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Mind-blowing theory on God may spark radical new 21st-century religion

Autor: Neil Mackay

Professor Philip Goff is one of the world’s leading proponents of a new theory that claims the universe itself is conscious and set the conditions for the emergence of intelligent life. Could people soon be praying to this godlike cosmos? He talks to our Writer at Large

WHAT’s the purpose of the universe? Could the cosmos, in fact, be conscious? Theoretically, it’s clearly no more outlandish than the idea that a supernatural, all-powerful, all-knowing and omnipresent creator God formed the heavens and the Earth on a whim, and breathed life into inanimate clay bringing forth man and woman.

This idea that the universe might be conscious is starting to gain a foothold in academia. Scientists and philosophers are actively debating the issue today all around the world. Just recently, the theory was under discussion on Radio 4’s flagship show In Our Time, where Melvin Bragg analyses big intellectual ideas.

Indeed, it’s more than just the notion that the universe is conscious that’s gaining traction. The bigger theory is this: the conscious universe may have “decided” to create the circumstances for life. In other words – and prepare to have your mind blown –might the universe be “god”?

Could we even be living through the moment in history when a new religion is born? Hundreds of years from now, might people worship the universe?

After all, Christianity started with the revolutionary thoughts of just one man, the historical Jesus Christ. His ideas were derided, he was executed and his followers persecuted. It took nearly 400 years for Christianity to go from pariah faith to Rome’s official religion.

There’s probably no better time than Easter Sunday to explore these strange, new ideas. And there’s probably no better person to discuss these matters with than Professor Philip Goff.

He’s a leading proponent of what is called Cosmopsychism – the belief that the universe is conscious, and could have a purpose, that purpose being the creation of life.

Goff is one of Britain’s most acclaimed philosophers, an expert on the nature of the mind and consciousness. He teaches at Durham University and has just brought out his latest book Why? The Purpose Of The Universe, published by Oxford University Press. It makes the case for Cosmopsychism by synthesising the latest discoveries in physics with the latest theories in philosophy about consciousness.

Key to understanding Goff’s theory of Cosmopsychism is the “fine-tuning” of the universe. He contends that the universe is just too perfectly perfect to be an accident. It must be designed. As there’s no proof of a supernatural creator God, as proposed by the major world religions, Goff and others speculate that perhaps the universe itself has consciousness and designed the laws of physics which govern all of nature.

Professor

Professor Philip Goff

Science

Let’s break the science down as simply as possible. For example, the “nuclear force” which binds together the elements in an atom’s nucleus is represented in physics by the number 0.007. If the value had been 0.006, the universe would have contained nothing but hydrogen. If it had been 0.008, all hydrogen would have burned off in the Big Bang and water would never have existed.

“In either case,” says Goff, “there would be none of the chemical complexity we find in our universe.” In so many ways, the universe is “Goldilocksesque” – it’s not too this, it’s not too that, it’s just right.

Here’s another example of fine-tuning. If the mass of the “down quark” – an elementary particle, necessary for matter to exist – differed from what it is, once again the universe would only have contained hydrogen, rather than the 60 million chemical compounds we know exist.

Or there’s this: if the mass of an electron wasn’t just so, the universe would basically contain only neutrons, no atoms and no chemical reactions.

When physicists measured the amount of “dark energy” in space, it turned out to be much smaller than expected. If this number had been any bigger, “things would have shot apart too quickly to allow gravity to clump things together into stars and planets”. If it had been smaller, the universe “would have collapsed back on itself”.

Designer

These are “uncontroversial facts about modern physics”, Goff says. The question is: what do we make of those facts? Do we accept that “it’s just an unbelievable fluke that the numbers in our physics are just right for life”, or do we suppose a purpose and designer?

Goff says the kind of probabilities involved in getting all these laws of physics to come out just right for the creation of life are simply too enormous to be chance. “Imagine tossing a coin 70 times and getting heads every time, or rolling dice and getting six every time. Nobody would say that’s a fluke,” Goff says. “Once you pass a certain point of improbability, it’s no longer rational to say it’s a fluke. If people break into a bank and there’s a 10-digit combination for the safe and they get it the first time, nobody would say ‘oh, they just guessed it’. That’s too improbable.

“So the alternative is that this isn’t a fluke, that the numbers in physics are there because they’re the right numbers for life. In other words, there’s some kind of ‘directedness’ towards life at the basic level of physics.”

Evidently, in world religions, the creator god doesn’t twiddle the dials of physics to set the conditions for the slow unfolding of life, including here on Earth 13 billion years after the Big Bang. He – and it’s always a “he” – simply switches on the universe, creating life instantly.

So, even if people of faith understandably reject the thinking of Goff and others, the ideas around fine-tuning that he’s promoting must have some effect on how they understand “creation”.

Science shows us that “creation” is a series of glacial steps from Big Bang to evolution on Earth. Yet, if Goff is correct, these steps are designed by an “intelligence” rather than a matter of chance.

So, his thinking presents a challenge to both science and religion. Goff believes his ideas “fit into the space between traditional religion and secular atheism”. Indeed, it feels like a sort of “spiritual atheism” – there’s meaning in the universe but no “deity”. His ideas also seem attuned to modern environmental concerns about nature.

Goff’s theories challenge the notion that people must be either on the “side of Richard Dawkins or the Pope” – Dawkins being a hardline proponent of atheism.

“Both these views are inadequate,” Goff says. “Both have things they can’t explain about reality. There’s a much-neglected middle ground: the possibility of ‘cosmic purpose’, that there’s some kind of ‘goal-directedness’ at the fundamental level of reality. We can make sense of that in the absence of the traditional God.”

Person pointing up the Milky Way galaxy at night. The scene is reflected in water. A Veiga, Ourense, Spain.

Could the universe itself be ‘God’?

Evil

CERTAINLY, for Goff, the argument for the existence of the traditional God fails fundamentally given “evil and suffering. It’s difficult to reconcile with a loving God – the Omnigod that’s all-knowing, all-powerful and perfectly good”.

Perhaps we should think of creation not as an act of “god” but as “something much more generic, as some kind of goal-directedness”.

Opting for “goal-directedness” avoids the far-fetched concept of a traditional god, Goff feels, but explains the seemingly designed nature of the universe.

Equally, the fine-tuning of the universe, directed towards the “existence of life”, undermines the atheistic notion that the cosmos is “meaningless and purposeless”.

Goff adds: “Traditional atheism struggles to explain fine-tuning. Evil and suffering is the issue that the traditional God-hypothesis struggles to explain.

“Why would a loving God create the northern short-tailed shrew which paralyses its prey and eats it alive over days? That makes no sense. Why would ‘God’ choose to create us through such tortuous long-winded processes like natural selection?”

To Goff, the theory of Cosmopsychism deals with the problems inherent in both the traditional belief in god and atheism.

Modern intellectual thought is stuck, Goff feels. It hasn’t synthesised the facts of fine-tuning into a wider theory of what that these “Goldilocks” numbers mean for creation. He thinks we’re like people in the 16th century when proof emerged that the Earth wasn’t the centre of the universe. Like our ancestors, we find the new reality hard to compute.

Although Cosmopsychism is Goff’s favoured hypothesis to explain the deficiencies in both religion and atheism, he has explored other ideas.

One concept would be “to just tweak the definition of God”. Given the universe in which we live, “God” can’t be either good or bad. Maybe, Goff suggests, God is simply a designer who is “amoral, or has limited abilities”. He adds: “Maybe She’s made the best universe She can and is like ‘sorry, I know this is messy with all the evolution stuff, but it’s the best I could do. It was this or nothing’.”

Simulation

ANOTHER alternative theory is the “simulation hypothesis”: that we’re inside a fine-tuned computer programme and “the designer of our universe is just some random software engineer in the next universe up”.

Evidently, this ‘god-as-designer’ theory – a celestial programmer – doesn’t solve the question of “who designed the designer”.

We’re still left asking “is there a supreme creator and if so, what is it?”. Simply saying “well, the God of the Bible exists” is illogical as there’s zero proof.

It’s like the “floating teapot” thought experiment by the philosopher Bertrand Russell. He posited the existence of a teapot floating in space. However, the existence of the floating teapot can’t be proved. Would you believe in the floating teapot? The same goes for the traditional notion of God across world religions.

Might a “multiverse” explain fine-tuning – the theory that there are infinite numbers of universes in different dimensions, and ours just happens to be the one in which the physics are perfect for the creation of planets, life, evolution and the dawn of intelligent species.

Goff doesn’t buy the multiverse theory as an explanation for fine-tuning. The reasoning is “flawed”, he says. “It commits what’s called ‘the Inverse Gambler’s Fallacy’.”

Think of it this way. Imagine you go to a casino and in one room there’s a player winning every hand of Poker. That doesn’t mean that everywhere else everyone else is also playing Poker and losing. All we can see with our eyes is one player winning. What’s happening elsewhere has no bearing on how that player performs.

The multiverse theory is similarly sloppy when it comes to probability. Its supporters look at fine-tuning and “think, ‘oh we’ve fluked the right numbers for life, how incredible. There must be loads of other universes out there with terrible numbers’.

“Our observational evidence is that this universe is fine-tuned, and no matter how many universes there are or not out there, it has no bearing on how likely our universe – the only one we’ve ever observed – will be fine-tuned”.

Woman hands protecting and containing bright, glowing, radiant, shining light. Emitting rays or beams expanding of center. Religion, divine, heavenly, celestial concept. White background copy space

Reality

GOFF says once you rule out all other theories, from the traditional god to the flawed designer to the multiverse, you’re effectively left with Cosmopsychism, “the idea that the universe itself is a conscious mind with its own goals”.

Currently physics, Goff says, “just describes the mathematical structure” of the universe, “it isn’t telling us about the nature of fundamental reality”. The maths are indisputable, but humanity hasn’t yet, as Stephen Hawking said, explained “what breathes fire into the equations. For the Cosmopsychist, it’s a conscious mind that’s breathing fire into the equations”.

Goff knows what he’s proposing sounds “extravagant”, but, he says, new ideas always sound extravagant, especially in the West where we’re “trained” to be sceptical of anything that smacks of religion. We don’t often think of our “secular bias”.

He cites Occam’s razor – the idea that the simplest explanation is usually the best. What makes greater sense to you – the God of the Bible or one of the other world religions, the meaninglessness of an atheistic universe, a multiverse, a flawed designer god, or a conscious universe? Perhaps, none. Perhaps, it all seems nonsense to you. Perhaps, humanity will never find an answer.

“Why believe in a supernatural creator that stands outside the universe if you can just attribute consciousness and intention to the universe itself? The physics just gives us the maths, there must be something that underlies the maths. I argue it’s a ‘conscious mind’, and strange as that may sound it’s no less extravagant than the other options.”

He paraphrases the Scottish philosopher David Hume: “Observation just tells us how things behave, it doesn’t ultimately tell us why they behave the way they do.”

Goff wants science and philosophy to work hand in hand when it comes to the biggest questions like “what is consciousness’”and “what is the purpose of the universe”. Mathematics only gives us half the story, he believes. “We need to bring science and philosophy back together, and rediscover the importance of philosophy when it comes to our best guess as to what the universe is like.”

Quarks

SO, what is a “conscious universe”? Clearly, says Goff, there are different forms of consciousness. Humans, snails and sheep all have very different states of consciousness. Might “the basic building blocks of reality” – like quarks and electrons – have their own forms of consciousness?

It’s something Goff and others have speculated about. Could consciousness be a “fundamental and ubiquitous feature of the physical world”? Might consciousness go “all the way down to the fundamental building blocks of reality”?

Most theoretical physicists, Goff says, think some of these fundamental building blocks – like electromagnetism – operate as “universe-wide fields”. Could this be part of the underpinning of a “conscious universe”?

If the universe is conscious, then that consciousness isn’t humanlike. Goff speculates it would be “radically alien”. Nor is the universe “alive”. Life, as we understand it, means digestion, respiration, reproduction.

But would a conscious universe be “aware”? Goff feels consciousness must involve “some kind of awareness”, though “not necessarily self-awareness” like humans. However, the fine-tuning of physics, Goff believes, indicates that the universe can set “certain goals and aims”, namely the eventually achievement of intelligent life.

So, “in some sense the universe must have had foresight” as it “fine-tuned itself”. By “fine-tuning itself to bring about life, it must somehow be aware of future possibility”.

Goff adds: “It had a range of options, though not unlimited, which is why the universe isn’t better than how we find it. Those limitations are what we call the laws of physics … So, we’re imagining a mind that has options and selects the best from what’s available.”

If we can call this a “mind”, then it’s a “very mechanical mind, it doesn’t have the flexibility of the human mind”. And, perhaps, the “thought processes” of this “universe mind” are still happening. We humans are but a blip in time. Who knows what shape life will take as billions of years pass?

If we accept “cosmic purpose”, says Goff, “then it’s rather improbable that we humans happen to be at the climax and ultimate end of that cosmic journey. It’s more probable that this cosmic purpose is still unfolding in ways we don’t understand, and there could emerge some greater form of life that’s as unfathomable to us as our existence is to worms”.

We could just be “an unfortunate by-product” of the universe’s much greater “cosmic purpose”.

Religion

GOFF, however, prefers to think that “perhaps we can in some small way contribute” to this cosmic purpose “by trying to make the world as best as we can”.

And it’s here that we get into the territory of religion. If the notion of a universe with purpose makes Goff want to be a good person, isn’t this close to what we mean by “faith”?

Cosmopsychism could change how we think about spirituality, Goff feels.

Our lives can still have meaning without a creator god or a conscious universe or any belief at all, he thinks, “but if there is cosmic purpose then there’s potential for a more meaningful form of existence”.

It’s obvious how the idea of a conscious universe – the universe as “god” – could easily fit with modern environmentalism.

If we think about the universe as having a consciousness, Goff says, then perhaps we might start treating the things in the universe with a little more respect. “It adds a whole extra moral dimension,” he adds.

Goff knows that his theories come at a time when the Western world is experiencing a “meaning crisis”. In a post-god, secular world, what really gives purpose to our lives?

As Goff began to embrace Cosmopsychism, he found it added meaning to his own life. And what was that meaning? “To live in hope that the good you do contributes to some greater purpose.”

Indeed, some Christian thinkers are concerned that people are now beginning to ponder the notion of the universe as “god”. It presents a clear challenge to organised religion.

Might there come a time when people actually “worship” the universe? “When we hear the word ‘worship’,” says Goff, “many think of getting on your knees in supplication to some anthropomorphic deity.

However, in progressive religions, such as Quakers, “worship” is used to mean practices to invoke contemplation and connection.

“Perhaps new worship practices will emerge as society takes both the fine-tuning that rules out atheism, and suffering that rules out God, seriously.”

Goff likes to think of Cosmopsychism as “the Liberal Democrats” – offering a third way between the austerity of atheism and the fantasy of religion. Within academia, he notes, the idea is now “taken much more seriously”. Evidently, however, many dismiss it as mumbo-jumbo pseudoscience.

Rest assured that Goff isn’t pitching himself as a prophet for a new religion. “I’m certainly not going to be starting a cult,” he says.

As the conversation ends, however, one thought remains: if the universe is conscious, and if that consciousness did indeed set the conditions for life, then who – or what – created the universe?

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