Neil deGrasse Tyson has published a video on YouTube that gives his answer to the question “Does the Universe Have a Purpose?”. At the end of his video he says:
So while I cannot claim to know for sure whether or not the universe has a purpose, the case against it is strong and visible to anyone who sees the universe as it is rather than as they wish it to be. (Neil deGrasse Tyson in his YouTube Video)
I have too many objections to Dr. Tyson’s video for a single essay. For now, therefore, I am going to restrict myself to a statement he makes about half-way through his video:
If you are religious, you might declare that the purpose of life is to serve God, but if you are one of the 100 billion bacteria living and working in a single centimeter of your lower intestine, you might instead say that the purpose of human life is to provide you with a dark but idyllic anaerobic habitat of fecal matter. So in the absence of human hubris, the universe looks more and more random. (Neil deGrasse Tyson in his YouTube Video)
Now I like Dr. Tyson. With his amiable personality, quick wit, charisma, articulate style and undeniable intelligence, he brings a breath of fresh air to the debate between theists and atheists. Having said that, when I hear someone say something like this it makes me want to throw myself off of a tall building. Is this really a serious attempt by a highly educated scholar to address a serious issue in front of an educated, general audience?
The primary problem I have with this statement is that it is an extremely nihilistic statement. We are invited to imagine billions of bacteria “living and working” in our lower intestines and contemplating the meaning of life enough to assert that the purpose of human beings is to provide “a dark but idyllic anaerobic habitat” for their species. Any assertion that human beings are superior to intestinal bacteria is unjustified “hubris” that is unworthy of contemplation and we demonstrate our deep tolerance and humility by rejecting it. Oh how wonderful we are for rejecting the hubris of the idea that human beings are superior to bacteria!
Now this type of “humility” may sound attractive to some people, but it is in fact an extremely dangerous and stupid idea. If you believe that it is hubris to say that human beings are superior to bacteria, then you are a nihilist. If you think that a group of human beings believing that they have a purpose is the equivalent of a population of gut bacteria “living and working” in your intestines and praising your poop, then you are capable of unspeakable evil. Atheists reject the notion that they or their philosophy is responsible for terrible atrocities like the Holocaust, but you cannot simultaneously reject these atrocities and embrace a philosophy that equates a genocide perpetrated against human beings with using a can of Lysol on a kitchen counter covered with E Coli. If human beings truly are like bacteria, then why is destroying a population of human beings any different from destroying a population of bacteria? If your philosophy tells you that there is no distinction between these two acts, then how are you different from a Nazi?
Now some atheists have argued that, “just because a truth is compatible with genocide doesn’t mean that it is untrue”. But is the statement that Dr. Tyson makes even factual? I myself am extremely skeptical of what I am going to call the “Assertion of Bacterial Consciousness”. I do not believe that bacteria contemplate the purpose of their existence or ours and a universe in which I am wrong about this is so vastly different from anything Dr. Tyson or I can even imagine that it is almost unthinkable. I think we can establish that Dr. Tyson does not really think this way if we asked him if we should forbid the use of antibiotics on the grounds that their use would exhibit “hubris”? I cannot believe that Dr. Tyson would advocate the death of children to avoid “hubris” in this way and so I conclude that he doesn’t really believe what he is saying. The question is, why does Dr. Tyson say something that he doesn’t really mean? I believe that he is making an emotional argument to avoid some readily available facts which he does not like.
The fact is that human beings have a number of astonishing capabilities which make us plausible candidates for a real purpose:
- We understand abstract mathematics, a subset of which seems to govern the universe around us.
- We are conscious of ourselves and others.
- We are capable of language and can communicate with others.
- We are capable of changing the world around us through our thoughts and choices.
- We are capable of asking questions and seeking purpose.
- We are capable of artistic expression and appreciating beauty.
- We are capable of love and helping others. We are also capable of injuring others and understanding what is right and wrong.
Atheists can and do deny that human beings have these capabilities, but we have mountains of evidence for all of them in our own personal experience. All an atheist can do in the face of this tremendous evidence from personal experience is teach that human experience is a huge delusion. “You cannot really choose, all you really have is the illusion of free will.” “You cannot really think, all you really have is the illusion of abstract thought.” “You cannot really love, all you really have is the illusion of love appropriate to a mammal that evolved a certain set of social instincts.” Ironically, the anger and vehemence with which atheists reject common human experience gives us a very real clue to God’s purpose for the universe.
It is my belief that the purpose of this universe is to teach human beings that we need God. Our fragility in the face of a hostile universe demonstrates a very real physical need of God and makes it clear that without his protection and provision we could not survive. The size and scope of the universe makes it clear that He has enormous power and that we are insignificant as compared to him. Our capacity for evil makes it clear that we need his moral guidance and instruction.
Now this human inadequacy and need of God is deeply offensive to human beings and this accounts for the anger and vehemence of those who reject their need of Jesus Christ. Instead of being self-reliant individuals who are superior to other human beings because they understand evolution and see the world as it is, atheists are just sinners who need the grace of God like everybody else. It takes an enormous amount of honesty and what George Orwell called “the power of facing” unpleasant reality to admit that this is true, but how can you claim to “see the universe as it is rather than as you want it to be” if you cannot admit that you need a savior? An atheist who admitted that he needed a savior to give him life, love, guidance and forgiveness but simultaneously said that there was no evidence for such a savior could make a compelling case. An atheist who says, “I don’t need a savior to show me how to love others and there is no evidence that we have one.” cannot claim to be intellectually honest or courageous because he has rejected a reality that is as obvious as it is painful.