Creating Meaning Ex Nihilo
Brian Greene’s brave eloquence in “Until the End of Time” reveals the philosophical dead-end of physicalism
Brian Greene’s new book “Until the End of Time” demonstrates that the philosophy of physicalism can be expressed in beautiful, poetic and even religious language. It is a triumph of communicating the “good news” of the quasi-religion of scientism. With his graceful, elegant style and with unusual clarity and simplicity, Greene may be seen as the Billy Graham of scientism as compared to say, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett or Richard Dawkins who might be more seen the Jimmy Bakers, Jerry Falwells or Jimmy Swaggarts of this belief system.
Certainly Greene’s work is already and will be very well received by those who share his presupposition that physicalism is the only possibility for describing our universe and all possible universes. They will exult in his beautifully expressed conviction that since there can be no purpose or meaning in the random accident of our existence, it is incumbent on us to find our own meaning as we contemplate the “miracle” of life and our minds.
Greene begins by quoting Jean-Paul Sartre who said life is drained of meaning when the illusion of eternity is lost. Bertrand Russell’s summation is the theme Greene explores: “So far as scientific evidence goes the universe has crawled by slow stages to a somewhat pitiful result on this earth and is going to crawl by still more pitiful stages to a condition of universal death.” If there is a purpose in this, Russell concludes that “I see no reason, therefore, to believe in any sort of God.”
Greene, for his part, does not see earth and life on it as “somewhat pitiful.” He expresses gratitude for the “grace” of random chance that resulted in not only our universe but the evolution of minds to contemplate its mysteries. The word “fortuitous” is often repeated and even “miraculous” is used on occasion. It is in this grace — yes, he uses this word — and these miracles, while supporting and expanding Russell’s conclusion of pitiful stages of universal death, that Greene attempts to find meaning and purpose. It proves a futile quest.
As one who does not share the presupposition of physicalism but has presuppositions of my own, I greatly enjoyed the magnificent explanations of what current science teaches and Greene’s heroic effort to find meaning and purpose in a cold and dying universe. But I also found conflicts, inconsistencies and contradictions that serve to undermine his effort. But the conclusion that somehow we can find meaning in a universe that is inevitably dying and returning to the nothingness from which it inexplicably erupted without purpose falls far short of convincing. If this is the best that can be done to elevate physicalism and supply answers to the fundamental human conviction that there is value, meaning and ultimate purpose in our world and lives, then all but the most ardent true believers will see it as the incoherent dead end that it is.
There are numerous examples of inconsistencies and contradictions. Many of them have to do with Greene’s effort to demonstrate that randomness combined with Darwinian natural selection is effective in answering essentially all questions of existence beginning with the formation of the particles and fields that make up our universe. Questions about the emergence of stars and galaxies as well as the human mind in all its varied expressions are answered easily with reference to natural selection. The inconsistency lies in his honesty in discussing serious scientific disagreement on a number of the critical issues while at the same time presenting the random-natural selection solution as established fact.
One of the most glaring contradictions involves his discussion of Boltzmann Brains. We are, as he repeatedly states, nothing more than fortuitous packets of particles. Our very sense of being, of experiencing and of remembering are all expressions of particles and fields obeying the fixed laws of physics established at the very beginning of our universe. But since these fields and particles came about through pure random chance mediated by natural selection and since they will continue swirling randomly into the far distant future, given enough time particles will again assemble fortuitously in a way that is exactly the same as your brain. Though your brain died eons earlier, once again you will think. Or think you think. You will be you as much as you are you now.
“Everything you know reflects thoughts, memories, and sensation that currently reside in your brain. The purchase of the mug [you purchased earlier] has long since passed. What remains is a configuration of particles inside your head that holds the memory.”
Then he explains that since your brain with its memories is nothing more than the random collection of particles specifically arranged, it is all but certain that with sufficient time, that random arrangement will once again emerge:
“Which means that if a random spray of particles flitting through the void of a structureless, high-entropy universe should, by chance, spontaneously dip to a lower-entropy configuration that just happens to match that of the particles currently constituting your brain, that collection of particles would have the same memories, thoughts, and sensations that you do.”
Will this happen?
“What makes this more than the beginnings of a B-grade sci-fi plot is that as we look to the far future, the conditions appear ripe for these bizarre sounding processes.”
Maybe so. The major thrust of the book is the inexorable march of the second law of thermodynamics called entropy and why that must end in the cold slow death of the entire universe. Yet, there are the suggestions that there is an infinity of universes, that new universes are popping into existence all the time, and that even our own universe, as small and insignificant as it may be in light of all these infinities, may have an infinite future. So, Greene concludes that a Boltzmann brain will emerge in an estimated 101068 (ten to the tenth power to the 68th power) years. That’s a really, really long time. But, like everything else randomly mediated by natural selection, this “resurrection” of thought as he calls it will happen.
But this raises a particularly thorny problem for physicalists and Greene is intellectually honest enough to point it out. If a Boltzmann brain appears and it happens to be you with all your memories and experiences, it will come equipped with those. You will not have experienced going to the grocery story yesterday and picking up some apricots, but your memories will tell you you did. How do we know we don’t have Boltzmann brains right now? We can’t be sure. Greene explains the serious consequences of this:
“If a brain, yours or mine or anyone’s, can’t trust that its memories and beliefs are an accurate reflection of events that happened, then no brain can trust the supposed measurements and observations and calculations that constitute the basis of scientific understanding…the deep skepticism that emerges from the possibility of spontaneous brain formation forces us to be skeptical of the very reasoning that led us to entertain the possibility in the first place.”
Physicalism following this trajectory becomes self-defeating. Greene was not the first philosopher to notice that physicalism leads to this uncomfortable conclusion. It was along these same lines that eminent philosopher Alvin Plantinga concluded that naturalism — physicalism by another term — and evolution are in fundamental conflict. His book Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism details this conflict. A summary of the book states:
“There is superficial conflict but deep concord between science and theistic belief, and superficial concord and deep conflict between science and naturalism. Given that naturalism is at least a quasi-religion, there is indeed a science/religion conflict, all right, but it is not between science and theistic religion: it is between science and naturalism. That is where the conflict really lies.”
Coming to firm conclusions about what is real and what is not while recognizing that such conclusions are unreliable because they are based on packages of random particles that may or may not contain real thoughts, memories, knowledge and experience represents one serious problem for Greene and physicalism. But another basic inconsistency is time. Is it limited or infinite? Greene shows that with sufficient time Boltzmann brains will greatly outnumber the ten billion or more brains that now exist or have existed in the history of the universe. The time required for these brains to fortuitously form out of random particles is made possible by quantum tunneling. This involves a jump in the value of the Higgs field, currently set enigmatically at 246, to some other measure. Such a jump would most certainly change the fine tuning that allows for known life and therefore all existing life, but would not eliminate the basic laws that provide for random particles to create those brains. Greene: “Current data suggest that the Higgs is likely to tunnel to a different value somewhere between 10102 (the 102 and 359 are super script) and 10359 years from now.”
But the time needed for Boltzmann brains greatly exceeds that allotted by entropy in the major thrust of Greene’s story. So, he argues quite definitively that our universe will end in a specified period of time that is much sooner than needed for these billions of Boltzmann brains, even though he considers them all but inevitable. He also assumes inflation theory is the most likely explanation for the features of our universe, yet inflation theory today requires a continued and eternal emergence of new universes. He also states cyclic cosmology with endlessly recurring big bangs or balloons of new universes emerging from ours as viable physicalist ideas. So we cannot know from Greene, despite his clarity and authoritarian statements of the certainty of the death of our universe, whether he really believes that or not. He avoids to a large degree the current fascination with the multiverse except to acknowledge the current debate as to whether they are real or merely useful mathematical descriptions. He concludes:
“The essential difference in the cosmological theory we are now recounting is that the other worlds — the other regions — are not a matter of interpretation. If space is infinite, the other regions are out there.”
There is far more to examine, including his continual reliance on the explanatory power of natural selection. It explains the behavior of particles as well as why humans developed art and religion. To the already convinced, his elegant explanations will no doubt be compelling. Religion and art, we are told, create social cohesion and social cohesion contributes to survival. End of story. Many others have posed serious questions about such a facile conclusion. Again, Greene honestly points to some of those criticisms.
As to the issue of free will, Greene is categorical. The laws of physics make free will only an illusion, a “sensation” he calls it. Even the probabilistic realities of quantum mechanics require a rigid, mathematical determinism. But Greene struggles to address fundamental issues such as creativity and responsibility. Creativity, he concludes, requires no free will explaining how a programmed Roomba demonstrates rudimentary creativity. But, he is ambiguous on responsibility:
“Responsibility has a role, too. Even though my particles, and hence my behaviors, are under the full jurisdiction of physical law, ‘I’ am in a very literal if unfamiliar way responsible for my actions…as my particle arrangement learns and thinks and synthesizes and interacts and responds, it imprints my individuality and stamps my responsibility on every action I take.”
This provides an example of Greene’s rhetorical style. Through the use of non-scientific language that is elegant and winsome combined with the firm statements of “scientific” fact, Greene hopes to be able to say without notice that 2+2 is both 4 and 5. But, perhaps what appears double talk to me is convincing to those already saved by physicalism.
The most basic contradiction is this: science does not and cannot provide answers to fundamental questions of our existence, but Greene’s entire enterprise is to communicate that science has the definitive answers we are seeking, not just about the nature of our universe and physical lives, but about what it is for, why it is here and what it all means. Science fails, as Greene recognizes, in answering the most basic questions:
“Why is there something rather than nothing? What sparked the onset of life? How did conscious awareness emerge? We have explored a range of speculations, but definitive answers remain elusive.”
This recognition comes at the very end. Meanwhile, the entire book proposes not only speculation but absolutely definitive answers. Why is there something rather than nothing? Just because. Maybe it started without cause in one fantastic moment, or maybe it is just a continuing process of remaking, but it doesn’t really matter. How did life start? We are very close to finding a totally physicalist solution he avers, and Greene reminds us, that even if non-physicalist solutions are found he will not settle for anything other than a physicalist one. How did consciousness emerge? He dismisses much current thought from David Chalmers, Roger Penrose and others with a wave of his hand. Ideas of proto-consciousness or pansychism involve venturing into foreign worlds and he doesn’t see that as necessary, even while he ventures into some very strange and unknowable worlds of his own. He also closes his mind to the vast amount of data and scientific studies of the nature of consciousness that strongly suggest a non-physicalist reality spelled out in “The Irreducible Mind” and other recent works. An eminent scientist, making bold philosophical statements while expressing a closed mindedness to all possibilities other than the preferred dogma undermines confidence in the enterprise of contemporary science.
Greene concludes firmly and definitely, there is no plan, no design, nothing other than the “grace” and “miracle” of randomness. He echoes fellow atheist Steven Weinberg’s observation that the more we know of the universe, the more pointless it becomes. Greene is at his eloquent and moving best when he talks of a question he received in a conference from an elderly woman who asked if he would prefer to know he was to die in one year or to know the entire universe would disappear in one year. On reflection he noted how illuminating this question was. In the face of final and total destruction and the end of all being, he noticed that all he did, all he cared about, all he learned, all he wrote, all that he felt brought meaning and purpose was empty. In quoting philosopher Samuel Scheffler, he noted his “reasoned conclusion resonates with my own informal musings.” Scheffler concluded:
“We need humanity to have a future for the very idea that things matter to retain a secure place in our conceptual repertoire.”
Greene sets about being the evangelist carrying the physicalist’s “good news” message that we will all die and the universe will die a meaningless death but we can find great meaning and purpose in honestly confronting the reality that nothing matters. Then he concludes that such a conclusion is untenable for humanity.