Thursday, October 18, 2007

Does the Universe Have a Purpose?

 
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....

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.
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.

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....

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.
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.

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....

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.
Neil deGrasse Tyson is an atheist. Does that last paragraph sound like someone who's not sure? Of course it doesn't.

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.)


23 comments :

  1. For some strange unknown reason my RSS feed didn't pick up this article. It's really good too! Thanks Larry Moran.

    ReplyDelete
  2. You can read it all

    http://genesis1.phys.cwru.edu/~krauss/essay_Krauss.html

    I think

    ReplyDelete
  3. 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.


    Of course it makes a difference!

    "Do you believe that the universe has a purpose?"

    No.

    "Does the universe have a purpose?"

    Unlikely.

    "Do you believe in UFO's?"

    Unidentified Flying Objects. Sure.

    Alien visitors from a distant planet? No.

    "Do UFO's exist?"

    Unidentified Flying Object? Sure.

    Alien visitors from a distant planet? Unlikely.

    ('Unlikely' is a valid descriptor for extremely small, non-zero probabilities)

    This isn't a cop-out. It's thinking clearly.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Hi Ian,

    Thanks for your comment.

    Do you believe that diluted water containing the memory of a noxious substance can cure cancer?

    Can diluted water containing the memory of a noxious substance cure cancer?

    If your answer to the second question is anything but NO then you are a prime candidate for a testimonial on the homeopathy website.

    So-called "clear thinking" can get you into trouble when unscrupulous people take advantage. I think that's what the Templeton Foundation did.

    BTW, I notice that you weren't critical of the people who answered YES to the question? Why is that? None of the four religious academics offered very much in the way of hedging their bets. Are they all unclear thinkers in your opinion? Are you prepared to say that anybody who answers YES is not thinking clearly?

    ReplyDelete
  5. Several issues are being conflated: 1) divine creator, 2) original purposefulness, 3) human-centered purpose, 4) benevolent purpose. In principle, even a "purposeful" universe need not have all, nor even any, of these features.

    1) The universe could have a purpose without a divine creator. For example a) an impersonal 'telic law,' b) a self-contained loop in which the universe creates itself through retrocausality and the unwitting medium of observers (Davies), c) reproducing with the aid of intelligent but non-supernatural lifeforms (James Gardner's Biocosm hypothesis.)

    2) It could acquire a purpose even it had not originated with one. For example, intelligent lifeforms - perhaps us - could endow it with a purpose and guide its future development; for example, making the whole of it human-friendly, or replicating or preserving it.

    3) It could have a purpose for which humans are wholly irrelevant. For example, generating intelligent life on the hypothetical planet 'Gelgamek' (see South Park), while earth and humans are an accidental byproduct of Gelgamek-friendly cosmological rules.

    4) It could have a malign purpose; that is, it is designed to make human beings suffer. ('Kid with an ant farm' hypothesis - see the movie Constantine.)

    Not that I take any of these variants especially seriously.

    To the question of generic purposefulness (without all of these qualifiers) I think the most appropriate answer is that while this notion is not supported scientifically, it cannot be ruled out philosophically. (And not even in the same way as an invisible pink unicorn or a cosmic teacup.) At this stage it's not yet a scientific question, and may never be. Individual scientists can opine on whatever they want, but I would not favor science textbooks weighing in on the existence of God, the soul, and cosmic purpose.

    Tupaia

    ReplyDelete
  6. as i once heard: the world is round; it has no point.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Do you believe that diluted water containing the memory of a noxious substance can cure cancer?

    No.

    Can diluted water containing the memory of a noxious substance cure cancer?

    Unlikely.

    If your answer to the second question is anything but NO then you are a prime candidate for a testimonial on the homeopathy website.

    Yes, I can see it now - "Homeopathy: it's unlikely to work - student, SC". That should boost their sales!

    BTW, I notice that you weren't critical of the people who answered YES to the question? Why is that? None of the four religious academics offered very much in the way of hedging their bets. Are they all unclear thinkers in your opinion? Are you prepared to say that anybody who answers YES is not thinking clearly?

    Absolutely they are unclear thinkers - I took it for granted that those answering 'yes' shouldn't even be taken seriously, especially on a blog such as yours.

    ReplyDelete
  8. The availabe evidence indicates the universe has no purpose.

    That said, the question of universal purpose is not on a par with the existence of the tooth fairy, or the claimed memory of water.

    Each of the latter makes specific predictions which are testable, have been tested, and shown to be wrong.

    The possible purpose of the universe is not so readily tested. I don't agree we can say "the universe has no purpose" as confidently as we can say "there is no tooth fairy."

    - qetzal

    ReplyDelete
  9. "Fine-tuning" is the best simple argument they have for "purpose" right now, but it's still a god-of-the-gaps argument (based on incomplete knowledge). Nevertheless, it's a bit stronger than santa claus.

    Purpose may require a "mind", but so does science. It's hard to make observations and perform scientific experiments without one. "Mind" always seems to be involved, somehow.

    ReplyDelete
  10. What's the matter, Larry? Did Krauss and deGrasse Tyson not frame their answers correctly?

    ReplyDelete
  11. I have never quite understood this absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

    It seems to be saying that just becuase evidence has not been found to support a hypothesis then you cannot say that hypothesis is false, and in one way that is correct. You cannot be sure that you will not find such evidence in the future. However there must come a time when the absence of evidence starts to mean something. If no evidence has been found, after decades of looking, then is it not reasonable to assume for the moment that the hypothesis is false and move on ?

    ReplyDelete
  12. I must confess that I have a hard time finding a purpose to the question. Except of course for apologists such as Templeton Foundation.

    It is related to the question "why is there something instead of nothing", and have the same appropriate answer, "why not". (At least Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy got that right.) Both ways of answering, in the absence of looking at empirical evidence, is as uninformative.

    Looking at empirical evidence, we find that "purpose" and "nothing" are hypothesized events outside the distribution of observed events - no laws or initial conditions have been found to have "purpose" or describe "nothing". There is nothing we can say, I would claim even philosophically, in such cases.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I forgot to say that I think De Duve's answer is excellent.

    you can't prove a negative

    We can, but it is definitely harder. For example, "no local hidden variables" is a universal negative result derived from QM. And Bell test experiments have verified it to ridiculous certainty.

    The problem is to patch the loopholes. But as these loopholes are tested one after one you soon reach the situation Matthew describes, that 'absence of evidence becomes evidence of absence' in a likelihood perspective.

    "Fine-tuning" is the best simple argument they have for "purpose"

    It is actually not a true argument, it is based on mistaking a posteriori likelihoods for a priori probabilities. You can't convert low probabilities automatically to low likelihoods.

    For example, it is very low probability that any small subset of phylogenetic trees describe the fossil record. In that sense evolution seems "fine-tuned". But when you do a likelihood analysis such a small subset acquires a high likelihood to describe observations. (And AFAIU we know that evolution has a rather unconstrained outcome naturally.)

    The same happens with cosmological fine-tunings. We can't exclude multiverses, and they serve to help us make the same conclusion for parameters of cosmological models. (And multiverse are actually natural consequences of supported theories like inflation and proposed theories like string theory.) And again the same thing for the multitude of stars vs likelihood for life.

    In fact Ikeda & Jeffery show that under very weak assumptions fine-tunings are evidence fornaturality, not against it. (This modifies heavily single choice of theories where normalized parameters naturally will be ~ 1.)

    ReplyDelete
  14. Larry,

    The great thing about the Christianity of the last 500 years is its success in positioning itself as the only explanatorily intelligible account (EIA) of the cosmos. Theism, agnosticism, and atheism are three stops on the Christian spectrum of belief/thought. So even if one is atheist (whom the believing Christian considers merely a believer in the making) one is simply arguing using terms such as purpose drawn from dogma. To discuss whether there is purpose is to enter into an argument about existence god. So what you must be doing Larry, is to exit this entire controversy. It is worthless if you do not buy into belief as an EIA

    ReplyDelete
  15. Eamon Knight asks,

    What's the matter, Larry? Did Krauss and deGrasse Tyson not frame their answers correctly?

    No, they didn't. They were asked a metaphysical question and they answered as though it were a scientific question. The other side understood the question correctly.

    ReplyDelete
  16. The respondents (all of them) could also have answered the question orthogonally with, "It doesn't matter."

    A more relevant question would be: Does the Universe have a human-knowable purpose? Now the responses from atheists would be clear.

    ReplyDelete
  17. How would you rate these answers:

    "I don't understand the question."

    "I have purposes, I presume that you have purposes, and we are part of the universe."

    ReplyDelete
  18. I have seen the argument advanced that the Universe has a purpose - reproduction - in exactly the same way that all living organisms have a purpose.

    This is a view put forward by Lee Smolin and then popularise by John Gribbin - both apparently respectable enough in their field.

    The hypothesis goes that when a star collapses into a black hole, that causes "budding off" of a Universe parallel to our own. The collapse in one Universe being the same event that is seen as the Big Bang in the daugher Universe.

    The hypothesis then allows the values of various fundamental constants of physics to be "inherited" from the parent Universe to its daughters, but with subtle variations between daughter Universes.

    That being so, over time, the population of different Universes expands. The Universes which predominate are those which are best at forming black holes. Thus the "purpose" of any given Universe is to generate stars massive enough to undergo gravitational collapse into black holes.

    I have no idea of the plausibility of the physics involved, naturally!

    ReplyDelete
  19. I read most of the atheists as saying, "The universe doesn't have a purpose, but I don't want to rock the boat (and if you're really cynical) or blow my chance of getting a million dollars."

    ReplyDelete
  20. What exactly do we mean by "purpose"? Most definitions relate it inextricably to intention.

    If the universe has any "utility", one must answer in a qualified affirmative: so-called sentient organisms that evolve anywhere in the universe may find parts of it "useful", and they can have reasons for thinking so. Can any super-evolved sentience given sufficient time eventually utilize the entire universe? That does not seem feasible from what we presently understand in terms of relativistic and cosmological limitations. So far as we know, no part of the universe that has acheived sentience can manipulate all of what they see.

    If one presupposes that the universe as an entity ITSELF has a purpose, then one automatically invests it with reason.

    The question then becomes, "Does the universe reason?" or, somewhat more blatantly "Does the universe think?"

    I would answer with a simple counter-question: why should it have to when we already KNOW that the universe already produces local pockets of "purpose" and "reason" like us? As far as an conceited part of the universe can tell, the universe as a whole doesn't need to "DO" anything but "BE". No purpose, no reason, just "IS".

    ReplyDelete
  21. explanatorily intelligible account

    This looks like irony, but considering the following comments I guess not. If religion is your idea of an intelligible account, I pity you.

    This is a view put forward by Lee Smolin and then popularise by John Gribbin - both apparently respectable enough in their field.

    I don't know about science writer Gribbin, but physicist Smolin seems to be a bit of a kook. He has invested himself in diverse harebrained ideas that he can't let go off.

    Smolins idea of a quasi-darwinian multiverse, where the most productive set of parameters dominate, is quite ingenious though. It has the same properties as evolution, as you only have to consider local probabilities to find a solution. While the usual weak anthropic multiverse alternative has problems with defining a global probability description and so definitive solutions.

    AFAIU current models of black holes doesn't permit worm holes that can create new universes. So this ideas is currently dead in the water as I understand it.

    ReplyDelete
  22. Re: Smolin’s Ideas.
    Whether Smolin’s particular concept works or not, it is, in fact, just one of a genus of models of the ‘multiverse’ type. Talking abstractedly, multiverse ideas embed our current universe, with its array of givens, into a much larger ontological setting in such a way that these givens are ‘explained’. ‘Explained’ in this context means to dilute the apparent statistical significance of the cosmic givens by envisaging them to be a random outcome in a much larger field of irreducible randomness. However, this simply has the effect of regressing ‘cosmic specialness’ to an imagined higher-level physical regime. This regime must itself have a given set of special laws, substances and parameters required to choose/maintain/evolve the ‘lower’ physical regimes of individual universes.

    In short special conditions are inescapable. The ‘brute fact’ of specialness cannot be expurgated in an absolute sense and so the temptation to seek higher-level explanations will always remain. This temptation will invite speculations about the nature of the outermost context that is the ‘explanatory wrapper’ for our cosmos. Those speculations will include both atheistic and theistic ‘outer contexts’. Atheism, by definition is committed to hybridizing the extreme ends of the complexity spectrum by using the complexity of randomness weighted according to simple laws. This has the advantage of mathematical if not epistemological tractability. Theism posits an outer context that is intermediate between the extremes of randomness and simplicity, namely that of personality and deity, which presumably has the property of aseity. The loss of scientific tractability in theism is compensated for by a gain in meaning as it seeks to illuminate the human predicament in terms intelligible to human personality: namely justice, love, mercy, sacrifice, intension, providence, and, of course, purpose. That’s what they call theology. You take it or you leave it.

    ReplyDelete
  23. Everything needs cause and effect except for choices. Choices may have reasons, but it is simply something that the chooser can and does do.

    Unless the universe chose to have the big bang then something else had to have caused the big bang.

    So it logically follows that the universe can choose and therefore that it thinks.

    ReplyDelete