Posted by: Millard J. Melnyk | August 26, 2013

Does the Universe Have a Purpose: A Rebuttal to Neil deGrasse Tyson

Does the Universe Have a Purpose? by Neil deGrasse Tyson

A friendly sparring partner (words, not fists, lol!) recently brought my attention to Neil deGrasse Tyson’s excellent little monograph on the topic of the possible purposefulness of the universe. Click on the image above to see a slick video of Tyson reading  his piece to a sketching hand. You can find the transcript here.

Neil deGrasse Tyson

Neil deGrasse Tyson

Tyson is an astrophysicist, the Director of New York City’s Hayden Planetarium, and “one of the smartest humans on the planet” according to my friend.  I think that was supposed to make me reconsider my task. Instead, it just got me more interested.

Tyson’s is a masterful rhetorical piece, and I’m sure that persuasion — not logical soundness — was his purpose for writing it. On that level it succeeds admirably, which is all the more reason to tear it apart logically, showing just how convincing bad logic can be.

Background: I quipped to my friend that I listened to Tyson’s video and, even though multitasking, caught at least four logical fallacies without hardly trying. (Yeah, I like ungrammatical Americanisms.) My friend, of course, challenged me to put up or shut up. This is my response, one paragraph at a time…

Does the Universe Have a Purpose?

Anyone who expresses a more definitive response to the question is claiming access to knowledge not based on empirical foundations. This remarkably persistent way of thinking, common to most religions and some branches of philosophy, has failed badly in past efforts to understand, and thereby predict the operations of the universe and our place within it.

Claiming that “Anyone who expresses a more definitive response to the question is claiming access to knowledge not based on empirical foundations” is pretty broad, don’t you think? What is the empirical foundation for such a sweeping and absolute statement? Maybe a survey that found 100% of the respondents claimed access to knowledge not based on empirical foundations? Just one survey? If not, how many? If none, what other “empirical foundation” is the statement based on? And let’s not forget the Black Swan problem: even if a million people were surveyed and all resorted to non-empirically based knowledge, the million-and-first might not, falsifying Tyson’s statement.

Of course, that wasn’t the primary point of the statement, because the primary point was rhetorical. That’s just how the statement stands up (falls, actually) if taken logically, not rhetorically. His rhetorical point was to give the impression that no empirical basis for a “more definitive response” is possible. He suggested this by stating the converse, that everyone who tries for a more definitive response resorts to non-empirical knowledge, a hackneyed — and fallacious — but ever-effective rhetorical gimmick.

Notice that he also insinuates (without stating it) that only knowledge based on empirical foundations is reliable knowledge. (You get this more clearly by watching the video.) That would mean, for example, that we can’t rely on a decision to ask a special someone to marry us, since knowing that this is the right one and this is the right time is something that no amount of empirical foundation could ever adequately support. And that’s true for pretty much all of the important decisions we make all our lives long. It’s even true for Tyson.

That doesn’t touch an even more important oversight. Tyson doesn’t consider the possibility that a non-empirically based form of “knowledge” might be able to demonstrate that the universe has a purpose. Logic, for example. Math, for another. Neither are “empirically based,” but we use both to demonstrate all kinds of non-trivial things. Did he try both to see if they could establish the purposefulness of the universe, but failed? Hmm… I doubt it. But if he had, would failure mean that logic and math are inadequate, or would Tyson’s inability to use them be at fault? Hmm… And what about other types of knowledge? Too many stones left unturned here.

To assert that the universe has a purpose implies the universe has intent. And intent implies a desired outcome. But who would do the desiring? And what would a desired outcome be? That carbon-based life is inevitable? Or that sentient primates are life’s neurological pinnacle? Are answers to these questions even possible without expressing a profound bias of human sentiment? Of course humans were not around to ask these questions for 99.9999% of cosmic history. So if the purpose of the universe was to create humans then the cosmos was embarrassingly inefficient about it.

“Desired outcome” is vague, and Tyson uses the vagueness to advantage. He seems to mean pre-identified outcome. Identifying outcome beforehand isn’t necessary to establish intent. Desire in a direction, the outcome of which remains obscure for quite some time, is typical for many creative acts, especially extemporaneous acts. Jazz for example, or unscripted theater, or trolling to get laid. Not knowing the outcome is part of the point, aka intention, aka purpose. As hungry people looking for something to eat sometimes find, you can definitely desire something without knowing what it is until you find it. So, before you saw it, you desired an outcome without a clear idea of what the outcome would be. Not a big faux pas, though, just a bit sloppy.

And who declared that there must be a “who” to do the intending and desiring? We could consider the very laws of physics together as a whole like a kind of ubiquitous, universal intent. Gravity certainly seems to intend that everything be attracted towards the cores of large bodies of matter. We can claim that gravity doesn’t represent intent or purpose, in spite of that appearance; but on what empirical foundation does that claim rest? Like they say, absence of evidence (which is all there is to “support” the absence of gravitational intentionality) does not constitute evidence of absence. For all we know, gravity might very well be the intentional, purposeful work of gadzillions of little invisible angels who make sure that we’ll never detect them. Sure would explain some things. 😉

Here and throughout, Tyson makes use of rhetorical — in contrast to logical — devices. For example, asking questions for effect to establish associations or make exclusions that have not been demonstrated. “What would a desired outcome be?” emotionally implies that if the reader cannot identify a desired outcome, there isn’t one. He then wraps a string of Creationist-oriented questions up with a doozy: “Are answers to these questions even possible without expressing a profound bias of human sentiment?”

Notice that he offers no answer to that question. Why? Two reasons, I think.

First, he actually knows that the answer is, “Of course we can answer those questions without expressing a profound bias of human sentiment!” Is carbon-based life inevitable? “Yes,” “No,” and “Maybe so,” are all possible answers. Likewise to the question of sentient primates as life’s neurological pinnacle. How do those necessarily involve “profound bias of human sentiment?” And given someone as opinionated and outspoken as Mr. Tyson, I’m sure that he has answers, too, ones that he considers to be largely free from “profound bias of human sentiment.” So the answer to, “Are answers to these questions even possible without expressing a profound bias of human sentiment?” must be, “Yes!” — just the opposite of what he hoped to insinuate.

Second, and again this is a rhetorical effect of suggestion and association, not a result of sound logic, he gives the impression that the Creationist questions themselves — forget about the answers — are products of “profound bias of human sentiment.” Some readers might not even know what he means by that phrase, but it certainly sounds ominous. Without explaining, without empirical basis, merely by asking questions and leveraging the fact that he is an intelligent, important scientific personage, he managed to communicate that people who ask and try to answer questions about the inevitability of life or the neurological superiority of primates must somehow be suffering from profound bias of human sentiment, the mushy saps! Wouldn’t want to be one of those, no siree! All that with so few words. Pretty efficient.

As far as the universal inefficiency he closes the paragraph with, how is this an argument against the universe having purpose? What does purpose necessarily have to do with efficiency? One is about intent and the other about execution. Seems like a pretty silly bit of confusion; but, again, Tyson uses it to bolster his case rhetorically, not logically. This reminded me of Carl Sagan’s famous “seems like an awful waste of space” line from Contact. Efficiency, waste… It’s as if this thinking had been born during the Depression, but that was before Tyson’s time, though not before Sagan’s. To add insult to injury, after implying that the universe is “inefficient,” (compared to… ?) Tyson drives it home: not just inefficient, but embarrassingly so. I can just see the poor universe turning all red with shame. Even Creationists don’t go this far in their worst anthropomorphizing. Kudos to Tyson for rhetorical effect, regardless how dumb it is.

And if a further purpose of the universe was to create a fertile cradle for life, then our cosmic environment has got an odd way of showing it. Life on Earth, during more than 3.5 billion years of existence, has been persistently assaulted by natural sources of mayhem, death, and destruction. Ecological devastation exacted by volcanoes, climate change, earthquakes, tsunamis, storms, pestilence, and especially killer asteroids have left extinct 99.9% of all species that have ever lived here.

This one cracked me up even more than his purpose/efficiency fumble. Since when — if ever — did the facts of the character or behavior of anything in this universe comply with some notion of UN-oddness? Instead, the more we explore it, the odder it seems. This points out something quite profound, actually. Tyson leverages foibles of human cognition — perspective and context — for rhetorical effect. Given a person’s knowledge (context) and expectations (perspective), certain things appear normal or usual, and exceptions to this seem “odd.” Tyson translates the egocentric human notion of oddness into one that he applies to the universe itself, then discredits the idea that “the purpose of the universe was to create a fertile cradle for life” because, given the universe’s own behavior (which he hasn’t even gotten to yet), it would be odd. Odd.

I wonder, how could we empirically establish or measure oddness? How much oddness would be required to tip the scales from a random universe to a purposeful one? Hmm…

Then Tyson paints a pretty grim picture about the chances for continued survival, a never-fail emotional association gimmick. But notice: instead of showing that the universe is purposeless, he actually provides some well-evidenced basis of multiple purposes! Not only are there many forces responsible for the 99.9% species extinction rate he mentions, but there are many forces driving life species to struggle for survival and, in many cases like bugs and botanicals, to thrive. So, rather than showing purposelessness, Tyson instead gives strong evidence for two purposes embedded in the nature of the universe: life, which seems intent on and desirous of persisting and thriving; and the environment, which seems intent on and desirous of killing off virtually all life, to the tune of 99.9% of all species. Two purposes, not zero. Oops.

How about human life itself? If you are religious, you might declare that the purpose of life is to serve God. But if you’re one of the 100 billion bacteria living and working in a single centimeter of our lower intestine (rivaling, by the way, the total number of humans who have ever been born) you would give an entirely different answer. You might instead say that the purpose of human life is to provide you with a dark, but idyllic, anaerobic habitat of fecal matter.

Tyson certainly seems to have it out for god-believers and, frankly, they are starting to seem pretty silly by this point. He’s about to make them look sillier, and narcissistic to boot; but unfortunately, he shoots himself in the intestinal flora. Here’s where he shifts perspective and context, along with scale, to show that intent, desire, and purpose in one frame of reference make little sense in another. Purpose, no matter how familiar and UN-odd it might be to humans, looks quite like something else from the vantage of intestinal flora. So which view is “right” — that of the person with the gut or the bacteria inside it? Interesting question, but no matter what the answer, Tyson’s metaphor backfired. Again, instead of demonstrating the universe’s lack of purpose, he described its potential for a multiplicity of purposes.

How can a guy sound so right, be so wrong, and still come out ahead? One of the many wonders of the human psyche, I tell ya!

So in the absence of human hubris, and after we filter out the delusional assessments it promotes within us, the universe looks more and more random. Whenever events that are purported to occur in our best interest are as numerous as other events that would just as soon kill us, then intent is hard, if not impossible, to assert. 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.

Sad to say, Tyson stoops pretty low to close. Notice the first sentence. Did he demonstrate that any of the above was the result of human hubris or delusion (which is logically redundant, by the way, since we’re not aware of any other species capable of hubris or delusion — but again, the redundancy helps pack some additional rhetorical punch.) No, he didn’t; not at all. He didn’t, strictly speaking, even state that opinions advocating purpose in the universe are arrogant or deluded. Instead, he claimed that removing those deplorable vices helps us better see the randomness of the universe. And who would dare argue against that? This insinuates (since he’s intelligent enough that I can’t believe he did so in ignorance) that seeing purpose in the universe must, therefore, be the result of failing to eliminate hubris and delusion. This is a bit like telling people that only stupid people and those unfit for their posts can’t see the Emperor’s New Clothes. Except, in this case, the stupid and unfit ones are those who can see them.

Tyson wraps up with a wildly unsubstantiated claim: that events in our best interest are no more “numerous” than other events “that would just as soon kill us.” What? Killer events with intent and desire? Of course, Tyson doesn’t believe that events have intent and desire, but he certainly isn’t averse to using the negative emotional impact of anthropomorphized events to rhetorically — not logically — push his argument. And that’s just a nit. Does he claim to have — let alone offer — empirical basis for thinking that “events that are purported to occur in our best interest are as numerous as other events that would just as soon kill us?” Nope. Are we supposed to take his word for it? I guess so, in spite of glaring evidence to the contrary, available to everyone capable of observation and reflection.

If the ratio of benefiting events to killer events were 50/50 or worse, as Tyson insinuates, (notice that “Whenever” changes the sentence from a disputable claim to an indisputable hypothetical,) then every rational, undeluded person would live moment to moment expecting at least a 50% chance of getting knocked off at any juncture. However, rational, undeluded people in fact do not think or live that way, Tyson included. Why? Because, on a variety of levels, we know that it just ain’t so, despite killer events, empirically baseless ratios, and clever rhetoric. In fact, irrational, deluded people do think and live that way — and that’s with just a 50-50 breakdown. What about the 99.9% species destruction rate? Isn’t 50-50 a bit optimistic? We have a designation for people who operate on 50% or worse expectations of getting snuffed at each step: neurotic, or even phobic. Apparently, since Tyson comes across as quite well-adjusted, he must not take his 50-50 ratio too seriously.

But let’s not trust to squishy intuition or gutfelt conviction. We must have empirical foundations! OK, then, consider: of all the events that affect us in a day, the ratio of beneficial to detrimental events turns out to be wildly skewed in our favor. The case for this is strong, and visible to anyone who does something empirical like count the events. If instead we do what we’re prone to do after some hard-life knocks — i.e., overfocus on the problems and exaggerate the consequences — then life can start feeling pretty grim and look grim in anticipation, which is to say: non-empirically. Apparently, that’s what Tyson was banking on.

And of course, he closes the piece with one more gambit, an ad hominem character dig. Anyone who sees it his way “sees the universe as it is” and the rest of us see it only “as they wish it to be.” Poor schmucks. Makes Tyson look pretty cool in contrast, though, doesn’t it? 😉

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