Does the Universe Have a Purpose?
A Question Science Cannot Answer

Doug McManaman
Copyright © 2008
Reproduced with Permission

A friend of mine, an atheist active in the movement towards the elimination of religion from public life, sent me a link to the John Templeton Foundation in which was posed the question: "Does the Universe Have a Purpose?" This question was the first in a series of conversations about the "Big Questions" that the Foundation is conducting among leading scientists and scholars. My friend calls attention to the "big intellects", which of course belong to the scientists who deal with these questions with rigor, unlike the non-scientific minds on the panel who, he implies, tend to offer more hot air than a rigorous treatment of the issues.

My point to him was that asking such questions to scientists is much like asking a group of poets to comment on whether baby toes have a purpose in the balance of a human being. As scientists, these people are no more able to think on the philosophical level - on which such questions place us - than your average historian, psychologist, or artist. Needless to say, my friend wasn't convinced.

But consider a very simple example from the realm of production. A man needs something to cut meat from the carcass of a Moose, so that he can eat. He has nothing with which to do so. He realizes he needs something sharp, something that won't bend or break under pressure, and something long enough to do the job. A piece of wood will not do, for it is not sharp enough. A leaf from a tree won't do, because it is not strong enough. A piece of his fingernail won't help, because it is neither long enough nor strong enough. So he designs something that will fulfill his purpose. It is long, made of steel, and it is sharp as a razor. He makes it. He now has a knife to do the job.

Now, as Aristotle knew so well, there are a number of causes at work here. There is the man who produces the knife. Let's call him the agent cause. He, the agent cause, went to work to produce a knife because (the cause being, or reason) he desired meat that needed to be separated from the carcass, but had nothing with which to achieve that end. So, let's call this the purpose, the end, or the final cause.

Consider now the knife that was produced. It is made of steel. But the kind of matter used by the agent was dictated or determined by the purpose. The final cause (cutting meat easily from a carcass) demanded a strong and durable matter. Hence, steel.

The form of the product, namely, long and sharp on one side and with a handle on the end, was also determined by the final cause. A dull blade without a handle won't cut, that is, it will not fulfill the purpose or end.

Out of these four causes, namely the agent cause, the final cause, the material cause and formal causes, there are two that are extrinsic, that is, outside of the thing produced, and there are two that are intrinsic, that is, within the thing produced.

The two causes that are extrinsic are the agent cause and the final cause. The one who produced it is not in the knife, but outside it. The purpose or final cause, namely, the separation of the meat from the carcass, is a process that will occur outside the knife, perhaps in the fields where lies the carcass.

The two intrinsic causes, the steel and the design, or the material and formal causes, are in the knife; for the knife is a composite of steel and a specific form.

Now, consider a person who has never seen this object that we are about to give him, which is square, has a rough surface, and on the bottom is flexible paper, and on which is found adhesive. Stuck to the adhesive are very small grains that are hard, like sand.

The boy is given the paper to study. He discovers the paper underneath the surface, knows where the adhesive is, how much there is, he studies the grains, sees the distance between the grains, the size of the grains, how strong is the bond holding the grain to the adhesive, etc.

If someone were to ask him whether this object has a purpose, he couldn't answer the question in considering the thing itself. Purpose or final cause is an extrinsic cause; it exists outside the thing itself. And so he does not know whether there is a purpose to this rough and grainy paper.

Moreover, to know if it has a purpose, he'd have to know whether there was an agent cause that produced it, and considering the thing itself, its adhesive, grains, paper, etc., does not tell him about the agent or whether there is one, because the agent is also an extrinsic cause, outside the thing produced. If it were within the thing produced, it would form only a part of the whole, but the question is whether the thing as a whole has a purpose.

He can tell you a great deal about the thing, because he's observed it for years, even under a microscope. Because of that, he sees things that the ordinary human eye cannot see. But he cannot tell you its purpose, nor whether it even has one, for he'd have to know the agent cause and whether the latter acted for an end.

The agent, if there is one, might say something like: "I was building a house, using wood taken from trees, and in that house I made doors, counters, cupboards, etc., all made of wood, but with very sharp corners left over, and so I needed something to smooth the edges. I made sandpaper to do just that." Or, he may say something like: "I needed a rough surface to which pastels will stick rather nicely, so this is a kind of canvas for my art." Or, he may say something like: "I have a horse, and his hooves need a manicure often, and this is what I use to smooth the edges of his feet."

Upon hearing the one explanation, whatever that turns out to be, the the boy cries out, "Ah, now it makes sense." But until the boy knows the agent cause, he cannot discover whether the rough and grainy piece of paper has any purpose.

Let us now ask ten boys whether they think their rough piece of paper has a purpose or not. Their answers will depend upon whether they think there is an external agent cause of the paper, and whether they know what that agent's purpose was in producing it. Let us say five of the boys think there is no extrinsic agent at all, since they cannot find it in the paper. Inevitably they will hold that there is no purpose to this piece of paper, from what they gather from studying it for so long. They understand a great deal about the matter that constitutes it as well as its form or intelligible structure, but they cannot say whether there is a purpose that is outside the thing.

The five other boys will say that yes, there is a purpose, because they think there is an agent, and every agent acts for an end, whether the end is outside the thing produced (i.e., cutting meat, or sanding doors), or whether the end was simply the thing itself, as in a work of art, or a game of baseball (in this case, the end is simply to enjoy the thing produced for its own sake).

But studying the piece of paper cannot give us the answer to the question. And so the five boys who say there is a purpose cannot do so as experts of their rough and grainy piece of paper. Being an expert at a "rough and grainy piece of paper" will not render a person any more able to answer the question of the purpose of the paper than someone who does not understand the "rough and grainy piece of paper". And so, being an expert at the rough and grainy piece of paper is irrelevant to the question. You can be learned about rough and grainy paper or not, it simply does not matter when it comes to the question of its purpose. 

If one is going to be able to answer the question about the purpose of the grainy paper, one will have to find a way to go outside the paper itself, that is, to discover the agent, and so if there is a way to transcend the rough and grainy paper, that is, to know something other than it, then there is some hope that one might find the answer.

At this point there are two possibilities that open up before us. The agent cause can stick his neck in the door and say: "Hey, here I am, I made that rough paper for a purpose, and this is what it is…" Has he done so? Indeed, some claim he has, but they cannot prove it, they only believe it. These are the ones who believe in divine revelation, that the agent cause entered into the scene and revealed himself. But that's not too helpful for those who do not believe it.

The other remaining possibility is that we have the ability to transcend on our own unaided efforts the rough and grainy paper, to go outside of it, that is, to know something other than the rough and grainy paper, something that will enable us to determine whether there is an agent and what his purpose was.

If the latter is not possible, then all we can know is the rough and grainy paper. But if there is a way, then the possibility of finding an answer arises. This would not prove that there is an agent, nor whether there is a purpose to the rough and grainy paper. But if there is a way to know something other than the rough and grainy paper, then there is at least the hope of finding an answer.

So the question becomes a matter of knowledge, or a matter of epistemology. Is it possible to come to know something outside the strict methodology of the empiriological or empiriometric sciences? If the answer is no, then there is no point in asking the question of the purpose of the universe. We simply cannot know.

If the answer is yes, if we can know something outside the strict methodology of the empiriometric sciences, if we can answer questions that science cannot answer by means of its investigative method that relies on sensation and whose conclusions are resolved in the realm of sensation, then there is a possibility of discovering whether the universe has a purpose.

So, the logical conclusion is that one ought to ask the question whether the universe has a purpose not to the scientist who studies the universe (the rough and grainy piece of paper), but to the one who engages regularly in this non-empiriological or non-empiriometric mode of knowing, since it is a non-empiriometric question. The scientist, in response, can only put a big band aid on his mouth, since the object of his study is the rough and grainy piece of paper. We have to go, in other words, to the non-scientist.

Of course, we cannot simply accept what the non-scientist says, as if it is automatically true. We have to listen to his reasoning. It might not be sound. We have to see whether what he says really does transcend the knowledge gained from studying the rough and grainy piece of paper, and whether his premises are true and his reasoning sound.

There is, however, one final point. The rules of logic by which we determine whether his or anyone's reasoning is sound, are derived from a mode of knowing that is non-empiriometric. One needs no test tubes, microscopes, scalpels, labs, etc., to study logic. To try to determine the laws of logic by using an empirical or scientific method would require one to reason logically to conclusions based on empirical data, which would mean using logic before it has been established. In other words, if all knowledge is derived from the scientific method, one could not use logic until one has drawn sound conclusions about the laws of reasoning, the rules of logic, etc., based on the empirical data. Hence, the science of logic could never be established -- if it is the kind of knowledge subject to the scientific method. And if it cannot be established, then one cannot proceed to do science, since we cannot do science without reasoning to conclusions on the basis of the empirical data that we encounter in our quest for scientific knowledge. Hence, logic precedes empirical science.

Furthermore, the reasoning involved in determining that one cannot answer the question whether the universe has a purpose by considering the universe itself, involved a non-empiriometric mode of thinking. And so, it is really not possible to conclude that the only kind of knowledge possible to us is the empiriometric mode of knowing. To maintain such a position would involve oneself in a non-empiriometric mode of knowing.

Hence, the futility of asking a bunch of scientists whether the universe has a purpose, and whether or not it has a cause, and whether or not God exists. Better to ask philosophers; they tend to have a lot more practice at this sort of thing than do scientists, who spend most of their time thinking empiriometrically.