What’s the point?

I just read this editorial in Scientific America this afternoon: “Learning to Live in Steven Weinberg’s Pointless Universe“.

Steven Weinberg’s statement—“The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”—could lead to nihilistic despair, but I was struck by two things.

First, the author, Dan Falk, says “For thousands of years, people had assumed just the opposite”–that people saw what they took to be the hand of God. that god’s purpose or “the point” all around them. Then he quotes several moments when people ascribe what they saw to the divine.

Here, he is revisiting the argument that people created a god because they could not explain the world without its presence–the god of the gaps. Since science can explain the material world almost completely now without that god, many people do not think it is necessary any longer.

Later, he talks about his interview with Weinberg:

“I get a number of negative reactions to that statement,” [Weinberg] said. “… people say, ‘Well, this is outside the province of science, to decide whether it has a point or not.’ I agree with that. I don’t think that science can decide that there is no point; but it can certainly testify that it has failed to find one.”

The physicist himself says, essentially, that if a god (or in his words “a point” but I consider them to be the same thing because there is no overriding “point” to the universe if there is no one person (e.g. God) that the gives the “point” some meaning) is something we have to be able to explain using logic, to measure using the tools we have, whose actions we can observe the direct effects of, then the methods of science haven’t found that god, that point.

And he says “I don’t think that science can decide that there is no point”.

This is fascinating to me because I see in the West (I don’t say “post-enlightenment” since this is something that has existed in the West since at least the end of the first millennium … see this section of Wikipedia on Transubstantiation for an example) a consistent tendency to say that we can reach God with reason, that God is somehow circumscribed by the universe that God created.

But he isn’t. The creator of the universe, the Logos that gave birth to reason, is not subject to it.

And here is a Nobel laureate physicist—one who said “the universe… seems pointless”—saying that this isn’t something that science can actually decide.

Photo is CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 from Ohm17.

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