You are here

The Universe. What’s the Point?


Spiritual Information. 100 Perspectives on Science and Religion.

In a famous conclusion to a popular book on cosmology[1], physicist Steven Weinberg wrote, “The more the universe appears comprehensible, the more it also appears pointless.” This comment echoes the sentiment of many contemporary scientists. Although they may wax lyrical about the awesome beauty, majesty, and subtlety of the natural world, they nevertheless deny any point or purpose to the universe. […] I shall [here] critically reappraise Weinberg’s claim.

Appealing to science to bolster the doctrine of cosmic pointlessness is by no means new. A hundred years ago, the mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell used the second law of thermodynamics in a trenchant attack on theism. The second law states, in effect, that the universe is dying, descending inexorably into chaos as its reserves of useful energy are squandered. Russell reflected on the “vast death of the solar system” that will follow when the sun burns out in several billion years and concluded that these depressing facts were consistent only with a philosophy of “unyielding despair.”[2] Russell’s position seems to be that if the universe as a whole is doomed, then physical existence is ultimately pointless; even human life and endeavor are, in the final analysis, futile. In recent years, the chemist Peter Atkins has developed this theme by tying the second law directly to the purposeless motion of molecules.[3] It is the random agitation of molecules that drives, say, a gas to states of higher and higher entropy, culminating in a state of thermodynamic equilibrium and effective macroscopic inactivity. Atkins elevates this indisputable fact about molecular motion to the status of a universal principle of purposelessness, in which the aimless meanderings of molecules become emblematic of the pointlessness of the universe as a whole. Even Freeman Dyson shares the sentiment that if the universe is ultimately doomed, “we might as well give up,” in spite of the fact that the final cosmic state might lie trillions of years in the future and hence has no impact at all on individual human lives and society.[4]

The weakness of this argument is twofold. First, it assumes that entropy alone is an appropriate indicator of cosmic change. The decision to focus on this quantity is a purely ideological one. Russell and Atkins select entropy as the physical property for discussion because it paints a bleak picture of a degenerating, indeed doomed, universe. But there are other ways to describe cosmic evolution. For example, good astronomical evidence shows that the universe began in a state of almost total blandness. The richness and diversity of physical systems we observe today have emerged since the beginning through a long and complicated series of self-organizing and self-complexifying processes.[5] Viewed this way, the conspicuous story of the universe so far is one of unfolding enrichment, not decay. One could define, say, a measure of organized complexity that increases with time even as entropy increases. Nothing within science compels one to favor entropy over organized complexity in characterizing the evolution of the universe.

Second, let me contest the assumption that a system with a finite lifespan cannot have a point. This is obviously false. Individual human lives and cultures are subject to the same strictures of the second law of thermodynamics and are finite as a result. Yet human beings and society have all sorts of goals and purposes. To say there is no point to human life because one day we each will die is clearly ridiculous. So the fact that the stars may not burn forever or that the entire universe may eventually approach a state of thermodynamic equilibrium (or even dark emptiness) has little bearing on whether or not the universe has a point.

As with physical scientists, so biologists have used the supposed lack of directionality in physical processes in support of a philosophical position similar to Weinberg’s. Stephen Jay Gould, for example, took pains to attack the Victorian notion of evolutionary progress.[6] He stressed that Nature is blind and so cannot look ahead to anticipate solutions to evolutionary problems. Darwinism, he pointed out, is based on purely random accidental changes, some good, some bad. There is no direction to evolution; it is not going anywhere, just exploring the vast space of biological possibilities. Therefore, so the reasoning goes, if biological evolution is blind, the universe as a whole must be pointless. Like Weinberg, Russell, and Atkins, Gould was scathing in his attacks on notions of cosmic purpose, which he saw as an anachronism, an unwelcome hangover from a bygone religious culture.

The evidence for the directionlessness of biological evolution is scientifically less compelling than is the case for the second law of thermodynamics. Taking the biosphere as a whole, its complexity has clearly risen since life on earth was restricted to a few microbes. The issue, however, is whether this merely represents a random, undirected exploration of the space of biological possibilities or whether there is a systematic trend toward greater complexity. The fossil record is somewhat ambiguous in this respect. Certainly some trends are discernible; for example, the so-called encephalization quotient (ratio of brain mass to body mass) escalated persistently during hominid evolution. Some contemporary biologists (e.g., Richard Dawkins,[7] Christian de Duve,[8] and Simon Conway Morris[9]) make a case that, at least within some lineages, there are trends toward greater complexity. So it is far from decided, even among professional biologists, that the evolutionary record supports a doctrine of biological chaos.

Recently, some cosmologists have attempted to advance a catch-all argument for cosmic pointlessness by invoking the multiverse concept.[10] This is based on the theory that what we have hitherto considered to be “the universe” is but a small component in a vast assemblage of universes, some resembling ours, others not. The universes may co-exist in parallel, so that they are physically disconnected, or they may connect to each other in remote regions of space or through “wormholes.” Universes may differ in both their physical laws and initial conditions in such a way that all conceivable laws and conditions are represented in a universe somewhere. The overwhelming majority of the universes would go unseen because their laws and conditions would not be conducive to the emergence of life and conscious beings. Only in a tiny subset where, purely by chance, things fell out just right would observers arise to marvel over the ingeniously contrived appearance of their universe. The relevance of the multiverse to cosmic pointlessness is easy to grasp. If anyone should discover some aspect of Nature that hinted at a deep underlying purpose, then this superficially amazing fact could be shrugged off as a random accident that is observed by us only because that very same accident is a necessary prerequisite for the existence of life.

The multiverse theory suffers from a number of problems. In most versions, the existence of the other universes cannot be verified or falsified, even in principle, so its status as a scientific theory is questionable. Second, the degree of bio-friendliness we observe in the universe seems far in excess of what is needed to give rise to a few observers to act as cosmic selectors. If the ingenious bio-friendliness of our universe were the result of randomness, we might expect the observed universe to be minimally, rather than optimally, biophilic. Note, too, that multiverse explanations still need to assume the existence of laws of some sort, so they do not offer a complete explanation of the lawlike order of the universe. Finally, invoking an infinity of unseen universes to explain certain features of the universe we do observe seems the antithesis of Occam’s Razor: It is an infinitely complex explanation. In this respect, it is effectively equivalent (in a mathematical sense) to naive theism in which the bio-friendliness of the cosmos is simply attributed, without further consideration, to selection from a “shopping list” of possibilities by a beneficent Deity. Both explanations appeal to an infinite amount of hidden information.

Cosmic pointlessness has also been argued on philosophical grounds on the basis that the very concept of a “point” or “purpose” cannot be applied to a system such as the universe because it makes sense only in the context of human activity. Some years ago, I took part in a BBC television debate with Hugh Montefiore, then bishop of Birmingham, and the atheist Oxford philosopher A. J. Ayer. Montefiore declared that without God all human life would be meaningless. Ayer countered that humans alone imbue their lives with meaning. “But then life would have no ultimate meaning,” objected the bishop. “I don’t know what ‘ultimate meaning’ means!” cried Ayer. His objection, of course, is that concepts such as meaning, purpose, and having a point are human categories that make good sense in the context of human society, but are at best metaphors when applied to nonliving systems.

However, scientists have long been guilty of projecting onto Nature categories that are rooted in human society. Each culture has used technological metaphors to describe cosmologies. The Greeks built a cosmological scheme based on musical harmony and geometrical regularities, because musical and geometrical instruments were the current technological marvels. Newton’s universe was a gigantic clockwork mechanism. Russell’s was an imperfect heat engine—a sort of Victorian industrial contraption writ large and running out of fuel. Today it is fashionable to describe the universe as a gigantic computer.[11] Information theory, which stems from the realm of human discourse, is routinely applied to physical problems in thermodynamics, biology, and quantum mechanics. All these designations capture in some imperfect way what the universe is about. It is not a clockwork mechanism or an information processor, but it does have mechanistic and informational properties. Living organisms have goals and purposes, and I see no reason that we may not use the organism as a metaphor for the universe (Aristotle already did). I am not suggesting that the universe is alive, only that it may share with living organisms certain properties, such as possessing “purposes,” in the same way that it shares with a machine the property of having interlocking parts, a finite fuel supply, and so forth. I have put the word “purposes” in quotation marks because I am reasoning by analogy. This is, of course, dangerous, but the machine and information systems designations are also analogical, and few scientists object. So I contend that the universe may have purposelike or pointlike properties, alongside mechanistic and computational properties. All these characterizations require a leap from the human realm to the cosmic realm, and all are equally valid, if imperfect and incomplete, windows on aspects of cosmic reality.

I should like to finish by pointing out that science is founded on the notion of the rationality and logicality of Nature. The universe is ordered in a meaningful way, and scientists seek reasons for why things are the way they are. If the universe as a whole is pointless, then it exists reasonlessly. In other words, it is ultimately arbitrary and absurd. We are then invited to contemplate a state of affairs in which all scientific chains of reasoning are grounded in absurdity. The order of the world would have no foundation, and its breathtaking rationality would have to spring, miraculously, from absurdity. So Weinberg’s dictum is turned neatly on its head: The more the universe seems pointless, the more it also seems incomprehensible.

[1] Weinberg, S. The First Three Minutes (Harper and Row, New York, 1988), 155.

 [2] Russell, B. Why I Am Not a Christian (Allen and Unwin, New York, 1957), 107.

 [3] Atkins, P. “Time and Dispersal: The Second Law,” in The Nature of Time, eds. R. Flood and M. Lockwood (Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1986).

 [4] Dyson, F., September 2, 2002, private remark during discussion of the fate of cosmological models with a non-zero cosmological constant, at Fine Tuning and the Laws of Physics, symposium held at Windsor Castle, UK.

 [5] See, for example, Davies, P. The Cosmic Blueprint (Heinemann, London, 1987).

 [6] Gould, S. J. Life’s Grandeur (Jonathan Cape, London, 1996).

 [7] Dawkins, R. Climbing Mount Improbable (Viking, London, 1996).

 [8] C. de Duve, C. Vital Dust (Basic Books, New York, 1995).

 [9] Conway Morris, S. The Crucible of Creation (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1998).

[10] See, for example, Rees, M. Before the Beginning (Simon & Schuster, London, 1997), chap. 15.

[11] Lloyd, S. Physical Review Letters 88, 237901(2002).

in Spiritual Information. 100 Perspectives on Science and Religion, edited by Charles L. Harper Jr. (Philadelphia – London: Templeton Foundation Press, 2005), pp. 132-135.