Understanding Our Place in the Grander Whole

There is something seriously grander in human culture than the mere quest for useful technological perfection.
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February 12, 2020 11:16 EDT

In an interview with theoretical physicist Brian Greene, The Guardian’s science editor, Ian Sample, questioned the author of the recently published “Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe” on the themes he develops in his book. The interview ranges over subjects as diverse as time and the human quest to understand the universe, but also music and religion. Greene reminds us that though science offers insight into all of these questions, it provides no definitive answers.

Some of Green’s thoughts covered in the book and the interview throw helpful light on two subjects recently brought up here in the Daily Devil Dictionary. Our first article looked at the controversy around Elon Musk’s plan, already being executed, to blanket the Earth’s atmosphere with thousands of satellites that astronomers’ complain will impair their ability to explore the night sky. The second examined Mark Zuckerberg’s unexpected confession of his religious conversion based on his speculation about something he calls “bigger” than himself.

Perhaps inspired by the controversy provoked by Musk’s initiative, Sample asked Greene this question: “As someone who contemplates the origins and ends of the universe, how important is it to see the night sky?”

Greene went beyond the debate about the impact on astronomical observation to reflect on the impact the vision of the night sky has always had for humanity. He answered: “These days in Manhattan, on the clearest of nights, you can see about three stars. It may sound naive, but it feels to me that if more people nightly experienced a brilliant sky full of stars, in some small way it would make the world a better place. It would make the world a place where we’d recognise we’re part of a much grander whole. We are heading in a direction where fewer and fewer members of the species will have that experience.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Grander whole:

A complete entity with more dimensions than mere comparative size, an idea that causes confusion for those trained in exclusively evaluating measurable quantity.

Contextual Note

This reflection on how our artificial human environment may end up disturbing humanity’s ability to understand its relationship with the universe led Sample to ask a related question concerning what Greene has referred to as the “majesty of religion.” Some people will be surprised to hear such an idea articulated by a theoretical physicist in the context of a scientific discussion, but Greene the scientists is keenly interested in the human experience. 

Greene’s thoughts appear to be more carefully reasoned and deeply felt that Mark Zuckerberg’s. Where Zuckerberg talked about recognizing something that was “bigger,” Greene evokes the comparative adjective “grander,” derived from the French word “grand.” The French adjective literally means “big” but, in contrast with English, has always carried connotations that go beyond the merely measurable. It has produced the related noun, “grandeur,” which can mean “height” or refer to size, but it also signifies something akin to majesty.

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Unlike Zuckerberg, Greene makes an attempt to define the majesty of the universe in terms of what he calls “a sense of community, to allow us to see our lives within a larger context, to connect us through ritual to our forebears.” It establishes a relationship over time with “the long chain of human culture that reaches back thousands of years.” Rather than referring to the absolute power of a monarch sitting at the top of a hierarchy, the majesty he speaks of is something shared across human communities. The sharing takes place not just within a society’s space but over time. It is rooted in history.

Unlike Zuckerberg’s realization that there is something bigger that forces him to feel humble, Greene invites us to consider a different order of being. But it is not just about being. It’s also an order of seeing and feeling. Greene is something of a scientific mystic, which in no way reduces or compromises his focus on science. Georgia Frances King, the ideas editor at Quartz, described him as “one of the most well-respected physicists of contemporary times” who “effortlessly blends the galaxies’ most perplexing phenomena with our daily lives.” Our sense of a relationship of the universe is — or should be — part of our daily lives, though as the Romantic poet William Wordsworth long ago reminded us: 

“Getting and spending we lay waste our powers; —

Little we see in Nature that is ours…

For this, for everything, we are out of tune.”

Greene’s appeal to daily life as the means of understanding the complex principles of physics leads him to use the metaphor of music. Violists or guitarists, for example, wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Greene, as a leading proponent of string theory, should be inspired by music. The Greek mathematician Pythagoras showed that music could be thought of as the science of vibration, and the major insight of string theory focuses not on particles as objects but on their vibrations. 

Instead of relying on mathematics alone, the key to understanding the physics of the universe may lie elsewhere, in the experience we have of music. Greene tells Sample: “Music to me is the most direct route that we humans have to touching something that is powerfully beyond everyday experience.” He suggests that thinking about music, which is always an integrated combination of rhythm (time), melody (coherent sequence) and harmony (convergence).

Greene also invokes the visual arts when he speaks about “how we fit into the largest possible landscape, the longest possible timeline” and our seeking of “something that gives us deeply illuminating context.” At a moment in history when many politicians and education thinkers, moved by pure utilitarianism, seek to impose on education a narrow focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) — while sometimes grudgingly admitting that it could be STEAM by sneaking a little bit of the arts into the curriculum — Greene reminds us that there is something seriously grander in human culture than the mere quest for useful technological perfection.

Historical Note

Greene’s book could be called an introduction to the history of the universe as well as a guide to rethinking the idea of time that underlies our sense of history. For most of us, history is built around how we see our humanity’s actions as a series of contiguous events that play out over time. As a physicist trying to understand the basic principles of the universe, Greene believes that a lot of the most fundamental questions we ask ourselves cannot be answered and explained. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t continue to ask the questions. He concentrates on perhaps the most unanswerable question in physics: What is the nature of time?

He even admits that whatever time is, it has the power, and perhaps even the mission, to defeat any of the true answers we believe we have discovered. He states this very clearly: “There aren’t simple answers, and there aren’t answers that will stand for all time.” Instead, he claims that we work with “provisional understandings.” Some people find that the idea that what we produce will never be a definitive answer to be a source of frustration. Greene finds it exciting.

In short, even the most complex science reveals to our senses something grander than our everyday understanding can comprehend. It calls scientists to reach further to explore the mechanics of the universe, but not to expect it to reveal all its secrets. The whole will always be not just greater but also grander, more majestic than the sum of its parts.

Greene leaves us with another thought that calls into question one of our civilization’s historically conditioned beliefs when he recommends that “we should strive not in the service of leaving a lasting legacy, but rather because we have each been given an astoundingly unlikely, profoundly precious opportunity.” 

Legacies are possessions, the attribution of authorship to those who have created or shaped something. The idea of a lasting legacy evokes the legal notion of ownership, framing it as something that belongs to its creator and can never be alienated by time. Greene suggests that this may be presumptuous. It’s as if we could possess time itself, whose nature nobody understands. 

When he reminds us that the greater and grander satisfaction comes from responding to the “profoundly precious opportunities” we have as we evolve within a universe we cannot possess, physically or intellectually, Greene takes a deeply moral position, one that could affect everyone’s behavior and, more significantly, society’s shared values. We inhabit not just the physical universe, but also a universe or culture of understanding. It’s something we have the power to destroy through our acquisitiveness. In a similar way, today’s civilization and many of its leaders seem to revel in our power to destroy the very planet that has, for eons, allowed us to thrive and expand our understanding of the observable universe.

[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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