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 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.

  2. #2 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.

  3. #3 Ken Cope
    October 19, 2007

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

  4. #4 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.

  5. #5 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.

  6. #6 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.

  7. #7 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.

  8. #8 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”.

  9. #9 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”.

  10. #10 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.)

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