have been slightly meaningful while it existed, but if everything vanishes for eternity isn’t it all pointless?
If universal death is indeed the end of everything then all we can do is to try to enjoy life as best we can while expressing care and concern for our fellow travelers on this lonely and ultimately one-way road. We should practice acceptance, resignation, and appreciation for what we have; we should try to see the glass as half full.
But remember too that our ignorance provides some comfort, for surely the conclusions of contemporary physics about the far future are tentative. With this in mind, I hear Dylan Thomas words ringing in my ears,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
I thank Professor Greene for his great addition to the meaning of life literature.