Brian Greene Shares His Surprising Take on Religion and Science

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Brian Greene

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Brian Greene is a theoretical physicist, mathematician, and string theorist. He has been a professor at Columbia University since 1996 and chairman of the World Science Festival since co-founding it in 2008. His new book "Until the End of Time" is now available: https://amzn.to/2ug680o

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Black holes, wormholes & other things I'll never understand

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It's interesting to me that that's the thing that we look forward to the most. To the average person, if they think about space, they think about intelligent life. That is far more interesting to them than the fact that there's black holes out there that are devouring planets. They're sucking stars into its event horizon. This infinite point of density that we can't even really begin to imagine with our own little brains. Yeah, and the fact that all this arose without a guiding intelligence. Yeah. You know, that there are black holes and there are active galactic nuclei and there are black holes slamming into each other creating gravitational waves that we can actually detect. I mean, it is a wonderfully rich reality that we are fortunate to be part of. Do you experience much pushback or much conflict from religious people who don't like the fact that you describe things in that way that didn't need an intelligent force or intelligent creator to exist? It's an interesting question because the biological community, people like Richard Dawkins and the like, I think have really borne the brunt of the religious pushback because they're dealing directly with phenomena of life and that's the precious commodity that somehow we want to be sacred and therefore our religious sensibility will push back on it just being the mindless laws of physics and evolution yielding life on planet Earth. They haven't pushed as hard on the quantum physicists and the cosmologists as they have on the biologists, but I have had conversations. Many of them are respectful as opposed to antagonistic where the view is that I am wrongheaded, that I am missing the point. And some of these religious folks are fantastically accomplished scientists. That's weird. Yeah. I mean, I went to a gathering. I think I can talk about now. It was closed-door gathering. You weren't meant to describe it. Probably don't get sued by this one. Yeah, that's right. I'm really opening myself here. And I thought it was called Science in the Spiritual Quest. And it was a bunch of scientists that were being brought together. And I thought it was going to be an interesting but ultimately one-note meeting. I thought everybody's going to basically say the same thing. There could be a God. There's no evidence for a God. We've got the laws of physics. And we're going to just press forward under the assumption that physics is all there is until the clouds part and God reveals him or herself or itself to us. And at that point, we may change our tune. It was not one note. I was the only person who had that perspective in the room. Everybody else was coming at religion from a very different way of thinking about the world. In fact, there's one Nobel laureate in the room who got up and sang psalms as part of his presentation. And I was sitting there and I was like, what is happening here? This is so unexpected to me. And what it really meant was I was so close-minded into the varieties of religious engagement that happened in the world. And it opened my eyes. And there's one Nobel laureate in particular I did say to him at the end. I said, when you look at me and you hear my view, what do you think? And he kind of put his arm around me in an avuncular way and said, you know, you're a real smart guy and you don't understand the true reality. And I think ultimately you will because you're open-minded and you're on a journey and I hope that your journey will finally take you to the place where I have been for many years. That was so unexpected that this Nobel laureate who I respected for his concrete mathematical and experimental work saw the world completely differently. Now, was there a spectrum of belief? Yeah, absolutely. But I was the one who was far out. I was the one who was... You were untethered. Yeah, I mean, I came in there and I was like, whoa, you know? And clearly they arranged the meeting to have a spectrum of perspectives. I mean, this is not something that was randomly designed and it just so happened, but it was an eye-opener. And from that I went to read... Do you know William James' book, Varieties of Religious Experience? No. So it's a book that William James, a great psychologist wrote in 1902 and it was based on a series of lectures I think he gave in Scotland. And it is the most heartfelt and rational approach to religion and science that I think has ever been written. And yet most people don't know much about it because what he does is he goes through and he documents through his own research and through reading biographies and interviewing individuals the vastly different ways that people think about religion and why they think about religion and the value that religion has in their lives. And when you read that book, it doesn't convert me. I haven't changed my views on whether or not there is a God, but it has changed my views on the value of a religious sensibility, the role that it plays in people's lives. Now look, it can be, you know, you talk to people like Sam Harris and you know, it's a destructive force in the world and it has been a destructive force in some ways, but that's not the full story. A fuller story is that for some individuals, it gives a connection to a historical lineage that's deeply valued. For some individuals, it puts their life in a larger setting that allows them to be in the world in a more productive way. So there are a whole range of roles that religious engagement can play. The problem is when you start to pit it against scientific insight, then you run into trouble. But religion was never developed to give us factual information about the world. Religion will never give us the electron magnetic moment to nine decimal places. That's the purview of scientific investigation. And if you can keep these straight in your mind, there's a definite and powerful role for a religious sensibility in the world. Yeah, I feel like it gives people in a lot of ways a scaffolding for ethics and morality and allows them some alleviation of anxiety. Yeah, exactly. It gives them a feeling of purpose. But like you said, as long as it's not conflicting with rigid scientific reality, like scientific provable scientific reality. Yeah, and I gotta tell you, it's a funny thing. Richard Dawkins, have you had him on the program? So you know that his MO in the world is very anti-religious. I think he would agree with me on that. I don't want to put words into his mouth. But I did an event with him in New York, the Beacon Theater, I don't know, maybe a year ago or something like that. And it was very interesting because in a one-on-one conversation, his views were very similar to mine. I felt like we don't agree in totality. But I was saying to him, there are times I go around the world and I will do things that are utterly irrational. I'll knock on wood for good luck. I'll speak to my dead father. I know that he's not really there. I'll pray to God on occasion if I think that I could use that backup. Not because I think there's some bearded individual in the sky, it's just a behavioral tendency that I find to be comforting and useful. And I said this to Richard and he said, I totally get it. I was like, what? He was like, I totally get it. He said, in fact, he said, I don't like to sleep in a house that has a reputation as being haunted. You know? And for me, it was such a beautiful human moment, it was such a beautiful human moment where we were just like being human beings. And he said, we're both sinners. And I agree, we are both sinners in that sense because we know how the world works. We know this doesn't make any sense. And yes, it's still part of somehow how we behave in the world. And I think there's a value to recognizing that that is what it means to be human. You will engage in the world in ways that are not necessarily strictly adhering to some rational perspective of how the scientific world operates. I would love to see Richard Dawkins outside of a haunted house saying, I'm not going in there. Exactly. Exactly. You know? Yeah. So, you know, it's all just to say that I kind of feel like there are many pathways toward insight in the world. There are many ways to live a life. There are many ways to come to terms with our own impermanence. And it's not as though something is right or something is wrong. It's a question of, is it useful to you? And I think that we have to be very open-minded in the kinds of behaviors that we allow to happen in the world, you know? Even romp it. It's nutty stuff. But if some of those individuals who go there find that it allows them to live in the world in a more productive way, alleviating anxiety, feeling like they're on a spiritual quest, so be it. Yeah. That's the thing that's, I mean, it's hard for people to understand if you're not in that space, that head space that they are. You don't need this structure. But for some people, even Scientology or something along those lines, it seems loopy on paper, can provide them with legitimate structure and benefit their lives in a tangible way that they can describe to you. Exactly. And my feeling is that if there was, and I don't know this to be the case, maybe some biologist will push back on this, but if there was a race of, for want of a better word, you know, Vulcan-like individuals who approach the world in a completely rational manner, evaluating the data, figuring out the most sensible course of action, competing against a crazy group of individuals like us who will come up with wild fictional ideas, gods in the heavens, you know, demons haunting the world, I think it's the latter group that ultimately would triumph. Because with that kind of freedom of thought, you get novelty. You get ingenuity. You get creativity. And so I feel as though this is part and parcel of who we are and why we have survived. And to sort of come at the world with a scientific club that's meant to smash away anything that disagrees with the scientific worldview is an unfortunate way of looking at the world. Yeah, there's something about creativity that it doesn't necessarily have to abide by any laws of logic and it can still be beneficial. Yeah. And that's why it's so stunning when somebody comes up with something, it's like, where did that come from? It didn't come from a rational approach to working out, you know, Brahms' Third Symphony. It emerged from the churning emotions of an individual who happens to be made up of trillions of particles guided by physical law, responding to the environment, which is impinging his senses with an incredible array of influences. And through that world emerges this spectacular piece of music. That's breathtaking. Utterly breathtaking. Yeah, and it's amazing what that music can inspire as it reaches out to, you know, X amount of people and then causes different thoughts in their mind. And then that causes in turn another branch of creativity, another new line of thinking that they might have never pursued before. And that to me establishes that the notion that language is the only way that we can know about the world. Wittgenstein had this perspective and that the limits of my language, limits of my world, that seems to me utterly wrong. I mean, the experience of music or the experience of cogitating about the world, but not trying to overlay a narrative upon it, just feeling your way into reality reveals things about the world that I think are beyond linguistic. You can talk religion with a really intelligent person who's objective, who has a belief. It's such an interesting subject because it requires suspension of disbelief in order to absorb some of the stories. But there's clearly a history behind this of thousands of years of translations and you're trying to get to the, what did they mean when they wrote this down? How much did they know? And what were they trying to do? Were they just trying to get everybody to calm down and stay in line? Right. Or were they trying to find some means of gluing the group together by a shared belief? Or, you know, there are folks who basically say that there are qualities of the human brain that naturally leave it open to a religious sensibility. I mean, for instance, we have agency detection systems in our brain where we look around the world and we tend to assign agency to things that happen. That's useful, right? Because, you know, if you mistake a windblown branch for a jaguar, yeah, it's fine. You thought it was a jaguar, but it's just a branch. But if the reverse happens, you think it was a jaguar and you think it's a windblown branch, you're going to get eaten. So we tend to over-endow agency into the world. There is evolutionary value to that. So when the wind blows, we tend to think there's a mind up there. When the river gurgles, we tend to think that there's a mind in there. And this is sort of the seed for the kinds of perspectives that you find in many of the world's religions. So there's natural course of events that can lead to the arising of the institution or at least the ideas behind the institution of religion. And for students that have never encountered that idea before, it can really shake things up and I think in a very valuable way, you know. So I think you're absolutely right. Having a conversation with somebody who has a religious perspective is deeply interesting to understand where that mind came to the place that it got to. And from a personal sensibility, I just give you one little anecdote. My dad died. I was 23 years old. And unexpectedly, I'd been visiting home. I was at Harvard at the time. I was visiting from Cambridge and we had a nice weekend. And by the time I got back to Cambridge on the bus, my mom called me and said, Dad's dead. It was so shocking. It was like so sudden. It was so complete. And I remember I went back home and my dad was not a religious man, but we knew that he would want to have a religious ceremony and we did it. And we had, you know, a minion of Jews coming to the house to recite the Kaddish prayer because we weren't religious. We didn't know what we were doing, you know. And I had no idea what these men were saying, but it was deeply comforting. In fact, I didn't want to know what they were saying. To me, it was just a collection of ancient sounds. But the sounds connected me across the generations to a culture that had been extending back 5,000 years. And in a moment of crisis, that was a very comforting and useful connection to have. Yeah, that is where I find people get the most out of religion and the fact that it brings communities together in this sort of cohesive ritual where everybody acts together and everybody, you feel like there's completion to it. Yeah. Like you're putting someone, you know, putting someone into perspective and you're doing so with this religious ceremony. And when large groups of people get together and engage in a ritual behavior, something magical happens. You know, I've spoken to evolutionary psychologists like Steve Pinker, who is a wonderful thinker. I've got him in here too. Yeah. Okay. And, you know, Steve is skeptical that this kind of ritual behavior can yield the kind of cohesive bonding that some people suggest that it does. But, you know, you probably have, but I have on occasion engaged in these ritual behaviors, you know, mass drumming and movements, you know, and I got to tell you, you are quickly, I find transported to a place where you are now part of a collective and you feel yourself melting into the group and you are one. And if you've never had that experience, I think it's something that you should have because I think it's a vital part of our heritage. It is part of how we got to be who we are. Yeah. There's something about group acceptance and a group of people acting and doing something together that does create this very strange bond. Yeah. It doesn't necessarily exist amongst individuals. It's a weird bond. It's a very weird bond because it has nothing to do with the individuals, nothing to do with the personality of Jim or Mary. It's irrelevant at that point. It's somehow joining you together into this massive humanity that's all engaged in the same practice and somehow you feel as though your identity melts into the larger whole. I don't know why it happens. There's negative aspects to that sort of thing. Of course. Or that mob mentality. Of course. Like have you ever been in a situation where things got chaotic and you really had this feeling like anything can happen at any moment? I've seen it happen. I've never been part of it. It's very weird. But I have a sort of feeling in the air. Yeah. I have an analogous one, which is, you know, my brother is a Hare Krishna, you know, and so, you know, he is 13 years older than me and left college in the 60s, which was a tumultuous time and went to Europe and ultimately joined into what many people think of as some kind of cultish activity. And so, but he's not a cult thinker. He's an original thinker. He's a brilliant thinker. And yet within this group mentality, you can imagine a certain kind of group think can take over. At least people imagine that this happens. So yes, it has positive aspects and it can have negative aspects. But in the end, I think there is a long lineage in which those of our forebears who survive were the ones who could join together into these more potent, these more powerful groups. And that way we're able to triumph over other groups, you know, in the ancestral environment. You know, there are there's different readings of the archaeological record, whether it was a dangerous place in the hunter-gatherer past or a sort of placid place. But one reading says it was a very dangerous place and therefore those groups that survive were the ones who were able to establish this kind of allegiance to the whole. Yes. And certainly I think this kind of ritual behavior may have been part of that. Bond together through shared experience. Yes. Yeah. And belief. Yeah. And if you're all believing in the same supernatural entity, that's a powerful, in principle, powerful glue. Do you find that there's, I mean, I don't want to say an arrogance in some academics, maybe it's not the right word, but this being too quick to dismiss any positive benefit at all about religion. Yes. It's the knee-jerk reaction among a certain group of academics. And it feels deeply unfortunate to me. It almost feels like a religion of its own sort when it's just the response as opposed to a careful, thoughtful, heartfelt analysis of the situation. I frankly wish that more people would read William James's book because I do think that it's the kind of, because here's a scientist, right? A deeply thoughtful scientist who knows how to analyze data, knows how to rationally engage with the world, who was plumbing the depths of religion in a very, very meaningful and sensitive way. You know, and by the end of these lectures, I think it was lecture number 20 or something, he describes religion as this, as something that helps the journey toward the, the, the terror and the beauty of phenomena. He describes it as the, the voice of the thunder, the gentleness of the summer rain. He describes it in terms of the subliminate of the stars. And this kind of transcendent approach to the religious experience, I think, brings it out of the academic guise that is often thrown upon it, which is something that is contravening everything we know about the world. It's causing people to think in ways that are irrational. I mean, this whole trope that you hear, it's not that there isn't some truth to that, but it's an incomplete truth. And if you're willing to approach religion in a way where you discard the pieces that offend you, throw away the parts that you think are utter nonsense, only keep those aspects that are useful to you in your life, then there is a place for it. Well, I think therein lies the problem with a lot of people. They're not willing to do that. Right. This, this need for suspension of disbelief troubles them so much that they feel like fools if they buy into something. Right. And we're also dealing with all religions except the ones that are super questionable like Scientology or Mormonism. Right. That are very old. And the idea of maybe it would be better if we came up with something that we could all agree on in 2020. Right. Maybe it would be wonderful if we have something that maybe has science in it, maybe something that has a genuine understanding of how human beings react and what the benefits of community and having these environments where loving conscious people communicate with each other in a very positive way, that this could be a new form of this thing that we seem to desire so greatly. Yeah. And I agree. And I have to say, I make this point in the book because the point that I make there is that to truly engage with the world, you have to use a variety of stories. We're fundamentally storytellers. That's what human beings are. Now there's the reduction of story that physicists are well equipped to talk about with particles and laws of physics. On top of that, you've got the chemist story, the complex molecules, you've got the biologist story that begins to talk about cells in life. You've got the psychological story, the neurophysiological story that brings a mind and consciousness. And within that, you then have all of the activities that conscious beings undertake, which includes religion and includes telling other kinds of stories and includes creative expression. You need them all. And to sort of say that the scientific account is the only account by which you're ever going to gain true qualities of the world is a very, in my view, limited description of what truth is. There is objective truth in the world that we can measure, that we can describe the equations of self-worth, but there's also internal truth, spiritual truth that you get to by self-examination. It's real in the sense that you're understanding how you respond to the world. And that is something which is deeply personal, but utterly real. And whether it's through psychedelics, whether it's through ayahuasca, whether it's through a spiritual journey, whether it's through religion, regardless, all of this adds color to the story of what it means to be a human being.