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The Universe Reflects a Mind


In a previous article, I commented on the problem of evil discussed in an essay by philosopher Phillip Goff. Goff argues that a Mind is manifest in the natural world, but he discounts the existence of God because of the problem of evil. Goff seriously misunderstands the problem of evil. Evil is an insoluble problem for atheists, because if there is no God, there is no objective standard by which evil and good can exist or can even be defined. If God does not exist, “good” and “evil” are merely human opinions. Yet we all know, as Kant observed, that some things are evil in themselves, and not merely as a matter of opinion. Even to raise the problem of evil is to tacitly acknowledge transcendent standards, and thus to acknowledge God’s existence. From that starting point, theodicy begins. Theists have explored it profoundly. Atheists lack the standing even to ask the question.

In some other respects, Goff’s essay is very good. Writing at Aeon, he asks, “Is the Universe a Conscious Mind?” and he answers in the affirmative. He argues for “agentive cosmopsychism,” which is the view that the universe itself is conscious, in a way analogous to, but not identical to, human consciousness. I believe that he is on the right track, but misses the real truth.

He argues for cosmopsychism based on the fine tuning of the universe. He points out that the universe is fine-tuned for life:

  •  The strong nuclear force (the force that binds together the elements in the nucleus of an atom) has a value of 0.007. If that value had been 0.006 or less, the Universe would have contained nothing but hydrogen. If it had been 0.008 or higher, the hydrogen would have fused to make heavier elements. In either case, any kind of chemical complexity would have been physically impossible. And without chemical complexity there can be no life.
  •  The physical possibility of chemical complexity is also dependent on the masses of the basic components of matter: electrons and quarks. If the mass of a down quark had been greater by a factor of 3, the Universe would have contained only hydrogen. If the mass of an electron had been greater by a factor of 2.5, the Universe would have contained only neutrons: no atoms at all, and certainly no chemical reactions.
  •  Gravity seems a momentous force but it is actually much weaker than the other forces that affect atoms, by about 1036. If gravity had been only slightly stronger, stars would have formed from smaller amounts of material, and consequently would have been smaller, with much shorter lives. A typical sun would have lasted around 10,000 years rather than 10 billion years, not allowing enough time for the evolutionary processes that produce complex life. Conversely, if gravity had been only slightly weaker, stars would have been much colder and hence would not have exploded into supernovae. This also would have rendered life impossible, as supernovae are the main source of many of the heavy elements that form the ingredients of life.

To those who would discount this fine tuning as being due to pure chance, he quotes physicist Lee Smolin, who estimated that the random chance of the parameters of nature giving rise to life in the universe is 1 in 10^229. Smolin concludes:

In my opinion, a probability [for life] this tiny is not something we can let go unexplained. Luck will certainly not do here; we need some rational explanation of how something this unlikely turned out to be the case.

Goff echoes the 20th-century physicist Arthur Eddington, an early proponent of general relativity. Eddington had deep insight into the physical principles of nature:

The universe is of the nature of a thought or sensation in a universal Mind… To put the conclusion crudely — the stuff of the world is mind-stuff. As is often the way with crude statements, I shall have to explain that by “mind” I do not exactly mean mind and by “stuff” I do not at all mean stuff. Still that is about as near as we can get to the idea in a simple phrase. The mind-stuff of the world is something more general than our individual conscious minds; but we may think of its nature as not altogether foreign to feelings in our consciousness… [Emphasis added.]

Goff’s explanation is that the universe itself is a mind. He makes the intriguing observation that not only does the universe manifest an astonishingly precise fine tuning for life, but that the directedness of this fine tuning implies that the universe is directed toward goodness, i.e. toward life. He refers to philosopher John Leslie’s explanation for fine tuning called axiarchism, which is the tendency of the universe to maximize value, or good, which is what life is.

Goff has much to say about cosmopsychism and axiarchism, much of it of great interest, but Goff errs in positing the universe itself as the ground of existence. He rejects God’s existence because of the problem of evil, which, as I pointed out above, is a profound error. Evil is not a problem, and in fact does not exist, if there is no God. And Goff errs in proposing that the universe is a Mind and that the Mind embodied in the universe is the ground of existence.

The universe is not a Mind. It is a manifestation of a Mind, the creation of a Mind, but it has no mind itself. A mind is an aspect of a soul, and what characterizes a mind is its ability to hold the form of another substance in it without becoming that substance. For example, my mind can grasp the idea of a tree or of justice, but I do not therefore become a tree or justice. The universe certainly has forms, but those are substantial forms, which make the universe and the component parts what they are. There is no reason to impute “mind” to what is clearly an assemblage of material substances.

Furthermore, the universe is contingent. Its essence — what it is — does not include the necessity that it is. Nowhere in a physical description of the universe or of its laws is there any necessity of its existence. When we describe a distant galaxy or the Big Bang, it is possible that we are engaging in fantasy or error. But the ground of existence must have necessary existence — its essence must be existence. What it is must be that it is. That is clearly not true of the physical universe.

Furthermore, because the universe is contingent and is changing, we must posit a Cause that is not contingent and not changing, and Whose existence is necessary and not derived. That is God, Whose existence is necessary and from Whom the intelligence and good of the universe are derived. The universe is a reflection of a Mind and of Goodness, but is not Mind and Goodness itself.

Goff is on the right track when he agrees with Eddington that the universe manifests a Mind, but he errs in his subsequent inference to cosmopsychism. There is most certainly a Mind manifest in nature, but that Mind is reflected in nature, not embodied in nature. The ubiquitous directedness of natural processes, the elegant design of living things, the mathematical beauty of the laws of nature all speak to a Mind of unfathomable subtlety and power. But that Power is the Creator of the universe, reflected, but not embodied, in the universe itself.

Photo credit: Jupiter, south pole, by NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstädt.