Philosophy Books » Beliefs

The best books on Cosmic Purpose

recommended by Philip Goff

Why? The Purpose of the Universe by Philip Goff

Why? The Purpose of the Universe
by Philip Goff


The likelihood that intelligent life would come to exist on Earth is so improbable, it's time to re-explore the idea of cosmic purpose, argues Philip Goff, a professor of philosophy at the University of Durham and the author of Why? The Purpose of the Universe. He recommends five books that cast doubt on our post-Darwinian worldview and help us consider the latest findings of science and philosophy more fully.

Interview by Nigel Warburton

Why? The Purpose of the Universe by Philip Goff

Why? The Purpose of the Universe
by Philip Goff


What do you understand by cosmic purpose, and why is this a philosophical issue?

You might not think cosmic purpose is a theme in contemporary philosophy, but these five books relate to this topic in different ways. If you connect them up, you can see these as an unrecognised school of philosophy. What draws them together is that they are all defending a middle way between, on the one hand, the traditional secular atheist picture of a meaningless, purposeless universe, and, on the other hand, the traditional Western religious idea of a universe that’s created with a specific purpose by God. In other words, they all believe in cosmic purpose in the absence of what philosophers call the ‘omni-God’ – all-knowing, all-powerful, perfectly good, omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent (actually, A Fortunate Universe doesn’t quite fit this description, as we’ll see).

Surveys show that a huge percentage of the population identifies as spiritual but not religious. Intellectually, this proportion of the population is almost entirely uncatered for. There is some very good philosophy of religion in Anglophone philosophy. This tends to come from traditional Christians, and a few Jewish philosophers as well. But most philosophers are secular atheists of one kind or another. As a result, there may be a perception that ‘spiritual but not religious’ is vague and fluffy thinking. I’m inclined to think that’s a contingent and accidental phenomenon, that there haven’t been academics working on this, and the work of those who have isn’t sufficiently known. I’m interested in connecting the dots and presenting some books here that make these ideas clear and rigorous, and philosophically interesting and respectable.

The longest history of Western philosophy has the idea of a purposeful universe at its heart, particularly within the Christian tradition. Even prominent atheists like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett can see that up until Darwin, the idea that there was some design evident in the existence of biological and geological and other phenomena was the best explanation because there was no plausible alternative explanation of how such sophisticated apparent design could have occurred without there being an intelligent creator, an architect of the universe, as it were. It was only with Darwin’s plausible explanation of the mechanism of evolution through natural selection that rejection of the argument from design became intellectually credible.

Absolutely. I think there was a gradual movement away from God in the centuries that followed the Scientific Revolution. In the Scientific Revolution, most people believed in God, and then God started to look increasingly redundant in physics. Whilst Newton still had God playing a role in physics –  giving the planets a nudge every now and again –  in the 19th century, we get the French physicist Pierre-Simon, Marquis de Laplace, who worked out how to dispense with Newton’s need for God in keeping the solar system stable. There’s a famous anecdote – possibly apocryphal – where Napoleon read Laplace’s work and said, ‘Where is God in this work?’ Laplace is alleged to have replied, ‘Sire, I have no need of that hypothesis.’

However, we still seemed to have the need for God in biology, in very complex organisms. William Paley famously defended that. I think people are a bit unfair to Paley. Because of his famous watchmaker analogy, people think it’s an argument from analogy, and then they present Hume’s arguments against such arguments from analogy.

Anachronistically, because David Hume preceded Paley.

Exactly. But also, digging deeper, his argument is not from analogy; the analogy is just a way to make it vivid. It actually uses the cutting-edge mathematics of his time – Bayes’ theorem, which is so influential now in the paradigm of predictive processing in neuroscience or in tracking the pandemic.

It was an interesting argument that impressed Darwin himself. He said favourable things about Paley’s argument. I think Darwin did not reject this argument entirely, and he accepted – as does Richard Dawkins, for what it’s worth – that it’s absurd to think it’s just a matter of chance that complex atoms came together to make complex functioning organisms. Rather, Darwin provided a third explanation, a third alternative to design or chance. Namely, natural selection, where given certain circumstances, it does become highly probable that you’ll get complex surviving organisms. After Darwin, there seemed to be no evidence left for God or cosmic purpose.

At this point, we had Friedrich Nietzsche declaring that God was dead; and Freud’s concept that God is a cosmic father substitute, and Marx’s argument that religion is the opiate of the masses, came to dominate culture. Then, for over a hundred years after Darwin, in my view, there was no scientific evidence for anything like cosmic purpose. As a result, we got in the mindset that science has ruled out anything to do with God, that science and religion are even opposed.

My own view is that since the ’70s, the evidence has changed, and there has been a growing empirical case for something like cosmic purpose or cosmic goal-directedness. The culture hasn’t caught up with the evidence because we’re still in that 19th-century mindset that science has ruled out cosmic purpose and has provided better explanations of the phenomena that we witness.

When a journalist questioned John Maynard Keynes about adopting a different stance than the one he previously held, he said, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” However, that’s very hard for human beings to do. What I’m saying is controversial, but I think we’re still in that period where the cultural assumptions haven’t caught up with what the evidence seems to be suggesting right now.

You’ve discussed this in your new book, Why? The Purpose of the Universe, which I take to be a defence of what’s known as the fine-tuning argument and an exploration of its implications. It’s worth saying that when we’re talking about cosmic purpose here, we’re not going back to the idea that once you discover evidence of genuine design, as it were, in the universe, that you then conclude that the designer is the benevolent, omniscient being that is so celebrated within Judeo-Christian religion; that’s a further hypothesis that doesn’t necessarily follow from that evidence. So, many of the criticisms that David Hume raised in the 18th century about that style of reasoning aren’t relevant to you, because he was principally discussing limitations on the conclusion. Even if you concede that there was a designer, that doesn’t tell you much about what kind of being that designer was, or if it was a team of lesser designers collaborating.

Absolutely – and perhaps it’s not even a designer. An idea I take seriously in the book, which is taken seriously in one of the books we’re going to discuss, is that maybe you can have goal directedness without a conscious mind behind it but a tendency towards the emergence of life – some form of natural, impersonal tendency.

That sounds like Darwin again.

That’s a good point. However, purpose for Darwin isn’t a fundamental force; it’s explicated in terms of natural selection. The common thought would be that at the fundamental level, we have the laws of physics as we conceive of them now –  mathematical laws that don’t have any purposes built into them. My view is that fine-tuning is pointing towards – at least, if not a designer – a teleological law of nature, a law of nature with a goal or purpose built into it at the fundamental level of reality, which is very different to how we conceive of current laws of physics.

In Western philosophy, we are stuck in this dichotomy between the traditional god of Western Abrahamic religion or Dawkins-style atheism. Whose side are you on? Are you with Richard Dawkins or the Pope? I often find that when you’re talking to people, they’re trying to pigeonhole you in one of those categories. We often create these dichotomies – US capitalism or communist Russia? – as if it must be one or the other.

“Surveys show that a huge percentage of the population identifies as spiritual but not religious”

Like one of the authors in these five books (Tim Mulgan), I came to my current view while teaching philosophy of religion, which I was asked to do when I arrived at Durham University five years ago. In the standard undergraduate course, you teach the arguments against God, then you teach the arguments for God, and then the students have to decide which is more compelling and write their essay.

I taught the arguments against God, from evil and suffering, and thought, ‘That’s compelling. There’s definitely no God.’ Then, I taught the arguments for God, particularly the fine-tuning argument, and I thought, ‘Actually, that’s compelling too. There’s definitely a God.’ Then I thought, ‘Oh my God – what’s going on here?’

Ultimately, I realised that these arguments are not in contradiction with each other. While the arguments against God argue against a particular conception of God – the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfectly good omni-God; the fine-tuning argument points to something much more generic –not a designer but some kind of cosmic goal directedness. If you go for cosmic purpose and not the omni-God, then you can have your cake and eat it. You can accept both arguments.

Embracing contradictions.

A decade ago, I wouldn’t have imagined I’d be writing this book. I do feel silly defending cosmic purpose because it doesn’t fit with my peer group and the intellectual waters I swim in.

You’re finding some new friends, no doubt, as well.

I wound people up on Twitter by suggesting that Bertrand Russell would have believed in cosmic purpose because he was so committed to following the evidence where it leads. I think the evidence has changed since he was alive, but anyway, it tends to annoy people when I say that.

He might have believed in Spinoza’s God, where God is Nature.

I’m not saying he would have been a Christian, but I think he would have found something compelling in the fine-tuning argument.

Let’s get on to the five books you’ve chosen. What’s the first one?

I think one of the most interesting philosophy books of recent times is Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos. Nagel is a hugely influential and respected philosopher of recent times, and I think this book really shocked the philosophy world when it was published in 2012 with the subtitle “Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.”

Maybe he felt bold enough to publish this controversial book in his older years, but he was arguing that a range of phenomena – consciousness, moral knowledge, reason – cannot be accounted for, in his view, in the traditional materialist Darwinian framework. Ultimately, he said that we need a new paradigm, and although we don’t know what it is, here’s a first guess: teleological laws with purposes built into them. He built upon a rigorous framework for thinking about teleological laws that was formulated by John Hawthorne and Daniel Nolan. They don’t necessarily believe in teleological laws, but they have a rigorous way of making sense of them.

This was an act of heresy and it got treated as such. The book received incredibly aggressive reviews. Brian Leiter and Michael Weisberg called it “an instrument of mischief”. Steven Pinker tweeted that it was “the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker”. A lot of these attacks were made because in the introduction Nagel expresses sympathy for the intelligent design movement in biology, which argues that the facts of biology can’t be explained within a Darwinian framework.

That’s not something I’ve ever supported, and that’s out of my area of expertise – I’m not a biologist; I’m a philosopher. Maybe Nagel was going a bit out of his area of expertise there, and that’s why people laid into him, but that was only a passing reference in the introduction. The core arguments of the book are based on these philosophical arguments around consciousness, moral knowledge, and reason. He’s engaged in a systematic project.

Nagel supports the anti-physicalist view about consciousness, which I also support. That’s a fairly significant minority view. He also thinks that has greater implications than philosophers had previously realised. It doesn’t affect only consciousness; it affects how we think about these other phenomena, such as cognition, and how consciousness evolved historically.

He distinguishes a constitutive explanation of consciousness – how does the brain make consciousness here and now? – from a historical explanation of consciousness. How does the brain create my experience right now, and also, why did consciousness evolve over history? Nagel argues that the anti-physicalist position raises problems for our traditional Darwinian way of thinking about the latter question. It’s a very interesting book and I believe that history will be kinder to it than were the reviews that immediately followed.

Excellent. What’s your second book?

A Fortunate Universe: Life in a Finely Tuned Cosmos. This is a book written by two cosmologists, Luke Barnes and Geraint Lewis, and published in 2016.

What is a cosmologist? Is that a scientist of the cosmos, rather than a philosopher thinking about the cosmos?

A cosmologist is a physicist with expertise in studying the universe on a large scale: planets, stars, the Big Bang. This book lays out the contemporary evidence for what we call cosmological fine-tuning – the idea that at least in our current best theories for life to be possible at all, certain numbers in physics had to fall within a certain narrow range.

The example that has baffled physicists the most has to do with the cosmological constant. This is the number that measures the acceleration of the universe. In 1998, we discovered that the universe is not only expanding, it’s also accelerating in its expansion. Physicists postulate a force that’s pushing the universe apart, which we call dark energy, and the number that measures that force is called the cosmological constant.

If that force was a little bit stronger, everything would have been pushed apart so quickly that no two particles would have ever met, so we wouldn’t have had stars, planets, any structural complexity, and therefore, no life, presumably. If it had been a little bit weaker, it would have increased gravity, and everything would have collapsed in the first split second.

Isn’t that a bit like saying, ‘If your mother had decided not to go out that night and she had not met your father, you wouldn’t have existed’?

That’s a good analogy. There are some cases in which we’re happy to accept improbable things, and there are some cases in which we’re not. Here’s a good example. Suppose we have a random number generator, and it spits out a number: 5769126. If, after the fact, I say, ‘I think there’s a god who really likes that particular number’, you would say, ‘Oh, come on. That’s totally ad hoc. You just said it after the fact, so no one will take you seriously.’

But if I’ve been leading a religious cult for decades that says there’s a god that loves this particular number and that this random number generator will spit out this number on exactly this date, we wouldn’t say, ‘It’s just a coincidence.’ We would say, ‘It’s very improbable that you’d get all of these elements right.’ The question is, what differentiates these cases?

The great thing now is that we don’t have to be so intuitive. We have Bayes’ theorem, which gives us a disciplined way of thinking about these probabilities claims. Without getting into the mathematics, it is about which possibilities are special or interesting independently of them happening to be the outcome.

If you’re playing roulette and the possible outcomes are red or black, it’s not a surprise if you predict black and it shows up black; but if I guess how many hairs are on my head and I get it right, that’s pretty wild. If it’s about the likelihood of there being the conditions for life on this planet, and it’s a huge improbability, then you start to think that’s special. It’s such a quantitative difference that it requires an explanation.

Absolutely. There are two considerations. The first being how improbable an outcome is. In my book, I give the example of Jesus appearing on toast.

From what I’ve seen on the internet, that’s very probable.

It’s a little bit improbable, and that’s why we enjoy it, but it’s not that improbable. Because it’s not so improbable, we’re happy to accept it’s just a fun coincidence that you sometimes get a burn mark in toast uncannily shaped like Jesus.

Also, Che Guevara.

Indeed. In these cases, we’re not dealing with something that ludicrously improbable. But when it comes to fine-tuning, the numbers we are talking about are so extraordinary that saying ‘it’s just chance’ is not rationally sustainable.

The second consideration is whether the improbability is significant independently of it having happened to occur. Take the example you mentioned of me having been born, instead of my father having married someone else and had a different child. It’s not particularly special that I was born instead of someone else – my ego isn’t that inflated! But now contrast with fine-tuning. It’s true that whichever numbers come up in physics, in some sense, these are going to be improbable; however, what is striking is that, of all the numbers that might have come up, the ones that have come up are in the rare range that allow for something quite special – structural complexity, intelligent life. That’s why it’s different to your example of my dad marrying someone else.

These things of great value allow for the possibility of people writing poetry, falling in love, contemplating their own existence, whereas the majority of the possible numbers would create a universe of, say, only hydrogen, with no complexity. What is striking is that not only are the numbers improbable, the numbers that came up are those that allow for these things of value and significance. I think that’s where we feel that it needs some kind of explanation.

Even though there will be no such thing as explanation unless it had happened because we wouldn’t exist. Some people compare it to a lottery. You think it’s highly improbable that you’re going to win, but if you win, you win, and somebody has to win. In another respect, it’s unlike a lottery because there’s no guarantee that there’s even going to be a winner. The universe can do its stuff and there need never be human life, but because there is human life, we can reflect upon it. If the conditions hadn’t been ripe for human life, we wouldn’t even have a problem. It’s a prerequisite of there even being a cosmological issue here, that somebody’s won the lottery, as it were.

In terms of the lottery case, there are two issues here. Again, it depends on whether the outcome was significant independently of it happening to be the outcome. If Joe Bloggs wins the lottery, there’s nothing significant there. It is improbable, but someone had to win. However, if the partner of the boss of the lottery wins, then we think something’s going on. That person has a certain significance that’s independent of the fact that they happen to win.

What you’re also pointing to is another very common reaction, which is sometimes called the anthropic principle. If the universe hadn’t been fine-tuned for life, then we wouldn’t have been around to think about it, so it is inevitable, given that we’re here, that the universe is going to be fine-tuned. People have often tweeted at me the puddle analogy from Douglas Adams. He imagined a puddle waking up and saying, “Oh my gosh – this hole in the ground is perfectly suited for me.”

One of the most vivid ways of responding to that objection is John Leslie’s firing squad analogy, which appears in his book Universes, which we’ll be discussing later. Imagine you are going to be executed. You are terrified. Five expert marksmen get their guns ready. They all fire, and they all miss. They reload, and they fire. Once again, they all miss. They keep missing, time and time again. What are you going to think?

Presumably, you are going to think, ‘This needs an explanation. It’s very improbable that these expert marksmen happen to miss every time.’ However, if you buy this anthropic line, then you will think, ‘Actually, if they had hit me, I wouldn’t be here to think about it. It’s inevitable, so it doesn’t need explanation.’

I don’t think anyone would really think that, but if it doesn’t apply in this case, then I don’t think it applies in the fine-tuning case. It is trivially true that if the universe hadn’t been fine-tuned for life or life conducive, we wouldn’t be around; however, I don’t believe this removes the need to explain it.  That becomes clearer when we put things in precise Bayesian terms, which you might not want to get into, but it’s hard to see why that affects the probabilistic argument. Although it’s true, it’s hard to see why it affects the argument.

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Having said that, some philosophers have tried to make sense of this anthropic objection; I don’t want to imply that it’s just an online objection. Elliott Sober, a wonderful philosopher of biology, engages with these arguments, and he tries to rigorously make that argument work. It is a response that can be made, but I don’t buy it myself.

Another interesting thing about this book is that it explores both of the two standard explanations of fine-tuning: God, and the multiverse. The multiverse hypothesis is that there is a huge, perhaps infinite, number of universes, each having different numbers in their physics. In some, the cosmological constant is stronger, and in others, it’s weaker; in some, gravity is stronger, and in others, it’s weaker, and so on. If you have enough variety throughout the universes, then it’s not so improbable that one of them is going to happen to have the right numbers for life. Then, the lottery response starts to be a little bit more credible. If enough people are playing the lottery, then somebody’s going to win.

The authors are both cosmologists, as I’ve mentioned. One of them is a Christian and goes for the God explanation, and the other one is a multiverse theorist and goes for that explanation. Most of the book presents the cutting-edge physics on this in a very clear and accessible way, and the final chapter is a dialogue between the two of them. It’s fun. They’re down to earth, and they’re very clear. They’re also philosophically clued up, which isn’t always the case with physicists. It’s a very interesting discussion of these two rival hypotheses.

This book is a bit different from the others I’ve chosen, in that it isn’t going for some alternative to God, between God and atheism. I’ve put it on the list because it is a very good presentation of the cutting-edge evidence for fine-tuning, which is motivating so many of these philosophers and myself to take cosmic purpose seriously.

Let’s move on to the next book you’ve selected for us.

This is Purpose in the Universe: The Moral and Metaphysical Case for Ananthropocentric Purposivism, by Tim Mulgan. This is somebody who got into this as I did, through teaching philosophy of religion, teaching the arguments against God, the arguments for God, finding them both compelling, and thinking, ‘We need to find a middle-ground option.’

Mulgan’s book has very similar motivations to my own project, but he ends up in a different place. He defends a view that he calls ‘ananthropic purposivism.’ There is cosmic purpose, but it has nothing to do with human beings. We’re an accidental byproduct created on the way to a greater form of life and intelligence that the universe will ultimately produce.

That’s how he explains both the evidence of fine-tuning and some other philosophical considerations. He also takes seriously other traditional arguments for God – the cosmological argument, and the problem of evil. Why do human beings suffer so much? Because cosmic purpose doesn’t care about us. We’re not part of the plan.

It’s a very interesting book, though it’s not that accessible. It’s a long, academic book, but it’s wonderful. I reviewed it in International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion, and the draft version appears on my website.

“Most philosophers are secular atheists of one kind or another”

My disagreement with Mulgan is, I think, a common sense one. His view implies that human suffering is not morally significant. I think all suffering is morally significant. Therefore, even if there are to come some great beings, relative to which we are like ants, I still think our suffering is morally important. I think ants’ suffering, if they do indeed suffer, is morally significant.

He’s neutral between whether this is a creator God who’s perfectly good or whether there is impersonal goal directedness towards the good. In either case, he thinks the universe is, in some sense, perfectly good. I can’t accept that because it doesn’t seem to be an adequate explanation of human suffering.

Having said that, he does take this worry very seriously and has very interesting things to say. He’s a moral philosopher, a consequentialist of a certain radical kind, who, like Peter Singer, thinks morality should be very demanding on us. Mulgan connects it all in interesting ways to both foundational questions about the nature of value, but also to his very radical, demanding consequentialist framework. It’s a very interesting book.

What is the fourth book you’ve chosen?

This is the only one that connects very explicitly to traditional Western religion, to the Abrahamic faiths, but it links to this theme of cosmic purpose. God, Purpose, and Reality, by John Bishop and Ken Perszyk, is coming out this year with Oxford University Press, and I’m going to be reviewing it.

John Bishop – the philosopher?

Yes. He’s a very interesting, heterodox philosopher of religion. In this book, Bishop and Perszyk argue that the Abrahamic faiths of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam ought to conceive of God not as a personal mind, a conscious mind, but as cosmic purpose, as an impersonal drive towards the good.

Anglophone analytic philosophers have become used to thinking of God as some big mind –  Richard Swinburne, for example, is very clear that this is his conception of God – but that might be a historical idiosyncrasy. Aquinas thought that God was beyond human categories. Although we talk of God as having knowledge and power, this is an analogy to help us understand the nature of God, but God, in God’s own nature, is beyond these categories.

They argue – in a way that’s reminiscent of the ‘new atheist’ Christopher Hitchens – that it’s inappropriate to worship a cosmic dictator. I think they even make reference to Hitchens. Why would we worship this big mind just because it’s really powerful? Even if it is benevolent, it seems inappropriate to worship it.

Pragmatic, perhaps. If that’s what the big mind wants, that’s what you get.

Good point! You probably would, just to make sure you’re in the right place in the hereafter. But, in terms of purer motivations, they think it’s more appropriate to worship an impersonal drive towards the good. This is a different kind of book, but it’s interesting that they’re connecting with this theme.

Are they arguing that the consequence of recognizing this is not that you abandon worship, but that you worship an abstract concept rather than its source?

Yes. Their project is not so much arguing for cosmic purpose, but arguing that it gives us a more adequate foundation for Christian, Islamic, and Judaic worship and practice. I guess they wouldn’t say it’s an abstract concept. To be honest, I want to read it again because when they get into the underlying metaphysics, it is a little bit dense.

They think it’s part of the necessary nature of existence itself that it is directed towards the good. In that sense, it’s part of reality rather than an abstract concept, but they don’t think of it as a personal, conscious mind. They’re worshiping this drive of existence towards the good. They accept that in worship, we talk about it as though it were personal, but that’s just human necessity.

They think this is a better way of understanding that when Moses asks what God’s name is, and God says, ‘I am what I am,’ this does not point towards a personal God but to something deeper, which they conceive of as the directedness towards the good. In a way, they think of the conventional  idea – the Richard Swinburne idea – of God as idolatrous. It’s like an idol, this superhuman mind or cartoon god, like Zeus. They’re sympathetic to the critique of the new atheists who wouldn’t want to worship this cosmic dictator, but they think that cosmic purpose is a more appropriate object of worship.

And your final choice?

It’s the earliest book on the list that I’ve chosen last: John Leslie’s absolute classic: Universes. This is one of the earliest books reflecting on the enigma of fine-tuning as the evidence was starting to develop. It was written in the ’80s.

A number of ground-breaking books published in the ’80s defend the reality and the evidence of fine tuning, such as The Anthropic Principle, by Barrow and Tipler, and Just Six Numbers, by Martin Rees, the former Astronomer Royal. Although Rees didn’t explicitly commit to it, he was more on the multiverse side. Certainly, he was saying that there’s something here we need to think about.

Universes is one of these ground-breaking books. Probably, in terms of the contemporary evidence of fine tuning, A Fortunate Universe is better, but Leslie is such an interesting, heterodox thinker. He doesn’t fit into the categories of traditional religious philosopher or secular atheist philosopher.

Leslie takes the multiverse very seriously, so he’s not got a definite view. He has also developed a view which he calls ‘axiarchism.’ This is the view that the universe exists because it is good. The way we typically think of this is that ‘there’s a good God who created the universe for a good purpose’; but he thinks instead that it’s just a brute fact that the universe exists because it is good.

How does he know that?

He’s open to a range of hypotheses, and that’s one hypothesis for explaining fine-tuning. Also, the ancient question, of why there is something rather than nothing, is a hypothesis he takes very seriously.

Sounds like Pangloss, Candide’s teacher in Voltaire’s novel Candide, who keeps on saying, despite the evidence, that we live in the best of all possible worlds.

That’s very nice. I would disagree with Leslie on this score, just as I would disagree with Mulgan, because they both think there is some overarching drive towards the good. I would say that we have to take the problem of evil more seriously than that. To my mind, the universe, as I take it, is a mix of design and accident. There is horrific, arbitrary, terrible suffering, and we need to factor that in as well.

Wittgenstein says that explanations have to end somewhere. I guess that atheists would typically say that the Big Bang is the end of the story. That’s the brute fact. Leslie takes it a little bit further and says the Big Bang happened because it’s good, but then he stops there. That’s the brute fact. It’s almost as though the platonic facts about value are reaching out into concrete reality and creating the universe. A lot of people worry about the intelligibility of this, and ultimately I don’t buy Leslie’s proposal, but it’s an interesting view and worth having on the table.

What I suggest in my book is more of a hybrid view – a little bit of the axiarchic push to the good, but also with a role to play for the more traditional, impersonal, arbitrary laws of physics. In this way, we can explain both the fine-tuning and the arbitrary, pointless suffering. I think we need to take the problem of evil more seriously in that way.

Is it fair to say that your conversion on the road to Durham University was from being a fairly mainstream atheist philosopher to becoming sensitive to design in the cosmos, to such a degree that you now believe this is the best explanation that we have of what the purpose of life is and why we’re here, and that everything that falls into our everyday experience is actually subject to a purposeful drive, and that to think otherwise does not give adequate weight to the discoveries of contemporary physics?

Yes. Both the traditional sides of this dichotomy (which dominates Western analytic philosophy but not necessarily globally) have something they can’t explain. Traditional theists can’t explain arbitrary, gratuitous suffering and traditional atheists can’t explain fine-tuning, so we need to look to hypotheses that explain all of these data.

In my book I consider a range of hypotheses. We already discussed impersonal teleological laws of nature with goals built into them, which I take seriously. But I also consider supernatural designers but without omni characteristics, for example, a God of limited capacities who’s made the best universe they can, or a bad God, or maybe we live in a computer simulation that was created by some random computer programmer in the next universe up.

Ultimately, the hypothesis I think is perhaps most preferable and connects to my earlier work on panpsychism is cosmopsychism – the idea that the universe is itself a conscious mind with its own goals. I like the hypothesis because there is something unsatisfying about saying ‘it’s just these brute laws.’ It feels like we need a deeper explanation.

You can get a deeper explanation by postulating a supernatural designer, but that comes at a cost, in terms of simplicity or parsimony. I like cosmopsychism because it doesn’t postulate anything supernatural, and yet it still manages to give us a deeper explanation of cosmic purpose, in terms of the goals of the conscious universe.

In terms of my own journey, I’ve always taken fine-tuning seriously. But for a long time, I thought the multiverse looked to be the more plausible explanation. However, just over a couple of years, I was persuaded by arguments from philosophers of probability that there’s some dodgy reasoning going on with the inference from fine-tuning to multiverse, that multiverse theorists commit what’s known as the ‘inverse gambler’s fallacy.’

This is something that’s been in the philosophy journals for decades but, in a typical case of academics talking to themselves, it’s largely unknown outside of academic philosophy, despite the huge interest in fine-tuning. One of the things I’m passionate about with this book is getting this argument out to a broader audience.

In the 16th century, as the evidence started to mount that we weren’t at the centre of the universe, people struggled to accept that because it didn’t fit with the picture of reality to which they were accustomed. Nowadays, we laugh at them. Pop science programmes wonder why they couldn’t follow the evidence where it leads. But every generation absorbs a worldview it can’t see beyond. I feel it’s the same with fine-tuning now, that we’re not following the evidence where it leads because it doesn’t fit with the picture of the universe we’ve grown used to.

Interview by Nigel Warburton

November 19, 2023

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Philip Goff

Philip Goff

Philip Goff is Professor of Philosophy at Durham University. His research focuses on consciousness and the ultimate nature of reality. Goff is best known for defending panpsychism, the view that consciousness pervades the universe and is a fundamental feature of it. Goff’s books include Why? The Purpose of the Universe, Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness, Consciousness and Fundamental Reality, and Is Consciousness Everywhere? Essays on Panpsychism. Goff has published many academic articles as well as writing extensively for newspapers and magazines, including Scientific American, the Guardian, Aeon, and the Times Literary Supplement.

Philip Goff

Philip Goff

Philip Goff is Professor of Philosophy at Durham University. His research focuses on consciousness and the ultimate nature of reality. Goff is best known for defending panpsychism, the view that consciousness pervades the universe and is a fundamental feature of it. Goff’s books include Why? The Purpose of the Universe, Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness, Consciousness and Fundamental Reality, and Is Consciousness Everywhere? Essays on Panpsychism. Goff has published many academic articles as well as writing extensively for newspapers and magazines, including Scientific American, the Guardian, Aeon, and the Times Literary Supplement.