Brian Greene is the latest in a long line of thinkers who assert that there is no God, and no free will, no independent consciousness, no transcendent reality whatsoever. Though we learn much science from Dr. Greene, none of it dull and much of it fascinating, he leaves us perplexed in the end.
The very fine science writer Brian Greene, in his Until the End of Time, flies his flag with typical congeniality and fluency. Under that he labors to seem disinterested, wondering about this and that possibility, but finally letting out the cat as he claims to rid us of not only free will, independent consciousness, and the unaccountable appearance of speech, but of any transcendent reality whatsoever. He clearly has not read Tom Wolfe’s last book, The Kingdom of Speech, or Viktor Frankl’s astonishing Man’s Search for Meaning.
Still, Dr. Green’s research is wide-ranging, like his mind. And yet . . . on one page he allows that “we have yet to articulate a robust scientific explanation of conscious experience”—so far, so good, until the next page: “I can envision a future when scientists will be able to provide a mathematically complete articulation of the fundamental microphysical processes underlying anything that happens, anywhere and anywhen.” (Freud was occasionally right, as when he told us that everyone needs a religion, it’s just a matter of which one he chooses.)
Of course, how he can possibly envision anything, anywhen, anyhow is left unexplained. Doesn’t matter: “math rules,” he says, “because random outcomes are not freely willed choices”—and all outcomes are random. For example, when addressing what happens inside his own head, he allows that he has the “strong impression” that he freely controls what is happening, “but the strength of that impression rests in large part on its familiarity.” He is “convinced intellectually” by that argument but—given that he did not really control it—he does not say how he could be.
He takes on God, but if you’ve read H.G. Wells’ A Short History of the World you already know the flow, just as you know the refutation if you’ve read Chesterton’s Everlasting Man. But it gets worse. Close to his conclusion, when discussing meaning, Dr. Green lets out the second cat: “Life and mind are simply a couple of things that happen to happen.” At that the reader must wonder how that should not be said about every other subject Dr. Greene discusses; in fact, how it could not be said about the book itself. And there you have it: Beneath the pyramid and along it there is no one. He has seen through it all, including himself. C.S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man is already upon us. We just don’t know it.
It happens that Dr. Greene is, of course, the latest in a long line. A couple of decades ago I had occasion to debate, online, the then-editor of Reason magazine. There is nothing, he maintained, but matter—emphatically, no God. Yet he allowed that he felt awe while pondering the night sky or the vast dimensions of time and space. I asked, why the awe? Did mere magnitude matter so much? He answered that it did not; that he felt the same awe when pondering the magnificence of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I pressed: what is the source of that awe? He knew he was done and wouldn’t answer. So I proffered that an achievement of such complexity, in that magnitude, blazing with such beauty as the result of one mind—one incomparable mind so beyond our own that it must partake of a concrete hyper-reality—compels awe. Just as an ordered cosmos does: that other Mind. He brought to mind Stephen Hawking. All of A Brief History of Time is leading us to God, until—until string theory saves him. No, there is not even math for it, but as a theory it avoids the Big Bang, sufficient to prevent Him from existing. The question of all these scientists, together, is: Why believe in Him?
There’s nothing new under the sun, atheists included, but of what sort? Alec Ryrie, in his Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt, teaches us the old word did not mean a disbelief in the existence of an ominipotent deity. He begins by quoting Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending: “Most of us, I suspect . . . make an instinctive decision, then build up an infrastructure of reasoning to justify it. Then call the result common sense.” Rather, the word indicated a person to whom God was irrelevant, one who lived a godless life, though he might concede that a god may exist: “Those who . . . live as if God were altogether without care of them . . . nor care whether there be a God or not” (John Cheke, 1540s).
Only later, with the advent of the Reformation, did the meaning narrow, but a “practical atheism” was around long before the Enlightenment mainstays got going. It had been, and remains, non-rational. Here is what George Steiner had to say on the subject in “A Remark on Language and Psychoanalysis:” “. . . the religious content of internal verbalization has sharply diminished. . . . Journals, texts of meditation, manuals and exercises of . . . penitence . . . point to a wealth and discipline of unspoken discourse of which we, today, have only the vaguest notion.” Atheism, practical or otherwise, has come to a point.
And yet, enduring and occasionally irrupting with great force, is belief. Earlier I asked, Why believe in Him? But the other, better, question, given that endurance and intensity, is, how not? Would that our eminences had read Robert Jastrow’s God and the Astronomers, who ends his short book by reminding us that the Big Bang theory is virtually confirmed and with it the creation story in Genesis, so that scientists, having scaled the peaks of knowledge so as to see the plain beyond, are caught up with the theologians, “who have been sitting there for centuries,” waiting for them to catch up. Or Amir D. Aczel’s Why Science Does Not Disprove God. Or Antony Flew’s There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind. Or Alister E. McGrath’s A Fine-Tuned Universe. Or . . .
In his landmark essay “Meditation in a Toolshed” Lewis describes the difference between the experience of being inside a beam of light and outside, between connaitre and savoir. Inside you no longer see the beam as such, but you do see its source, as you look along it. You cannot see the particles of dust that are so evident when the beam is looked at from the outside. Even the beam itself can be measured, in length, width, and even brilliance. Try telling an adolescent boy that his mad love for the pretty girl down the street is nothing but a mix of hormones. Of course, the Greenes of the world, pretending to see from the outside, to savoir rather than connaitre, are inside—full immersion. They aspire to look at a beam of light as they experience it but cannot really do both at once. Even quantum physicists know better than that, for there lies Uncertainty.
Lately I’ve recommended Robert J. Morgan’s 100 Bible Verses that Made America. It takes us inside the beam, as strong historical writing does, showing us Providence at work. To again use Lewis’s analogy, we look along the beam, see that it comes from outside the toolshed, and finally gaze up at its source—all resulting from an enjoyment of its effects. In his one hundred very short chapters Dr. Morgan reminds us that we are founded, informed, and even lately guided by Judeo-Christian thought. Each section begins with a brief quotation from scripture, then goes on to describe its application in a pivotal moment of our history. So, after hearing of the devotions of Washington (who kissed the Bible on which he was sworn in), Dr. Morgan reminds us of the faithful statements of Grant, Coolidge, Roosevelt and Truman: the list will get longer as the book goes on.
“For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying, ‘the voice of one crying in the wilderness: prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight’ ” (Matthew 3:3). That is Dr. Morgan’s introduction to his discussion of Antonio de Montesinos’ declaration against the abuse of Indians in the New World, calling it “a mortal sin.” Dr. Morgan calls his sermon of December 21, 1511 a “blowtorch,” and it certainly seemed to purify Bartolome de las Casas, who would make history with his defense of Indians. Las Casas preserved Montesino’s sermon, and today a fifty-foot tall statue of Montesino stands in the Dominican Republic, celebrating him as the first defender of human rights in America.
Jacques Cartier prayed over sick Indians in what would become Montreal. Harvard University is founded in prayer and on scripture: “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free” (John 8:22). “ ‘Comfort, yes, comfort My people!’ says your God” (Isaiah 40:1) inspired David Brainerd to spark the Great Awakening. The Tappan brothers, Arthur and Lewis, almost single-handedly saw to the founding of the American Anti-Slavery Society. Harriet Beeher Stowe, Frederick Douglass, John L. Maile (who while a prisoner at the notorious Andersonville prison brought about a prayer movement that no one there doubted brought the rain that quenched the prisoners’ scorching thirst), and . . . on and on . . . to the famous four chaplains at Pearl Harbor, and Norma McCorvey, the infamous Roe of Roe v. Wade (who in testifying before Congress invoked Jesus as her savior, and repented), and to September 11, 2001 and Todd Beamer who led the assault on the hijackers on Flight 93 with a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer then an “okay, let’s roll.” I was especially struck by President Obama’s sermon at the National Prayer Breakfast of February 7, 2019 based on Second Timothy, “for God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, and of love and of sound mind.”
We learn much science from Dr. Greene, not all of it easy, but none of it dull and much of it fascinating. Then, at the end, we get this:
As we hurtle toward a cold and barren cosmos, we must accept that there is no design. Particles are not endowed with purpose . . . And so, in our quest to fathom the human condition, the only direction to look is inward. That is the only noble direction to look . . . the highly personal journey of constructing our own meaning. . . . contemplating itself . . . telling a story that reverberates into the darkness, a story . . . that, at its best, stirs the soul.
“Noble.” “Soul.” Mathematically expressible randomness? The materialist must always have that question-begging back door. Dr. Morgan, on the other hand, doesn’t need to cheat. He simply reminds us of the unflaggingly rich design woven into the fabric of our American cultural identity.
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 Brian Greene, Until the End of Time (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2020).
 George Steiner, “A Remark on Language and Psychoanalysis,” in On Difficulty and Other Essays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978).
 Robert J. Morgan, 100 Bible Verses that Made America (Nashville, TN: W Publishing Group, 2020).
 In “Sinners in the Hands of a Great Tradition” (The Tongue is Also a Fire, NER), I seek to make a similar point by showing the great diversity of people, famous in their day but now largely unheralded, who unrelentingly spoke of and to the Spirit in American life: a practice we must continue and celebrate, especially in our compulsively entropic, secularizing age.
The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.