The fallacy of cosmic purpose

I was having a conversation the other day with a close friend about purpose.  She said that part of what motivated her to do what she does (teach) is to do something that has meaning, but that she might not do it if there was no purpose.  She said one of the things that bothers her about astronomy was the fact that it seemed to indicate that the efforts we give here on Earth are largely irrelevant on a cosmic scale.  She said that she had, therefore, a faith in a purpose larger than we are; a sort of cosmic purpose.

It is certainly humbling to put ourselves in context, given what we know about the scale of the universe.  Moving from where we were a few centuries ago to where we are now, we have gone from the center of a small universe to a tiny part of an immense universe.  And that’s surely underestimating it!

Now, theists and other people with ideas about things spiritual tend to believe in some cosmic purpose.  But even a few atheists will hold onto such notions from time to time.  Perhaps Buddhism could be included into that set.  In any case, these theists may not claim to know what this purpose is, but they claim to know or have faith that one exists.  And if there is a god or some spiritual existence that exists in the universe, then the likelihood of this being true becomes much higher, although not necessarily the case

But, of course, I’m not one of those people that believes such things.  I believe that the vast majority of the universe if non-sentient, unconscious, and inert.  Stars, dust, galaxies, nebula, etc.  There may be other life elsewhere (in fact, it would seem improbable if there weren’t, although we have no evidence of such life), but even if there is life it is likely an infinitesimal percentage of the universe.

It is life, sentient life specifically, for which purpose has relevance.  Purpose is a thing that only applies to things that are capable of abstraction, and therefore things which are conscious.  Purpose is not relevant as an attribute for things which have not sentience.  It would be like talking about the effect of the strong nuclear force between pillows; it’s simply a fallacy of scale, if you would.  Talking about purpose on a cosmic scale simply makes no sense.

In addition, it may actually turn out to be a category error; parts of the universe have the property of consciousness, thus the potential of the concept of purpose, but this does not apply to the whole.  One cannot simply project the purpose they have at their scale (that of culture, and personal relationships), and apply it to the universe any more than they can project their concept of god onto the universe.  What exists in our heads as concepts and bodies as feelings do not necessarily exist beyond us; there may be no referent to your concept of cosmic purpose or gods.

Now, one might try and argue for a kind of cosmic consciousness, or perhaps a god of some sort, but this merely becomes a distraction from the point.  I’m taking for granted the absence of such things, because I am an atheist after all.  I see no evidence for any cosmic awareness, sentience, nor do I know of any mechanism which could be demonstrated to be the infrastructure of such a cosmic consciousness.  You see, one would have to propose some other way of creating consciousness (and therefore things like meaning and purpose) without physical brains or computers of some other kind.  That, or they would have to argue something like a relationship between galaxies (perhaps based on gravity or something) that acts somewhat like a neural net, making the universe a sort of brain.  A wild suggestion, indeed, and one that I doubt could stand up to the most basic of scrutiny.

What we know is that we are somewhat intelligent primates on a small rock orbiting an average star.  We have purposes.  My purpose here, in writing this post, is to try and make a point to you that if you think about a cosmic purpose, you may have to re-think your hypothesis.  (Whether I succeed or not is hardly to the point to whether this is my purpose).  But the purposes we feel, whether consciously created by ourselves or not, can only stretch so far.  I will tentatively argue that the limit of this purpose-stretching is the limits of culture.  The edge of our cultural influences seem to be the furthest we can stretch our purposes, it seems, because it is the limit to where our intentions can reach.

Now, perhaps there will be a day when our culture has more vast influence.  And perhaps, in the distant future, we may discover a way to influence the cosmos itself.  Then, and only then. can we start talking seriously about a cosmic purpose.  For the moment, the concept of cosmic purpose seems to have no real referent in the world outside our minds.

And reality is that which continues to exist when we stop believing in it.

The pseudo-depth of religion

We, unfortunately, live in a largely anti-intellectual and unsophisticated culture.  There is not ample interest in things philosophical or subtle.  I will not lament this here for its own sake, but I will mention this as a pretext to address another issue.

We are pattern seeking beings that desire meaning and purpose in life, but we are rarely exposed to the various approaches to finding these things.  The depth of that search is often too terrifying to traverse, and so we try to find other ways to fulfill this need.  And, lucky for us, culture and its complex structure has supplied our history with just such a function.  The vast majority of people are usually exposed to one source of meaning and purpose; am ancient cultural tradition that still holds sway for many people.

I want to call it religion, but that is too simplistic in the end.  It is my view that religion is a natural expression of our desire to explore the world for meaning. It is a way to look inward and in many cases to project outward what we desire to find there, and to latch onto narratives, myths, and the illusion of ‘something more’ in order to add color, depth, and importance to a world that seems meaningless.

It is a kind of metaphysical or ‘spiritual’ impulse to explain the universe in terms of intent, intelligence, and often in love.  And the result of this impulse that we share are the many religions an spiritual pursuits of the world.  These are the vehicles of providing meaning, purpose, and intent into an otherwise meaningless existence.  And because we sense this meaninglessness often enough, we seek shelter from those cold winds of loneliness and purposelessness.

That is, people seek the part of our psychology that is responsible for the religious cultural impulse to find meaning.  The easiest way to do this is to take an atavistic glance back to the introduction to such feelings; the religion of our childhood.  And if not our childhood, the religion of our early attempts to look for meaning in the world.  For many, groups such as Campus Crusade for Christ (or some similar group) seek to fill the insecure holes that creep into our lives in a time of emotional upheaval and change of the early tastes of freedom that college provides.

In general, whenever the insecurities and fears of life emerge, the desire to see meaning and purpose weaved into the fabric of life and reality act as a sort of blanket against the coldness of the world.

But before I continue I must hark to the whisper of a ghost which has come my way.  A strange and somewhat lively sprite—lively for a dead man, anyway!  A moving of thoughts tussles its way to my mind’s ear and words resolve into a thought:

Mystical explanations are considered deep.  The truth is that they are not even superficial

And with such a deep strike into the heart the thought evaporates and the spirit haunts another.  Or perhaps it has sunk so deep into me that I can no longer distinguish between it and myself.  The difference—it is indifferent!  But the whisper of the name of “Nietzsche” reverberates throughout and my mind returns to the task at hand.

But this spiritual visit has had a purpose, I fathom.  Because in a largely unsophisticated world, the early reaching for meaning and purpose are mitigated by religion; they are softened for us by a pseudo-depth of assertions of truths that are always bolstered by nothing but faith—in other words by sheer preferential desire for them to be true.

It is common for people to scuttle through there youth while largely unconcerned with the ramblings of religious ideologies.  Yes, if pressed they parrot the memories of their early exposure, but they live secularly and leave to Sundays (or some other bequeathed holy day) the quandaries of any depth.  It is only to these holy days that purpose and the insecurities of meaning emerge into the sunlight of our thoughts.

We have not yet allowed the scab to form over such insecurities in order to have our fears heal.  And so we protect our raw minds from the exposure to the dangerous world and we often miss the sophistication and depth which lives there while distracted by this protective preoccupation.  Because we spend so much energy nursing our fears in public, we miss the true depth of the world.

And so what of true depth and subtlety?  What of philosophy? Why, upon the hardship of emotional turmoil, of loss, or of dissatisfaction do people turn to their lord, to the false depth of dogma and myth rather than to do the real, hard, and growth-inspiring work of looking deep within without the lenses of faith and childhood brainwashing?

We avoid the difficult in life and revert to looking at it through Christianity or some other absurd softening of our mortality and ultimate meaninglessness.  And in doing so we miss that it is our responsibility to lend meaning to our lives.  We must take responsibility for how we face death, loneliness, and dissatisfaction.

So often churches will remind us that in the pursuit of money, power, or otherwise transient things, happiness can only be temporary.  They cannot supply real meaning for us, which we crave.  But then they assert that a real happiness, a real and eternal answer may be found.  But this is only an assertion.  It is a promise that cannot be kept.  It is another distraction from the truth that mature and aware adults have to face.  It is a fantasy to cover a scary world.

The thing is that the churches who remind us of the ultimate meaninglessness of our earthly desires are correct.  They just fail to acknowledge that they are not offering anything different.  Their mystical explanations are only deep in an illusory way.  Their façade is not even willing to dip its little toe into the waters of the universe out of fear that the water is too cold.  And it is cold.

Warmth can only be found with one-another.  And so churches, in gathering communities, are creating a mirage; it is not the message of eternal life that provides meaning and purpose, it is the company that sits upon this superficial message that supplies the meaning.  It is the illusion of having eternal companions, covered by real but temporary ones, that perpetuates the illusion.

When we find meaning and purpose in shallow promises of eternity, we find not even a shallow pool in which to swim.  The universe is deeper than we can comprehend.  Its true beauty lies beyond the fear that is manipulated by religion which only thinks itself deep.  Come and join the universe and dive into fathoms unfathomable.  Rather than transcend this world, transcend your fears of it and come swim with us in oceans of reality.  And when you do, you will find true warmth in the company of the disillusioned and the free.