Does the universe has a “purpose”? Say what?

November 26, 2007 | By | 13 Replies More

The Templeton Foundation is promulgating a set of short essays by twelve prominent thinkers and writers.  I’ve recently noticed these essays in several magazines.  Templeton asked the following question to its panel: “Does the Universe Have a Purpose?”   The answers ranged from “yes” to “not sure” to “unlikely” to “no.”  

Here’s what interested me about the project. Most of the respondents jumped in without pointing out any problems with the highly ambiguous word “purpose.”  There were several notable exceptions (Paul Davies, Peter William Atkins and Neil deGrasse Tyson). Most of the panelists, however, blithely ignored this conspicuous problem. 

I reacted to the Templeton question by thinking:  “Does the universe have a what?”  Obviously, stars and space dust don’t think.  If the “universe” (everything that exists, taken as a whole) doesn’t think, or if something big out there doesn’t think, how can the “universe” have a purpose? 

Most of the panelists must have assumed that a universe could think (or that something big out there thinks). Those panelists seems to be alluding to God.  Indeed, the Father of the Universe often slips in the back door when people discuss the “Purpose of Life.”  This tactic is always a cop-out, though.  In sum, here’s the problem with the question: The vague Templeton question seems to be either nonsensical or it is an invitation to sneak an unexplained (and equally vague) God into the explanation. 

For them, the question became: “Is there a God?”Those who invoke God as an explanation almost never consider how God Himself might have come into existence.  They take only the first small step of an eternal regress (God is responsible for X) and then they call it quits.  Nor do they produce any evidence showing how God was really responsible for the phenomenon they are attempting to explain. The people who rely on God as an explanation typically fatigue easily.  They are marathon runners who drop out at the third mile.  Those of us who consider “God” to be a human projection (rather than an independent reality) are inclined to press this issue further, until God falls back out of the equation.  Of course, not everyone sees God to be a human projection.  If we’re not careful, discussions about “purpose” end up being hidden arguments about the existence of God.  And as we’ve seen over the past several thousand years, these arguments almost never resolve on the basis of real evidence.

In my opinion, “God” often serves as a token for other deep concerns for most Believers.  I suspect that many of the panelists who concluded that the universe has some sort of “purpose” are nonetheless trying to answer some question–a real question.  What question are they really answering when they suggest that the universe has a “purpose?”   I suspect that they are translating the hopelessly vague “purpose” question into something they do understand, something amounting to one of these questions:

  • Do you find your world interesting? (See the essay of Bruno Guiderdoni).
  • Do you find the world to be beautiful or having grandeur?
  • Is there a big invisible Sentient Being out there?
  • Are you fascinated by the elegance and widespread applicability of natural laws that can be rigorously studied and tested?
  • Are you happy?
  • Are you terrified?
  • Are you capable of an overall love of life that seems genuine?
  • Would you fight to protect what you have?
  • Do you want, in some vague way to the question to be “yes” because it feels right in some ineffable way? (see the answers of John Haught, Jane Goodall & Eli Wiesel).
  • There’s yet another potential translation of the Templeton question—this one’s only for deeply honest people who don’t frighten easily.  It is a view put forth by Albert Camus, who stated “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.”   Put into the form of a question, “Do you find enough purpose in the universe, with enough confidence, that you will refrain from committing suicide?  Perhaps the less threatening way to ask this is to ask “Do you love life?”

These are questions I actually (more or less) understand.   Based on a careful reading, it seems like many answers to the “purpose” question are really addressing a wide variety of important concerns.  That the answers are so different could suggest that the panelists are actually answering different questions.

Cognitive science has shown that any real answer any deep question must ultimately be anchored in metaphor (see here, here, and here, and here) and emotion (see here and here).  The Templeton panelists barely mentioned these deep anchors, however, and this failure constitutes a lost opportunity to make something interesting out of a flowery yet incoherent question.

“Philosophical” questions are almost always questions about the nature or limitations of language. Questions about the ostensible purpose (or “meaning”) of life are thus, at bottom, questions about the meaning of “purpose” (or the meaning of “meaning”).  To really answer such a question requires a discussion of the nature and limits of language, as well as a discussion of the limits of the brains that use language.  Most writers lack the courage, the patience, the neuroscience or the humility to chase down these deeper issues, however.  Purpose? “Yes, of course” (or “No, of course not”).  Now what’s for dinner? 

It’s just too tempting to splash at the surface when a nonsensical question is constructed with proper syntax.  The proper syntax fools us into thinking that it’s a meaningful question.  Combine this with the constant temptation to anthropomorphize the universe and then endow it with a human version of “purpose.”  These approaches are especially likely when panelists are paid by a well-endowed foundation that prefers its panelists to find some sort of “purpose” in the universe. 

“Does the Universe Have a Purpose?” looks like a real question at first glance, but it has no coherent meaning, no real world traction.  With this question Templeton showed that it’s reach is greater than its grasp. The Templeton question proved to be merely an invitation to emote or (as three panelists recognized) a request to help Templeton re-write its question. 

“Does the Universe Have a Purpose?”  The correct answer is “Huh?”


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Category: Religion, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (13)

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  1. Alison says:

    The whole "purpose" hoo-ha is another human construct, and whatever way you want to interpret it, there will always be someone around to tell you that you're wrong. For something non-sentient, you could probably make a good argument that purpose is equivalent to function. (i.e., the purpose of a mousetrap is to catch mice. The purpose of a door is to allow restricted ingress and egress.) What they're really looking at when they anthropomorphize the world, the universe, whatever, is actually more like "what purpose would I like to imagine it serves for me, personally," which is kind of a dumb what-if game. It's a lot easier to ignore than the question "what is OUR purpose." The presumption there is that we, as humans, live under an umbrella of singular purpose, and anything we do that doesn't serve that purpose is wasteful. I've been searching various theological websites for a cut-and-dried definition of human purpose, and it's pretty depressing. It essentially comes down to "your purpose is to worship god so you can spend the rest of eternity worshipping him in heaven." Some go so far as to insult people who think that their purpose is to help others, or to become accomplished at doing a particular thing, or to be happy. . .fill in the blank with anything that would make a person feel like he or she is worthwhile for actually doing something positive.

    My feeling is that if we have a purpose, it's our right to decide what it is for ourselves. If the universe has a purpose, far be it for us to decide what it is. I'll tell you one thing, though, it's awfully big, so narrowing it down to a single purpose will be a monumental task. Oh, and I'll tell you another thing – it'll have nothing to do with philosophy. It'll be more like "The Universe's purpose is to hold all the planets and stuff in."

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Alison: Bravo! Truly.

    I would also offer this post:  "What is the Purpose of your Life?"

  3. There's another problem with the question. What do you mean by "Universe"? The word itself suggests it's somehow definable as One Thing. We know better, but even people who do know better have difficulty not speaking as if they don't.

    What it comes down to really, when you tease through all the semantics, is the question: why are we living where we are and to what end? That's a much more limited set of conditions, though possibly (as Alison suggests) no less arbitrary.

  4. Ben says:

    This was my favorite:

    I should mention first that this is a loaded question, with several hidden implications. A "purpose" presupposes a mind that conceived it, as well as the ability to implement it. In the present case, this means that the owner of the mind not only created the universe the way it is, but could have created another universe and decided to create the existing one for a specific reason. So the question really deals with the belief in a Creator who enjoys almost infinite power and freedom but, at the same time, goes through the very human process of pondering decisions and acting accordingly. In a way, this is a very anthropomorphic vision of God.

    A second aspect of the question concerns the motivation behind the purpose. What did God have in mind in creating the universe the way it is? Being the ones who ask the question, it is obvious that we see ourselves as at least part of God's goal. As pointed out by the defenders of the "anthropic principle," what is peculiar about the universe is that it happens to have just the right physical properties to give rise to life and, through life, to human minds. Such an anthropocentric view of the creation is, however, not readily reconciled with what is known of the evolutionary origin of humankind.

    Personally, I do not accept the implications of the term "purpose." Sticking to the facts, I prefer the undisputable statement that the universe happens to be such that certain events, including the generation of life and mind, were possible, perhaps even probable, if not obligatory. Instead of searching the "mind of God" for the explanation of this fact, I see it as an expression of reality and as a significant clue to the nature of this reality.

    . . .

    In my opinion, life and mind are such extraordinary manifestations of matter that they remain meaningful, however many universes unable to give rise to them exist or are possible. Diluting our universe with trillions of others in no way diminishes the significance of its unique properties, which I see as revealing clues to the "Ultimate Reality" that lies behind them.

    . . . 

    It will be noted that there is no logical need for a creator in this view. By definition, a creator must himself be uncreated, unless he is part of an endless, Russian-doll succession of creators within creators. But then, why start the succession at all? Why not have the universe itself uncreated, an actual manifestation of Ultimate Reality, rather than the work of an uncreated creator? The question is worth asking.

  5. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    From an existentialist point of view, it is really absurd to assume that anything in existence absolutely must have a purpose. purpose implies order, and to the theologians, order implies intelligence. Personally I am too concerned about getting through theach day to find purpose, order and intelligence in the stars.

  6. Boelf says:

    It seems there are three basic ways to come at this question. One is incidental purpose. For instance my purpose in the scheme of evolution is to survive long enough to reproduce and perhaps aid others of my species to do the same. My purpose in the economy is to produce wealth with my labor and to consume. This is unlikely to be the sense in which "purpose" is being invoked.

    As second sense would have the time and place of my birth and all the events that compose the arc of my life have been crafted to some end. While systems like evolution or economics are consequences of the way things tend to self organize the second purpose imposes a result. What strikes me as absurd about this idea is the notion of a being that could pull this off couldn't achieve any possible aim in a much easier and direct manner.

    Finally there is purpose we set for ourselves. I may choose to have children and take pride in them. I may look to their welfare and hopes for a fulling life. That may drive a desire for an income to be able to provide that hope and welfare for them. Or I just may love my job. It may incidentally serve the purpose of evolution or the economy but it is my decisions based on my chosen purpose that drives those events.

  7. grumpypilgrim says:

    Erich is correct: the only answer to this question is that the question is nonsensical. Humans can no more determine if the universe has a "purpose" than we can determine if there is life after death. It is beyond our ability to know. Thus, it does not matter if the universe has a "purpose" or not: even if it has a "purpose," we would never know.

  8. gatomjp says:

    The very human search for purpose I think comes from the deep NEED to believe that somehow, someway we are not inconsequential. It is an ego driven search and it is this same need that has fueled the creation of every religion.

  9. Erika Price says:

    When Stephen Hawking was asked, "What was there before the Big Bang?" and he wanted to demonstrate that the question was meaningless, he asked, "What's north of the north pole?" I think that fits for this question, too- it's a senseless question, an empty stream of words that no one can answer. You might as well ask what blue smells like or how many thoughts you can fit in a jar.

  10. Dan Klarmann says:

    I can only fit one thought in a jar: "Ouch." At least, that's what comes to mind when I jar my head.

    "Purpose" is like "Truth", a semantic entity with many conflicting referents. One man's truth is another's fantasy. "Purpose" has precise technical definitions in several fields, but these don't overlap by much.

    So my purpose here is to agree with everyone who doubts that the word can be meaningfully employed with respect to the infinite and ever-after. Some things just are.

  11. Brian Walker says:

    The following Cosmos Club concept has me living a life of enduring hope in a universe with a definite purpose. If it works for me, it could work for others. However, belief is all a matter of personal choice; this choice is yours.


    Creation supposes a creator! But, when there’s no-thing in a no-where realm, where is this nebulous creator supposed to dwell? I admit, as a Cosmic and practicing Cosmogonologist, even to me the ultimate mystery of the universe remains sacrosanct. I can readily understand that when a universal seed already exists, supposedly as a black hole of suppressed matter, it is well capable of being germinated, coming to fruition, and then reverting to become yet another universal seed. This is all down to the effort of the Ultimate Force within the seed, and easily explained as a matter of scientific logic. Once created, the original seed is de facto naturally endowed with its ever-lasting ability; its master, the Ultimate Force, part and parcel of its very being. But, how did this great big bundle of suppressed energy originate in the first place to constitute the seed together with its inherent code? The answer, with all due respect, defies the imagination of us all, and will in my opinion forever remain the unfathomable mystery of nature itself. And, please, don’t try introducing a Male-God-Creator in some no-where realm into the reckoning; it’ll only lead to the fermentation of even more religious mumbo-jumbo – And there’s far too much of this about already!

    I feel it is more than enough to understand the nature of the universe we find ourselves in, without striving to comprehend anything that came before it. And I’m sure that nature itself didn’t need any chapter-and-verse influence of a god-type entity, human-style, to have made its existence possible in the first place. Nature is just nature and will forever remain so – Just let it keep its secrets!

    Since my life became my work, and my work my life, I’ve strived to make sense of all that we form part of, and ventured to relate just how we’ve managed to evolve from nothing to something to somebody. And I’ve published my own theory related to the progression of Universal Intelligence from its explosive beginnings to the point it has reached now, and boldly suggested where it’s heading in the future. This, without doubt, makes me a Cosmogonologist, albeit a radical one, and regardless of what others may think of my Cosmogony, I haven’t yet encountered a single person who has been able to dispel the ideas that were psychically fed into my mind when I was cosmicated by powerful voices in my head, way back in 1980. It does sound crazy, doesn’t it? However, the content of my cosmication was not an iota as crazy as some of the specious ideas that other voices have fed into the minds of other people in the past; and their psychic experiences have, in part, become the basis of half-baked dogmas that have had their most sacred authority religiously cast in stone, it seems. Therefore, what does one do when confronted with such a diversity of religious beliefs and/or philosophies that desperately need to be de-personalised and superseded by a much more common sense belief that has a strictly scientific flavour? Old habits die hard, and the entrenched are most unlikely to capitulate easily. It’s all been said in my scripture, ‘On the Square plus One’; therefore, there’s no need to labour the point again. Nevertheless, regardless of opposition, some action must be taken to start the ball rolling, so to speak, in the direction of this much needed change. And this is just what my Cosmos Club stands for in the world today.

    . . .


    Cosmos Coconut Club

    Sri Lanka

    [Admin note: Edited for length. If anyone would like to know more about Brian's ideas, click on his name to go to his website.]

  12. Alison's post is right on the mark and, I am pleased to see, is supported by some others here.

    "Purpose' has strongly anthropocentric connotations and in all probability stems from from the attempt by early humans to attribute features of their own psychologies to components of the external world in their quest for understanding.

    Nevertheless, there is not clearly a high degree of evolutionary directionality in the observed universe.

    This is the theme of my latest book "The Goldilocks Effect" which can now be downloaded free from the "Unusual Perspectives" website.

  13. Jim Razinha says:

    Dawkins is not kind in his assessment of the Foundation in "The God Delusion." Ulterior motives on pushing science and religion together and all.

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