“Why? The Purpose of the Universe”
By Philip Goff
Oxford University Press (November 9, 2023)
Reviewed by Casey Dorman
“Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language.” (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations §109)
I recently watched the 1990 film, Paris is Burning, which documents the New York Ballroom Culture, a complex performance-oriented subculture comprised mostly of gay black men who compete at Balls, where they act out highly dramatized versions of identities. The culture is supportive of its members, who ‘live” for the balls, whether they are performers or audience, and many of them define themselves in terms of their role in the culture. It was a perfect example of humans making meaning in their lives, in this case, in spite of marginalization by the majority society.
When I read Philip Goff’s Why? The purpose of the universe, I was shocked to find that anyone, much less a well-known academic philosopher, believed that the meaning of one’s life was mostly dependent upon whether the universe they lived in had a purpose.
According to Goff, life is not truly meaningless if the universe has no purpose, but our lives are richer if it does. In his words, “if it turned out there were a cosmic purpose, one that was good and that we could contribute to with our thoughts and actions, that would be tantamount to winning the lottery.” So, for us to benefit from cosmic purpose, it must not only exist, but have value in the sense of being “good.” It turns out that his evidence for cosmic purpose is based on so-called “fine-tuning” of the values of a number of physical constants that allow life to exist.
In Goff’s view, the universe has a purpose, which is to allow life to exist. This situation entails a great number of prerequisite conditions. There must be a way for the universe to make life possible and the universe must decide to choose that way. In order to make choices, the universe must be conscious. The universe must have values, because having a purpose entails values. Because the universe has a purpose with value, human lives can enhance their meaning by aiding the universe to realize its purpose. Goff addresses each of these issues, although not in the order I have presented them.
Goff first addresses values. The universe’s values are something that had to exist as what he calls “value facts.” They are fundamental facts in the sense that their existence is not derived from prior considerations. Because these facts characterize the universe, they must have existed before there were human minds to conceptualize or define them. This could be a conundrum, since it means value must have been defined without the benefit of minds to do the defining, except he also argues that the universe is conscious, so, in effect, a mind has existed as long as the universe has existed. It does not solve the problem of how a mind existed before the universe existed, since that would be necessary if what was being chosen was the form of the universe, as defined by its physical constants. He solves this problem by hypothesizing that during the earliest moments following the Big Bang, the less than a millisecond, “Planck Epoch,” the conscious universe chose, from an array of possible values for those constants, the ones that would permit life to develop. He gives no indication of where such consciousness came from, except to say that the quantum wave form probably “underlies” it. Goff’s definition of the value-fact for which he believes there is evidence, is that the universe “is directed towards some higher state of being.” The rest of the book discusses evidence for cosmic purpose and a value-driven universe.
Central to Goff’s attempt to demonstrate that the universe has purpose is his “Value-Selection Hypothesis,” which says, “certain of the fixed numbers in physics are such as they are because they allow for a universe containing things of significant value.” We assume he means us. He sets against his hypothesis what he calls the “crazy fluke” hypothesis, saying, “This is our choice: crazy fluke or value playing a role in shaping our universe.”
Another name for the crazy fluke hypothesis is chance selection or randomness, i.e., certain of the fixed numbers in physics are as they are out of pure chance or because of a random turn of events. Why the emphasis upon “certain of the fixed numbers in physics?” For those who are not familiar with the topic, it has long been wondered why or how it came about that a number of the constants found in physics have values that are in exactly the range, sometimes which is quite narrow, to allow life to develop. These constants include the strong nuclear force, the mass difference between protons and neutrons, the proton to electron mass ratio, the mass difference between up quarks and down quarks, the fine-structure constant or strength of the electromagnetic interaction between elementary charged particles, the gravitational force to electromagnetic force ratio, and the cosmological constant or density of space energy (dark energy), and others. In the case of some of these constants, the consensus is that they are necessary for enough carbon to be present in the universe to support life, which as far as we know, is always carbon-based. In the case of others, if their values were not as they are, even stars that live long enough to support the development of life or produce planets or sustain the atomic dynamics that allow hydrogen interactions to create other elements would not be possible. Fine-tuning is not just responsible for our own presence in the universe, it is necessary for our present universe to exist at all.
Fine-tuning is a concept that is generally recognized among the scientific community and is variously seen as either an unexplainable mystery (“that’s just the way the universe is”), a reflection of a deeper physics that makes these values necessary but which we don’t understand (Einstein’s view), just one set of values among many, perhaps an infinite number, of values that these constants have taken in many “multiverses,” or an illusion, in the sense that the ranges of these constants necessary to allow life are not so rigidly circumscribed as we think, or they have changed over time and continue to change. Finally, there is the “anthropic” idea that what seems unlikely is, in fact, the only circumstance that could have held true if we are to be present to observe it. By this theory, our universe could be the only one that exists or one of many, but, either way, it’s the way it is because it’s the one with us in it to observe it. A comprehensive review by the Foundational Questions Institute (Frankel, 2022) details both the latest findings on the topic and each of these theories. Perhaps importantly, it does not mention the possibility that the “fine-tuned” values of these constants are the result of cosmic purpose.
For his part, Goff relies on a figure taken from Barnes (2020) of 1 in 10136 “odds” that these constants would have the values necessary for life as strong evidence that the universe has purpose. Given the number of unknowns, both with regard to the range of values that some of the constants could take and still allow life, our lack of knowledge of the effects of a change in one constant’s value on the value of another, plus evidence that some of the values may have changed over time, not to mention the anthropic principle or the theory of multiverses, it seems hazardous to place much faith in such a calculation of these odds.
Despite it being a controversial conclusion, Goff takes the low likelihood of the physical constants having values that allow life to develop simply by chance as evidence that such a hypothesis is unlikely to be true. Goff cloaks his reasoning in Bayesian language, which gives it an air of certainty, but, in fact, given what we don’t know, is simply a pseudo-formalization of his intuitive reasoning and preconceptions. He attempts to compute the likelihood that the values of the physical constants would be such that they “are compatible with life” if the Value-Selection Hypothesis is true, versus if the Value-Selection Hypothesis is false. He points out that he is actually talking about how much credence he would put in the belief that the Value-Selection Hypothesis is true. His conclusion is that the truth of the Value-Selection Hypothesis justifies “fairly high,” credence, but the falsity of the Value-Selection Hypothesis justifies “extremely low” credence.
While we can argue with the facts and reasoning that justify his dismissal of the possibility of a universe with finely-tuned constants arising by chance, what is more problematic is Goff’s acceptance of his Value-Selection Hypothesis as the favored alternative to chance. He admits that Bayesian reasoning of the type he is using can lend credence to some far-fetched hypotheses, such as that what appears to be a portrait of Jesus in pattern of grains on a piece of toast is evidence that “Jesus specifically wants to communicate with me through toast” rather than “a Jesus-shaped image appeared by chance.” He dismisses acceptance of such counterintuitive hypotheses as relevant because “in contrast to Jesus in the toast, the fine-tuning evidence for cosmic purpose is ludicrously strong.” That’s a strong statement considering that Luke Barnes (2020) uses the same evidence and the same Bayesian reasoning that Goff uses to examine the thesis that God created such a fine-tuned universe. His conclusion is that “the likelihood that a life-permitting universe exists based on theism is not vanishingly small,” while the likelihood that such a universe exists by chance is “vanishingly small.” Presumably “not vanishing small,” is something less than the “ludicrously strong” claim that Goff makes. Barnes’ theism is based on his positing an omnipotent and good God, but in terms of logic, Descartes’ Deus deceptor, the malicious demon that could trick him into believing an illusion of the real world is the real thing, would have the same likelihood as would a benign God of producing a universe whose constants were fine-tuned for life, at least as far as the experiences of the scientists who measured such constants were concerned.
Goff’s (and Barnes’) Bayesian reasoning can give credence to almost any hypothesis because they both compare it to a rival hypothesis, which they claim has a “vanishingly small” likelihood of being true (despite the fact that most scientists have treated the chance hypothesis as roughly of similar credibility as its rivals). Nick Bostrom, in a famous paper back in 2003, argued that, mathematically, it may be exceedingly likely that we are living in a computer simulation. Frankel (2022) considers Bostrom’s proposal in terms of the likelihood that it would produce fine-tuning and concludes that it would, and, using the same reasoning as Goff and Barnes, she says the simulation hypothesis would also be more credible than the chance hypothesis as an explanation of fine-tuning. Ironically, Frankel suggests that the main reason for rejecting either the simulation account or any other version of a purposefully created universe is that the fine-tuning we observe is not, in fact, optimal for life. In terms of several of the constants, slightly different values would have given life an even better chance to emerge. She raises the question of, if someone, or something, or the universe itself created constant values that were favorable for life, why would they have created suboptimal ones?
In addition to Frankel’s argument that the values that are observed for physical constants are not optimal for life, the values of physical constants are not the only variables involved in determining the likelihood of life emerging. If the universe were created with the goal of permitting life, why is so much of it uninhabitable? Ignoring the uninhabitable space filled with dark energy, and black holes, and focusing just on planets, recent estimates are that two-thirds of planets are outside of the habitable or “Goldilocks” zone (Sagear & Ballard, 2023). Of the remaining one-third that are in the habitable zone, up to three quarters of them “may not be good for life” (Crane, 2023). This leaves only 8.25% of planets having even the possibility of life. Additionally, the most recent data from the James Webb Space Telescope has suggested that some planets that are in the habitable zone and are “tidally-locked” so they always show the same face to their star, which may, in fact, be the majority of habitable zone planets, have sudden and “sporadic” shifts in their rates of rotation. For periods of time, they are no longer tidally locked and undergo dramatic shifts in days and nights, temperature, oceanic tides and weather, which could be catastrophic to life on those planets (Shakespeare and Steffen, 2023). Thus, habitability on the universe’s planets would be reduced below the 8.25% upper limit. In fact, it may turn out that a “vanishingly small” percentage of planets in the universe are able to support life. But even a vanishingly small percentage of a number variously estimated at between 70 quintillion and 100 sextillion (that’s the number followed by from 18 to 21 zeroes) is a lot. Still, it means that even a creator with a purpose or a universe that, itself, has a purpose of being compatible with life, is only able to create a vanishingly small number of planets on which life can exist. That would be a very inefficient universe or universe creator if allowing life is its chief goal.
Purpose involves an agent with a goal who behaves in a way that is aimed at attaining that goal. Having a purpose is different than engaging in purposive behavior. Flowers turn toward the sun; ants build an intricate underground nest and termites do the same above ground; bees find their way back to their nest and the next day back to the flowers from which they take nectar. We can describe such behaviors as purposive, but only a few scientists who study them believe that the organisms that produce those behaviors have the purpose of their behavior “in minds” when they engage in it (some scientists do believe so). Goff is talking about the universe having a purpose in the sense, not just that its behaviors appear purposive, but that the universe is conscious and chooses its purpose and how to attain it.
Goff says that, because consciousness is, by its nature, necessarily private and not observable by anyone but the person who possess it, we cannot learn about it, or how it is related to such things as brain activity, through experimentation. Consciousness is different from other unobservable phenomena, such as particles, quantum wave functions, etc., because in those cases, “we postulate unobservables in order to explain what we can observe.” But consciousness is different because we know it exists because it is privately observable, not because it is postulated to exist in order to explain observable behavior. In his words (in large and bold font), “The reality of consciousness is a fundamental datum over and above the data of public observation and experiment.” Despite his obvious desire to emphasize this, it should be known that while consciousness is recognized as fundamental data by most cognitive and neuroscientists, they do not rule it out as a subject to study through public observation and experiment. Goff emphasizes his point because he asserts that consciousness can only be explored through access to private data, and since such data is not public and observable, that negates studying it through experimentation and leaves inner observation, what he calls “privately known data,” as the only method available.
Goff’s position on the scientific study of consciousness ignores volumes of research on the subject, and several of his later statements actually contradict that research. For instance, his entire discussion of a “meaning zombie” is challenged by research on blindsight and similar sensationless thought processes. Although he asserts that natural selection could not have selected consciousness or “experiential meaning,” that is exactly what research by Ginsburg and Jablonka shows is plausible in their 2019 book, The Evolution of the Sensitive Soul, and what neuro- and evolutionary psychologist Nicholas Humphrey explains happens in his recent book, Sentience. By denying the insights from experimental research, Goff gives himself permission to seek answers to virtually all questions on consciousness through reflection and introspection. As a psychologist, I can tell you that the entire world of psychologists would disagree with his statement that, “empirical science tells us how things behave, but it remains silent on why things behave as they do.” From jellyfish and anemones to flatworms to pigeons to monkeys and humans, empirical science has spent decades compiling information and testing theories on “why things behave as they do.”
I won’t go into the intricacies of Goff’s discussion of consciousness, since I found it filled with speculative assertions arbitrarily accepted as facts then woven into a loosely connected theory that has elementary particles acting in response to their “immediate inclination to perform a specific action in the here and now.” Instead of talking about force, or momentum, or gravity in relation to inanimate objects, he attributes organism-like reasoning to their behavior. He says, “Particles are never compelled to do anything, but are rather disposed, from their own nature, to respond rationally to their experience.” If he means that particles obey natural laws that allow them to move, interact and combine with other particles, he is, of course correct. But he denies the determinism implied by natural laws and substitutes rationality and choice, which implies a reasoning mind, which few physicists would agree with. Similarly, when he says, “it is consistent with observation to suppose that particles are engaging in a very rudimentary form of what organisms do: following their conscious inclination,” I can only surmise that he is using words such as “conscious inclination” differently than I do, and what suppositions seem “consistent with observation” to him are different than they are for me. He admits that “the conscious inclinations of an electron would be unimaginably simple compared to the conscious inclinations of even the simplest organisms.” By saying this, he is positing a different kind of consciousness than most of us are intimately familiar with in our own experience, and by doing so, he has violated his own dictum that consciousness can only be studied by exploring the “privately known data” of our own minds. If consciousness is defined as what we each experience, then if something like the consciousness of particles is “unimaginable,” then it cannot be studied and we cannot determine if it exists.
But how does this theory of consciousness all the way down to particles, i.e., panpsychism, plus what he calls panagentialism, i.e., everything is the agent of its own behavior, whether it is animate or inanimate, contribute to deciding the issue on cosmic purpose?
It turns out that Goff’s reasons for accepting that there is cosmic consciousness and cosmic purpose is that it is necessary to sever the connection between consciousness and “purely physical processes in the brain.” Instead, he asserts that consciousness exists separately and in everything as “fundamental conscious entities,” which have a creative role in producing the physical instantiation of the universe. In his words, “fundamental conscious entities, through their interactions, realize the right mathematical structure [to] quite straightforwardly account for the emergence of physics.” He does not mean physics as a theory, but physics as the lawful relationship between particles and forces that make up the universe. He alludes to Bertrand Russell’s (1927) The Analysis of Matter to support his claim, but Russell’s “neutral monism,” which is at the heart of his analysis, does not reduce matter to mind or vice versa, nor see one of them as causing the other. For his part, Goff gives no explanation of what fundamental conscious entities are, or how they have causal properties, or what they are conscious of, much less how mathematics can produce, rather than simply describe, physical structures or events.
Goff seems to realize that positing fundamental conscious entities still doesn’t explain why the universe would be fine-tuned for life. Something is missing. The something that is missing is that the conscious universe “responds to considerations of value,” i.e., “the universe is essentially driven to try to maximize the good” (he says try because he recognizes that its effort so far has been sub-optimal). As I noted earlier, he says that In the first moment of the universe’s birth, the “Planck epoch,” there was a choice to be made regarding the values of the constants. The universe, because it aimed toward value, fine-tuned itself to be compatible with life. But how would it know what values would be compatible with life, billions of years before life emerged? Goff answers this question by saying that “we can attribute to the universe the capacity to represent the full possible consequences of each of the options available to it.” In other words, it could see the future. So, his conscious universe is necessarily omniscient.
That’s the story. There are some further embellishments and consideration of the implications for meaning and choices in our human lives, but the gist of his theory has been presented. Why? The Purpose of the Universe is a deep analysis, and its author doesn’t just propose a theory, but he also tries to anticipate the objections to it. I found his response to objections to be some of the most interesting reading and a very good demonstration of the author’s own mental agility. I’ve not been kind to his ideas and, where I’ve misunderstood them, not just disagreed with them, I apologize, and I sincerely hope I’ve not misrepresented what he says. For anyone interested in this cosmological/philosophical/psychological/perhaps even theological topic, this is stimulating and important reading, and I recommend it.
Special thanks to Edelweiss and Oxford University Press for allowing me free access to Why? The Purpose of the Universe prior to its publication.
Barnes, Luke A. (2019). A reasonable little question: a formulation of the fine-tuning argument. Ergo: An Open Access Journal of Philosophy 6, 1220-1257.
Bostrom, N. (2003). Are you living in a computer simulation? Philosophical Quarterly Vol. 53, No. 211, pp. 243-255.
Crane, L. (2023) Up to 74% of planets in the ‘habitable zone’ may not be good for life. New Scientist.
Frankel, M. The Templeton Foundation (2022). Fine Tuning. Foundational Questions Institute.
Ginsburg, S., Jablonka, E. (2019). The Evolution of the Sensitive Soul: Learning and the Origins of Consciousness. Cambridge, MA. MIT Press.
Humphrey, N. (2023). Sentience: The invention of consciousness. MIT PRESS.
Lewis, B. (2023). How many planets are in the universe? Live Science,https://www.livescience.com/space/how-many-planets-are-in-the-universe
Russell, B. (1927), The Analysis of Matter, London: Kegan Paul
Sagear, S., Ballard, S., (2023). The orbital eccentricity distribution of planets orbiting M dwarfs
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Vol. 120 No. 23. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2217398120
Shakespeare, C.J., Steffen, J. H. (2023). Day and night: habitability of tidally locked planets with sporadic rotation, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Volume 524, Issue 4, Pages 5708–5724, https://doi.org/10.1093/mnras/stad2162
Can an AI be superintelligent, and if so, should we fear it? Read Casey Dorman’s novel, Ezekiel’s Brain on Amazon. Available in paperback and Kindle editions