Physicist Brian Greene on Mortality, Our Search for Meaning, and the Most Important Fact of the Universe
“When you see all of those stories nested together in one narrative arc… it gives a deeper understanding of where we came from, and what’s happening at the moment, and ultimately where we’re going.”
By Maria Popova
“Death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love,” Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in letter to his grief-stricken friend, the Countess Margot Sizzo-Noris-Crouy, in 1923 — the year he published, after a decade of work, his miraculous Duino Elegies.
Nearly a century after Rilke’s death, the theoretical physicist and mathematician Brian Greene — who is reading and reflecting on the ninth of Rilke’s ten elegies at the 2020 Universe in Verse — brought the poetics of science to this life-expanding perspective on mortality in his equally miraculous book Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe (public library), which he launched in dialogue with his Columbia colleague, Pioneer Works Director of Sciences, and poetry-performer Janna Levin.
In this fragment from their altogether revelatory conversation, Greene bridges Shakespeare and science to consider how facing the elemental fact of our finitude — facing it with the courage that only comes from lucidity, from “absolute and passionate presence with all that is here” — dilates our subjective experience of time and broadens our being, so that while we may not live any longer than we do, we may live wider:
Elsewhere in the conversation, and throughout his excellent book, Greene echoes the sentiment at the heart of Richard Feynman’s iconic Ode to a Flower, insisting that a knowledge of what we are made of, a knowledge of the fundamental laws — the laws that govern the atoms that make the molecules that make the cells that make the conscious, self-reflective beings that examine these laws in conversation and contemplation — helps us tell a fuller story of who and what we are. “When you see all of those stories nested together in one narrative arc,” he says, “it gives a deeper understanding of where we came from, and what’s happening at the moment, and ultimately where we’re going.”
He makes an elegant argument for this necessity of self-cohesion in another fragment of the conversation:
When you recognize that we are the product of purposeless, mindless laws of physics playing themselves out on our particles — because we are, all, bags of particles — it changes the way you search for meaning and purpose: You recognize that looking out to the cosmos to find some answer that’s sort of floating out there in the void is just facing the wrong direction. At the end of the day, we have to manufacture our own meaning, our own purpose — we have to manufacture coherence… to make sense of existence. And when you manufacture purpose, that doesn’t make it artificial — that makes it so much more noble than accepting purpose that is thrust upon you from the outer world.
This recognition, Greene reminds us, is the very thing that makes our humanity and the consciousness from which it springs such a wondrous triumph of nature, chance, and evolution:
If we’re used to thinking of consciousness as this pristine, spectacular quality that we are endowed with from something magical in the external world, to frame it in a reductionist way might feel like we’re flattening it. However, I think it’s utterly spectacular that the very same physical processes that are responsible for this pitcher of water or the structure of this table are what’s responsible for conscious self-awareness — how miraculous that collections of particles can do and think and feel what we do. That, I think, is the conclusion — it amplifies and elevates the wonder of it all, it doesn’t take away from it.
In the full conversation, in which Greene goes on to explore consciousness, free will, evolution, storytelling, and more, is well worth savoring and can be savored on Broadcast — the wonderful new digital initiative my friends at Pioneer Works have launched to open to the world their archive of uncommon treasures featuring some of the world’s fiercest and most fertile minds — scientists and artists, Nobel laureates and Pulitzer-winning authors — in conversation and contemplation at the edge of our search for truth, our longing for beauty, and our hunger for meaning.
Published April 24, 2020