Book Review: Until the End of Time by Brian Greene

Until the End of Time is the latest book by acclaimed popular-science author and renowned physicist Brian Greene.  In lucid and accessible prose, Greene takes readers on a scientific journey from the origins of the universe through the development of intelligent life to humankind’s efforts to find meaning in an endless cosmos.  While Green’s explanations of scientific phenomena are unimpeachable, his conclusions regarding free will and religion are debatable.  

While Green’s explanations of scientific phenomena are unimpeachable, his conclusions regarding free will and religion are debatable. 

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 but constellations of particles whose behavior is fully governed by physical law.”  Every thought that flitters through our minds, every sound we utter, every action we take is “the result of our particles moving this way or that through our bodies.”  I do not type these words out of personal autonomy, but because my particles have deigned to do so, or so the logic goes.  I am not equipped to challenge Greene’s assessment of physics, quantum mechanics, or mathematical analysis.    Even so, I would urge Mr. Greene to briefly consider free will as a human first and physicist second.

Greene has two children.  I am sure that he, just like any other loving parent, encouraged them to recognize that they were capable of anything, and could accomplish any goal  they set their minds to.  Perhaps he told them that they could choose their own paths.  Does he truly believe that his own accomplishments, or those of his children or loved ones, are simply an inevitable link on the developmental chain beginning with the Big Bang? Does he believe that every instance where a person betters himself or herself is just a preordained chemical accident?  Maybe we are all just “no more than playthings knocked to and fro by the dispassionate rules of the cosmos,” to use his words.  Imagine how different  human history might look if everyone shared Greene’s  view.  President Truman could have shrugged and let his particles decide whether to drop the atomic bombs in 1945.  Any thoughts Michelangelo had of how to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel could have been expunged: there was never any doubt as to what the final result would be; it was simply a matter of time.  Greene acknowledges that we might one day discover the human mind to be exempt from known physical laws, but that “this possibility contravenes all that science has so far revealed about the workings of the world.” 

Does he truly believe that his own accomplishments, or those of his children or loved ones, are simply an inevitable link on the developmental chain beginning with the Big Bang? Does he believe that every instance where a person betters himself or herself is just a preordained chemical accident?

Greene argues that the majesty of human free will really exists in another form.  Unlike a rock or a tree, whose particles are capable of very little, human beings’ particles allow for a dizzying array of behavioral responses to outside stimuli.  Humans can paint or design nuclear weapons, and decide whether, or when, to use them.  Instead of personal autonomy, freedom is really “about being released from the bondage of an impoverished range of response that has long constrained the behavior of the inanimate world.  Regardless, a particle-based conception of human free will is not worth having.  If the “scientific” answer to the question that has perplexed the greatest minds for thousands of years is that humans have no true personal agency, then I will gladly ignore the scientific evidence.  If everything is predestined by arcane equations from the dawn of time, then why not give up?  Greene argues that “our choices seem free because we do not witness nature’s laws acting in their fundamental guise.”  If that is the case, then free will must be the most convincing illusion of all time.

If everything is predestined by arcane equations from the dawn of time, then why not give up?

Until the End of Time is an excellent book.  I learned more about biology, geology, chemistry, physics, and myriad other subjects than I had expected.  But between Greene’s dismissal of human will, and reduction of religion to a coping mechanism, I would say the book is more relevant for its discussion and explanation of scientific concepts (even if somewhat non-technical), rather than its sad, unhopeful musings on philosophy or religion. 

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About Chris Coffey

Michigan Review contributor Chris Coffey is a sophomore studying economics and history with a minor in classical civilization in the LSA Honors Program. In his free time, Chris is an avid tennis player and runner.