Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Pointless?

Theresa drew our attention to the Templeton Foundation's two-page ad in last Sunday's New York Times that gave the responses of a dozen prominent scientists and scholars to the question "Does the universe have a purpose?" You can read the complete essays here.

I am reminded of a previous Musing in which I put the question to three famous (fictional) characters.

Specifically, I asked for a response to Nobel prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg's famous remark near the end of his 1977 best-selling book, The First Three Minutes: "The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless."

Knowing the point can be consoling, I suppose. It can also be dangerous to those who know a different point, or who don't know the point at all. Everywhere in the world today where there is intolerance and violence, it is practiced by people who are convinced they know the point.

But what about Weinberg's point -- that the universe appears to be pointless? Although we may come to know the foundational laws of nature, those laws appear to be quite impersonal, he says, "not showing any sign of concern for human beings."

A Nobel Prize in physics doesn't make you a good philosopher, but Weinberg is certainly correct when he says that science provides no evidence of a point to the universe, other than the amazing and mysterious laws themselves. Science has been fabulously successful at figuring out how the world works, and nowhere does science invoke purpose. Nowhere does it make reference to the meaning of human life. In fact, the scientific method works so well precisely because it eschews purpose. If purpose was all we used to explain the world, we would still be living in the Stone Age.

Of course, science doesn't take the full rap for suggesting that the universe is pointless. Shakespeare's Prospero said it, too, in the Tempest:
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.
Rationalists since the dawn of time have purported to see a world of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

But if science discerns no evidence of a point, neither can it disprove a guiding purpose to the universe. As far as I'm concerned, this whole business of requiring a point is pointless, Why should a finite human brain be able to fully comprehend a universe that may be infinite in both space and time?

Steven Weinberg doesn't think there is a point to the universe, but his view of the world is nevertheless benign. "We can decide for ourselves which of our inherited values to hold onto, such as loving each other, and which to abandon, such as the subordination of women," he wrote in the New York Review of Books. His views are not unlike those of the highest spirits of all religions who have looked for purpose in tolerance and love.

Whether or not the universe has a point, it certainly seems inclined to construct islands of complexity in a sea of increasing disorder. Humans are the most complex things we know about in the universe, and the only creature we know of who wonders whether the universe has a point. With conscious awareness comes -- apparently unbidden, but that's another story -- a sense of moral responsibility for each other and for the planet. Peace on Earth, good will to all: Now that's a point, which all of us -- atheists, agnostics and people of faith -- can share.