The Profane and the Sacred

24 Feb, 2023 | Blog

In his book The First Three Minutes, the American Nobel physicist, Steven Weinberg (1933-2021) famously pronounced that:

The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless. (1)

This remark was clarified in his subsequent book, Dreams of a Final Theory when he said that he, ‘did not mean that science teaches us that the universe is pointless, but rather that the universe itself suggests no point.’ (2)

Given that the purpose and point of the universe is an enormous question that has perplexed the finest minds since time immemorial, can a satisfactory answer be forthcoming purely by an appeal to ratiocination? Moreover, why waste a whole life in science, and scoop a prestigious prize, in order to make a such a nihilistic statement? The irony of such ‘pointlessness’ was not lost on the British mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead FRS (1861–1947). In his Louis Clark Vanuxem Foundation lectures, delivered at Princeton University in March 1929, he astutely observed:

Scientists animated by the purpose of proving that the universe is pointless constitute an interesting subject for study. (3)

Gone are the days then when we should proclaim with King David: ‘The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth His handiwork’ (4) or rise to our feet upon hearing the majestic ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ from Handel’s Messiah and sing, ‘For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth […]. The kingdom of this world; is become the kingdom of our Lord […].’ (5) And why are these days past? ‘Since David’s day’, Weinberg informs us, ‘the sun and other stars have lost their special status; we understand that they are spheres of glowing gas, held together by gravitation, and supported against collapse by pressure that is maintained by the heat rising up from thermonuclear reactions in the stars’ cores. The stars tell us nothing more or less about the glory of God than do the stones on the ground around us.’ (6) So it appears that the celestial orbs, like human bodies, the stones, and all else, are supposed to be nothing more or less than matter and its interactions, ultimately explainable by physics and chemistry, and in the final dream, just by physics. (7)

But we may also turn, for insight, to the legendary artists, mystics, poets, and musicians who, in their various ways, unequivocally declared their experience of divinity.

When Galileo invited Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643) to look through his telescope, the great Italian composer saw further than mere ‘spheres of glowing gas’ and was inspired to write Vespro della Beata Vergine (Vespers for the Blessed Virgin), sometimes called Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610. Are the stars, then, imbued with divinity, or are they just glowing fireballs? Both, as it depends on the eyes we are looking through. Like is only seen by like – beautifully encapsulated by Saint Paul:

For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit. (8)

The Creation is an oratorio written by Joseph Haydn (1732–1809), which depicts and rejoices in the creation of the world as described in the Book of Genesis. The Chorus, The Heavens Are Telling opens with the words: ‘The heavens are telling the glory of God, The wonder of his work displays the firmament.’ This masterwork has been sung in cathedrals, churches, and concert halls all over the world for well over two centuries since its composition between 1797 and 1798. It will surely stir our hearts and minds for centuries to come. Will Weinberg’s Dreams of a Final Theory be found in science bookshops after the next decade? I doubt it.

1 Steven Weinberg, The First Three Minutes: A modern view of the origin of the universe (UK: Flamingo, Fontana Paperbacks, 1977), 149.

2  Steven Weinberg, Dreams of a Final Theory: The search for the fundamental laws of nature (London: Hutchinson Radius, 1993), 204.

3 Alfred North Whitehead, The Function of Reason (Boston: Beacon Books, 1958), 16. This statement has been slightly rephrased from the original. Whitehead’s exact words were: ‘Scientists animated by the purpose of proving that they are purposeless constitute an interesting subject for study.’

4 Psalm 19:1, 21st Century King James Version.

5 When he completed the Hallelujah Chorus, Handel reportedly told his servant, ‘I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself seated on His throne, with His company of Angels’—see ‘History of “Hallelujah” Chorus’, The Tabernacle Choir (22 February 2016) <> accessed 12 June 2020.

6  Steven Weinberg, Dreams of a Final Theory, 193.

7  Note, carefully, that we are not singling out Weinberg for special censure. We cite him, arbitrarily, as a typical example of the majority of celebrity scientists who uphold this unequivocal viewpoint, claiming that the universe, and all existence, is purposeless. Another case in point is the Oxford professor of chemistry Peter Atkins who plainly informs us: ‘We shall have gone the journey of all purposeless stardust, driven unwittingly by chaos, gloriously but aimlessly evolved into sentience, born unchoosingly into the world, unwillingly taken from it and inescapably returned to nothing. Such is life’ – Peter Atkins, On Being: A scientist’s exploration of the great questions of existence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 100.

8  Romans 11.8, New International Version.