This post was originally published on this blog in August 2009. It was one of a series of essays that were the extensions of an “open letter” to a neo-atheist friend of mine, whom I call “Larry.” Larry is a real person who is a talented writer. He quoted Weinberg to me during an exchange that we had at that time. I am re-publishing my response now because I like it. I have no other reason.
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.
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 itself. It 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 already 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, that hope is 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. We know exactly what that feels like.
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 the way we are … 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. Wow! was 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.
THAT’S THE POINT!
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.