Does the Universe Have a Purpose?

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Through the Looking GlassWhen I was a novice librarian working at a community college, a young man came in with a “reference question.” The question was “Does the universe have a purpose?” I thought this was a splendid topic to tackle and, in my naiveté, I started poking around in the subjects of cosmology and cosmogony. Well, most of that literature was turgid and totally irrelevant; and I finally had to say to the student, “I think your teacher means this as a thought question; he wants to know what YOU think.” At the time my own unspoken answer to that question was “No, of course not.” I saw the universe as a vast impersonal mechanism.

A few things have molded my thinking since that long-ago encounter. One is Gaia theory in which living organisms are seen as interacting with their inorganic surroundings to form what Wikipedia calls a “synergistic self-regulating, complex system.” This idea is still being challenged by some scientists, but has been entering the vernacular in a way that pictures the earth as a living, breathing thing and possibly the nature of the universe as a whole.

More thought comes from quantum physics. In experiments with subatomic particles, scientists noticed that by the very act of watching (or measuring) particle behavior, the observer affects the outcome of the experiment. They came up with the term “superposition” to describe the particle’s state before it manifests as either a particle or a wave.

“Quantum entanglement” has also been a mind-blowing development for physicists. It is the bizarre ability of two particles, miles apart, to instantly duplicate each other’s behavior. No wonder Einstein used the word “spooky” to describe what was going on in the quantum mechanics of his day.

And then there is the thinking of philosophers who try to tie everything together. Alan Watts (1915-1973) was a physicist and Anglican priest who became a professor and philosopher known for bringing Eastern philosophy to Western audiences. Watts stated that the idea of a mechanistic universe is essentially dead. Based on Hinduism, Chinese philosophy, pantheism, and modern science, he put forth a view that the universe is a cosmic entity that plays hide-and-seek with itself by becoming organic and inorganic things. (Eckhardt Tolle follows with the same kind of thinking.) We humans are bits of the universe that have forgotten our source and real identity. As Watts puts it, we are not “an ego in a bag of skin” but are really aspects of the whole.

“The whole” is considered by many to be consciousness itself, and this changes the response to the question of “Does the universe have a purpose?” Presumably consciousness or conscious entities CAN have purposes. So today if you ask me that long-ago reference question, I would say, “Yes. As with humans its ultimate purpose is simply to exist.”

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