Neil deGrasse Tyson and the Purpose of the Universe

It is arrogant to believe that purpose of the universe was to bring about carbon-based sentient lifeforms, i.e., us (human beings).
Neil deGrasse Tyson
Neil deGrasse Tyson (NASA/Bill IngallsPublic Domain)

In recent years, Neil deGrasse Tyson has become one of science’s most popular evangelists and communicators, and for good reason. The astrophysicist is funny, witty, and quite affable, and his media savvy — consider his various appearances on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report — handily undermines the popular (mis)conception of scientists as bumbling, anti-social dweebs. And if that weren’t enough, he’s pinpointed Superman’s birth planet of Krypton for DC Comics and he’s even been the the inspiration for a meme or two.

Tyson, along with several other scientists, philosophers, and thinkers, was recently asked by The John Templeton Foundation to answer that age-old question: “Does the universe have a purpose?” His response — which you can read here — was made into the clever video below, which has been making the rounds as of late.

Tyson’s response immediately critiques the notion that the universe’s purpose was human life, or to “create a fertile cradle for life.” He writes:

To assert that the universe has a purpose implies the universe has intent. And intent implies a desired outcome. But who would do the desiring? And what would a desired outcome be? That carbon-based life is inevitable? Or that sentient primates are life’s neurological pinnacle? Are answers to these questions even possible without expressing a profound bias of human sentiment? Of course humans were not around to ask these questions for 99.9999% of cosmic history. So if the purpose of the universe was to create humans then the cosmos was embarrassingly inefficient about it.

He concludes with this “cheery” thought:

So in the absence of human hubris, and after we filter out the delusional assessments it promotes within us, the universe looks more and more random. Whenever events that are purported to occur in our best interest are as numerous as other events that would just as soon kill us, then intent is hard, if not impossible, to assert. So while I cannot claim to know for sure whether or not the universe has a purpose, the case against it is strong, and visible to anyone who sees the universe as it is rather than as they wish it to be.

Now, I do think that Tyson is correct in one respect. It is arrogant to believe that purpose of the universe was to bring about carbon-based sentient lifeforms, i.e., us human beings. This is something that Christians can gladly and faithfully affirm. The Bible tells us that the purpose of the universe was not our existence or glory, but rather, to sing the praises of its Creator and to glorify Christ.

  • “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” (Psalm 19:1)
  • “For from him and through him and to him are all things.” (Romans 11:36a)
  • “For by [Christ] all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities — all things were created through him and for him.” (Colossians 1:16)

Our species, and its development, certainly plays a role in that process or worship, and an important one at that, given that we bear the image of God here on Earth. However, our species is not the universe’s chief purpose and goal. Just as man’s chief end is to glorify God, so to is the universe’s, if the above verses are any indication.

Such a thought should fill us with a humility akin to that feeling of smallness one experiences while staring at the countless stars in the nighttime expanse — the very same feeling that drives us to repeat the psalmist’s words: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8:3 – 4)

In addition, it should result in gratitude. After all, God’s aseity (i.e., self-sufficiency) means that He didn’t need to create anything, much less a universe that would, at some point, contain human beings like you and me. And yet, for whatever reason, He chose to create something ex nihilo. And equally mind-boggling is that He has chosen to sustain and uphold that creation, and with it, our existence (Isaiah 40:21 – 26, Acts 17:22 – 28, Hebrews 1:3a).

Some will no doubt reply to all of this that the claim of any purpose for the universe, even one that is not human-centric, is still nothing more than an illusion. Such criticisms should result in a good, rollicking debate. But as far as critiquing the notion that Tyson does in his response — that the universe reaches some sort of completion or “desired outcome” with our existence — Christians ought to be ahead of him in that particular line, and placing any such exalted position on the One who truly deserves it.

This entry was originally published on Christ and Pop Culture on .