Someone asked me whether I thought there was any purpose to life and to the universe.
I think it is important here to distinguish between short range and long-range purpose.
Short range purpose relates to matters of temporal significance: My purpose in writing this note, the purpose of a bird catching a fish and taking it to its nest, the purpose of going to a restaurant, the purpose of the leader of a nation addressing his people, etc. To say there is no purpose in such contexts is missing the meaning of life.
Long range purpose relates to grander aims, such as a purpose in the creation/emergence of the universe, a purpose for the emergence and evolution of Homo sapiens, a purpose for the sky to be blue and light to obey Snell’s/Descartes’ law.
The religious spirit affirms/is convinced that there is a long range or ultimate purpose, and it tries to convince the materialist naturalist of this <truth> because it has serious implications to our values and worldviews.
The naturalist thinker is not convinced that there is, and thinks the religious thinker is seriously mistaken.
The religious person believes that the World and Humans were created by a personal God. Many things that we humans create, especially of a mechanical kind that functions in accordance with laws and principles – from axes to airplanes, from watches to windmills – has a purpose. Can you name a machine that was constructed without a purpose? So how can one imagine that the universe, which is the most gigantic machine there is (from the materialist-mechanistic perspective) be without a purpose? So argues the religionist.
Then again, there is something deeply unsatisfying spiritually (for the religiously inclined) to accept the idea that we are like fireflies that glow and go into oblivion for good. All the thoughts we generate, all the love we give and receive, all the ideas that we cherish and all the arts that we experience cannot be mere cerebral eruptions that appear and disappear, only to be extinguished collectively with the Heat Death of William Thomson and the Warmetöde of Clausius or the Pralaya Hindu eschatology. Even if these were to come about, there must be a reason for that. We cannot understand the why (for what purpose) of it all, but it doesn’t follow there is no answer to the why.
As I see it, if one accepts a Creator, the idea of Ultimate purpose is not all that unreasonable.
On the other hand, there is also an interesting theological position in the Hindu world (due to the 15th – 16th century Vallabhacharya) who argued that the universe is a game that the Divine is playing, and it has no other purpose than to entertain the Divine. The naturalist – whether religious, irreligious, or anti-religious – is quite satisfied with the explanations one keeps getting from the scientific citadel about the phenomenal world, and s/he is quite happy with to the reminder: Momento homo quia pulvis es, et pulverem revertis and applies this to every aspect of the individual, including all the feelings and experiences that were part of the deceased one, and finds no need to imagine indefinite persistence in a non-corporeal format for the late Mr/Mrs So-and So, not even in cyberspace as assured by Mr. Tipler with his Physics of Immortality.
For my part I feel that if the universe has a purpose, only the Universe can know it, and that means the Universe is a knowing (conscious) entity. This is exactly why there can never be a reconciliation between scientists and religionists on this issue: Scientists (by and large) assert that there is no God, i.e. the universe has no consciousness, whereas most religious perspectives have no doubt that there is one..
Personally, I don’t even understand for what purpose the United States is in Afghanistan. I don’t even know for what purpose my neighbor leaves home promptly at 7 AM every day. How can I speculate on, let alone presume to know why God created the universe, or whether, Who and how that God is? I am quite happy as long as the believer and the non-believer are both happy with their respective knowledge and convictions about whether or not, and what purpose the universe has.
January 25, 2011