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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The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

New research establishes an unexpected connection.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
Surprising Science
  • A study provides further confirmation that a prolonged lack of sleep can result in early mortality.
  • Surprisingly, the direct cause seems to be a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species in the gut produced by sleeplessness.
  • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

Withdrawal symptoms from antidepressants can last over a year, new study finds

We must rethink the "chemical imbalance" theory of mental health.

Photo Illustration by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Surprising Science
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Four philosophers who realized they were completely wrong about things

Philosophers like to present their works as if everything before it was wrong. Sometimes, they even say they have ended the need for more philosophy. So, what happens when somebody realizes they were mistaken?

Sartre and Wittgenstein realize they were mistaken. (Getty Images)
Culture & Religion

Sometimes philosophers are wrong and admitting that you could be wrong is a big part of being a real philosopher. While most philosophers make minor adjustments to their arguments to correct for mistakes, others make large shifts in their thinking. Here, we have four philosophers who went back on what they said earlier in often radical ways. 

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Is there a limit to optimism when it comes to climate change?

Or is doubt a self-fulfilling prophecy?

David McNew/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs

'We're doomed': a common refrain in casual conversation about climate change.

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