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)

Free Online Astron­o­my Cours­es, part of our larg­er col­lec­tion, 1,700 Free Online Cours­es from Top Uni­ver­si­ties

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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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