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Philip Goff — The Purpose of the Universe

Why? The Purpose of the Universe (book cover)

Why are we here? What’s the point of existence? On the ‘big questions’ of meaning and purpose, Western thought has been dominated by the dichotomy of traditional religion and secular atheism. In his pioneering work, Philip Goff argues that it is time to move on from both God and atheism. Through an exploration of contemporary cosmology and cutting-edge philosophical research on consciousness, Goff argues for cosmic purpose: the idea that the universe is directed towards certain goals, such as the emergence of life.

In contrast to religious thinkers, Goff argues that the traditional God is a bad explanation of cosmic purpose. Instead, he explores a range of alternative possibilities for accounting for cosmic purpose, from the speculation that we live in a computer simulation to the hypothesis that the universe itself is a conscious mind. Goff scrutinizes these options with analytical rigour, laying the foundations for a new paradigm of philosophical enquiry into the middle ground between God and atheism. Ultimately, Goff outlines a way of living in hope that cosmic purpose is still unfolding, involving political engagement and a non-literalist interpretation of traditional religion.

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. On that theme, Goff has published three books, Consciousness and Fundamental Reality, Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness, and a co-edited volume, 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. His new book is Why: The Purpose of the Universe.

Shermer and Goff discuss:

  • religious answers to the purpose question
  • secular answers to the purpose question
  • Are we living in a computer simulation?
  • the universe itself as a conscious mind
  • cosmic purpose: the universe is directed towards certain goals, such as the emergence of life, sentience, consciousness, and morality
  • fine-tuning
  • free will
  • consciousness
  • morality and the Is-Ought Fallacy
  • Is consciousness the ground of all being?
  • What is my purpose in life?
  • awe and how to be spiritual but not religious.

Show Notes From Michael Shermer’s Writings


Consciousness is typically defined as “what it’s like to be something.” Consider dolphins. Diving with them close by on many occasions has made one wonder what it’s like to be a dolphin. If I added echolocation to my sensory systems perhaps I would be able to “see” the shapes of things with sound waves, and that would nudge me a bit closer to dolphin-ness. Bolting on flippers to serve as a tail would allow me to power through the viscous aquatic medium. Adding a blowhole, an appetite for squid, and the ability to make clicks and whistle sounds would nudge me further along the dolphin-ness scale. But the only way to actually have the full-on qualitative experience of dolphin-ness is to actually be a dolphin with all that entails anatomically, physiologically, and cognitively. In that case, then, I would no longer be a human asking what it’s like to be a dolphin. I’d be a dolphin, perhaps asking what it’s like to be a human. Such thought experiments were first and famously proposed by the philosopher Thomas Nagel in 1974 in his now classic paper, “What is it Like to be a Bat?” It is not only a hard question to answer for all these anatomical, physiological, and cognitive reasons, it is logically impossible because it would violate Aristotle’s Law of Identity—A is A. A cannot also be non-A. You cannot be one thing (a human) and another thing (a dolphin) at the same time.

The thought experiment is also conceptually flawed as it implies a form of dualism in which my soul or homunculus transports into the body of a dolphin to experience its physical and mental state of being. This is not possible because there is no ghost in the machine, no soul in the body, and no mind in the brain, as if these are different entities that can separate and travel elsewhere. This “essentialism,” as it is called, leads us to intuitively feel like we have a soul or mind, and so we get the humor of films like All of Me, in which the gendered soul of Steve Martin’s character switches places with that of Lili Thomas so that each knows what it’s like to be the other sex (with all the expected comedy that follows), or in the film Freaky Friday, in which the teenage soul of Lindsay Lohan swaps with the middle-age mom soul of Jamy Lee Curtis and hilarity ensues. Novelists have explored similar themes, as in Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, in which a man falls asleep and wakes up as a cockroach, but his human personality remains intact inside the insect.

The thought experiment is also conceptually flawed as it implies a form of dualism in which my soul or homunculus transports into the body of a dolphin to experience its physical and mental state of being. This is not possible because there is no ghost in the machine, no soul in the body, and no mind in the brain, as if these are different entities that can separate and travel elsewhere.

Pinker’s final assessment of the hard problem of consciousness, which he articulated in his 2018 book Enlightenment Now:

Our best science tells us that consciousness consists of a global workspace representing our current goals, memories, and surroundings, implemented in synchronized neural firing in fronto-parietal circuitry. But the last dollop in the theory—that it subjectively feels like something to be such circuitry—may have to be stipulated as a fact about reality where explanation stops.

Alvi’s Error

Call it Alvy’s Error: assessing the purpose of something at the wrong level of analysis. The level at which we should assess our actions is the human time scale of days, weeks, months, and years—our four-score ± 10 lifespan—not the billions of years of the cosmic calendar. It is a mistake made by theologians when arguing that without a source external to our world to vouchsafe morality and meaning, nothing really matters. One of the most prominent theologians of our time, William Lane Craig, committed Alvy’s Error in a 2009 debate at Columbia University with the Yale philosopher Shelly Kagan when he pronounced:

On a naturalistic worldview everything is ultimately destined to destruction in the heat-death of the universe. As the universe expands it grows colder and colder as its energy is used up. Eventually all the stars will burn out, all matter will collapse into dead stars and black holes, there will be no life, no heat, no light, only the corpses of dead stars and galaxies expanding into endless darkness. In light of that end it’s hard for me to understand how our moral choices have any sort of significance. There’s no moral accountability. The universe is neither better nor worse for what we do. Our moral lives become vacuous because they don’t have that kind of cosmic significance.

Kagan properly nailed Craig, referencing the latter’s example of godless Nazi torturers: “This strikes me as an outrageous thing to suggest. It doesn’t really matter? Surely it matters to the torture victims whether they’re being tortured. It doesn’t require that this make some cosmic difference to the eternal significance of the universe for it to matter whether a human being is tortured. It matters to them, it matters to their family, and it matters to us.”

Craig committed a related mistake when he argued that, “Without God there are no objective moral values, moral duties, or moral accountability.” And: “If life ends at the grave then ultimately it makes no difference whether you live as a Stalin or a Mother Teresa.” Call this Craig’s Categorical Error: assessing the value of something by the wrong category of criteria. In my 2018 book Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia, I debunk this common belief that without God and the promise of an afterlife, this life has no morality or meaning. We live in the hear-and-now, not the hearafter, so our actions must be judged according to the criteria of this category, whether or not the category of a God-granted hereafter exists. Whether you behave like a Russian dictator who murdered tens of millions of people, or a Roman Catholic missionary who tended to the poor, matters very much to the victims of totalitarianism and poverty.

Why does it matter? Because we are sentient beings designed by evolution to survive and flourish in the teeth of entropy and death. The Second Law of Thermodynamics (entropy) is the First Law of Life. If you do nothing, entropy will take its course and you will move toward a higher state of disorder that ends in death. So our most basic purpose in life is to combat entropy by doing something extropic—expending energy to survive and flourish. Being kind and helping others was one successful strategy, and punishing Paleolithic Stalins was another, and from this we evolved morality. In this sense, evolution bestowed upon us a moral and purpose-driven life by dint of the laws of nature. We do not need any source higher than that to find meaning or morality.

In the long run entropy will spell the end of everything in the universe and the universe itself, but we don’t live in the long run. We live now. We live in Brooklyn, so doing our homework matters. And so too does doing our duty to ourselves, our loved ones, our community, our species, and our planet.

This episode was released on December 2, 2023.

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