Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Does the Universe Have A Purpose?

This is a response to The John Templeton Foundation's recent panel interview. Correspondents were asked to answer the question "Does the universe have a purpose?". Those interviewed were selected from a variety of disciplines, including astronomy, theology, astrophysics, biochemistry and computer science among others. The answers cover the entire spectrum from categorically No to certainly Yes, many opting simply for 'unsure' or 'possibly'.

The first thing that struck me about the question, was the fuzziness of what was being asked: It seems like a relatively straight-forward question, but once I begin to break it down, I find myself wondering who or what we are expecting an answer from – to which strata of 'reality' are we speaking?

My central point here is that in asking "Does the universe have a purpose?", we need to understand where we are locating the context of the question. Are we attempting to answer for the material structure that we inhabit, are we asking to the universe itself "Do you have a purpose, forget about our ideas, what do you say?"? Or are we asking within the sphere of human culture, does life have a grand (non-subjective) purpose, one imbued by our nature as conscious beings? Or, are we asking individually, do I experience purpose in my life?

These are all very different questions. The first, which many of the correspondents assume is the only angle, presents enormous difficulties. For there to be any 'objective' purpose to the universe (that is, one above and beyond human thought), we must needs postulate some grand power which defines it. As biochemist Christian de Duve points out, the idea demands some anthropomorphic creator-figure, one who has both the power and the will to determine Meaning for all creation. The question then becomes one of theology: an atheist must simply answer 'no', and a theist will almost certainly answer 'yes'. The problem with this interpretation, the objectification of Purpose, is that it forces us to attempt to see beyond our own minds. This begs the question of meaning: to even ask whether there is purpose outside of subjective consciousness is to attempt ourselves to assume a God's-eye-view on reality. How can we, as subjective, particularised minds attempt to state a truth (either positive or negative) outside of subjectivity?

Polymath Paul Davies' answer is particularly thought-provoking on this issue, reminding us that if 'purpose' is a solely human category (as chemist Peter William Atkins claims), then so is every concept employed in the practice of science: whenever we try to say anything about the world, we are applying human principles and ideas to 'objective' reality. Science (in fact, even perception) would be impossible without doing that. We are on a dangerous slope towards solipsism if we begin questioning the validity of concepts simply because they come from our minds.

There is a similar problem with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson's claim that bacteria would view the purpose of human life very differently from ourselves (ie as a mere food source/habitable environment): bacteria would give no answer to the question. I find it hard to believe bacteria could even ask the question. To do so is entirely a human enterprise: of all the world that we know, it is only humans who are 'meaning-making beings'. It is only us who find any need of the concept of 'purpose'.

So yes, of course 'purpose' presupposes a mind to conceive it, whether that mind is the cause of reality or merely the perceiver of it – but we must also ask, does not the term "universe" presuppose a mind to conceive it? In order for there to be a concept 'universe', there must be a subjective mind which is perceiving it and creating concepts based on it. Reality itself, stripped of consciousness, simply is: it makes no claims and generates no concepts. It is not merely the positive assertion of purpose which is beyond objective material reality, but also the negative denial of purpose: To stamp one's own anti-teleological preferences onto a mechanical system is to go far beyond what empirical evidence could possibly entail. As Lawrence M Krauss succinctly states, "The conclusion is in the mind of the beholder, and it is outside of the realm of scientific theory and prediction". Purpose (or lack of it) is a conclusion, it is not a property which can be investigated by material science.

Removing then the theological option, at the opposite end of the spectrum we have pure subjectivity. This third approach makes no grand claims beyond the subject's own opinion, localising the ability to claim purpose within individual consciousness and having no bearing on the structure of objective reality. But one feels this approach is something of an apology for human thought. It commits the same error as the first, in placing human consciousness as an isolated sphere within objectivity – it is subsumed by the 'grander' material Real World, that which is not merely personal opinion. This relativism places all opinions – whatever they are – on the same footing, effectively saying "make your own mind up – it doesn't actually affect anything anyway"

The universe we live in is one determined by culture and the broader social context. We do not live in a universe of particles, bouncing billiard ball-like, or one of quantum fuzziness. We live and act within a sphere of human value, human endeavour, one where organisms exist and interact as part of a web of meaning. Individuals have values, and experience reality through the conceptual substrata of social conditioning. It is this "noosphere", the realm of intellect (both conscious and unconscious, individual and collective) which we experience reality through: the conceptualisation of material properties happens culturally. We experience a cup, not a collection of atoms adhering to each other. We experience the joy and horror of global social events, not meaningless organisms bouncing off each other. It is this broad social context which confers meaning, and this which confers our sense of purpose. Surely, it is within this context that we must locate any search for the answers to this question?

Lawrence M Krauss opens the possibility of empirical evidence for divinely-ordained purpose through the medium of a cosmic "I am here" blazing across the sky. I contend that it is not an "I am here" we should be searching for, but the knowledge that We Are Here. The vain attempt to escape human teleological thinking and place meaning and purpose outside our own intersubjectivity, outside our own value systems, has left us bemused to find there is none. We find ourselves asking 'so we can find no meaning outside of what we think of as meaning?' What would we expect! Material science in this sense seems to want us to take measurements after throwing away the ruler! If we remove the influence of the subjective human mind from what we are perceiving, what data are we left with? What is there to be seen when we are eyeless?