FacebookTwitterYoutubeInstagramGoogle Plus

Big Ideas
To Unweave a Rainbow: Science and the Essence of Being Human

As long ago as the early 19th century, the poet Keats bemoaned the washing away of the world’s beauty and mystery in the wake of natural philosophy’s reductionist insights—its tendency to “unweave a rainbow.” Two centuries later, the tentacles of science have reached far further, wrapping themselves around questions and disciplines once thought beyond the reach of scientific analysis. But like Keats, not everyone is happy. When it comes to the evaluation of human experience—passion to prayer, consciousness to creativity—what can science explain, and what are the limits of its explanatory powers? What is the difference between science and scientism? Are the sciences and the humanities friends or foes? Join an animated discussion on science, reductionism, the mind, the heart, freedom, religion, and the quest for the human difference. This program is part of the Big Ideas Series, made possible with support from the John Templeton Foundation.Learn More

View Additional Video Information


BRIAN GREENE, PROFESSOR, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY: Good evening. Welcome to Day Two of the World Science Festival and also offer my congratulations to the nine new Kavli Prize laureates that were announced just this morning from Oslo with the satellite feed to New York at the World Science Festival.

And you know I’m not intimately familiar with the work of those who won the prize in Nanoscience or Neuroscience, but I am deeply familiar with the work that won the prize in Astrophysics. That work, as you may have read online already, was the discovery, which was initially announced in February, of the first direct detection of gravitational waves. An absolutely wondrous discovery.  Einstein predicted it a hundred years ago, and now we have finally confirmed that. And I’ll have occasion to come back to that discovery for a brief description, probably a little bit later on, but suffice it to say for now, that this discovery really feeds into a pattern that we have been thrilled to watch unfold over the course of a few hundred years, where careful observation of the world, careful mathematical analysis of the world has shown us that science has this amazing capacity to give us deep insight into the nature of the world, the nature of reality, which is, which is really just spectacular. There’s nobody who would deny that, except maybe for the Republicans. But. No, no, no, no. But my point, my point.  Ah stop that already.  You know.

No, my point is that this amazing progress that’s been made over the course of a few hundred years has then emboldened scientists to envision perhaps that all of the deep truths of the world are susceptible to a scientific explication. Some have gone out to say that in fact, the only true knowledge about the world can be gleaned through scientific analysis. Some have gone further still and describe that everything that we hold dear, everything that’s important to us, everything that really makes us human, is ultimately scientific at its core. In fact, there are some scientists who’ve gone out, and I have to say typically it has been physicists, who’ve gone out even in public to make really scientific claims that this sort of hegemony of science. Everything is ultimately describable by science.

In fact, you know, perhaps you know one of the most egregious examples of that occurred just recently. Let me just show you a little clip of this.

(Video clip)

COLBERT: You and I are part of the expression of an equation.

GREENE: Yes, yes. That I would even say that without this holographic idea. Math describes how your particles move, how they behave how they interact. You are a bag of particles governed by the laws of physics.

COLBERT: That is, that is a great pickup line.  Brian Green.  Thank you so much.

GREENE: Now I should say, being on The Colbert Report is not exactly the place where you can have the most nuance come out of your perspective of how the world works. I hope this will be a forum where my actual views on this will become a little bit more clear. And I’ve got a couple of great friends who are going to join us in this conversation to explore those kinds of ideas and many that are related to them.  So let me now bring them both on to the stage. So first, Leon Wieseltier is the Isaiah Berlin Senior Fellow in Culture and Policy at the Brookings Institution. He’s the author among other books of the acclaimed Kaddish. He was a literary editor of The New Republic from 1983 to 2014, and is now contributing editor and critic at The Atlantic. Please welcome Leon Wieseltier.

And we are also thrilled to be joined by Miguel Nicolelis, who is the Duke School of Medicine Distinguished Professor of Neuroscience, Professor of Neurobiology, Biomedical Engineering and Psychology and Neuroscience, founder of Duke Center for Neuro-Engineering, founder and scientific director of the Edmond and Lily Safra International Institute for Neuroscience.

[00:05:16] GREENE: He’s also founder of the Walk Again Project, an international consortium of scientists and engineers dedicated to the development of an exoskeleton device to assist severely paralyzed patients in regaining full body mobility. So thank you for joining us.

Some of the questions that we may discuss here tonight, just to rattle off a few: are we nothing but the physical processes that make us up as that ridiculous person said in that clip.  Is consciousness nothing but the physical chemical and biological processes in the brain, or is there more to it?  Is empirical knowledge at the core of everything that we should believe as being true? Are there human experiences that are simply unsuited for scientific explanation? Does the brain experience give us a misleading view of reality?  What defines us and what defines a human difference? So these kinds of questions, which really span art, culture, religion, creativity, are all fair game for us tonight. And let me just throw it to Leon to get us going.

LEON WIESELTIER, EDITOR, THE ATLANTIC: Thank you, my friend. I am a militant unreconstructed humanist who has many fewer hours in my day than you clearly do. I am, I confess, I am a little bit ashamed at the level of my scientific knowledge but, nonetheless some of the questions that I want to talk about, that we will talk about tonight are, are not just scientific questions. They exceed the realms of science, or rather the boundaries of the realm of science is what we’re going to be talking about. And what I thought I would do just to start it off, just for a few minutes, is to just state a few beliefs that I have and et cetera. So the first thing I want to say, the first one, is just as a general matter that the question of the place of science in life is not a scientific question.  It’s a philosophical question. And no amount of scientific knowledge, no amount of math, no amount of data, can tell us where to put in our lives the experiments and the math and the data.  That is something that is not a scientific matter.

And one can, one gets into this interesting discussion about what the word philosophy would mean. But et cetera.  The second belief I have is that we live in many realms.  The human existence is comprised of many realms, and that the differences between these realms are real. That is to say the difference, and we can define what these realms are in various ways, but that they have their categories that are appropriate to each, their methods of inquiry that are appropriate to each. Their, the pace at which they’re experienced differ as well. And each of these realms may shed light on each other so that it can be illuminating to answer a political question with an observation about culture, or an economic question with an observation about politics. But none of these realms, none of these, no single, no one of these realms can, deserves to dominate all the others. And none of the realms can be reduced to any one of them.

And the attempt to reduce all the realms to one is a kind of intellectual imperialism and a colossal act of intellectual simplification. Now most scientists that I’ve met are not remotely guilty of this imperialism.   Practicing scientists, I must say that they are one of the lessons that science, science obviously doesn’t just teach arrogance, it also teaches humility. And I’ve noticed that about my scientist friends and so on. But there are cases, there are cases, in which both the natural certain and certain of the natural sciences and certain of the social sciences have presumed, have presumed to the driver’s seat in our explanation of human life.   In the social sciences the most egregious imperialist in my view is economics. We now live in a society in which some of our most reputed authorities on the subject of happiness are economists, which does not, happiness I must say.

[00:10:02] WIESELTIER: I know this is archaic-happiness does not seem to me to be an economic subject. But again, I know that’s very old fashioned. We’re living similarly in the in the era in which we’re living in which our culture certainly, but also our intellectual life is increasingly overwhelmed by data. So that everything is being quantified. One of the imperialisms that we have to be vigilant about is the quantification of things that cannot be quantified. One of the questions that we have to ask as a culture, is what can a number capture and what can’t the number capture. And a lot of the direction and the quality of our culture as it develops, will I think , will be owed to whether or not we learn to resist the lure of the easy clarity and the easy confidence that numbers can give people about things that cannot be mathematically measured. I remember once, and I used to work for a magazine called The New Republic, and once I was walking by where some young people who work there and I overheard one young person say to the other, I’ll never forget this, he said, “Well my friend ran into her yesterday and she told him that she loves me, which is a really important data point.” So I approached, you know I didn’t want to be obnoxious and I said you know, I promised not to pry and forgive me if you think I am, I just need to point out to you that the fact that she loves you is not a data point. And if you’d like to discuss this, then he came in and we discussed it and etcetera, etcetera.

GREENE: I think you actually said, “It’s not a fucking data point,” if I remember the story correctly.

WIESELTIER: You know I’ve got to say, Trump is everywhere. Just. But also, there are other examples one could give. So for example, consider the physical or the chemical analysis of a painting. Right? It is possible.   You take a painting by Chardin, a painting of cherries. It is possible for a chemist to cast all kinds of light on how those chromatic effects are accomplished with an analysis of pigments, chemical analysis of pigments, and so on. But if the question that is being asked is, “Why is that painting beautiful?”, then the chemical analysis of a painting is not going to be able to answer that question. Even though as I say, there will be nothing false about the chemical analysis of the painting because at some level, all those pigments on Chardin’s canvas are chemicals, et cetera et cetera.

GREENE: But could you imagine, sorry to jump in here,  but could you imagine at some point in the far future, and Miguel you should weigh in, we will understand the brain with such exquisite precision and accuracy that the correlation between the feeling of beauty, the choice of colors that are being made by an aesthetic judgment, we understand the physical processes so well that correlate with all of those things that yes, we’ll never say that they are the act of choice, they are the reason why Rembrandt chose blue or red but we can say, it is just a physical process that we understand completely well and if we could look into the painter’s head, we would actually know that they are choosing red at that moment and that’s the physical correlate of that choice.

WIESELTIER: I think well-  go ahead.



NICOLELIS: First of all, I like to thank for the invitation.  This is a wonderful, is a wonderful opportunity to debate these things and I think we’re very similar in our approaches, because even though I grew up as a scientist recording brainstorms, recording electrical brainstorms and trying to look into thousands of neurons and find exactly what you’re talking about, the answer, the prediction of a behavior that is about to happen.  So far you can do for some things.  You can do, for instance, for motor acts you can reasonably, we can link these days brains to machines and can use just electrical activity from human or animal brains to control directly the movements of a robotic device. Yet, when we go to exact the questions that you were raising, I start wondering myself as a neuroscientist, not that I’m disputing your point that you know the laws of physics, the brain has to obey the laws of physics, but to some degree, certain attributes that came with the degree of complexity that evolution endowed us may not be simply predicted by the same, you know, mechanisms that are used to apply to understand the universe that is up there. Because the universe that is between our ears, I dare to say in front of a famous theoretical physicist, is much more complex. It’s much more complex in many domains.

[00:15:03] GREENE: A small footnote, I would say that I completely agree with you and the reason why I do physics, is because it is so much simpler.  And I mean that quite seriously.  We have been able in quantum mechanics to understand the behaviors of systems with a few particles we can do that really well and that’s exciting. But you give me something with all of the connections and particles inside the head, there’s no physicist alive who can do anything with that.

NICOLELIS: And I would just provoke you by saying that all this beautiful, and I’m a big fan of quantum mechanics and physics in general, although I am of course just an amateur. But the beauty of it is all that you guys have done came from this, came from the biology that evolution produced. So I’d like to say, I mean like that then what is out here, is the human universe. Because this is epic told by the human brain is a reconstruction the best we can.  Science is that, in my opinion like Niels Bohr used to say, it’s the best attempt we have that you know to describe what is out there. It’s the best shot that we have of reconstructing this and is actually coming all these concepts; electrons, quarks, fields is all coming from the biology of our brains.  

GREENE: Wait, so are you saying that when we contact aliens in the far, far future and we asked them for their view of how the universe is put together, there’s a chance that they’re going to come out with something radically different from anything that we’re discovered here cause their biology is different?

NICOLELIS: We were talking about this backstage.  I think if, I’m from the 60s so I’m Mr. Spock’s fan right. Growing up in Brazil, Mr. Spock was a hero.

GREENE: You’re talking about the Star Trek Mr. Spock   

NICOLELIS: Star Trek, yeah, yeah.

GREENE:  -or the other guy?   Dr. Spock. I think they’re both doctors, but anyway.

NICOLELIS: But I would say exactly, that’s my point. That if you go to Vulcan, in natural selection evolution in Vulcan has been completely different and a complete different brain has evolved with complete different properties. Mathematics, logic, science may be very different the way they expressed these concepts and the way they reconstruct a universe and there is a chance, I cannot deny that, that they may come up with an explanation that may have some overlaps of ours, but may be completely different from what we are.

GREENE:  And not isomorphic not just a different language. You’re saying , you’re saying literally different.

WIESELTIER: But I have to believe that, that if there are Jews on other planets say, (laughter) that, that no matter how different their fates will be, and I hope they’re very different, that the, even if they come from different biological origins, that each in their own way by their own path can hit upon whatever is actually true about the universe and that we do not need to condemn ourselves to the idea that the different biology, do a kind of biological cosmic relativism, whereby every brain will have its own truth.

GREENE: I thought you were going to say they have a guilt complex that comes from your mother or something.  

WIESELTIER: No, no, no.  I said Jews on other planets.

NICOLELIS: On that planet of yours, besides Jews there are Brazilian’s.


NICOLELIS: They’ll come and say I doubt it. Let’s try to do the experiment.  It’s a difficult experiment because you know, they haven’t arrived yet. But I think we should be open to this as I think after what I heard from you. I think neuroscience has to be open to all the issues that you raised, because when we talk about the brain, we tend to, as neuroscientists, we tend to you know be away or try to be away from these big questions. And I think that it’s time to, for us to open up.

WIESELTIER: Let me just say two things.  I think first, there is a difference between neuroscience and the reception and the use of neuroscience in our culture. And one of the things that I see happening that so alarms me is the way in which more and more people are now sitting at the edge of their chairs waiting for the latest bulletin from neuroscience so they can understand how to proceed or understand their own lives. You know, so you get you get books that tell you that Proust is a neuroscientist for example, to which my thought is immediately, well if Proust is a neuroscientist and I’ve already read Proust, then I don’t need neuroscience. Or that Jane Austen is a game theorist. We’ve had that too, similar response, similar response. So I think that one of the things we have to be aware of, there is the science, and then there’s the uses to which the science is put.

WIESELTIER: Generally, it’s been my observation that people do not like living with uncertainty. And the two, the two sources, the two most reliable sources of certainty that they can find, are science and religion. Now the search for certainty in both of them often betrays the spirit of both science and religion. But people need, they need to feel that in some way their lives are an inevitable outcome of something.

[00:20:11] GREENE: So are those different?  I mean how-

WIESELTIER: Yeah I think they operate differently and I think that that’s vulgar science and vulgar religion because obviously doubt and skepticism is an important part of both.

GREENE: But people don’t always describe religion in that way of course, right?  I mean that’s a, probably a distinct view from what most people envision as an environment in which faith is meant to guide your perspective as opposed to some sort of skeptical, quizzical point of view.

WIESELTIER: I think there is no,  no I think, I mean this is just a detour cause  I wanted to make another point we’re saying, but I think that there is no religious tradition that doesn’t include, not just in its depths but in any one of its sophisticated levels, important elements of doubt, skepticism.   In other words, it is I say it’s a vulgar idea of religion.  The belief in God raises as many questions as it answers except for people who don’t want questions raised. And people have a powerful interest, some people, in not having questions raised. They want the matter settled and they look for, as I say, for sources of certainty, for sources of intellectual confidence about their circumstances. And they don’t like the feeling that they are burdened with the full responsibility of their circumstances etcetera, etcetera.

But the other thing I wanted to say when we talked about the painter, about the painter, it’s very important to make a distinction, I think, between causes and reasons. I think that an artist’s, an artist’s production, a painting has both. It has causes in the sense that in some way it was the product. I mean, you know the Divine Comedy was the product of Dante’s brain, not just his mind. But reasons are something else. In other words, reasons are, the question of why an artist made certain decisions both small decisions of execution and large decisions of conception and interpretation. I don’t believe that those decisions can be explained only in terms of causes. I really don’t.   

NICOLELIS: No, no, I’m with you because one of the things I have been looking lately, because of this interest in larger scale brain activity and how it may either determine or influence art and other aspects is that, there was a moment in our history of art the people just painting like a photographer, reproducing form and shaping very precise. And that was how an artist was rewarded. By basically reproducing what is out here in great detail. And suddenly, in the beginning of the 19th century, and that’s the painting I brought from Turner you know, shape start being exploded.  Things started exploding and the painters just start saying, “I don’t want to paint what is out there and everybody sees equal. I want to paint what I see, what comes from me, from the inside. I want to representation of my brain’s own point of view.” That’s how I as a neuroscientist, I would put. In light, the reflection of light, like what we see here in this steamboat of Turner, was the basically the beginning of the Impressionist movement in which shape suddenly starts to disappear, and in modern art it exploded.

Funny enough, this explosion of space, this disappearance of space, coincides with the investigation in physics of the very little and the very big. When you go back to the atomists, atomistic view,  you know, of nature at the end of 19th century, and you come with you know quantum mechanics and general relativity any space in our conception explodes from the very tiny to the huge to the whole universe. And I found it very beautiful that these analogies or this his period shows this correlation in art and science. Where you are coming out of these boundaries.

WIESELTIER: But I would say that if you look at that Turner, that whereas it’s certainly true that he was studying the difficulties and the dramas of perception itself, I wouldn’t read it entirely as an allegory or an expression of his inner states. I think that he would have said that that painting was what it looked like. I don’t think he would have said just that it was what it looked like to me, even though he would have been the first to acknowledge the subjectivity, the partiality, of his perspective. So I really believe, and the same with the Impressionists, the same with all, they were making they were making a claim about the difficulty of capturing perception the extent to which perception is involved in our understanding of objectivity. But I don’t think any of them were saying this is just an expression of my brain.

[00:25:00] NICOLELIS: But what I was, I was trying to say is that my conception of the brain right now after 30 years is going from different models of what we actually see as a result is this collision of what is out here in his being brain in what is the brain’s own point of view? What is the brain is expecting as reality? And it’s this collision. And I remember Picasso saying when a journalist asked him in Paris what was that painting about. One of his Cubist paintings and he said,  “Well if I knew, I would not have painted it,” you know?

WIESELTIER: Yeah. Well you know there’s this, you remind me that this wonderful story about Matisse who near the end of his life was commissioned to paint a fresco in a small church in Vence in the south of France. And a filmmaker asked for permission to film him painting, and he granted permission and then when it was over the filmmaker showed him the film, and Matisse was horrified and didn’t want the film shown. And when the filmmaker asked why the artist said, “Because your film makes it look like I knew what I was doing.” I think you know there is, again I think that this whole thing we’re getting at in different ways about the, the extent to which we can invoke subjectivity and objectivity and what the relation you know Amartya Sen has this wonderful concept that he calls positional objectivity, meaning that and what I think it means is that obviously there is no such thing as a view from nowhere.

Right there is no such thing as perfect objectivity. But the impossibility of that perspective, whatever it would be like it would, it’s even impossible for us to imagine, to conceive of what it would be like. That does not condemn us to imprisonment within subjectivities either scientifically or humanistically conceived. That there is, there is some negotiation between what comes from inside and what is outside that allows us to make certain claims about our representations of things outside to say that they are accurate or true or deep etc., etc.

GREENE: So what is that?  Can I ask you to drill down a little bit, because I love the idea that you describe of the distinction between reason and causes.  And it, and it feels right. I mean all of us feel like we make these choices and it’s more than just the causal influence of things that are happening inside us. There’s something else. But is that real or is that an illusion?  Is that just the right kind of language in order to capture a human experience? I mean, I’m interested in both of your perspectives on this, but is there anything more beyond the physical, when we’re talking about what’s happening up here? Or is it just the physical and ultimately does it all come down to chemistry and biology and physics, or is it more than that? Now there are people who spend their lives struggling with the so-called hard question of consciousness, right? I mean, the easy question that most people describe is: look we can understand how the brain processes information in the world, takes it in, and is able to generate behaviors from those stimuli. But the hard part is usually to assess what it means to feel, what it means to actually sense what’s happening out there in the world.

And I, at one point, and still am to some degree was a complete reductionist. Right? It is just the molecules and atoms and the one thing that slightly made me question that, and I still do at some level, is, you know, these things,


GREENE:- well Colbert did it too. He always does.   But, but there’s this old neuroscientist story about Mary in the room.  You know the one that I’m talking about?  Now we have like, I don’t know if everyone’s familiar with this. I don’t know if it will be that useful, but for me it was a real kicker in the head when I first encountered this and we have a little, little video clip to describe this scenario.  So if you can bring up that that Mary’s room video that would be great.

(Video Clip)

NARRATOR:Imagine that in the far, far future, there’s a brilliant neuroscientist named Mary, who for some reason is confined to a room in which everything appears in black and white. There is no color of any sort whatsoever. Mary can study and access and examine the world outside but it all comes to her only in black and white. Even so, Mary is able to reach a goal that has long eluded humankind. She totally and fully unravels every last detail about the structure of function, physiology, chemistry, biology, and physics of the brain. She knows absolutely everything there is to know about the behavior of the brain’s every neuron, every molecule, every atom.  She knows precisely what goes on inside our heads, the details of all neural processes that cascade when we see a beautiful red rose, when we marvel at a rich blue sky, or when we encounter something in a curious shade of art.  One day, Mary is allowed to leave her room and the very first thing she sees is a plump red tomato. Here’s the question: from this experience of the color red, will Mary learn anything new?  Will she shrug and just move on? Or will she be surprised, or thrilled, or moved, or gain some new insight through this actual experience of color?  And if she does what does that tell us about the limits of a purely physical description of the brain and consciousness?

[00:30:27] GREENE: Of course, I mean the point of that story, which was raised I guess in nineteen eighty five I think it was, Frank Jackson neuroscientist. I mean the idea of philosophy, the idea was, if she does learn something new by virtue of actually experiencing color, or it could be anything.  It could be love.  It could be passion.  It could be anything.  If the act of experiencing something tells you more than just what you learned by understanding the, the physiology of it, then there’s got to be something more in the world than just the processes. I mean, is that, did that ever kick your head the way it did mine when I first encountered it?

NICOLELIS: Well I can describe to you in a recent experiment that goes into this line. We did in our lab we got rats, adult rats and we put infrared sensors implant in their heads. And as you know, mammals can not detect, they cannot see infrared light because they don’t have photoreceptors for their wavelength. And they don’t have temperature sensors that get, you know, a temperature sensing for infrared. And so we implanted those and we basically put animals in the infrared universe where they have to track infrared beams to find sugar water. And they love to go after sugar water. But what we did was to get the output of these infrared detector electrical output that describes the magnitude and the orientation of the beam, directly into the touch cortex the part of the brain that codes for touching. And in about three days, adult rats that have never experienced infrared were touching otherwise invisible light. They were actually tracking beams of infrared in finding sugar water just by experiencing, what we don’t know because we still cannot interrogate them, but they were having some sort of tactile experience and they were able to track that infrared light. So next time, we put them in the visual cortex. Because after all, visual cortex is used to detect electromagnetic radiation. And in six hours, these rats were able to track infrared light with one detail. They could merge infrared wavelength with visible spectrum.

So we had a task in which half of the message was coming visible light and half in infrared. And to solve the maze and find the sugar water, they had to combine both of them, and they did.   So and these are adult rats, adult brains that according to many years, although the brain is plastic throughout life that piece of cortex would be dedicated just to visible spectrum or touch. And that’s what I was trying to say. I was just trying to say that the old vision that they brain is just a passive decoder of what is there, I think is gone.

GREENE: But that’s still describing a functional response to a stimulus that a third party has access to, isn’t it?

NICOLELIS: No, because the cells in the brain when we look at individual neurons, they now had responses to both tactile and infrared in a very nonlinear way.  We couldn’t predict how these neurons would map that relationship.

WIESELTIER: So they create an internal representation in which it was not predicted by the models that, the linear models that we’re using to try to predict, that and the animal could make sense of that.

GREENE: But it’s all still physics and physiology.   There’s nothing more than that, right?  

NICOLELIS: No.  Absolutely. But that’s the reason I’m saying .

GREENE: But is that your view?

NICOLELIS:  No, no, I’m just trying to say that the reason the brain is so complex. And although the laws of physics of course have the basis of its functionally is there is a self adapting complex system.  It’s like an orchestra that when it plays a song, at the very moment the note is produced it’s already changing the instruments to produce the next note. And this is a recursive loop that goes continuously.

WIESELTIER: But there are many ways to play a song.

NICOLELIS: There are many ways to solve.

WIESELTIER: There’s no single correct way to play.

NICOLELIS: No, no effect that’s not the principle.

WIESELTIER: You know and it’s I mean I think I mean just speaking for my own neurons, I think that only, only a physicalist could have come up with that question. The idea of whether or not Mary actually learned something new the first time she saw red.

GREENE: Yeah. So what’s your view?

[00:35:02] WIESELTIER: Well, she learned about the richness of the visual world.  She learned about, she may have felt gratitude about being alive right. She may have been stimulated by the heat of the color. I mean there are there are lots of things she learned.

GREENE: But does that mean that there’s more to the world beyond?

WIESELTIER: Yes look, look you know we get into these definitions of reality and if you, if physicalists want to describe all these nonphysical humanistic things that the rest of us live for as illusions then what I would say is fine, but illusions are real too. Everything is real. Even unreality is real.

GREENE: But couldn’t it actually be…  

WIESELTIER: Wait, wait, wait, what I wanted to say was no, no, no.  I think that, how should I put it?   Biology can in some, biology can be responsible in some way from my loving a woman but biology cannot be responsible for my loving my wife. Because the experience of love is an experience that has reasons and that, that is involved. It involves us as self-interpreting beings with desires. And so all the biology in the world cannot account for my bond with a particular woman. All the biology in the world. And, and the only question that really interests me, if the question that we ask is, what is the meaning of human life?, which is a perfectly good question, my, or what is the human difference? Let’s say.  I believe that even if ninety nine point nine percent of our, of our lives as animals, as creatures can be explained in scientific or physicalist terms.  That point 1 percent is what we mean by the human difference.  

GREENE: Right.  And I want to believe that. And I want you to convince me of that.

WIESELTIER: Well, go right ahead.

GREENE: I’m human and I’m trying and trying. But can I just I push a little bit a little, bit harder just so I can get it. I’ve tried.

WIESELTIER: Actually, you know what, you live that way.

GREENE: I do. I do. And I live with a certain kind of tension between my understanding of how the world is put together according to scientific insight and my intuition, the intuition that everybody has that somehow isn’t really describing it all. It’s the, the point 1 percent or more than that ,that somehow is something else. But, but here’s the way that I’ve tried to make sense of it. And the reason I’m bringing this up is because it seems to resonate with the description you gave a little while ago of the distinct realms that can somehow inform each other even though they can’t be reduced to one another. Because one of the deepest lessons in physics, is that we can understand the universe scale by scale by scale.

What I mean by that is, look you know if Isaac Newton had to understand molecules and atoms and quark’s and neutrinos in order to be able to write down his laws of motion he would never have made any progress. Thankfully he was able to look out into the world and see ordinary macroscopic objects, rocks and the moon, and he was able to limit his attention to that ordinary scale, write down equations that were able to describe those processes, and it worked in that environment, in that domain. And then as we got better at examining the world, we were able to penetrate more deeply. We did get to the molecules and atoms and holy cow, a whole new set of equations, a whole new vocabulary needed to be brought forward. The vocabulary of quantum physics and it works incredibly well at that scale. They’re not in contradiction. You can get one from the other.   So that’s a preamble to the way that I would try to make sense of what you said which is, look yeah.  So when we’re talking about the human difference, when we’re talking about trying to explain, say why one loves their wife, maybe it is ultimately all the physical but the language, the relevant language to use is not that of quantum physics. There’s just a better language. But nevertheless, it still is just all quantum physics down there acting itself out even though that language offers no insight.

NICOLELIS: There’s another point I think is important to be made because I think we’re in the same the same camp here, is that just because you have a scientific view or try to look for a scientific explanation for this phenomenon, you know love creativity you know faith belief. It doesn’t mean that you are devaluing the uniqueness of the human condition. As a scientist, as a neuroscientist, I think one of the biggest missions of science, in my humble opinion, this moment is, to bring the uniqueness of the human condition to the forefront. Because we are not machines. We are not just a super complex digital computers. Everybody talks about computers. Everybody talks about technology. And I use technology. I love technology and I connect brains to machines for a living but I think, if I can say.

WIESELTIER: that no rational would ever come up with the Internet.

NICOLELIS: Yes. Yes. But what I’m trying to say is that I have seen the last two decades or so with the speed of integration technology in our daily routines, sort of almost, not I wouldn’t say a devaluing, but putting the second plane, the uniqueness of our human attributes. And what I’m concerned about, is that our over, over experience, over immersion with machines may actually be contributing to trimming some of this beauty. Some of this unique human condition.

[00:40:59] GREENE: But I’ve read your book and

NICOLELIS: Thank you.  I read yours too.

GREENE: Thank you. In hardcover or soft cover?  But you know, the argument that you gave in your book strikes me as less radical than the description that might be gleaned from what you just said. So tell me if I’m wrong. What I got out of your argument in the book was that , if you focus on modeling the brain as a digital computer, so in more technical terms like a Turing machine, maybe we don’t need to go down that trajectory, but if more or less you model as a digital computer then you gave some convincing arguments that that ultimately will fail. That that’s not what’s going on.

NICOLELIS: No chance of working.

GREENE: But it seemed quite clear that if you were to go beyond the domain of digital computers into more sophisticated kinds of computational devices, maybe probabilistic Turing machines or things of that sort, then the arguments that you gave would not be as airtight. So are you really saying that there’s more to us than machines, or are you saying that there’s more to us than digital computers?

NICOLELIS: No.  The argument of the book was about digital computers, Turing machines. In fact, we finished by saying that devices like quantum computers for instance, is an open question. We, you know, we didn’t approach, Ronald Cicurel and I didn’t approach that issue.  What we’re trying to say using, as you saw, Godel’s incomplete theorem and other arguments. Even Turing’s own original work is that humans, or human brain, is a hyper computer, is something above a Turing machine.  And a Turing machine would never be able to simulate

GREENE: But for this conversation, isn’t that just another kind of machine? It’s a more sophisticated machine, but it’s just a machine.

NICOLELIS: It’s a very interesting question.  It’s a very interesting question. Now I didn’t mean to. No

GREENE: No, no, I didn’t mean to either. It’s just the crowd gets me worked up a little bit but.

NICOLELIS: I think, I think, I think our rationale is that organic, organic systems like a brain, particularly the human brain, primate brain, human brain, they, they obeyed the laws of physics, but they are getting to a realm of complexity, a level of complexity where you have so many variables interacting and resonating with one another in that you basically create a level of complexity where a new type of information may be produced. We’re debating that in fact not just digital information. So the example I gave we’re debating was, a classic example in medicine in neuroscience, is the phantom limb sensation where you have a patient, I had a few, where you have an amputation. The patient is fully aware that his leg, let’s say, was amputated but he’s having a feeling.  He’s having pain on a piece of the body that doesn’t exist anymore.

No digital machine would be able to solve that ambiguity, because you can come forgive me you can come in front of the patient with the leg amputated and he would say, “No, no, no. I know that you amputated my leg. But I feel perfectly fine that I’m touching the corner of the bed with my toe and my toe is hurting.” Because that’s what he had a problem that that required amputation. So you have that ambiguity where at the same time on the one side there is no leg. But the brain is telling him you have your leg.

WIESELTIER: But I would, I would reject the analogy of the nonphysical as non-material dimensions of human experience to the fantasy, the fantasy of a phantom limb.

NICOLELIS: I’m just using it as an example.

WIESELTIER: But that seems to me precisely the problem. I mean from where I sit, the burden of proof for me falls not on people who wish to prove that we’re not a machine, but on people who wish to prove that we are.  To me it’s perfectly obvious. As a matter of lived experience that a purely mechanistic account will not be able to properly describe or explain some of the central experiences of human life.  

[00:45:05] GREENE: Right.  I want you to really convince me of that so I go home tonight, I’m no longer troubled by the tension between my understanding that you and I, sort of in that clip, are ultimately composed of ingredients that are governed by laws, or complex ingredients and complex interactions. But what goes beyond that?

WIESELTIER: But the questions you have to ask yourself, my friend, is why you want to believe the other way.

GREENE: I don’t

WIESELTIER: You see. In other words, what is the seduction of the mechanistic or physicalist account.

GREEN: Actually is not seductive, it’s repulsive

WIESELTIER: I find it repulsive too, I find that –

GREENE: So we’re together.

WIESELTIER: We are. You know, we are. Completely repulsive. I mean I think one should. Not you. But I think you know, you can make a distinction. There is science and there is scientism.


WIESELTIER: There is biology and there is biology-ism. There is economics and there is economy-ism. The -ism is the thing that makes me nervous. The -ism is that imperialistic extension, the idea that-there’s nothing controversial about saying that for the past five hundred years for as long as it’s existed, Michelangelo’s David has been marble, has been stone. Perfectly uncontroversial and that, at every moment if we look at it, it’s still stone. The physical account of it is always true. It also is incredibly banal and doesn’t tell me terribly much about why it is that I’m staring at that statue. So scientism is the idea that all you need to know is that it’s stone. And the humanistic critique of that would be, nobody in their right mind would deny that it is stone


WIESELTIER: In other words, the idea that, that, that the scientific, the physicalist, the material, the biological, the chemical, you name it, that all those dimensions are, are, are at play. I mean that’s not under any threat from any sane humanist, right? But there is the opposite. There is the opposite.

GREENE: But isn’t that a little bit of a straw man? Because I think most of us would totally agree that if you just describe it as marble, that that couldn’t possibly be enough to answer the questions for why we’re staring at it. But if you have a fantastically rich and nuanced appreciation of the brain this gloppy, grey thing that’s interpreting the photons that are bouncing off of the statue, then you might, you might be able to give a completely straightforward, scientific account of why it is that you’re staring at it.

WIESELTIER: Well that scientific-it would then you give the account of how such an explanation would explain the beauty of the statue.

GREENE: Yeah, so, so-

WIESELTIER: Not the contours of it.


WIESELTIER: You know, I mean

GREENE: So I wish that I could go.

WIESELTIER: No, no, but you don’t wish that you could.

GREENE: I wish that, I wish that I could, you’re absolutely right, but, but could I just lay out the framework? And then you can critique it, you know. The framework, I think would be, you have this biological system that’s gone through thousands and thousands of years of evolution in order to be able to have propagated and survived. And therefore it has a certain biological, chemical, physiological, physical structure such that when it encounters certain kind of macroscopic forms, it responds in a particular way and I could imagine, we can’t do it, but I could imagine, that we one day will able be able to give an account where we will say, “Aha, this brain is going to respond in such, a such a way when it encounters this kind of stimulus.”

WIESELTIER: Right. Let me just say that those responses will eventually be articulated in words and in concepts.


WIESELTIER: Now there is an infinite variety –


WIESELTIER: -of words and concepts that could be used to form what we do whenever we see such things which is an interpretation.


WIESELTIER: We interpret everything.

NICOLELIS: But that’s a very good point, because even from a biological evolutionary point of view, from my point of view as a neuroscientist, each one of the human beings that ever lived, live, and will live, are unique because it did absolute explosion of combinations of states that you could produce in the brain. We’ll get, you know, millions of people looking at a Michelangelo and have a complete different interpretation and the feeling, a reading of what is there, because even though what you said is absolutely correct, evolution, in fact I like to say that the process of evolution is almost like a copyright protection mechanism for copying our brains, because it was done through a infinite sequence of random events that cannot be reproduced, you know, even if you could rewind the tape of life. Stefan Jay Gould said that if you rewind the tape and let it go again, we wouldn’t be here. Right. So I think that biology would account for exactly what you say. That the combinatorial explosion of connectivity in the states that the mind can come up because the brain has a history. Each one of them-ours. Each one of our brains has a history. He has a, he has built its own point of view over our lifetime and is unique.

[00:50:20] GREENE: But if I replicate that brain without having it gone through all of that history, right? Lets be just fanciful for half a moment. If I somehow was able to replicate it atom by atom, neuron by neuron, even though it didn’t have that historical evolution leading to the form that it currently has, presumably you would agree that it would react in the same way as the brain that went through all that process.

NICOLELIS: I’m not a mathematician, but wouldn’t there be an almost like an intractable problem? Because it would take the age of the universe to simulate that thing or more. Billions of years of simulation because you’re talking about trillions of parameters that have to be updated in a millisecond to be able to see it. Otherwise your model will divert.

GREENE: I wasn’t even saying simulate. I’m saying build another biological object.

NICOLELIS: Oh that’s easy Brazil we know how to do that. It’s very simple.

GREENE: You know so the real question is: is that it?

WIESELTIER: Maybe you could make a President.

NICOLELIS: Yeah we can make it here. Here. There, oh there? There I don’t know.

GREENE: So, so, so to what extent is the history vital to the function?

NICOLELIS: Well I think the evolutionary history is pivotal, of course. We are, we are, we are, our brains are reflecting the evolutionary history of our species is millions of years. But we also have the ontogeny of this brain. And the life, the unique life, of individual with the brain. In my opinion, is building its own internal point of view as we grow up, and as reason humans have so long of a time of postnatal development, and why we play so much. We are playing scenarios, we are practicing scenarios, and we are building an account of what is out here. And in my conception of the brain, every time I’m about to look to something, I’m actually seeing before I look, because my brain has a hypothesis. He has, he has an expectation of what I’m about to see. And it’s this conclusion, or this collision, I’m sorry, of what is here with this expectation

WIESELTIER: Yeah, it’s a kind of scientists Kantianism, or some kind. Meaning that we dont- there is no such thing as naked sense experience. We -actually bring organizing concepts for, in other words, we don’t look there and see seven brown lines is raw sense data and then look at combining them into a chair. We see a chair. And then we begin to break it down into what the sensory data are that allowed us to see that.

NICOLELIS: But I think this is actually why when you say beauty, when I say beauty or happiness, when I see something as beautiful. It’s very difficult to define, because my internal definition of beautiful carries my entire lifetime story, my evolutionary story in the, in the salt and pepper of my previous experiences, which are very different from yours.

NICOLELIS: Which are very different from his.

GREENE: Can raise here a related question, which is the degree to which, you know, the title of the program is “To Unweave a Rainbow,” right? It comes from a Keats poem, this notion that science somehow pulls things apart and destroys the beauty and the wonder of it all. And you know Richard Feynman had a perspective, a great physicist, had a perspective on this, just want to get your sense of it, can you show the Richard Feynman flower clip?

(Video Clip)

NARRATOR: I have a friend who is an artist and he has sometimes taken a view, which I don’t agree with very well. You hold up a flower and say, “Look how beautiful it is.” And he says, “You see his eyes and can see how beautiful this is. But you as a scientist, take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing.” And I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, although I may not be quite as refined and aesthetic as he is, but I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I mean, it’s not just beauty at this dimension, there’s also beauty at a smaller dimension. I could imagine cells in there. Also the processes, the complicated actions, which also have a beauty. The fact that the colors in the flower evolve in order to attract insects upon him, is interesting. It means the insects can see the color. It heads a question. Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which science only adds to the excitement, the mystery, and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.

GREENE: Thoughts?

WIESELTIER: Well I look, obviously-well in the first place, there’s no question that science itself and its discoveries have been one of the greatest revealers of beauty that man has ever experienced or devised. And that’s why there are many scientific results having to do both with science in the small and the cell and then you in the galaxy, before which one feels not just the feeling of being present,, being present before beauty but even before the sublime.


WIESELTIER: Which is another form of aesthetic experience. What I would say about, what about Feynman, is that the whole thing begs the question, which is to say that the point is not that scientists-

[00:55:27] WIESELTIER: The good news is that science is powerless to destroy beauty even if it thinks it can. That’s the good news. So all these physicalists running around thinking they’re, they’re murdering to dissect they’re wrong.  They’re dissecting, but they’re not murdering, except for themselves, except for themselves. And a pity on them. But, but Feynman begs the question in the sense that when he says you can experience the beauty not just at the flower but also at the cellular level, I would say all right, but there still remains the question of what that experience of beauty is at any level, at any level.

WIESELTIER: So, and the idea that the experience of beauty can be explained scientifically at any level of scientific revelation, seems imperialistic to me and seems incorrect to me. So the awe that, I mean, his instruction is: don’t think that it’s just at the level of the flower. We scientists can see it too. And I say yeah, but then I say to him, “Well what exactly do you think you’re experiencing?”

GREENE: And if science could give a real, it can’t yet, but if it really could get an answer.

WIESELTIER: It never will.

GREENE: Well just go with me for half a moment.  If it could give an answer to that would it, what impact would that have on your perspective?  Let’s say, let’s just say, would it matter to you?  Would you say,  “Oh goodness gracious, I can no longer think about the world as I once did,” or would your view just sort of sit on top-

WIESELTIER: In terms of my own experience, it wouldn’t matter one whit.  What would matter to me is that I don’t want my fellow citizens to believe that they are nothing but manipulatable physical beings who, who lack- I don’t want, I don’t want their horizon for- the possible horizon of their experience. I don’t want their sense of what, of what their spiritual attainments can be to be shrunk by the idea that it’s all just matter.

GREENE: but does it have to be shrunk?

WIESELTIER: Well, generally it’s had that effect.

NICOLELIS: But it doesn’t need to

WIESELTIER: No, it doesn’t need to at all. Not at all.

NICOLELIS: I think, I think the two views can find a common ground because

WIESELTIER: Not at all.

NICOLELIS: I think the definitions of beauty that we saw with Feynman’s description is in the eye of the beholder, right? You can-what I think-my criticism of the reductionist view, as a scientist, is that yes there is beauty and there’s always an adventure in the intellectual journey of breaking things apart and trying to fix them, because physics was so successful. Physics was so successful. Everybody thought, OK the recipe for success in other disciplines is just to get that model and try to apply it to, to biology and other things. And the problem is, is pretty much what you’re saying. We are breaking apart. We try to find the fundamental elements in biology is very difficult, because when you say “life,” it is not like when you say “matter.”


NICOLELIS: When you say “matter,” you say is made of molecules, is made of atoms, is made of the nucleus, and quarks, and strings. When you say “life,” for biologists it’s not very easy to, to come with this infinite reductionist view of what it is. So our problem is that the science of complexity in biology is at its infancy. We really can’t- we have very few ideas and tools to put things together once we break them apart.

WIESELTIER: But then do you think that the question of what complexity means and how it should be interpreted would be changed or in any way affected by the discovery of unimaginable degrees of complexity? In other words, does it really matter that the complexity is going to get greater in-for the search for what the meanings of that complexity will be?

NICOLELIS: Yeah I never thought about it, but what I can tell you is that the way we approach a complex system today like the brain, is with tools that we approach systems that are not self adaptive, self-referral, in as complex as this system is. Because when you’re talk about a functioning brain, you are talking about an exchange of information from multiple levels, from the circuit level, from the cellular level, from the molecule, from the quantum level. And you’re also talking about a descriptive system, like Prigogine used to say, with environment. You’re exchanging information, exchanging energy, materials. Right? You have an island of negative entropy trying to, to keep together, not to dissipate. And the tools that we have to approach these systems are, in my opinion, at their infancy, and that’s the problem. You can break it apart. And in physics it works very nicely, but in biology we should be able to put it together. And that’s where the difficulty emerges.

[01:00:13] WIESELTIER: But I think we’re sort of both, from different ways, arriving in a similar place. It reminds me of, do you know the parable? There was a British philosopher named John Wisdom who once gave a parable, created a, made up a parable about the question of whether or not-of what’s called the Cosmological Proof of God’s Existence, the argument for design, that owing to the complexity that we see in nature, there must be a designer.

So Wisdom made up the following parable: There were two explorers in a jungle, let’s say the Amazon jungle, and they’re cutting away and cutting away and cutting away and they enter deeper and deeper into the jungle and suddenly, they come upon an acre of perfectly manicured and landscaped lawn, a beautifully kept garden. So one of them says, “It’s chance.” The other says, “No, no, no, there’s a gardener.” So the one who says it’s chance says, “You know, why don’t we stay the night and see if a gardener turns up.” So they stay the night. Of course, no gardener turns up. So the man says, “I told you there’s no gardener.” So the one who believes there’s a gardener say “No, no, no, all that means is that maybe we couldn’t see him at night. Okay we’ll rig up some lights.” They stay. Nobody comes.  “You see I told you, it was chance.”  He says, “No, no, no, it’s just a gardener that can’t be seen at night in a light. Then let’s put up an electric force field.” They put up an electric force field. Nobody comes. “You see I told you, it’s chance.” He says, “No, no, all we know is that the gardener is invisible at night in the light and immune to the electric force field.”  They do this on and on until the first one says to the second, “You know what, let’s go because what you mean by a gardener, I mean by chance.”

NICOLELIS: You just described a Swiss garden.

WIESELTIER: Yes, exactly.

NICOLELIS: Because I have been there for three years. They look pristine and I’ve never seen the gardener ever.

GREENE: So I got a question from you from our streaming audience: Do you think there’s moral worth to taking one position that you’re describing over another?  Why might it be valuable to accept the limits of science?

WIESELTIER: Well look, we haven’t talked about the moral implications of these things, and the reason I didn’t bring them up is because the first thing that matters is whether or not what we’re saying is true, not whether we’re saying it’s morally useful or socially-that it has any kind of social utility. I think obviously there are different scientific accounts of human life that have different ethical implications. You know, you just look at the history of the moral interpretation of Darwinism, for example. In the late 19th century, Darwinism was interpreted in an almost fascist way, the survival of the fittest and so on. But then liberal evolutionary biologist, 20 and 30 years ago, began to argue that actually natural selection is of course the case. But what we’re naturally selected for is not cruelty but altruism. And so you have a whole literature about the evolutionary origins of altruism which accepts the biological evolutionary determinism at some level but has a totally different moral implication. The real question is not-the first question has to be not what are the different moral implications of different scientific pictures of life. The real question is: does morality need a basis in science at all?

GREENE: Right.

WIESELTIER: You know it is, are ethics based- are ethics naturalistic or are they not? And there are obviously different views about this.

GREENE: Well the traditional view, of course, is that science doesn’t have values and it’s just  

WIESELTIER: Well, but if this is-

GREENE: but that’s a very simplistic way of looking at things, of course.


NICOLELIS: But then there’s a very interesting debate, because look at today what is happening. If you read any known regular book on robotics, what is robotics and artificial intelligence is doing out there in the economies, around the world, in how many-you know in the next decades or so, how robotics may displace millions of jobs because menial jobs, or not so menial jobs, may be done by, by machines. So when I read this literature and I read descriptions that try to compare us to machines to digital computers, there I see a devaluation of the human condition. Because I start to think OK we are building these robots to make burgers to clean floors, to do you know this thing. But we are not stopping to think what it would mean to have 60 percent unemployment around the world. These are questions that we need to bring as scientists, you know.

As I said, I love technology and I find that it can be for the betterment of mankind, many things that we’re developing today, but some of these issues have to be brought to society, because society has to wait on them. They have to think about what it means to replace all these jobs, you know, in 20 years.  

WIESELTIER: There’s also the large-there’s also the question more generally of whether a purely physicalist or materialistic account of human life is compatible with some conception of the dignity of the person. It’s a very, very important consideration. You know, it’s-and the argument can be made that in fact, it isn’t.

GREENE: That it what?

WIESELTIER: That it isn’t.  In other words-I mean, I’m one of those dinosaurs who still uses the word “soul.” I know but, but if you call it the soul, the self, whatever, you know, we’re some sort of psychosomatic unity, but we are compound creatures in some way I’m speaking coarsely here. But if one has this conception, one does have to worry about whether or not the reduction of the individual to any single dimension of the person, to any single dimension is compatible with dignity. Now I have to say the reduction-it may be also, and I think it’s true, that not only is the reduction of the person to the body maybe not compatible with dignity, but the reduction of the person to the soul but also leads to extremes of cruelty and so on.

[01:05:58] GREENE: And I think all that’s true but, but I guess my view also is that, and I think perhaps one of the beauties of the human mind which is why all the arguments about girdling incompleteness I think is nonsense when it comes to the mind. We can and we can even rejoice in holding contradictory ideas inside our head. And I’m, I’m fine with having contradictory ideas inside of this, thing even though a digital computer would crash if this sort of thing happened. I full well agree with much of what you’re saying, on the one hand, but on the other hand, I say, “look maybe you’re just devaluing the scientific perspective.”

WIESELTIER: You, know but I don’t think

GREENE: I don’t, I don’t necessarily find that that describing myself in terms of molecules and atoms and quantum processes taking place devalues me.  In fact, it enriches me in much the same way that Feynman was describing.

WIESELTIER: Forgive me, this is sort of the insecurity that I find in certain scientists, not as it’s scientism science, which is what is threatening to the scientific analysis of life when you suggest that the scientific analysis of life simply cannot account for all of it. I don’t know anyone in their right mind, who believes that the scientific analysis of life, in any of its versions, is false. Right? I mean nobody is arguing that we are not animals or that we are not made of x % of water.  So what I don’t understand is the need of certain scientific temperaments to have it all.  I don’t, I honestly don’t understand that.

GREENE: No, I totally- let me just give one, one view of it. One view of it simply is, we’re trying to find the truth. And the truth, and the truth, and the truth could well be that all we are is, is the physical and the physical through the wondrous laws of physics is able to manifest in all these wondrous ways where we can appreciate beauty and we can love and we can be passionate and it doesn’t devalue it in order to understand underneath, it’s just the physical and it’s the urge to know what’s true. As opposed to a feeling of being threatened.  

NICOLELIS: Let me just say for a moment. I don’t feel threatened by, as a scientist, by what you said it all. I actually feel that is a challenge. It’s a very good challenge to see if science can penetrate in realms that it hasn’t and whether it can be accepted. Whether people on a reasonable conversation, like we’re having you know, could come to a conclusion that science has a saying in some of these subjects or not. I don’t feel threatened about the possibility that there are limits. But I should just make a postscript saying that I think we are not seeking the truth. I don’t believe in the truth. I believe in the best approximation of the truth that our brains can create because it

GREENE: See, physicists are just more ambitious.

CHATTER BY ALL: I know, I know.

WIESELTIER: But I think it’s important that we, as you said, when we go out and say what is the business of science. That we be humble and we have the humility that is said ignorance brings, knowledge also. Because the more we know, as you know very well, the more we discover about this big universe of ours, the more we know that we know very little.

NICOLELIS: There is so much more to know and when we talk about the human brain, boy believe me, we know nothing. We know a little tiny bit and we go out and as you said sometimes say things that we shouldn’t say, that we know how this behavior is created, how this option is made, and how we should behave to be proper human beings. And that’s chauvinism. There’s a scientific chauvinism that I, as a scientist, I cannot accept either. However I do accept that we as scientists should try to approach these big questions and come up with the best shot we have.

WIESELTIER: But the thing I would say is that there are different-the first thing that has to be recognized is that there are different kinds of questions. And that all the questions are not scientific questions and all the questions are not philosophical Questions. There are different kinds of questions.  And I think that we have to recognize that and sometimes when you recognize it- so for example take, I don’t know, a moment of courage, take, you know, a soldier who throws himself on a hand grenade and dies to save the lives of his comrades. Science of any kind, brain science, I assume, could explain the operate -the how of that act of selflessness. How you know what was responding to what. What was firing, what wasn’t firing.  I don’t know.

NICOLELIS: Neither do we.

WIESELTIER: Well good, I feel much more comfortable about that.

[01:10:41] NICOLELIS: Good, good, good.

WIESELTIER: Except that I have less excuse for my ignorance than you do.  But the question of why those men did what they did is a different kind of question. And what I want to know why were they, each of them, prepared to be crucified to protect Spartacus who by the way was Kirk Douglas.

NICOLELIS: Yes, yes Kurt Douglas. Spartucus

WIESELTIER: And when I asked the question why, when I look for reasons, right? I have to say science doesn’t help me very much.

NICOLELIS: But it may.  I think it may, well it may. There are many reasons why groups of animals may behave in a certain way for evolutionary benefit, for benefit of the king, for benefit of their offspring.

WIESELTIER: But it is the case.

NICOLELIS: I’m just saying that I don’t I have the answer.

WIESELTIER: But I mean, correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that the case about- in evolutionary biology, that the conclusion to which one comes to is that the important factors are the variations that what one winds up remarking upon most. It’s not that genes determine a similar course, but in fact there’s a wide variation.

NICOLELIS: Absolutely.

WIESELTIER: OK. So then the question.

NICOLELIS: But social behavior is of a very fundamental component of our species throughout the evolution of various races.

WIESELTIER: Right, right, but what I’m saying is, that in cases where what I’m saying is first that the variations are not the answer they are the question, for me. In other words, I remember thirty years ago some evolutionary scientists published a book, trying to prove that men are basically biologically hardwired for rape. There was such a book, of course. And then you know, and I read the book which was very painful. And, and as I read it I thought to myself well, even if this is true, the fact is that most men do not rape.


WIESELTIER: So how are we to explain the fact that a, that a genetic instruction is being defied is been now- clearly one has to conclude, that we have the power, at some level to find power any way you want, to act against what some people would describe as a biological direct –

NICOLELIS: But, but certain behaviors. For instance the heroism or altruism that you saw there can influence our brains can synchronize brains to behave as a group. And these mechanisms we are trained to unveil. We are trying we studying their studies trying to look at that what-

WIESELTIER: Right, but-

NICOLELIS: I’ll give you an example-

WIESELTIER: Wait but I would describe that I mean, you’re absolutely right. But I would describe that as the phenomenon of moral influence and moral inspiration. What I would say is that after the first man got up-the first man who wasn’t Spartacus got up and said he was Spartacus, he gave courage to the second man. Now if you described it that way, you’re just you’re in the realm of self interpreting beings who have reasons for what they do, who have feelings that move them now. And I don’t understand how that can be accurately described except in those terms even if all their genetic information was operating as it was EIP et cetera.

GREENE: But it could be that -the way I would rephrase that, and I don’t mean to put words in your mouth is may not be accurate or phrasing, it may be that the language that you’re using, the description that you’re using, is so on point for describing the human experience that we see in that clip. But, that doesn’t negate the fact that underneath it, there is a distinct language that uses different words in different terminology that nevertheless is also a completely and fully accurate description of what happened. Let me just take one out of the realm of emotions. You know, if we see a baseball flying from home plate to the outfield, right, we could describe it using the language of quantum physics. We would have 10 to the 23 pieces of data all describing

WIESELTIER: I’m never going to a ballgame.

GREENE: That’s right. I mean would it be totally useless. Which is my point. You’d look at that and you’d say, “that’s impenetrable.” I don’t know what that’s referring to. And then someone comes along, “Oh that’s a baseball flying to the outfield” and why say,  “Well, why didn’t you say that?” And the point is that language is so much more economical, so much sharper in the description of what’s going on. And it could well be that a version of that story applies to the extent they are trying to get them.

[01:15:09] WIESELTIER: I don’t think that the physicalist interpretation of that hit could explain why the players are playing the game or why the people are there to see them play it. I don’t see how it could explain that. And- but for those reasons that game would not be taking place and that all or that physical event would not be taking place over centerfield. So in other words, I don’t -obviously it’d be insane to deny that the physicalist accounts are not also true in the sense, but that they describe what it is that they can describe.

GREENE: Right.

WIESELTIER: But, but I would -I firmly believe that even the truest of the physicalist explanations does hit a limit if we wish to understand the entirety of the experience that we’re taught.

GREENE: And I think I can agree with that, because I do also agree that it hits a limit in the sense of the word that came after limit which for you is understanding. And I do agree at the level of understanding, it is useless to give a certain kind of description. However,

GREENE: It may also be the case that there is nothing else.

WIESELTIER: In the 19th century, in the 19th century some of the ideas that I am rehearsing were developed by German philosophers who basically developed the distinction between explanation and understanding. And you know these were German philosophers who made a distinction between naturwissenschaften and geisteswissenschaften, between natural sciences and the human science. Science is not the right word geisteswissenschaften is sort of knowledge but- and that’s exactly what the idea was. That there was an explanation and there is understanding.  And the two are not the same and, and the methods of explanation cannot do the work of understanding and the methods of understanding also cannot do the work of explanation.

GREENE: I think that a great thing in physics would call that the renormalization group. I mean there is an actual technical version of that scale by scale. If we want understanding, we should use certain language and certain degrees of freedom. But in terms of explanation, it all rests on the fundamental-

NICOLELIS: But you also have in physics, phenomena that you cannot compute, the phenomena that you cannot write an equation for and then and solve that equation. You know there are many functions many natural phenomena that you simply cannot form

GREENE: just because you saying it’s too complicated.

NICOLELIS: Yeah. Yeah and you cannot create an equation that you can solve, you know, directly. I just wanted to make a point at what you were talking about.

NICOLELIS: To my point of view, is a moving border is a border that we don’t know where it is very clearly and it changes over time is changing with different knowledge gathering with different experiences. But I think the key, from my view, the key point of this dialogue is that they are not mutually exclusive. I mean that border can exist and we can recognize the existence of the border at this moment because of our lack of knowledge.

GREENE: And a thousand years from now, the border may be so different that this conversation will have a different quality to it because of all that we knew at that point.

NICOLELIS: Who knows?

GREENE: Can I just jump because we’re running a little bit of time, there’s one subject .

WIESELTIER: I just want to say one thing quickly about what did you quote the renormalization group?

GREENE: Yeah sorry it sounds like a bunch of consultants, I have to tell you, but I mean I don’t know what I’m what I want to say is this. The

WIESELTIER: pluralism of languages that that seems to accept the model of explanation and understanding. I think that’s wonderful. But what matters is the spirit, also, in which physicalists are scientists. Except that in other words, sometimes I hear that acceptance and there’s a kind of scientific condescension to the language of understanding. That’s just what poor humanistic creatures tell themselves because they don’t know string theory or something like that. Right. And I think that we have to agree. I think we have to agree that if we’re going to accept this double, this double-ness of description, then each of the Realms is as valuable as the other.

GREENE: I would agree with that. I just want to ask you one thing because it came up a little bit and I know that when we actually first discussed doing this program, like last- at a Christmas party in the room he began to talk about it. You said you didn’t want it to be sort of a focus like debate on religion, which is was just totally fine. But can we turn to religion for the last few minutes. If that’s OK.

WEISELTIER: We only need a few minutes. It’s just religion.

GREENE: So here’s my question. Based on what I’ve read and some of your writings and based on what you actually said earlier, your view is that religion should not, you know, sacred texts should not be literally interpreted when we encounter those texts. What we do is we interpret. So is there a difference between that description of a sacred text and how you’d say, talk about Shakespeare?

[01:20:04] WIESELTIER: I think that religion might be- religion is a natural friend of science in the following way. The difference between the ancient medieval conception of religion and the modern conception of religion is that in the old conception, which I hold religion was essentially first and foremost a series of propositions about the universe that are either true or false. There is a god there isn’t a god. The world was created. Matter is eternal. There is providence there is chance. But these were cosmological propositions and religious thinkers relied upon science in the way that some contemporary scientists arrive at religious conclusions, sometimes from their own scientific research, relied upon science to arrive at the truth and their idea was that whatever is scientifically the case, in other words, whatever we know to be true so that the medieval philosophers, they held the Ptolemaic cosmology, right? They were wrong.

But the centrality of the Ptolemaic cosmology, for them, was simply saying that whatever we believe to be scientifically true about the world must also be found in religious texts because if you are a believer who believes that the texts tell the truth and if reason and experimental research tells you that this is the truth about the universe and the and the and the verse says that the world was created in seven days. But geology tells us that it’s so many. Etc. etc. We’re going to have to reinterpret the Scripture, because the scripture cannot lie.

GREENE: But what’s special about our-

WIESELTIER: Now, I’ll tell you there’s a moment there’s a moment. It’s one of the most dramatic moments in all of religious literature in Maimonides, where Maimonides, who was a devout Aristotelian and a devout Jew and he had the problem of facing the question of whether or not the world was created. He had the problem that Aristotle believed that the world was eternal. Matter is eternal. Where while in Genesis it said that in the beginning God. So my Monitise went to the painstaking trouble of logically and rationally reviewing all of Aristotle’s arguments for the eternity of matter and just and to his satisfaction, which is saying something because he was a very powerful mind, he came to conclude that Aristotle had never definitively proved it. And so what he wrote was and this had been- Jews burned his book for this in the 13th century. He wrote that we continue to believe the account in the scripture but if we could have proved scientifically that matter was eternal, we would have had to reinterpret the verses to be consistent with scientific truth.

GREENE: But why not throw the verses away? So I don’t mean that with disrespect, but what was special about those word.

WIESELTIER: What’s special about they’re special to people. No no no no no no. That applause is way too easy. Please. I mean, no, what’s special -it is those verses are special to people who believe they are special. Yes. If you believe that the Bible is the revealed Word of God and you seek to be an intellectually honest individual, you have a rough life ahead of you. There’s a lot of work to be done. There’s a lot of debate and it will be easier in some way as you say just to throw them out. But it would be disrespectful to people who believe that what is same truth to throw them out. And so they are the honest ones are left with the great task of reconciliation and that to my mind, even though I’m not going to reveal here my own beliefs, they’re not exactly orthodox. But to my mind that work of reconciliation is a very noble endeavor based upon a very high aspiration to intellectual integrity.

NICOLELIS: But why what is the problem of thinking about religion as innate property of the human being or trying to explain where it came from? Where is everything coming from? So I think that the first-

WIESELTIER: But then I think biology is that too

NICOLELIS: Sure. But if I have a feeling that religion thinking probably started the first moment the first hominid jump from a tree, walk bipedal, and look at the sky and saw that thing and said, “Boy where that come from?” I need to explain that this is quite something that is part of our brain, is this obsession, this craving for trying to understand you know our origins are in the origins of the universe, origins of our kin, origins of our thinking. So I am not a religions not religion religious person. But what I kind of think is that religion can be seen as this craving for an explanation. This is an attempt-

WIESELTIER: Well it’s what Thales, remember? Thales was looking at the sky, and of course fell backwards down a well.

NICOLELIS: In the documentations, the paintings you see the paintings that you see in the caves in southern France, you know, law school you know Altamira, these guys we’re putting their hands they’re painting these animals in perspective using the three dimensional distribution of rocks to create the effect almost of a creation you know image.

WIESELTIER: The attempt by means of reason to overcome a mythological or animistic view of the world was obviously is obviously one of the foundations of our civilization, and nothing less. My point is simply that not all religious people are idiots.  And there’s a certain kind of condescension. Now many of them are. But I have to tell you I have to tell you I’ve met a lot of secular idiots in my lifetime too. I mean.

GREENE: Look let me tell you why. Let me give you one little example of that, as we’re running out of time.

[01:25:39] GREENE: I was invited to a closed door gathering a number of years ago. That was, I forget the exact name things like science and the spiritual quest. I though it was interesting so I went to it and it was all Nobel laureates ,you know, national- I thought that we were all going to sit around the table and have nothing to talk about. Because I know we’d all sort of say well you know you know there’s not much to the relig- and amazingly I was the only one who was coming from a perspective that wasn’t looking to religion and spiritual as a as a vital part of the truth. I mean everybody is meant to give a presentation I’m sitting there like with my jaw ajar as like Nobel laureates singing psalms. It was a very eye opening experience to me, because these folks are not idiots. And yet it’s a vital part of their world. It’s

WIESELTIER: not a vital part of my world. But Brian, look what happened there’s a great hilarious irony in the recent literature on the evolution of consciousness, right? Many of the people who mock you know there is many religious people will sometimes, when they can’t their minds can’t take them any further and they don’t want to lose their faith, will talk about mysteries. Right? It’s mysterious and people have mocked them for it and that’s sort of legitimate because mysteries, the invocation of mysteries does not explain anything. It’s like saying that something causes cancer because it’s carcinogenic. Right that doesn’t explain anything

GREENE: Yeah just a different name.

WIESELTIER: But now, you have these diehard physicalists who are running into real trouble explaining the emergence of consciousness. Real trouble. I mean the real trouble. There’s no question about it. And some of them now call the stem cells the new Mysterians because what they say, these atheists is that. We can’t explain how consciousness evolved from matter. But that doesn’t refute our world view because it’s a mystery. To which I think you know, brothers and sisters, you have so forfeited your right to that word. Right? I mean you know their secular mystery is fine.

NICOLELIS: But so but so has religion with the word miracle.

WIESELTIER: No question.

NICOLELIS: Because science is making miracles when we see the gravitational waves. Yeah when you see the detection of the gravitational waves come from the resounding waves of the Big Bang and we can detect them a hundred some years after a guy in a with nothing. Paper and pencil

GREENE: Not the Big Bang but rotating black holes.

NICOLELIS: Yes, yes absolutely. Yep. For me, that sounds like the closest of a miracle

GREENE: One that we can fully understand, which Einstein himself predicted and which we can have supercomputers yield a result for. So it’s a very specific use of the term.

NICOLELIS: But from the human brain point of view.

WIESELTIER: But there are two ways to use the word miracle. One is you know in a cognitive rational way- do you mean that it is actually a disruption of natural law in some way?

NICOLELIS: No no no no, what I mean is

WIESELTIER: Or, wait, or when we say something is a miracle, that’s simply an expression of our feeling of awe. We don’t have an- it’s like telling a woman that you’ll, you love her forever. You don’t, you’ll never you won’t we won’t be here forever. But you love her so much at this very moment that “forever” is the only word you can use to describe it

NICOLELIS: No, what I wanted to say or what I’m trying to describe is when Einstein said the greatest mystery of the universe is that can be understood. Actually for me, there is almost a conflict of interest there. Because you know the beauty is that we can think, we can create a theory, and we can go there, create an instrument, collect this data and verify that theory using the same matter that generated that theory. And that’s what I call a miracle.

[01:29:13] GREENE: So I just want to jump off of that miracle and that awe. You know one of the things that often people describe are transcendent experiences that really somehow stand outside of some kind of conventional scientists. Well you know as I you know again I’m saying I’ve got two views on all this. It’s been a fascinating conversation but I do want us to end with some kind of experience of awe. And we have the great honor of having two wonderful musicians who are going to take us out tonight. Joanna Cacho Rathke and Pablo Lavandeira, if you guys can come on out. We’re just going to end it with an absolutely beautiful piece of music. That will give us that experience.  

[01:36:36] GREENE:So thank you very much, see you at other events.

Big Ideas
To Unweave a Rainbow: Science and the Essence of Being Human

As long ago as the early 19th century, the poet Keats bemoaned the washing away of the world’s beauty and mystery in the wake of natural philosophy’s reductionist insights—its tendency to “unweave a rainbow.” Two centuries later, the tentacles of science have reached far further, wrapping themselves around questions and disciplines once thought beyond the reach of scientific analysis. But like Keats, not everyone is happy. When it comes to the evaluation of human experience—passion to prayer, consciousness to creativity—what can science explain, and what are the limits of its explanatory powers? What is the difference between science and scientism? Are the sciences and the humanities friends or foes? Join an animated discussion on science, reductionism, the mind, the heart, freedom, religion, and the quest for the human difference. This program is part of the Big Ideas Series, made possible with support from the John Templeton Foundation.Learn More

View Additional Video Information

Up Next

1,647,782 views | 01:36:02
132,170 views | 00:57:27
1,317,215 views | 01:30:08
51,448 views | 01:27:46
56,184 views | 01:25:38
2,565,678 views | 01:29:37
66,085 views | 01:24:01
1,255,694 views | 01:29:11
1,231,138 views | 0122:24
71,164 views | 00:32:32
1,444,727 views | 1:11:33
5,130,394 views | 01:24:38
2,457,849 views | 01:27:24
3,862,253 views | 1:17:46
1,467,757 views | 1:00:10
107,797 views | 00:57:28
1,566,584 views | 01:00:35
1,052,690 views | 01:02:39
84,564 views | 00:41:54
1,390,398 views | 00:59:56
67,091 views | 01:06:47
4,584,783 views | 01:39:21
737,333 views | 01:06:44
105,240 views | 01:07:13
113,471 views | 01:33:49
7,874,022 views | 1:32:48
955,836 views | 01:02:40
55,974 views | 00:59:50
107,878 views | 01:03:48
59,005 views | 00:59:31
553,897 views | 01:17:01
142,317 views | 00:57:13
59,251 views | 01:34:35
473,194 views | 01:33:30
530,538 views | 01:24:26
212,066 views | 01:38:53
1,229,579 views | 01:27:13
1,401,650 views | 01:25:32
480,483 views | 01:39:51
525,545 views | 01:23:44
162,377 views | 01:02:32
192,035 views | 01:19:33
140,903 views | 01:21:33
815,433 views | 01:22:23
1,195,923 views | 01:22:11
462,514 views | 01:23:39
7,397,073 views | 01:33:30
302,637 views | 01:23:57
3,782,324 views | 01:38:44
1,643,306 views | 01:23:57
977,019 views | 01:27:52
766,417 views | 01:28:48
52,078 views | 01:24:33
783,128 views | 01:26:02
3,451,936 views | 01:22:35
452,244 views | 01:30:42
159,307 views | 01:31:59
108,595 views | 01:24:28
374,887 views | 01:35:31
538,726 views | 01:30:32
696,246 views | 01:28:02
1,161,734 views | 01:44:14
823,866 views | 01:16:48
3,002,767 views | 01:30:10
1,658,666 views | 01:33:00
95,178 views | 01:41:19
372,023 views | 01:35:29
273,624 views | 01:25:28
1,036,783 views | 01:25:19
2,430,756 views | 01:43:58
864,493 views | 01:36:21
334,369 views | 01:46:12
243,925 views | 01:02:50
167,609 views | 01:17:21
4,856,636 views | 01:30:56
281,865 views | 01:25:57
51,081 views | 01:01:50
144,912 views | 01:02:03
315,582 views | 00:48:49
293,925 views | 01:26:50
729,125 views | 02:03:40
231,658 views | 01:51:22
1,405,538 views | 02:08:02
1,380,721 views | 02:53:44
131,458 views | 01:54:16
89,722 views | 02:06:58
86,600 views | 02:19:44
230,548 views | 02:10:10
225,105 views | 03:01:37
269,862 views | 02:33:02
1,124,212 views | 03:05:19
192,434 views | 01:45:24