Ask an atheist: Does the universe have a purpose?

All that matters is the here and now.

MICHAEL SHERMER: Does the universe have a purpose? Okay, this is the biggest question of all. I think in part it's not quite the right question because people are asking it as if there's something out there that knows we're here and cares about us. As a nonbeliever I don't think that's the case. I think it's up to us to care. But the scientific study of the universe shows what in the universe would care? I mean the space-time continuum, stars, galaxies... What is there to care about us other than us? And the answer is nothing. Now, of course the theists says no, God is out there and God knows about us and cares about us. But how would that give your life purpose? It's up to you to create purpose in your life, not for some external source. What people are looking for is somebody to tell them what the purpose of their life is and that's the wrong way to search. The search is to go inside and go what is the purpose of my life? Now, the scientific answer that I give in the book is it starts with the second law of thermodynamics which I call the first law of life. That is entropy, the running down of the universe is what happens if you do nothing.

So if you have your warm cup of coffee and you do nothing it just gets cold. If you don't clean your room it just stays cluttered. If you don't wash your car it stays dirty, and so on. So the first law of life is to fight back against entropy. Carve out a little niche of order. Wash our car, heat your coffee, clean your room, brush your teeth. and so on and so forth. Then you build from there. Like okay, we know from scientific research by social psychologists, personality psychologists, and there's even a branch of psychology now people that study purpose and meaning. And there's certain things you could do that give your life purpose and meaning. So meaningful work. A reason to get up in the morning, get out the door and go out and do something productive. Family, having some kind of group of people that care about you, that love you, that you care about them and you love them. Marriage or partnership or just one person that you love and that they love you and that acknowledges you as a worthwhile person. And then there's something called spirituality. Now I want to be careful here because that word is almost always associated with mainstream religions, but here I mean it in a much broader sense. A sense of awe and wonder at things that are bigger than us.

The universe, the cosmos or any kind of meditative state, prayer. Just kind of walking in nature and looking up at massive trees or the ocean. There's something about standing up on a high hill or cliff and looking out at an ocean, or a grassy field, or a forest that evokes awe and wonder in people. And that's kind of the spirituality that makes people feel like wow, my life I am so lucky to be alive. And if you think about all the trillions of people that could have been born that never were, the 7.5 billion of us alive now, the hundred billion of us that came before. We are the lucky ones. I mean most people that could have been born were never even born to be given this opportunity. And even if you're a theist and you believe there's an afterlife, but let's just ask the question. Where were you before you were born? When you ask the question where do you go after you die? The same place. You didn't exist, then you exist, then you don't exist. Even if I'm wrong and it turns out there's an afterlife, and I talk about this in the book, it doesn't matter because we don't live in the afterlife. We live in this life, in the here and now.

And I call this Alvy's era after Woody Allen's movie "Annie Hall" where there's that flashback scene when he was a little boy and he refuses to do his homework. So his mother takes him to the psychiatrist, who says 'What's the matter Alvy,' and he says 'I found out the universe is expanding and the universe is everything and one day it's all going to blow apart so nothing we do matters.' And his mother yells at him, 'What's the universe got to do with it? We live in Brooklyn, and Brooklyn is not expanding.' I call that Alvy's era. Again, asking what's the purpose of life? The purpose of life is here and now. It doesn't matter what happens billions of years from now or whether there's a God or not, whether there's an afterlife or not. It's irrelevant. This is the life that matters.

  • While bestselling author and skeptic Michael Shermer doesn't believe in God or any outside force that cares about us, he also doesn't think that the existence of one would give our lives meaning.
  • Shermer argues that it is up to us to create purpose for ourselves in various ways, including through meaningful work, familial and romantic relationships, and a connection and respect for the wonder of nature.
  • "It doesn't matter what happens billions of years from now or whether there's a God or not, whether there's an afterlife or not," he says. "It's irrelevant. This is the life that matters."

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Sponsored by Northwell Health
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  • The CDC reports that there have been close to 7.9 million cases of coronavirus reported in the United States since January. Around 216,000 people have died from the virus so far with hundreds more added to the tally every day. Several labs around the world are working on solutions, but there is currently no vaccine for COVID-19.
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