of cosmic purpose are loaded with cultural baggage, so to answer the question
of whether the universe as a whole has a purpose–and if it does, what is meant
by that word–we first need to get at the heart of the scientific worldview.
Scientists often wax lyrical about the scale, majesty, harmony, elegance, and
ingenuity of the universe. Einstein professed a "cosmic religious feeling."
give the flavor of what this sentiment entails. As the cosmic drama unfolds, it
looks as if there is a script–a coherent scheme of things–to which its
evolution is conforming. Nature is not an arbitrary juxtaposition of events but
the manifestation of ingeniously interweaving mathematical laws. That much is
agreed. But what about a purpose to it all? If there is a script–a cosmic story
to tell–isn't that already a sort of purpose? Many scientists are quick to pour
scorn on the suggestion.
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Feynman thought that "the great accumulation of understanding as to how the
physical world behaves only convinces one that this behavior has a kind of
meaninglessness about it." It is a conclusion endorsed by Steven Weinberg
in his famous comment: "The more the universe seems comprehensible the more it
also seems pointless."
familiar criticism is that concepts such as "meaning" and "purpose" are
categories derived from human discourse, and cannot be projected onto
nature. But this is a criticism that can be directed at scientific
concepts in general. All attempts to describe the universe draw on human
categories: science proceeds precisely by taking concepts that humans have
thought up, often inspired by everyday experience, and applying them to
nature. Pierre Laplace treated the universe as a gigantic clockwork
machine, and Richard Dawkins has described living organisms as gene
machines. But machines are also human constructs, and mechanism is a human
concept just as much as purpose. It is no less legitimate to seek evidence
for something like purpose in the universe than to seek evidence that the
universe is a mechanism, or a computer, or whatever other human-derived
category resonates with what we observe.
then, is the evidence of "cosmic purpose?" Well, it is right under our
noses in the very existence of science itself as a successful explanatory
paradigm. Doing science means figuring out what is going on in the
world–what the universe is "up to", what it is "about." If it isn't
"about" anything, there would be no good reason to embark on the scientific
quest in the first place, because we would have no justification for believing
that we would thereby uncover additional coherent and meaningful facts about
the world. Experience shows that as we dig deeper and deeper using
scientific methods, we continue to find rational and meaningful order. The
universe makes sense. We can comprehend it.
is a voyage of discovery, and as with all such voyages, you have to believe
there is something meaningful out there to discover before you embark on
it. And with every new scientific discovery made, that belief is
confirmed. If the universe is pointless and reasonless, reality is
ultimately absurd. We should then be obliged to conclude that the physical
world of experience is a fiendishly clever piece of trickery: absurdity
masquerading as rational order. Weinberg's aphorism can thus be
inverted. If the universe is truly pointless, then it is also
incomprehensible, and the rational basis of science collapses.
Paul Davies is a physicist, cosmologist, and astrobiologist. He is the director of the Beyond Center at Arizona State University.