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  • Paul Thagard Ph.D.

Does the Universe Have a Purpose? Do You?

You can have meaningful purposes even if the universe does not.

Does the Universe Have a Purpose? Do You?

  • Arguments that the whole universe has a purpose are weak.

  • Some people despair of having meaning and purpose in their lives.

  • People can have meaningful lives if they pursue needs tied to relationships, accomplishments, and freedom.


Billie Eilish won an Oscar for her heartfelt Barbie song, "What Was I Made For?" An even bigger question is: What was the universe made for? Science suggests that the universe wasn’t made for anything, but instead resulted from a series of chaotic episodes, including the Big Bang and the formation of galaxies, solar systems, and planets, eventually leading to humans as possibly the only instance of intelligent life.


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British philosopher Philip Goff thinks that human purpose depends on cosmic purpose: The goal of the universe was the emergence of life. He thinks that physics shows that the universe was “fine-tuned” for life, making cosmic purpose more probable than the alternative hypothesis that we are just a cosmic fluke.


Goff defends this hypothesis, the Value-Selection Hypothesis: Certain of the fixed numbers are as they are because they allow for a universe containing things of significant value. He is right that life could not have evolved if numbers such as the cosmological constant for the expansion of the universe were much different. But his argument for the Value-Selection Hypothesis has multiple flaws and amounts to a parody of probabilistic reasoning.


First, Goff’s hypothesis is too unclear and vague to be assigned a probability. What does he mean by “because”, “allow”, and “value”? A clearer version would be something like: The existence of life in the universe is the cause of the physical numbers. But this makes no sense because those numbers preceded life by billions of years. Goff rejects the theological view that some god designed the universe to eventually end up with life. But without theology, he has no way to provide an explanatory connection between value or purpose and the physical constants. Goff’s hypothesis is an instance of the “anthropic principle” which lacks scientific credibility.


Second, Goff invokes probability theory in an attempt to show that his Value-Selection Hypothesis is more probable than the alternative, which he never states. It would be something like a Chance Hypothesis: Fixed physical numbers are what they are because of random events in the formation of the universe. Science cannot currently tell whether the universe originated because of fluctuations in a quantum field, a repeated oscillation in which universes expand and contract, or some other process. Any of these processes could have caused physical numbers that turned out to allow for life.


Goff simply asserts that actual physical numbers are more probable given value selection than given chance, but his assertion is based on nothing more than wishful thinking. He wants the universe to have a purpose so that he can have a purpose. He makes no connection between the universe having a supposed value and its existence.


Third, even if Goff’s argument worked and that there is cosmic purpose, this conclusion would not help with the problem of human purpose. Billie Eilish could worry that maybe the universe has a purpose of producing life, but that does not help her with her own personal question of what she was made for.


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Fortunately, psychology and biology provide an alternative approach to finding value and purpose in human lives through investigations of human needs. Abraham Maslow’s claims about a hierarchy of needs have not stood up to empirical investigation. But extensive research on human needs has found that three psychological needs drive human motivation and behavior: autonomy (freedom), relatedness (connections to other people), and competence (achievement, accomplishment). I adapted this result into a slogan that the meaning of life is love, work, and play.


The universe may have originated randomly, but human life has evolved to give people the purposes of trying to meet their needs, and not just their own but also the needs of others. Biological needs are also relevant, in tragic situations in which people lack food, water, clean air, shelter, and health care.


Billie Eilish should answer her despairing question by recognizing that her life can be purposeful, meaningful, and valuable if she acts in ways that improve human relationships, accomplishments, and freedom. That’s what all of us are made for, even if the universe was not made for anything.



Paul Thagard, Ph.D., - Website -


References


Earman, J. (1987). The SAP also rises: A critical examination of the anthropic principle. American Philosophical Quarterly, 24(4), 307-317.


Goff, P. (2023). Why? the Purpose of the Universe. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. New York: Guilford.


Thagard, P. (2010). The brain and the meaning of life. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.


Thagard, P. (2023). The relevance of neuroscience to meaning in life. In I. Landau (Ed.), Oxford handbook of meaning in life (pp. 127-144). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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