The Universe Isn’t Trying to Tell You Anything

One of my biggest pet peeves is people attributing agency to the universe. That may seem a little abstract, so let me illustrate using this bit of dialogue from “The Return,” a 2007 episode of The Office:

Jim is annoyed by his new co-worker Andy, who seems even more annoying than his old co-worker Dwight. So he says, “Congratulations universe, you win,” as if the universe has somehow gotten back at him for antagonizing Dwight.

If you start to notice this practice of talking about the universe as if it is a person, you’ll see it everywhere: TV, social media, conversations with friends. But the universe isn’t a person. It doesn’t have a mind. It doesn’t punish you or get back at you. It can’t find you a new apartment. It doesn’t tell anyone anything. Saying it does is like saying the ocean talks to you, or your car. And unless you’re David Hasselhoff, that’s crazy.

My Dad wrote a blog post recently presenting the idea that belief in conspiracy theories acts as a substitute for belief in God. People begin by deciding not to believe in God, or at least in any God who is capable of acting in the universe today. But human beings hate to believe that life is random and purposeless. We hate it so much that after we decide we are not going to believe in God or anything we regard as “supernatural,” we will actively seek out and believe conspiracy theories, just so we won’t have to feel that the universe doesn’t have a purpose. Believing in a sinister, cleverly orchestrated plot is preferable to believing in purposelessness.

I think the same thing is happening here. People decide not to believe in God—or at least in any God who is capable of acting in the universe today—but they hate to think that everything is random, so they attribute agency to the universe. They say that it is trying to tell them something, or they ask it to do something else. But it can’t. It isn’t a person. It doesn’t “tell,” and it doesn’t “do.” It is a space in which agents act; that’s all.


3 thoughts on “The Universe Isn’t Trying to Tell You Anything

  1. Interesting thoughts. Especially, from my vantage point, the notion that in their craving for meaning people would opt for conspiracy over purposelessness. I think this says something profound about the nature of homo sapiens, both anthropologically and psychologically. Although one must certainly be cautious about anthropomorphic metaphors (and your use of quotes with “tell” and “do” is appreciated), Psalm 19 states that “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge.” I reference this because the fact that the universe doesn’t “tell” us anything (something that would admittedly be an absurd personification), it does quite clearly tell us something, although what it tells us is obviously a point of endless debate. While I think I get the sense of your last sentence and am inclined to understand it also figuratively rather than literally, I am wary of cosmologies that even hint that the universe is merely space in which we act and “that’s all.” I’m hoping you concur that it is vastly more than than. The fact that the universe cannot “talk” certainly does not mean that it doesn’t communicate.

    1. Dr. Johnston, thanks for your thoughts. I appreciate your pointing me to the language of Psalm 19; I would definitely agree that on a metaphorical level, the universe does “speak.” It tells us about the nature of its creator (although, as you rightly point out, the nature of this communication is a subject of debate).

      I do want to clarify my last statement. I didn’t say that the universe is just a space in which humans act; I said it was a space in which agents act. I consciously included God (and other supernatural beings) in that statement. And I don’t believe that it is a neutral space; as created, it does bear the metaphorical fingerprints of its creator.

      1. Elliot: Thanks for the response. And please feel free to call me Larry. I was confident we were on the same page and appreciate your noting the emphasis on agents rather than just humans. My concern is largely that modern science (or more accurately scientism) has gutted the universe of its mystery and wonder and made it a vast machine operating mindlessly in empty space. The good news is that it is neither mindless nor empty. Onward and upward…

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