Top Scientists and Theologians Weigh In: Does the Universe Have a Purpose?


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Purpose, by definition, implies intent or determination, an end goal or a course of action. It’s a useful word, purpose, and one we use fairly often when discussing life’s Big Questions. What is my purpose? Does this object or occupation serve a good purpose? But it’s not a word often associated with the existence of the entire universe. The universe is, and we are, and why or how may be a debate we never reconcile. But does the universe have a purpose? It’s an interesting topic for discussion, and the one John Templeton Foundation recently presented to 12 of the world’stop thinkers.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Lawrence M. Krauss, Jane Goodall, David Gelernter, Paul Davies, Peter William Atkins, Nancey Murphy, Owen Gingerich, Bruno Guiderdoni, Christian de Duve, John F. Haught, and Elie Wiesel all well-respected leaders in their respective fields sought to answer the question to the best of their abilities. It may surprise you that half said “yes,” the universe operates with intent or exists to achieve something.

For his part, Neil Tyson teamed up with Minute Physics to explain why his answer is “Not sure.”

You can read the responses in full at John Templeton Foundation or check out a PDF of the full conversation. This is the first question in a series of discussions the Templeton Foundation is conducting to provide thoughtful, reasoned responses to life’s big mysteries, which will each be courteously debated by a panel of leading scientists and theologians. You can read more about the series and the foundation at templeton.org. When you’re finished, come back here and have a discussion with us:

Do you think the Universe has a purpose? Duke it out in the comments, but try to keep your gloves on, Geeks. Asshats will be moderated.

[Image: Hubble]





36 Responses to Top Scientists and Theologians Weigh In: Does the Universe Have a Purpose?

  1. The purpose of the universe is to be consumed by ever-expanding and ever-merging black holes until it ceases to exist.

  2. I would argue at a semantic level that the universe probably does have a purpose, but exactly what the purpose is really the question he answered with "I don't know"

  3. Ill-formed question. A purpose is something that is formed in human language. The universe does not have human language. There is only "purpose" to humans, in language.

    • Language is the tool to explore the question, the universe is the supporting means for life that asks the question and lives it to action.

  4. This is a rather difficult question to approach if we are unaware of how exactly the Universe exists here among other parallel dimensions or beyond where we can see.

    It could be that Universe/dimension is is perhaps a link to another and another, and so on. Could be that in order for this Universe to exist there is also an opposite, sort of like a bridge work or varying endless dimensions supporting each other.

    I believe that in this Universe, and beyond through other parallel realities is end endless sea of endless mathematical equations in which every possible combination existence is repeated over and over in tiny degrees of differences between each.
    Like suds, bubbles supporting each other's weight.

    Perhaps the Universe is a code, trying to resolve itself but constantly creating conflicts that keep this calculation of existence from resolving itself into non-existence. It is the hacked code, that cannot be resolved or balanced.

    • "The universe is like a safe to which there is a combination, but the
      combination is locked up in the safe."……………..Peter De Vries

      Read Catch22 by Joseph Heller, it contains vital but paradoxical codes/hints.

  5. If the universe has no purpose, then how can anything in the universe have a purpose. Purpose implies that it was created (by something) to achieve something.

    Does the universe have a 'raison d'etre' is probably a better question. I think the answer to that is possibly to manifest every possibility that it's natural laws can allow.

    Some things we can comprehend and some things we can't. It's sure fun thinking about it though.

  6. This is a rather difficult question to approach if we are unaware of how exactly the Universe exists here among other parallel dimensions or beyond where we can see.

    It could be that Universe/dimension is is perhaps a link to another and another, and so on. Could be that in order for this Universe to exist there is also an opposite, sort of like a bridge work or varying endless dimensions supporting each other.

    I believe that in this Universe, and beyond through other parallel realities is end endless sea of endless mathematical equations in which every possible combination existence is repeated over and over in tiny degrees of differences between each.
    Like suds, bubbles supporting each other's weight.

    Perhaps the Universe is a code, trying to resolve itself but constantly creating conflicts that keep this calculation of existence from resolving itself into non-existence. It is the hacked code, that cannot be resolved or balanced

  7. It depends…

    The question is: How was our universe created. If its just something that had to happen because nothing was there … then it might have no purpose.

    But it could be just some experment run by another species… creating it to research life. i.e. a simulation environment. Then it of course would have a purpose.

    I would prefer a Universe without purpose that could not run out of funding! That we have limited top speed (c) and sort of a very digital kind of mechanic on the quantum level is unnerving as thats exactly what a scientist would do to make the simulation simpler and more feasible!

  8. I believe the purpose of the universe is to create and harbour consciousness. Our purpose is to create a form of life (robotic/artifical organics) that can colonise our galaxy and perhaps the universe beyond that and continue to create newer forms of life. Eventually we end up with a form of life that is so intelligent/masterful that it can recreate the conditions required to form new universes and so the cycle continues! Alternatively we could consider that life’s purpose it to increase its own computing power (more brains = more computing power) and its eventual purpose is to co-opt as much of the universes physical matter and energy into itself eventaully becoming, in essence, a thinking universe.

  9. There are some serious problems with his article. First is that theologians are experts in reinterpreting religious texts only- and since religion has done such an awful job of explaining reality going to them to get the answer to an equally awful question is pointless. Second is that the Templeton Foundation is an organization that is built around obfuscating the very real differences between religion and science and how they are completely incompatible.

    This question is only a big mystery when you approach it from a religious viewpoint only, in that purpose implies intent from a creator. From the view point of science the only true answer to the question is "None".

    Anyone with any urge to understand where the universe came from should read A Universe From Nothing by Lawrence Krauss. It will explain in good detail the current knowledge we have about how the universe began, and its readable by layman.

    • From the view point of science the only true answer to the question is "None".

      Yes. But science has no 'point of view' – it is merely data about the physical universe under controlled conditions of eliminated hidden causes/forces. So data itself has no purpose – its usage (like in Hiroshima) makes it for someone's purpose.

  10. Is there any meaningful difference between these two statements:

    1) The universe has no purpose.

    2) The universe has a purpose, but no one knows (or will ever know) what it is.

    The only difference I can see is that the second response claims that there is something that imparts this mysterious purpose, and that there must therefore be a creator that imbued the universe with this mysterious purpose. But since there is no evidence of this creator, and no evidence of his/her/its "purpose" in supposedly creating this universe, we're back to: the universe has no purpose.

      • Nonsense. Let's say I am the creator of the SLINKY(tm). The purpose is written (evidence!) right there on the box:

        PURPOSE: To climb down flights of stairs and amuse you.

        • Your analogy does not hold good here because In this case the purpose is not written – it has to be 1) discovered by the individual and for the individual by fulfilling the talent and potential of the individual 2) the larger purpose of life/universe can be discerned by a commitment to moral action which includes articulation.
          The answer to the purpose of the universe revolves around moral action and moral consciousness and is articulated in art form.

  11. I find it highly improbable that the beginning and continuation of the Universe were just random events that came from nothing. I say this because physical laws, mathematics, chemistry and biology, in others words life and how it all works; shows us that every thing seems to have a purpose that reacts to something else in a particular way.

    Just looking at our world, with its distance from the sun, a bit closer we would not burn up, a bit further away it would be too cold. The moon gives us tides, and the the rain cycle; the oceans and trees enable us to breath oxygen whilst they absorb what is poisonous to animal and human life. As scientists discover micro universes within the human body they discover complexity and purposeful process beyond our imagination.

    Why does all life and how everything work have a purpose if what ever created it has no purpose? It seems a contradiction to me that is inexplicable. Yet if one excepts there is a Creator, there is no conundrum to this question. Virtually every invention ever made came from Man having a purpose to use it. The fact we are able to even think about why,is a clue that our complex brains were designed to ask why?, how? what if? etc, our questions shows that we are driven to know the answers.

    I know, and that is to say I am certain as to why we are here, I cannot prove my reasoning scientifically, but there are many aspects to human behaviour that science cannot understand, even if there are theories as to the how it all works.

    • Creator does not automatically imply purpose – you still have to figure it out and articulate it – its part of the purpose and each one of us are active participants in it as is the creator

    • You state a very simple purpose for life (the universe, and everything): to react to something else.

      That’s really not much of a purpose. My SLINKY(tm)’s purpose was to roll down staircases and amuse me. Done.

      I think we’re all talking about a LARGER purpose, here, and I don’t think there is one. Even some deeply religious people claim that our purpose is to praise God for all eternity (how horrible a purpose is that? Can you imagine a Being that would want constant praise for even, oh let’s say, 10 years straight?). Most don’t even pretend to know.

      Which brings me back to my first point:

      Is there any meaningful difference between these two statements:

      1) The universe has no purpose.

      2) The universe has a purpose, but no one knows (or will ever know) what it is.

  12. If you cant explain something simply dont explain it at all.(nobody whants to read a whole paragraph on a opinion)

  13. You cannot discern purpose from randomness or determinism. Evolution is purposeless unless you suppose an "end in mind". Purpose requires an agent and a meaningful goal, so mere survival is not purpose – living for the sake of living is as futile as a hamster in a wheel.

    As agents, we may simulate purpose by constructing meaningful narratives and narrative communities. Although if they're essentially just an elaborate illusions, they must still be existentially unsatisfying. There are other possibilities: some find purpose in continuously "escaping" narratives (often expressed as conspiracy theories), while others find enough purpose in deconstructing the narratives of others, seeing themselves as messiahs outside the matrix. But they still depend on other people's illusions for their purpose.

  14. The broad purpose of the universe and human life is – creativity.
    Creativity is that art through which the real is revealed by unmasking the
    unreal – both for the individual as well as for humanity so as to enhance
    our moral consciousness that leads to moral action.
    Human beings are moral agents who through their actions are the test
    of reality – the results of which are transcendental, which means that
    they reflect in Eternity.

  15. Purpose is not observable or measurable by scientific method or 'supported by authority of religion/science'
    nor is there evidence lying around to be discovered – it has to be 1) discovered/constructed/created by the
    individual and for the individual by fulfilling the talent and potential of the individual in the work done/actions
    by the individual 2) the larger purpose of life/universe can be discerned by a commitment to moral action
    which includes articulation.

    The answer to the purpose of the universe revolves around moral action
    and moral consciousness and is articulated in art form.