Neil deGrasse Tyson Ponders the Big Question “Does the Universe Have a Purpose” in a Simple Animation

The Templeton Foundation asked some heavy-hitter thinkers to answer the question, “Does the Universe Have a Purpose”. Some said “Yes” and “Certainly.” Others concluded “Unlikely” and “No.” Neil deGrasse Tyson — astrophysicist, director of the Hayden Planetarium, and popularizer of science — gave an answer that falls technically in the “Not Certain” camp.

Above, you can watch a video where Tyson reads his answer aloud, and the makers of Minute Physics provide the rudimentary animation. One thing astrophysicists have is a knack for putting things into a deeper context, often making “big” human questions look remarkably small (if not somewhat absurd). Carl Sagan did it remarkably well in his famous ‘The Pale Blue Dot’ speech. And Tyson picks up right where Sagan left off.

We still live in a world where, despite Copernicus, we think the world revolves essentially around us. And, to the extent that that’s true, some will find Tyson’s data points disorienting. Others might wonder whether we should angst so much about the questions we perennially ask in the first place. I guess I am kind of there today.

Related Content:

Neil deGrasse Tyson Lists 8 (Free) Books Every Intelligent Person Should Read

Carl Sagan’s Undergrad Reading List: 40 Essential Texts for a Well-Rounded Thinker

Carl Sagan Writes a Letter to 17-Year-Old Neil deGrasse Tyson (1975)

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Comments (8)
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  • Samalama says:

    Well said, sir. Intestinal bacteria is incapable of seeing or comprehending it’s crucial purpose. Perhaps the same is true for humans. If the universe has a purpose, it could be clearly visible in another universe or dimension. Keep after it.

  • Jason says:

    Right. It may be that that physical indicia, or, say, economic indicia are insufficient to fully measure a universe of moral dimension. Moral and metaphysical inquiries can lead us there.
    The first law of nature is self preservation, perhaps one purpose of this universe is merely to persist as a universe. Can we place a normative value on the struggle to persist? Is there some evidence that the universe OUGHT to exist and if so what is that physical evidence? Love or goodwill is the spiritual evidence but what of the physical evidence?


  • Simon says:

    The suggestion of the meaning to which the word purpose is used in this context seems to be the most important question here to me.
    To suggest the universe has a purpose other than to continue to exist as a natural object and/or event within nature itself is to again talk of a creator…isn’t it? Can it not just exist because of the laws of nature? Until such a time as the laws of nature decide that it is not to exist? Isn’t that how our understanding of events and natural elements comes to be?
    To question whether the universe has meaning is to project the human question as to whether we have meaning or whether life has meaning…the answer is subjective surely. And seeing as the universe does not have a mind that is subject to the existential worry that human carries with him or her how can we presume it to have any meaning other than just to be until such a time that it doesn’t. I would also suggest that this is a general rule for all things that exist in nature and to look for a meaning outside of these parameters is futile.
    So I think that Neil is right. Sorry to ramble.

  • Rodolfo says:

    I think Neil answered it both ways. For believers, yes, for non-believers, 99.99% almost no, still not 100%.

  • John says:

    Science did not disabuse humans from positing a purpose to human life. Our bleak , existential predicament is and has alway been profoundly felt. The silly hubris of scientist to think they are schooling us makes me laugh. If the universe is purposele then it gave rise to purpose making creatures. That is a truth – and one of no little significance since we are of the very substance of the universe.

  • Hanoch says:

    There is nothing wrong with a scientist giving his personal opinion on issues of theology and/or philosophy. An honest scientist — as opposed to one dedicated to advancing a non-scientific agenda — would have to admit, however, that science simply cannot address the question posed.

  • Griot says:

    Uhh what about Life? Why not see life in all of it’s forms of existence as the purpose of the universe? Why is any more definition needed? Is not the creation and sustainment of life a sufficient enough value to qualify as the purpose of creation?

  • Even Steven says:

    The purpose of the Universe is to kill you and the sad thing is that there is no way to stop it.

    So enjoy what lifetime you have left and stop being a Gloomy Gus.

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