Sunday, October 21, 2007

Does the Universe Have a (Special) Purpose?

The John Templeton Foundation has inaugurated a series of "conversations" on "Big Questions" populated by a variety of high-end talking heads from science and other disciplines, but mostly from science because, as we all know, scientists are just smarter and can switch hit to the speculative domain of the humanities much more easily than we can science because, after all, their abstruse noodlings are empirically grounded.

Sadly, all too often these, the talkingest scientific heads of a generation, can scarcely surpass the presumed logic of one Navin R. Johnson, Steve Martin's Jerk, who might have answered the Templeton's question: "I too have a special purpose!"*

David Gelernter of Yale states resoundingly "yes", the universe has a purpose:
"Namely, to defeat and rise above our animal natures; to create goodness, beauty, and holiness
where only physics and animal life once existed; to create what might be (if we succeed) the only tiny pinprick of goodness in the universe–which is otherwise (so far as we know) morally null and void." OK yeah yeah. This is scientist taking license pretty bad, but it gets worse:

"Why seek goodness?

Because most humans desire goodness. For most (not all!) humans, this urge is easily ignored in the short term, but nearly impossible to uproot over the long haul."

This is all nicey nice, but it's not a strong argument for anything, and he's at least pretending to operate in an argumentative vein.

Now, we gotta give the guy credit not because he's Joe Scientist, but because he's one of the people who got seriously mauled by a package from the Unibomber, causing him serious damage to one hand, to which he alludes at the end of his little disquisition: "But as Job teaches us, we must play the hand we are dealt." So he's utterly admirable for his generosity of spirit, but really pretty lame on the depth of thought side of things.

Lots of others (Jane Goodall, Elie Wiesel) hold forth on the question of purpose with varying degrees of interest and sophistication, but in the end it just gets boring.

*I.e. a penis.

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