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Old 03-30-2012, 10:44 PM   #4
HappyStikBeaver
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The Meaning-Full Universe
BENJAMIN J. WIKER
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.



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 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 is 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.

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.

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 oppressing 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.

Last edited by HappyStikBeaver; 03-30-2012 at 10:44 PM. Reason: Pseudoedit
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