The Meaning-Full Universe

Benjamin D. Wiker
Crisis Magazine
April 7, 2004
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In a now-famous passage from his justly acclaimed The First Three Minutes, physicist Steven Weinberg provides a rather dismal assessment of the human drama:

It is almost irresistible for humans to believe that we have some special relation to the universe, that human life is not just a more-or-less farcical outcome of a chain of accidents reaching back to the first three minutes, but that we were somehow built in from the beginning…. It is hard to realize that this all [i.e., life on Earth] is just a tiny part of an overwhelmingly hostile universe. It is even harder to realize that this present universe has evolved from an unspeakably unfamiliar early condition, and faces a future extinction of endless cold or intolerable heat. The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.

These words were written, according to Weinberg, as he viewed human life from an airplane, 30,000 feet above the Earth. But it isn’t that being five-and-a-half miles in the air provides some particularly insightful vantage from which human life can best be judged. Even at that height, as Weinberg himself admits, the “earth looks very soft and comfortable,” and the network of towns and cities connected by roads is ample evidence of human beings busily acting, quite purposively, as if they were at home in the universe. It is not, then, the space that separates him from Earth that makes what appears below to be pointless but the seemingly infinite and hostile space above.

This rather dreary but poetic passage has been quoted so often that Weinberg probably wishes he had been satisfied to watch the in-flight movie or to work a crossword puzzle rather than having to suffer the continual echo of the last sentence thrown back at him by those who are convinced that the human drama is not a farce. As one who likewise opposes Weinberg’s dismal assessment, I hope to do him the favor in this piece of releasing him from the perpetual defense of a meaningless universe.

The Pointless Paradox

We may get at the source of Weinberg’s famous utterance by focusing on his infamous finale: “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” Weinberg no doubt means this as a paradox that, in contradicting common sense, reveals a great truth. What does his statement contradict?

It seems to be obvious good sense that the less we understand about something, the more pointless it is. I am not an automobile mechanic. All too frequently my truck makes a funny noise and some kind of liquid drips lugubriously onto the stones of the driveway. I open the hood and see a mass of wires, pipes, hoses, and strangely shaped boxes. If the truck engine were the cosmos, I’d be hopelessly lost in it. It is, for me, a meaningless mass of confusion. I don’t understand the purpose or function of any of the parts, nor do I have a clue about the overall design of the engine. Small wonder that I approach auto maintenance dripping with existential despair.

Somehow or other, according to Weinberg, the universe allegedly violates this common principle, so that the more we comprehend it, the more pointless or meaningless it is. Let us get to the roots of his paradoxical assessment of the cosmos.

What’s the Pointless?

The deepest root of the problem lies in the adoption of a cosmology that assumes that not only human life but everything else is the “outcome of a chain of accidents.” If everything we see around us is actually the outcome of chance, then anything that appears to be purposeful or meaningful in nature really isn’t. A stick of dynamite thrown into a junkyard might happen to blast some miscellaneous parts into a heap that appears, from a particular angle, to resemble a silhouette of Abraham Lincoln, but the meaningful resemblance is merely something I am projecting upon it.

Weinberg is asserting much the same about the Big Bang, with the addition of an important twist. The cosmic explosion acted something like a stick of dynamite thrown into a junkyard, the blast of which happened eventually to create, in the midst of a sea of metal shards, a small, neat row of integrally ordered, functioning cars.

This is an odd situation, for the cars represent a quite purposeful island standing incongruously amid the encompassing sea. Imagine approaching these cars as scientists (autologists, we might call ourselves). If we turn the keys, they start right up. The parts of the motor, difficult as they are to decipher at first, gradually become intelligible as we discern their various functions in light of the overall design of the car as a moving vehicle. Thus, when we ask of any part, “What is its purpose?,” the answer is given in regard to its function as part of this overall design. Autology seems to obey the commonsense rule, which we may restate in the positive: The more we comprehend the cars, the less pointless they or their parts are.

Yet when we look away from this island out across the “overwhelmingly hostile” junkyard surrounding it, we realize that autology, with all its talk of design, function, and purpose, was based on a localized illusion. Since the cars were the outcome of a chain of accidents originating in an explosion, and further, since the cars themselves serve merely to motor aimlessly around among the endless piles of mechanical detritus, “the more the cars seem comprehensible, the more they also seem pointless.” And so, even though we can have a science of cars that has continual recourse to purposefulness, we are haunted by a pervasive, all-encompassing geist of pointlessness. Retail purpose, wholesale pointlessness.

If we could move from our analogy to the actual landscape we are trying to illumine, the ocean of debris represents the vast cosmos op- pressing Weinberg, a dark, brooding, cold emptiness stretching billions upon billions of light years in every direction, punctuated by violent eddies of stars and other more or less condensed and exotic matter. The island of cars represents our humble planet, where we find localized purposeful phenomena—plants with elaborate systems of transforming the friendly fire of sunlight into the substance of wood and leaves; a menagerie of animal species crawling, swimming, walking, and flying, each according to its own kind; and finally, human beings themselves, a particularly complex animal, at turns Homo sapiens, Homo sciens, and often just Homo perplexus.

As a physicist, Weinberg must fly high above the Earth. His calling is to watch the cold and seemingly purposeless realm surrounding this island of purpose. Using the telescope to aid his eye and a dense tangle of mathematical formulae to aid his mind, he endeavors to decipher, among the swirling clouds and clusters of hydrogen, helium, carbon, oxygen, and other chemical debris, the concatenations leading back to the original explosion and forward to the island of purpose below. When he finally establishes all the links in the long chain, he will have demonstrated that whatever pretense to purposefulness we find locally is swallowed up by ultimate cosmic purposelessness.

And what of the island of purpose floating in the meaningless cosmic sea? That is the domain of biology. The present-day biologist does indeed work amid the comforts of our warm and homey planet, but he does so under the shadow cast by ultimate cosmic purposelessness. Although he examines a bird, a fish, or any animal, attending to their profound and intricate complexities, he assumes that at some future date, the science of biology will be subsumed—indeed, devoured—by the science of physics when all life on the island of purpose shall be reduced to links on the “chain of accidents reaching back to the first three minutes.”

The biologist is, then, caught in the same kind of self-defeating activity as the autologist. Thus, when the biologist examines (for example) the different kinds of feathers on a bird, he assumes that each kind has a particular purpose that contributes to the overall activity of flight, and that the purpose or function will be evident in the particular design of each. So that when we ask, “What is this group of feathers on the wing of this bird for?,” he answers, “That is the alula, a small group of feathers attached to the end of the top edge of the wing that the bird uses for braking and steering. They also quite cleverly contribute to turbulence reduction of the entire wing.” Yet, having thus answered in terms of purpose, he will remind you that the alula feathers, however charmingly purposeful they may appear, are after all the unintended “outcome of a chain of accidents.” As with the autologist, we find retail purpose and wholesale pointlessness.

As I have argued in previous articles, the ultimate cause of the present-day biologist assuming that the local island of biological purpose on which he works is ultimately the “outcome of a chain of accidents” is not Darwinism, for Darwinism is itself the historical outcome of a comprehensive materialist cosmology that began taking hold of the West in the early Renaissance. In this article, I am not concerned with how we got into such a cosmos but how we may escape from it. Happily, our escape is already well under way, and it is science itself that is leading it.

Bang to Bloom

Since we began with Weinberg, we may visit his intellectual bailiwick first. Physics has become the queen of the sciences in modernity, precisely because we have adopted a materialist cosmology. A materialist cosmology is reductionist; that is, it assumes that everything—living and nonliving—can be reduced to matter in motion (as created from energy, propelled by the release of energy in a variety of reactions, and governed by a number of forces). This motion is not purposeful precisely because the materialist cosmology jettisons an intelligent creator. Purpose, design, and function are all accidents of the pointless, purposeless actions and reactions of matter and energy.

According to this view, the Big Bang is simply the initial explosion that set the whole thing in motion. This theoretical presumption thus demands that everything must be understood, ultimately, as “just a more-or-less farcical outcome of a chain of accidents reaching back to the first three minutes.” As a result, biology, which focuses on purpose, design, and function, is a provisional science, awaiting its ultimate reduction to the lifeless world of physics.

But what if the Big Bang was really a Big Bloom? We are accustomed to characterizing the origin of the universe as an enormous explosion. Perhaps it had more of the character of a flower rapidly unfolding from a densely packed bud, and it is a mere prejudice that keeps us from seeing the evidence before our very eyes.

For quite some time physicists, with the help of chemists, have been bent on reducing everything to the fundamental chemical elements; and further, reducing the elements, through a playback of the cosmic tape, to hydrogen; and finally, reducing even this origin to a set of fundamental laws somehow bound up in some even more fundamental mode of matter or energy.

But such reductionism is now being challenged as physicists have begun to un-earth more and more evidence that the fundamental constituents, laws, and forces are fine-tuned and finely crafted for life. In short, it’s beginning to look like the universe is biocentric.

Such biocentrism turns Weinberg’s universe upside down--or more properly, turns it right-side up again. If we could replay the cosmic tape according to the biocentric view, we would not see a chaotic explosion--a Big Bang that happens to create, quite offhand and by accident, a lush and purposeful planet--but a Big Bloom governed by humanly unimaginable precision, whereupon the newly forged elements emerge from the fire as shining parts and rush toward their biological conclusion.

If the Bloom were compressed into a 14-minute tape, the first third of a minute would be dark and brooding anticipation. Suddenly, there would be blinding light, and the first stable elements that had been kneaded in darkness would emerge as the initial unfolding of the infinitely dense original bud.

Over the next ten minutes, we would see the universe bloom at the speed of light, expanding in every direction even as the elements swirled and condensed into the first stars, the fiery furnaces that would forge the heavier elements needed for the ultimate intricacies of complex life.

Near the end of this phase, we would see our own solar system form. In the last three minutes of the tape, we would witness a dizzyingly rapid crescendo of creation on Earth, with the most intricate, spiraling integration of biologic complexity in the last half-minute, as species after species of living being arose, bursting forth with staccato regularity in every imaginable form occupying every imaginable nook. In the last fraction of a fraction of a second, human beings would arrive, the most complex and curious of all biological beings, somehow the crown and glory of the Bloom, the only one capable of a science of biology.

Since human beings arrive at the result of a long conspiracy of fine-tuning—not only in regard to the fundamental forces and laws, but also because of the elegant and precise fitness for life of the chemical elements such as carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen—cosmology is becoming not just biocentric but anthropic (from the Greek anthropos, human being). In contrast to Weinberg’s dismal assessment, then, purpose is written into every part. The vast spaces above him are not hostile and pointless but point to the ground teeming with every manner of living thing below. And again, we human beings seem to be built in from the very beginning.

I have not the space in so short an article to delve into the depths of anthropism, but readers curious to see just how fine-tuned both the universe and Earth itself are for life, especially human life, should read one of the most intellectually exciting books written on this subject in quite some time, Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richard’s Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos Is Designed for Discovery (Regnery, 2004).

We have seen, then, that insofar as the latest, most comprehensive physics goes, the universe is far from pointless. As it turns out, it is biocentric, even anthropic—that is, it points directly to the realm of purpose. Far from biology being swallowed up by a reductionist physics, it appears that physics can only be properly understood in light of biology because the material parts studied by physics and chemistry can only be properly understood in light of the complex, biological wholes for which they are so supremely well-fitted.

For example, the great biological element carbon is not the result of “a chain of accidents reaching back to the first three minutes.” That carbon exists at all is the result of nearly incalculable precision tuning during those first three minutes that allowed the fusion of hydrogen into helium (the helium that would later be fused inside stars to make carbon). In turn, carbon is not just one of a number of possible elements that could be used to generate life; carbon is maximally fit in every respect to function as the backbone of complex biological macromolecules, far exceeding every other possible candidate. That is, the design of carbon for life is optimal. The same is true for hydrogen and oxygen, not only in themselves but in forming that most important of all compounds necessary for life, water. Water itself isn’t merely a pretty good liquid for life, but like carbon, it is maximally fit in every respect, a miracle of molecular engineering.

This new biocentric focus, properly understood, undermines the reductionist paradigm and places biology as the real queen of the sciences. We cannot ultimately understand the complex properties of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen in isolation, as the reductionist dream of the materialist would have it. The manifold and peculiar powers of carbon (for example) can only be completely understood as they manifest themselves in ever more complex compounds, and finally as their qualities and powers unfold in living organisms. The same is true for water. We could never have understood the vast potentialities of water if we had not unearthed its peculiar hyper-fitness as the liquid of life on Earth. As it turns out, the study of biology is necessary as the completion of physics and chemistry.

The Return of Biology

What, then, of the biologist? Is there any sign in biology itself of a turn toward purpose and away from reductionism? Happily, yes. Let us examine one area, cell biology, for the cell biologist is focused on the dividing line between nonliving and living things, studying the simplest possible living entity. If reductionism fails here, it fails, a fortiori, for all of biology.

Unfortunately (and ironically), most biologists are not biocentric. The majority of such biologists still work and think according to the canons of materialist reductionism. They assume that however grand and daunting the complexity of the living cell, its form and activities can ultimately be reduced to the lifeless and necessary interactions of its chemical constituents. Biology can be resolved into chemistry, and chemistry into physics.

Against this reductionist tide, a few intellectual rebels have arisen, most notably biochemist Franklin Harold, whose Way of the Cell (Oxford University Press, 2001) should be required reading. While Harold stops short of drawing any grand design inference and still holds that evolution will provide an ultimate explanation for the intricacies of life, his antireductionist approach is a powerful antidote to the reigning paradigm of materialism.

According to Harold, cell biology over the last 50 years has made great strides in cataloging the ultimate material constituents of the cell, but this reductionist approach has also severely distorted our understanding of the very organism as organism. This distortion is seen clearly in the normal approach to the study of the cell. “When biochemists set out to tackle a problem,” Harold remarks, their “first step is commonly to grind the intricate fabric of cells and tissues into a pulp....” This grinding to a pulp, or homogenizing as it is called, “is a significant act, representing a drastic reduction in the level of organization,” an act that allows the biochemist “to treat living matter as a mixture of chemicals….” Unfortunately, “biochemists still cherish the premise that nothing irretrievable is lost by homogenization....”

But something is irretrievably lost, Harold contests--the whole magnificent, intricate, ordered living whole of the cell and, with it, the levels of higher order in which one finds purpose, function, and meaning. Finds. Not imposes as the projection of some kind of wishful thinking, but finds. These higher levels of order are no less real than the flat and lifeless level of mere chemicals that emerges on the other end of the tissue grinder after it reduces the cell to a lifeless pulp.

In these higher levels of order, Harold argues, we really do find function and purpose. Unlike inorganic molecules, the larger and more complex biological molecules are in fact defined by function or purpose, both in their form and in their activity. That is, like parts for a car, “each performs a job in the service of the organism as a whole.”

Even more important, in contrast to the reductionist belief that the whole is reducible to the parts, the form and function of the parts as parts are the result of the top-down control of the organism as a whole. In regard to the cell, then, matter serves living form--the lower serves the higher. Thus, the existence and form of the cell’s parts depend on the whole, and this top-down principle is more pervasive the higher one goes. As Harold argues, the “organization [of constituent molecules] into systems of mounting complexity guarantees the emergence of supra-molecular structures and activities. The more advanced the level of organization, the less informative is it to seek understanding [of these cellular structures and activities] solely in terms of their molecular constituents.” In sum, reductionism is bad science.

This is true even and especially for DNA. There is an all-too-popular reductionist fiction that DNA, by itself, can churn out a cell. The truth is that DNA is not a self-existent entity that spins out the entire complexity of the cell. DNA is only a part, a part that depends on the cell not only for its existence as a particularly complex molecular structure but for the decoding of its stored genetic information. DNA is meaningless and pointless until its information is translated into structure and action by the complex activity of the cell. Furthermore, Harold contends, those “higher levels of order, form and function” that make such translation possible “are not spelled out in the genome.”

The cell really is a purpose-full microcosm. As with a car, if we pick out a part, say a particular enzyme, we can only understand what it is by what it does, and what it does defines its function in light of the design, the form, of the entire living cell. If we play the reductionist, leaving out purpose and merely listing the chemical constituents, that particular enzyme will remain unintelligible, that is, it will be meaningless. If we lay aside the reductionist inclination, however, and ask of a particular protein, What is the point of this?, the point is explained in terms of the purpose. For example: “This is a kind of protein called a chaperonin. Chaperonins assist protein folding by preventing inappropriate interactions. Without them, large polypeptide chains could not quickly and accurately fold into the required three-dimensional form.” That is exactly how we explain each part in a car: Its design, its nature, is defined by its purpose. Thus, in accord with common sense, the more we comprehend biological complexity of the cell, the less pointless will be any part or activity.

But we should add that the case for intrinsic purposefulness is even greater in the cell than in a car. We should never forget that a cell (unlike a car) continually makes and remakes its parts, and there are far more parts of far greater intricacy (by several orders of magnitude) than can be found in any automobile. Even where there is self-assembly, as in a good number of the cell’s proteins, “the cell as a whole is required to create the proper environment for self-assembly to proceed” and “to control self-assembly, so that it takes place only as part of a larger purpose.”

Back on Solid Ground

If we now reassemble the parts of the argument, we find that the universe is not pointless after all. It is not the result of a chain of accidents reaching back to the first three minutes, because the first three minutes were governed by excruciatingly exact fine-tuning. The elemental chemical parts that emerge from the blinding, fiery light’s forge are not haphazardly made but rather are crafted with remarkable precision as matter for consummation in biological form. Finally, the biological island of purpose itself is, to borrow a phrase, irreducibly complex; that is, even the least of living things, the cell, is not reducible to its simplest chemical parts but is only fully comprehensible as the result of top-down, hierarchical integration that governs both the structure and activity of its parts.

I am happy to report, then, that it is not a purposeless, pointless universe after all. In fact, as we have seen both in the realm of physics and biology, the advance of science from its current state, dragged down by the leaden weight of reductionism, will depend in large part on our recovering a renewed sense of purpose, the realization that purpose is not a fiction that we foist on a meaningless swirl of matter and energy but an essential property of nature. Given this approach, we shall find that the more we comprehend the universe, the more meaning-full it is, both retail and wholesale.

Benjamin D. Wiker is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and a lecturer in theology and science at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is the author of Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists and Architects of the Culture of Death with Donald DeMarco (Ignatius), out this month. He is also currently working on a book titled The Meaning-Full Universe.