It has become a scientific orthodoxy that we live in a pointless universe. Whatever about the prospect of flourishing during our time on Earth, once you zoom out to a cosmic perspective there really is no meaning to it all – so the argument goes. “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless,” Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg said.
The view is now mainstream among western intellectuals and tech bros, from historian Yuval Noah Harari (who describes our world as “meaningless”) to Elon Musk who – in one of his wannabe-guru moments in recent days – tweeted: “We are microbes on a dust mote in a vast emptiness...”
But has conventional wisdom got it wrong? Philosopher Philip Goff has looked at the evidence in a provocative new book, Why? The Purpose of the Universe.
While science has undermined belief in a loving creator, Goff says this should not stop us from seeking a more probable explanation for our existence.
He highlights a consensus among physicists that the universe is in several respects “fine-tuned” for life – namely that certain forces like gravity and electromagnetism are uniquely suited to the evolution of human beings. Take, for example, the force that binds the elements in the nucleus of an atom. Had it differed in value by a tiny fraction “the universe would have contained nothing but hydrogen”, Goff points out. There would have been no chemical complexity, no water and no life.
Fine-tuning requires an explanation, he says. Either it is just a fluke or there is some purpose behind it, and he asks: Which is more probable?
To answer, imagine you are walking along a beach and you see a collection of stones assembled spelling the sentence: “Love life – love the moment.” How likely is it that the rocks just washed up like this? Deploying a rule in probability known as Bayes’ theorem, Goff says “evidence in this case supports the theory of deliberate arrangement”.
So it is with the universe, Goff argues – the odds of it being created by a fluke are too “incredible”. He considers alternative explanations including the idea of an evil God, but plumps for cosmopsychism “the idea that the universe is a conscious mind with purposes of its own”. Part of the attraction of this hypothesis is that it is relatively “simple, unifying and elegant”, which are “standard universal virtues that scientists appeal to”.
“Atheists can’t explain fine-tuning, theists can’t explain suffering, so we need a view where there’s cosmic purpose without God to make sense of both of these data points,” Goff adds. He explains further as this week’s Unthinkable guest.
How does “fine-tuning” in the universe point towards purpose?
“Sometimes when things are a little bit improbable we are happy to take it as just an amusing coincidence. For example, when you get a burn mark on toast that looks like Jesus; it’s a bit improbable but not that improbable. But once the probabilities get so huge it’s no longer a rational option.”
How would you respond to the charge that you are using cosmopsychism to plug a gap in knowledge?
“You do get that sort of ‘God of the gaps’ charge but I think that would be misplaced and I think it is somewhat overused… I annoy people on Twitter by saying Bertrand Russell would have believed in cosmic purpose because he followed the evidence wherever it led, and the evidence is there.”
If there is some cosmic purpose to the universe, however, how does it relate to us?
“I try to argue that part of the directedness [of the universe] has involved the emergence of life – intelligent life – but also the emergence of creatures with conscious understanding of the world around them.
“It could be that’s the end of it, right? That’s all folks! But once you’re on board with cosmic purpose you might think it’s somewhat improbable that we happen to be living at the final culmination of the purposes of the whole of reality.
“So maybe it’s more probable that this is something that is still unfolding and there will emerge greater forms of life and consciousness as unfathomable to us as our existence is to worms... Then, in terms of relating to our lives, the hope [is] that we can, in some tiny way, contribute to this onward direction of the universe.
“I do emphasise at this point it’s very uncertain. Also, following one of my favourite thinkers William James, it’s okay to a limited extent to hope beyond the evidence.”
You grew up in a Catholic family in Liverpool and, despite becoming an atheist, you’ve kept a dialogue going with Christian thinkers. Do you think religious people are more open-minded on these matters?
“A friend, when I talk about my wacky views, says ‘ah, that’s just because of your Catholic upbringing’, but I don’t know. He is worried I’m influenced by a bias… but I think what’s a much greater influence is the secular, intellectual waters I swim in and the fact that I feel silly defending these things…
“I think people in western intellectual systems are very well trained to be alert to religious biases or religious upbringing but there is also potentially a secular bias, or a bias from a certain conception of what a secular science is supposed to be like.”