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In a now-famous statement, at the end of his book "The First Three Minutes", the Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg wrote that "the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless." In effect Weinberg was claiming that science paints a picture of our universe as a vast purposeless place in which we can see no evidence of a point for ourselves as human beings. Weinberg's statement was perhaps one of the coldest ever issued by a scientist, and not surprisingly it annoyed many religious believers. For Christians, and also for those of many other faiths, the universe is inherently purposeful and humanity's role is central.

Steven WeinbergNeedless to say, religious believers have risen to the challenge. One Christian who disputes Weinberg's view is Charles Birch, an Australian biologist who is one of the founders of the modern science of ecology. Birch suggests that it is probably not surprising that Weinberg, as a physicist, should come to such a cold hard view of the universe, because he says physicists are "used to looking at the world in a very mechanist way". But where Weinberg sees a pointless world, Birch reads the evidence in a very different way. In particular, where Weinberg sees the universe from an impersonal perspective, Birch sees himself as an inherent part of the universal system that science describes. Looking at the universe from this personal perspective, he says, "I find meaning in it."

Likewise, Father George Coyne - a Jesuit priest and astronomer who has spent his life studying the formation of stars - insists that the universe is full of meaning and purposefulness. He points out that for all science's great achievements it is not necessarily the field which can show us the point of either our own lives or of the universe as a whole. That task is outside science, he says; instead it is to be found in our own experience as human beings living in the world. As he explains: "The whole of human experience, I think, tells us that there is a point, that there is meangingfulness to things. When I hold the hand of a dying friend, and see the expression of hope and joy - even at the moment of death - in that friend's eyes, I can see that there is a meaningfulness to existence that goes beyond scientific investigation."

EarthInterestingly, Weinberg is much in agreement with Father Coyne. Although he believes that science paints a picture of a "chilling, cold" and pointless universe, he also insists that we human beings can give the universe a purpose through the way we live our lives - "by loving each other by discovering things about nature, by creating works or art." We may not be the stars in any great cosmic drama, Weinberg says, but "faced with an unloving and impersonal universe" we can nonetheless create for ourselves " a little island of warmth and love and science and art." It is a deeply humane statement from a man often associated with a cold, impersonal vision. What is most surprising, perhaps, is that here an avowedly atheistic scientist expresses a view not dissimilar to that of some religious believers.

Email link | Feedback | Contributed by: Margaret Wertheim

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