Nancey Murphy on the Universe’s Purpose

One of my mentors, Nancey Murphy, weighs in on the Templeton Foundation’s new series, Does the Universe Have a Purpose?

Nancey Murphy


But it is not possible to know that by looking at the natural world alone. The question of purpose is closely related to the question of whether something like the God of Western monotheistic religions can be known to exist by studying the order, goodness, and grandeur of the universe. Already around 1750 David Hume pointed out that if one is looking at evidence of design, then all of the evidence must be taken into account: not only order and goodness but disorder and evil as well. He seems to think that some sort of creator is possible (in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, published posthumously in 1779, it is not clear which character represents Hume’s own views). But if so, we can know next to nothing about the creator’s qualities: an intelligence, for all we know, as much like ours as our intelligence is like the rotting of a turnip–one deity or a team; alive or dead; a juvenile or superannuated deity. Nothing can be known of any plan for the future perfection of the world or the human condition.

via John Templeton Foundation : Does the Universe Have a Purpose?.

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  • Evelyn

    Non sequitur.

  • Personally, I find more resonance with Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s response, that only those who want there to be a universal Purpose can “find” one. I guess I’m still a sort of existentialist, in that if we think there is a given Purpose, then most of us will opt out of the responsibility to create our own.

    • And, those who choose to believe (against a lot of contrary evidence) that the universe does have a Purpose cannot actually agree as to what that Purpose is. Many will say “the universe was created by and for God,” but what the hell does that even mean? Where one falls on a number of other questions will determine how to interpret that kind of absolute statement – i.e. John Piper and John Cobb might actually agree on that statement as it stands, but will interpret it in very different ways.

    • ME

      I like Pascal’s take-

      On observing the whole of the silent universe, and humanity with no light abandoned to itself, lost in this nook of the universe not knowing who put us there, what we have come to achieve, what will become of us when we die, incapable of all knowledge, I become frightened, like someone taken in his sleep to a terrifying, deserted island who wakes up with no knowledge of what has happened, nor means of escape. At that point I am astonished that we do not despair at so wretched a state. I see others around me whose nature is the same as mine, and I ask them if they are better informed than I am. They say they are not. Then, these people, having looked around and seen some agreeable enough objects, gave themselves to them and became attached to them. For my part I have not been able to find such an attachment, and considering how much more probable it is that there is something more that I cannot see, I have sought to find whether this God has not left some mark of himself.

      • Doesn’t the fact that we are AWARE of being on the desert island (a pascal says) presume that we are able to somehow imagine what it must be like to be elsewhere? If this is the case, could we not say that we ALREADY know, in a ineffable way, what our purpose is? That is, in order to know that we do not have the end to which our deepest desires lead, we must, at the very least, know what our end is NOT. Our purpose then, stranded in a world that we find to be “not” is to discern by negation what “is” and live to bring what “is” to be.

        I don’t think it can be denied tht we all have an inborn ability to recognize where God is “not”, and that in so having, if we are perceptive and honest, we should also be able to begin discerning what God IS, by the rejection and opposition of what “is not.”

      • Craig

        On this stuff, I think Pacale needed philosophically astute therapy. To this day, many still do.

        • Craig

          I mean not just Pacale–his French cousin Blaze needed therapy too. 🙂

  • Craig

    These scientific developments can be used to argue that, if there is a designer God whose purpose for the universe includes life, especially intelligent life, then the laws and constants had to be almost exactly what they are. Thus, if we are to be here, the natural world must contain almost exactly the amount of danger and destruction that it does. So while the study of the natural world cannot show that it has a purpose–the fine-tuning is not an adequate argument for the existence of God–it is indeed indirectly relevant to the question of the universe’s purpose.

    This strikes me as an odd set of claims. It seems like Murphy should have said something like this:

    Since we are here we know that the natural world essentially had to be just as it is with regard to its basic physical parameters. This is evidence–though certainly not sufficient evidence–that the universe is designed. If designed, this would be evidence–though again not sufficient evidence–that the universe has a purpose.

    • Evelyn

      So, her answer to the question would be “evidentially” but not necessarily “indeed”. Again, her argument is non sequitur.

      • Craig

        To be fair, Murphy does immediately qualify her one-word answer: “But it is not possible to know that by looking at the natural world alone.” So I interpret Murphy as conceding that she’s not here going to try to substantiate her “indeed,” she’s just going to mention a few ideas that she regards as relevant. It would have been better, however, for Murphy to just say in outline why she thinks she can answer with such certainty.

        • Evelyn


  • Craig

    Tony, I don’t presume that you’re in need of any new ideas for this blog, but I rather like the idea of featuring more female voices, even if only by interacting with their writings, as in your last two posts. There’s a wealth of female voices in contemporary anglophone philosophy that would, I think, be of interest to Theoblogy readers. To extend your table setting analogy, these women would provide–with their ideas–meat for the table.

  • Tony, are you still procrastinating on answering Rob’s question?

    • Yes

        • Evelyn

          If I may be so bold, I think the answer is ecclesiologically “No” and Tony doesn’t want to say so.

          Rob asks: “Do I still have ‘the right’ to call myself a Christian?”

          To that question, I would ask why you would want to be called a Christian? Do you want a christian pastor to say a blessing at your funeral, want your child to be able to be baptized or married in the church, or want to impress neighbors or relatives with your piousness? Given your years of service in the church, the fact that you walked the walk for so long, and the fact that you continue to believe in Jesus’ way, you could probably get by with calling yourself a Christian for sacramental purposes and you should easily be able to fend off inquiring neighbors and relatives with the explanation that you did your time in the church and you still follow Jesus but proclaiming it to the community every Sunday isn’t for you.

          This answer is coming from someone who did not grow up in any church or religious community, sincerely attempted to become Christian, failed, and actually have the gut reaction of being slightly offended at the notion of being called Christian. I believe in a Trinity but that Trinity is the God the father, me (the daughter), and everyone else (the Holy Spirit who speaks to me through every living thing). This is a loving relationship but there is also God the trickster who requires me to use reason to make any headway in understanding (Jesus is a friend in this scheme and gives a mostly appropriate example of how to carry out loving relationship with God). I believe in a Virgin Birth but the Virgin Birth is the Birth of reason (logos) as separate from our bestial nature (exemplified by sexuality). I believe that Christ may come and go to us in a cycle of death and resurrection but not in any physical resurrection that is said to have occurred. So, I can stand up in church and say most of the Nicene creed with my own personal translation but I’m not assenting to the same beliefs that everyone else in the Church is assenting to. I’m mortified at the cannibalistic and human sacrificial nature of the communion rite and, were I to take it, the statement would be that I accept the fact that people are not intelligent enough to follow Christ any other way than by eating him.

          So, I sincerely tried to become Christian and I can follow most liturgies without lying to myself but there is a communal worship aspect to being Christian and a common belief system such that, though I can mostly buy into it, when it comes to the hard and fast requirements, I just can’t swallow them (literally and figuratively).

          • I think the answer is ecclesiologically “No” and Tony doesn’t want to say so.

            If by “ecclesiologically” you mean, the official authorities (i.e. self-appointed), then you’re probably right. I’m not sure any of those men would approve of me.

            I would ask why you would want to be called a Christian? Do you want a christian pastor to say a blessing at your funeral, want your child to be able to be baptized or married in the church, or want to impress neighbors or relatives with your piousness?

            I’m not sure if you’ve had the time to wade through all the comments on the original post, but I mentioned a few reasons there. They might be weak reasons, but they’re all I got right now.

            there is a communal worship aspect to being Christian and a common belief system

            For the most part, yes, this is true. But, I don’t think it should be the case.

          • Evelyn

            If you don’t think it “should be the case” that there is a “communal worship aspect to being Christian and a common belief system”, then why did you leave the church? Why not stay, protest, and profess your belief in what it means to be Christian?

            BTW: I didn’t wade through the 200+ comments on your question. It seemed that Tony was having trouble answering it so I was suggesting a way that it could be answered and implying that it isn’t the end of your Jesus-centered world if you don’t feel that you can identify with a Christian label. I don’t know enough about church practice nor the general extent to which professed Christians identify with their belief systems to answer your question based on my approach.

  • T.S.Gay

    Science does not regard such an explanation as Socrates wanted given of the processes of the world, such an explanation as he complains of Anaxagoras for not giving, that the reason things take the course they do is in order to realize demonstrable good. No doubt that when science gets to the treatment of living things there is a way in which teleological explanation comes in, but living things occupy an infinitesimal space in the universe. In the measurless time before life appeared on our small planet, through the measureless time after life on our planet has been extinguished, we see much mass without any consciousness for which values could be a part. Those who adopt the hypothesis that reality, outside a momentary flash of spirit, is the working of regular, but purposeless laws have the facts to go upon. What then it seems to come to is this: the world we know presents us with two regions-one of nature, which by observation appears indifferent and that which appeared to progress toward an apprehension of value, the higher ones in the spirit of man. On the one hand, the first has the preponderence of evidence in terms of age, size, trajectory, teleological evidence( second law of thermodynamics). On the other hand, some progressives believe the human spirit has not reached its highest point. For Christians this may be regarded as what the apostle meant when he said that the ultimate end to which the world process moved was the summing up of all things in Christ.

  • This ones been written before.

  • Dorfl

    “For example, the ratio of the strength of gravity to one of the other basic forces, the nuclear weak force, had to be adjusted as accurately as one part in 10 to the 100th power to avoid either a swift collapse of the universe or an explosion.”

    Isn’t this obviously false? The ratio of the strength of gravity to the weak force isn’t even known to one part in 10^100, so she is making a claim about something that she couldn’t possibly have knowledge about.

  • I am one who is absolutely convinced that the Universe does have a purpose. Yet while Murphy seems to agree, I’m so far having trouble buying her core argument.

    Her opening response to the question of “Does the universe have a purpose?” is: “Indeed. But it is not possible to know that by looking at the natural world alone.” She then segways awkwardly right into the “God” question, whereby she posits that to understand if there is a purpose to the universe requires tackling the question of the existence of a creator. This is key to her thesis, as follows:

    If one cannot infer the purposes of a benevolent creator from evidence in the natural world, then how can I (and my co-religionists) claim to know the world’s purpose?

    Her approach is theological and anthropological, where her anthropology seems first informed by her theology, which I see as top-down thinking (where bottom-up is preferred, and allows the greatest objectivity). By which I mean: she already presumes the existence of God. At least for the purposes of her argument.

    What is screamingly absent is that she does not offer to explain why “the God question” is relevant to the question of the purpose of the universe. She presumes its relevance, and simply goes from there. I find this wholly unsatisfactory, particularly coming from a Professor of Christian Philosophy.

    Toward the end of her essay she asks:: “[W]hy God did not create a more benevolent natural order?”

    This is yet more of Murphy drowning in subjectivity here. In this case, the subjectivity relates to the word “benevolent.” What is “benevolent?” What isn’t “benevolent?” What does it mean to her? Murphy does not offer detailed definition of this term or any exposition on the context in which she understands it, forms it, and applies it.

    She answers the question, but with a qualification that, itself, goes unqualified. I would ask her: why is the existence of a creator relevant to the question of the purpose of the universe?

    • R. Jay, I think you make some great points. But, what do you believe is the Purpose of the universe, and why? From there, how can anyone know what that Purpose is?

      • Morning Rob.

        A few years ago I wrote some material offering an answer to this very question: Does the universe have a purpose?

        Here is the super-brief summary of the conclusions I developed: Firstly, the purpose of the universe (i.e., Creation) can be discerned by an understanding of its nature overall. What we see is a Creation that exists in a state of remarkable order, harmony, structure — what I often refer to as Oneness. We see it in the cosmos. We see it in the physical properties of the planet, as well as in the properties of our own bodies, right down to the cells, molecules, and compounds. Where the earth is concerned specifically, it is clear that it, and its constituent parts (us included), are endowed with properties whose purpose is for the perpetuation of life. Therefore it is my conclusion that Oneness and Life are the purpose of Creation.

        It’s necessary for me to recognize that my conclusion does not necessarily qualify as knowledge. It is a discernment based on observations relating to cosmology, biology, chemistry, and physics. Whatever implications I decide to place upon that discernment (such as, for example, if my conclusion suggests a “creator,” or that certain elements of our human experience are “good” or “bad,” or that there is some metaphysical nature to Creation’s purpose, or that Creation’s purpose suggests a particular “morality”) would be highly subjective, and informed by my own experience, philosophical leanings, prejudices, etc.

        But generally, that is my conclusion on what the purpose of Creation is.

        • Craig

          R. Jay, what do you think of our apparent bias towards teleological explanations, which is so easy to see in young children. When asked about a natural formation of sharp, pointed rocks, children prefer the explanation “they’re like that so animals won’t sit on them,” than something like “bits of stuff pile up over time.” It seems to me that this sort of stuff should only increase our skepticism–and we should already be skeptical of teleological biases given the strong cultural influences of primitive creation myths, perpetuated by religion. Do you think you are giving due weight to these reasonable grounds for skepticism?

          • Craig . . . if by teleological you’re referring to when people conclude design/designer based on their observations of nature, etc., then I would say the bias exists because of culture (which, in the west, is pervasively influenced by Judeo-Christian theologies and myths). I believe this is the case with Murphy, as evidenced in her argument.

            Where my conclusion is concerned, i.e. that “Oneness and Life are the purpose of Creation,” I don’t think it is encompassed wholly in a teleological scheme of reasoning. Largely because my reasoning does not suggest the existence of a “creator being.” (In fact, that isn’t my conclusion at all, which largely removes me from a classic teleological argument.)

            I am recognizing the clear element of order and structure in Creation cosmologically, biologically, chemically, and physically. As such, I reason that as order is Creation’s nature (which includes perpetuation of life), so order is our nature, since we are integral, living members of Creation. Therefore I conclude that order and life are our purpose.

            An attending philosophical argument might then say that our choices have created disorder, and so returning to a nature of such order — Oneness — in our being (inwardly and collectively) is necessary to re-balance ourselves with the whole of Creation’s nature.

            In my reasoning, I am observing the nature of the whole so as to understand the nature of its constituent parts. And my understanding informs me that nature (little “n”) at best implies, but at least reveals, purpose.

            But what my reasoning does not seek to do is identify cause.

          • Craig

            R.Jay, just to clarify my comment, by “teleological explanations” I simply meant explanations of a thing in terms of that thing’s purpose. In Aristotelian terms, these are explanations in terms of a thing’s putative “final cause,” not the thing’s “efficient cause.” So teleological explanations need not involve the idea of a creator (the creator would be the thing’s efficient cause). When the children answered the question “why are the rocks pointed like that?” they favored a teleological explanation: “so that animals do not sit on them.” That explanation still attributes a “cause” in an Aristotelian sense, but only what’s called a final cause. When you attribute purposes to the universe you are essentially doing the same thing, but at a more cosmic and abstract level, I think.

          • I’d say, then, that we’re on the same page as to understanding teleological.

            There is, though, a difference between the analogy you offer and my conclusion about the purpose of Creation.

            In your analogy, children are submitting a highly specified reason, not for the general existence of the pointy rocks, but for why the rocks are pointy. Theirs is a “why” question.

            Where the “purpose of the universe” topic is concerned in this discussion, it is a “what” question. For example, the question is not “why does the universe exist?” The question is “is there a purpose to the universe.” The questions seem similar, but in reality they are vastly different. As such, the answers will be different. This also means the processes by which the answers are developed for each question will also be different.

            The children’s “pointy rock” conclusion is about the reason for pointy-ness, not about the nature of the existence of the rocks.

            So for the “purpose of the universe” question to be similar to the “pointy rocks” question, we would have to ask, “Why is the universe ordered?”

            That is the very, very big difference.

          • Craig

            I think the relevant similarity is that both explanations posit purpose. That tendency to ascribe purpose seems to be a human bias, evinced in young children and reinforced by religion. When more sophisticated adults posit purposes, they tend to be less obviously false or absurd.

    • Anonymous

      The Merriam-Webster definition of “purpose” is:

      1 a : something set up as an object or end to be attained : intention
      b : resolution, determination

      Intention, resolution, and determination imply that a human-like intelligence backs up to object of the purpose – i.e. God.

      The term “benevolent” is consistently applied to mean what is generally considered to be good. I don’t think Nancey had space in her essay to expound on our cultural norm of what is considered “benevolent” and just assumed that most people would know what she meant.

      As for a Professor of Christian Theology not answering to your childish demands on commonly accepted terminology, I would suggest that you do some remedial work on your education. Professors usually assume a base-line level of knowledge on the part of their students. She’s not a grade-school teacher.

      Nit-picking on people’s terminology in an attempt to undermine their arguments is not an indicator of good will.

  • The Misfit Toy

    “it is not possible to know that by looking at the natural world alone”

    it sounds like, “facts alone are not enough, you need a way of thinking which privileges extra-factual data, and THEN it is clear that the universe has a purpose”

    which i agree with, but i would use this as a suggestion that the purpose of the universe is not discoverable unless the purpose of the universe takes action to make itself known to you.

  • Natural Law is vindicated by modern physics, still.

  • THE GREAT science feat in 2013 על מהות ומקור היקום

    The 2013 gravity comprehension/definition is the greatest
    science feat since the early 1920s.

    Learn what, scientifically, natural gravity is and what
    evolution is.

    Think of the consequences re classical science of this
    comprehension of gravity…

    איך נברא היקום יש מאין

    Origin And Nature of the Universe, the greatest science feat
    since the early 1920s.

    New Science 2013 versus classical science

    Classical Science Is Anticipated/Replaced By The 2013
    Gravity Comprehension !!!

    Attn classical science hierarchy, including Darwin and

    “I hope that now you understand what gravity is and why it is
    the monotheism of the universe…DH”


    Gravity is the natural selection of
    self-attraction by the elementary particles of an evolving system on their
    cyclic course towards the self-replication of the system. Period

    ( Gravitons are the elementary particles of the
    universe. RNA nucleotides genes and
    serotonin are the elementary particles of Earth life)

    כח המשיכה

    כח המשיכה הוא הבחירה הטבעית להיצמדות הדדית של חלקיקי היסוד של
    מערכת מתפתחת במהלך התפתחותה המחזורית לעבר שיכפולה. נקודה

    ( הגרוויטון הוא חלקיק היסוד של היקום. הגנים, הנוקלאוטידים של חומצה
    ריבונוקלאית והסרוטונין הם החלקיקים היסודיים של חיי כדור הארץ)

    Dov Henis(comments from 22nd century)

    PS: Note, again:

    – Classical Science Is Anticipated/Replaced By The 2013
    Gravity Comprehension !!!

    – Think of the consequences re classical science of this
    comprehension of gravity…


    הבנת מהות כח המשיכה מספקת בסיס הגיוני מפשט/צפוי/מתקן לכל מגזרי ורכיבי
    המדע הקלסי

    יש פה אי- ניצול של הזדמנות/אפשרות של ישראל להדיח באלגנטיות מתורבתת
    את ארה”ב מעמדתה בעולם כמוליכה/המקבעת של עדר ה”מדענים/מדע”
    באמצעות האיגוד המקצועי האמריקאי הדתי, ולתפוס את עמדת ההולכה/פיתוח/הובלה של המדע
    2013 החדש המשתדרג, ולהפוך את המדע האמריקאי לגרורה של המדע הישראלי. אי-ניצול זה הוא מחדל מטומטם /עלוב/מביש של


     What would the human world be without god, or
    without science

    (May 1/ 3 2014)

    Scientifically natural gravity is the monotheism of
    the universe.

    The reverence- to- god- tradition, religion of the
    present Western culture, was introduced
    by Abraham (2117-1942 BCE) from the
    Casdites-Babylonians, in whom it was evoked by the sight of the apparently
    “praying” palm trees, with their palm-like leaves, rewarded with “God’s gift”, in
    Persian “Bagdad” (bag=god, dad=dat hence date-fruit, data=
    given/gift. This reverence- tradition
    was re- adopted by the Jews exiled into Babylonia (586 BCE) , and later adopted
    also by the Persians who conquered the
    Babylonian empire, and later adopted also by Alexander , who conquered the
    Persian empire, and later adopted also
    by the Greeks and finally adopted also by the Romans and by their following
    Western world heritage…

    – What would a world without god look like?

    – What would a world without science look like?

    Science =
    knowledge about or study of the natural world based on facts learned
    through experiments and observation

    God = the
    perfect and all-powerful spirit or being that is worshipped especially by Christians,
    Jews, and Muslims as the one who created and rules the universe

    a spirit or being that has great power, strength,
    knowledge, etc., and that can affect nature and the lives of people

    : one of various spirits or beings worshipped in
    some religions

    Science and god are incompatible.

    The present world is a god-believer scienceless
    world, conducted by ruthlessly competing-for- energy interests , with
    consequent catastrophes to humanity…

    Dov Henis (comments from 22nd century)