Steven Weinberg is a famous physicist, and a Nobel laureate.  He made a statement back in the late ’70’s that, because of its apparent extreme nihilism, has been quoted endlessly.  Those who cite it, however, usually do so disapprovingly.  Most often they are using it for stark contrast.  Bio-chemist and biologist Ursula Goodenough,  in her book The Sacred Depths of Nature, quotes Weinberg as saying:

“The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless.”

             Of course there are others, (yes, Larry, my neo-atheist friend, you are among them) who quote Wein­berg as the ultimate exoneration for their own intellectual flaccidity ― their refusal to make any effort to try to understand the universe that spawned them and whose existence, energy and genetic markings they bear in their very flesh.  They use Weinberg’s statement to justify having an “attitude” … and not a position.  But please note, Weinberg’s statement is not the result of his investigations as a physicist.  Calling the universe “pointless” is gratuitous on his part, and beyond the valid interests of his discipline.  He won the Nobel prize for something entirely unrelated to his “pointless” remark … and certainly not for his non-existent contribution to philosophy.

 [It bears mentioning that Weinberg is a very outspoken enemy of religion.  He is the son of immigrant Jewish parents and has explicitly declared that a major source of his antipathy toward religion is his rejection of the “God” who apparently was powerless to stop the holocaust.  From my point of view, his is also an “attitude” … and quite understandable.   It reinforces my contention about the absurdity and predictable effect of the current western imagery of the supernatural theist “God” of Providence.  See An Unknown God, chapter III.]

             “Pointless”? … quite a word.  What exactly does it mean?  Let’s check it out.  We say, “he made his point.”  In these cases to have a “point,” seems to mean saying something specific, or plausible.     … But then we also use the word in a slightly different sense when we say, “What’s the point” or “there’s no point to it.”  In this sense, “point” seems to mean “reason,” as in “there’s no reason to do it,” meaning “it has no purpose.”  This seems closer to what Weinberg perhaps meant, although we can’t be sure because he limits himself to pithy aphorisms.  He has not expostulated on the matter.  … And neither have you, Larry.

So if I’m right, then, Weinberg seems to be saying the universe has no point … no reason to be here … no purpose.

OK. Let’s run with this football.  Let’s say I agree, (which, as a matter of fact, I do, as will become clear as we go along).  I would agree the universe has no reason to be here.  What does that mean?  Well, by “no reason,” I mean it has no purpose for being here beyond itselfIt is here just to be here.  There is no why in the sense of going somewhere or becoming or producing something else …  something outside of, or other than this universe and the way it is.  The only thing that is here is this universe, and apparently the only thing that will ever be here is this universe, and as far as we can tell some of its features may change, and it may even die someday, but it is not on its way to becoming something else.  There is no other world.

Let’s clarify.  To ask “why” or “what’s the point,” brings to mind some kind of rational entity that does things for “reasons” that would have to be responsible for the presence of purpose in the universe … and therefore the lack of rational purpose indicates the absence of such an entity.  There is no one that “wants” the universe to do something of whom we can ask, “What’s the point.”  “Pointless” means there is no recognizable purpose, goal or end beyond what we see laid out before us, and by implication no one there to do it.  So, yes, in that sense, I agree with Weinberg, it’s all “pointless” because there is no rational entity giving it purpose, and it seems to have no purpose other than just to be there.

who wants what?

There is no outside source of “purpose” for the universe as we have conceded, but is there some manifestation of “intentionality” inside the universe that we can identify and perhaps question?

We live in a world teeming with life, human, animal, plant, insect, microbe, mold, virus.  There is virtually no cubic inch on the surface of the planet where some form of life does not exist.  And all of these life forms “want” something so desperately that we are able to define them as “alive” precisely because what they want is on such shameless, undisguised display.  They all want to be here … desperately.  Yes, this “want” is also pointless in the very strict sense that none of these life forms, including ourselves, want anything more or other than what they actually have here and now.  We all want to be here … we all want to be exactly what we are … to have exactly what we have … we want nothing fundamental to change.  We want to survive.  The only changes we might admit we want would be to eliminate the obstacles to our continued survival as we are, what we need to have to remain what we are.  None of us, whether bacterium or human being, wants anything other than to continue to be what we are … !

             Even humans, who are capable of imagining another world where they claim they will go when they die, are unable to conceive of that world except in terms of the life and existence they have here and now.  What they want in this supposed other world is to return to be what they were here … their individual selves … and maybe recover what they lost, like relationships with their parents, partners, children, friends … or themselves when they were young.  … they would rather that being there (the promised “other” world) is really an extension of being here.  They accept the “other world” as a reluctant alternative … they accept it because given the fact of death, it’s all they have left.  But it’s not really what they want.

Now, we appear to be the only life form that can even imagine the possibility of another world.  Everything we can see on this teeming earth, the animals, plants, insects, etc., have no inkling that there might be anything else, much less are they capable of wanting any such thing.  They only want what they are.  And WE UNDERSTAND THEM PERFECTLY because we want the same thing.

Well, all these life forms, including us, are constructed out of untold numbers of living cells that are themselves the conglomerates of aggregations of complex molecules, and those molecules congealed out of the collections of atoms built up from the simplest one proton hydrogen.  The particle physics that, in our era, has revealed the substructure of the atom, opens us to a nano world, too small to see or test, where the foundational stuff of atoms  is thought to be vibrating loops of energy responsible for everything that exists in the universe, whether inert or living, infinitely large or infinitesimally small ― everything.  The manifestations of life with its fierce desire to be-here that we are familiar with on earth have obviously drawn their energy from the energy substrate of the universe of which they are made.  As life complexifies and intensifies through the levels of evolutionary development, one thing seems to remain constant … the raw, implacable, insuppressible desire to be-here.  Unless someone would unscientifically attempt to insert an arbitrary wall of division between living things and the substrate out of which they are constructed, we have to say that life reveals it is the universe itself that wants to be here.

So what’s the point?  Well it seems that the so-called pointlessness is really not a problem for most of us … I’m including all the species of living things I’m aware of …  None of us finds it a problem that we are not becoming something else, or going anywhere else besides here.  All we really want is to be here … and so, that the universe is “pointless,” meaning it’s not becoming something else (and I’m able to stay being myself), is just fine with us.  But, of course, we are not happy when we are not able to just stay ourselves … by that I mean when we can’t survive, or when we become sick, or grow old and disabled or die.

Life ends at death.  To end and to be an end are two different things.  If what we meant by “end” was “purpose,” i.e., that the very purpose of life is to die, it contradicts our categories.  For if life had a purpose of any kind, it could not be called pointless.  If the purpose of life was to die it wouldn’t be pointless, but it would be absurd.  I don’t think most people, except crazy religious fanatics, would ever claim the very point of life was to die.  Otherwise no one would ever eat, go to the doctor, defend themselves from attack, feed and protect children.  It’s an obvious inversion.  Even those that say they believe such pathological inanities submit to their imagined program as to a distasteful inevitability and with the secret hope that something like what we know and love here awaits them later.  If it were up to them, it’s not what they would have chosen.  So we see that being “pointless,” just being-here, is not so bad.  It is, after all, what we really want.  It’s not that life is “pointless” that bothers us, it’s that this wonderful “pointless” thing ends.  It might be pointless, but it is far from absurd.

a different kind of pointless?

So, we’ve eliminated most senses of “pointless.”  What’s left?  Does the fact that life “ends” make it pointless and absurd?  Is this what Weinbrerg and you mean, Larry?  Let’s make this more concrete.  Let’s imagine:  I go on vacation to the beach with the partner I love … I rent a wonderful beach house, the weather is spectacular, there are movies, shows and restaurants in the nearby town, I lie in the sun, swim, sleep, read.  I’m there for two weeks.  Then it ends.  Wowwas that ever great!.  But it ended … did that make it pointless?  What was the point of a vacation?   Does everything have to have a point?  No.  The vacation was great because it was great … no further point.  End of story.  Why can’t life be taken that way?  It has no other point, but it doesn’t need one.

Do all temporary things become pointless and absurd just because they are temporary?  Is that what you find so pointed about Weinberg’s pointless remark?  Have you sworn off vacations, Larry, because you know they have to end?  Do you refuse to bring children into the world because it’s all absurd and pointless?  Why then, do you go on vacation, go to the doctor when you’re sick, bring children into this world, build and protect a family, all of whom are going to die, and some in great anguish … Larry, why do you take a partner knowing that one of you MUST die first leaving the other impaled and lost.  Don’t bother trying to dodge the questions, Larry, let me answer for you:  BECAUSE IT IS NOT POINTLESS.  What’s the point?  The point is being-here and being-here together … even for a while … is good … it’s very, very good.  It’s so good that it’s almost too good to be true.



PS  Or maybe you and Weinberg both come out of a tradition of religious fanaticism where you thought you were literally promised a “God” who intervened in history, protected the widows and orphans, brought low the oppressors, healed the sick and raised the dead, and provided a paradise of unimaginable delights where the lion laid down with the lamb … and then you found out it was all poetic metaphor for what would happen to this world if we lived with humility, gratitude, justice, love and service.  Is that it, Larry?  Did you, of all people, miss the poetry, the literary turn, the trope, the symbol, the allusion, the metaphor?  You don’t have to answer!  …  T.


OPEN LETTER TO A NEO-ATHEIST,       (7/28/2009)

from Tony Equale

Dear Larry,

             I’ve decided to call you a neo-atheist.   Let me tell you why.  I was inspired by the the label “neo-conser­vative” applied over the last 30 years to intellectuals in full-tilt recoil from the revolutionary initiatives of the flaming sixties to which they had originally subscribed.  And just like “neo-con,” which has the pejorative connotation of a knee-jerk rejection-reaction, “neo-athe­ism” alludes to a leap of faith and feeling that, precisely because it is born of rejection has cystified itself against thought.  Neo-atheism, in other words, is irrational.

             The normal atheist is rational, the neo-atheist is NOT.  And that irrationality is the clue that you are in a full blown backlash from an earlier irrationality, and one that you cannot or will not integrate it into your present trajectory.  If the original commitment had been mature, you might have modified it, even rejected it, but you would not be, at this point, irrational.  How is your irrationality manifest?  We’ll get to that shortly.

the vulnerable adolescent

             To explain my take on the personal dynamic functioning here, Larry, permit me to present a parallel example.  Here’s one we are all familiar with.  The adolescent male of the species is notoriously vulnerable to the promotions of the military which symbolically offer his budding manhood the reassurances his insecurity demands.  Hence the transhistorical phenomenon of war may be plausibly explained by its aptness as a “rite of passage” for each new generation of tumescent teen­agers, who like the children of Hamlin, follow the piper to their eternally predictable doom.  Every generation knows it.  Every generation fails to avoid it.  There is a normal personal inadequacy ― adolescence ―  often accompanied by an enforced childhood “docility,” that carries a natural sense of impotence. That impotence is promised a resolution in the obedient violence of “manly” war.  

            But notice how “docile obedience” is functional on both sides of the divide.  An imposed (not personally chosen) childhood docility creates the impotence that is promised to be transcended by violence … but since the violence is itself not personally chosen, but performed as a surrogate and in obsequious fear of violent authority, the impotence is regenerated in the very act of its supposed transcendence.  Violence used as an antidote to impotence produces more impotence.  Like an addiction, it often leads to subsequent violence, personal or familial.  Like alcohol, the “solution” produces the need for more “solution” … precisely because it is being used to do something it cannot do.    

            The parallelism with “true believers” like us is more than superficial.  Adolescence is the context in each case.  For the “true believer,” an obedient docility enforced by an implacable hieratic authority rendering all autonomy criminal, generates an impotence that becomes socially fertile (even applauded) by its sublimation in an act of total commitment and self-donation .  But this apparent “achievement,” like the violence of war, is unsatisfying, for the commitment is to an eternal docility, sterile obedience and abdication of autonomy.  If the “solution” is addictively re-applied, as the formation instructs, it turns into an endless surrender to an all consuming cause ― the same or others. 

             The neo-atheist, having once been thus “duped” in his adolescence, needs to declare his ability to resist any such humiliation in the future.  He assumes a posture of total intransigence toward all manifestations of the earlier ideology, but does so with an ironic twist.  He applies the same unquestioning docility and self-surrender to the new “ideology” as he had to his erstwhile beliefs.

            When the ideology is rejected but the addictive self-abdicating dynamic is not, you get the irrationality of which I speak.  The “true-believer” changes the content of his ideology, but retains his character as “true-believer.”  Hence the “neo” sydrome, true of the neo-con as of the neo-atheist.  You can’t talk to them because, like all true believers, they are lost in the throes of a salvific self-surrender.

             The neo-atheist’s rejection is expressed in global and categorical terms.  He finds himself with absolutely nothing to say, because all distinctions have been blurred, melted together in the heat of the passion for rejection.  Nothing is specified except for one supreme and exclusively relevant item: religious duping.   And anything even remotely reminiscent of it is immediately perceived as a threat to its re-establishment.

 the irrationality

             This has reached such proportions, that the ordinary human phenomenon that we call “sacred” is summarily dismissed as absurd, and deceiving.  The fact that this phenomenon has no necessary connection with “religion” does not deter the neo, as he accuses the use of the very word and concept of being some kind of “sleight-of-hand,” a neo-duping of the apparently still-vulnerable adolescent.  Is this rational?  … are we to say that the duty to protect our children is NOT a sacred responsibility? … that the obligation to be faithful and supportive to one’s life-partner is not a sacred promise? … that our compliance with law, justice, the honoring of contracts, keeping our pledged word are not sacred responsibilities we take on?  This insistence on the inadmissability of the word and category “sacred” is irrational.

            The sense of the sacred is a psychic and social fact, how you explain it is an interpretation.  Anyone can validly deny that he/she has any sense of the sacred.  Implausible as it may be, who is to gainsay someone’s testimony about their own psychic state?  But to extrapolate from that and claim that a sense of the sacred is not a pervasive, almost universal, human phenomenon, is entirely invalid, and intellectually dishonest.  (And if the original claim is an intentional dissimulation, it’s a lie, besides).  Such a denial of fact suggests that the loss of rational control is already at a pathological level.  For a normal, rational “atheist,” proposing a non-religious or non-theist explanation for the sense of the sacred would be sufficient and necessary to ground his/her position.  The neo-atheist cannot do that.  He must dismiss it out of hand.

             What’s opposed to all this irrationality?  Thought, reason, intelligent analysis, researched discussion.  The solution to the impotence / surrender syndrome ― like the solution to the impotence / violence, or the impotence / alcohol syndrome ― is the direct, not surrogate, transcendence over impotence and abdication of autonomy by personal confrontation and appropriation.  It means no longer running away in fear from the words and categories of the former entrapment.  It means no more surrogates.  It means the direct assertion of personal control over all the significant aspects of one’s life, including those aspects over which one had no control at one point in time.

             “Running away” is a clear sign that the neo has no control over the categories of his original enslavement.  The paradox here is tragic.  For what it really indicates is that the neo is still helpless before them.  The neo is in fact still so dominated by the earlier ideology that he cannot allow himself even to look at it for fear of once again capitulating to its siren power.  He has never thought it through.  This is made abundantly clear in the fact that the “neo” presents no rational arguments for his “atheism” except to declare unthinking loyalty to its icons.  For him, the fact that Hitchens or Dawkins, or Harris or Dennet or Weinberg have a “position” is sufficient.  As with his former religious commitment, he doesn’t have to “know” or understand … it’s sufficient that the authorities “know.”  He simply goes along in obedient docility.  As with his earlier religious commitments, he has never thought through his atheism either.  He doesn’t even know what these people are actually saying and why.

speaking honestly

            What has been implicit in my remarks and I want to emphasize is that I am not challenging the atheist’s right to, or even the undeniable rationality of, his atheism.  I more than respect the atheist.  I personally feel the atheist, because he rejects the supernatural theist “God” of recent tradition, is in many ways closer to reality than most “believers.”  Like the atheist, I also reject that particular idea of “God.”  I believe it is absurd and I offer arguments and alternatives in An Unknown God.

             I am not arguing against the “neo’s” atheism, I am attacking his “neo-ism,” i.e., the fact that he has erected his rejection into another unthinking abdication of reason, thought, feeling and understanding.  I attack it in the name not of a “God,” whose features are no longer credible, but of our humanity which does not need more de fide “dogmas” or true believers who refuse to think and talk … we need more dialog, thought, reason ― those essential elements of fertile and pacific interchange among people of all persuasions that make human society life-sus­taining and not a series of endless wars and senseless slaughter. 

             Larry, I suspect very strongly that your inability to confront and control these issues means that subconsciously they are still in the driver’s seat for you … potentially ready to re-engage your commitment ― irrationally of course ― when you’re not watching.  In this regard, I also fear that your antipathy toward my position stems as much from a powerful subconscious irrational loyalty to “Catholic truths” and the traditional authorities as from any “atheism” that you have conspicuously failed to plumb and articulate.  And, Larry, please believe me when I say this, but I am much more afraid of the former in you than the latter.


Tony Equale