Paul P. Mealing

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Sunday, 14 October 2007

Does the Universe have a Purpose?

Like, almost all of my postings so far, this was triggered by something I read. American Scientist (Sep-Oct 07) published some excerpts from a series of essays written by 12 ‘leading scientists and scholars’ for the John Templeton Foundation. The essays can all be read at and they are not lengthy.

Altogether, they highlighted something I’ve said before: science and religion can’t answer each other’s questions (refer my posting on Intelligent Design). Even amongst the scientists, as well as the theologians, it is obvious that the point of view expressed by each of them is totally subjective, and they use the science they know to support that point of view.

It would appear that they were all asked to answer the question with a one word answer, followed by a short treatise, though a few used more than one word: Very Likely, I Hope So and Not Sure. But the one word answers varied widely from Yes, Certainly, Indeed to Unlikely and No. Paul Davies, whom I’ve read widely, said: Perhaps. Being familiar with his philosophical dissertations, I thought he would have said something stronger, but, when examining my own response, I can understand his apparent reticence. If I was asked to answer in one word I would most likely say: Possibly. 'Probably' was also a brief contender, but not an honest one. ‘Possibly’ expresses both my subjective uncertainty and the objective reality. Perhaps that is why Paul Davies said ‘Perhaps’.

A couple of the scholars spoke as if the only theological perspective could be a Judea-Christian one, whereas I feel that there are many theological perspectives. Karen Armstrong’s response would have been worth soliciting, but I think she would have seen these particular responses as pertaining to their specific myths, which encapsulate their cultural perspectives. And the same applies to me (see below). I thought all the essays had merit, including the ones that verged on the dismissive.

Personally, I thought the negative responses were just as edifying as the positive ones, because they revealed that ‘science’ is effectively noncommittal. The positive responses were obviously based on a personal philosophy, which only underlines ‘science’s’ neutrality in my view. Yes, many talked about the ‘fine-tuned’ nature of the universe for intelligent life, especially the role of the carbon atom, but at least one also pointed out that in terms of universal time and space, our existence is miniscule to the point of insignificance. None of them mentioned, by the way, the peculiar property of hydrogen bonding in water that stops oceans from being mostly frozen. So science supports both the sceptic and the optimist. I use the term, optimist, because I think that believing in a purpose is a symptom of optimism, though sceptics would call it a symptom of delusion.

I found the most interesting response was from Christian De Duve, a biochemist and 1974 Nobel Prize winner. His one word response was No, yet his argument was far from dismissive. I won’t expound on his essay, but I liked his conclusion. After extolling the virtues of human creativity in arts, music, literature, philosophy and all that it encompasses, he said: ‘Why not have the universe itself uncreated, an actual manifestation of Ultimate Reality, rather than the work of an uncreated creator?’ This also leads to the possibility, not proposed by any of the essayists, that God is the end result of this process we call a universe, rather than its progenitor.

What about my response? Well I think one can only answer it honestly by asking another question: do you believe you have a purpose? And the best answer I’ve come across lies in the I Ching: ‘If in truth you have a kind heart, ask not. If kindness be considered your virtue, you have attained your purpose completely.’ What I like about this aphorism is that it encapsulates a complete philosophy of spiritual meaning, with no reference to a God or Heaven; though it doesn’t rule them out, just makes them a contextual non sequitur.

We only consider the universe having a purpose in the context that we have a purpose, and science assigns us no special purpose, despite everything that nature has achieved in making our existence possible. Jane Goodall makes the point, rather eloquently, that a Universe without meaning seems pointless: ‘…it is impossible to imagine "nothingness"’. When I was a young child I tried to imagine a world without consciousness and it was like trying to imagine the unimaginable. It still is. But this doesn’t answer the question; it just puts into perspective the reality that the universe only exists for me while I’m in it. So ‘purpose’, for most people, implies a life beyond death, and that is the rub. We don’t know, and we are not meant to know. As far as I am concerned, the best I can say is that my life does have a purpose, but only in relation to others I meet and form relationships with, and beyond that, I don’t know, and, arguably, I don’t need to know.

In December 1988, LIFE published a series of responses (49 in total) to the question: ‘What is The Meaning of Life?’ My favourite was by Confucian scholar, Tu Wei-Ming: ‘…the globe is the centre of our universe and the only home for us, and we are the guardians of the good earth, the trustees of the mandate of heaven.. We are here because embedded in our human nature is the secret code for heaven’s self-realisation… It needs our active participation to realise its own truth. We are heaven’s partners, indeed co-creators… Since we help heaven to realise itself through our self-discovery and self-understanding in day-to-day living, the ultimate meaning of life is found in our ordinary, human existence.’

What I liked about this response is that it implies that we are not passive participants, yet we play a part just by living our lives. My position is: if there is a (transcendental) purpose then we best fulfil it, not by knowing it, but simply living it.

See also my posting on The Meaning of Life.
There are similar themes touched on in a letter I wrote to Phillip Adams in 2005 (see God, theism, atheism).

On a related topic, I would recommend the book, GOD The Interview, by ABC broadcaster, Terry Lane. Whilst some may see it as satire, I see it as a commendable philosophical treatise.


larryniven said...

"...the point of view expressed by each of them is totally subjective, and they use the science they know to support that point of view."


Interesting that you would relate belief to optimism - I think the connotation is on target but the denotation is wrong. For whatever reason (and I have theories about this but haven't done any research to back them up), people love stories, and I think being part of a purposeful as opposed to a purposeless universe contributes (rightly or wrongly) to the feeling of involvement in a story. So my theory is that belief in purpose stems from something optimistic in a sense but not from optimism as such.

And, while I must confess that I find especially eastern discourse on meaning/purpose to be poetic and moving and worthwhile in some ways, I also wish there wasn't so darn much of it. The problem is that all this text requires layers and layers of interpretation in order to understand and implement it in any kind of helpful way, but most people don't have the smarts to work through all of that. If everyone were as contemplative and mentally capable as you (or, I feel, most of my other regular readers), I wouldn't have to worry about this stuff.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Thanks Larry, for your contribution. I appreciate your candour and intellectual acknowledgement.

'Optimist' does have particular connotations, which is why I chose it. I also concede that one can be an optimist without believing in a (heavenly) purpose, so from that perspective it's the wrong word.

The truth is that humans need 'hope' otherwise there is nothing to live for. That's an often stated aphorism, and I heard it as recently as yesterday in the movie, Milk, but it's true in any context (great movie, by the way, on many levels, including Sean Penn's best performance to date).

So I acknowledge one can have hope without the belief in a transcendental purpose, and, of course, many people do.

My only concern, about people believing in a 'transcendental' purpose, is when it takes precedence over the life they are currently living. In other words, when a belief in an afterlife distorts, and even perverts, their behaviour in this life.

Regards, Paul.