'No Man's Sky' Argues for Design

While the central goal of No Man's Sky seems antithetical to the teleological argument for the existence of God, ironically it also seems to drive players towards the very thought that seems to motivate that argument.

game: No Man's Sky
developer: Hello Games
release date: 2016-08-12
When you see a sundial or a water-clock, you see that it tells the time by design and not by chance. How then can you imagine that the universe as a whole is devoid of purpose and intelligence, when it embraces everything, including these artifacts themselves and their artificers?

-- Cicero, De Natura Deorum

This post contains spoilers about the ending of No Man's Sky.

Perhaps, the most famous version of the teleological argument for the existence of God is William Paley's description from his 1802 book Natural Theology:

In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there.... There must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed [the watch] for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use. ... Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation.

The teleological argument is flawed, as David Hume infamously pointed out, due to its dependence on the centrality of analogy to the argument (in the case of Paley's version of the argument, watch is to the universe, as watchmaker is to God). An argument by analogy is a form of inductive argument that can lead to useful inferences, but it is not proof of a premise, since it is merely comparative in nature. Thus, the commonality of fallacies like faulty comparisons or false analogies.

Nevertheless, one of the striking things about Paley's comparison is how common it is cross culturally and across history. Paley is not the only one who had similar thoughts about the similarity between purposefully designed objects and the intricacies of the universe, as the quotation from Cicero above demonstrates. Indeed, one can find versions of the teleological argument among the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, as well as among Islamic scholars, Buddhists, and Hindus.

What Paley's argument always reminds me most is humankind's resistance to the idea of a randomly generated universe. Indeed, difficult conclusions arise as a result of considering the universe and human existence as having been the result of random chance. The word teleology is derived from the Greek word for “purpose” (telos), and indeed, it is purpose that one questions in a randomly generated universe. Human beings like ends, goals, and purposes. They make our existence seem important, or to be rather circular about it, they make our existence seem purposeful.

In reading about player reactions to No Man's Sky in general and of its ending in particular, I was reminded both of Paley's teleological argument and my own observations about how the commonality of the teleological argument seems to me to indicate a fairly common resistance to the idea of a universe without telos. In some sense, No Man's Sky, despite having a designer, is the antithesis of Paley's argument. Since No Man's Sky is an effort to produce a universe to explore and experience that is almost purely procedurally generated, it resists the idea of purpose.

Nevertheless, No Man's Sky, sandbox, though, it might generally be, does posit a goal for players of the game. While the player can do as he or she wishes in this procedurally randomly generated world, the task of “reaching the center of the universe” is a suggestion of a goal given to the player at the beginning of the game. So, while many players were fascinated by the idea of simply exploring a less than deliberately designed universe, many players also presumed that, perhaps, a purpose for doing so might be made clear at that location. An answer to “Why do what we do in this universe?” might emerge from reaching that externally assigned goal.

I have written before about my own personal distaste for games without clear purposes, like the procedurally generated universe of Minecraft (see my 2010 essay ”I Don't Know How to Play”, which concerns my initial encounter with Minecraft and my inability to find something to do in it). I personally don't like games that require players to set their own goals. I like games with more defined rules in which I understand how to win or beat the game. I recognize this is a personal preference, though, and that many, many people are very happy to determine their own interests and goals with the “box of Legos” that is provided by Minecraft. All of which is fine with me, each to their own.

However, No Man's Sky's sandbox universe has clearly provoked a response more akin to my response to Minecraft in a similarly large player base. While anticipation for the game built over the promise of being able to “pretty much do whatever you want to” in the No Man's Sky universe, players seem to have found their options severely limited by the kinds of interactions that No Man's Sky allows. Less creatively oriented than Minecraft, many players seem to wonder about the purpose of simply gathering resources to leave a planet and then land on another to gather more resources in order to leave that one in order to do what exactly?

Which I think is why the idea of at least discovering something at the center of the universe seemed potentially compelling, and why doing so has been described by many as “underwhelming”.

For example, this video of a player reaching the center of the universe in No Man's Sky from StreamerHouse:

When one reaches the center of the universe in No Man's Sky, the game returns you essentially to the beginning of the game, suggesting that the reason you reach the center of the universe is exactly like the repetitious cycle of collecting fuel to move forward in order to collect fuel to move forward. It is almost as if the purpose of the game is to feed into the existential dread potentially created by the thought of a universe without telos, without purpose.

Having watched the above video and considered this interpretation, I was, thus, almost gratified to find responses like this one to it from a YouTube user named redfox pw: “It would have been cool if the center of the universe was a utopia. Where you could see over [sic.] players. A hub. And the Utopia (hub) was the only thing not procedurally generated, and was actually made by artists." redfox pw is essentially responding to No Man's Sky with a principle borne of the thoughts that inform the teleological argument.

He is looking for a purpose almost divine that a conclusion to the experience of the player's “existence” in this game might provide, a “utopia” where he could meet “over players” (I assume, he means “other players”). He wants, in a nutshell, heaven. And he wants one that is “not procedurally generated, and was made by artists”. He wants a demonstrable proof of telos, proof of design of the universe. He wants to believe in designers (“artists”), or put another way, he wants a Designer to provide purpose for the mechanisms of this universe and for the player's reason for playing the game.

While the goal of No Man's Sky seems antithetical to the teleological argument, ironically it also seems to drive players towards the very thought that seems to motivate it. To me at least, No Man's Sky comes as confirmation of my own thought that, regardless of whether the universe is designed or not, that people seem to naturally resist the potential horror of the implications of a randomly designed universe.

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