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The Purpose of Man in the Universe by John Hulley

Updated: Dec 10, 2023

The Purpose of Man in the Universe was published in 1958 by John Hulley in Volume 1, Number 3, of the Space Journal. We couldn't find much information about John Hulley during our brief search online, besides what was listed in the Space Journal. John Hulley was a graduate from Harvard, a veteran of WWII, and he also conducted research into space philosophy. He did write three articles for Space Journal.

The Space Journal was published by the Rocket City Astronomical Association and Space Enterprises, Inc. from 1957 to 1959.


What makes John Hulley's article interesting is that it not only examines humankind's place in the universe, but also the meaning of our existence from an ecological perspective. For example, he states in the article:


Throughout his history on Earth, man has appeared anomalous. For overbalancing the other species on the planet, his role has seemed more destructive than anything else. Calling upon the stars and the heavens for salvation, he has worked, fought, suffered and died—often carrying to his grave the deepest doubts about the purpose and value of his existence.


As Hulley reasons, humankind, unlike other animals on Earth, are not in balance with nature. Humans exploit their surroundings, resulting in a negative energy budget. Of course, not all animals are in harmony with their environment, especially when one looks at invasive species, but we get the point. Hulley tackles the negative budget problem by suggesting that humankind's place may extend beyond the planet Earth. Or rather, we are in a larval state, before we transform into "butterflies" to explore universe. Yet, this does not solve the problem of the negative energy budget, it just makes the box a little bigger ... just as it made the box bigger when humans spread across the face of the Earth.


Hulley would go on to talk about how humankind can describe the growth and decline of stars and galaxies, but cannot tell why the universe exists.


He would further reason that we may not be able to answer the question "why," because, after all, our mental capacity, like any animal, is limited and we are not omniscient. We may simply not be capable of understanding ultimate meanings, just as we struggle to understand why cats do what they do (though, we are at least getting closer to solving this riddle thanks to all the combined research and dedication humans continue to put towards our beloved feline friends).

As for understanding more practical things like physics, he states, our equipment or mental capacity seems to perfectly fit. However, Hulley is not be correct on this. Humans did not evolve to study physics and mathematics, which partially may be why so many individuals struggle with these topics. Memorizing the digits of π or working on differential equations just isn't as addicting or natural as scrolling through endless videos on Tik Tok is. We evolved to be Tik Tok scrolling machines ... or so I reason that Kurt Vonnegut would reason and agree. Because once you start, you lose all free will to stop, if we ever had free will to begin with. Hulley is likely correct though on the idea that some meanings may be beyond our reach, beyond our mental capacity to understand. Only time will tell.


As for our ecological purpose, well, according to Hulley, fertilization seems to be it. Either through defecation or through burial, we complete the ecological cycle and become food for the worms. But where can we go from here? Just because our ecological purpose may be so mundane, does it mean we cannot have a spiritual or higher purpose in life? According to Hulley:


The flexing of scientific muscles in war, the groping for purpose and meaningful relationship to the cosmos—through religion, philosophy and poetry—would all contribute to the growth of the species towards its role in the universe.


Part of Hulley's comment is incorrect. The flexing of scientific muscles in war does not contribute to the growth of the species and only expedites the negative energy budget. Scientific inventions that have resulted from war have provided a myriad number of household and practical uses, but so have the inventions not inspired by violence and fighting amongst one another. I'd also reason that we could cross poetry off that list as well. But the others, at least in some small way, contribute to the growth of the species, just as family, love, and creativity do as well. After all, we are the species that not only invented the sloppy joe, but end up also realizing that everything, including the flavor of sloppy joes could be made into a chip. Because if there is one thing we have learned over time, everything is better as a chip.


Hully's article is a great find and beautifully written. Given the time period in which it was written, shortly after WWII, at a time when nuclear war fears weighed us down, coming together as a species to explore that which was bigger than us was a grand idea, and still is a grand idea. Yet, after 70 years, we still have much progress to make on this front—but there is hope and the world is slowly but surely become a better world for all.


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