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Isn't the universe too big to have humans as its purpose?

October 20, 2014
~10^8 kg (~10^35 GeV) LHC, discovering the ~125 GeV Higgs boson
Image: Candidate Higgs event from CERN, from Wikipedia Commons.

The following is a commonly expressed thought:

"If the purpose of the universe is to create humans, why is it so inefficient? Humans have only been around for 200,000 out of the 13.8 billion years that the universe has been in existence. We only exist on one planet among the innumerable stars in a vast universe. We are, in every sense, infinitesimally minuscule in comparison to the rest of the universe. In light of this, is it not obvious that ascribing a purpose to the universe is merely wishful thinking, born out of human hubris?"

I had earlier claimed that the universe exists, not even for the sake of humans, but for the sake of one particular human: Jesus Christ. I am therefore compelled to answer the thought expressed above.

Quite simply, this thought is immediately falsified upon direct comparison to many thing that are already known to have a purpose. Upon such comparisons, it's easy to discern its fundamental mistake: it assumes that the universe is only matter, and therefore could only have matter as its possible purpose. This, of course, is the mistake that a simple reductionist would make. The truth is that purpose or meaning can only ever be found outside the object in question, and therefore will always escape you if you only consider any object by itself, as only matter. This is as true for the universe as it is for anything else.

Let's take the most immediate example: you are currently reading this blog post. You might be using a computer to display the webpage on a monitor, which then shoots out the photons that enter your eyes, allowing you to see the webpage.

Now, if the purpose of your computer system is to display things, why is it so inefficient? Over the lifetime of your system, about a joule's worth of photons enters through the pupils of your eyes. This is minuscule in comparison to the mass-energy content of your computer system, which is about 10^18 joules. Why can't the computer deliver a significant portion of that 10^18 joules into your eyes, if that's its purpose? In light of this inefficiency, is it not obvious that ascribing a purpose to your computer is delusional, born out of the inflated sense of importance that you attach to your eyeballs?

Of course, thinking that way is ridiculous. Yes, the purpose of your 10^18 joule computer system really is to send a joule of photons into your eyes. You know this because you in fact use it for that purpose. Yet you have never wondered at the "inefficiency" of the system, and never held that inefficiency as evidence against a purpose. Why would you start doing so with the universe?

The mistake in this ridiculous way of thinking becomes obvious upon a moment's reflection: the purpose of the photons from your monitor is not to deliver energy, but information. You would only hold the "inefficiency" of your computer system against it if you only thought in terms of energy, and failed to think on a higher plane, where that energy delivers information. Likewise, the purpose of humans is not to occupy space, or to take up time, but to glorify God. You would only think the universe was "inefficient" at producing humans if you only considered humans as merely matter, and failed to realize that humans are primarily spiritual beings.

You may say that this comparison fails, because the computer is not actually inefficient: all of its parts are necessary to produce those photons which eventually enter your eyes. But the same is true for the universe: the amount of matter in the universe, and the rate of its expansion, needed to be precisely fine-tuned for it to produce life. So if the computer is not inefficient, I say neither is the universe: its great mass, size, and the age are all necessary to produce us humans. The original "inefficiency" argument then simply fizzles.

You may also say, "Aha! I'm actually reading your blog on a smartphone, which is smaller than a desktop and therefore more efficient! Just as smartphone technology represents an improvement over the desktop, wouldn't the universe be improved if it were more efficient at producing humans? A universe consisting of just the Earth would be a much more efficient, much better universe! Doesn't the low efficiency of the actual universe speak against God's capabilities as the creator?"

Not at all. We only value smaller computing devices because we are limited in our physical capabilities: we cannot lug around our desktop everywhere. The same goes for other measures of efficiency. We value a high gas mileage in our cars because we only have a limited amount of gasoline available to us. But God has no such limitations: it is no more trouble for him to create a hundred billion galaxies than it is for him to create a single atom. For him to wait ten billion years for life to begin was no more trouble than to wait one second. Even if the entire rest of the universe existed solely to look pretty for us, that would be no argument against God, as it would have been no trouble for him to create it.

But more importantly, the "inefficiency" of the universe actually serves its purpose. The medium is the message. Remember, the purpose of the universe in Christianity is not just to produce humans, but to allow Christ to be incarnated into it, so that God may draw us onto himself. In light of this, the "inefficiency" of the universe due to its large size actually serves to highlight the infinite power and majesty of God, and therefore serves its purpose by allowing us humans to appreciate God's glory. The size of the universe is in fact an argument FOR God, because his purpose is better served by the enormous size of the actual universe.

Do you doubt my argument? Consider Mt. Rushmore. In a purely physical sense, the purpose of Mt. Rushmore is much the same as your computer: to put some photons into your eyes. But Mt. Rushmore is more massive than your desktop by many orders of magnitude, and therefore far less efficient. Now, should you count the "inefficiency" of Mt. Rushmore against the capabilities of its creator, or the idea that it has a purpose? Would Mt. Rushmore be improved if it were only two feet tall? Of course not. The medium is the message. The true purpose of Mt. Rushmore, which of course lies beyond mere physicality, is to express the greatness of the presidents whose faces are carved into the mountain. In this task its "inefficiency" due to its size actually accomplishes its purpose, in expressing the greatness of these men with the physical greatness of their sculpted likeness. In the same way, the "inefficiency" of the universe actually accomplishes its purpose, by helping us humans understand and glorify God.

Next, consider the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). One of its purposes was to discover the Higgs boson. Upon comparing the mass or the lifetime of the Higgs boson to that of the Large Hadron Collider, you would find that the LHC is very "inefficient": it is much more massive and lasts much longer than a Higgs boson. Now, could you use this fact to argue that the LHC doesn't have a purpose? Of course not. The true purpose of the LHC is not mere physical detection, but the increase of our knowledge. Ignoring the knowledge component and simply focusing on the Higgs boson is the mistake of a simple reductionist, which then leads to the erroneous conclusion that the LHC doesn't have a purpose. Likewise, by ignoring the spiritual component and treating humanity as merely matter, you would reach the erroneous conclusion that the universe doesn't have a purpose.

Additional examples abound. The pyramids were built to give the Pharaohs a feeling - to release some tiny amount of chemicals in their brains. Your sound system, like your computer monitor, is massive compared to the energy it puts out as sound waves. Radio telescopes are massive compared to the energy of the radio waves they detect. Enormous film sets are built, only to occupy a tiny volume in a data storage device as a video file. All of these are "inefficient" if judged according to the flawed thinking at the start of this post. Yet despite their "inefficiencies", we know that all these things do in fact have a purpose.

So, the thinking that the "universe is too big to have humans as its purpose" is immediately falsified upon direct comparison to many things that are known to have a purpose. According to this thinking, your computer, Mt. Rushmore, the Large Hadron Collider, and many other things must all be without a purpose.

At the heart of the mistake in all these cases is the idea that matter is the only thing that's real. This is why, in all of the examples given above, the mistake comes from computing efficiencies by comparing matter to matter (or energy to energy, which is the same thing). The remedy is to open your eyes to the higher levels of reality, such as knowledge, information, or emotion, each of which can be responsible for arbitrarily large amounts of matter. In the same way, the mistake about the purpose of the universe comes from thinking that physical things are the only real things, that the universe and humans are merely matter. It is remedied by opening your eyes to spiritual realities.

Another thing that all of the above examples have in common is that the purpose of an object is ALWAYS something outside the object. Computer monitors exist for a purpose outside themselves: for your eyes to see what's displayed on them. The Large Hadron Collider exists for a purpose outside itself: to provide knowledge to the human brain. Look around you right now: pick any random object that has a purpose. At this moment around me, I see a wood screw, whose purpose is to hold together things that are not itself. I see a lamp, whose purpose is to illuminate something else other than itself. There are some keys, which open things which are not the keys themselves. A pen writes on something other than itself, and a napkin cleans something other than itself. For every object with a purpose, that purpose can only be found outside of itself.

Therefore, in looking for the purpose of the physical universe, it is futile to search inside the physical universe itself. No amount looking at things inside the universe - atoms, stars, cells, or quasars - will ever turn up the purpose of the universe. The fact that science hasn't found the purpose of the physical universe tells you precisely nothing, because this is exactly what you'd expect even if the universe did have a purpose. As with everything else, if the universe has a purpose, that purpose must lie outside the universe itself.

However, once you accept the possibility that the universe does have a purpose - once you've rejected the reductionist thinking that forces you to conclude against a purpose from the onset - it is possible to look for the purpose of the universe. Not by searching within the universe, but by using the universe to evaluate things outside of it. That will be the subject of next week's post.


You may next want to read:
Life, universe, and everything - does it all have a purpose? (Next post of this series)
The trends in science as evidence for Christianity against atheism (part 1)
Why are there so few Christians among scientists? (part 2)
Another post, from the table of contents

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2 comments on “Isn't the universe too big to have humans as its purpose?”

  1. I absolutely agree! Purpose is so utterly critical to everything, yet it's so easy to misunderstand or overlook.

    My current Dungeons & Dragons campaign is actually explicit about this. I've told my players that if they have a purpose in mind, anything they do - within reason - will succeed, because I'll warp the world (hey, I'm the Dungeon Master and therefore absolute ruler of this little world of fiction) to make that happen. You know the Queen of Hearts is in the mountains to the north, so you say "We go to the north mountain to look for the Queen of Hearts", and I'll make it all happen - no getting lost on the way, or anything.

    This universe is, in many ways, similar. God says "Let there be light", and because He is God, light just... is. It has to be, because God told it to be. God puts an avatar of Himself into the world in the form of a burning bush, and that bush just has to burn, because there's no other option for it.

    Our purposes aren't as automatically-followed as God's, of course, because we're not powerful the way He is, but we still do get that feeling of "wow, all this for me?" - those stars, out there, fusing enormous quantities of hydrogen, all moving in perfectly set patterns and so on, and all for our benefit. We can navigate by them, we can recognize seasons by them, here on this one tiny planet.

    So, taking your subject line question: "Isn't the universe too big to have humans as its purpose?" The simple answer to that is: Everything exists for our viewing and God's glory, ergo everything that we can see must, by definition, be fulfilling its purpose. (Things we can't observe don't necessarily lack purpose, of course, but anything we can see must have purpose.) Seeing the vastness of the universe reminds us that the Creator God we worship isn't restricted to small worlds. If it takes another star to do that, He'll make another star - because it's easy!

  2. I guess that, in that DnD example, God is such an awesome DM that not only will you find the Queen of Hearts in the mountains to the north, but every single detail of the mountain and its history and everything else about the campaign has been fleshed out and planned so that it this would happen. God's abilities in world creation are so great that it actually creates the world, whereas even the best human DM's have to fill things in as they go along.

    But yes, it's all for the purpose that God set out, and to such a degree that we have a hard time taking it all in. But we shouldn't confuse that with the feeling that it's not for us.

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