What Time Is It? Charlie Kaufman and Brian Greene in Dialogue

Charlie Kaufman (left) and Brian Greene discuss the nature of time at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City as part of Brainwave 2010. (Photo: Michael Palma for the Rubin Museum)
Charlie Kaufman (left) and Brian Greene discuss the nature of time at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City as part of Brainwave 2010. (Photo: Michael Palma for the Rubin Museum)


CHARLIE KAUFMAN, middle-aged screenwriter, and BRIAN GREENE, middle-aged physicist, walk onto the stage.  They shake hands.  The audience applauds.  The two men are seated.  They will discourse about the nature of time.


When did time first appear in your thoughts?

For both men, it naturally follows from the idea of death.  Indeed, KAUFMAN and GREENE are like-minded, both deep and brilliant.  Most of the words (numerous like galaxies) are spoken by GREENE, to the rapt and eager attention of the audience.  After all, he is describing, with lucid explanations, fathomable analogies, and expressive hands, what seems to be a holy grail of human understanding: fundamental, objective truth about the universe.  “I am in awe of your knowledge,” admits KAUFMAN humbly.

KAUFMAN, at once funny and serious, asks intelligent and informed questions, demonstrating an impressive understanding of difficult concepts.  “You said it better,” GREENE grants once.  The display on-stage at the Rubin is one of gifted intellects, whose coming together is for the genuine benefit of the audience.  The following, from the March 6 Brainwave event, would be the key moments in the film:


Mr. Greene defined time as: “the mechanism by which you can notice change.”  He suggested that it may be a derivative idea, an emergent property, not elemental to the first equations of physics.  The equations certainly do not distinguish between past and future.  In fact, all moments of time are in existence.  We can imagine an expanse of space before our eyes, but not time.  This is merely a limit of our representative imagination.  It is just as “real,” even “material,” as this computer, or the Pacific Ocean.

Why do we experience a sequence—a passage, a flow—of time?  Mr. Greene offers an evolutionary explanation.  Establishment of a now (including an imprinted past in the form of memory) distinct from a future leads to predicting and anticipating, planning and striving, brain-initiated functions that encourage acquisition of energy until the replication of DNA, and thus survival in nature.  Mr. Greene insists that there is no mathematical distinction between present and future.  There is no unique NOW.  (“And is that, is that what they’re thinking these days?” said Mr. Kaufman, mind blown, to a laugh).

Words ultimately fail here– although Mr. Kaufman’s, writer that he is, were often perfectly selected.  “Now is a function of a brain.  If there is no brain, I think there is no now.  It just is, whatever that means.”  (“Do you guys . . . smoke a lot of pot?” the novelist and Kaufman-collaborator Susan Orlean humorously asked during the question period).  Let it be known, too, that quantum physics complicates this picture.


Mr. Kaufman more than once pointed out the limitations of our brain, of its scientific method, its theories, its equations, and even math itself.  Mr. Greene pointed out that some believe that math exists independent of the human brain.  Some even believe that the world is a mathematical structure, and our reality is draped over it.  Mr. Greene’s own opinion has changed over the course of his career.

“This room is not this room, it’s our interpretation of the light waves,” reminds Mr. Kaufman.  This line of thought (“It’s all I’ve got,” revealed Mr. Kaufman, trying his hardest to do the duty of skepticism) amounts to the only valid caveat— subjectivity— to the accepted discoveries of physics.  But Mr. Kaufman said he believed that human beings can make objective progress in their understanding.  Mr. Greene shared his doubt that we can ever know everything.


The principles of quantum physics suggest that “nothing” is coaxed into what’s called a “quantum fluctuation,” producing positive energy that then evolved into the universe.  The “negative energy” perhaps evolved into “something else.”  This is simply a vague idea.  Question three remains the ultimate philosophical question.  Will any human being ever know the answer to this question?  (“Brian!?” Mr. Kaufman said, exasperated, to Mr. Greene).  Note: there may be multiple universes, each its own ineffable, immeasurable “something.”


Namely: is there really such a thing as “free will?”  Nothing in the laws of physics points to free will, said Mr. Greene.  Therefore, like time, it is “a useful illusion.”

In the final line of the film, BRIAN GREENE says: “We are a bag of particles governed by the laws of physics.  And that’s it.”

Upcoming Brainwave events:

  • Saturday, March 13, 4:00 pm: What Does Ecstasy Smell Like?
    Perfumer Christophe Laudamiel + neurobiologist Stuart Firestein
    The famed creator of Elton John Black Candle and Ralph Lauren Polo Blue talks to the Columbia University neuroscientist about how our sense of smell is processed by the brain.
  • Sunday, March 21, 6:00 pm: Is There Life Out There?
    Rock musician Claire Evans + astrophysicist Fred C. Adams
    One half of the indie band Yacht addresses a fundamental question about the universe with the author of The Five Ages of the Universe.
  • Wednesday, March 24, 7:00 pm: What Makes Us Wise?
    Science journalist Stephen S. Hall + neuroscientist Andre Fenton
    The author of Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience deliberates what it is in our brains that makes us “wise” with a neuroscientist and a philosopher.
  • See the full list of events for more, and stay tuned to this site for ongoing coverage of the series.

About the author

Ben Ehrlich

Ben Ehrlich's new book "The Dreams of Santiago Ramón y Cajal" will be published by Oxford University Press in 2016. Ben is a 2015 Salzburg Global Seminar fellow in Neuroscience and Art.

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