Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Does the Universe Have a Purpose? Debate Analysis

Perhaps you have watched the panel debate that took place last month in Mexico that pitted Richard Dawkins, Michael Shermer and Matt Ridley against William Lane Craig, David Wolpe, and Douglas Geivett.  The proposed question of the debate was, "does the universe have a purpose?"  It seemed an important topic, with important figures on both sides, so I thought I would give my thoughts on it.  You can watch the debate here.

Each of the debaters had several short periods to make opening remarks, rebut opponents, and finally, to make closing remarks.  I will outline each debater's main points and direct quotes throughout the debate and then give my conclusions and analysis.

Opening remarks:

Matt Ridley (Author, Journalist):

  • Must there be a purpose for something such as an earthquake?
  • You get into trouble when you look for purpose in everything.
  • Humans look for a purpose because we see patterns in the world.
  • There can be a direction in nature, but there needn't be a destination
  • It is possible to have order without ordaining it.

William Lane Craig (Philosopher, Theologian, Christian Apologist):
  • The theist side will defend two contentions in this debate: 1. If God does not exist, then the universe does not have a purpose.  2. If God does exist, then the universe does have a purpose.
  • If there is no God, we are all doomed to die, and so is the universe - we have no hope, and life is ultimately meaningless on a cosmic scale.
  • "If atheism fails to provide a purpose for life and the universe, what about biblical theism?"
  • "The purpose of life is to be found in a personal relationship with a holy and loving god."
  • "Biblical theism thus provides the two conditions necessary for an objectively purposeful life - God and immortality."
  • "And thus biblical theism succeeds precisely where atheism breaks down."
  • But none of this proves God exists.
  • If the opposition is to argue that the universe has no purpose, they must first show that God does not exist.
  • Evil is "a departure from the way things ought to be."  Agreeing that evil exists implies that there is a way things should be, thus indicating design.  If atheism is true, there is no 'way things ought to be,' and evil doesn't really exist.  But who wants to say that evil doesn't exist?

Michael Shermer (Publisher of Skeptic Magazine):
  • We have a purpose, but not from a god.  We make our own purposes.
  • We are an integral part of the 3.5 billion year old chain of life.
  • We do not need God to have meaning, purpose, and happiness.

David Wolpe (Author, Rabbi):
  • The universe is fine-tuned for our existence.  This implies purpose.
  • The fact that we can comprehend the universe at all shows purpose.
  • "You can't comprehend [the universe] if it's meaningless - nonsense can't be comprehended."
  • "Only meaning and order and purpose can be understood."
  • The fact that the world operated according to fixed laws should 'awaken our wonder.'
  • Science is not the only way to knowledge - we all use another method for the things we care the most about.  "We live our lives by intangibles, by poetry, by love, by dreams, by aspirations.  And these things are not susceptible to repeat experiments, to disproof."
  • "Sometimes, about the central questions of life, you should believe what you believe."

Richard Dawkins (Evolutionary Biologist, Author):
  • The 'why' questions are sometimes silly questions
  • Humans are obsessed with purpose - we always wonder what something is 'for.'
  • Darwin showed us there are natural, reasonable explanations for the illusion of design.

Douglas Geivett (Professor of Philosophy of Religion and Ethics):
  • Willful obedience to God is the highest ideal of a purposeful life.
  • With the atheistic view, there is no purpose to anything.
  • If atheists think there is a purpose, it rests on an arbitrary standard at best.
  • "The irony of this leads us to evidence that God exists.  Because this choice that we make, without the idea of God, for a meaningful existence, is only possible because we are endowed by God with a capacity of self-determination."
  • Why is there freedom if there is no God?
  • The fact that we are asking the question, 'does the universe have a purpose?' is a signpost for the existence of God.  If naturalism is true, the question would not exist.


  • Both sides seem to agree with the two contentions he stated last time.
  • Challenges the atheist side to argue that God does not exist.
  • So far, the theist side has implied 10 arguments for the existence of God.
  • Richard Dawkins says that the 'why' question is silly - this is reprehensible.  He thinks we are just animals.
  • If God does exist, and you miss his purpose for your life, that would be the ultimate tragedy.

  • The universe doesn't seem to have a purpose, not because god doesn't exist, but because it doesn't seem to have a purpose!
  • We continually see faith retreating from the advances of science.

  • If you believe you are an accident of nature, composed entirely of matter, then the universe has no purpose.
  • You may see poetry and beauty in the world and in people you love.  You may not want that to be taken from you by someone who sees you in reductive terms.
  • You may have a relationship with God that you can't put on a blackboard, that you can't explain, that you can't account for - but it is real, just like the love you feel for people who are dear to you.
  • Do you view the universe as a mystery or a puzzle?  If it's a puzzle, then you think -it's ok to figure it out.  We religious people think it's a mystery - we think that we'll never figure it out - we think it's about God.

  • It's obvious that the universe has no purpose - just look at it - most of it is just stars doing nothing 'purposeful.'
  • Whether or not there is a God, shouldn't we be doing purposeful things anyway?
  • If the theists suddenly realized there was no God, would they instantly lose their purpose?

  • Ridley's idea of 'pattern without purpose' is no good because progress implies something getting better, which implies a value judgement, and his idea "leaves no room for value."
  • Ridley says it's possible to show that all the patterns we see in the world can be constructed from the bottom up, but offers no evidence for this.
  • But even if it is possible, that doesn't mean that is what we should believe, because there could also be a top-down explanation, which is better.

  • The theistic case is an emotional case, not an evidential one.  'It's unsettling to think that we are doomed to die, and there is no purpose to the universe, so it's not true.'
  • We construct our own purposes.  We atheists have purpose in our lives just like everyone else, and we have a better explanation for it.

  • There is mystery in the world, and there are things that we may never understand.  But to make the jump from mystery to God is a mistake.

  • The atheist side has said 'we can construct purposes to feel better.'  This is just pretending that the universe has a purpose.  This is make-believe.  There can be no objective purpose.  With atheism, all these 'purposes' are illusory.  One cannot actually live as though there is no purpose to life, so we adopt subjective illusions of purpose to make life livable.  Therefore, atheism is not only irrational, it is unlivable.  One cannot live consistently and purposefully within atheism.

  • We are not pretending when we love someone.

  • He has been with dying people, he has had close calls himself.  He knows what it means to know that you are ending your life in this world and he knows what it is to ask whether this is all there is, or if there is something more?
  • He claims that people's intuition of purpose is not silly or childish.  He really believes that when he holds the hand of someone who is dying, he is ushering them into another mode of being.
  • People have believed that since the beginning of time, and because some don't believe it today does not mean it's not true.

  • When you hold the hand of a someone who is dying, it is comforting to believe they are going to a better place, but that doesn't make it true!
  • There is enormous mystery in the world, but to respond to it by postulating that God did it is lazy.
  • Darwin showed us that even though the people in his time assumed that life was designed, it could be explained scientifically.

  • We are not 100% certain God exists.  It just seems really probable.
  • Dawkins said that our argument was an emotional one, but his side is the emotional one.  He has not shown our arguments to be fallacious, nor has he argued that God does not exist.

30 second closing remarks:

  • To the audience: Trust me, our position is defensible and there are many smart theists.

  • We have searched for purpose, but we haven't found it.  It doesn't look like we will.  It's like a unicorn.

  • I don't have all the answers, my faith waxes and wanes.  But you have to commit to one side.

  • We are not saying that people have no purpose - people are the purpose-makers!

  • Quotes C.S. Lewis: "If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world."

  • "Simplicity is that which is easy to understand, complexity is that which is difficult.  We, as scientists are engaged on an enterprise to understand complexity, and that is a difficult problem.  Purpose is one of the manifestations of complexity.  Purpose comes from brains, brains come late in the universe, brains and purpose and all of the other things like love are things that require explanation, and we are working on explaining them - that's not arrogant, that's hard work, that's diligence."

Analysis and conclusion:

Debates are not the best tools to arrive at the truth.  They rarely change the minds of those who listen to them, and many important and relevant points are missed or left out in the interest of time and simplicity.  However, they can be very instructive to see what sort of arguments are out there, and how strong they are.

The theistic side was affirming that God exists, and that the universe does have a purpose.  To support this, several arguments were employed, not to mention appeals to our gut instinct.  The moral argument was hinted at, without there being time to develop it.  The comprehensibility of the natural world was used as a proof for God's existence, as well as the teleological argument and the argument from freedom.

One thing that I noticed from the theistic side was this:  They often referred to the atheistic view of the universe as an accident, a purposeless existence, while using words such as "mere, only, just" and other depressing modifiers when referring to a material existence.  They seemed to be arguing that since the atheist can't believe the universe has a purpose, then the atheistic view must be wrong, because it can't be that bad!  It seems obvious that the idea here was to covince the audience that atheism is not a happy existence, there is no hope in it, and if it's true, we are all doomed to die.  But what does that have to do with whether it is true or not?  The truth of atheism or theism is completely independent of the belief's consequences.  Why do theists continually use this tactic?  I have often wondered this and I am not sure if they simply try to scare people with it, or if they really think it is a cogent argument.  It seems odd since the atheist side is in fact agreeing that there is no "purpose" for the universe in the sense that the theists use the term, but that it's ok, the world is still beautiful and life has meaning.  It would have been better for the theist side to focus more on the positive arguments for God's existence and the purpose of the universe rather than simply point out the "scary" implications of being an atheist.

Not left behind were the "mystery" arguments, where the term, "god of the gaps" finds its purchase. This is mostly the province of David Wolpe, who said, "We live our lives by intangibles, by poetry, by love, by dreams, by aspirations.  And these things are not susceptible to repeat experiments, to disproof."  What place does this have in a debate?  This is just implying that the mystery in the universe automatically points to God.  Why would it automatically be attributed to God?

Finally, and I think this is an important point for the theist side, they argue that their feeling that God exists - their faith - is not something that you can analyze in a lab or prove, but that it is not ridiculous belief to have.  This is more or less like saying, "I just know it's true, trust me."

The atheist side argued that just because you see patterns in nature, and the apparent design of the universe, it does not follow that God exists.  In fact, those patterns have been shown to have purely natural causes with no need for a divine explanation, as they used to have for so long.  Looking for purpose in the universe causes problems for the theist like why God allowed an earthquake to kill so many people - what is the purpose in that?  They talked about how humans are wired in a way that applying purpose to patterns is how we cope in the world we live in, so it is not surprising (and not correct) when we apply the same thinking to the universe and God.  While not giving good arguments against God's existence, they argued that they didn't see a reason to believe in him.

The theist side's arguments were predictable and often appealed to fear and mystery.  "If you are an atheist, you have no purpose in life - doesn't that sound awful?  It's an unlivable position, and any purpose an atheist injects into their lives is illusory, so it's not true.  Biblical theism is a livable position, therefore it is true.  Also, the world is governed by physical laws, and there is a lot of mystery in the universe - this implies that God exists, and therefore, the universe has a purpose."

The atheist side argued more like someone who is waiting to be convinced they're wrong, but have so far not been moved.  "Look, I don't think there are any good reasons to think there is a grand purpose in the universe.  Bad things happen all the time, all over the place, and the universe seems to be indifferent to our suffering, as far as we can tell.  A comforting belief can still be wrong.  There could yet be a purpose, but we have no reason to think so.  But don't despair!  Existence is not miserable and pointless over on our side.  In fact, it is more wonderful and meaningful than devotion to a mythic god."

Personally, I found the theistic argumentation unconvincing, and after watching it twice, I remained unimpressed by their reasoning.  William Lane Craig was the most well-equipped for the debate, and it would have been better for the theist side if he was able to go head to head with an atheist.  But he didn't, and they suffered because of it.

In addition, I found nothing profound on the atheist side.  Perhaps I was already familiar with the rhetoric they presented.  I tried to think like someone who had not heard them argue before, which is hard to do, but I could not imagine anything they said to be an world view crashing revelation for a believer.  Their strength was their simple, succinct, logical dismantling of the arguments presented by the other side.

If you agree with my conclusions, or feel I missed something completely, or simply want to add on to what I said, feel free to comment.  I welcome the discussion.
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1 comment:

Andrew Parrish said...

Your thoughts and expressions are much deeper than I would every think about theism or atheism, but when I read this I kept thinking, Why are they trying to define something that is infinite? It reminded me of our conversation the other night of infinity not being something that can explained or defined accurately.

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