Is the Universe Absurd?

December 2015 Pulse

In an interesting essay published in 1998, the well-known Australian populariser of science Paul Davies asks a provocative question: ‘Is the Universe Absurd?’

In crafting his answer, Davies begins by pointing out the marvellous things about our universe that scientists have uncovered but could not fully explain. He mentions the rational way in which the universe appears to be ordered, the intelligibility of nature and what he calls the ‘lawfulness’ of the universe that makes it dependable.

The overwhelming evidence of design however does not lead Davies to embrace traditional theism or even to conclude that God exists. ‘Simply declaring that God made the world and selected a judicious set of laws offers no real explanation at all’, he writes. As one would expect, Davies rejects the argument that God had caused the Big Bang, labelling such arguments (quite unfairly) as conjuring the ‘God of the Gaps’.

Yet Davies appears to be totally dissatisfied with attempts of atheists to address the question of the purpose or lack thereof of the universe. ‘Having insisted that everything in the world can be explained in terms of natural laws, when it comes to the origin of the laws themselves a mental backflip is performed: the system of laws must simply be accepted as brute fact, they say. The laws exist reasonlessly’, he writes.

Davies rightly points out that the strategy taken by naturalists would lead to the rather gloomy conclusion that the universe is absurd, a conclusion he rejects. He is adamant that the answer to the question about the purpose of the universe cannot be found in what is to him abstract metaphysical commitments – atheism or theism – but in ‘pursuing our scientific investigations in a spirit of humility and openness’.

Let us be very clear about what Davies is saying here. He is not proposing a form of ‘natural theology’: unlike medieval theologians like Thomas Aquinas, Davies is not saying that we could attain to some general knowledge about God through our empirical study of the world.

Davies is rather asserting that it may be possible for science to discover the purpose of the universe by studying its structures and laws. That is, the universe will ‘explain’ its purpose to us if we were to listen attentively and humbly to it.

There are number of interesting moves that Davies makes in his arguments that blatantly reveal his assumptions.

I shall highlight just two. Firstly, despite emphatically eschewing metaphysical commitments such as theism or atheism, Davies is in fact holding to a set of assumptions that can only be described as ‘metaphysical’ in nature.

Secondly, in assuming that science or scientific investigations can help humankind understand the purpose and meaning of the universe, Davies appears to be working with a certain philosophy of science called scientism that is rejected by many philosophers and scientists.

For example, the Roman Catholic theologian John Haught who has worked for decades on the relationship between theology and science writes: ‘Natural science is simply not equipped to respond to such momentous issues as whether there is a point to the universe, or whether it is friendly toward us’.

‘If scientists such as Einstein and Weinberg undertake nevertheless to address such matters’, Haught adds, ‘they must surely realise that their opinions are not a part of science, but conjectures about science’.

Nevertheless, the question that Davies asks is an important one. The question is nicely put by the 17th century German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz: ‘The first question which should rightly be asked is, Why is there something rather than nothing?’ It is a question that has plagued ancient philosophers like Plato and Aristotle.

Unlike Davies, many Christian theologians, philosophers and scientists are quite convinced that science on its own is unable to answer the questions concerning the origin and purpose of the universe. Theologians maintain that the natural sciences can to some extent help us to understand how the world works. But it is unable to tell us why there is a world in the first place.

Nor can the purpose of the universe be gleaned from our observation and study of it. To speak of the purpose of the universe is not only to refer to the reason for its existence but to also suggest directionality and goal, its teleology. To speak of purpose is to appeal to mind and will.

Christian theologians therefore argue that the purpose of the universe is to be found in the mind and will of the Creator who brought it into being out of nothing. Put differently, the answers to the questions why there is a universe and what is the purpose of its existence can only be found in the revelation of God, the Creator.

On the basis of this revelation in Scripture, Christians can say confidently that the wonderful and mysterious universe we inhabit is not absurd because God had lovingly created it. And because God is sovereign, his creation will attain the goal or telos for which he had intended for it.

In this regard, the older atheists like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus were more realistic and perhaps also more honest than Davies in their admission that if there is no God the universe and human life is meaningless. Sartre could speak of the ‘nausea’ of existence, while Camus in his brief novel The Stranger could conclude that universe is indeed absurd if there is no God to give it meaning.

Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.