Until the end of time is the latest book from renowned popular science author and renowned physicist Brian Greene. In clear and accessible prose, Greene takes the reader on a scientific journey from the origins of the universe to the development of intelligent life and human efforts to find meaning in an endless cosmos. While Green’s explanations of scientific phenomena are incontestable, his conclusions about free will and religion are controversial.
While Green’s explanations of scientific phenomena are incontestable, his conclusions about free will and religion are controversial.
At the risk of oversimplifying Greene’s views, his opinion of free will is essentially that there is no such thing. He writes that “you and I are nothing more than constellations of particles whose behavior is completely determined by physical laws”. Every thought that flickers through our minds, every sound we utter, every action we take is “the result of our particles moving in this or that direction through our bodies.” The logic is that I do not type these words out of personal autonomy, but because my particles have deigned to do so. I am unable to question Greene’s view of physics, quantum mechanics, or mathematical analysis. Even so, I would like to urge Mr Greene to see free will first as a human and then as a physicist.
Greene has two children. I am sure that he, like all other loving parents, has encouraged them to realize that they are capable of anything and can accomplish whatever goal they set themselves. Perhaps he was telling them that they could choose their own ways. Does he really believe that his own achievements or those of his children or loved ones are simply an inevitable link in the chain of development that begins with the Big Bang? Does he believe that every case a person improves is just a predetermined chemical accident? Perhaps we are all just “nothing more than toys tossed back and forth by the dispassionate rules of the cosmos,” to use his words. Imagine how different human history could be if everyone shared Greene’s view. President Truman would have shrugged his shoulders and let his particles decide whether he wanted to drop the atomic bombs in 1945. Any thoughts Michelangelo had about the painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling could have been erased: there was never a doubt what the end result would be; it was just a matter of time. Greene admits that one day we may discover that the human mind is exempt from known physical laws, but that “this possibility contradicts everything that science has so far revealed about the workings of the world.”
Does he really believe that his own achievements or those of his children or loved ones are simply an inevitable link in the chain of development that begins with the Big Bang? Does he believe that every case a person improves is just a predetermined chemical accident?
Greene argues that the majesty of free human will actually exists in another form. In contrast to a stone or a tree, the particles of which can do very little, human particles enable a dizzying variety of behavioral reactions to external stimuli. Humans can paint or design nuclear weapons and decide whether or when to use them. Rather than personal autonomy, freedom is really about “being freed from the bondage of an impoverished spectrum of responses that has long restricted the behavior of the inanimate world. Regardless of this, a particle-based conception of human free will is not worthwhile. If the “scientific” answer to the question that has puzzled the greatest minds for thousands of years is that humans do not have real personal agency, then I will happily ignore the scientific evidence. If everything has been predestined by mysterious equations from the beginning of time, why not give up? Greene argues that “our decisions appear free because we do not experience the laws of nature working in their fundamental form”. If so, free will must be the most compelling illusion of all time.
If everything has been predestined by mysterious equations from the beginning of time, why not give up?
Until the end of time is an excellent book. I learned more about biology, geology, chemistry, physics, and countless other subjects than I expected. But between Greene’s rejection of human will and the reduction of religion to a coping mechanism, I would say that the book is more relevant to his discussion and explanation of scientific concepts (even if it is somewhat non-technical) than to his sad, hopeless reflections on philosophy or religion .
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