New York: Knopf, 2020; 428 pp., cloth, $30.
Reading H.P. Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine opened up for me the worlds of science and Eastern philosophies. That led to my studies of quantum science, in addition to those of Hinduism and Buddhism, over the past twenty years. Many times while reading the latest book by Brian Greene, professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University, I was reminded of The Secret Doctrine, especially as he traced the history of the universe from the Big Bang to—well, whatever would come next.
I knew from the outset that this was going to be different from Greene’s previous books, The Elegant Universe (1999), The Fabric of the Cosmos (2004), and The Hidden Reality (2011).All of these take us deep into the cosmos and the laws of the universe,which provide order, symmetry, and pattern (something we humans like) as well as exploring new ideas such as string theory and the multiple universe (multiverse) theory.
Until the End of Time however, sets a different tone. It addresses ideas that Greene did not address (or mentioned briefly) in his previous books, such as mind and thought, philosophy, and the big questions, including why we seek immortality, meaning, and purpose in life. I was introduced to a different Brian Greene—one who is now twenty years older than when he wrote his first book, and who may himself be pondering the big questions of life, including Gottfried von Leibnitz’s question: why is there something rather than nothing? We can answer these questions only by going beyond in our search for meaning.
I am reminded of Bill Moyers’ PBS interviews of Joseph Campbell. At one point Moyers asked Campbell, “What is the meaning of life?” Campbell gave an answer that I’ve never forgotten: “Life has no inherent meaning. We bring meaning to it.” Greene also quotes from Campbell: “We are tasked with the noble charge of finding our own meaning.” It is your experience of life and my experience of life that give meaning to each of us.
Greene speaks of his feelings, writing that there are times when he rises above his “own identity,” which has been “subsumed by what I can only describe as a feeling of gratitude for the gift of experience.”
Greene opens his book looking at man’s search for immortality. He quotes Jean-Paul Sartre: “Life itself is drained of meaning ‘when you have lost the illusion of being eternal,’” hinting that this comment may hold some meaning for Greene himself.
Greene injects some stories from his life into his book. One significant story was of the time in the 1960s when he and his father went on a walk through Central Park in New York.A group of Hare Krishna devotees with shaved heads were drumming, chanting, and dancing. Seeing that one of the drummers looked familiar, Greene saw that it was his brother. Greene, who was raised Jewish, at that moment learned of the divergent paths he and his brother had taken. Greene notes that both “Hinduism and Buddhism seek a reality beyond the illusions of everyday perception, a characterization that also describes many of the most surprising scientific advances of the last hundred years.”
If science and spiritual traditions had once been light-years apart, the twentieth-century’s foray into the quantum world, far beyond the materialist’s sensible realm, along with the introduction of Eastern philosophies to the West, brought the two together in remarkable ways. Greene tells of the great physicist Erwin Schrödinger, who in an epilogue to his What Is Life? “raised some eyebrows (and lost his first publisher) when he invoked the Hindu Upanishads to suggest that we are all part of an ‘omnipresent, all-comprehending eternal self.’”
Greene reminds us often that we are all merely “an enormous number of particulate constituents”infused with consciousness, called by some atman, anima, or immortal soul. These names all imply “the belief that the conscious self taps into something that outlasts the physical form, something that transcends traditional mechanistic science.” This is a clue, he says, “to why the hard sciences have long resisted all things [related to] consciousness.”
How will it end? We don’t know, but Greene assures us that all is impermanent. Ultimately, the particles—“star stuff,” as astrophysicist Michio Kaku calls it—from which the phenomenal universe is made disintegrates, and all things die. Stars die. The sun will die. We will die. “The examined life examines death,” says Greene.
You can read Greene’s other books and learn about the formation of the cosmos through the Big Bang; the continual expansion of the universe into the far reaches of space; and string theory, matter, and reality. In this latest book, however, you will get to know Brian Greene and learn of the experiences that have shaped his life and given it meaning and purpose. While he may never find the physicists’ Holy Grail—the theory of everything—I think he is well on his way to solving the mystery of Brian Greene.
Clare Goldsberry has been a member of the Theosophical Society for twenty years. Her newest book, on death and dying, will be out this year from Monkfish Book Publishing.