I was listening to the On Being podcast recently, which if you’re not familiar, is a lovely little podcast hosted by Krista Tippett. She has conversations (a better word than “interview”) with a variety of people across the world involved in the sciences, culture, religion, spirituality and so on with a bent toward digging deeper into their spirituality (or lack thereof) and moral worldview. At around an hour, these deep conversations are the sort of philosophical, thought-provoking conversations I dig listening to and getting lost with.
The one that really got my imagination and mental gears turning was with Brian Greene, a professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University. He’s not someone who believes in God. But through his scientific lens of the world, there’s a deep sense of wonderment and awe at what science has uncovered and unraveled before us.
Let me just quote Greene verbatim because it gives me goosebumps, “My view is, the very fact that collections of particles can do the kinds of things that we can do, the fact that you and I can have this conversation, the fact that an Einstein can work out the laws of general relativity, the fact that a Shakespeare can write King Lear, the fact that particles governed by physical law can do all that — that, to me, is the wonder of it all. That to me is where it’s thrilling.”
Even without a belief in God, and certainly with my layman’s understanding of science, there is something so fundamentally thrilling, as Greene states, to how perfectly organized we are in order to even … think at all. Much less accomplish what we have as a species in the limited time we exist.
By manifesting deities and gods, Greene believes we are attempting to touch, if ever so slightly, a piece of eternity because we are faced with our own mortality. Just as these particles that constitute us can create the philosophical structure in which to contemplate a moral order and sanction against killing, so, too, can that philosophical consciousness reckon with, or not, the fact that we will die. Ever-present is the fact of our mortality. And again, in that way, Greene believes we yearn for ways to live forever. That yearning also gives way to the frenetic energy that produces the great works of art, literature, scientific discoveries and so on that have improved the world, Greene reasons. After all, if we’re eternal beings, maybe we wouldn’t be as energized to discover, to learn, to wonder.
We exist. How radical a notion. Our existence, if science had the word, constitutes a miracle of sorts. And that is in a way, a cosmic slice of eternity. Our own tiny eternity, as the title of the episode suggests. That then leads to the orientation Greene seeks: Inward rather than outward. That our meaning and purpose are our own creation and that such a creation is even possible at all imbues it with value and wonder. That’s contrary to those who think a worldview without God in it renders it purposeless and meaningless. The purpose and meaning come from us!
I think Greene’s ideas here are lovely and beautiful. Because it is very easy to interpret a non-believing perspective of science, particularly that of entropy, and fall into philosophical nihilism. But there’s the Greene view that extrapolates and finds the beauty within that perspective. We are “bags of particles” ordered into certain biological and physical ways, who managed to make our constituted matter … matter. To ride the lightning. To ride our slice of eternity until we are no more.
I love it.
My summations can’t do Greene and Tippett’s conversation justice, so I highly recommend listening to the episode here.