Does the Universe Have a Purpose?
I have about 200 unanswered questions in my Inbox, but this one jumped right to the top. I’m pretty flattered that someone thinks I’m qualified to offer an opinion on the subject, actually. So let me tap my chin like people do when thinking about Big Questions™ and take a swing…
If the universe does have a purpose, we certainly aren’t at the center of it. We’re not even in coach class on this ship. We’d be down in steerage, with the rats and the stowaways. The cosmic cocktail party has been rolling along for 13.7 billion years, while our dusty little corner of it has been around for about four and a half of those. We humans, were we part of any greater plan or blueprint, certainly took our sweet time arriving.
Imagine someone showing up to a party at your house two minutes before it ended and shouting: “Look at this great party in my honor! I’m here! You can all have fun now!” That person wouldn’t get invited to many parties, and they’d certainly insult all the other guests who had been there, happily, for hours before them.
But perhaps, you say, there can still be some purpose out there, one that doesn’t involve us, or Earth? Not likely. Like Neil Tyson said in his answer to the same question, a purpose implies intent. This implies that the universe is going, well, somewhere … and meaning to do so.
Sure, the universe is coming from somewhere (the Big Bang) and it’s expanding outward over time (and accelerating). And from what we know about it, after 10^10^120 years, the universe will reach a state of calm, when entropy is no longer increasing, and all matter is in equilibrium. On that scale of immeasurable time, it is likely that everything that can happen will have happened, which is the sort of thought that makes people’s brains hurt. It means that matter will have, just by chance, taken on nearly every conformation allowed by physics. This even includes the spontaneous creation of an apple pie from individual atoms, as Carl Sagan once imagined. On a time scale that large, the possibilities truly are endless.
And that is where the idea of purpose comes crashing down. If everything can happen, and does happen, then intent vanishes. Having seen no evidence to prove that a purpose does not exist, I can’t say for sure that it doesn’t. But for as long as humans have been curious about the world around them, and applying the principles of science to answer fundamental questions about the universe, we have never seen proof of a higher purpose. Unanswered questions remain about how it all works, but the absence of an answer does not mean that science is insufficient, only incomplete.
I think instead we should ask if we might be able to create a purpose for our existence, if no greater one exists. Perhaps we are insignificant to the cosmos. But by applying our incredible curiosity and intellect to understanding the workings of the world around us, and beyond, we can make the cosmos significant to us.
I think that’s a fine purpose. Right Steve?