Does the Universe Have a Purpose? Your vote counts

Joe Hanson shared this quote from Michio Kaku: “Physicists are made of atoms. A physicist is an attempt by an atom to understand itself.”

And vorjack shared this from Phil Hellenes:

It’s like the universe screams in your face, “Do you know what I am? How grand I am? What are you, compared to me?”

And when you know enough science, you can just smile up at the universe and reply, “Dude, I AM you.”

Vorjack says, “I like the sentiment, but we’re only a tiny part of the universe.” And thus it’s a stretch to “[equate] ourselves with the universe because ‘we are all star dust’ or something similar.”

You are here.

I agree. Each of us is only a tiny part of the universe. A tiny, tiny part.

But undeniably a part of it nonetheless.

And that, it seems to me, has to be an essential consideration for considering the “Big Question” recently posed by the John Templeton Foundation: “Does the Universe Have a Purpose?

Neal deGrasse Tyson’s response to this question — “I’m not sure” — seems to have gone viral. That’s deservedly so, since it’s his usual Sagan-esque mix of science and near-poetry (and has already been transformed into another terrific NdGT-narrated YouTube video).

Tyson emphasizes how very, very tiny we are against the incomprehensible vastness of space and time. This is science, but it reads like one of the monologues spoken by the character God in the book of Job:

If you are religious, you might declare that the purpose of life is to serve God. But if you’re one of the 100 billion bacteria living and working in a single centimeter of our lower intestine (rivaling, by the way, the total number of humans who have ever been born) you would give an entirely different answer. You might instead say that the purpose of human life is to provide you with a dark, but idyllic, anaerobic habitat of fecal matter.

Tyson concludes:

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.

The problem there, as Kaku and Helles remind us above, is that our wishes for how the universe ought to be are part of the universe. A tiny, tiny part of it, perhaps, but a part of it nonetheless.

We have a say in this.

We cannot consider the question “Does the Universe Have a Purpose?” without considering the sub-question “Do I Have a Purpose?” or even the sub-question to that, “Do I Want to Have a Purpose?”

Answering “Yes” to that third question means answering “Yes” to the second. And that means — even if only in a very tiny, tiny way — answering “Yes” to the first.

Consider Jane Goodall’s response to Templeton’s question. Maybe all that talk of wonder and beauty and spirit is just her wishful thinking. But even so, as she argues there, the wishful thinking of Jane Goodall is also a part of the universe and thus must also be at least a part of what we consider when we ask if the universe has a purpose.

I’m not really disagreeing with Tyson here, just trying to approach the question differently than his essentially Thomistic take. He echoes scholastic arguments when he says:

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?

Many theologians have posed that question in just that way, of course answering, “God — God does the desiring, and God supplies the intent.” I believe that’s true, but I can’t supply any more evidence that it is than the God-character supplied to Job.

As Nancey Murphy said in her response to Templeton’s question: “Nothing can be known of any plan for the future perfection of the world or the human condition.”

So let’s try another answer to this question from Aquinas and Tyson: “Who would do the desiring?”

How about us? You and me — we can do the desiring.

That’s actually a terrific word for what we are capable of doing as incomprehensibly tiny parts of the universe. We can’t ensure any outcome, or impose our intent on the universe. But we can desire a purposeful outcome.

“The arc of the moral universe is long,” Dr. King said, “but it bends toward justice.” That’s a statement of faith, not of science. It’s a statement about the universe as we wish it to be rather than as it is — “random,” with “events that are purported to occur in our best interest … as numerous as other events that would just as soon kill us all.”

But our desiring, our wishing it to be, is also part of what is. A tiny, tiny part, perhaps, but there it is.

That’s why as much as I like the responses from Tyson, Goodall and Murphy, my favorite of all the responses from Templeton’s conversation comes from Elie Wiesel. Does the universe have a purpose?

“I hope so,” Wiesel said. “And if it doesn’t, it’s up to us to give it one.”

Does the universe have a purpose? Do you have a purpose? Do you want to have a purpose?

Three forms of the same question. And my answer is the same as those of Goodall, Tyson and Wiesel: Certainly, I’m not sure, I hope so.

  • Kubricks_Rube

    But our desiring, our wishing it to be, is also part of what is. A tiny, tiny part, perhaps, but there it is.

    This post brings to mind the end of Cloud Atlas (good movie, great book):

    “But don’t tell me about justice! [...] Oh, you’ll grow hoarse, poor & gray in caucuses! You’ll be spat on, shot at, lynched, pacified with medals, spurned by backwoodsmen! Crucified! Naive, dreaming Adam. He who would do battle with the many-headed hydra of human nature must pay a world of pain & his family must pay it along with him & only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!”

    Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?

  • AnonaMiss

    Though I understand that the point of your post is more poetic than an actual argument, the fact is that if we elevate our own interests to the level of “the purpose of the universe,” the universe has some pretty monstrous purposes and a whole ton of mutually contradicting purposes.

    Now, if you wanted to say that the purpose of the universe is the sum of the purposes of the sentient (or even animate!) beings within it, that would be another thing. But keeping in mind that these would be purpose-vectors in an n-dimensional intention-space, not just “positives” and “negatives”  on a 1-dimensional number line, the purpose of the universe would eventually be “That direction, in that magnitude. No wait, a baseball card collector just died, the universe now cares very slightly less about baseball cards.” The point being that if we define “purpose” in this way, it becomes just a very arcane measurement of the intentions of all that live within it. Still not a prescriptive purpose – still not a “should” or a “made for”, which is what I think most people mean by “purpose”.

    And even if we could get a constantly-updating feed of the purpose of the universe and use it as a way to steer our lives – the feedback loop would be a problem if we only included humanity, but let’s face it, in the entire universe, one species intentionally aligning themselves with the Purpose Vector is just static – at best we’d end up with a utilitarian “paradise,” with the consequent problems of justice, consent, and Omelas.

  • Random_Lurker

    Is Fred going all pantheistic on us? *wink wink nudge nudge*.  Or perhaps Toaist.  Or Jedi.  It’s an ancient idea that seems to be part of all major religions, even if only a small part on occasion.

    Cool.

  • Random_Lurker

     You’re assuming that only one purpose is possible.

  • arcseconds

    While I’ve got some sympathy with Fred here, I think it’s a piece of equivocation to say that because Fred has a purpose, the Universe has a purpose, as an answer to that question.

    If Fred has a purpose, the universe has a purpose in the same sense as it has chicken-pox.   It contains within it the varicella zoster virus and organisms infected with it, but the universe as a whole isn’t the sort of thing that can suffer from viral infections causing a skin rash.  It doesn’t have a skin, for a start.

    Someone asking ‘does the Universe have a purpose?’, isn’t asking ‘does it contain something within it with a purpose?’.  They want to know whether the Universe, considered as a whole, has a purpose.

    That a part has a purpose doesn’t entail that the whole has a purpose in this sense.  If Ayn Rand, Bono, King Abdullah and Federer all end up holidaying on the same resort island, but in different resorts, then while each may have a purpose, the population of the island as a whole doesn’t have a purpose.  They don’t have much in common with one another, they don’t know one another, and they don’t necessarily communicate with one another.

  • http://www.facebook.com/WingedWyrm Charles Scott

    Does the universe have a purpose?Yes, my purpose is for the universe is to supply a home for myself, those I care about, those I would care about if I knew them, and those the people I do or would care about do or would, themselves, care about.

    It does that.  It does that, by the way, whether that’s my purpose for it or not, but hey, nice that it does that.

    Does the universe have an absolute or objective purpose?  The question is nonsensical at the base of it.  There is no purpose absent something at least conscious enough to do the desiring, therefore purpose cannot be absolute or objective.

  • EllieMurasaki

    *shrugs* I’m pretty convinced that the actual problem with Omelas is that the kid in the room isn’t a volunteer.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ann-Unemori/100001112760232 Ann Unemori

    Check this out for another perspective: http://www.scifiwright.com/2012/06/earth-looked-so-small-as-to-make-me-ashamed-of-our-empire/

  • arcseconds

    If the Universe has a purpose, what makes us think we’ll like it?

    Frankly, if it ends up being the case that LaHaye is right, and it’s to glorify a petty tyrant god by the eventual violent slaughter and perpetual torture of anyone who doesn’t care to be a sycophant,  then I’d rather it be a godless, random place devoid of meaning.

    I’m also not especially fond of the science-fiction transhumanist idea it’s all about producing hypercephalic brainboxes, supercomputers or beings of pure energy, either. 

    In fact, any kind of purpose is going to leave some on the outer, isn’t it?

  • Water_Bear

    Yes, Fred, it is completely impossible to want your life to have a purpose without there being an objective meaning to the entire universe. Ugh.

    Your religion sounds fun, continue enjoying it, but don’t try to rope science in with it. They are not actually compatible, at a very basic philosophical level. A system built around empirically working out the natural laws of an indifferent universe cannot be adapted to service beliefs in an all-powerful interventionist god pushing your philosophy, not without leaving one of them fairly shredded.

    Seriously I cannot wait for “Fuck Atheists” week to be over. Maybe we can do another “Bad Jackie” week, those are always topical and fun.

  • depizan

    I’m not sure I even understand the question “Does your life have a purpose?”  What does it mean for one’s life to have a purpose?  For that matter, what does it mean for life or the universe to have a purpose?

    I’m fairly certain “Huh?” is not the expected answer to the questions here, but it’s all I’ve got.  You might as well ask me if my life has purple diagonal. I know what all the words in the sentence mean, but not in that context.

  • http://profiles.google.com/marc.k.mielke Marc Mielke

    There was a lovely variation of the Fine Tuning argument that seemed to have quite a bit of evidence that the universe was perfectly tuned for the production of black holes. 

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

     It must be time consuming for you desperately scouring the internet for anything you can twist and misread to mean “fuck atheists”.

  • Carstonio

    But our desiring, our wishing it to be, is also part of what is. A tiny, tiny part, perhaps, but there it is.

    What we wish to be, individually or collectively, dies with us unless we take action that makes the universe more like we wish it to be. Our thoughts, wishes and dreams are separate from the universe in the sense that they’re unreadable except through our actions.

    Purpose requires a sentient intelligence,  and again what we want our individual purposes to be is separate from the question of whether the universe has an inherent purpose. The latter is really a proxy for the question of whether deities exist, as if the universe was simply a car or a building intended to serve human needs. The common thread in the religions I’ve encountered involves defining or framing the universe in human terms, and to me that suggests ego or hubris. We shouldn’t assume that existence is about us, individually or collectively. (Imagine a religion that treated humanity as merely a bit player or an extra in the universal drama.)

  • http://lawschoolissoover.wordpress.com/ Andy M-S

    What do you get if you multiply six by nine?

    No, more seriously,  we exist within the universe, but the universe does not depend on any one of us.  That doesn’t mean that we can’t set a purpose for ourselves within our tiny corner of the universe that is meaningless *to the universe* but meaningful *to our tiny corner of it*.  Gandhi.  King.  Etc.  No big deal in the universe, but terrifically important to some of its residents.

    And this approach, while not denying the possible role of theology, has no need of it.

    BTW, 6×9=42, for the humor-impaired.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ericrboersma Eric Boersma

    6×9 is 54. I believe 6×7 would have been the problem you were looking for.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ericrboersma Eric Boersma

    “And when you know enough science, you can just smile up at the universe and reply, ‘Dude, I AM you.’”
    I prefer it put this way: Upon a long enough timeline, hydrogen will, with a little prodding, start to wonder how it got here, just where it is going with itself, and what’s for lunch. I feel like that’s a joke I stole from Douglas Adams, but if so I’m not sure from where.

  • Water_Bear

    I’ve been lurking here for the better part of a decade and have posted under a half-dozen names at different times, due to my poor memory for passwords. It’s hardly scouring to read the same blog you check in on every week and be pissed off by a familiar pattern re-emerging.

    Fred is an excellent window into the Evangelical world and into the mainstream American Christian culture as a whole, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t make him immune to criticism. This happens about every six months or so; the stars align and we get a string of posts like today’s delightful Psalm or the Noah’s Arc thing a few months ago with the one-two punch of atheists being morally inferior and self-deluded. You don’t need to misread when you keep getting hit with the same message over and over, believe it or not that’s just regular reading.

  • http://lawschoolissoover.wordpress.com/ Andy M-S

     Exhibit A.  Are you unfamiliar with the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?

  • http://www.facebook.com/ericrboersma Eric Boersma

    Oh, goodness. Total brain fart. In my defense, I’ve been writing code basically non-stop since Friday evening. :)

  • http://lawschoolissoover.wordpress.com/ Andy M-S

     Ah.  In that case, all is forgiven.  :-D

  • Carstonio

    Exactly. We have no evidence that the universe is anything but indifferent to our existence. There’s no evidence that value has inherent existence. What’s important is that we matter to ourselves.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Carl Sagan put it rather well, I thought: “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”

  • Hth

     Shorter Water_Bear:  Sometimes the blog that I regularly read in Patheos’s Progressive Christian section espouses some progressive Christian beliefs, such as the grievously insulting Christian belief that there is some reason to be a Christian.

  • Tehanu

    ” There’s no evidence that value has inherent existence.”

    You may be right. I prefer the Hogfather idea that it’s important to believe in value — “mercy and justice” is how Pratchett put it — precisely because there is no evidence.  And you don’t have to believe in Tim Lahaye’s petty tyrant god to do it.

  • Madhabmatics

    existentialism rules

  • arcseconds

     Maybe it’s beetles? I hear God is rather fond of those.

  • flat

    Does the universe have a purpose?

    Let’s find out.

  • arcseconds

    Are you reading the same blog post as me?
     
    There’s very little here that seems particularly incompatible with science, and nothing that seems directed at atheists particularly.

    A bunch of scholars have been asked a ‘big question’.  Fred’s given some of those responses.   They don’t seem very theistic responses to me.   Fred’s response doesn’t seem very theistic, either, frankly.  “it’s got a purpose in so far as we have purposes” is hardly a theistic principle.  It looks like ordinary first-year secular value theory class to me.

    Perhaps when you say “atheist”, you really mean “nihilist”?

  • Mary Kaye

    I don’t see any inherent connection between whether the universe has a purpose and whether I do.   If the universe were in fact to have a purpose, that wouldn’t oblige me agree with or cooperate with it.  And I could have a purpose without the universe having one.  I think the connection might be more apparent to a monotheist.

    If I had to venture a statement as a polytheistic Pagan scientist, I’d say that if the universe has a purpose, it’s like the purpose of a piece of really good art–expressible only by enacting the art, or in this case the Universe, and wildly distorted and oversimplified by any lesser explication.  But I’d cautiously agree with self-awareness being part of it somehow.

    I have to say, while I don’t necessarily agree that Fred is down on atheists or non-Christians overall, this post made me feel tired instead of uplifted.  The equation of universe-purpose and me-purpose just seems like a semantic sleight of hand meant to produce agreement rather than explore understanding. 

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_2CUJHSQSQYTYT4DPZSKTVESYNQ B

    If it upsets you read a blog post expressing beliefs that you feel are incompatible with atheism, maybe stick to atheist blogs?

    Because it’s pretty predictable that Christian blogger on a Progressive Christian blog channel is going to say something expressing a Christian viewpoint every now and again.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    “Who would do the desiring?” How about us? You and me — we can do the desiring.

    Yeah, that’s always been my take on it. The purpose of something, be it a hammer or a cubic inch of short intestine or spacetime, is always a two-place predicate: “what is the purpose of this object X?” is a shorthand version of “what is the purpose of this object X to some agent Y?” where Y is presumed to be the person asking the question, or sometimes the person answering it.

    Where there are no agents, there are no purposes, merely causes and effects.

    And, sure, if there’s an agent who created the universe, then it might make sense to talk about that agent’s purposes being the real purposes of the universe, in the same way that it makes sense to say that the purpose of a hammer is to drive nails even if I’m currently using it to pound veal.

    But it also makes sense to say that the purpose of that hammer is to pound veal.

    “The arc of the moral universe is long,” Dr. King said, “but it bends toward justice.” That’s a statement of faith, not of science.

    I have to disagree with this. It’s a statement of faith, sure, but it’s not not a statement of science.

    If we know what we mean by justice, we can look at events over time and ask whether we’re trending towards justice or not, and it turns out that science is a useful tool for asking those kinds of questions. To assert that we’re bending towards justice is to make a statement that can be justified or challenged using that tool.

    Right now, the purpose of the universe to me is to provide me opportunities to learn. 

  • AnonymousSam

    I may not be the universe, but I am, most definitely, a universe.

  • The_L1985

     In the Hitchhiker’s series, Arthur Dent’s brain contains a corrupted bit of The Ultimate Question about Life, the Universe, and Everything (the Ultimate Answer is, of course, 42).  When Arthur and Ford attempt to tease out The Ultimate Question using an incomplete set of homemade Scrabble tiles, they get “WHAT DO YOU GET WHEN YOU MULTIPLY SIX BY NINE…”

    So yes, the math is wrong.  It’s kind of supposed to be, in canon.

  • The_L1985

     I am neither Christian nor atheist and I’m not seeing any such bias at all.

    Granted, Fred’s posts are all slanted in favor of Christianity, but since Fred is a Christian, it’s rather hard to see how you would expect him to not have a personal viewpoint that is also slanted in that direction.  It would be like expecting you to write about your wonderful relationship with the gods.

  • The_L1985

    I’ve always loved this view.  “No man does but worlds die within him” is how I think one poet put it?

  • AnonaMiss

     @EllieMurasaki:disqus : I agree that the biggest problem with Omelas is that the kid in the room isn’t a volunteer. (And is incapable of consent due to age, so if it has to be a kid, it’s inherently wrong). But my personal ethical intuition says that even if it were a volunteer, I’d be uncomfortable staying. I wouldn’t judge others for staying, but beyond the lack of and inability to consent there’s something just plain wrong about it to me, an injustice in partaking of the fruits of someone’s suffering who gets none themselves, even if they’ve volunteered to do all the work so y’all can enjoy.

    Even before the doctrine of penal substitution bothered me on an intellectual level it bothered me on an emotional level, because at the time I still believed it. It bothered me a lot that Jesus had suffered for my sins, because I really hated the idea that someone had suffered on my behalf. If I could have, I would have taken my part of the burden back – or thought I would have anyway, since talk is cheap and my teenage mind was full of heroics. And once the kid in the room is a volunteer, what is Omelas but penal substitution?

  • AnonaMiss

     I was unable to get any further than the paragraph where Wright decried attempts to help ourselves because, effectively, every atrocity that’s ever happened has been because humanity tried to help ourselves. Reminds me of what Fred says about being so vigilant against wolves in sheep’s clothing that one immediately rejects anything that looks like a sheep.

  • EllieMurasaki

    I’m paralleling more to the person who’s hosting a party and who therefore spends days cleaning and decorating and cooking and hours making sure everyone’s having fun and days cleaning up after, without actually having any fun at the party themselves. And if it’s a volunteer, they can withdraw their consent at any time, so if you wanted to share the burden you could put your name on the list to go sit in the room and suffer between when the person before you has had enough and when you have.

  • Tricksterson

    You’ve been writing code when you don’t know that 9×6 doesn’t equal 42?  Uh-oh.

  • Random_Lurker

     Points for the Hitchiker reference!

    For the others, yes, 6×9=54, not 42. That’s the joke… you have to read the books to get it.  It’s one of those cult classic kind of things.

  • Tricksterson

    If the universe has a purpose, I doubt we’ll ever be able to figure it out.  And if we do, as soon as we do everyone will insist on their own interpretation of that purpose.

  • http://lightningbug.blogspot.com lightning

     Actually, it is correct.  In base 13.

  • http://heathencritique.wordpress.com/ Ruby_Tea

    I have to say, while I don’t necessarily agree that Fred is down on atheists or non-Christians overall, this post made me feel tired instead of uplifted. The equation of universe-purpose and me-purpose just seems like a semantic sleight of hand meant to produce agreement rather than explore understanding. 

    I’m inclined to mostly agree with this.  The whole posts smacks just a bit too much of bland kumbaya-ing.  If it feels good and sounds nice, then it must be true.  And boy, wouldn’t it be great if all our best wishes and hopes could coalesce and imbue the universe with love and puppies?

    As for whether or not Fred is down on atheists, I’m inclined to say yes, although I do not think it is conscious or malicious.  As I’ve said before when Fred writes about atheists, he just doesn’t get us.  At all.  And I think he would like to think that the Bible isn’t really down on atheists, either, but fighting against that fact is spitting into the wind.  I just think he can’t wrap his head around the idea of what it might be like not to believe.

  • http://lightningbug.blogspot.com lightning

    What is a “purpose”?  Can something inanimate or non-intelligent be said to have a purpose?  Does it make sense to say that a rock at the top of a hill has a “purpose” to roll downhill?  If so, it’s perilously close to the Catholics’ “natural law”, where everything has a purpose, which can be divined by a group of old men in penis hats contemplating their, uh, navels.

    The more I think about it, the more I think that the Universe was created by an Infinite Being as the equivalent of a middle school science fair project.

  • Laertesweb

    I’m more or less an atheist and I don’t feel like I’m under attack here.  I’m not a famously thick-skinned, impossible-to-offend sort either.  Is it possible you’re being more sensitive than usual today?

  • Randall M

     depizan said, “I’m
    not sure I even understand the question “Does your life have a
    purpose?”  What does it mean for one’s life to have a purpose?  For that
    matter, what does it mean for life or the universe to have a purpose?

    I’m fairly certain “Huh?” is not the expected answer to the questions
    here, but it’s all I’ve got.  You might as well ask me if my life has
    purple diagonal. I know what all the words in the sentence mean, but
    not in that context.”This.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    I was unable to get any further than the paragraph where Wright decried
    attempts to help ourselves because, effectively, every atrocity that’s
    ever happened has been because humanity tried to help ourselves.

    How convenient an excuse to shirk any chance to improve the lot of anyone except rich white guys.

  • BaseDeltaZero

    I think he’s drawing a distinction between ‘actions done because they are beneficial to oneself, which also benefits everyone’, and ‘actions done because they are the right thing to do, which also benefits everyone’.  Honestly, although he’s obviously a very conservative sort of Christian, with whom I’d probably disagree with on all sorts of moral questions, I kind of like his viewpoint – focusing on scale as a source of significance is entirely missing the point.

  • http://lawschoolissoover.wordpress.com/ Andy M-S

    My point in citing to H2G2 is that in that story, the universe DOES have a purpose–finding out what the answer is to 6×9.  There is a purpose, it’s just what we would consider a TRIVIAL purpose.  It may in fact be that if the universe has A purpose, it’s trivial.  But that doesn’t mean that the components of the universe (e.g., us) can’t have their own purposes vis-a-vis one another…


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