This conversation is a combination of two discussions, one on November 9th 2023 at the event of Philip Pullman receiving the Bodley Medal at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and the other on November 10th 2023 at a launch event for Philip Goff’s book Why? The Purpose of the Universe at Blackwells bookshop in Oxford.
Nigel Warburton: Let’s begin with the obvious question. Philip’s book is called “Why?” I’d like to ask why did you write it? And what’s it all about?
Philip Goff: Good question! It’s not a book I would have imagined myself writing five years ago; it’s been quite a journey. So many people, in the West at least, feel they have to fit into the dichotomy of either you believe in the God of traditional Western religion, or you’re a secular atheist. I was raised Catholic, actually, but I gave that up when I was 14, when I decided I didn’t believe in God. And I was quite happily on Team Secular for over twenty years. I didn’t have a god shaped hole in my life as far, as I was aware. However, gradually, over the last five years, I’ve come to think that both of these worldviews are inadequate, that both of them have things they can’t explain about reality. I now believe the evidence points to what I call ‘cosmic purpose,’ that is to say, some kind of goal directness at the fundamental level of reality, but existing in the absence of the traditional God of Western religion. And that’s what I argue for in this book, as well as discussing its implications for human meaning and purpose.
Nigel Warburton: That’s quite an interesting position to take as a conventional philosopher. Pre-Darwin, perhaps, it was difficult to see how apparent design in the universe could have arisen without there being an omniscient creator or something like that. But most contemporary philosophers I know of would say that post-Darwin we have the impersonal mechanism of natural selection to explain apparent design. Is what you’re trying to do ‘post-Darwin’? Are you suggesting to evidence now points beyond the Darwinian paradigm?
Philip Goff: Yes and no. At the start of the scientific revolution, everyone believed in God and God even played a bit of a role in Newton’s theory, giving the planets a bit of a nudge every now and again to keep them in status. Then as time goes on, God starts to look more and more redundant from physics. We have the famous anecdote about the French physicist Laplace, who worked out a way of removing God from Newton’s physics. When Napoleon read Laplace’s his work he demanded to know where God featured in the theory. Laplace allegedly replied: “Sire, I have no need of that hypothesis.” Before Darwin, you still seemed to have evidence for God or apparent design in the complex functioning of organisms. But, as you say, post-Darwin even that seemed to be removed. For over a hundred years, there was no evidence for God or anything God-ish. As a result, we get this mindset that science has ruled out anything God-ish, maybe even that science and spirituality are opposed.Every generation absorbs a world view they can’t see beyond.
From the seventies onwards, however, the evidence starts to change, as the fine-tuning of physics for life begins to emerge in our theories (I’m sure we’ll get to this soon). And I now think we’re in a period where we’re in a bit of a bit of denial about this. It’s like in the 16th century where we first started getting evidence that we’re not in the center of the universe and people struggled to accept this because it didn’t fit with the picture of reality they’d got used to. And nowadays we scoff at our anti-Copernican ancestors and think, “Oh, those stupid religious people, why didn’t they just follow the evidence?” But every generation absorbs a world view they can’t see beyond. We’ve got so used to the mindset that “Science has ruled out cosmic purpose,” that as the evidence has changed—as I think it has to support cosmic purpose—it may take time for the culture to catch up.
Nigel Warburton: Well, we’ll come back to what you could possibly mean by ‘God,’ in that context, and also what you mean by ‘purpose’ as well, which is very important. But I’d like now to bring the other Philip in. And my question is, why are you here, Philip Pullman? Why are you here in this discussion with somebody putting forward an idea which, on the face of it, is antithetical to many things that you’ve said in public?
Philip Pullman: Well, you shouldn’t take too seriously what authors say. Publicly, we say these things on the spur of the moment and then deny it afterwards. The things you say in a public event are not the same sort of things you would say in a philosophy seminar or to a group of experts on a particular subject. Yes, I have said I’m an atheist, but the reason that I say that is that I haven’t seen any evidence for God in the world I’m in. But simultaneously, I know that everything I know about the world and everything I could find out about the world—however much I look—is the most tiny pinprick of light in the huge, vast encircling darkness, in which there might be anything. There might be a God out there, there might be all sorts of monsters and demons, heaven knows what. I know these two things simultaneously by changing my perspective.
But I’m very interested in Philip’s idea, the one for which he’s best known, perhaps, which is that of panpsychism. He can explain it far better than I can, but it’s to do with the presence of consciousness. What do we mean by consciousness? What do we mean by awareness? I’ve always felt—‘felt’ rather than ‘thought’—that one of the purposes of my life is to extend the amount of consciousness in the universe. It’s a bit of a grandiose thing to say, but I’m very much on the side of those people who are extending our consciousness—by telling us things, discovering things, making things clear—and Philip Goff is a wonderful example of this. In his book Galileo’s Error, he talks about that period in our intellectual history when consciousness was quietly shown the door. As Galileo pointed out, we didn’t need anything more than numbers to explain the universe and everything around us, we simply didn’t need to refer to consciousness in our picture of the universe. I’d never seen that put so clearly and so vividly before as in that book. That’s why I started reading Philip Goff. And this this new book is an extension of that original insight and is fascinating to me.
Nigel Warburton: I’d like to support the idea that Philip Goff is one of the clearest philosophy writers we have at the moment, and we’re very fortunate that he has an ability to explain actually quite complex ideas and make them seem straightforward. Maybe ‘straightforward’ isn’t the word, because some of the ideas are quite exotic, but certainly understandable. You feel you can get a grasp of the ideas, but also see how they might apply. It’s not just some kind of abstract discussion of specialist interest, like solving crossword puzzles. All the things he says have real implications for life. At the same time I don’t agree! I’m probably, in Philip’s eyes, still stuck in the teenage phase of subjectivism and skepticism about cosmic purpose. But that’s my problem, not yours, Philip.
Philip Goff: Don’t worry, Nigel, I forgive you.
Nigel Warburton: And have you [Philip Goff] likewise found philosophical inspiration in Philip Pullman’s work?
Philip Goff: Actually, no! [Laughs] At least not intentionally. I was obsessed with the His Dark Materials series as a teenager and a young adult (I was 18 in 1997, so I guess I was the target audience). One thing I loved about Philip’s work is that he drew on cutting-edge science (something else I was obsessed with…), such as dark matter and the multiverse. What I didn’t appreciate at the time is that Philip also drew on contemporary philosophy in his novels.
I went on to became a philosopher and made my name defending panpsychism, as Philip said a moment ago. But, to be honest, it never occurred to me that the theory I was defending had any connection to ‘Dust,’ which of course dominates the world of His Dark Materials. In fact, I only made the connection when Philip Pullman himself entered into one of the philosophical discussions I was having on Twitter (I spend too much time arguing on Twitter…). I vividly remember looking at my phone and thinking, ‘That’s a good point…Oh shit, it’s Philip Pullman! We emailed a bit and then ended up having a public discussion—in this very venue of Blackwells in Oxford—for my first book Galileo’s Error.
In researching that, I was flabbergasted—and I don’t use that word often—to find real resonances with the panpsychism view I’d been arguing for. Most strikingly, in The Subtle Knife we find the scientist Mary communicating with Dust particles—or ‘shadows’ as she calls them. She asks them “Are you what we would call ‘spirit’?” And the particles reply, “From what we are, spirit. From what we do, matter. Matter and spirit are one.” That perfectly captured the view I’d been defending for the previous 15 years! So it’s possible I’ve built my career on sub-consciously plagiarizing Philip Pullman.
Anyway, I’m delighted that Philip liked my new book Why? and was willing to do this again.
Nigel Warburton: Sticking with Philip Pullman for a moment longer, you’ve talked about Philip Goff as a writer and your interest in panpsychism. But what about this particular book? He’s asking the question ‘Why?’ and getting to the really big questions that philosophers don’t often discuss, about what the meaning of life or purpose of life could possibly be. Does that resonate with you?
Philip Pullman: Well, I when I was a teenager, I was very struck by existentialism, at least what I could find out about it. It seemed to consist of smoking Gauloises and wearing a black polo neck sweater and that sort of thing. And it was all rather sexy and fun. But what it did was to make clear to me that we are responsible for a lot of what we do and what happens. It’s not up to anybody else. It’s not up to this absent God. It’s up to us. The existentialists famously said “Existence precedes essence.” In other words, we’re not born with our essence and predispositions fixed. We have to create ourselves out of the bare fact of our own existence. I quite like that. So that where I come from philosophically. Maybe I shouldn’t say ‘philosophically,’ because it wasn’t anything as grand as that, but that’s where I come from in terms of feeling.
Also a big, big part of what made me was poetry, especially the poetry of the English romantics, Wordsworth and so on. And from them I had a sense that the world is actually full of life—it’s alive. “Something far more deeply infused,” as Wordsworth puts it in his poem “Tintern Abbey.” Philip’s notion that consciousness pervades everything, and that it is in fact the ground on which everything else exists, was very, very attractive to me. It made sense. It made sense in an emotional as well as an intellectual way.
Philip Goff: I think this is a good moment to say that another thing I got out of Philip’s work is that it seemed to me ‘anti-religious’ but ‘pro-spiritual.’ Perhaps the best way to capture this is with the two conceptions of the afterlife we find in His Dark Materials. First we have the land of the dead, the bleak, desolate wasteland where all the souls of the dead—saints and sinners—end up, despite the promises of The Authority that paradise awaits his followers. We find there the ghost of a monk who is so blinded by a dogmatic belief in The Authority that he refuses to accept the evidence of the senses, declaring the desolate realm of the dead to be land of milk and honey for those with the eyes of faith. I think that’s such a powerful representation of the darkness of dogmatism, which, to be honest, atheists as well as religious people can be subject to.
In contrast, we have the ‘life after life after death’ that Lyra and Will create for the souls of the dead, in which they are ecstatically absorbed into the universe around them. At the culmination of the series, when Lyra and Will have to part for the rest of their lives, they promise each other that when they meet that fate, their particles will entwine forever. I must confess, I cried my eyes out revisiting that on the recent BBC dramatization!
A huge proportion of the public self-identify as ‘spiritual but not religious,’ and yet artists and academics don’t tend to cater for that group of people. The result is that we see being ‘spiritual but not religious’ as ill-thought out fluffy thinking, but I think that’s just a contingent result of the fact that work hasn’t been done to articulate and make sense of such possibilities.
Philip Pullman: I have never said ‘I’m spiritual but not religious,’ and I never would, because I have no idea what is meant by ’spiritual.’ The word seems to cover an area of meaning that includes such clearly definable senses as the emotional, aesthetic, and moral, but also woo-woo. I know what each of those words means, and if I wanted to use it I’d have no difficulty in doing so; but ’spiritual’ feels to me almost entirely empty of any meaning apart from those, and it’s never quite clear which one people mean when they say, for instance, “The Bishop is a very spiritual man.” When I see it written or hear it spoken I feel an irritation or unease that is actually almost physical, because it’s combined with my sense of the utter lack of anything there at all to make a gulf or abyss that I seem to be looking into, and I have a horrible fear of heights.
‘Religious’ is easier, because it’s linked with open professions of belief and with participation in ceremonies like Communion as well as the practice of private prayer and so on. I can actually see the point of those, and I can understand why people take part in such things. To that extent I could say that, if anything, I was religious but not spiritual. The existence or not of God is neither here nor there: we’re talking about human behaviour at this point.
Philip Goff: Looks like I got it precisely wrong, then! Still, I claim my right as the reader to determine the meaning of Philip’s texts. [Laughs]
Nigel Warburton: Turning to Philip Goff’s book Why?, at the core of your book is the fine tuning argument. Could you sketch out what that is? Probably many of the people in this room know something about the fine tuning argument, although not everybody. It’s an argument for the existence of God, a form of design argument, but it’s got a particular scientific twist.
Philip Goff: Taking a step back, the core argument of the book is that there are things that traditional belief in God can’t explain, but there are also things that traditional atheism can’t explain. In terms of the problem with the God hypothesis, it’s the familiar difficulty of reconciling a loving, all powerful God with the terrible suffering we find in the world. What traditional atheism—by which I mean the conviction that there’s a meaningless, purposeless universe—struggles to explain is, as you mentioned, Nigel, the fine tuning of physics for life. This is the surprising discovery of recent decades that for life to be possible, certain numbers in physics had to fall in a certain very narrow range.We are the kind of creatures who want to find meaning in coincidences, in things that happen.
Perhaps the example that’s most baffled cosmologists revolves around dark energy (as opposed to dark matter, which I know Philip likes). Dark energy is the force that pushes apart the universe. We discovered in 1998 that the universe isn’t only expanding, it’s accelerating. So physicists postulate this force that’s pushing things apart. Now, once you do the calculations, it becomes apparent that if that force had been just a little bit stronger, everything would have been pushed apart so quickly that no two particles would have ever met. We wouldn’t have had stars, planets, any kind of structural complexity whatsoever. Whereas if it had been significantly weaker, it wouldn’t have counteracted gravity, and so the whole universe would have collapsed back on itself a split second after the Big Bang. So to get any kind of life or structured complexity, the strength of this force had to be, like Goldilocks porridge, ‘just right’—not too strong, not too weak.
As you say, Nigel, some people use this as an argument for God: God’s fixed the numbers to get human beings. You might think that’s a bit anthropocentric, and I don’t think you have to take this in a good direction. As I said, I think the God hypothesis has got problems too. So what does fine-tuning tell us about reality, if not that there is a God?
I think fine-tuning forces a dilemma on us. Either it’s just an incredible fluke that these numbers in physics are just right for life (the example I gave is just one of many)—that seems to me to improbable to take seriously—or those numbers in our physics are as they are because they are the right numbers for life. In other words, that there is some kind of goal-directedness towards life in the very early stages of the universe. And that’s what I mean by ‘cosmic purpose.’ This is weird, but we should put aside our biases, both religious and secular, and just try and follow where the evidence seems to be leading.
Nigel Warburton: My wife once left her phone in a taxi in London. The taxi driver picked it up, it was open, and he called ‘home’ and got through to me, and said, “I’ve found your wife’s phone in the taxi.” I said, “It’s okay, I’m coming to London tomorrow. I’m not sure where I’ll be, but when I finish work, I’ll call you up and I’ll pay the taxi fare from wherever you are.” The next day, I came out the gallery where I was working on the Old Brompton Road, I called the taxi driver, and at the exact moment I phoned he was ten yards from me giving somebody a ride. We couldn’t believe what had just happened, and it affected me quite strongly. But ultimately, rationally, I think that was just a fluke.
We are the kind of creatures who want to find meaning in coincidences, in things that happen. Who’s to say that we aren’t just the result of a fluke? Sure, it’s mind numbingly small odds, but maybe that’s just the way it is. There wouldn’t be a question for anybody to address unless we existed. We are just this phenomenon that’s occurred and we just have to take it that it is a fluke. Who’s to say that’s wrong? At what point can you say it can’t be a fluke?
Philip Goff: Yes, that’s interesting. There are all sorts of things that are a bit improbable, for example, when you think of someone, and then at that exact moment they phone, and we’re happy to think that’s just coincidence because it’s not so improbable. I give the example in the book of ‘Jesus in toast;’ if you Google ‘Jesus in toast,’ you get all these examples of a birth mark that’s uncannily like Jesus—or Jesus in Western art, I guess.
Nigel Warburton: That’s quite probable, in my experience of toast!
Philip Goff: Well, it’s kind of a bit improbable, and that’s why it’s entertaining, but it’s not that improbable. But then we find examples where it passes a point where it’s so improbable, that it’s no longer a rational option to say it’s just a fluke. We can surely all agree there are such examples. Imagine burglars break into a bank and there’s a ten digit combination on the safe and they get it right first time, nobody would say, “Oh, maybe they just fluked it?”
Nigel Warburton: What else could you possibly say in that example? There’s no other plausible explanation, given the presumption that they’ve not got some kind of telepathic powers.
Philip Goff: But you wouldn’t think they’d just guessed it, right?
Nigel Warburton: I would.
Philip Goff: Really? Surely the rational thing to think is that they knew someone on the inside who gave them the combination.
Nigel Warburton: But the way you set it up, they didn’t.
Philip Goff: Oh, sorry, maybe I’m not telling the story right. I’m just saying all we know is that they that they got the combination right.
Nigel Warburton: Yes, so you look for the most plausible explanation.
Philip Goff: I was meaning to leave open whether they had inside info or whether they’d just guessed it. Given that choice, I think everyone would agree it’s rational to suppose they had inside info, as the alternative is too improbable. Here’s a different example, one I give in the book. It’s hard to relate to the fine-tuning because it’s abstract physics, and so because it’s hard to make concrete, it’s easy to think “Oh, it could just be a fluke.” To make it more concrete, imagine you’re roll a dice. (I think we can say ‘dice’ now rather than ‘die,’ because language has changed, right? Philip Pullman is the expert on this one…). Suppose you roll the dice 70 times and it comes up ‘six’ every time. 70 times in a row! In that situation, you wouldn’t say, “Oh, well, that’s just what happened.” Rather, you’d say, “The dice is fixed!”
Nigel Warburton: Yes, but you check, and you find it out it’s not fixed. And then there doesn’t seem to be any other explanation other than it being a fluke. You’re saying it could be some kind of purposeful organization of the universe that made it this way. But that’s not evidence; that’s just commitment that comes from intuitions pointing in a different direction.
Philip Goff: If we could rule out all possible explanations—and it’s hard to know how we’d do that—then we’d have to say: “Jesus, that’s just an incredible fluke!” However, when you have happenings that are so improbable, if there is an alternative to chance, then that alternative to chance is what we should go for. That’s just how probabilistic reasoning works. Now, many scientists and philosophers do think fine-tuning needs explaining, but think we can explain it in terms of the multiverse hypothesis. I argue in the book that that’s not actually an alternative to chance, and so doesn’t really work out as an explanation of fine-tuning.
Nigel Warburton: Okay, so let’s get to your alternative explanation of fine-tuning: cosmic purpose. When we use the word ‘purpose,’ we usually think of a mind with intentions that’s doing something purposeful. But that’s not exactly what you’re suggesting, is it? What you’re proposing is something built into the structure of the universe rather than a conscious mind doing stuff intentionally.
Philip Goff: I consider a range of hypotheses. The book is very much an exploration of different options. As I said earlier, the challenge as I see it is to explain both fine-tuning (which traditional atheism can’t explain) and suffering (which the traditional God hypothesis can’t explain).
Perhaps the most straightforward way of doing this is just by tweaking God’s characteristics a bit. So maybe the designer of our universe is bad, or amoral, or has limited abilities and has made the best universe she can (she’s like, “Sorry guys, I know it’s going to be messy, but this is the best I can do!”). I also consider the simulation hypothesis, associated with Nick Bostrom (or David Chalmers in his recent book Reality+), according to which we’re in a computer simulation and our creator is some random software engineer in the next universe up. So that’s the first hypothesis, a sort of nonstandard designer.
However, as you said Nigel, it’s not obvious that we do need some kind of conscious mind to underpin cosmic purpose. The philosopher Thomas Nagel has explored in great detail the possibility of what he calls ‘teleological laws:’ laws of nature with purpose built into them. On this view, there is just a sort of impersonal tendency directed towards life in the basic causal principles which govern our universe, a tendency which interacts with the known laws of physics in ways we don’t fully understand yet. The third and final hypothesis I explore, which relates to my previous work on panpsychism that Philip Pullman referred to earlier, is the possibility of cosmopsychism, the view that the universe itself is a conscious mind with its own goals and purposes. I argue that this hypothesis has the edge over the first two, although I take all of them seriously.
So I think there are these ways of making sense of cosmic purpose. The evidence of fine-tuning, in my view, give us empirical grounds for taking these possibilities seriously. I don’t think there’s any incoherence or improbability in these hypotheses. The thing that puts people off is that they’re weird. But who cares what’s weird? What’s ‘weird’ is just a contingent cultural thing that changes over time.
Nigel Warburton: What do you think about all this Philip Pullman?
Philip Pullman: Well, when it comes to dice, I can’t help remembering the Big Jule character from Guys and Dolls, who was a famous gambler who had a blank dice. People asked him, “Where are the spots?” and he said [puts on strong New York accent], “I had the spots removed for luck.” And they said, “But how do you know what numbers come up?” He said, [strong New York accent] “I remember where the spots formerly were.”
That got me thinking…could it not be that the character who’s running the universe is in fact malicious? You see, when we talk about a ‘goal’ and a ‘purpose-driven universe,’ we kind of assume it’s a good purpose. But could it in fact be a bad purpose? Could we be the playthings of a gigantic, immortal Chicago gangster?
Philip Goff: [Laughs] Well, the first thing I would say is there is obviously a great deal of uncertainty about all this. I do think there’s evidence for some kind of cosmic purpose, but there’s a great deal of uncertainty involved in saying anything more. But in terms of the bad designer hypothesis—which I explore in the book—I actually think the philosopher Steven Law has a compelling argument that the Bad God hypothesis is no good either, because it faces the mirror image problems of the Good God hypothesis. If you’ve got a Good God, why is there all the suffering? If you’re got a Bad God, you have to explain why she created all the wonderful things.
I think the universe, as we find it, is a mixture of accident and design. There are things that are too improbable to be chance, like the fine tuning (also certain things about the evolution of conscious understanding I go into in the book). But there are also things that are gratuitous and arbitrary. So we need a hypothesis that can accommodate both accident and design.
Philip Pullman: The Bad God hypothesis has a long history. It’s what lay behind the idea of Gnosticism. The Gnostic idea was that this universe, the physical universe, that we can see it and move about in, is the creation of a demiurge—a Bad God—but inside each of us there is a little spark of true divinity. Our task as individuals is to look after that spark and escape from this malevolent universe, where people get ill and there are crocodiles and thieves and so on, back to the infinitely distant God out there. This is a very attractive idea at certain times in history; it was very attractive at the end of the end of the Roman Empire. It was also very attractive around the millennium, when we had programs like The X-Files—”The Truth is Out There”—and The Truman Show where, the main character is caught up in a universe that’s entirely false and he has to get out of it. It’s an attractive idea that keeps coming back. But you weren’t tempted that way, Philip Goff?
Philip Goff: I don’t think it’s the most plausible hypothesis, because we need to explain both the good things and the bad things. Another option is Manichaeism, the religion of Saint Augustine before his conversion to Christianity.
Philip Pullman: Yes, that’s a kind of Gnosticism.
Nigel Warburton: For people who don’t know, Manicheans believed that there’s a perpetual struggle between good and evil, and good tends to get the upper-hand from time to time, but not always.
Philip Goff: When I was still writing the book I gave a talk on it and someone raising this in the Q&A, so I ended up talking about it a little bit in the book. The problem with having both a Good God and a Bad God is that you need to say exactly what the distribution of powers is between them, and how that results in the exact distribution of good and bad we find in the universe. I’m open-minded, but I suspect any worked out version of such a theory is going to end up very complicated, and as scientists and philosophers we want our theories to be as simple as possible.
I’m much more sympathetic with the hypothesis of a Good God of Limited Abilities, which I think ends up being a simpler explanation of the data. We can simply posit a God who’s only able to create from a singularity, and only able to create a universe with physics of a certain form, essentially the form of our actual physics, except that God can fiddle with the numbers. So the only way God can create complex, intelligent life is by creating a universe with the right numbers in its physics so that it’ll eventually evolve intelligent life. In this way, we explain the good in terms of God’s actions and the bad in terms of God’s limitations. Nice and simple!I think the universe, as we find it, is a mixture of accident and design.
Having said that, overall I think cosmopsychism is the best hypothesis. I try to show in the book that a conscious universe is not as extravagant a hypothesis as it at first appears, and that it fits with an independently plausible view of consciousness, namely panpsychism. Why postulate a supernatural designer outside of the universe—whether good or bad—if we can instead suppose that the universe designed itself?
Nigel Warburton: Is that more or less what Spinoza’s God was? I’m not sure if Spinoza’s God was meant to be conscious. But he talked about ‘God or nature,’ and got the Jewish equivalent of being excommunicated as a result, because he was claiming that God is just nature. That was a God that Einstein was happy to believe in, as an atheist. And as an atheist myself, I think I would buy that if you don’t have to think the universe is conscious, because then it’s just another form of atheism, really. We’re not saying that there’s anything beyond what we are and what exists in the material world. We’re not saying there’s heaven or hell, we’re just saying that when people talk about this life force and the way the universe is all interrelated, we might as well be talking about it as ‘God.’ This is the reason why we’re here, and that’s all that we have. We don’t have a personal god. We don’t have the kind of stuff religion needs to get going.
Philip Goff: Yes, what I really want to do with the book is just open up a discussion of all of these options.
Nigel Warburton: So this is building up to the Big Question, which is why are we here and how does all this relate to morality and how we treat each other? You do connect to those things in the book, and it’s really ambitious and admirable that you’re taking on these big questions. So I think it’d be really useful for you just to sketch what you think the meaning of life is. It’s a huge question, but in 4 minutes, please.
Philip Goff: [Laughs] Why do we exist? Well, you have to buy the book if you want to find out. I’m only joking, of course. Most of the book is just the cold blooded scientific and philosophical argument for this position. What I’m most driven by is a deep curiosity to understand the ultimate nature of reality. We’ll never know for certain, but I want us to try to have our best guess as to what reality is like. When I talk to my colleague David Faraci about fine tuning, he says “Yes, maybe you’ve got a reasonable case for cosmic purpose, but I don’t care. I make my own meaning, so it doesn’t matter to me whether or not there’s cosmic purpose.” So you could accept most of the book whilst not thinking its conclusions make any difference to your life.
However, in the final chapter, I do consider the implications of cosmic purpose for human life and meaning, exploring connections to spiritual practice, community, even political struggle. Overall, I defend a sort of middle-way position—It’s always the middle ways for me. At one extreme, you’ve got the Christian philosopher William Lane Craig, who says if there’s no point to the universe, it’s all pointless. He even says we might as well rape and kill each other, if we want, because it’s life it just totally meaningless. It’s not only religious people who take this position; the anti-natalist philosopher David Benatar thinks it’s immoral to have children, in part because life is too meaningless, and so we should let the human race pass out of existence. The other extreme is the familiar humanist position of my colleague David Faraci I just referred to: There probably isn’t cosmic purpose, but even if there is, it doesn’t matter.
I defend a middle-way view between these two positions. I think we can have perfectly meaningful lives independent of cosmic purpose, through filling out lives with meaningful activities, such as kindness, creativity, and the pursuit of knowledge. I like to think I had quite a meaningful life before I got interested in cosmic purpose. But if there is cosmic purpose, I think there’s the potential for our lives to have more meaning.
Nigel Warburton: What’s the added value? Where’s that extra value coming from?
Philip Goff: I think we want our lives to make a difference. If you can potentially contribute in some tiny way to the purposes of the whole of reality, that’s huge. That’s about as big a difference as you can imagine making.
Nigel Warburton: So we’re expanding the mind of God? So when Philip Pullman does the kind of things which he does brilliantly, both as a writer and a champion of reading and writing and libraries, he’s literally expanding the mind of God, on your view?
Philip Goff: That’s an interesting way of putting it. I suppose whether we’re expanding the mind of God would depend on which version of cosmic purpose you’re going for. The way I’d put it us that it’s about expanding the ethical project. A typical humanist conception of the ethical project is that it’s about trying to improve life for human beings on this earth. Some people are now talking about ‘sentientism,’ an ethical project of trying to prove life for all sentient beings (that gets a bit tricky for me, because I think plants and trees are sentient, as well as animals…), and maybe that’s an expansion of the humanist ethical project. Belief in ‘cosmic purpose’—‘cosmic purposivism’—is essentially the broadest possible expansion of the ethical project. According to cosmic purposivism, the good projects we’re pursuing here are part of an all-encompassing ethical scheme that incorporates the whole of reality.
I don’t want to be dogmatic about the ‘One True Way’ of having a meaningful life, but I can say in my own experience of the last few years of living out cosmic purposivism, I’ve found it to be a meaningful way of framing one’s existence in a broader context. Perhaps most of all, I’ve found it’s given me a deep sense of peace. I’m pretty career-driven. Partly, I hope, for pure motives—I really believe in the things I’m arguing for, and I want to persuade the world of them. I’m sure also there’s some ego in there, wanting to make my mark, or whatever. Living in hope of a bigger purpose has made me less bothered my these things. Not because they’re not important, but because I’m conceiving of them as one tiny part of a much bigger thing that’s going on. And my task is just to do the best I play a small part of in advancing this much bigger thing that’s going on. Thinking in this way makes me less bothered about my personal successes and failures, and frees me up to enjoy life a bit more (not that I was miserable before…).
What I want to do in the book is to invite people to consider this option that’s neither the familiar religious option nor the familiar humanist option. You never know, you might get something out of it.
Philip Pullman: So God is not quite there yet, but he’s showing promise.
Philip Goff: I suppose you could say that [laughs]. The idea is there is a directness towards greater things that has already brought about life, intelligent life, and conscious beings which understand the universe around them can contemplate their existence. It could be that’s the end of it: “That’s all, folks,” as Porky Pig used to say. But once you take seriously the possibility that there is cosmic purpose, you might think it’s a bit improbable that we happen to be living at the final culmination of it. It’s more likely that cosmic purpose is still unfolding in ways we don’t fully understand, that there will emerge a greater form of life or consciousness as unfathomable to us as our existence is to worms.
I’m a huge fan the 19th century psychologist and philosopher William James. In his paper “The will to believe” (which he later said should have been called “The right to believe”), he argued that it can be rational—to a limited extent—to hope beyond the evidence. I agree with that, and I think there’s a bit of that going on in any worldview or fundamental commitment. We only live once. And if you can find a hope that gives meaning and motivation to your life, then that’s okay, even if you lack certainty.
What do you think, Philip?
Philip Pullman: I think it’s simply more interesting to live like that.
Philip Goff: (Laughs) That’s as good a reason as any.
Philip Pullman: It’s a richer way of living, a richer way of feeling and thinking. It allows us to do that thing which is commanded in the Christian church as one of the virtues: Hope. I like reminding people that hope is not just a temperament; it’s a duty, a virtue. And this gives us a reason and a justification for being hopeful, against the possibility that the universe is just a dice with the spots taking off.