Does the universe have a purpose?

Thanks to a heads-up from Debunking Christianity, I spent part of my afternoon watching this recent debate between Michael Shermer, Richard Dawkins and Matt Ridley versus William Lane Craig, David Wolpe, and Douglas Guivett on the topic: "Does the universe have a purpose?"

It was the usual spat of argument that, if you've watched debates with or read material by any of these guys, is pretty familiar territory. I was happy to see Michio Kaku have a say, as he's one of my favorite physicists and he made some important points; I'm just a little disappointed he didn't have more time. In fact, it seemed that none of the guest panel commentators had quite enough time.

The brunt of the affirmative side can be summed up as this: if the universe has no purpose, we have no purpose. Nothing we do matters. We're just material "stuff", there's no real right and wrong, love and feelings are just delusions, etc. etc. The negative side can be summed up as saying that our concept of purpose is emergent, rather than dictated "top-down" from God – that we humans introduced the concept of purpose to the universe. Notice that I say the concept of purpose. That's something that is a great source of disconnect between theists and atheists. Theists speak of Purpose with a capital p – it's a real thing that is objective and transcendent. Atheists hold that purpose is a human construct and, as a mere concept, cannot be objective.

William Lane Craig attempted to establish that the existence of God is inexorably tied to purpose by claiming that if God does not exist, the universe has no purpose; and, as a corollary, that if God exists, the universe indeed has purpose. But I wondered a couple of things:
  • Why couldn't the universe have an intrinsic purpose? Why must its purpose be derived from something else? It could have such a purpose regardless of whether it was created by God
  • Why does God's existence implicate purpose? A deistic God could have created a universe for no particular reason, and folded his arms in indifference while its events unfolded. 
Craig doesn't explain the foundation for his assertions, so they come out sounding pretty feeble. He later suggests that he has ten arguments that prove the existence of God. I guess we were supposed to take his word for it, or be impressed for some reason.

A slippery slope

Michio Kaku really said it best: whether the universe has purpose is not a question that can be answered by any known rational means; it is indiscernible. He's right, but he didn't even begin to touch on the deeper problems of the theistic argument. Even if there is some objective, transcendent purpose to the universe, it does us no good unless we can independently verify what exactly it is. If it comes from God, we're in even worse shape because people do not even agree on God's existence; those who do agree God exists disagree about what God is, what God does and what God wants. Without some objective means of verifying our knowledge about God, a divinely imbued purpose, even if it exists, is functionally unknowable and doesn't do us much good.

Of course not only did the theistic side fail to address this in any way, but the crux of their argument was personal: that if the universe wasn't created purposefully, you are just a collection of atoms, and nothing in your life matters. Your existence is just an accident, and none of your actions have any deeper meaning – only that which you subjectively impose upon them.

This is a glaring example of the slippery slope fallacy. Just as the universe might have intrinsic purpose, we could have intrinsic purpose regardless of whether the universe as a whole does. (I am only arguing this as a logical possibility; I don't think there's any evidence that we, or the universe, have any sort of objective transcendent purpose.) Our existence and actions can still have purpose to us, even if the universe as a whole is indifferent to us. Further, because we are all human beings with shared interests, shared needs and shared values, our actions can transcend our immediate self-interest. Our concepts of morality have value to us because for humans (as with most species)  – to paraphrase Frans De Wall – cooperative group living is not a choice but a survival strategy; we are obligatorily gregarious. None of us has the luxury of moral autonomy because we are innately bonded and interdependent. We can recognize that while moral choices have value for us as a species and our daily experiences have subjective meaning, purpose – like morality – is a human construct whose value lies purely in its utility.

On a broader scale, all evidence points to a universe that is utterly indifferent to human life. We exist on what amounts to an atom within a grain of sand on an infinite beach. We only came into existence in the last 200,000 years, while the universe has been doing just fine without us for 13.7 billion years. The vast majority of the universe is cold, desolate, and hostile to life. Even our little rock only supports human life on some of its surface some of the time, and millions of human lives are indiscriminately annihilated by disasters, disease, predators, and famine. What "purpose" could possibly be discerned from such an indifferent universe? And given our inborn solidarity as humans, why should we feel threatened at the idea that purpose is something we must make for ourselves?


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