In Puebla Mexico, the newly dubbed Ciudad de las ideas, (City of Ideas) the third annual Festival Internacional de Mentes Brillantes (International Festival of Great Minds) took place this past weekend. Along with two other theologians, I was assigned a daunting and fascinating task: to argue about whether the universe has a purpose. On one side stood Richard Dawkins, Matt Ridley and Michael Shermer -- respectively, the biologist and scourge of religion, the science writer and the editor of Skeptic magazine. In my corner of the sky were William Lane Craig, scholar and author, and Doug Geivatt, author and professor at Biola University. We said yes, they said no.
Now, you might be thinking the proper answer is "no one can know." That might be so, but none of us was willing to let it rest there. At first glance we could all agree that the universe has a purpose the way the kitchen has a meal -- it offers the ingredients. You can make purpose in your life from the raw materials that the universe gives you. But the question was not plural -- not does the universe contains purposes, but does the universe have a purpose?
Everyone was vigorous but it was mostly high toned. It is true that Richard Dawkins (who had given a witty and combative talk the day before ridiculing religion) derided people of faith as childish and lazy, while scientists rolled up their sleeves to figure out the world, but it was in the larger context of religion being not thoughtful but wishful. He also, along with Shermer and Ridley, made the point that the ascription of purpose to the universe from our little corner could be seen as arrogant. (More in a moment on how the remarkable Sean Stephenson turned that argument on its head.) Shermer, characteristically forceful, gave practical advice on how to inject purpose into one's life without the unnecessary illusion of religious belief. Ridley was urbane and persuasive, arguing that the existence of mystery was not equal to purpose and the fact that there are things we cannot explain certainly does not require God or faith to rush in and fill the gap.
Michio Kaku, the physicist and futurist, Amir Aczel, mathematician and writer, Jerome Friedman, Nobel laureate physicist and Daniel Schacter, cognitive scientist and memory expert, all weighed in. Essentially they argued no one could know, and it depended on how one defined purpose.
My own argument was first: The universe is delicately poised on nothingness; change one of many cosmological constants by just a fraction and our world could not exist. In other words, it is extravagantly improbable for everything to be balanced perfectly for existence and yet it is so. Perhaps it was meant to be so. Moreover, it is astonishing that the universe has laws we can actually grasp. Indeed, the very practice of science presupposes there is some purpose, aim or meaning to all this. How can we investigate or understand nonsense or meaninglessness? I also argued that reason is not the only tool for investigation of reality. Our most basic beliefs are the rock upon which our reason is built, not the product of it.
Who won the debate? Well, you can judge it for yourself now that it is posted on the festival site and on YouTube. The short answer is: the audience. It involved people who care passionately, believe deeply and expressed their beliefs clearly. Bravo to the festival, its organizers and attendees. Universe aside, it more than validated its purpose.
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From The Urantia Book: Paper 4
4:0.1 THE UNIVERSAL FATHER has an eternal purpose pertaining to the material, intellectual, and spiritual phenomena of the universe of universes, which he is executing throughout all time. God created the universes of his own free and sovereign will, and he created them in accordance with his all-wise and eternal purpose. It is doubtful whether anyone except the Paradise Deities and their highest associates really knows very much about the eternal purpose of God. Even the exalted citizens of Paradise hold very diverse opinions about the nature of the eternal purpose of the Deities.
It is easy to deduce that the purpose in creating the perfect central universe of Havona was purely the satisfaction of the divine nature. Havona may serve as the pattern creation for all other universes and as the finishing school for the pilgrims of time on their way to Paradise; however, such a supernal creation must exist primarily for the pleasure and satisfaction of the perfect and infinite Creators.
The amazing plan for perfecting evolutionary mortals and, after their attainment of Paradise and the Corps of the Finality, providing further training for some undisclosed future work, does seem to be, at present, one of the chief concerns of the seven superuniverses and their many subdivisions; but this ascension scheme for spiritualizing and training the mortals of time and space is by no means the exclusive occupation of the universe intelligences. There are, indeed, many other fascinating pursuits which occupy the time and enlist the energies of the celestial hosts. >