Steven Weinberg and the Pointless Universe

Steven Weinberg, noble laureate won the prize for his work of weak force and its interaction with electromagnetic force. His theory is called an electroweak theory. It was developed in the early 1960s in collaboration with Sheldon Glashow and Abdus Salam, who shared the Nobel Prize with Weinberg. He courted controversy not only for his advocacy to build an underground particle collider but also for his declaration that the more he tries to understand the world more it is pointless. This provocative statement was made by him in his best-seller, the First Three Minutes. The statement drew a rebuttal from George Coyne, the then Director of Vatican Observatory who said that the universe was pointless for those who had no point.

1. The Place of Humans in a Pointless Universe

The provocative statement of Weinberg appears on the last page of his illustrious book, The First Three Minutes: “It is almost irresistible for humans to believe that we have some special relation to the universe, that human life is not just a more-or-less farcical outcome of a chain of accidents reaching back to the first three minutes, but we are somehow built from the beginning….It is very hard to realize that this all is just a tiny part of an overwhelmingly hostile universe. It is even harder to realize that this present universe has evolved from an unspeakably unfamiliar early condition, and faces a future extinction of endless cold or intolerable heat. The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless”. Although the universe is pointless, Weinberg still draws comfort in our ability to construct meaning when he says, “The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that lifts human life a little above the level of farce, and gives it some of the grace of tragedy”. He teaches that all significance that we draw for our life does not come from the universe nor from God. He seems to suggest that we are alone in a hostile universe. Science does not offer a resting point for humanity. He has indeed raised the Mystery comprehensibility of the universe. He points out that the universe is comprehensible but bears no relation and significance for humanity. Although humanity appears to be insignificant at the scale of the universe, the very fact that the universe is intelligible to the human search makes a point to affirm that humans are not altogether insignificant. Besides, it has been proved by scientists that although the universe is largely hostile to our form of life, we have come to be and are alive and hearty because we are placed in a habitable zone. Moreover, we cannot conclude from the fact that the universe is hostile to our form of intelligent life, that it is hostile to all forms of intelligent life that may be inhabiting the universe unknown to us.

2. Points in a Pointless Universe

Having faced flak from scientists as well as his readers, Weinberg did modify his view about the pointlessness of the universe. He significantly toned down his statement about the pointless universe, in his book, Living Philosophies, when he says “At the end of my book, The First Three Minutes, I allowed myself to remark that ‘‘the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.’’ This one sentence got me into more trouble with readers than anything else I’ve ever written, but all I meant was that if we search in the discoveries of science for some points to our lives, we will not find it. This does not mean that we can’t find things that give point to our lives. If science can’t provide us with values, neither can it invalidate them.” Contrary to Weinberg’s views, we may assert that we can certainly find the meaning of our life in the laws of physics, chemistry, astrophysics, cosmology as well as evolutionary biology. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin famously said that evolution has become conscious in us. Given the discovery of the fine-tuning of our universe, it is no platitude to say that universe knew that we are coming. If the past of the universe made us possible, the future of the universe cannot rule out intelligent human life. Our drive to survive and our scientific and technological proves will certainly play an important role in the future of humanity as well as the universe. Weinberg struck to his position. In his 2001 book, Facing Up, he said, “Toward the close of the essay I had a little to say about what I do believe, or really, as I see in rereading it, about what I do not believe. I do not believe in a cosmic plan in which human beings have any special place, or in any system of values other than the ones we make up for ourselves. I ended with a description of our world as a stage, onto which we have stumbled with no script to follow….But the tragedy is not in the script; the tragedy is that there is no script”. When we think deeply we may understand the confusion evolved. If there is no script, that so-called script is itself is a script. Science unfolds the script that is inscribed in our universe and the growth of science and its anthropic principle shows that humanity has a rightful and meaningful place in the Universe.

3. Weinberg and God

Weinberg calls himself an unreligious Jew. He says that stars tell us nothing about God. He seems to indicate that scientific progress has suspended all theological explanations of life and the cosmos. The world has been demystified and disenchanted. His position seems to suggest that science has erased all evidence of the hand of God acting in Nature. God to him is not to be found in the beauty and depth of nature as well as science. But ironically he cannot do without using God as a metaphor to refer to the final theory or theory of everything pursued by scientists. We can discern this when he says, ‘If there were anything we could discover in nature that would give us some special insight into the handiwork of God, it would have to be the final laws of nature. Knowing these laws, we would have in our possession the book of rules that govern stars and stones and everything else. So it is natural that Stephen Hawking should refer to the laws of nature as ‘‘the mind of God.’’…Whatever one’s religion or lack of it, it is an irresistible metaphor to speak of the final laws of nature in terms of the mind of God’. His position that declares that science can only reveal the mind of God where the term mind of God is just a metaphor is unacceptable. There are several signatures of God in nature. Some scientists have come to these signatures and have come to God. The case of Francis Collins is a good illustration of this issue. His book, the Divine Language, manifests his journey back to God. It appears that Weinberg constructed a straw man and took it on himself to destroy it. But we cannot simply claim that there is no point in the pointless universe of Weinberg. We certainly do have the challenge to scrutinize the pointed universe by revisiting our thinking of God, Humanity and the Cosmos.


The mystery of the world is that it is comprehensible to us. The fact that it is intelligible to our scientific search, we have to agree that the universe has a point. The history of the Universe does not exhibit an anarchic universe. It does manifest that it is governed at some levels by chaotic processes but chaos does rise to a higher-order, complexity and may even rise to self-organisibilty as taught by shown by the science of chaos and complexity.

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Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao