The Scope of Purpose

This discussion wants to reflect on whether there might be purpose at work in the universe at large. Of course, such a discussion has to be beyond speculative, if the evidence can only be weighted on the basis of the improbability of a complex universe existing without some guiding purpose. However, at this point, an initial distinction might be made between causality and purpose, where the former may explain a connected sequence of events, while the latter possibly suggests some overall design.

Of course, any inference of design can quickly lead to the assumption that there has to be an intelligent designer, as assumed by many theological beliefs. However, while an intelligent designer cannot be ruled out, most religious doctrines essentially represent a historic perspective that lacked any real scientific understanding of the complexity of the wider universe, both large and small. Equally, while possibly controversial to some, there is also an argument that most of the major religions that exist to this day do so because they were developed as a means of socio-political control rather than as any insightful interpretation of the physical world, let alone the entirety of the universe.

Note: Various deities have been proclaimed over the thousands of years of human history. It is estimated that more than 2,500 deities existed in earlier polytheistic societies, e.g. Hittite, Sumerian, Mesopotamian through to the contemporary gods of the major monotheistic religions, i.e. Yahweh, God and Allah. Of course, this may not fully account for all the gods of Africa, India, Asia, pre-Islamic Arabian, Aztec, Babylonian, Buddhist, Canaanite, Celtic, Egyptian, Native American, Etruscan, Germanic, India, Asia, Greek, Roman, Persian, Polynesian, Shinto etc. Today, it is estimated that there are some 20 major religions across the world, but these subdivide into over 250 large, and essentially separate, religious groups. So, while one of these religions may have an answer, there appears to be no consensus on the scope of this answer.

It might also be argued that most of the deities referenced above held a somewhat parochial and historic perspective that aligned to a given culture, where none could really explain the complexity of the physical universe that confronts us today. However, this does not mean that some purpose is not at work within the universe, only that humanity may have no idea of its scope, even if it exists, especially if this purpose was not centred on planet Earth or humanity.

Note: As a counterpoint to the theological deities outlined above, it seems that some philosophies have a similar concept where the universe is assumed to be a conscious entity. Within this idea, all other entities within the universe, e.g. humanity, are part of this ‘cosmic consciousness’. While this idea might also provide some reassurance that purpose exists in the universe, it is unclear that it provides any more substantiative clarity as to this purpose than theological beliefs.

So, having made reference to two possibilities, let us consider how purpose might exist within a wider universe without necessarily making reference to any obvious guiding consciousness. In this respect, we might return to the issue of causality, where complexity might be explained in terms of a hierarchy of cause and effect, which starts at the subatomic level of the universe, which then ‘evolved’ into ever greater structural complexity as now observed. However, this idea might be seen as skipping over the most important issue as to how and why anything came into existence, which includes both space and time. We might initially liken this issue to what Aristotle called the ‘prime-mover’, which was an early philosophical argument used to explain the root cause of all motion in the universe based on the following logical argument:

  • Motion is seen to exist in the universe.
  • This motion requires a cause.
  • This leads to a near infinite chain of causes.
  • That requires some initial unmoving cause.
  • This cause was called the prime mover.

Of course, it has to be recognised that the early Greek philosophers only had a limited conceptual idea about the nature of an atom and none about its substructure or how various force-fields might explain action-at-a-distance. However, while science has progressed considerably since the time of Aristotle, the existence of the universe is still an essentially unresolved issue that might be summarised in terms of the note below.

Note: In order for the universe to exist, it must either have always existed or was created. While an eternal universe side-steps the issue of creation, the human mind struggles to comprehend the idea of an infinite universe, both in terms of time and space. However, the idea of creation has its own set of issues in which science struggles to explain how something could have been created out of ‘nothing’. While theology might side-step this issue by invoking a deity that can perform the miracle of creation, we are left to ponder whether this eternal deity existed before the physical universe was created.

While the note above is only attempting to characterise the nature of the debate, either starting point appears problematic, e.g. infinite and timeless versus finite and creation. Unfortunately, without some attempt to clarify the implications surrounding both possibilities, the issue of purpose at work in the universe is difficult to even characterise. Still, let us first consider the idea of an infinite universe, even though this is a very difficult concept for the human mind to imagine, let alone understand. For this reason, we might use the analogy of a video game that exists within the more understandable idea of a virtual reality, which conceptually has no physical limits and might therefore be considered infinite in size. This idea then leads to a question.

Could our universe be a form of virtual reality?

While many may simply dismiss the idea that our universe is actually a form of virtual reality that has no physical substance, the following quote taken from a book called 'The Science of Human Emotions' questions the reality of human perception:

“Most of us believe that the world is full of light, colours, sounds, sweet tastes, noxious smells, ugliness, and beauty, but this is undoubtedly a grand illusion. Certainly, the world is full of electromagnetic radiation, air pressure waves, and chemicals dissolved in air or water, but that non-biological world is pitch dark, silent, tasteless, and odourless. All conscious experiences are emergent properties of biological brains, and they do not exist outside of those brains.”

This quote is reminding us that our human senses help create our perception of physical reality, which in some respects may only exist in our head. Of course, there is an inference in the quote that this virtual reality is still predicated on some form of physical reality that exists outside our conscious perception, although it might still be argued that the physical reality of electromagnetic waves might equally be a manifestation of a virtual universe. While this is an interesting idea that possibly helps rationalise the issue of an infinite universe, it is not clear that it really helps with the central issue of ‘how, when and why’ the universe was created, irrespective of whether it is physical or virtual. Of course, theological belief may offer up a different explanation of creation, although most are vague as to the scope of purpose in the wider universe, as most appear to focus on some small cultural group of ‘chosen people’ here on planet Earth.

So, can science offer up any better explanation?

At this point, we might make reference to the current cosmological model of an expanding universe, which suggests a point of creation in terms of the initial Big Bang Model. However, subsequent revisions of this model forward the idea of creation disappearing into a potentially infinite quantum universe of speculation regarding the nature of space and time.

Note: Again, while only summarising the scope of possibilities, it might be argued that we do not understand the scope of any purpose within the universe, irrespective of a preference for theology or science. My own position accepts that people have an emotional need to belief in ‘something’ that can provide solace and reassurance, but then questions whether theology has really considered the probability of any deity. However, it is unclear that science really has any better insight; for at one level the original Big Bang model described a point of creation out of nothing, violating the first law of thermodynamics, which was subsequently modified such that creation becomes linked to a quantum universe that may possibly be infinite in both time and space.

While the prior discussion has only outlined some of the different ideas, it appears that all are essentially speculative and beyond any obvious means of verification. As such, it might be accepted that further speculation on the issue of ‘how, when and why’ the universe came into existence may not be productive, although the philosophical debate will undoubtedly continue. So, let us table a different question.

How can the discussion proceed from such an unresolved position?

In part, if we accept that our understanding of the wider universe is very limited, we might proceed by questioning what we think we know and may possibly ever know. In this respect, the scope of purpose within the wider universe might be reduced to a more tangible issue associated with how conscious intelligence here on planet Earth might have evolved. Even so, there is still considerable uncertainty in our knowledge of how life evolved from inorganic towards organic chemistry plus the subsequent evolution from prokaryote towards eukaryote cells that underpin all higher lifeforms, including humanity.

Note: While this discussion cannot directly address all the inferences in the paragraph above, it might make some clarifications and provide an additional reference for further reading. By way of a crude distinction, inorganic chemistry is constrained to the study of compounds that are not carbon-based, while organic chemistry extends the scope to carbon compounds. However, at a more fundamental level, the potential energy, described as the enthalpy of formation, bound up in most of the 20,000,000 known kinds of molecules, is less than that of its constituent elements. Therefore, in this case, entropy allows complexity to be spontaneously created from simpler elements. Of course, while this example might refute the need for a 'guiding hand', the counter-argument is that the 'guiding hand' wrote the laws of physics – see The Organic Model for more details.

While not conclusive, the note above suggests possible mechanisms by which structural complexity might increase by means of spontaneous and non-spontaneous processes. Spontaneous processes can be directly attributed to the second law of thermodynamics, where molecules are formed because they are in a lower-energy state. A non-spontaneous process requires external energy to reverse entropy, but can then form stable molecules. However, in order to continue our discussion of purpose within the universe, we have to try to answer the next question.

How did life originate?

The reference to a ‘guiding hand’ is often raised in the context of intelligent design as the structural complexity being outlined appears beyond any reasonable assumption about causal probability. While the note above might provide a causal explanation for the transition from inorganic toward organic chemistry, the transition towards cellular life might seem to defy any reasonable probability - see The Cellular Model for more details. For even the first step towards bacterial life in the form of a prokaryote cell appears impossibly complex to happen by random chance. However, while accepting the speculative nature of the evolutionary model at this point, cellular complexity did not appear fully-formed from the primordial soup, but rather assumed to ‘develop’ as a series of small steps, each building on previous complexity.

In this context, simple organic molecules, similar to the nucleotide shown above, became the initial building blocks of life, where later RNA and DNA molecules were longer chains of simple nucleotides that would become the genetic material for all life.  

But how did this structural layering of complexity lead to conscious intelligence?

Those who prefer the idea of some ‘guiding-hand’ at work within the universe might reasonably highlight the implausible probability of the evolutionary model being outlined. While there is some obvious uncertainty surrounding this model, it is possibly within the framework of science to one day verify, while the true nature of the ‘guiding-hand’ may forever be speculative. At this point in time, it might simply be stated that cellular life is very complex, such that any causal mechanisms leading to this complexity still have to be proved. Of course, the issue of conscious intelligence only leads to more complexity that will only be outlined in terms of 5 speculative phases of evolution that transitions life from physical chemistry to the emergence of increasing intelligence and consciousness - see discussion And in The Beginning for more details.

  • Phase-1: Physical chemistry
  • Phase-2: Chemical structure and function
  • Phase-3: The aggregation of functions
  • Phase-4: The aggregation of cells
  • Phase-5: The emergence of intelligence & sentience

 While the cited link above provides the rationale for these phases, a wider discussion of consciousness might be linked to a book by Iain McGilchrist entitled ‘The Master and his Emissary’, which was reviewed under the heading ‘In Two Minds’. While this review deviated from the conclusions of the author, it suggested a possible reason for why intelligence and consciousness evolved as a survival mechanism.

At face-value, the timeline of evolution, as presented in the cartoon above, suggests that life had very little intelligence and possibly no conscious thought, as characterised in the sound-bite of ‘eat, survive, reproduce’ , which only changed with the appearance of homo sapiens. However, the evolutionary model had already established most of the functional blueprint underpinning the physiology and neurology of most species long before homo sapiens appeared. If so, we might speculate how and why evolution slowly gave rise to increasing intelligence within the survival model of predator and prey, where consciousness evolves from a much simpler need for self-awareness as outlined in the note below.

Note: When in predator mode, the conscious aspect of the mind may want to focus all its attention on the prey. However, we might recognise that this may not be the best survival strategy, if this focus leaves you open to becoming the prey of another predator. As such, we might perceive an evolutionary benefit for part of the brain being simultaneously aware of the wider environment without distracting attention away from the task at hand. As a slight aside, it might also be speculated that a rudimentary form of consciousness may have evolved within this predator-prey model, as without an awareness of self, it is difficult to define what is predator or prey. As such, both predator and prey, required some primitive form of self-awareness, long before intelligent consciousness, where the boundary of ‘self’ comes to define what needs to be protected in order to survive.

It is recognized that this discussion has deviated from its starting point relating to the potential scope of purpose in the wider universe. However, it was suggested that because all discussions, whether theological, philosophical or scientific, ended as unprovable speculation, the focus of purpose within the universe has to be reduced to a human perspective. For it seems that we do not really understand whether our universe is infinite and eternal, finite and created or even whether it might be an illusion, existing as a virtual reality rather than a physical one. With these doubts raised, the existence of any form of deity or cosmic intelligence was questioned, such that no purpose could be addressed. In this respect, it might be argued that humanity can only continue to define and refine its own purpose within a framework of hopefully improving man-made morality.