The Universe May Not Have a Purpose — But You Do, Thanks to Science

Life is a temporary, cosmic accident and the universe may very well be meaningless. That's depressing — or is it?

Lawrence Krauss: I have a friend of mine who's a very famous writer, and I'll leave him nameless for the moment, but he writes very dark novels. And when I first met him I was surprised he was so cheerful and I said, "How can you be so cheerful?" And he looked at me and he said, "I'm a pessimist, but that's no reason to be gloomy." And that's become my own mantra in some sense, and it seems appropriate when you think about the universe.

Because the universe first of all isn't here to make us happy, it isn't here to please us and it doesn't give a damn what happens to us. In the far future of the universe is likely to be miserable as I talked about in my last book, and I point in my new book it could even be more miserable.

So in a purposeless universe that may have a miserable future you may wonder, "Well how can I go about each day?" And the answer is we make our own purpose. We make our own joy. We are here by a cosmic accident as I've tried to show, but it's a remarkable accident that's allowed you and I to be here to talk, us to think and appreciate the beauty and splendor of the universe.

So the fact that the universe itself may have no purpose doesn't affect our purpose, in fact it's the incredible height of solipsism to assume that without us the universe doesn't matter, and that if the universe is purposeless we don't matter. We make our own purpose, and it seems to me life is more precious because it's temporary and accidental, and we should take advantage of that. And we have evolved brains and that allows us to ask questions not just about how the universe works but how we should behave.

Now it's a long philosophical debate about whether you can get ought from is, and maybe you can never get ought from is, and maybe reason is the slave of passion. One thing seems clear to me: that without knowing what is you could never get to ought. Or: To do the ought that you get to is silly. If you don't know the consequences of your actions, which is really what science tells us, then you can't assess how to behave. And so understanding empirical phenomena plays a central role in leading a better life, it seems to me. And it should play a central role in public policy so that we as a society can make sound decisions about how to act in the common good. 

The universe doesn't care about you, and the future is miserable. So begins theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss' guide to optimism. Optimism? You heard us right. We may never find meaning or purpose in the universe, but to assume that our purpose is interlinked with that of the universe is what Krauss calls the height of solipsism. Life is beautiful precisely because it's so temporary, and if anything helps us to be optimistic in a morally neutral universe, it's science. Asking questions and understanding what something is helps us realize the consequences of our actions. Armed with knowledge, we can make decisions for the common good. If that's not hope, what is?


This video is part of a collaborative series with the Hope & Optimism initiative, which supports interdisciplinary academic research into significant questions that remain under-explored. The three-year initiative will provide over $2 million for philosophers, philosophers of religion, and social scientists to generate original, high-quality, collaborative research on topics related to optimism and hopefulness. Discover the public components of the Hope & Optimism project, and how you can contribute, at hopeoptimism.com.

Lawrence Krauss' most recent book is The Greatest Story Ever Told -- So Far: Why Are We Here?.

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