mention first that this is a loaded question, with several hidden implications.
A "purpose" presupposes a mind that conceived it, as well as the ability to
implement it. In the present case, this means that the owner of the mind not
only created the universe the way it is, but could have created another
universe and decided to create the existing one for a specific reason. So the
question really deals with the belief in a Creator who enjoys almost infinite
power and freedom but, at the same time, goes through the very human process of
pondering decisions and acting accordingly. In a way, this is a very
anthropomorphic vision of God.
aspect of the question concerns the motivation behind the purpose. What did God
have in mind in creating the universe the way it is? Being the ones who ask the
question, it is obvious that we see ourselves as at least part of God's goal.
As pointed out by the defenders of the "anthropic principle," what is peculiar
about the universe is that it happens to have just the right physical
properties to give rise to life and, through life, to human minds. Such an
anthropocentric view of the creation is, however, not readily reconciled with
what is known of the evolutionary origin of humankind.
I do not accept the implications of the term "purpose." Sticking to the facts,
I prefer the undisputable statement that the universe happens to be such that
certain events, including the generation of life and mind, were possible,
perhaps even probable, if not obligatory. Instead of searching the "mind of
God" for the explanation of this fact, I see it as an expression of reality and
as a significant clue to the nature of this reality.
scientists and philosophers have taken this attitude. The late French biologist
Jacques Monod, for example, concluded in 1970, after reviewing the great
discoveries of his days, that the universe is a meaningless entity in which
life and mind arose by an extraordinary combination of improbable circumstances
and could very well never have arisen at all. As he claimed, "the universe was
not pregnant with life, nor the biosphere with man," leading to the stoically
despairing conclusion that "man knows at last that he is alone in the unfeeling
immensity of the universe out of which he arose only by chance." Many
biologists of Monod's generation have shared this opinion, spreading what I
have called the "gospel of contingency."
then, the message of science has changed. Most biologists, today, tend to see
life and mind as cosmic imperatives, written into the very fabric of the
universe, rather than as extraordinarily improbable products of chance. But the
philosophical content of Monod's view has survived in the so-called
"multiverse" theory. According to this theory, advocated, among others, by the
British astronomer Martin Rees and by the American physicist Steven Weinberg,
and now much popularized by the media, our universe is but one among a multitude
of others that do not share its properties, the only one that happens by chance
to have physical constants such that it could naturally evolve to give rise to
life, which, itself, naturally evolved to give rise to mind. Because of the
need for a mind to be aware of such a universe, it is, by necessity, the only
one in the multiverse capable of being known, at least by entities of its own
making. Except for that, there is nothing special about it. We are back in
Monod's "unfeeling immensity out which we arose only by chance." The difference
is that it is not we who arose by chance in the universe, but rather the
universe (in which we were bound to arise) that arose by chance in the
reasons that I have explained elsewhere, I do not subscribe to this view. In my
opinion, life and mind are such extraordinary manifestations of matter that
they remain meaningful, however many universes unable to give rise to them
exist or are possible. Diluting our universe with trillions of others in no way
diminishes the significance of its unique properties, which I see as revealing
clues to the "Ultimate Reality" that lies behind them.
has given us a glimpse of this reality, by revealing the strange objects and
concepts, almost irreducible to our familiar world, that lie behind entities
such as the cosmos, matter, life, and mind. Through music, art, and literature,
we have been allowed to approach another facet of this reality, emotional and
esthetic, rather than intelligible. With philosophy and religion, we have
become aware of its ethical and mystical aspects. Encompassing all in a single
manifestation, love has introduced us into its very heart.
be noted that there is no logical need for a creator in this view. By
definition, a creator must himself be uncreated, unless he is part of an
endless, Russian-doll succession of creators within creators. But then, why
start the succession at all? Why not have the universe itself uncreated, an
actual manifestation of Ultimate Reality, rather than the work of an uncreated
creator? The question is worth asking.
Christian de Duve. Vital
Dust: Life as a Cosmic Imperative. New York: BasicBooks (1995).
Christian de Duve. Life
Evolving: Molecules, Mind, and Meaning. New York: Oxford University Press (2002).
Jacques Monod. Chance and
Necessity. Translated from the French by A. Wainhouse. New York: Knopf
Martin Rees. Before the
Beginning. Reading MA: Perseus Books (1998).
Steven Weinberg. Facing
up. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press (2001).
Christian de Duve is a biochemist. He received the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine.