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.