Even if the universe has a purpose, we can’t assume that we matter to it

Unfortunately we can’t rule out that the possibility that the purpose of the universe is to be food for a space monster

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been reading Tim Mulgan’s most recent book, Purpose in the Universe: the Case for Ananthropocentric Purposivism, in which he makes a case for the proposition that the universe has a non-human-centred purpose. In Mulgan’s view, the world is religiously ambiguous, meaning that reason and evidence do not decisively favour one religious view over all others. Atheism and theism can both be reasonable responses to the available evidence. In this book, Mulgan aims to defend the reasonableness of AP as a third option in a religiously ambiguous world.

Mulgan’s background is in moral philosophy, not metaphysics or philosophy of religion. Accordingly, he lays the foundation of the book’s argument by setting out a number of first order moral commitments. Prominent among these is the claim that we have stringent obligations not to harm future generations. In Mulgan’s view, the only kind of moral theory capable of accounting for the truth of this conviction is objective list consequentialism (I have previously responded to Mulgan’s criticism of contractualism on this score here and here). In an objective list consequentialist theory, consequences are assessed according to objective criteria, in contrast to subjective consequentialist theories like hedonistic or preference utilitarianism which assess consequences solely by reference to agents’ mental states.

With a set of first order moral commitments in hand, Mulgan makes a brief foray into meta-ethics. Mulgan does not think non-cognitivist theories (according to which moral language expresses only sentiments or imperatives which are merely disguised as propositions) can provide credible accounts of moral talk and moral thought. Everyday moral experience is most consistent with moral cognitivism. Cognitivists about morality believe that positive moral claims are truth-apt, meaning that they can be either true or false. Some cognitivists are nihilists (also sometimes called error theorists). Nihilists believe that all positive moral claims are false. But most cognitivists are moral realists, meaning that they believe some positive moral claims (i.e. at least one) are true.

Following J. L. Mackie, nihilists often appeal to the supposed metaphysical “queerness” of moral facts. But Mulgan’s strategy of building his argument off a set of reasonably secure convictions about right and wrong puts nihilism on the back foot. We have supreme confidence in first order moral judgments like “it is wrong to boil a baby for fun” (to use one of my teachers’ favourite examples), whereas we are rarely so secure in our metaphysical judgments. If moral facts seem queer given our metaphysical beliefs, we are better off revising our metaphysical beliefs rather than our moral beliefs. If this seems hard to swallow, Mulgan points out, it is not clear how the argument from queerness can be restricted to only rule out moral facts considered as a subset of normative facts more generally. If accepting the claim that moral facts are intolerably queer commits us to the more extreme position of “global normative nihilism”, which entails that there are no true positive claims about mathematical or logical truth on account of intolerable queerness, we can be even more confident in rejecting Mackie’s argument for nihilism.

However, Mulgan does think that the argument from queerness is getting at something very important. In his view, moral facts do seem to be intolerably queer in the context of a strictly naturalistic ontology. It follows that the presumption of strict or global naturalism which dominates contemporary meta-ethics ought to be abandoned. Morality, and normativity more broadly, is most at home in an ontology that includes non-natural or supernatural facts (by non-natural facts, Mulgan seems to have in mind sui generis normative facts, while supernatural facts denote facts about the divine such as the attributes or commands of a perfect being).

Having established that non-naturalism or supernaturalism can (at the very least) be reasonable, Mulgan is off to the races. Much of what follows falls under a wide-ranging survey of arguments for both theism and atheism, including classical and contemporary versions of ontological, cosmological and teleological arguments for theism, and, on the atheist side, arguments from scale, religious diversity and (most importantly) evil. Mulgan argues that the theist arguments are only successful in establishing that there is a cosmic purpose, while atheist arguments can only succeed in establishing that human well-being is irrelevant to the cosmic purpose. Theists draw the further conclusion that there is a human-centred cosmic purpose, while atheists draw the further conclusion that there is no cosmic purpose at all. These further conclusions are not unreasonable, and they could very well be true. But the conclusions do not logically follow from the arguments deployed in their support. Taken together, the most compelling arguments for theism and atheism are at least as consistent with the thesis that there is a cosmic purpose to which human well-being is wholly irrelevant — in other words, ananthropocentric purposivism.

If we’re not relevant to the cosmic purpose, then what is? In theory, the possibilities are endless. Maybe we don’t matter, but some aliens do. Or perhaps the purpose of the universe is to realize some objective aesthetic value — the instantiation of the most beautiful physical theory, for example. When Leibniz proposed that this is the best of all possible worlds, the criterion of goodness he had in mind was nothing like what we would expect in a human centred morality; the best world according to God, Leibniz argued, is the world where the greatest diversity follows from the simplest laws.

In some respects, a non-human-centred morality makes a rather good fit with consequentialism. Consequentialism is often criticized for assessing consequences by means of aggregation of harm and well-being. Strict utilitarianism, for example, dictates that aggregate utility must always be increased, even when this would be better for no one — in fact, even when this would be worse for everyone. By indiscriminately summing utilities across distinct lives and taking only the sum of all utilities to have any direct moral importance, utilitarians are said to ignore the moral significance of the separateness of persons. AP helps support the consequentialist contention that persons simply do not have any moral significance to ignore. Consequences, impartially and impersonally assessed without any regard for the well-being of individual creatures, are all that matter according to the cosmic purpose.

At this point, however, I wonder if Mulgan begins to undermine the foundations of his own argument. His case for AP is cumulative, meaning that each step in the argument depends on the steps that have come before. The entire argument therefore depends on the reliability of the moral commitments he began with. These commitments are shaped by careful reflection about everyday human moral experience. But if AP is true, we should regard everyday human moral experience with extreme skepticism. There is no guarantee that there will be any points of contact between human moral experience and the real world of objective values; moral nihilism could very well be true with respect to humans! If we accept AP and consequently accept that a restricted moral nihilism may be true with respect to humans, then it’s not clear to me how we can have the degree of confidence in the existence of objective values that is necessary to make AP a reasonable proposition in the first place.

I expect that Mulgan will have anticipated and attempt to address this objection in the book’s final section, which he dedicates to constructing a moral theory consistent with AP. I’m really looking forward to tackling this section, but it’ll have to wait — my school library doesn’t have a copy of the book, and my inter-library loan period is up!

Related reading

Derek Parfit: “Why Anything? Why This?” Part 1 & Part 2
Tim Mulgan: “What if God is just not that into you?”
Tim Mulgan in conversation with Beverley Clack and Jonathan Cottingham. Moderated by Peter Dennis. (Audio)


2 thoughts on “Even if the universe has a purpose, we can’t assume that we matter to it

  1. Pingback: Incommensurable values and moral revisionism in Mulgan’s theory | Popcorn Machine

  2. Pingback: Does benevolent theism imply pre-existence? | Popcorn Machine

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