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brian greene

Freedom and Education in Science

Today’s post is from our long-time collaborator, Dr. Matthew Post of the University of Dallas, who offers us some thoughts on Brian Greene and his distinctions between facts and values. 

In a recent TIME article, Brian Greene, director of Columbia’s center for theoretical physics, asserts that there is no moral order, no purpose to the universe, and no human liberty. To quote him from the article, “Your particles are just obeying their quantum-mechanical marching orders. You have no ability to intercede in that quantum-mechanical unfolding. None whatsoever.” Today, we confront crises that raise questions about the value of science as well as about our commitment to liberty. Thus, how we understand human rationality, morality, and freedom is as important as ever, if not more so.

But first: Who is Brian Greene? In addition to his position at Columbia, he directs not one, but two World Science Festivals, one in New York City and another in Brisbane, Australia, which have hosted close to 3 million people, with over 40 million online views. He has hosted several PBS TV series and written five books that are well-known for introducing complex concepts of physics, including string theory, to a popular audience. In short, Brian Greene is a consummate and most prolific educator.

I suspect that he might also be a classical educator’s nightmare, which would only be reaffirmed by Greene’s admission: “I have some students come in crying. And they say, ‘This is kind of shaking my world up,’ and I say to them, ‘That’s not a bad thing. It’s fine to have your world shook. The pieces may fall back in the end to where you were, and they may not.” I suspect that some classical educators would want to keep their children as far away from Greene as possible, to shut him out of the discussion.

But this is only part of the picture. At the same time, he speaks with sincerity of how Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the Mona Lisa, and Romeo and Juliet are “wondrous,” of how the “spectacularly unlikely” occurrence of life is “thrillingly magnificent,” of “making the world a better place,” and even of how the “majesty of religion” cultivates community, connection to forbears, calm in the face of morality, and so on. He does not speak of religion condescendingly, as good for others to believe, but not the enlightened scientist. He even finds benefits in it personally: “When I’m looking to understand myself as a human, and how I fit in to the long chain of human culture that reaches back thousands of years, religion is a deeply valuable part of that story.”

How does he reconcile these two positions? Quite simply, he draws a very sharp distinction between fact and value, between the “cosmological narrative” that denies all meaning and the “deeply and thoroughly subjective reasons for being.”

Greene willingly takes on the -isms one would attribute to him: reductionist, materialist, physicalist. But he is also a determinist and it is here that a problem may emerge. If I have no freedom and I happen to believe in a particular profession of faith, that’s because the “quantum-mechanical unfolding” has determined that I should believe so, regardless of whether it’s actually true or not. I have no say whatsoever. However, if that’s true of religion, why isn’t it true of everything I believe or think? But plainly, according to determinism, it is. Thus, if I were a reductionist, materialist, physicalist, and determinist, I would think all those things, whether they were true or not. If my thoughts are truly determined and I speak of a genuine fact, then it’s just a happy accident, but I’ll never even really know… because I’m determined in what I think is a fact.

This observation doesn’t refute Greene’s determinism per se. He may yet be right about that—but only by accident. The logic of determinism leads to the conclusion that we can never truly know anything, scientific or otherwise, not even determinism itself. If I insist that I know determinism is a fact, I must, according to my own position, admit that I cannot know any facts.

We hold value (e.g., religious belief) and fact (e.g., scientific knowledge) apart, but we can only do so for so long before they collapse together again.

I do not say this to take a shot at a great scientist who has accomplished much, and whose fame rests not with his determinism, but rather to point out that no classical educator need fear their children learning from a justly lauded scientist. The key, as always, is education. I think a child already educated in rigorous thinking will not be easily misled by any individual’s confidence in reductionism, materialism, physicalism, or determinism—because, in fact, they all remain open questions. And there are plenty of physicists who take free will, or something like it, seriously. So when it comes to morality and freedom, let us not be so hasty in deciding what is possible, or what is a value, what a fact. There is still much to consider, to discuss, and to learn.

And so what if determinism is incoherent? To quote Greene: “It’s fine to have your world shook. The pieces may fall back in the end to where you were, and they may not.”

Dr. Matthew Post is the Assistant Dean of the Braniff Graduate School at the University of Dallas and a Fellow of the Institute for Classical Education. He also directs the master’s degree in classical education at the University of Dallas. This past summer, Dr. Post led an online course on Thucydides’ Education in Virtuous Leadership for the Academy for Classical Teachers, an ongoing collaboration between the Institute for Classical Education and Great Hearts Professional Development Team. 

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