Neil deGrasse Tyson and the Purpose of the Universe

Neil deGrasse Tyson

In recent years, Neil deGrasse Tyson has become one of science’s most popular evangelists and communicators, and for good reason. The astrophysicist is funny, witty, and quite affable, and his media savvy — consider his various appearances on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report — handily undermines the popular (mis)conception of scientists as bumbling, anti-social dweebs. And if that weren’t enough, he’s pinpointed Superman’s birth planet of Krypton for DC Comics and he’s even been the the inspiration for a meme or two.

Tyson, along with several other scientists, philosophers, and thinkers, was recently asked by The John Templeton Foundation to answer that age-old question: “Does the universe have a purpose?” His response — which you can read here — was made into the clever video below, which has been making the rounds as of late.

Tyson’s response immediately critiques the notion that the universe’s purpose was human life, or to “create a fertile cradle for life”. He writes:

To assert that the universe has a purpose implies the universe has intent. And intent implies a desired outcome. But who would do the desiring? And what would a desired outcome be? That carbon-based life is inevitable? Or that sentient primates are life’s neurological pinnacle? Are answers to these questions even possible without expressing a profound bias of human sentiment? Of course humans were not around to ask these questions for 99.9999% of cosmic history. So if the purpose of the universe was to create humans then the cosmos was embarrassingly inefficient about it.

He concludes with this “cheery” thought:

So in the absence of human hubris, and after we filter out the delusional assessments it promotes within us, the universe looks more and more random. Whenever events that are purported to occur in our best interest are as numerous as other events that would just as soon kill us, then intent is hard, if not impossible, to assert. So while I cannot claim to know for sure whether or not the universe has a purpose, the case against it is strong, and visible to anyone who sees the universe as it is rather than as they wish it to be.

Now, I do think that Tyson is correct in one respect. It is arrogant to believe that purpose of the universe was to bring about carbon-based sentient lifeforms, i.e., us human beings. This is something that Christians can gladly and faithfully affirm. The Bible tells us that the purpose of the universe was not our existence or glory, but rather, to sing the praises of its Creator and to glorify Christ.

  • “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” (Psalm 19:1)
  • “For from him and through him and to him are all things.” (Romans 11:36a)
  • “For by [Christ] all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities — all things were created through him and for him.” (Colossians 1:16)

Our species, and its development, certainly plays a role in that process or worship, and an important one at that, given that we bear the image of God here on Earth. However, our species is not the universe’s chief purpose and goal. Just as man’s chief end is to glorify God, so to is the universe’s, if the above verses are any indication.

Such a thought should fill us with a humility akin to that feeling of smallness one experiences while staring at the countless stars in the nighttime expanse — the very same feeling that drives us to repeat the psalmist’s words: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8:3-4)

In addition, it should result in gratitude. After all, God’s aseity (i.e., self-sufficiency) means that he didn’t need to create anything, much less a universe that would, at some point, contain human beings like you and me. And yet, for whatever reason, he chose to create something ex nihilo. And equally mind-boggling is that he has chosen to sustain and uphold that creation, and with it, our existence (Isaiah 40:21-26, Acts 17:22-28Hebrews 1:3a).

Some will no doubt reply to all of this that the claim of any purpose for the universe, even one that is not human-centric, is still nothing more than an illusion. Such criticisms should result in a good, rollicking debate. But as far as critiquing the notion that Tyson does in his response — that the universe reaches some sort of completion or “desired outcome” with our existence — Christians ought to be ahead of him in that particular line, and placing any such exalted position on the One who truly deserves it.

About Jason Morehead

Jason Morehead lives in the lovely state of Nebraska with his wife, three children, zero pets, and a large collection of CDs, DVDs, books, and video games. He's a fan of Arcade Fire and Arvo Pärt, Jackie Chan and Andrei Tarkovsky, "Doctor Who" and "Community," and C.S. Lewis and Haruki Murakami. He's also a web development geek, which pays the bills — and buys new music and movies. Twitter: @jasonopus. Web: http://opus.fm.

  • http://derekzrishmawy.com Derek Rishmawy

    Okay, you had me at “aseity.” But seriously, great response.

  • Brad Williams

    The slight of hand happens in the first 13 seconds. You cannot answer the question of “purpose” (and design) without going beyond mere empirical evidence. So, in a way, he is correct: we aren’t going off of empirical evidence, but that is not the only kind of evidence that exists in the universe.

  • http://michaelrjones.wordpress.com Michael

    I’m always puzzled when scientists attempt to speak on issues of philosophy and theology. They often ridicule critiques of science claiming that the critics are speaking on issues of which they lack the depth to discuss them cogently yet these same scientists feel free to speak on issues of metaphysics, divine ontology, and other such issues when they are clearly speaking outside their fields and their areas of expertise.

    When their supporters positively cite them in videos of such as the one above, they are illegitimately appeal to authority. (And we all supposedly learned about that fallacy in our undergrad.)

    Not to mention, as Brad notes above, when they speak on such issues they move beyond empiricism which means they have in that discussion abandoned the very grounds for the presuppositions they brought to the discussion.

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