The friendly universe hypothesis

June 9, 2022

by Ravi Raman

Is the universe friendly?

I posed this question on LinkedIn a while ago and it provoked reactions, some shared in DMs or email, that ranged from “yes yes yes!!!” to “WTF? The universe doesn’t give a s@#t about anyone“. Responses showed that people mostly think that the universe is indifferent to our plight. 

Albert Einstein is claimed to have said and believed many things (who knows what he really thought and said). One of these maxims is what I call “The Friendly Universe Hypothesis“:

“I think the most important question facing humanity is, ‘Is the universe a friendly place?’ This is the first and most basic question all people must answer for themselves.

“For if we decide that the universe is an unfriendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to achieve safety and power by creating bigger walls to keep out the unfriendliness and bigger weapons to destroy all that which is unfriendly and I believe that we are getting to a place where technology is powerful enough that we may either completely isolate or destroy ourselves as well in this process. 

“If we decide that the universe is neither friendly nor unfriendly and that God is essentially ‘playing dice with the universe’, then we are simply victims to the random toss of the dice and our lives have no real purpose or meaning. 

“But if we decide that the universe is a friendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to create tools and models for understanding that universe. Because power and safety will come through understanding its workings and its motives.” 

“God does not play dice with the universe,” 

-Albert Einstein

I can’t find a source confirming that Einstein actually said this or anything like it. However, the thought experiment is fascinating. It’s something I often ponder when walking or quietly observing life. My answer to this question has been immensely helpful in fostering deeper engagement and being resourceful, particularly during challenging times. 

Dr. Srikumar Rao, an adjunct professor at Columbia Business School, once taught one of its most highly subscribed courses – Creativity & Personal Mastery, a class so popular that it has its own alumni association. Dr. Rao challenges his students to consider the power of Einstein’s supposed words.

According to Rao, whether the universe is actually friendly or not is irrelevant. We can never prove it to be one way or another. However, when any leader acts as if it were true, it improves capacities to learn, grow, and engage fully in their lives and work.

One thing I do know, as a fact, is that life is inherently uncertain from the point of view of the human mind. There is no way around it. We fail at accurately predicting the inflation numbers next month, if home prices will go up or down next year, or even what we will be in the mood to eat for dinner tomorrow night. 

We even struggle to accurately assess people’s basic emotions. Is that person’s smile genuine happiness, masked anxiety, or are they just trying to pick spinach out of their teeth with their tongue? 

To embrace this uncertainty is helpful but very counter-intuitive and challenging for leaders who pride themselves on having absolute faith in their predictions of the future and the strategies in which they are running their teams. As a result, people will do almost anything to avoid uncertainty, including subjecting themselves to painful electric shocks

There is another way to deal with an uncertain world that doesn’t rely on a false sense of trust in your psychic capabilities.

While I have no proof that the universe is friendly, I see a very remarkable and complex way it can seem like it works in such a way. Even with aches and pains, my physiology has an amazing capacity to grow and recover from injury, even those that arise from my carelessness. Likewise, my mind has a plastic ability to evolve and grow and learn new skills. Even my personality has seemed to morph over the years to fit my circumstances better. 

With hindsight (biased as it is), I can reflect on moments that were “hostile” at one time, shape-shifting to appear supportive and benevolent with time. The learning I’ve gained from life’s harsh lessons has made me the person I am today. I wouldn’t trade my past for anything. 

All of this is to say that as the days go by, life does appear to be far more remarkable than it first appears. I struggle to find it sane to label any moments as truly “bad.” Even the dull and neutral moments seem to be fallow ground through which a helpful thought or fresh feeling can emerge. It’s why I shifted from being a habitual striver seeking constant activity (in my late teens and early 20s) to becoming a fan of boredom

The more I look, the more I see that life is far from cruel and not even apathetic. On the contrary, it’s far closer to being something I dare to call friendly.

Am I wrong? 

Until proven otherwise, I’ll continue to enjoy the benefits – personally and professionally – of living in a world I don’t see as hostile as it first appeared. Life is uncertain, but it seems pretty friendly to me. 

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