The purpose of life, the universe, and everything
We know that “the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything” has an answer.
Wikipedia says so.
But is there a purpose to life, the universe, and everything?
If so, what is it?
What’s a purpose?
Oxford Dictionaries defines purpose this way: “the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists.”
On that definition, the purpose of a slot-headed screwdriver is to drive slot-headed screws. I’ve got slot-headed screwdrivers and can personally attest to having used them for precisely that purpose. My experience matches the theory.
But I’ve also used my screwdrivers for other purposes. I’ve used them to open paint cans (even though there are tools made for that specific purpose.) And more than once, I’ve used a screwdriver for the purpose for which wood chisels were invented.
Purposes are not fixed. We even have the word “repurpose” to describe everyday situations in which something is used for a new purpose.
And purpose is not singular. An object can have many purposes, depending on the situation and need.
So I’ll extend the Oxford definition of purpose to reflect reality and say: Purpose: the reason or reasons for which something is done or created or for which something exists or is used.
Does the leaf of an oak tree have a purpose? Many would say yes. It exists to produce the carbohydrates that a tree needs to live and to grow. That seems obvious.
Does the chlorophyll in an oak leaf have a purpose? Many would say yes. It exists to catalyze photosynthesis. That also seems obvious.
Does the trunk of an oak tree have a purpose? Many would say yes. It exists to provide support for the branches, which in turn support the leaves. That seems obvious, as well.
Does an acorn have a purpose? Many would say yes. It exists to grow a new oak tree. No acorn, no new oak. And to a squirrel, its purpose is food.
Does an oak have a purpose? If it’s part of a managed forest, its purpose would be to produce lumber. But what if the oak tree is off in the wild, never to be seen by humans. What’s its purpose then? To produce acorns?
So it seems that the purpose of a thing depends on the system in which it exists. The purpose of a leaf seems evident because it’s part of a system called a tree. Likewise, the purpose of chlorophyll, or a tree trunk. An acorn is part of a system that produces oak trees, which produce acorns, which produce oak trees. The reasoning is circular, but so is the system.
Some would say that the purpose of any living thing is to survive, grow, and reproduce.
Then what’s the purpose of that rock next to that oak tree? To erode? To take up space?
If we don’t know what system it’s part of, it’s hard to determine its purpose.
If I came on an object and didn’t know its purpose (or purposes), I’d determine them this way.
I’d observe it and see if it did something on its own. If it created some discernable and consistent effect, then I’d infer that creating that effect was one of its purposes.
If I could see how people interacted with it, I’d observe what they did with it. From that (and possibly asking them questions with them), I could learn about their purposes for it.
I might try to use that object to achieve some goal of my own. I might use it in the same way as others did, or in unique ways. If I used it, I’d count the purpose to which I applied it to be among its purposes. I might use it for several different purposes. Each would be valid.
If I could find the maker of that object, I might ask the maker for the purpose that impelled the object’s creation. That purpose would hold no privileged position to me. The purpose for which it was made would be just one of its purposes. If I could not find the object’s maker, I’d make do with the other purposes that I’d found.
So what’s the purpose of life, the universe, and everything?
I like to start with what I know for sure—and that is that I am conscious. As I have said, that’s the only thing that I can know with certainty. And it’s important enough that I felt obligated to write another post to justify it.
I know that all phenomena extend from me as an observer. Wherever I go, there I am. Whatever I perceive, I’m right in the middle of.
So to me, one purpose of the universe is this: it’s something I can be conscious of. The universe might be an illusion, but it’s an illusion of which I can be conscious.
Alternatively, a purpose of the universe is: so I can exist. No universe, no me.
There’s an interesting story that explains how the universe caused me to exist. The universe started 13.77 billion years ago. It cooled, and hydrogen and some helium atoms appeared. Eventually, some atoms collected into Population I stars. Then some of those stars exploded, producing atoms of the other natural elements. The atoms that pre-existed and the atoms that resulted from the explosions collected into Population II stars (like our sun) and planets (like Earth). Then, on at least one planet, about 4 billion years ago, life appeared. And then around 74 years ago, I appeared.
This could be just part of an elaborate illusion, and the universe could have sprung into existence just now. Or an hour ago.
You exist, too, I presume. But maybe not exactly. So another purpose of the universe is to create you.
I could extend the universe’s list of purposes by listing everything in the universe and asserting that causing that thing to come into being was one of the universe’s purposes. But I can make the mechanism more general and more useful.
The way that the universe caused me (and you, if you exist) to exist is simple: it collected, organized, transformed, and conveyed information. It did it until life appeared.
Then life continued to do it until consciousness appeared.
Then conscious life continued to do it until I appeared.
Then I continued to do it until I wrote this.
That’s the generalized purpose of life, the universe, and everything: it collects, organizes, transforms, and conveys information.
Information means: “what is conveyed or represented by a particular arrangement or sequence of things.”
The arrangement of base pairs in DNA conveys and represents information. So does the arrangement of rock strata in the Grand Canyon. So does the arrangement of stars in a galaxy or galaxies in a supercluster.
The universe, on its own, through natural processes and initially without interference by living things, collects information, organizes it, transforms it, and conveys it. It keeps doing that until life appears.
Once life has appeared, it accelerates the process until thinking things appear. And that accelerates the process further.
Right now, by writing this, I am helping the universe carry out this purpose. Over time I have collected information (and I am collecting additional bits as I write this). I am organizing that information in the form of this essay. And I hope to convey it to you, a reader. And since you are reading this, I’ve succeeded.
If you find it worthwhile, you will add it to your own knowledge collection, and if you organize it and convey it further, you’ll be helping carry out the purpose of life, the universe, and everything.
Meanwhile, I’m posting this. Because it’s my purpose to do so. The universe created me so that I could do that.
That’s my purpose.
And I’m posting it on purpose.
Update 23 October 2020
Thank you for writing this, Past Me.
Also thanks for the link to “The Egg.“ which almost was lost in my edit.
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