There's only good news in the final pages of physicist Brian Greene's new book, "Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe." (See here, here, and here for my previous posts about the book.)
Yes, there's no evidence for a grand design to the cosmos. No god fashioned our universe. The laws of nature didn't spring out of a divine mind. They just are what they are.
Which leads to another positive yes: So, yes, it is up to us to determine the meaning that we find in our otherwise meaningless universe.
Greene urges us to look inward for that meaning, since it won't be found by looking outward. Here's how Greene ends his book.
Whereas most life, miraculous in its own right, is tethered to the immediate, we can step outside of time. We can think about the past, we can imagine the future. We can take in the universe, we can process it, we can explore it with mind and body, with reason and emotion.
From our lonely corner of the cosmos we have used creativity and imagination to shape words and images and structures and sounds to express our longings and frustrations, our confusions and revelations, our failures and triumphs.
We have used ingenuity and perseverance to touch the very limits of outer and inner space, determining fundamental laws that govern how stars shine and light travels, how time elapses and space expands -- laws that allow us to peer back to the briefest moment after the universe began and then shift our gaze and contemplate its end.
Accompanying these breathtaking insights are deep and persistent questions. Why is there something rather than nothing? What sparked the onset of life? How did conscious awareness emerge? We have explored a range of speculations, but definitive answers remain elusive.
Perhaps our brains, well adapted for survival on planet earth, are just not structured for resolving these mysteries. Or perhaps, as our intelligence continues to evolve, our engagement with reality will acquire a wholly different character, with the result that today's towering questions become irrelevant.
While either is possible, the fact that the world as we now understand it, remaining mysteries and all, holds together with such a tight mathematical and logical coherence, and the fact that we have been able to decipher so much of that coherence, suggests to me that neither is the case.
We are not lacking the brainpower. We are not staring at Plato's wall, unaware of a radically different kind of truth, just beyond reach, with the power to suddenly provide startling new clarity.
As we hurtle toward a cold and barren cosmos, we must accept there is no grand design. Particles are not endowed with purpose. There is no final answer hovering in the depths of space awaiting discovery. Instead, certain special collections of particles can think and feel and reflect, and within these subjective worlds they can create purpose.
And so, in our quest to fathom the human condition, the only direction to look is inward. That is the noble direction to look. It is a direction that forgoes ready-made answers and turns to the highly personal journey of constructing our own meaning. It is a direction that leads to the very heart of creative expression and the source of our most resonant narratives.
Science is a powerful, exquisite tool for grasping an external reality. But within that rubric, within that understanding, everything else is the human species contemplating itself, grasping what it needs to carry on, and telling a story that reverberates into the darkness, a story carved of sound and etched into silence, a story that, at its best, stirs the soul.