A Purely Physical Universe? “There Must Be Something More.”
The scientific materialist worldview encompasses purpose, meaning and morality.
Posted July 9, 2020 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
“If we long to believe that the stars rise and set for us, that we are the reason there is a Universe, does science do us a disservice in deflating our conceits? ... For me it is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.” — Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark1
What if this chaotic universe and life are fundamentally random, with no "higher" purpose? Can there be coherent purpose, meaning, and morality?
Science tells us that the universe arose as a random collection of matter and energy2 and we are just collections of particles. Many find this depressing.
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.3
People mistakenly assume that scientific materialism means that everything in existence is nothing but collections of particles. Science does tell us that everything in the universe is fundamentally composed of only matter and energy.4 But science tells us a whole lot more than that.
Science explains how, when particles randomly interact, complex systems can result, and those systems often acquire novel properties not possessed by their more elementary constituents. The properties of the system as a whole, which emerge as a result of the interactions between the constituents, are frequently entirely unexpected and unpredictable—even when we know all the properties of the elementary constituents from which they are comprised. Complex systems, in turn, interact with each other and self-organize further to produce systems of ever greater complexity.5
Counterintuitively, the processes through which particles or constituents interact and self-organize to produce complex systems, are entirely spontaneous and unguided.
Behold the wondrous creativity that results from Nature's blind tinkering!6
From chaos and elementary particles to societies.
One of science’s most important insights is that non-random processes such as self-organization and evolution can in fact arise naturally, entirely unguided, out of fundamentally random processes. Complexity and order can arise spontaneously out of chaos. This sounds mysterious and even mystical, but the mechanisms are well understood.7
Over eons of time, these processes led from elementary subatomic particles to atoms to molecules to complex adaptive systems—both non-living and living (i.e. cells). And from there to multicellular organisms, to complex animals, to social groups of animals (ranging from insects to primates), to societies, cultures, and economies.
You can’t understand complex systems by just reducing them to their components.
Though we are fundamentally "just" collections of particles, with no added ingredients (definitively none!), we cannot expect to understand ourselves in purely reductionist terms. As a psychiatrist, I must understand people not only in terms of brain chemistry and biology, but in psychological and social terms. Just as earthquakes and climate phenomena cannot be understood purely in terms of quarks or atoms.
We apply a hierarchy of sciences to study different levels of complexity: from physics to chemistry to biology to psychology to sociology, anthropology, economics, and political science. While each higher-level science is in a sense entirely dependent on and determined by the level beneath it, knowledge of the lower-level science will never be enough to explain and predict phenomena at the higher levels, even if we knew everything there is to know about the properties of the lower-level phenomena. For this reason, highly complex phenomena such as human behavior are marvelously surprising and mysterious (but mysterious does not mean mystical).
Notice that we started with only elementary particles and energy, and we added no other ingredients. We merely observed the wondrously complex phenomena that emerged from their interactions over time.
Purpose, meaning, and morality enter the universe completely naturally, emerging purely from material stuff.
Purpose emerged with the origin of life, long before consciousness evolved.8 Purposiveness is part of what defines living creatures and is a characteristic of all living things, whether or not they possess a modicum of consciousness. Living things have a purpose in that they strive toward an aim. That aim is to keep living and to propagate themselves.9 Note that characteristics like purposes, aims, and effort do not imply or require having consciousness or even a nervous system. Consciousness came later in evolution, as an extension or outgrowth of purposiveness, as an adaptation enabling greater control and flexibility of behavior in the pursuit of aims. Consciousness exists in gradations of complexity in animals that possess it.
Like most forms of life, a simple bacterium has no consciousness. Nevertheless, it can detect glucose in its environment, move toward it, and ingest it to convert it into energy. A bacterium is in a basic way an intentional agent, and it makes an "effort" to achieve its purpose or aim. An intentional agent can interpret patterns as being about something of value to itself with respect to its environment (glucose is of value to the bacterium—it signifies or means energy to the bacterium).10
An agent forms an internal representation of things in its environment (in this case glucose), so as to recognize, respond to, and process that thing. The internal representation is simply an arrangement of molecules inside the organism. Note how purely mechanistic this all is—analogous to a lock and key mechanism. The internal representation has meaning and value to the organism, in the sense that it represents something good or bad for the organism—promoting or impeding its survival and propagation. (Memories in humans are internal representations. They too are molecularly encoded).
Thus purpose, meaning, and value have "entered" the universe, through purely mechanistic physical processes, as emergent properties of the complex adaptive systems that are living organisms. Once again, every step of this process of molecular self-organization and biological evolution was entirely spontaneous and unguided.11
Human consciousness, motivation, and civilization.
The evolution of large animals such as humans has of course been far more complex than simple organisms, but the basic mechanistic processes sculpting it are the same. And while science is only at an early stage of understanding the phenomenon of self-aware consciousness such as we humans possess, it has already generated many plausible hypotheses into how evolution could have produced such an extravagantly complexified and seemingly disembodied phenomenon, applying the same kinds of processes that governed the simpler preceding stages of evolution.12
Sophisticated purpose-driven human behaviors are just extravagant elaborations of the evolutionary drive to survive and reproduce, as vehicles for self-propagating genes. Even the highest forms of creative accomplishment and self-actualization are indirectly and unconsciously fueled by the primary biological drives, especially the drive to reproduce (which entails impressing and attracting mates). They are also fueled by the motivation to enhance one’s social role and reputation, which are drives prevalent in primates and which are in turn fueled by the primary drives of survival and reproduction. The fact that this is, beneath it all, the basis for human motivation is not only okay, it's a very good thing—for all of our well-being and flourishing.13
The magnificent displays of human civilization are thus the equivalent of peacock tails—extravagantly embellished products of evolution in the service of gene replication. This realization needn’t demoralize us in the least: the beauty of the peacock tail is not diminished by the fact that its ultimate purpose is merely to propagate mindless, "selfish" peacock genes.
What about morality?
The natural origin of morality is not a mystery. Religion is not the source of morality (nor of purpose and meaning). Rather, religion incorporated these natural motivational and social dispositions and coevolved with human cultures over time. Unsurprisingly, religion also incorporated our more selfish, aggressive, competitive, and xenophobic human proclivities.
Science already has a well-developed understanding of how the human moral sense evolved through entirely natural processes, and how that moral sense is far from arbitrary. Humans are both cooperative and competitive, both empathic and aggressive, but in the long term, selection pressures in human social groups tend to favor prosocial tendencies and reciprocal altruism winning out over antisocial tendencies. While different social groups and cultures have developed varied value systems and moral codes, there is a striking commonality of the human moral sense, that is shared by practically all human groups—in much the same way as all languages share basic characteristics that are determined by the hard-wiring and cognitive processes of the human brain.
The Transcendental Temptation
The desire to find purpose and meaning in a scientifically explained universe that otherwise seems "soulless" is likely the very human factor motivating spiritual seekers. People mistakenly assume that a purely naturalistic physical universe is devoid of purpose, meaning, and morality, and that only a universe infused with supernatural or paranormal magic can supply these qualities.
"The imagination draws a fanciful picture of a transcendental reality, some kind of celestial kingdom. Time and again the theistic myth appeals to the hungry soul; it feeds the creative imagination and soothes the pain of living. There must be something beyond this actual world, which we cannot see, hear, feel, or touch. There must be a deeper world, which the intellect ponders and the emotions crave. Here is the opening for the transcendental impulse. Yes, says the imagination, these things are possible." — Paul Kurtz, The Transcendental Temptation: A critique of Religion and the Paranormal 14
A random world, which according to all the scientific evidence and despite our intuitions is the actual world we live in, is too often misconstrued as nihilistic, demotivating, or devoid of morality and meaning. It needn’t be. The scientific worldview of an unguided, spontaneous universe can be awe-inspiring and foundational to building a more compassionate society.
1. Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (New York: Random House, 1995), p. 12.
2. Or rather, a random quantum fluctuation, which hyper-expanded in an explosion of energy, some of which then transformed into matter.
3. Parts of this article are taken from: Ralph Lewis, Finding Purpose in a Godless World: Why We Care Even If The Universe Doesn’t (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2018). The book is a deeper dive into questions of purpose, meaning and morality in a random, purposeless, godless universe.
See this YouTube video link for an engaging Power Point presentation in which Dr. Lewis explains how a family health crisis focused him on coming to terms with the outsized role of randomness in life, and to wrestle with the question of whether the scientific worldview of a fundamentally random universe is nihilistic. He summarizes how science has come to view the universe and absolutely everything in it as the product of entirely spontaneous, unguided processes, and why this is actually a highly motivating realization for humankind. Or see this link for a very brief video providing a synopsis of the book.
[CLICK 'MORE' TO VIEW FOOTNOTES 4-14]
4. Matter and energy, or more correctly mass and energy, are equivalent and can convert into each other: E= mc^2. Hence nuclear power.
5. For more explanation of how complex systems emerge from simple constituents, see my blog post How Could Mind Emerge From Mindless Matter?
6. But let's not be naïve and starry-eyed here. Nature, in its blind indifference and lack of foresight, is both awesome and awful, overflowing with examples of 'unintelligent design'.
7. And they achieve this without contravening the second law of thermodynamics, which dictates that the universe as a whole proceeds inexorably toward greater disorder.
9. More correctly, it is their genes that have the ‘aim’ to copy themselves, but even this is just shorthand for a much longer and more precise mechanistic explanation, as provided by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976).
10. According to a theory developed by Terrence Deacon, discussed in Where Does Purpose Come From? (If the Universe Had None).
11. For a more in-depth explication of how simple elements interact and self-organize spontaneously and unguided to produce marvelously complex adaptive systems possessing novel properties, see (among other excellent sources): Stuart A. Kauffman, Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason and Religion (New York: Basic Books, 2008).
12. For readers seeking a scientific understanding of the nature of consciousness, my five-part blog series on the biological evolution of consciousness will be of interest: "What Actually Is Consciousness, and How Did It Evolve?" See also: The Physical Evolution of Consciousness; Do You Have Free Will?; How Could Mind Emerge From Mindless Matter?; What Actually Is a Thought? And How Is Information Physical?; Where Does Purpose Come From? (If the Universe Had None); Is There Life After Death? The Mind-Body Problem; How Do We Know What Is Real?
13. Higher forms of purpose and meaning follow from these more basic unconscious evolutionary drives. Ultimately, we humans are driven by a need to feel that we matter—that our life matters to others, that our life has an effect on the lives of others, that others care about us, and that it matters that we have lived. See Can Life Have Meaning in a Random Universe?, Life Is Short and the World Will End, Can It Have Meaning? and Finding Purpose in the Face of Tragedy and Adversity.
14. Paul Kurtz, The Transcendental Temptation: A critique of Religion and the Paranormal (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1986), p.458.