The Hidden Hand of the Equations — Brian Greene

Monday, June 6, 2016 - 6:00 pm

The Hidden Hand of the Equations — Brian Greene



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I cherish my conversations with cosmologists and physicists. They are standing on ground where religious thinkers reigned until very recently in human history, the sphere in which we imagine the nature of the cosmos and our place in it. As the brilliant physicist Brian Greene explained to me, my perception that this table is solid and red, or that the sky is blue, is not a matter of reality; it is a projection in my mind based on the sensory input of my hands and my eyes. The fundamental nature of reality, as far as we can grasp it now, he says, is fundamentally hidden from us at this stage in our development as a species. It’s not just that I can’t comprehend the true nature of the forces that compose and determine my presence and action in the world; rather, what I feel and experience and believe is leading me astray.

One of the scenarios suggested by string theory is that reality as we observe it is akin to a holographic projection of a real base of information. Our civilization and selves, in this theory, are like a skyscraper to an architect’s blueprint. But that blueprint/base of information is somewhere else, something else more real than us and beyond our imagining. And this idea returns me to the excruciatingly imponderable question of my otherwise certainty-soaked childhood: If God made the universe, who made God? Likewise, one might reasonably ask, who or what was the architect of the blueprint?

This is not a question physicists might pose, but it is a question they plant in me: might our evolving insights into the laws of physics eventually fill in for what our imagination and our words have always called God? Or to turn that question at an angle, might science, as it evolves, actually point at “God” in a way the classic scientists like Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton — who believed their inquiry into the natural world would reveal the personality of its maker — could not have dreamed?

This hiddenness of reality is perplexing to me. It doesn’t seem elegant — a word you use to describe truths you discern in science. You said once that assessing life through the lens of everyday is like gazing at a Van Gogh through the lens of an empty Coke bottle.

We can do a calculation using quantum mechanics to 10 decimal places, to point whatever, 13596, you know. That’s the result of a mathematical calculation. We then go out and measure magnetic properties and we find that, digit by digit by digit, 10 decimal places long, the observation agrees with our scribbles on a piece of paper. How can you not be in awe of that? And how can you not be convinced that this is revealing some deep truth about reality that you simply are not privy to with your eyes or your hands or your ears? There’s no sense that allows us to directly experience the quantum world, but the mathematics allows us to understand it and make predictions that agree with observation. That’s a very powerful story.

An image Einstein used was of a “mind” or an “intelligence” behind the universe, by which he did not necessarily mean a creator God. If you think about mind or an intelligence or even order behind the universe, how do you imagine that? It has to be something that incorporates hiddenness as a way of making its point.

So the important thing to bear in mind is that many physicists have this perspective. We don’t envision that there’s some mind behind it all, but I would say that we do envision that there are these powerful laws that can do things that you wouldn’t expect them to be able to do. How could it be that general relativity, the simple equation in quantum mechanics, and the standard model of particle physics, over the course of billions of years, can somehow conspire to yield you and me, this complex cognizant being? How could we really just emerge from the laws of physics acting through evolutionary change? But that’s the power of the math. So if you want, there is the hidden hand. Call it the hidden hand of God, if you want. I would simply call it the hidden hand of the equations. And that gets us from the beginning to here.


Becoming Wise is an inquiry into the mystery and art of living. Subscribe to the podcast through iTunes, Stitcher, and SoundCloud. And it’s even a New York Times bestselling book! Find out more at onbeing.org/becoming-wise.

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is a Peabody Award-winning broadcaster and New York Times bestselling author. In 2014, President Obama awarded her the National Humanities medal for “thoughtfully delving into the mysteries of human existence.” In 2013, she created an independent, non-profit enterprise designed to deepen the engagement of diverse audiences and amplify the unusual social impact of this content.

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  • Margi Ling Johnstone

    I have only recently discovered you (Krista Tippett) and have become a follower and fan. I’ve binge-listened to On Being podcasts for months now. I’ve read articles, and waited patiently for my public library request for one of its all too few Becoming Wise copies. I’m loving the time I’m spending this way. I’ve been enlightened, stretched, inspired by the thoughts of many. However, Greene’s interview has unsettled me. I’m having a rough time with the “sensation of free will.” My molecules and other forces determined that I should attend Pentecost liturgy this morning. I found myself listening to a powerful homily that ordinarily would’ve left me pondering its take-away–in an effort to remember some bits that might effect my bearing in the world in the week ahead. Today, the encouragement from the pulpit was tainted by deterministic notions so recently planted. A progressive Catholic, I try to be broad-minded and let science point toward the Greater Mystery. But, unless I’m really missing something (and most physics is beyond my grasp, so this could well be the deal), Greene’s interview left me feeling like screen character Truman Burbank. Help! Then again, why respond? Doris Day’s Que Cera Cera is looping in my head. I think my molecules and I need to order the bumper sticker: What If the Hokey-Pokey IS All That It’s About.