What is the purpose of existence?

The scientific view of the universe as essentially mindless belies its purpose and direction.
NASA: public domain
NASA, ESA, H. Teplitz and M. Rafelski (IPAC/Caltech), A. Koekemoer (STScI), R. Windhorst (Arizona State University), and Z. Levay (STScI) / Public domain
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Vaclav Havel, president of the Czech Republic, stated that ‘the crisis of the much-needed global responsibility is in principle due to the fact that we have lost the certainty that the Universe . . . has a definite meaning and follows a definite purpose.’ I agree that if we fail to trust that the cosmos is, at heart, the unfolding of a transcending purpose, our ethical aspirations and zest for life will eventually wither on the vine. Today, we need to recapture freshly the religious sense of a purposeful universe. The future of religion is deeply tied to the plausibility of the idea that the universe is here for a reason.

The question, however, is whether we can we embrace such a sweeping idea without contradicting the discoveries of science, especially evolutionary biology. I shall argue here that, with the help of such scientifically enlightened religious thinkers as Michael Polanyi, Teilhard de Chardin, and Alfred North Whitehead, we may plausibly view the discoveries of natural science as a springboard toward a wider, more vibrant sense of an ultimately meaningful universe.

Traditionally, most religions led us to believe that the universe is inherently meaningful. This belief gave human lives a sense of belonging to something of great importance. Most of our ancestors considered the universe and our lives to be timelessly grounded in a transcendent principle of ‘rightness’ (Dharma, Rta, Tao) or ultimate Meaning (Brahman, Yahweh, Allah, etc.). They felt that the cosmos pulsed with meaning, and this intuition gave them a sound reason for ethical aspiration. The ideals that shape the ethical sensitivity of most humans today, including that of sceptics, still draw their authority from the moral heroism of our religious predecessors, most of whom believed they lived in a meaningful world. Today, whenever people surrender to the demands of virtue, regardless of how much this propensity may have been fashioned by evolutionary factors, we can assume it has been amplified and moulded by religious cultures of the past that attributed meaning to the whole universe. Contemporary efforts to live a life of justice or compassion – even where consciousness has become fully secularised – are connected, at least remotely, to ancient religious traditions that assumed the universe exists for a reason.

Traditional faiths, originating as they did before scientific discovery of deep cosmic time (a fourteen-billion-year-old universe), usually arranged their pictures of the world in a hierarchical way. At the lowest level were inanimate things such as minerals. Above this stratum lay the more elusive levels of plants, then animals, and finally humans with their capacity for reflective self-awareness, free choice, ethical aspiration, and religious longing. Presiding over all of the levels of being was the ultimate source of being and meaning, identified in theistic faiths as ‘God’. As we journey up this ‘Great Chain of Being’, the levels become more and more difficult to grasp in a controlling way. Moving up to the level of mind, we encounter something that is literally incomprehensible. For if we try to grasp our own subjective consciousness objectively, the subjective or ‘inner’ side of this consciousness will not show up in our objectifying vision. The subjective aspect of our consciousness cannot completely become an object of consciousness without losing its essential character of being subjective. And if even the human mind is so incomprehensible, it is not surprising that the highest level of all in the classic hierarchy, that of ultimate reality, would still lie utterly beyond our comprehension. If there is an ultimate level of reality that gives meaning or purpose to the universe, therefore, it would comprehend us, but we could not comprehend it.

According to most religious traditions, a purposeful universe must possess at least some kind and degree of hierarchical arrangement. In order to carry meaning, in other words, the book of nature must consist of various levels or dimensions, the lower able to be informed from above by higher levels of meaning. For this reason, traditional religions and philosophies have almost unanimously resisted modernist attempts to collapse their hierarchical visions down to a single, desacralised flatland.

One appealing feature of any hierarchical scheme has been that it embeds our own brief lives – and, indeed, the entire cosmos – within the larger context of an eternal reality immune to transience and death. Participation in the imperishable permanence of God rescues the flux of transitory cosmic and human events from the oblivion of nothingness.

The most serious challenge the new scientific picture of the universe poses to religion and its future, therefore, consists in great measure of its horizontalising and atomising the sacred, vertical hierarchy of traditional religions. By compressing and decomposing into lifeless atoms the richly layered symbolic, mythic, and metaphysical constructs in which the sense of a purposeful universe has for ages typically been conceptualised, the new science and cosmology seem to have destroyed the spinal column with which the various impressions of cosmic meaning have been entwined for thousands of years.

We cannot exaggerate the sense of anxiety brought about by the evolutionary scientific world-view. For many thoughtful people today, not only Darwinian biology, but also astrophysics and cosmology, have rendered the classical hierarchical religious schemes unbelievable – and, with them, any plausible intuition that the entirety of nature participates in the eternal. In modern evolutionary materialism, for example, the inanimate level, formerly thought of as the lowest level, is now identified as the most real or fundamental. Lifeless and mindless matter is now the ground or source of all beings, including those beings endowed with what we call ‘life’ and ‘mind’. In modern times, the universe of matter has been thought of as essentially lifeless and mindless. Accordingly, whatever has evolved from matter must also be essentially lifeless and mindless even if it seems, to our naive folk psychology, to be alive and intelligent. An essentially mindless cosmos, moreover, is not the sort of reality that could be permeated by meaning or purpose. Instead of being a book or a teaching whose meaningful content would gradually become transparent to the religiously awakened, the universe that evolves from dumb matter must always be intrinsically pointless. The formerly lowest level, that of inanimate matter, is now the ultimate explanation of the higher levels, and those levels of life and mind are epiphenomenal derivatives of an inherently meaningless material underpinning. In the absence of any sacred hierarchical information flowing downward from higher to lower levels, the physical universe no longer symbolically represents any eternal significance. And so, apparently, no grounds remain for our attributing lasting value or importance to it.

Evolutionary science, moreover, has blurred the former sense of ontological discontinuity between non-life, life, humanity, and culture to the point where we can no longer clearly decide where one leaves off and another begins. Evolutionary thinking sees only a physical and historical continuity running across all the levels of nature formerly thought to be discontinuous and hierarchically distinct. In all of science, in fact, nothing seems to have melted down the classic hierarchical vision more thoroughly than the evolutionary picture of nature. Combined with physics, chemistry, molecular biology, geology, and other sciences, neo-Darwinism has now made the traditional sense that nature leads us gradually upward to God, by way of a series of hierarchically distinct levels, seem quite unbelievable. For this reason, the future of any plausible religion will depend, to a great extent, on how well it deals with the fact of cosmic evolution.

At the same time that the ancient hierarchy has been flattened, historicised, and horizontalised, it has also been atomised. Atomism is the method of breaking down organisms or complex entities into more elemental units (such as atoms, molecules, genes, or cells). Atomistic reduction is an essential duty of science, but when atomistic analysis becomes a worldview, it inevitably demolishes hierarchies and their meanings. Once the complexity of nature has undergone granulation ontologically into irreducible particulate units – units that are themselves dumb and dead – it becomes difficult for us to discern the crisp hierarchical boundaries that formerly allowed us to distinguish among the levels of material, living, and thinking beings. As the analytic method of science becomes fixated on the atomic constituents of things, our intuitive sense that some hidden integrating principle of coherence fashions these elements into ontologically discontinuous grades of being begins gradually to dissolve.

All we have left, then, are atomic, molecular, or (today) genetic monads. The comprehensive wholeness that once made organisms seem qualitatively different and hierarchically more elevated than their inanimate constituents, melts away. The future survival of any intellectually coherent religion requires also, therefore, a competent critique of metaphysical reductionism.

As if atomistic reductionism were not wounding enough to the ancient religious visions of reality, the specifically Darwinian cast of contemporary biology has lately made it more and more difficult for many scientifically educated people to feel the deep connection their ancestors experienced between human ethical life and the universe itself. A universe that allows so much randomness, struggle, suffering, elimination of the weak, and impersonal natural selection seems utterly indifferent to us, and opaque to our ethical sensitivities. After Darwin, any suggestion that the universe is an intrinsically meaningful process appears more gratuitous than ever. Nature, at least as it is now understood by neo-Darwinism, is blind, aimless, and apparently pointless. Future religious thought will have to address this cosmic pessimism more directly than ever before.

Even in the wake of Darwin and the new cosmology, I propose, however, that it has not been decisively demonstrated that a trust in cosmic purpose is silly or stupid. Here I shall offer four considerations that may offer a challenge to the horizontalising and atomising reductionism that has reigned so confidently in modern intellectual culture.

Let me begin by suggesting that the ‘historicising’ and ‘atomising’ of nature by our new sense of deep evolutionary time and molecular biology does not logically eliminate a hierarchical universe. Since a purposeful universe requires some kind of hierarchical ordering, it is not without interest that the new scientific rediscovery of the idea of information now permits, in principle, the logical and ontological discontinuity in nature that saves the idea of hierarchy – albeit not in the static sense of pre-evolutionary thought. The scientist and philosopher Michael Polanyi, for example, has logically demonstrated that the quiet entry of informational novelty into the course of evolution allows us to hold on to the venerable conviction that there abides in nature, after all, a real discontinuity of levels (or dimensions) – and therefore an ontological hierarchy – and that we can affirm its reality without having to deny the chemical and historical continuity in evolution.

The most obvious evidence of the presence of information in nature is found in DNA. DNA is a chain of chemicals, but it is not just chemistry. The DNA in living beings is also a specific informational sequence of four acid bases (A, T, C, and G). This informational aspect of DNA figuratively outlines the distinctive shapes and identities of all living beings. Although, at a certain level of analysis, DNA appears to be just chemistry, the informational aspect is logically distinguishable from the strictly deterministic chemical processes operative in all living beings. The specific sequence of the letters in the DNA of any particular organism consists of an informational arrangement that cannot be reduced without remainder to chemistry.

A simple analogy may help to clarify this point. Suppose I scribble aimlessly with my pen on a piece of paper, but then suddenly begin writing a coherent sentence. From the point of view of the chemistry that bonds ink to paper, there is a physical continuity between the scrawl on the one side and the sentence on the other – at least when we look at it from a ‘lower’ level of analysis. But from a ‘higher’, informational, point of view, the specific arrangement of letters in a code that forms a sentence introduces discontinuity. Physico-chemical continuity remains, but it does not rule out an overriding logical and informational discontinuity.

Analogously, the informational arrangement of nucleotides in DNA does not violate, but instead relies on, the laws of chemistry and their uniform operation. And so, if we look at DNA from a purely materialist perspective, we will indeed see just chemistry. But even though physical and chemical determinism is essential to DNA, the nucleotides can be arranged in an indefinite number of sequences. Their specific sequence is not chemically determined. A quiet, even physically invisible, introduction of informational patterning, therefore, can bring about sharp ontological discontinuity even though strict continuity of nature’s inviolable physical laws still prevails at the lower, chemical level. An informational discontinuity at one level can exist simultaneously with unbroken physical and historical continuity at another.

A second consideration is that the universe, as viewed by astrophysics, may not be essentially lifeless and mindless, after all, even though a great deal of modern thought since Descartes has assumed this. The whole edifice of modern cosmic pessimism (the denial of purpose in the universe) is built on the assumption of an inherently mindless universe. Yet, we now know how exquisitely sensitive the existence of mind is to initial conditions and fundamental constants established at the time of the Big Bang. Therefore we have good scientific reasons for questioning the metaphysical foundations of modern materialism. This reasoning goes as follows:

In order to have ‘mind’ (in the sense of human consciousness), science now realises that there must be brains with sufficient physiological complexity to entertain what we call ‘thought’. But for nature to bring about complex brains, a process of Darwinian evolution was necessary. To have evolution, in turn, there must first be life. And to get to life, there must be planets in the universe with the right chemical composition, including especially carbon. But where does the carbon come from? The existence of massive stars was required to cook the lighter elements (hydrogen and helium) into carbon and other heavy elements. But the existence of massive stars, some of which have exploded as supernovae, cannot be taken for granted. For them to exist at all, the rate of cosmic expansion (Hubble constant) and the gravitational coupling constant had to have precisely the values they in fact possess – values that have been fixed from the very first moment of the universe’s existence. An infinitesimally slower or faster expansion of the universe, or a weaker or stronger gravitational force, would have forbidden the evolution of supernovae, carbon, life, and mind. ‘Mind’, therefore, is much more intricately tied into the basic structure of the early universe than most scientists imagined half a century ago.

I do not intend here to use the current physics of the early universe as the basis for a new natural theology or a post-Darwinian design argument for God’s existence (although some scientists do precisely this). Rather, I wish only to emphasize that, when we locate the story of life and mind within the larger cosmic narrative, they look a lot less improbable or accidental than they did before recent developments in astrophysics. There is still plenty of room for contingency in evolution, but we cannot be as certain, as was biologist Jacques Monod only thirty years ago for example, that matter is inherently hostile to life, or that the universe is essentially mindless. And since most modern scientific materialism and cosmic pessimism have rejected the idea of cosmic purpose because they assumed that the universe is essentially mindless, contemporary cosmology makes us suspect that mind has somehow been woven into the fabric of the universe from its earliest beginnings.

In pondering the question of science and cosmic purpose, my third consideration proposes that it would be most worthwhile for us to look carefully again at the evolutionary ideas of Teilhard de Chardin (1881– 1955). Perhaps more than any other important thinker in the late modern world, this famous Jesuit geologist was convinced that the universe is not indifferent to mind (or spirit). Rather, he insisted, the emergence and intensification of consciousness is central to the very essence and meaning of cosmic reality. As matter has become increasingly complex, it has become ever more fully endowed with consciousness. It has also become more social and more free. Moreover, from the beginning of the universe, matter has exhibited a tendency to cluster around a centre. (Teilhard called this ‘centration’.) Even at the level of the atom, we see the tendency of matter to organise itself around a centre. Centration is manifested later in the eukaryotic cell that is arranged around a nucleus, and – much later in evolution – in ant hills and beehives where the queen is central. Further intensification of ‘centredness’ occurs in vertebrates, primates, and eventually in the self-awareness of human persons. Centration continues now at the social and planetary phase of evolution in the phenomenon of religion. Religions carry forward at the human level (that is, at the level Teilhard called the ‘noosphere’) the very same cosmic search for the centre that began long ago with the atom.

So there is clear evidence of directionality in the cosmic process. But is there purpose in our evolving universe? For a process to have meaning or purpose it must give evidence of being oriented toward achieving some value. Purpose means the ‘realising of a value’. Inasmuch as the cosmic process, at least according to Teilhard, is bent on giving birth to more and more consciousness, it exhibits the character of being purposeful. Consciousness, after all, is self-evidently a value. Even to deny this, one would be implicitly valuing one’s consciousness.

Above all, I would like now to consider the contributions of the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead to the question of purpose in an evolving universe. Whitehead (1861–1946), the renowned British and American philosopher and mathematician, was quite familiar with evolutionary science. This great philosopher’s wide vision weaves our human existence tightly into the fabric of an organic cosmic development. It does so in a way that can embrace, on the one hand, contemporary scientific (including Darwinian) understandings of how the universe works, and, on the other, a religious conviction that the cosmos is the repository of a timeless meaning. Without suppressing the ideas of Darwin or any other segments of natural science, Whitehead’s understanding of nature rescues the universe and human existence from what modern thought had prematurely claimed to be an inherent pointlessness.

Like Teilhard, Whitehead was impressed by the relatively recent scientific discovery that the cosmos is not a state, but an unfinished process. The universe has always been discontent with the status quo. According to Whitehead, an appropriate way of thinking about cosmic purpose in an evolutionary world is to view the universe as a restless aim toward ever more intense configurations of beauty.

Beauty, of course, is a difficult notion to define clearly. However, many philosophers have agreed that beauty implies, at the very least, a delicate balance of form and content, a blend of unity with multiplicity. Similarly, for Whitehead, beauty is the ‘harmony of contrasts’ or the ‘ordering of novelty’. Without the novelty of contrast, only the monotony of bland order remains. But without some degree of order the elements of novelty and contrast will dissolve into the ugliness of chaos. Sometimes order may suppress the element of contrast, levelling it down to flat uniformity. At other times, variety may threaten to overwhelm unity, fragmenting it into incoherent particulars. Every instance of genuine beauty stands somewhere between chaos on the one side and monotony or triviality on the other. Beauty arouses our appreciation by turning what would otherwise be contradictions or clashes into aesthetic patterns that preserve both nuance and coherence. Beauty embraces local conflict, framing it in a wider vision wherein difference enhances the whole instead of being the mere chaos that destroys it.

It is toward bringing about such instances of beauty that our universe seems always to have tended overall, though not always successfully. And beauty has emerged with increasingly more intensity. In view of the discoveries of sciences ranging from astrophysics to biology, today there can be little doubt, at least when we view it over the long run, that the universe has wended its way directionally from simplicity to complexity, from triviality to more intense versions of ordered novelty – that is, toward emergent beauty.

For a process to be called purposeful, to repeat my earlier point, it must be oriented toward the realizing of what we take to be self-evidently valuable. Thus the universe, in aiming toward beauty, a ‘transcendental’ value (along with being, unity, truth, and goodness), in spite of all the randomness we see in the life story, shows itself to be something more than a mere hit-or-miss affair. Even though its ‘aim toward beauty’ may not always have been effectively realised in every cosmic episode or domain, it is not rash to suspect that, from its beginning, the cosmos has had at least a loose kind of teleology or purposiveness. It has been aiming toward and achieving beauty in the sense defined above.

Of course, from our own finite perspective, the universe will often seem, at least locally, to bear features more discordant than harmonious. But this does not warrant the modern extrapolation from local disorder to the pessimistic claim that the universe is pointless overall. The judgement that the universe is ultimately pointless is often made on the basis of a purely materialist reading of the Darwinian picture of life. With Whitehead and our ancient religious traditions, however, I suggest we can look for a wider vision, without having to overlook Darwin.

The aesthetic understanding of the cosmos I propose admonishes us that our human vantage point is inevitably limited, even if it seems to enjoy the apparent support of science. The great religious and metaphysical traditions almost universally instruct us that there is always a more expansive perspective on the cosmos than any individual human being, or any particular culture or historical epoch, can legitimately claim, and that our own impressions are only fleeting glimpses of an immeasurable, still unfolding panorama. If we follow the intuitions of our great wisdom traditions, even the scientifically educated can allow for a perspective – beyond our own vision – that can in the long run resolve local contradictions, monotonies, and absurdities into a harmonious and beautiful whole. Even though our finite vistas cannot, at least for now, encompass such a whole, we can allow it gradually to encompass us.

The general features of the universe, I propose, may be shaped by an ‘aesthetic cosmological principle’. Unlike the so-called ‘anthropic cosmological principle’, which views the physical constants and initial conditions of the universe primarily as pointing toward the eventual emergence of human consciousness, the aesthetic cosmological principle suggests, more generously, that the universe has apparently been set up from the beginning in a manner that permits the ongoing creation of manifold forms of beauty. The physicist Freeman Dyson has recently speculated that the universe is fashioned according to a ‘principle of maximum diversity’, according to which ‘the laws of nature and initial conditions are such as to make the universe as interesting as possible.’ The aesthetic principle I propose here, on the basis of Whitehead’s metaphysics and contemporary astrophysics, expresses a deeper intuition: The ‘point’ of the universe is to maximise beauty and, with it, modes of experience capable of appreciating and enjoying beauty with ever greater intensity. Such a vision dramatises all the more, by way of contrast, the ugliness and evil of our current destruction of earth’s life-systems, the precious and irreplaceable products of an immensely long evolutionary creation of diversity and beauty. In their ecological recklessness, our current cultures and economies are clearly moving against the grain of the universe.

In a post-Darwinian world our moral lives can be securely grounded, and religion can have an effective future, if we think of them in connection with the universe’s own purposeful impetus toward intensifying beauty. The universe, as it turns out, is not fundamentally indifferent or hostile to the realisation of value, for it has always had an adventurous inclination to expand the domain of beauty, a beauty intrinsic to things and not simply in the eyes of the beholder. It is true that Darwinian process leads toward the intensification of beauty in ways that may not conform neatly to our human standards of good design. But this need not obscure the more generic cosmic propensity to amplify the scope of beauty.

The purpose of human life, situated in a cosmos that aims toward aesthetic intensity, must relate to preserving and enlarging the dominion of beauty in the universe. An awareness that our own conduct can contribute to the ongoing creation and expansion of cosmic beauty may give our moral lives a sense of being meaningfully, creatively tied into what is going on in the universe at large. I would like to suggest that we link our own sense of meaning and morality, as well as our vocations, to the deep and ageless cosmic striving to intensify beauty.

This way of understanding ethical life and cosmic purpose still begs the irrepressible question of why the world is apparently shaped by an aesthetic cosmological principle. Did things have to be this way? Why does the universe have an urge to move beyond the status quo? Why the impetus for so much novelty, contrast, and diversity? And why is the cosmic creation of beauty spread over so many billions of years and such immense spatial magnitude? Why has there been so much evolutionary drama, including not only the invention of unpredictable beauty, but also enormous struggle and loss? And why did life take so long to become complex enough to be endowed with consciousness and the capacity for ethical aspiration?

These are humanly unanswerable questions, of course, but the long view proposed by the great religions, and mediated by an aesthetically understood evolutionary cosmology, would consider all of the universe’s puzzling features revealed by modern science to be consistent with the notion of an ultimate reality whose intention is to maximise beauty. Moreover, if this ultimate reality is conceived of as essentially infinite love, it would apparently act most effectively not by forcing its will on to the cosmos in some instantaneous display of divine magicianship, but by inviting the universe to unfold freely and spontaneously from within itself, at its own pace. ‘God’, as we name this ultimate reality in the context of Western theistic religions, longs for the freedom, self-coherence, and risk-filled aesthetic intensification of the cosmos.

This essay originally appeared under the title Science and Quest for Cosmic Purpose in The Future of Religion: Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar, Axess, 2001.

John Haught

John F. Haught is Landegger Distinguished Professor of Theology at Georgetown University, US. He established the Georgetown Center for the Study of Science and Religion. He is the author of, among many other works, The Promise of Nature: Ecology and Cosmic Purpose (1993); Science and Religion: From Conflict to Conversation (1995); and God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution (2000).

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