If one is inclined to look at life with a scientific lens, then it’s difficult to avoid an uncomfortable possibility. What if the whole thing is pointless at the bottom of it all? The universe continually recycles from creation to destruction. It doesn’t matter where you look it mostly comes out the same. Here on Earth the evolutionary process seems exceedingly wasteful. Scientists estimate that more than 99.99% of species that have ever existed are now extinct. In the far distant future it doesn’t look much better. In about 5 billion years the Sun will turn into a red giant; expand and extinguish any possibility of life on our plant. And there is no reason to believe that the universe at large is any different. Noble prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg put it this way, “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”
The universe goes on and on indefinitely, without a care in the world; it is us who are left to ponder its usefulness. Does the universe have a purpose? For some reason this question rarely comes up. What is it about this question which seems to be off-limits at a time when so much can be talked about openly? It could be that the usefulness of the universe is simply taken for granted. The logic being that such an immense creation must exist for a reason, or perhaps a purposeless universe is just too much to concede. In any event, let’s look at this question in a little more detail.
God’s Plan or Higher Power
There are a wide variety of ideas on what God may have planned. So I will focus my attention on a concept which cast a wide net, specifically heaven or the afterlife. Given that life on Earth is finite, the idea of continuation after physical death is very appealing. This is a common theme for numerous traditional religions, past and present. If one is a firm believer in a traditional God concept, then the usefulness of the universe seems to follow. Surely, if God created the universe, there must be a purpose for doing so. The thinking here is that the universe becomes a means to an end and thus retains its purpose as a stepping stone to the next life. Although, another equally difficult question is this: What is God’s purpose? What is he/she/it getting out of it?
A higher power (also sometimes referred to as a greater power) is a term I’ve heard a number of times as a defacto replacement for God. There is a larger degree of ambiguity with a higher power than traditional God concepts. Although, from the vibe I get from people who use the term, it suggests a purposeful universe. When people say they believe in a higher power they may not be able to articulate what they actually believe in. However, one gets the feeling that it’s enough to do the job. I think the logic here is that the universe has a purpose for being here, even though we may not understand it.
Earthly Purpose and the Universe
Of course purpose is easy to find here on earth; all higher animals exhibit it on a daily basis. Human life is largely purpose driven; we can look to the future and plan ahead. We build things with a purpose in mind. We undertake activities which we enjoy or find rewarding. As far as the animal kingdom is concerned, their purposes are mostly survival related, such as building shelters, sex or hunting for food. But can this principle be extrapolated to the universe at large? Our purposes usually have goals in mind but what goal can be attribute the universe?
It may be worth considering how much importance human beings have (or any terrestrial beings) in the grand scheme of things. When one puts aside any idea of God or greater power and looks at existence from a purely scientific perspective, the universe appears to be spinning its wheels. In time scales practically unimaginable, the universe continually creates and destroys with no apparent goal. We may be misguided to assume that beings like ourselves matter to the universe. It could be that the universe exists for no good reason and we are just along for the ride.
Perhaps a New Kind of Purpose
A common human inclination is to think that things which are lasting have greater meaning than things that are temporary. I am not immune to this type of thinking; however, I often find myself questioning my own instincts in the face of the evidence. It was not always so clear that all things are impermanent. Ancient cultures would have been keenly aware of constant change in the world around them, but not so much on a grand scale. For example, there was no way of knowing that the Sun would not shine forever, and the Earth would someday be a victim of the Sun’s demise. Today we know that there is no ambiguity here, impermanence is the way of the universe.
A scientific understanding of things points to an ever-changing and evolving universe. In other words permanence cannot be found, both on a small or grand scale. This leads me to ask: is permanence necessary for deep purpose? Perhaps many have been thinking about this incorrectly, and a new perspective should be put forward: can experience be a worthwhile purpose? If all existence is temporary, then the clock is ticking on us all. If we don’t have forever, each moment, each event, each experience may actually gain in purpose. We should not take lightly, the opportunity we are given to experience the world.
If not for conscious beings, why would any of this matter? Why would it matter what the universe is doing? It would just go on and on without any observers. Metaphorically, we are the eyes of the universe. I am not just referring to humans here, but any being which acquires the faculty of experience. Of course not all experience is positive, but what is the alternative?
Whether one subscribes to a God, a higher power or something closer to the view of physicist Steven Weinberg, I think all would agree that experience matters. Actually, experience might be the only thing that matters (in particular the quality of experience). In closing, the universe may or may not have a purpose, but again it comes down to consciousness. Without it, the universe would almost certainly be pointless.