Purpose and the Universe

On Sunday I was privileged to give the keynote address at the American Humanist Association annual conference. Even better, people actually showed up for the talk, which for a Sunday morning event is pretty sweet.

The talks were live-streamed, and naturally some enterprising young humanist (thanks Carl Wong!) captured them and put them on YouTube. So here is mine; don’t forget to check out the others (or directly from the AHA site).

My talk was similar to ones I had given before at TAM and at Skepticon, but about half of it was new. The general idea is the relationship between everyday human concerns of meaning and morality and the underlying laws of physics. For this one, I used the framing device of “purpose” — what is it, and where does it come from? The universe itself doesn’t have a purpose, nor is there one inherent in the fundamental laws of physics. But teleology (movement toward a goal) can plausibly be a useful concept when we invent the best description of higher-level phenomena, and at the human level there are purposes we can create for ourselves. All part of the “poetic naturalism” bandwagon I hope to get launched, although I didn’t specifically use that term.

My actual slides aren’t always crystal clear from the above view, so I also put them on Slideshare. Enjoy!

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86 Responses to Purpose and the Universe

  1. Freethinking Jew says:

    I just added this to my favorite quotations on Facebook:

    For the question of purpose, the analogy I like to use: there’s a certain existential dread as an artist, a painter, when you’re facing the blank canvas and anything could happen. You’re on much safer ground if there are lines with numbers in there that tell you what to color in which places. But the great art does not come from coloring books; it comes from creativity. – Sean Carroll, Ph.D., physicist, Cal Tech

    Thanks! 🙂

  2. ivo says:

    at 1:00:40 during the Q&A: was that Richard Dawkins?!

  3. john says:

    I just wanna say i love your lectures so much. Because your way of talking is beautiful. The content about dark energy really amazes me. Moar atheist stuff plz lol

  4. AI says:

    If it weren’t for evolution the absurdity of existence would kill us all in an instant. Fortunately our brain is very adept at filtering it all out. And if you are really lucky it may indeed even make up a purpose for you.

  5. Shecky R says:

    re: the quote above (from FJ), “great art” is such a highly subjective term I wonder whether it could ever be empirically defined in a manner that would consistently separate free-form or “creative” art from paint-by-the-numbers art. Or, put in a very different context, I doubt anyone can convince me that a painting by Picasso is better or “greater” than one by Bob Ross. In fact, just the term “art” is exceedingly hard to define.
    (…but this is a side distraction from Sean’s fine talk).

  6. James Cross says:

    Consider chess: The rules are adjusted to make the most interesting game.

    Can we quantify “interesting”? I would assume it has something to do with the number of permutations possible. But that can’t be all. We could have a game with even more permutations that would be boring, perhaps because no skill or strategy was involved, or the game was beyond anybody’s ability to formulate strategy.

    Consider the universe: Could it be more interesting? I can see it being less interesting. A universe that expands and immediately collapses, for example. But could it be more interesting?

    Is there some measure we can apply to interesting-ness?

  7. Sean Carroll says:

    That was Richard Dawkins, noticing I had misnamed Herbert Spencer as “Hubert.”

  8. Gizelle Janine says:

    @Sean: Nice one, Cowlick. 😀

  9. Tony Rz says:

    If you could paint a picture of Love you would see the face of God.

  10. Stephen Olander-Waters says:

    Thanks for the talk!

    Low entropy -> entropy increases -> evolution occurs -> grand organization is afforded -> looks like teleology, but isn’t really. It’s the march of complexity with the energy of entropy to expend.

    And we have the luxury of living at the beginning of the peak before the long heat death erases it all.

  11. FrankL says:

    Atheism is an arrogant philosophy. To declare that there is no God is as arrogant as a bible-beating fanatic declaring that there is. Unless, I guess, you say that atheism amounts to “the God that the bible-beating fanatic believes in does not exist”, but then that’s about as useful as saying Jupiter does not exist on Mt. Olympus, in which case who cares? After showing pictures of the enormity of space and of how our experience is a little speck in space and time, it is arrogant to declare “In my experience, I find no God, therefore he does not exist”. I see all of this “searching for pupose and morality” etc. by atheists as a search for a replacement for the God they have negated. Agnosticism is the only rational response to the question “does God exist?”

    Instead of searching for a personal meaning of morality and purpose, step outside, as a scientist, and look at the humans inhabiting this little speck, and ask yourself “how did these ideas, these memes of purpose and morality originate in this species?”. This is answered by the theory of evolution – Those memes which generally gave a selective advantage to the “believers” of those memes will generally be selected for, those that do not will not. But the environment changes, and memes must adapt or die. The God of the bible-beating (or Koran-beating) fanatic has a certain robustness and must be respected. Times change, education and information becomes deeper and more freely available, the memes must adapt. Atheism alone is an empty meme, a mere rejection of a previously and perhaps presently robust meme. It has to be augmented by a robust meme, as or more robust than the meme it is rejecting. And robustness only occurs in the face of competition. You want a robust meme with incomplete (i.e. agnostic) knowledge, then open your mind and let the games begin, and stand ready to adapt at a moment’s notice. Evolution is not about conservation, it is about propagation. The audience in that video just struck me as a bunch of people who think of themselves as revolutionary, but just like anyone else, they are aching to become conservatives of some new meme they are working on to augment their empty atheism, invent a new God that suits them. Humanism? If their new God is human, God help us.

    That guy who was railing against Laplace’s clockwork universe was fighting a meme-killer thinking he was talking some kind of truth. Maybe Laplace is right. So what? Viewing it as a meme, it is counter-productive. So like the scientist on the outside jumping back into the world, you have to be schizophrenic. So what? It’s a useful adaptation sometimes, to hell with the laws of physics. Carry on. That guy talking about purpose being “emergent” – I assume in the strong sense, where the whole is more that its parts and interrelations, its God all over again, there’s no place for strong emergence in pure science. Pure science will NEVER give you God, nor deny God. If all this strong-emergence new-age mystical stuff gives you a robust meme, then go for it, but don’t tell me you found the one God or meme or whatever and expect me to fall in line. Wanna-be conservatives worry me.

  12. In fact Lucifer was the good guy. There was light thanks to him. But he was expelled and since then Satan reigns.

  13. Ivo says:

    @FrankFL: Grow up, man.

    @Sean Carroll: When you said that there’s zero evidence of QFT being RIGHT, did you perhaps misspoke and actually meant to say there’s zero evidence to suggest it’s WRONG?

  14. FrankL says:

    Ivo – Ok, I’m ready to grow up. Which way do you see as up?

  15. Tony Rz says:

    Love is a person, or in the case of a Triune God three into one, Love, Truth, Wisdom. Love is not just powerful, but power absolute, power itself, all power. Love not only knows, but is all knowledge, Love is not just life, but is all life. Man will be saved, all, how I don’t know entirely, but it will be, all will be well. When Love chosen is greater than the hatred that is, then we will begin to understand.

  16. Tony Rz says:

    Love not only created the Universe, but is a part, but a very intimate part of mankind, male and female, that unconditional Love we possess.

  17. Sean Carroll says:

    Ivo– If I said there is zero evidence for QFT being right, that was clearly wrong! There’s zero evidence against QFT.

    Tony Rz– You have been babbling on for quite a while. Please keep comments constructive and focused directly on the topic.

  18. Tony Rz says:

    Sorry if I disturb you Sean and others like you.

  19. Tony Rz says:

    Tell me how do I diverge from the subject, you say in your address, what God is not and why He is not and I say what God is and why? Your understanding and my understanding may not agree, however we should still respect each others opinion, without a putdown.

  20. @Sean Carroll: I do think you may have misspoken during that section (starting at 31:10 or so, “…There’s zero evidence, there’s zero reason to believe that quantum field theory is right, but it’s a possibility. That would be the ‘unknown unknown’…” Thanks for clearing up here, however!

  21. Mickey Mortimer says:

    James Cross wrote- “Consider the universe: Could it be more interesting? I can see it being less interesting. A universe that expands and immediately collapses, for example. But could it be more interesting?”

    Surely coming up with a more interesting universe is an easy proposition, given what most people would view as “interesting”. To take an unimaginative route, what if every planet in every solar system were inhabited by intelligent life that independently evolved? To stretch that, what if every solar system had 100 such planets each only as far away from the last as the Moon is to Earth? And each such solar system was right next to the others. Or what if the universe were an infinitely large three dimensional grid of stacked land areas, where a short plane ride could get you to the layer above with its own civilization or a subway tunnel could get you to the civilization below your own? So much less “boring” relatively empty space which will never be explored by most people than our universe has.

  22. Anania(Ethiopia,Africa). says:

    Thank you Sean,Eloquent speech.

    I just want to say about the last question. As the late Hitchens said ” most atheist consider Craig as a big deal”. You tried to answer the questions politely. Most people spent their time to refute Craig.If you have time,please try to post your refutations briefly. As you know Craig trying to drop his bombs on you mainly in his site. I thought he wanted to debate you. I hope you will not do it. His main aim is not intellectually conversation,but court like debate by trying to show how theist’s are rational by useless 2 hrs debate!!!

  23. RBH says:

    Tony Rz wrote

    Tell me how do I diverge from the subject, you say in your address, what God is not and why He is not and I say what God is and why? Your understanding and my understanding may not agree, however we should still respect each others opinion, without a putdown.

    Opinions, like people, have to earn respect. It ain’t automatic.

  24. James Cross says:

    Mickey Mortimer

    Maybe your examples work or maybe not. Take your “what if every planet in every solar system were inhabited by intelligent life that independently evolved?” In that case, the intelligent life may have gone to war with each other and destroyed themselves. Life being spread out as it might be in this universe gives each form of life time to evolve independently perhaps to a stage where it will not destroy other intelligent life. Our future universe might, therefore, be more interesting than the one with intelligent life on every planet.

    Is there really a way to measure “interestingness”?

    Games like chess and baseball obviously have a competitive element but it also seems their rules evolved to be at some edge of human capability. For example, the distance from pitcher to batter. If the pitcher and batter were closer, I am guessing hitters would seldom get a hit but, if they were more distant, I would assume that hitters would be getting hits a lot of more frequently. Either way the game might be less interesting. Same with distances between bases. Runners could steal too easily or almost never if the distance was changed. Chess may be at some edge of mental strategy or ability to think of alternate moves.

    Can something similar be at work in the development of stars, galaxies, life, and intelligence? Isn’t this another way of describing the “fine-tuning”?

    Does this relate to purpose? Are the best human purposes and the best moral values built upon “interestingness”? Choices that make more opportunities in the future – that make our part of the universe more interesting – are better, more moral, than choices that diminish opportunities.

  25. Meh says:


    It’s not a “putdown”; you have literally been babbling about the existence of god and religious beliefs in every single comment you’ve made on all sorts of topics that have nothing to do with those 2 subjects. They call it hijacking a conversation, which is disrespectful to the author and others. Babble : to utter in an incoherently or meaninglessly repetitious manner. You’re comments eventually become spam and make it difficult to carry on a meaningful conversation. The reason why it’s inappropriate here is because you’re cherry picking comments out of a 1 hour presentation and then going on what seems to be an Alzheimer’s induced rant about it. You are being an asshole, you just don’t realize it because you’re a nice person and you do it in a polite way.