Is the Universe a Friendly Place?
“You will never find a scientist who finds the universe bleak and forbidding.”
What motivates most scientists is a sense of the beauty and the pleasure in things, and a hope to improve the world. My personal view is that the universe is friendly toward that endeavor. I guess it boils down to the fact that we can succeed in understanding the universe. With sufficient effort, we can learn quite a lot, whether it’s about stars or galaxies that are very far away, or viruses, or the evolution of different species. You will never find a scientist who finds the universe bleak and forbidding. They find it beautiful and fascinating, wondrous. You can use those words in a religious sense, and some scientists are religious. But most see it in intellectual or aesthetic terms. It’s just like marveling at a Shakespeare sonnet. It’s that same feeling of awe.
Professor of Physics and Astronomy
“The universe is an arbitrary and capricious and highly dangerous place.”
As an historian, particularly one specializing in the dreadful 20th century, I would have to say that the universe is an arbitrary and capricious and highly dangerous place. For all of those people who died in the 20th century of epidemics and genocides, it was kind of a crapshoot. That may sound dark, but it’s the hard truth. I grew up in the 1950s, an era of optimism following the Great Depression and World War II. But the world has grown darker since 1975, with barbarisms and hatreds resurging, and a series of economic downturns. Now we’re contending with religious fundamentalism. The world is less controllable than we used to think.
Professor of History and German and the Theodore Zev Weiss Holocaust Educational Foundation Professor of Holocaust Studies
“Just because the universe is a friendly place doesn’t mean that bad things can’t happen.”
I don’t think of the universe, or of God, in an anthropomorphic way. I think of it as a huge dance of energy. There’s this give and take. When you dance, one leads and one follows, but both are giving and taking. Just because the universe is a friendly place doesn’t mean that bad things can’t happen. With my clients, a key goal is to get clear on what they want. I try to help people find their core values. The most powerful way to access the friendliness of the universe is to be super-clear about what we want.
Annie Little ’03
Founder of JD Nation, a career- and life-coaching service for lawyers
“The universe is not friendly to a small, egocentric self.”
One of the projects I’m working on now is a memoir about nursing my partner through his illness and death by ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). But I believe that looking at the darkest areas of human life can help to illuminate them, and allow us to grapple with our cosmic wonder. The universe is not friendly to a small, egocentric self. Everything we think we are, we’re going to lose; death comes to all of us. But because we are the universe — we are of it and it is of us, with no real separation — it is not unfriendly. I believe in a harmony, an elegance and wholeness that is both right here with us and inside us, and also way beyond our comprehension.
Rachel Jamison Webster
Poet and Associate Professor of Instruction in English
“The world is good, and is in the hands of a loving God.”
People come to me, as a religious educator, with many versions of this question. What is the world? What is it for? And, from an internal perspective, who am I in the world? What is my purpose? Even within the experience of hardships — and, working with an immigrant community, I see a lot of suffering — faith helps us transcend our own individuality, whether we’re optimists or pessimists. We take the worldview of faith. The world is good, and is in the hands of a loving God.
Neela Kale Arguelles ’01
Director of Religious Education, St. Alexander Church, Cornelius, Oregon
“The universe is only as friendly or unfriendly as we choose to be.”
I think about this question in terms of my experience last summer, studying childhood malnutrition in seven countries across five continents. The consequences of malnutrition can be devastating. But I came away with a great sense of hope because of the goodness, love, and caring that crossed all cultural, geographic, and linguistic boundaries. I was struck by the ability of people to maintain the view that the universe is inherently friendly. So you can see the question as a self-fulfilling prophecy. The universe is only as friendly or unfriendly as we choose to be.
Elizabeth Larsen ’15
Economics major and winner of the 2014 Circumnavigators Travel-Study Grant