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Book review: Why? The purpose of the universe by Philip Goff

12 January 2024

Idealism, or something like it, is of interest again, says Keith Ward

THIS book is by a contemporary British philosopher, defending the position that fine-tuning arguments show the universe to be purposive, and that pan-psychism (the view that consciousness is the ultimate nature of reality, and that all things are constituted of consciousness in some sense) is the most defensible philosophical account of the nature of things. It is not written from a religious point of view, though it is clearly sympathetic to some Christian accounts. This makes it of particular interest, as it reflects the recent and rather unexpected renewal within analytical philosophy of the thesis that mind, not matter, is the basis of reality.

The book can be at times a difficult read for the non-philosopher, but Philip Goff does his best to write simply and clearly, and succeeds pretty well. He shows how many elements of modern science point to some sort of purposiveness in the universe. He argues that even what we call sub-atomic particles are based on very simple conscious entities, and that, as these entities evolve to become more complex and integrated, they give rise to intelligent life-forms.

He argues against the existence of an all-powerful and good God, largely because of the problem of suffering. But he proposes that the universe itself may be a mind-like entity, with knowledge of all possible worlds, and including moral ideals that set the goal of an evolving cosmos. Thus, he tried to develop a view that is compatible both with purpose in the cosmos and with the large amount of suffering that exists in evolution largely by natural selection.

For readers of this paper, this is an excellent introduction to the methods of modern analytical philosophy. It is rigorous in argument, and informative of the discussions that are now taking place on the nature of consciousness, of purpose, value, and modern science. It will come as news to many that materialism is not the basis of modern science, particularly when cosmology and quantum physics are taken to heart. The criticisms of traditional theism are moderate, but incisive. And the slightly tentative conclusion, that the cosmos itself is a supreme, but not omnipotent, mind, which moves towards ideal goals, and is aimed at increasing consciousness and intrinsically worthwhile states, is highly suggestive of some new movements in theology which have rather similar views.

It would be good if these movements in the analytical tradition were able to interact with the work of A. N. Whitehead, Process philosophers, and the Open and Relational Theology movements, which are little known in the UK. But no one can do everything at once, and I would strongly recommend this book as a clear, well-argued, and undogmatic example of analytical philosophy at its best, and a testament to the revival of interest in metaphysics, in talk about cosmic purpose, and in forms of Idealism which were once the mark of British philosophy, but seemed for a while to be eclipsed by more materialist views.

Canon Keith Ward is Emeritus Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford.

Why? The purpose of the universe
Philip Goff
OUP £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.49

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