Science and the Quest for Cosmic Purpose

Science and the Quest for Cosmic Purpose

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Can we any longer think of the universe as purposeful? Traditionally most religions led us to believe that the universe is inherently meaningful, thus giving humans a sense of belonging to something of great importance. Often the cosmos was understood to be a great “teaching” or even a “book,” one whose significance could be “read” at various levels of depth by those appropriately initiated. Most of our ancestors considered the universe and our lives within it to be timelessly grounded in a transcendent principle of ultimate Meaning (Dharma, Rta, Tao, Brahman, Yahweh, Allah, Wakan, etc.) Their lives were shaped by a deep assurance that the world was at heart governed by a principle of “rightness,” and their trust in and obedience to this principle was the ground of their ethical aspiration as well.

According to many religious traditions, moreover, in order to have a meaning or purpose the universe had to be structured hierarchically. It had to consist of at least several levels, typically thought of—moving from lower to higher—as the inanimate, the living, the sentient, and the self-aware. Presiding over all of these levels was a hidden but eminently real Source of meaning, identified in theistic faiths as “God.”

The persistent attraction of such a hierarchical scheme is that it embeds the temporal world within the framework of an eternal, absolute and sacred reality immune to transiency and death. Only participation in such a Permanence can give final meaning to the perishable flux of finite existence. In fact, the term “hierarchy,” which today may seem evocative of patriarchal ecclesial politics, originally implied that all things have their origin (arche) in the domain of the sacred (hier). Traditional religions and philosophies almost unanimously resisted the idea that the universe could be reduced to a single, desacralized dimension, and so they consistently clung to a hierarchical cosmology and metaphysics.

However, modern science seems to have made the classical hierarchical vision untenable, and consequently it is very difficult for many of us to think seriously of nature any longer as the expression of an eternal meaning. Perhaps it isn’t too much of an oversimplification to say that the main threat modern science has posed to religion is its apparent collapsing of the sacred hierarchical representation of being. In the absence of such a framework it is difficult to imagine how the universe could have any abiding purpose. Outside of a hierarchical setting there would be only a flattened-out cosmos with no “other dimension” to redeem it or give lasting importance to it. We could have no sense that the temporal participates in the eternal, or that there is any transcendent value, importance or meaning to the evanescent physical universe and our own fleeting lives.

Two characteristics of modern science have been especially instrumental in laying low the ancient hierarchical vision. These are the “atomizing” and the “historicizing” of nature. The atomistic intuition that life and mind will be made fully intelligible only by scientifically specifying their subordinate physical particulars has made many in the scientific community wonder if there is any more to living and thinking beings than just atomic, molecular or genetic activity, and whether atomic “matter’ might not, ultimately, be all there is to reality. If so, then there seems to be little if any room for a (cognitively plausible) religious sense of cosmic purpose. Atomism, by which I mean the ideal of explaining things in terms of elemental units—whether the particles of high-energy physics, molecules, cells, genes, memes, or whatever—makes the ancient cosmological hierarchy seem either illusory or irrelevant. It does this by blurring the ontological discontinuities formerly deemed essential to hierarchy. If everything from rocks to brains is composed of atoms, can we draw sharp lines anywhere? And if we cannot discern clear boundaries, how can we speak of “levels” or distinct “dimensions” in anything like a cosmic “hierarchy”?

The second, and no less significant, challenge by science to the religious sense of hierarchy—and consequently to cosmic meaning—lies in our relatively recent discovery that life and mind have emerged only gradually out of the incredibly long natural-historical process that we call “evolution.” Evolution is an unsettling idea for a number of reasons, but one of the most important is that it seems to imply that life and mind have “emerged” only little by little, and perhaps blindly and accidentally, out of the lifelessness of an utterly “physical” simplicity. That higher levels can emerge historically from lower levels all by themselves, without transcendent agency, would have been inconceivable to the proponents of the classic hierarchical metaphysics. The idea that over the course of time lifeless matter by itself can give birth to life would have violated the principle that no effect can be greater than its cause. Formerly, causation was pictured as flowing downward from the highest level, that of the divine, to the lowest levels, and holding the chain of being up from above, as it were, so that first principles remained intact.

But all of this was before we came to realize how much time the cosmos has had to produce life and mind. In the absence of any sense of the vast epochs of natural history that seem now to allow for their gradual emergence by trial and error experimentation, the most efficient way of accounting for the complexity of higher systems was to postulate the connivance of the supernatural. And even after the birth of modern science it was not until the relatively recent flowering of geology, evolutionary biology, paleontology and astrophysics that we discovered deep time and began to suspect that even the most improbable occurrences can take place quite godlessly within time’s unfathomable compass.

In the absence of immense epochs of time, the emergence of life seemed improbable, and so it made sense to posit the exceptional intervention of a special creative agency. But what if the “unlikely” emergence of life has had billions of years available to it—and if we multiply universes, maybe billions more? Then perhaps life does not seem so extraordinary. Time itself is so unimaginably protracted that in the thinking of some scientists temporal vastness itself has tacitly become the demiurge that transforms dead “matter” into living and thinking beings, without our having to invoke anything miraculous. Time’s very magnitude has placed hierarchical cosmology in question.

After Darwin, vitalism seemed intelligible briefly because it apparently salvaged the ancient principle of causation, positing a supernatural force as the creative source of life. But today vitalism has been largely discredited, and time itself has become enshrined as a sufficiently creative principle in place of the divine. For if the enormity of time itself can provide ample opportunity for reshuffling physical stuff, then why would we need to appeal any longer to the idea of a timeless transcendent Reality that would draw physical stuff toward life and mind from up above? The discovery of time’s immensity itself allows us to “horizontalize” and finally altogether dissolve the old hierarchical picture.

As a consequence of the atomizing and horizontalizing of nature, for many intelligent moderns the traditional hierarchical vision, with its function of assigning various levels of value to corresponding levels of being, and of endowing the entire cosmic edifice with eternal meaning, is now defunct. Modern science need not look to a Platonic realm up above but only to the dead material cosmic past for the originating principle of all things, including those we value most. By flattening what used to be thought of as an essentially vertical arrangement of being and value, science seems to have destroyed the cultural, ethical and religious setting in which human life has carried on for ages.

Many of us would reply that it is not science so much as scientism or other related ideologies that challenge hierarchy. Still we cannot exaggerate the enormity of the great drama of hierarchical collapse that has accompanied the rise of science. It seems to me, then, that the central task of religious thought in this age of evolutionary science and cosmology is to face as honestly as it can the question of whether the hierarchical vision, which formed the backbone of our religious traditions and allowed for a purposeful universe, is in any logically coherent sense recoverable today.

Can we, without slipping into logical contradictions or denying the clear results of natural science still maintain that the universe has its origin (arche) in the realm of the sacred (hier)? Can we still justify our ethical intuitions that some things are more valuable than others, and our religious sense that the cosmos is permeated by an eternal Meaning? Can we assent to the atomic and horizontal methods of modern science without at least implicitly surrendering our traditional metaphysical sense of the sacred origin and destiny of the cosmos?

A hierarchical view of reality is, I believe, essential (at least in some sense) to any satisfactory conception of cosmic meaning. Hierarchy does not have to be conceived vertically or statically. Nor does it have to be suffused with patriarchal politics. But a way of thinking about the world in which subordinate dimensions are quietly informed by more comprehensively real and valuable ones is fundamental to any religious intuition that life and mind have a sacred origin or that they are more intrinsically significant than the inanimate stuff they are made of. To deny the reality of a sacred “arche” or “Principle,” would make it very difficult for us to attribute enduring importance or meaning to anything.

I believe, though, that the cosmos, even as it has been understood by science, can still plausibly be interpreted as the embodiment of a transcending meaning and purpose—and in a bracingly fresh way. In arriving at such a perspective I have found considerable help in the works of Michael Polanyi, Teilhard de Chardin, and Alfred North Whitehead (along with many others). Although the cosmological perspectives of Polanyi, Teilhard, and Whitehead are inevitably imperfect, I believe one can extract cumulatively from their writings at least glimpses of a vision of the cosmos that will allow science itself to contribute to a richer sense of cosmic purpose than we may have had before. Here I have space to point only in a very sketchy way to how this may be done. (A fuller picture is available in my book God After Darwin.)

From Michael Polanyi we may learn how hierarchically discontinuous “levels” of information can exist—logically and ontologically—within what may appear to chemistry, physics or evolutionary science as an unbroken material and historical continuum. Distinct “levels” of information can insinuate themselves into nature, Polanyi points out, without in any way contradicting the “continuous” atomic or historical character of nature. Informational discontinuity can quietly establish a hierarchy in nature, even though when viewed historically (horizontally) or atomistically nature remains a flat and unbroken continuum.

Marjorie Grene, a disciple of Polanyi, argues that it is possible for us to accept the causal physical continuity in nature’s evolution without having to deny that there is ontological discontinuity between and among distinct “levels” that emerge in the process: “. . . to insist on epistemological and even ontological discontinuity is not to deny historical continuity, for conditions which are continuous can give rise to, or trigger, systems which, once in existence, are self-sustaining and hence not explicable entirely in terms of the conditions which produced them. The discontinuity of emergence is not a denial of continuity but its product under certain conditions.” There is no logical reason to assume, therefore, that we cannot hold together the notion of nature’s atomistic and temporal-historical continuity with that of a hierarchical discontinuity.

By itself, of course, Polanyi’s contribution to the resolution of our problem is insufficient. He needs to account more robustly for the origin of novel informational patterns. Here, I believe, his insights can be complemented by both Teilhard and Whitehead.

From Teilhard de Chardin we can learn to “see” cosmic trends that are often overlooked by an atomistically or mechanistically oriented science. Contrary to much scientifically based philosophy today, we need not accept it as a priori evident that the universe has no general “aim” or orientation. Whatever one may think of Teilhard’s broad understanding of “science” or his mystical cosmology, his general vision of a universe of emerging complexity-consciousness deserves our continuing study. This is appropriate especially today as we contemplate a future in which global complexification will surely continue to intensify as a result of political, economic, technological, communication, and informational developments. Teilhard’s association of cosmic purpose with the ongoing heightening of consciousness does not seem at all preposterous today. An increasing number of experts are now acknowledging, for example, that the rapid shrinking and complexifying of our planet by satellite communications and especially the Internet are completely consistent with Teilhard’s vision.

What is often forgotten, however, is Teilhard’s constant counsel that any genuine planetary or cosmic “advance” will also require an intensification of faith, hope and love on the part of our own species. Without the mobilization of fundamentally (and possibly dormant) religious dispositions we cannot anticipate a meaningful future for the earth or the universe. For Teilhard, a “scientific” reason for this latter claim is that empirical studies have observed in evolution, along with emerging complexity-consciousness, an increasing “centration” at the heart of matter’s ongoing “socialization.” That is, from the very beginning of the universe “matter” has had a fascinating tendency to gather and complexify around a center. We find this centration already in the atomic “nucleus,” in the eukaryotic cell, in anthills and beehives organized around a “queen,” in the evolution of the central nervous system in vertebrates, and most obviously in the “cerebralization process” that brought about our own intensely centered “subjectivity.” We also find the impulse toward centration present in our political and social life. And now that humans have become the dominant terrestrial species the impulse to find a center is manifested most representatively in our religions. Religions are fundamentally ways through which the universe continues, at least at the terrestrial and human levels, its ageless search for a Center. Instead of interpreting religion and evolution as incompatibles, as do many religious believers and scientific skeptics today, the Teilhardian vision portrays our religions as ways by which our unfinished universe orients itself—at this point in its evolution—toward its ultimate destiny.

Finally, I believe with Whitehead that an important way of thinking about cosmic purpose in an evolutionary world, and hence of providing a firm basis in evolutionary cosmology for human meaning and ethical endeavor, consists of the view that the cosmos is a restless aim toward ever more intense configurations of beauty. The general features of the universe seem to be fashioned by what we might call the “aesthetic cosmological principle.” Unlike the so-called “anthropic cosmological principle,” which usually implies that the physical constants and initial conditions of the “Big Bang” universe are oriented focally toward the emergence of humans, the “aesthetic cosmological principle” proposes, more broadly and less anthropocentrically (and in a way that goes beyond Teilhard’s focus on consciousness), that the universe is structured so as to strive openendedly and experimentally toward more and more intense versions of beauty.

“Beauty,” in Whitehead’s aesthetic philosophy, means the synthesis of order with novelty, harmony with contrast, unity with diversity. Cosmic beauty is inclusive of, but by no means exhausted in, the emergence of human consciousness and vital human culture. According to the aesthetic cosmological perspective our own lives can be seen as meaningful in a manner consistent with scientific intelligence, and our moral aspiration connected once again to the cosmos; but our relative position in the universe would be rendered more modestly than in some of our inherited religious and theological formulations. I think Whitehead’s thought points us toward such breadth.

We may now link our own sense of meaning and morality to the ageless cosmic straining toward beauty. The purpose of our own lives, when envisaged in terms of Whitehead’s aesthetic cosmology, must have at least something to do with our preserving and enlarging the dominion of beauty in the universe. An awareness that our own lives and actions may contribute to the further emergence of cosmic beauty can give our moral lives what they have often lacked, a sense of being meaningfully and creatively connected to what is going on in the universe at large. It is thanks to the evolutionary picture of the universe (including the Darwinian contributions), and not in spite of it, that we gain this significant moral perspective.

Vaclav Havel, president of the Czech Republic, recently 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.” If we lose our trust that the cosmos is at heart an expression of a transcending significance, I would hasten to agree, our ethical aspiration will quite likely wither and die. The ideals that guide the moral behavior of all of us, including that of contemporary skeptics, were traditionally refined in the context of religious trust. The cult of compassion, justice, humility, gratitude, the avoidance of greed, and love of one’s enemies—virtues that we still idealize—emerged in our earthly human history only in conjunction with the convictions of most of our ancestors that the good (along with truth and beauty) is eternally grounded in a transcendent reality.

Today we need to sustain their sense of the ultimate grounding of our ideals in a purposeful universe. With the assistance of thinkers such as Polanyi, Teilhard and Whitehead I think we can do so in a way that not only embraces the discoveries of science but also uses these as a springboard toward formulating a vibrant new sense of an ultimately meaningful universe.