There's a two page ad in last week's issue of NewScientist. It's paid for by the Templeton Foundation and the ad consists of quotations from various people on the question "Does the Universe have a Purpose?" The link to the Templeton Website gives you the complete essays of all the writers [Purpose].
The Templeton Foundation is interested in promoting a truce between science and religion. They offer a prize worth more than $1,000,000 to people who advance this cause. In most cases it goes to religious scientists.
Some of the responses to the question of purpose are worth a comment or two. For example, here's what Christian De Duve says. (De Duve won the Nobel Prize in 1974.)
I should 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....This is the response of an atheist. De Duve doesn't believe in supernatural beings that could have created the universe so the only logical response to the question is NO. There is no purpose.
It will 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.
Not all atheists respond this way and that's what I find interesting. Here's the way Lawrence Krauss answers.
Perhaps you hoped for a stronger statement, one way or the other. But as a scientist I don't believe I can make one. While nothing in biology, chemistry, physics, geology, astronomy, or cosmology has ever provided direct evidence of purpose in nature, science can never unambiguously prove that there is no such purpose. As Carl Sagan said, in another context: Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence....Clearly Krauss doesn't believe that the universe has a purpose because he's an atheist. Nevertheless, he feels compelled to hedge his bets on the grounds that you can't prove a negative. This is a cop-out.
Thus, organized religions, which put humanity at the center of some divine plan, seem to assault our dignity and intelligence. A universe without purpose should neither depress us nor suggest that our lives are purposeless. Through an awe-inspiring cosmic history we find ourselves on this remote planet in a remote corner of the universe, endowed with intelligence and self-awareness. We should not despair, but should humbly rejoice in making the most of these gifts, and celebrate our brief moment in the sun.
In the absence of any evidence the proper response is NO, bearing in mind that this response could change if evidence for God was ever discovered. No is the answer you give to all other questions of this type such as "Does the tooth fairy exist?" or "Do you believe in UFO's?" In fact, I strongly suspect that Krauss would give this answer if the question was reworded to be "Do you believe that the universe has a purpose?"
It shouldn't make a difference how the question is worded. Note that there are several religious people who answer "YES" to the question. If they were to follow Krauss' advice the best they could say would be "Likely" but they don't do that. We all know about the absence of evidence excuse but for some reason it only seems to apply in practice to questions about religion. You don't believe me? Then how would you answer this question: "Did Saddam Hussein have a secret hidden stockpile of nuclear weapons?"
Finally, let's look at the response of another atheist. This time it's Neil deGrasse Tyson. Here's what he says,
Anyone who expresses a more definitive response to the question is claiming access to knowledge not based on empirical foundations. This remarkably persistent way of thinking, common to most religions and some branches of philosophy, has failed badly in past efforts to understand, and thereby predict the operations of the universe and our place within it....Neil deGrasse Tyson is an atheist. Does that last paragraph sound like someone who's not sure? Of course it doesn't.
So in the absence of human hubris, and after we filter out the delusional assessments it promotes within us, the universe looks more and more random. Whenever events that are purported to occur in our best interest are as numerous as other events that would just as soon kill us, then intent is hard, if not impossible, to assert. So while I cannot claim to know for sure whether or not the universe has a purpose, the case against it is strong, and visible to anyone who sees the universe as it is rather than as they wish it to be.
When he says that "Anyone who expresses a more definitive response to the question is claiming access to knowledge not based on empirical foundations" he's just pandering to religion. Does anyone seriously believe that he's NOT SURE about the existence of Santa Claus and NOT SURE about the existence of God?
Yes, it's true that we can't prove the non-existence of God and we can't prove that the universe has no purpose but those aren't really related to the type of question being asked. When someone asks whether the universe has a purpose you have every right to interpret this to mean whether in your best judgment the universe is designed with a purpose in mind. Especially if the question is being asked by the Templeton Foundation. Religious scientists answered YES, YES, and CERTAINLY. The religious humanities Professor answered I HOPE SO.
De Duve got it right. It was a loaded question and the responses from the wimpy atheists play right into the hands of the Templeton Foundation. They now have a full page ad where eight academics responded and only two said NO. (The other one is Peter Atkins.)