A rant on universe and purpose:
I have run across this sentence: As a cosmologist, a scientist who studies the origin and evolution of the universe, I am painfully aware that our illusions nonetheless reflect a deep human need to assume that the existence of the Earth, of life and of the universe and the laws that govern it require something more profound.

Let’s just pare it down to the nugget: “There is a deep human need to believe that there is purpose to the universe.”  That is the stated opinion of one Lawrence M. Krauss of the University of Arizona.  Now I am quite content to believe that this is what he thinks.  I am less content that this absurd suggestion has had a lively play on the internet.

Well, who is this guy?  What is his background in “deep human needs?”  His background appears to be in math, physics, cosmology and astronomy with lots of books, awards, scientific papers and review articles.  This is most impressive, but what gives him the idea that there is this “deep need?”

My own background is in Enlish literature and medicine.  So it seems to me that there is a level playing field.  Neither of us has any relevant credentials.  I suppose I could mutter something like, “In all my years I have never had a patient say, ‘Doctor, if I am to die soon and have not done anyting of great consequence, what was the point of it all?”  But maybe I am not as good a listener as I might be, so I shall dismiss the matter.

First, let’s look at the question of whether the universe has purpose.  I am part of the universe.  I have puposes from time to time.  Therefore the universe has at least some purpose.  Funny old thing logic, I say.

But the real question is that “need.”  Why should there be a need for believing anthing about the unverse?  The whole idea of a “universe” as currently understood does not go back before 1929 with the announcement of evidence for an expanding universe by Edwin Hubble.  The idea had indeed been mooted by Edgar Alan Poe in his “prose poem” Eurica.  But Poe is not credited with being a scientist.  Nobody took up the notion to work on it. 

Before Hubble, (all right then, before Georges Lemaître ) received wisdom was that the “universe” was infinite.  Matter was concentrated in the Milky Way galaxy, but reality went on without limit.  Newton pointed out that if matter were not distributed without limit everything would have collapsed into a single heap.  Einstein agreed.  His equasions indicated that the universe had to be expading or contracting, which he could not accept.  He tweaked his equasions to give a steady state universe.  Thus it has been within living memory that anybody in the field even suggested that the universe (as distinct from the Milky Way) might be an “object,” finite in size and age.  It has only been within the past few decades that the last holdouts for a steady state universe fell silent. 

So this “deep human need” can’t be very deep, can it?  What about those people in the untold eons before?  They had no inkling.

All right.  I can’t prove that.  I once noticed that if you drew a great circle from Cairo to New Orleans, the circle somewhere on the other side of the world crossed a little island, otherwise little known, where the local people have a ritual to perform every few years.  Their conviction is that if they fail to do the ritual, the universe will cease to exist.  I have no idea how long they have been about their efforts.  But in the recorded history I am aware of there cannot have been such a need because there was no idea to which it could have been attached.

Even the idea of a “world,” so far as I can tell, only arose in historical times.  The ancient Greeks did figure out a way to measure the angle of the sun in two different places on at the same time and come up with a size for the earth.  But they spent little effort contemplating this earth as a whole.  Alexander the Great is said to have wept because there were, “No more worlds to conquer.”  Of course he had conquered a lot, but only a tiny fraction of the world.  Indeed he would have been happy to go on conquering, but he had a mutiny that prevented it.  So the weeping bit is probably apocraphal.  But those who told the story understood.  Ones world is local.

If you are part of a primitive tribe on the shores of the Danube upteen thousand years ago, you have no deep need to understand your universe.  You have no need to understand the world.  You are a howling barbarian with other howling barbarians in every direction.  Fairly recently, oh let’s say eight or ten thousand years ago, you might have gods to worship.  That might fulfill some “deep need.”  But you would be quite aware that those other savages were worshiping other gods.  Even the first great montheistic religions, Zoroastrianism and soon thereafter the Hebrew religion, did not quite get around to having a global god.  There was in both cases an adversary.  And there was, to my knowledge, no agenda to put the “right” god in place for the whole world. 

This changed with Christianity.  Missionaries went out with the explicit purpose of evangelizing the whole world.  They made a pretty impressive show of it.  When they reached our Danube friends for instance, they imediately raised the question of a “world.”  It must have been a profound upheaval.  The response must have been, “You’re right.  There is a whole world.  It has never been an issue for us.  Since it is clearly a matter of great concern to you –  it informs your agenda and explains your presence –  you have understanding that is of a higher order than out own has ever been.  That is most impressive.”  Converts followed.

But there was no “deep need” to understand the world before that.  Nobody even tried. 

So if there was no need to understand the earth, how in the world could there possibly be a need to understand the universe – much less to believe some rather abstract characteristic of that universe – before there was an understanding that such a thing could exist?  No way, I say.

Several years ago when I still had a job and when people still seemed to speak with me, one collegue asked what I would do during a week off.  I said I was going to a cosmology conference.  His brow darkened.  “But that’s total b..ls..t isn’t it?  Why would you waste your time?”  I thought that cosmology has some profound scotomata, but his assessment seemed a bit harsh.  I said, “You’re thinking astrology.”

Another collegue asked the same thing, following my response with, “But that’s for sissies, isn’t it?”  I said, “You’re thinking about cosmetology.”  And I thought that cosmetology might be a great way to meet girls. 

You would think that if these two modern, intelligent, highly trained professionals with a science background had a deep seated need to believe something or other about cosmology they would at least have learned the word.

Since Brother Krauss brings no evidence about human needs to the table, what he is saying is not science.  It is meta-science just as an article about chess is not in fact a chess game.  And where does it fit under the rubric “meta-science?”  It looks like a devotional bit to me.  Many years ago my father mentioned a collection of every book printed in Europe in the first few centuries after the reinvention of the moveable type press.  I was fascintated.  There would be books on hunting, armor, combat, manners, clothing, cooking, architecture, agricuture, animal husbandry and so forth.  He saw the light in my eyes and said sadly, “They were pretty much all devotional writings.”  If you are not captivated by a devotional bit and already know what is going to be said, interest is limited. 

Or maybe it’s not really devotional stuff.  Possibly he has no interest in
“deep human needs” or anything else grand.  He just identifies with one peer group – what we now call a band of howling barbarians – over against another, both of which make untestable assumptions.  His whole commitment, beyond the fact that it probably makes more money than I do, is simply another ploy in the jockeying for ascendancy.  Ones world is local. 

(Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying truth is all relative and any old approach is as good as any other.  No other search for truth has produced as much in accuracy, specificity or variety as science has.  Science holds a special place.  It just is not the only place.  There are plenty of questions in science to argue over; there is no need to go outside science and produce arguments, particularly farcical arguments.)  

All right.  I’m jealous.  His opinion hits the front page.  But there is no action to be taken on its account.  My own ideas call for much study and potentially a lot of action (although it may be absurdly simple, as I have recently pointed out) and these ideas command little public attention.

Maybe it will all work out tomorrow.

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p.s. Besides a lot of people think the whole point of the universe, wherever it came from, is that is gives us free will so the important purposes remain our own.