Pharyngula

Those sneaky rascals at the Templeton Foundation have asked one of those ridiculous questions that gets some otherwise rational people stumbling over themselves to give an inoffensive answer: does the universe have a purpose? Of course, the irrational people have no trouble piping up with a happy “Yes!”, which should clue everyone in, as Larry notes, that it’s a gimmick question designed to provoke a range of waffly answers … and waffles, especially the tepid, limp kind, are the stock-in-trade of the Templeton House of Waffles.

I’d say “no, there is no evidence of universal purpose and no reason to assume one,” and be done with it. Except, perhaps, to ask those who say “yes” to specify exactly what that purpose is, and how they know it.

Near as I can tell, the primary purposes of the universe as discerned from the casual expressions of religion’s proponents are 1) to bias victory in local football games, and 2) to regulate the appropriate orifices into which certain people are allowed to place their penises. How the creation of Betelgeuse, the concentration of planetary material in our solar system in one body which we can’t reach and which is uninhabitable to us, and the ubiquity and success of bacteria all play into these purposes is unknown to me … it must be one of God’s mysteries.

Comments

  1. #1 Christian Burnham
    October 19, 2007

    Oh yes, the universe has a purpose: to find a good-looking universe of the other gender, settle down and have lots of baby universes.

  2. #2 Ken Cope
    October 19, 2007

    The universe is a vast conspiracy on my behalf. Am I not at its center?

  3. #3 J Myers
    October 19, 2007

    I have no patience for the “life has no meaning w/o god” trope. Theists don’t seem to understand that life has no more meaning even if god exists than it does if he doesn’t. Eternal heavenly bliss is a reward; it is not somehow inherently meaningful. Whenever anyone asks “how can your life having any meaning w/o god,” what I hear is “how do I get the eternal reward that I really, really want if god doesn’t exist?” Well… the theists should be able to answer that question themselves.

  4. #4 Brownian
    October 19, 2007

    Sorry, Ken, but the universe is clearly created to contain me. Look at how fine-tuned it is: imagine, if only one of my ancestors had died before procreating, I would not be here.

    I saw this silliness in American Scientist and had a conniption in the magazine store. I had to eat two puppies just to calm myself.

  5. #5 inkadu
    October 19, 2007

    I like Sagan’s “human beings are the universe’s way to know itself.”

    But if you think about it too much, you realize that the universe doesn’t really care one way or the other what it knows.

    I think PZed’s right. It’s a trap question. When you say, “No, the universe has no purpose,” people clutch their pearls and go all atwitter.

    I think most of us — I did certainly, did any of you? — have thought about the end of the world. For me, it was when my science teacher explained that the sun would engulf the earth. I of course thought we’d be well off the planet by then, but another part of me considered what it would mean. If I help someone, and they help someone, and then they help someone, it’s kind of like living forever… but, if everyone dies, then even your little ripple effect dies, too. The sun doesn’t care that you helped an old lady cross the street when it gobbles up the planet a few billion years later.

    I think the “purpose of the universe” is pretty closely tied to mortality for that reason. If the universe has no purpose, there’s nothing eternal that you can contribute to and thus preserve a measure of immortality.

    Tough tittie.

  6. #6 Dan
    October 19, 2007

    The universe is a thing of my imagining, and therefore has a purpose.

    All you wafflers? Just skip straight to idealistic solipsism. Logically irrefutably and elegant.

  7. #7 Diane
    October 19, 2007

    I don’t know about the universe, but isn’t Earth’s purpose to calculate the answer to the ultimate question about life, the universe, and everything?

  8. #8 Schmeer
    October 19, 2007

    The Universe is still groing and expanding, it hasn’t really found itself yet. Give it time and it will settle down, find a purpose and meet one of those good-looking universes of the opposite gender that Christian mentioned(or maybe the same gender as long as religion doesn’t spread beyond Earth).

  9. #9 Warren
    October 19, 2007

    The Zennish response to such a question is mu. (Unask the question.)

    Asking if the universe has a purpose is asking the wrong thing, because it’s only human consciousness (as far as we know) that possesses the idea of “purpose” to begin with.

    Thus asking if the universe has a purpose points to hubris inherent in assuming things exist for some reason that suits us. It’s on par with asking, Why is a tree?

    Now if they were to ask whether the universe has a porpoise, I’d say it has several, at the very least.

    Think of it as the flipperside of the question.

  10. #10 Hans
    October 19, 2007

    I don’t know about the universe, but isn’t Earth’s purpose to calculate the answer to the ultimate question about life, the universe, and everything?

    I thought we already knew the answer to that, thanks to the good book(s). Now what was the question again?

  11. #11 Steve LaBonne
    October 19, 2007

    Do these people ever think about the utter insignificance of earth and its inhabitants relative to the unimaginable vastness of the universe? If the universe HAD a purpose it would be vanishingly unlikely to have anything to do with the likes of us. (Of course if you point that out to a delusional person s/he will probably start babbling about the anthropic principle, sigh.)

  12. #12 TW
    October 19, 2007

    Two out of eight responses so far mention the universe procreating. If I wanted to assign a purpose, I’d say that’s it, sorta. Extrapolating from what I see life doing around me, I could accept that the purpose of a universe is to make another universe. But rather than meeting another universe (which negates the term) I’d see it more as a constant process morphing from chicken to egg to chicken to egg… Just not sure if we’d be in the chicken phase or the egg phase right now.

  13. #13 inkadu
    October 19, 2007

    Two out of eight responses so far mention the universe procreating. If I wanted to assign a purpose, I’d say that’s it, sorta.

    Yeah, but what’s the purpose of that?

    I do like the point that eternal reward is just as pointless (maybe more so) as anything else. There is no ultimate point.

    Speaking of mu, what is the average golf handicap for a cow?

  14. #14 Louise Van Court
    October 19, 2007

    What is so sneaky about asking that question? Haven’t people been doing so since the beginning of human history?
    Several of the commenters seem to be saying just don’t ask the question at all. Yet our human minds want to ask it.

  15. #15 Gingerbaker
    October 19, 2007

    I thought that the purpose of our Universe was to help keep the Multiverse from collapsing, by keeping those stringy things in all the right dimensions. Or something… like, whatever.

  16. #16 Glen Davidson
    October 19, 2007

    The closest we can come to discerning a purpose in the univers is that it exists to bring us to life and then to kill us all. SLOT does have some meaning to evolution, of course, which is that eventually it’s going to make life and evolution impossible.

    Sure it’s a trap question–what else would you expect from them but a question designed to make us give unpopular answers? What is not especially hard to do is to make them squirm when they come up with the universe’s “purposes” for us, since it’s clearly indifferent to us arising, and will as indifferently “kill” us all.

    Glen Davidson
    http://tinyurl.com/2kxyc7

  17. #17 Philboid Studge
    October 19, 2007

    J Myers touches on an important point in comment #3.

    No theist has ever been able to explain what God All-Smitey’s “purpose” could possibly be either.

    To endow this imaginary deity with an uber-purpose that can’t be questioned further is the work of demented fuckwits.

    IMHO.

  18. #18 Thony C.
    October 19, 2007

    The purpose of the Universe is to make me suffer the stupidity of people asking what the purpose of the Universe is.

  19. #19 Leukocyte
    October 19, 2007

    The answer to the question is 42. At least according to Douglas Adams.

  20. #20 J
    October 19, 2007

    The purpose of the universe is to create waffles for me to consume, duh.

  21. #21 Dustin
    October 19, 2007

    The purpose of life is to live it.

    A platitude? Sure, but it’s better than devoting thousands of pages of religious literature to the subject.

    There’s also the Arthur C. Clarke angle:
    “Why is the universe here?”
    “Well, where else would it be?”

  22. #22 AgnosticOracle
    October 19, 2007

    I think Kurt Vonnegut answered that question very well:

    I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you different.
    — Kurt Vonnegut

  23. #23 Warren
    October 19, 2007

    Speaking of mu, what is the average golf handicap for a cow?
    Posted by: inkadu

    What an udderly ridiculous question.

    (Jeez, it’s gonna be one of those kinds of Fridays, it seems.)

    Louise Van Court: More seriously, though, it’s not that the question of universal “purpose” shouldn’t be asked; rather, my point is that in asking if the universe has a purpose — whether one answers yes or no — one is already assigning something arbitrary and human (the assumption of “meaning” being meaningful) to an object which might well be every bit as arbitrary, but certainly is not human.

    It, uh, “frames” the object of inquiry with an inappropriate context, which is why the question itself doesn’t have any real meaning.

  24. #24 The Stone
    October 19, 2007

    Purpose of the universe in two frames:

    A universe with a god:
    It usually serves that god. A universe full of slaves. An utterly horrific thought, and also very boring. Certainly biblical accounts of creation do no justice to the incredible morphological diversity found throughout the universe. Why would such a vain god miss out on a chance to self-glorify by omitting such objects from its public record? Indeed some objects may be unobservable. Thus, the presence of a creator-god becomes still less likely to become a statistical zero (though in science few things can be determined to be mathematically zero though any god’s existence may yet be proven to be a mathematical zero probability).

    A universe without a god:
    Each bit of it is allowed to determine its own destiny with or without a purpose “in mind”. Vastly more interesting (no pun intended). This way, beauty may be hidden in obscure places waiting for those (with purpose to find beauty) determined to find them and hopefully share with other thinking creatures.

  25. #25 Todd
    October 19, 2007

    We humans aren’t the purpose,
    Though we’re so much in surplus,
    For without us
    The octopus
    Would surely run this circus.

  26. #26 Taz
    October 19, 2007

    Asking if the universe has a purpose is asking the wrong thing, because it’s only human consciousness (as far as we know) that possesses the idea of “purpose” to begin with.

    But aren’t we part of the universe? Maybe not a big part, but a part none the less. So if my purpose right now is to make it to 5 so I can plop my ass in a bar stool, isn’t that part of the purpose of the universe? And why the human bias? When my cat’s making a beeline for the litter box he has a definite purpose in mind.
    When people ask the question, however, they invariably mean an overriding single purpose for the existence of the universe, and that’s no different from asking if god exists. I see no evidence for either.

  27. #27 PalMD
    October 19, 2007

    Has anyone noticed a theme toward the universe having a purpose related to food or sex?
    I do agree, by the way.

  28. #28 sailor
    October 19, 2007

    We have purposes
    We are part of nature
    Therefore nature has purpose
    IF NATURE HAS PURPOSE THERE MUST BE A GOD!!!!!!!

    See anyone can write like a fundie…

  29. #29 Lisa
    October 19, 2007

    The purpose of the Universe is to make me suffer the stupidity of people asking what the purpose of the Universe is.

    I can’t stop laughing at that one. And I suspect it is quite accurate.

    I just discovered this blog a few days ago. I am a moron when it comes to science, but I enjoy the hell out of this site anyway. I have especially enjoyed the clever comments. You win the award for Wittiest Commenters Ever.

  30. #30 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    October 19, 2007

    what is the average golf handicap for a cow?

    Well, first consider a spherical cow…

    Speaking of considering, to consider a purpose to the universe is related to the question “why is there something instead of nothing” with the correct answer “why not”. Both alternatives, “why/why not”, is as uninformative, in the absence of studying empirical evidence.

    Looking at empirical evidence we find that “purpose” and “nothing” are hypothesized events outside the distribution of observed events. No laws or initial conditions have been found to have “purpose” or describe “nothing”. There is nothing we can say in such cases.

    Except mu.

  31. #31 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    October 19, 2007

    what is the average golf handicap for a cow?

    Well, first consider a spherical cow…

    Speaking of considering, to consider a purpose to the universe is related to the question “why is there something instead of nothing” with the correct answer “why not”. Both alternatives, “why/why not”, is as uninformative, in the absence of studying empirical evidence.

    Looking at empirical evidence we find that “purpose” and “nothing” are hypothesized events outside the distribution of observed events. No laws or initial conditions have been found to have “purpose” or describe “nothing”. There is nothing we can say in such cases.

    Except mu.

  32. #32 Ken Cope
    October 19, 2007

    Oh, Brownian. You’re one of the silliest hallucinations I’ve ever entertained.

  33. #33 Dan
    October 19, 2007

    This seems like an appropriate time to whip out one of my favorite aphorisms:

    If you need someone else to tell you what the meaning of your life is, then your life doesn’t have any meaning. QED.

  34. #34 Rey Fox
    October 19, 2007

    No purposes but those we create for ourselves. I don’t see why it being any different makes it better. What if we were part of a purpose that we have no say in creating? That was laid out before we were born? And that would, almost by definition, conflict with what I would like to do? Well then there had better be a pretty darn good reason for that purpose, right?

    Christian purposes all seem pretty limited. Eternal bliss, like has been said before, isn’t inherently meaningful, and is inherently selfish, particularly when you consider your friends that might get sent the other way for worshipping the wrong deity. Is our purpose to glorfiy God and dwell in his kingdom? Well, for one thing, why does he need glorifying? And if we were all meant to dwell in eternal happiness, why didn’t he just create us that way? Is God some sort of elitist? We have to complete the initiation before we can be accepted into his gang? Or, in the Spawn comics theology, is it just the draft pick for the big war against the forces of evil (who God also created, perhaps because he likes a good fight as much as we do)?

    None of it really seems any more noble than simply being loved, helping others, and occasionally running nekkid through the autumn bluebells goin’ “thbbft!”

  35. #35 Dahan
    October 19, 2007

    #27, “Has anyone noticed a theme toward the universe having a purpose related to food or sex?
    I do agree, by the way.”

    I think that’s why WE exist. Not the universe. Well, that’s why I exist anyways. That and…no, that’s it.

  36. #36 Mike
    October 19, 2007

    Lisa, type “molly” into the “search this blog” field above left. I believe you’ll appreciate the results.

  37. #37 Jeff D
    October 19, 2007

    I prefer to play the semantic game in which I distinguish “meaning” (which any of us can find or create in various contexts, as we wish) from “purpose.” I forget where I read it — maybe it was in an essay or lecture by Gregory Bateson: A purpose is a relationship, not a “thing” that any other phenomenon (planet, organism, etc.) has or possesses. As such, “purpose” is sensitively dependent on the situation or the system being evaluated and on the values, needs, wants, and presuppositions of whoever is doing the evaluating.

    There is no overarching “purpose” or “meaning” to the universe or the solar system or nature as a whole, and we are not “owed” a purpose or a meaning.

  38. #38 jfatz
    October 19, 2007

    I can seriously not stop laughing at your 2nd point. 8-D

  39. #39 RamblinDude
    October 19, 2007

    Can’t you all see that denying the Godly purpose of the universe is no different than the critic of air saying, “Well, I can breathe just fine, and I don’t believe in the purpose of air.” This isn’t a rational response. Breathing requires purpose, not a profession of belief in purpose. Likewise, logical reasoning requires God as the purpose of the universe, not a profession of belief in purpose.

    Of course the atheist can give a purpose; it’s because God is the purpose and that’s the point. It’s because God exists that the purpose is possible. The atheist can give a reason for a purpose, but within his own worldview he cannot account for his purpose.

    Sigh… Oh, sailor, what are we going to do with these people?

  40. #40 Bob of QF
    October 19, 2007

    Isn’t it obvious?

    The purpose of the universe is to exist long enough for post #37 to exist on THIS PAGE.

    Who needs anything more?

  41. #41 Dwimr
    October 19, 2007

    I used to think there was no purpose to the universe.

    Until I saw a picture of Dembski’s Sweater.

    Now I know that the universe has existed for the sole purpose of evolving creatures (sheep) which, when shorn, produce a substance which can be made into that sweater.

    Now that the sweater exists, the universe has no further purpose.

  42. #42 Dustin
    October 19, 2007

    Actually, that sweater existed around the time of the big bang, and only the universe’s subsequent expansion is sufficient to account for the sweater’s immense size.

  43. #43 Marcus Ranum
    October 19, 2007

    Of course the universe has a purpose. We humans are the penultimate step to god’s plan of creating machine intelligences. He did the whole thing so that we biotic life-forms would evolve to the point where eventually we would make computers and immanentize the cyber overmind.

    We are getting close! Eat all the Ben and Jerry’s you can, while you still can.

  44. #44 caynazzo
    October 19, 2007

    Socratically, we could ask what shape this universe has and arrive at a form and function association, such as, the universe has a giant god-shaped hole in it.

  45. #45 Dustin
    October 19, 2007

    ZOMG! TEH SINGULARITY IS NEER!

  46. #46 jonboy
    October 19, 2007

    My 10 cents worth. Is not the cosmos is its own cause, purpose and designer?

  47. #47 Warren
    October 19, 2007

    Taz: Yeah, the cat’s got a purpose; however, the introspection required to ask things such as what am I doing and why did my human change kitty litter brands on me again, in addition to what is the purpose of the universe, unless it’s to allow me to pee in a catbox is pretty much — again, as far as we can tell — the exclusive bourn of humans.

    In order to ask what the purpose of something is, IOW, one must be aware first of the concept of purpose. Since we’re one of the very few tool-making animals (suggesting we impute purpose on objects, at the very least to bend them to specific ends), I think the odds are that most, possibly all, other species lack the sophistication necessary to speculate on the purposes or meanings of pretty much anything. (Otherwise, I think, they’d be making tools too. And then we’d be screwed.)

    To my mind the question of purpose is self-centered, ultimately; neither the answers to questions of purpose nor the questions themselves illuminate the thing being interrogated half as well as they illuminate the interrogator. Asking why something exists is (I think) a cognate of asking “Well, what value does it have for me? What can it do for me? What can I get out of it?”*

    Looked at another way, if I stub my toe on the coffee table and proceed to be angry at the table for having been there, I’m projecting intent on the object — an intent that objectively doesn’t exist. Similarly, while you might rationally ask someone why they insist on blathering endlessly on a given blog about an obtuse philosophical point, asking something like the universe a similar question (Gee, universe, why are you here and what are you doing?) just doesn’t make sense. It’s asking a question from the wrong frame of reference.

    Hence mu.

    ====

    * Or, in brute industrialist terms, how can I exploit and leverage this to achieve maximum profit and power?

  48. #48 Phoenician in a time of Romans
    October 19, 2007

    Of course it has a purpose.

    That purpose is to inexorably decay, grinding down all of our hopes and striving into nothing, ultimately becoming static and changeless with everything the human race has ever done or dreamed about rendered pointless and forgotten.

    Pleasant dreams, kiddies.

  49. #49 June
    October 19, 2007

    The purpose of the universe is to enable purpose to exist, i.e. to give existence to purpose. It’s like your pantry … lots of ingredients like time, light, matter, energy, space … all ready to make brownies or a 3-bean salad.

  50. #50 tsig
    October 19, 2007

    The Universe with a purpose. How quaint. Does it also have free will? Fall in love?

    Believers do not see the real world but only a fun house mirror the distorts their face into a huge illusion.

  51. #51 No One of Consequence
    October 19, 2007

    My only problem with this idea of “No purpose but those we create” is this. What of the children who are born with disabilities that prevent them from making their own choices in life?

  52. #52 noncarborundum
    October 19, 2007

    Speaking of mu . . .

    Way OT, but my 11-year-old daughter recently presented me with evidence that the knock-knock joke is still a living, productive art form:

    Her: Knock knock.
    Me: Who’s there?
    Her: Interrupting cow.
    Me: Interrup . . .
    Her (very loudly) MU!!!

    It is nearly impossible to get the whole phrase “Interrupting cow who?” in before the cow interrupts. I managed it only once (she was very chagrined).

  53. #53 Taz
    October 19, 2007

    To my mind the question of purpose is self-centered, ultimately; neither the answers to questions of purpose nor the questions themselves illuminate the thing being interrogated half as well as they illuminate the interrogator.

    But in a way they’re one and the same. We are part of the universe. The fact that we’ve evolved to the point where we can ask “what is the purpose of it all” means a part of the universe is asking that question. Is that a significant event? I don’t know.

  54. #54 Steve LaBonne
    October 19, 2007

    Answer to #49: the “we” in that phrase is communal, not solipsistic. Such a child’s life has great meaning for those who love him / her.

  55. #55 D Adams
    October 19, 2007

    The ultimate “purpose” of the universe can only be known at the end of time, whenever that is. There’s a small chance that we might be important as a transitory stage in it’s development, but our technological children will probably surpass us by orders of magnitude. They, and their descendents, may perceive “purpose” in an entirely different context.

  56. #56 noncarborundum
    October 19, 2007

    Such a child’s life has great meaning for those who love him / her.

    Amen.

    Or, perhaps, given the circumstances, “hear, hear!”.

  57. #57 Taz
    October 19, 2007

    RamblinDude – Is that actual fundie writing or a parody? I can’t tell the difference anymore.

  58. #58 Sastra
    October 19, 2007

    Does the universe have a purpose? Or are purposes only possessed by individuals?

    You can approach that question the same way you might try to figure out if you loved someone because they were rich, or for themselves. Do a thought experiment and ask “would I still love this person if they were poor?” Separate universal meaning from individual meaning.

    So let’s say for the sake of argument that the universe has a purpose, but when you come to understand it, it fills you with boredom, depression, terror, or despair. The purpose of the universe is not your purpose.

    Still love it? Find meaning here? Relieved that at least the universe “has a purpose?” If not, then go for that second one.

  59. #59 RamblinDude
    October 19, 2007

    RamblinDude – Is that actual fundie writing or a parody? I can’t tell the difference anymore.

    It’s a parady of an actual fundy argument The original made as much sense.

  60. #60 poke
    October 19, 2007

    Although the question is awkward and poorly stated, I think the most accurate answer is, “Yes, the universe does have a purpose, and that purpose is impersonal and of no relevance to human affairs.” (This is abusing the word “purpose” somewhat, but precision in language is overrated.) I find the whole “we create our own purpose” rah-rah secular humanist claptrap to be as laughable as theism.

    I’m not even sure what it means to “create” meaning or purpose. If the idea is that I can interpret the universe or my place in it how I please (meaning-wise), then it’s wrong. The universe is impersonal; my place in it is inconsequential; nothing I do is of “ultimate” value or meaning. Realizing this doesn’t turn us into crazy amoral hedonists because that’s not within our behavioral repertoire as social animals. We have no choice but to keep on doing what we’re doing, and the only reason we think otherwise is we have limited understanding of ourselves.

    And don’t get me started on that atrocious mealymouthed woolly-headed secular humanist “death is a normal part of the cycle of Nature” nonsense. That a thing is natural does not make it “normal” or acceptable or good; much of human life is just plain shitty. There’s no reason to think evolution hasn’t led us into an endless quagmire of grief, emptiness and self-loathing. Secular humanist “hope” (such as it is) is an unfortunate holdover from religion (British philosopher John Gray nailed this is his otherwise worthless Straw Dogs).

    I don’t mean to suggest we should all despair. Personally I rather enjoy the endless quagmire of grief, emptiness and self-loathing. I emphatically refuse to say, however, that on balance the good outweighs the bad, or the good makes the bad worth it, or, perhaps the most atrocious of middle-class sentiments, that “great art and literature” make it all worthwhile (nothing could be more gag inducing), because I simply don’t know. I doubt such calculations are even possible and if they were I’m sure the boredom would outweigh everything. But ultimately I find the pill is easier to swallow with a good deal of irony and that is what the scientific world view provides.

  61. #61 melior
    October 19, 2007

    Ah, but isn’t claiming to know the mind of God a sin?

    It is a trap!

  62. #62 robd
    October 19, 2007

    Next question for Templeton:

    Does god have a purpose?

  63. #63 Nathaniel
    October 19, 2007

    Following on Warren and poke, I think the core of the problem with the question is the word ‘purpose’.

    Naturally I agree with PZ’s terse answer of ‘no’, but to even pose the question indicates, to me, an incredible lack of imagination on the part of the questioner. It’s someone who once asked “Daddy, what’s a light switch?” and got an answer that revolved around utility to a human… and then simply cannot get past the notion of something that exists and is completely indifferent to what humans or any other intellegence might want of it.

    I get this all the time talking to religious-y people about neutrinos. “Doesn’t interact. Never be useful for anything,” I tell them. They respond that it’s use is just inobvious. It’s not that they knowingly embrace teleology, but they do so subconsciously all the time.

    Like I said, lack of imagination: they can’t even imagine something that simply IS.

  64. #64 Warren
    October 19, 2007

    poke: Well, you know, to no small degree the idea of both good and bad is an artifact of human consciousness.

    While we can probably agree that (frex) killing someone over a few bucks is a bad thing, the ideas of wanting money, of stealing, and of money in general are entirely human-created.

    While there are a few other species here on Earth who sneak around their group mores, by and large the concepts of “good” or “bad” don’t enter into the equation with animal behavior, and even our social ideas of morality are apt to change with time.

    Thus, since it’s obvious that the concepts of “good” and “bad” are so plastic, it seems quite clear to me that they’re largely arbitrarily defined rather than derived from something like a constant.

    If I read you correctly you seem to be saying that value and merit (as well as purpose) are relative. I wouldn’t disagree with that.

    Taz: There’s a difference, I think, between a part of the universe asking about existence versus the question as posited (“Does the universe have a purpose”), because the question as posited assumes a separation from the universe. As you pointed out, no such separation actually exists.

    A reformulation, then, might be, “What purpose do we serve in this universe; what am I doing here; what effect do I have on the world around me; how am I affecting the lives of others?”

    That, to me, internalizes the question and, rather than implying the universe needs to justify itself to me, suggests that I need to figure out what my meaning and place are instead. To me, that’s a much more interesting and worthy question.

  65. #65 Cuttlefish
    October 19, 2007

    The question of the universe’s purpose, whether posed vocally or in text,
    Leaves people vexed.

    Although, I would not be averse
    To studying the purpose, characteristics, ins and outs of Miss Universe.

    So, rather than debating whether or not a black hole is evidence of Where God Went Wrong,
    I can see whether Miss Brazil or Miss Argentina looks better in a thong.

    So that I can get back to the business of inspecting the finest examples of female form in the human race,
    I will suggest that the purpose of the universe is: to take up space.

    http://digitalcuttlefish.blogspot.com/2007/10/templeton-has-no-purpose.html

  66. #66 Mike O'Risal
    October 19, 2007

    So far, nobody’s even been able to explain to me why Jehovah would’ve bothered making gay fungus.

  67. #67 RamblinDude
    October 19, 2007

    Why do I have to be able to answer the question?

    (Great, Cuttlefish)

  68. #68 RamblinDude
    October 19, 2007

    Cuttlefish: Aha! You are a dude!

  69. #69 RamblinDude
    October 19, 2007

    well…I presume…heh, heh…

  70. #70 Micah
    October 19, 2007

    I always find it amusing when people ascribe a purpose to the universe. It’s so big that most people can’t even begin to comprehend exactly how big it is (to quote Douglas Adams, “Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.”), we haven’t a clue what the vast majority of it contains, and we’re sitting in one tiny little corner of it pretending the whole thing is there for a reason. Presumably to do with us.

    In other words, the Templeton Foundation is providing their usual stellar contribution to the sum of human knowledge… or at least the sum of human mockery.

  71. #71 bipolar2
    October 19, 2007

    Ancient Egyptians surmised that a dung beetle created the Earth. I accept that version of “intelligent design” as long as it is extended — the entire cosmos emerged from the collective wisdom of a committee. That they’re still in charge . . . and having some problems (as committees always do):

    ** The Arthropodic Principle — note from HQ **

    To: all
    From: CEO

    Subject: Causes and solutions of major anthropic screw-up

    It was the Corporate Committee on Systematic World Ordering which initiated an RFP, cost-plus basis. Failure to recognize that Hellaburton was an unreliable contractor, created certain problems with shoddy workmanship and substandard materials which quickly emerged.

    These however were plastered over for at least 4 billion years until the first multicellular creatures appeared in planet’s Precambrian oceans. By then it was too late to adjust any nucleotides. After all, it is a double blind test.

    The last 550 million years, however, have proved one unforeseen disaster after another, culminating in Nature’s Greatest Mistake, humanity. Currently, almost 7 billion cases of hypertrophy of the prefrontal cortex!

    Delicious irony though. The defect provides an illusion of having “free will.” Of course, homeostatic causes are still causes. But, as delusions go, this one is a sicko. Unfortunately, the trait is far too stable to be wiped out by laws of population genetics.

    Looks like human heads must roll. The Corporate Committee on Oort Cloud Exploitation hopes to find a suitably large comet in the next 65 million years, give or take 5 million years.

    However, let there be light. The standing Corporate Committee on Bio-organics has estimated that the average species lasts only about 2 million years. Patience hath its rewards.

    Personally, I want the testing to continue. I find myself inordinately fond of beetles. Let it be called the arthropodic principle.

    bipolar2
    copyright asserted 2007

  72. #72 Tulse
    October 19, 2007

    Way OT, but my 11-year-old daughter recently presented me with evidence that the knock-knock joke is still a living, productive art form

    noncarborundum, your daughter is a genius — that is the best joke I’ve heard in ages.

  73. #73 Mark Borok
    October 19, 2007

    I don’t know about waffling. I saw a partial listing of the answers in the NY Times (a full-spread ad), and several people answered a definitive “no”. I think Elie Wiesel said “I hope so, and if not, we’ll have to make one”. Different people interpreted the question differently, of course.

  74. #74 Mrs Tilton
    October 19, 2007

    Louise @14 is absolutely right. There’s nothing at all wrong with the question. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t ask it.

    As for its answer, PZ’s title for this post gets it as right as it can be got.

  75. #75 T_U_T
    October 19, 2007

    Silly people who think the universe has no purpose, I think.
    It is full of diverse, marvelous, interesting things. I’m sure there is a thing that an universe is good for. We will surely find some use for it. Sooner or later.

  76. #76 Mark Plus
    October 19, 2007

    What if god has no meaning or purpose?

    Better yet, what if god came into existence “through chance”?

  77. #77 noncarborundum
    October 19, 2007

    #71: Exercising vicarious humility, I’ll point out that I’m not at all sure that my daughter originated that joke. She may have just been passing it along.

    Genius or not, though, she certainly is very bright. And I say that as a disinterested observer.

  78. #78 Sastra
    October 19, 2007

    I once read about a study (Paul Bloom?) where preschoolers gave teleological answers to standard ‘why’ questions (i.e. “tigers are for going in zoos,” “rocks are there for us to build things with.”) Older children would give more objective or neutral answers which were less connected to self. Our brains may be partly hardwired to see purpose in inanimate objects, and there seem to be a few areas left where even adults throw off education and revert to original tendencies.

    As tsig (#49) asked, if the universe has a purpose, does it also have free will and fall in love? Looks like another category error here — or maybe the genetic fallacy — or maybe both.

  79. #79 Salt
    October 19, 2007

    I’d say “no, there is no evidence of universal purpose and no reason to assume one,” and be done with it. – PZ

    I have always suspected this blog was meaningless.

  80. #80 Rudy
    October 19, 2007

    Isn’t a reasonable answer “The universe has a purpose, but
    we don’t know what it is”?

    We don’t know whether there’s a multiverse, we don’t know
    whether P=NP, etc. but most of assume there IS an answer to
    these questions. We just don’t know what it is.

    Of course, if you think the question is ridiculous, you aren’t going to like the answers people give: to love and serve God,
    for example.

    The argument that the universe is SO gosh darn big that it couldn’t have a purpose that matters to us is pretty fishy,
    too – parodied in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life by the
    guy getting out of the lady’s fridge and singing a song to
    convince her to give up her liver for a transplant, since
    she was so insignificant in the Big Picture.

    Going by orders of magnitude, people are sort of in the
    middle of the size of things (at least compared to the
    visible universe). And all the ancient Indian philosophers
    assumed the universe was many, many orders of magnitude
    bigger than us, in time and space, without concluding that
    we were insignificant (well, most of them, anyway).

    The Purpose of the Universe could drive a (theological, philosophical, or possibly artistic) research program.
    Why should it have a one sentence answer?

  81. #81 Warren
    October 19, 2007

    Rudy:

    Isn’t a reasonable answer “The universe has a purpose, but we don’t know what it is”?

    No. The first half of the answer declares as fact something which is not verifiable as such.

  82. #82 Blake Stacey
    October 19, 2007

    My best guess is that the purpose of the All is probably not to copy-and-paste numerological screeds about the divine virtues of 7, but that doesn’t stop some people.

  83. #83 marshall
    October 19, 2007

    “I like Sagan’s “human beings are the universe’s way to know itself.”

    But if you think about it too much, you realize that the universe doesn’t really care one way or the other what it knows.”

    Think about it a little more and you might realize that if Sagan is correct, the universe itself is saying that “the universe doesn’t really care one way or the other what it knows.’

    But I take your point. The universe (or whatever existence preceded it in some sense) didn’t consciously “decide”; “hey I want to know myself, so I’ll make humans.”
    I see the universe containing lots of purposes within itself. Whatever purposes any living beings might construct. The universe itself has no purpose. But lack of purpose does not equate with lack of meaning. Though we often confuse the two. Purpose implies meaning only at some endpoint or conclusion. The golden goodie at the end. Like various heavens. No one who loves Bach asks; “What is the meaning of this symphony?” Just as the meaning of music or art is contained within the music or artwork itself and doesn’t point beyond itself. The meaning of the universe is contained within itself. Not at some imaginary endpoint or creator standing above and beyond it.

  84. #84 Ed Darrell
    October 19, 2007

    Does the universe have a porpoise? Yes, many of them (though not enough), and many dolphins, too.

    Who could be stupid enough to argue otherwise?

  85. #85 PeteK
    October 19, 2007

    Purpose, usually defined, is a bit parochial, and cultural. For 300 years the leitmotif of science and philosophy has been that there is no significance in human life beyond what humans invest in it. So no wonder most people find science threatening and demoralising: they think it alienates them from their own universe

    Maybe a more accurate question would be, “Is there significance to the universe?” I.e., why THIS universe, why any universe at all? Science can potentially explain everything in the universe(s) at all levels, but it can’t explain itself. But of course that doesn’t mean religion can. And of course the same questions could be asked about a creator (deistic or otherwise) – why THAT creator, what explains that creator, etc.

    Humans, the species Homo sapiens, is surely not physically significant. But consciousness, the ability to frame such questions, is surely significant. The universe has evolved self-awareness, it has discovered itself. It is significant surely, that we other beings are capable even of framing the question “What’s the purpose(s) of the universe(s)?”

  86. #86 Frustrated Cow
    October 19, 2007

    I hate to burst the “ingenious 11-year-old” bubble, but I hear that knock-knock joke months ago.

    🙂

  87. #87 Basil Jelly
    October 19, 2007

    Entropy No?

  88. #88 J Myers
    October 19, 2007

    PeteK:

    “Is there significance to the universe?” I.e., why THIS universe, why any universe at all?

    This is best answered by the Anthropic Principle: If not this universe, then some other universe, about which we (or our analogues, if conditions were such that any existed) would be asking the same question. Or, as you note, no universe at all, in which case: .

    Science can potentially explain everything in the universe(s) at all levels, but it can’t explain itself.

    We don’t know if any part of this is true. I strongly suspect that science will never explain everything (due at least in part to the inherent limitations of its practitioners), though I don’t see what it matters; either science can eventually explain everything (perhaps including itself), or it cannot–so what?

    But consciousness, the ability to frame such questions, is surely significant.

    Why would you ever suspect this?

  89. #89 noncarborundum
    October 20, 2007

    I hate to burst the “ingenious 11-year-old” bubble . . .

    Whose bubble is that? I never attributed the joke to my daughter; I just said I’d heard it from her.

    She can be ingenious sometimes, though, on totally separate evidence I won’t go into here.

  90. #90 ultra1bob
    October 20, 2007

    There are two purposes in life:
    1) Find out what the purpose of life is
    2) Act on it.

    I’ll tell you the meaning of life, but most of this lot won’t believe it. I mean, in this vast universe of which we are little mites on a speck of dirt, to think our physical lives are an end to itself is, well, it’s a bit silly.

    1)Find out that we are in reality an all-pervading infinite existence of bliss-knowledge-existence. This temporal world of pain and pleasure is a mere distraction. We need to wake up.

    2)Once you figure out that that may be true you have to pull your mind away the hallucination you’ve lived in for maybe millions of lives. How? well, that’s another story.

  91. #91 andy
    October 20, 2007

    From an astrophysical perspective, there *is* evidence of purpose in the Universe. That is to make as much Iron as possible. The nuclear binding energies of elements are such that stars continue to fuse them up to the iron peak, and then stop. I guess saying that this is a purpose rather than a property is the whole problem, isn’t it, but if someone put all this in motion then they were in Big need of Iron !

  92. #92 truth machine
    October 20, 2007

    What is so sneaky about asking that question?

    It only makes sense if the universe was created by someone or something with some intent in creating it.

    Haven’t people been doing so since the beginning of human history?

    Actually, no.

    Several of the commenters seem to be saying just don’t ask the question at all.

    Yup.

    Yet our human minds want to ask it.

    No, yours does; mine knows better.

  93. #93 truth machine
    October 20, 2007

    But aren’t we part of the universe? Maybe not a big part, but a part none the less. So if my purpose right now is to make it to 5 so I can plop my ass in a bar stool, isn’t that part of the purpose of the universe?

    No more than it’s part of the purpose of the office you’re in.

  94. #94 Sastra
    October 20, 2007

    ultra1bob (#89) wrote:

    I’ll tell you the meaning of life, but most of this lot won’t believe it. I mean, in this vast universe of which we are little mites on a speck of dirt, to think our physical lives are an end to itself is, well, it’s a bit silly.

    Well, you’re right on that first guess for a couple of reasons. First off, we’re a tad suspicious on how you happen to know all this. And second, that next sentence is a non sequitur. Shouldn’t it be:

    “In this vast universe of which we are little mites on a speck of dirt, to think we are an all-pervading infinite existence of bliss-knowledge-existence is, well, it’s a bit silly.”

    Of course, if that was a piece of subtle satire, it’s pretty well done.

  95. #95 dzd
    October 20, 2007

    ultra1bob (#89):

    Yeah, I saw The Matrix too.

  96. #96 David Marjanovi?
    October 20, 2007

    A reformulation, then, might be, “What purpose do we serve in this universe; what am I doing here; what effect do I have on the world around me; how am I affecting the lives of others?”
    That, to me, internalizes the question and, rather than implying the universe needs to justify itself to me, suggests that I need to figure out what my meaning and place are instead. To me, that’s a much more interesting and worthy question.

    To me, it seems to confuse two questions. “What purpose do we serve in this universe” means “what for do we exist”, “we exist in order to do or be what”, right? Or am I having problems with English?

    Because if not, “what am I doing here” is a completely different question; “what purpose do I have” does instead mean “what ought I be doing here”.

  97. #97 David Marjanovi?
    October 20, 2007

    A reformulation, then, might be, “What purpose do we serve in this universe; what am I doing here; what effect do I have on the world around me; how am I affecting the lives of others?”
    That, to me, internalizes the question and, rather than implying the universe needs to justify itself to me, suggests that I need to figure out what my meaning and place are instead. To me, that’s a much more interesting and worthy question.

    To me, it seems to confuse two questions. “What purpose do we serve in this universe” means “what for do we exist”, “we exist in order to do or be what”, right? Or am I having problems with English?

    Because if not, “what am I doing here” is a completely different question; “what purpose do I have” does instead mean “what ought I be doing here”.

  98. #98 jdhuey
    October 20, 2007

    I suggest that if the Universe DOES have a purpose, that we do our best not to find out what it is. We will be disappointed. I’ve seen it suggested that the purpose of the Universe is to create Black Holes. That is based on the theory that the black holes will create new universes once this Universe has shot it’s wad. And the new universes that are spawned from the black holes in this universe will generate even more Black Holes, perpetuating the species.

  99. #99 Encolpius
    October 20, 2007

    The universe exists in order for noncarborundum to have a place in which to have a funny daughter. Obviously.

  100. #100 jdw
    October 20, 2007

    The universe does indeed have a purpose, and I know exactly what it is too. But I see no reason to tell any of you losers. Not unless you send me some money.

  101. #101 Fur-Bearing Brick
    October 20, 2007

    jdw: it’s 42.

  102. #102 BaldApe
    October 20, 2007

    Isn’t the Templeton Foundation the sponsor of the Great American Think-off (by which they seem to mean that you turn off your thinking before beginning)?

    In any event, I am reminded of the debate question on the fragment of that TV program that I could stomach. It was whether we could better do without spirituality or technology. My answer would have been to have someone try to support one thousand times the Earth’s carrying capacity for non-technological humans without it.

    As to the purpose of the universe, it is to fill the space between the left end of the universe and the right end of the universe. (Ask a meaningless question….)

  103. #103 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    October 21, 2007

    Cuttlefish: Aha! You are a dude! … well…I presume…heh, heh…

    I suspected that, since otherwise the tag may have been cuddlefish. … well…I presume.

    we don’t know whether P=NP

    Though P != NP seems awfully likely, since otherwise computer science (CS) complexity hierarchies collapse. (And we would in principle be able to understand anything with ease. Which I don’t seem to do. :-P)

    In the light of its likelihood and apparent difficulty to be shown from first principles, CS expert Scott Aaronson has suggested that we should take it as a law of nature analogous to 2LOT. (Entropy increase, an observation made to Law.)

  104. #104 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    October 21, 2007

    Cuttlefish: Aha! You are a dude! … well…I presume…heh, heh…

    I suspected that, since otherwise the tag may have been cuddlefish. … well…I presume.

    we don’t know whether P=NP

    Though P != NP seems awfully likely, since otherwise computer science (CS) complexity hierarchies collapse. (And we would in principle be able to understand anything with ease. Which I don’t seem to do. :-P)

    In the light of its likelihood and apparent difficulty to be shown from first principles, CS expert Scott Aaronson has suggested that we should take it as a law of nature analogous to 2LOT. (Entropy increase, an observation made to Law.)

  105. #105 Brian Macker
    October 21, 2007

    Poke,

    “I find the whole ‘we create our own purpose’ rah-rah secular humanist claptrap to be as laughable as theism.”

    Seems perfectly sensible to me. We have a purpose from the perspective of our genes, but we can create our own personal purposes outside these preexistant ones.

    “The universe is impersonal; my place in it is inconsequential; nothing I do is of ‘ultimate’ value or meaning.”

    Well see that’s where your wrong. You’ve set an impossible standard. It doesn’t have to have ‘ultimate’ value or meaning. In fact your argument is starting to sound like one a theist would make, what with their all-knowing, all-loving, all-merciful garbage. What you think any purpose I have in life isn’t valid unless it is all-purposeful or something?

    Heck if I want to create purpose in my life that runs contrary to those purposes set by evolution then I am perfectly capable of doing so. Hell, I can make the purpose in my life the increasing of frog habitat if I so choose. Why is that so laughable?

  106. #106 Brian Macker
    October 21, 2007

    Did the several people who tried to imply that the universe has the purpose we (or animals in general) give to it think about the fact that we act with cross purposes because we don’t share goals.

    So what it the purpose of the universe with regard to smoking cigarettes. Is it to get as many people to smoke as possible as would be the goal of a ad man working in the industry, or is it to stamp out smoking as would be the goal of the attorney general under a democratic president. 😉

    I think I just blew a big hole in that theory.

  107. #107 Brian Macker
    October 21, 2007

    “Science can potentially explain everything in the universe(s) at all levels, but it can’t explain itself.”

    What does that mean? Has science been a bad boy and has some explaining to do? Are you criticizing some anthropomorphizing of science?

    How about this: science explains itself as a methodology for producing models of the way the world works and reducing error by setting up selective pressure on the models via intellecutal and empirical criticism.

  108. #108 PalMD
    October 22, 2007

    Hmm…let’s see…if we weren’t here, it would be a tree falling in the forest koan. Basically, for the teleoidiots, the universe exists to create us, but of course, since we are already here, we can’t disprove that, but…damn, I have a headache. Can’t we all just agree that looking for a purpose in the inanimate is stupid?

  109. #109 Bob
    October 25, 2007

    Forget Templeton for a moment. I think the question is of legitimate interest to science. Or at least scientists should not close themselves to investigating belief systems. Perhaps a scientific answer is that we are genetically and evolutionary programmed to believe in a meaning or deity. Or most of us. That understanding could defang a lot of harm that fundamental religions cause across the world. Fundamentalism in science — we are certain of our facts and all questions are off the table — is no better than fundamental religion. Be open to broader nuances of the question. The scientific answer might well be, “No, the universe has no measurable meaning, but we can say with certainty that we have genetically evolved to believe that it does.” Or most of us have. The question iself is not loaded. Perceptions of the question do seem to be loaded. Restate it as “Why do we believe there is meaning in the universe?” and perhaps it is more acceptable. There’s a lot of interesting work here without wandering into the thicket of proving or disproving god. The field of inquiry is legit.

  110. #110 John Constantine
    October 30, 2007

    I think the most accurate answer is, “Yes, the universe does have a purpose, and that purpose is impersonal and of no relevance to human affairs.” (This is abusing the word “purpose” somewhat, but precision in language is overrated.) I find the whole “we create our own purpose” rah-rah secular humanist claptrap to be as laughable as theism.

    How on earth can it have a “purpose” that exists apart from human standards unless you’re assuming the existence of some intelligent consciousness? “Purpose” doesn’t make sense without such a consciousness. “Purpose” presumes intention and value.

    I’m not even sure what it means to “create” meaning or purpose.

    Then you misunderstand the biological heritage of humans. We have created the very concept of meaning because of how we’ve evolved, as highly intelligent social animals. We “create meaning” by doing things that resonate with our value systems and emotions. Obviously.

    If the idea is that I can interpret the universe or my place in it how I please (meaning-wise), then it’s wrong.

    Actually, it’s quite right. Whether your interpretation is right or wrong is another question…

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