The Purpose of the Universe

In Puebla Mexico, the newly dubbed Ciudad de las ideas, (City of Ideas) the third annual Festival Internacional de Mentes Brillantes (International Festival of Great Minds) took place this past weekend. Along with two other theologians, I was assigned a daunting and fascinating task: to argue about whether the universe has a purpose. On one side stood Richard Dawkins, Matt Ridley and Michael Shermer -- respectively, the biologist and scourge of religion, the science writer and the editor of Skeptic magazine. In my corner of the sky were William Lane Craig, scholar and author, and Doug Geivatt, author and professor at Biola University. We said yes, they said no.

Now, you might be thinking the proper answer is "no one can know." That might be so, but none of us was willing to let it rest there. At first glance we could all agree that the universe has a purpose the way the kitchen has a meal -- it offers the ingredients. You can make purpose in your life from the raw materials that the universe gives you. But the question was not plural -- not does the universe contains purposes, but does the universe have a purpose?

The festival brings together thinkers and writers from all over the world. How eclectic? At dinner the first night, I sat across from David Buss, expert in human sexuality, Phil Zombardo, psychologist who has written extensively about evil and heroism, and at my side was Henry Markram, a scientist from Lausanne who is painstakingly building a computer model of the brain. He spoke captivatingly about the degree to which our senses are only the beginning of interpreting the reality we see; when someone receives a retinal transplant, they first see nothing, then white and only gradually, when the brain begins to interpret the signals, do they see shapes, colors, the world. So by recreating the brain, building it from the ground up, Markram and his team hope to understand how we see the world. There was much more to the conversation, but he stayed away from the purpose of the universe. We agreed that the brain, however, might be the universe's way of understanding itself.

The festival is the remarkable brainchild of Andreas Roemer, who in addition to his other accomplishments is an entrepreneur of ideas. He succeeded in interesting Ricardo Salinas, the businessman who is one of the wealthiest men in the world, in his dream. Not only did Salinas underwrite the festival, he attended all the events, including the meals, and appeared to be genuinely interested in the exchanges. It seemed to me an ideal collaboration of vision and resource.

And the universe debate? Everyone was vigorous but it was mostly high toned. It is true that Richard Dawkins (who had given a witty and combative talk the day before ridiculing religion) derided people of faith as childish and lazy, while scientists rolled up their sleeves to figure out the world, but it was in the larger context of religion being not thoughtful but wishful. He also, along with Shermer and Ridley, made the point that the ascription of purpose to the universe from our little corner could be seen as arrogant. (More in a moment on how the remarkable Sean Stephenson turned that argument on its head.) Shermer, characteristically forceful, gave practical advice on how to inject purpose into one's life without the unnecessary illusion of religious belief. Ridley was urbane and persuasive, arguing that the existence of mystery was not equal to purpose and the fact that there are things we cannot explain certainly does not require God or faith to rush in and fill the gap.

Michio Kaku, the physicist and futurist, Amir Aczel, mathematician and writer, Jerome Friedman, Nobel laureate physicist and Daniel Schacter, cognitive scientist and memory expert, all weighed in. Essentially they argued no one could know, and it depended on how one defined purpose.

My own argument was first: The universe is delicately poised on nothingness; change one of many cosmological constants by just a fraction and our world could not exist. In other words, it is extravagantly improbable for everything to be balanced perfectly for existence and yet it is so. Perhaps it was meant to be so. Moreover, it is astonishing that the universe has laws we can actually grasp. Indeed, the very practice of science presupposes there is some purpose, aim or meaning to all this. How can we investigate or understand nonsense or meaninglessness? I also argued that reason is not the only tool for investigation of reality. Our most basic beliefs are the rock upon which our reason is built, not the product of it.

My compatriots, Craig and Geivett, hammered home the point that if there is a God the universe has a meaning, but if not, we would agree with our opponents that it was empty and doomed. They also carefully marshaled arguments for why God was the best explanation of the phenomenon of life. These included everything from the mystery of consciousness (how do you get self awareness if everything is just matter, stuff, the same as a rock) to C.S. Lewis' claim that if we have yearnings that are not satisfied in this world, it is possible that is because this world is not the only one.

Sean Stephenson, a speaker at the conference who has struggled with tremendous physical disabilities in his life but worked in The White House and has become a renowned inspiration speaker, asked a question from the floor: Is it not arrogant, he said, to imagine that something as puny as a human being can have a purpose, but to assert that something as grand as the universe cannot? Nobody answered this powerful point and we were delighted to have such an eloquent ally.

Who won the debate? Well, you can judge it for yourself now that it is posted on the festival site and on YouTube. The short answer is: the audience. It involved people who care passionately, believe deeply and expressed their beliefs clearly. Bravo to the festival, its organizers and attendees. Universe aside, it more than validated its purpose.

Here is the original english video of the debate: