Learning to Live in Steven Weinberg's Pointless Universe

Tue, 27 Jul 2021 06:00:00 GMT
Scientific American - Science

The late physicist’s most infamous statement still beguiles scientists and vexes believers

Having told the story of how our universe came into being with the big bang some 13.8 billion years ago, and how it may end untold billions of years in the future, he concludes that whatever the universe is about, it sure as heck isn't about us.

"The more the universe seems comprehensible," he wrote, "The more it also seems pointless."?. For thousands of years, people had assumed just the opposite.

As the 19th Psalm puts it: "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork." Even Isaac Newton saw a universe filled with purpose.

Many thinkers suggested that the universe runs like a mighty clockwork.

In A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking speculated on the possibility that the universe had no precise beginning; his controversial "No-boundary proposal" suggested that time might have behaved like space in the universe's earliest moments.

Hawking's materialist philosophy, shared by Weinberg and many other prominent physicists, sees the universe as arising through some combination of chance and natural law.

When I interviewed Weinberg in 2009, he told me about the long shadow cast by that one sentence on a "Pointless" universe.

In The Big Picture, physicist Sean Carroll sees nothing to fear in an amoral universe.

Our task, he writes, is "To make peace with a universe that doesn't care what we do, and take pride in the fact that we care anyway." In a similar vein, string theorist Brian Greene is adamant that it's physics all the way down.

As for meaning, he is firmly in the Weinberg camp: "During our brief moment in the sun, we are tasked with the noble charge of finding our own meaning." In The End of Everything, astrophysicist Katie Mack relays the existential opinions of an array of astronomers and physicists, most of whom repeat some version of the Weinberg-Carroll-Greene position: The universe doesn't come laden with meaning; instead, you have to find your own.

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