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25.1.03

Is The Universe Doomed?

Cosmic pointlessness has also been argued on philosophical grounds on the basis that the very concept of a "point" or "purpose" cannot be applied to a system like the universe because it makes sense only in the context of human activity. Some years ago, I took part in a BBC television debate with Hugh Montefiore, then Bishop of Birmingham, and the atheist Oxford philosopher AJ Ayer. Montefiore declared that without God all human life would be meaningless. Ayer countered that humans alone imbue their lives with meaning. "But then life would have no ultimate meaning," objected the bishop. "I don't know what ultimate meaning means!" cried Ayer. His objection, of course, is that such concepts as meaning, purpose and having a point are human categories that make good sense in the context of human society, but are, at best, metaphors when applied to non-living systems.


I think debates over whether the universe has a meaning tend to miss the point by assuming that a meaning will necessarily be a universal or ultimate meaning, something that's an inherent property of the world. I think the beauty (and sometimes the terror) of the universe is that it doesn't come to us with its purpose preordained, so it's flexible enough to be the site of many different purposes for many different people. Which is not to say that we can simply make up any purpose we like for the universe. The universe as we know and encounter it is a partner with us in working out a purpose. I think it's consistent with the jazz improvisation theory of God to say that the only purpose the universe has is to see what kind of purposes people with different experiences of it would find in it.

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