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Purpose in the Universe


Storm in the Omega NebulaThe Templeton Foundation is sponsoring a fascinating, ongoing debate among scientists, humanists, and theologians concerning the ultimate question of who and what we are. Titled Does the Universe have a purpose, a diverse group of figures such as Elie Wiesel, David Gelertner, and Jane Goodall , weigh in with their opinions. Answers range from Unlikely, to Not Sure to Indeed, to I Hope So.

Even though a faith-based organization, Templeton’s mission is remarkably secular:

The mission of the John Templeton Foundation is to serve as a philanthropic catalyst for discovery in areas engaging life’s biggest questions. These questions range from explorations into the laws of nature and the universe to questions on the nature of love, gratitude, forgiveness, and creativity. Our vision is derived from John Templeton’s commitment to rigorous scientific research and related scholarship. The Foundation’s motto “How little we know, how eager to learn” exemplifies our support for open-minded inquiry and our hope for advancing human progress through breakthrough discoveries.

I have written before about the Foundation’s continued efforts to support even-handed research and scholarly writing about the religion science interface. This latest effort is most welcome, and great reading.

From Lawrence Krauss, the director of the Center for Education and Research in Cosmology and Astrophysics at Case Western comes a quote which crystallizes for me the systemic impedance mismatch between science and religion. If faith is used to interpret the science there can never be a testable hypothesis that is agreed to by all:

One is always free, as some people do, to interpret the laws of nature as signs of purpose, as for example Pope Pius did when Belgian physicist-priest George Lemaitre demonstrated that Einstein's general theory of relativity implied the universe had a beginning. The Pope interpreted this as scientific proof of Genesis, but Lemaitre asked him to stop saying this. The big bang, as it has become known, can be interpreted in terms of a divine beginning, but it can equally be interpreted as removing God from the equation entirely. The conclusion is in the mind of the beholder, and it is outside of the realm of scientific theory and prediction.

Read Krauss’ full essay here, as well as those of the other contributors The Templeton site contains other "conversations" about Big Questions.