For many years Krista Tippett’s program “Speaking of Faith” (2003-2010) / “On Being” (2010-today) on NPR has been one of my favorite radio/podcast shows. So it is rather stunning that after writing close to 3000 blog articles I still have never engaged with the show.
Well, better late than never.
In this 2014 episode Tippett interviews physicist Brian Greene. While there is a lot of interesting material in this conversation, I’m going to focus here on Greene’s treatment of the question of meaning. Greene recalls first encountering the question of suicide as a young man reading Camus:
“The choice to live or die. That’s the only question that ultimately matters. And, you know, when I read that I was quite young and it was almost kind of a shocking sentence to read, but it also seemed to me right. I mean, that is the only question that ultimately matters to the individual, but then as I got older, I began to see things a little bit differently, because to me, the question of whether life is worth living, to me, is intimately dependent upon what life is and what reality is, because ultimately your life is lived within reality.
“So to me, the question of whether there are three dimensions or 10 dimensions is so captivating that it does impact my desire to live. And again, I don’t mean that in some melodramatic sense. If tomorrow we established that there are three dimensions in space, I’m not going to sort of jump off the Empire State Building. But what I mean, is that these questions about the rock bottom structure of reality do inform my life. They are not esoteric scientific issues that I leave in the office when I go home at night. And it’s that distinction that ultimately struck me as not as accurate as it might be in his writings.”
Note that Greene responds to the question of whether he should kill himself by pointing to the fact that he is captivated by new discoveries about the nature/structure of the universe. In short, I should not kill myself because I find new natural discoveries fascinating.
The simple point I would want to make in reply is that this is a desperately thin response to the suicide question as it is limited to the subjective and relative. And for those reasons it is a wholly inadequate response to the question of suicide.
To begin with, note that we can respond to the question of suicide by way of subjective or transsubjective considerations. According to the subjective approach, the question of suicide is answered internally relative to my personal interests as a subject of experience. I don’t need to look beyond myself to answer the question.
By contrast, on the transsubjective approach, the question of suicide can only be answered definitively by looking beyond the self and considering additional facts such as one’s social commitment to others or, at a higher level, one’s relationship to the good or obligation to one’s creator.
Greene answers the question within the realm of the subjective, by looking to his own personal satisfaction at making new discoveries. And this is a very thin and unstable approach. What happens on the days when the subject is in a bleak stretch in which the discoveries of science no longer satisfy? Is there nothing that transcends the subject’s satisfaction which can ground the rationale for ongoing existence?
Greene’s answer is also distressingly relativistic. It should be no surprise that a scientist will invoke new scientific discoveries as a motivation for continued existence just as an artist might invoke new aesthetic experiences or a mountain climber might invoke new climbing experiences or a soldier might invoke new combat situations. (For the soldier example, watch The Hurt Locker, and note in particular the iconic cereal aisle scene that precedes Sergeant Williams James’ return to Iraq.)
Does this appear troubling yet? It should. Let’s continue by considering some more possible responses. A hedonist might invoke new sexual experiences, a thief might invoke new theft experiences, a serial killer might invoke new murders.
Is that it? Do we all simply refer to ourselves and our personal interests?
Let’s say that Greene agrees this is woefully subjective and relativistic and so he concludes that the good of discovering nature is a transsubjective good. This may be adequate to sustain him on the weeks when such discoveries are no longer personally satisfying. But unless he invokes additional transsubjective criteria he will lack a basis to challenge the pursuits of the hedonist, thief, and serial killer.
Finally, let’s close with a couple additional questions for the view that scientific discoveries provide a transsubjective good.
First, what basis is there to think that this good — that of making new discoveries of nature — is transsubjective?
Second, Greene’s view seems to be based on a realism about scientific theorization. That is, scientific discoveries answer the suicide question because they provide a truer picture of the world.
But what about scientific non-realists or pragmatists (i.e. those who believe that scientific theories are useful for predicting phenomena but not for describing reality)? Haven’t they thereby denied the good on which Greene answers the suicide question? And if that’s the case, does it follow that Greene’s will to live is intertwined with his ability to defend scientific realism?
Once again, that seems to be a very tenuous basis on which to justify one’s ongoing existence.