Monday, February 28, 2011

It is Finished...Well, Almost...Just in Time for an Evangelical Preacher to Steal Our Market Share

A couple of hours ago, I e-mailed the manuscript for That Damned Book to the editors at Continuum...all except the bibliography, which is close to finished but needs some final touches. I now tend my children at home and feel this sense of...almost completeness. Once my co-author puts the last touches on the bibliography and we can both review it for the inevitable infelicities, life will return to one in which I can pay attention to other things.

And, just as John and I are finishing our manuscript offering a detailed philosophical case for the conclusion that the doctrine of universalism fits more coherently with core Christian teachings than does the doctrine of hell, it turns out that a monstrously popular evangelical preacher, Rob Bell (founder of Mars Hill Bible Church), has now come out as a universalist in his newest book, inspiring outrage among some evangelicals, condescending "I'll pray for your poor benighted soul" condemnation among others, and openness among at least a few.

Of course, Bell's position is hardly new. It was taught by such early Church Fathers as Origen and Gregory of Nyssa. He isn't even the first modern evangelical to defend universalism.  A few years back, Robin Parry published The Evangelical Universalist under the pen name Gregory MacDonald--a wonderfully lucid and compelling case for universalism within an evangelical Christian context, which takes a very careful and serious look at the relevant biblical texts (that's right, universalism isn't unbiblical, as we spend a chapter arguing in our book). Bell isn't even the first pastor of a large and popular evangelical church to come out as a universalist. A popular evangelical preacher in Tulsa, Carlton Pearson, saw his huge church virtually evaporate when he had the courage to admit he was a universalist--only to be declared a heretic in 2004.

He may, however, be the first to make gobs of money from a book defending universalism--almost certainly FAR more money than we will.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Final Outcome Argument

Theists often claim that naturalism strips life of positive meaning by implying that all of our activities, all of our aspirations and efforts, all of our accomplishments, are in the end swallowed up by the void. Not only does every human life end in death (meaning oblivion or non-existence); but every civilization collapses, and even the Earth itself will come to be destroyed, and the universe become a lifeless expanse of so much celestial flotsam.

William Lane Craig expresses this objection in the following terms:

Scientists tell us that everything in the universe is growing farther and farther apart. As it does so, the universe grows colder and colder, and its energy is used up. Eventually…there will be no life, only the corpses of dead stars and galaxies, ever-expanding into the endless darkness and the cold recesses of space, a universe in ruins… If there is no God, then man, and the universe, are doomed. Like prisoners condemned to death row, we stand and simply wait for our unavoidable execution. If there is no God, and there is no immortality, then what is the consequence of this? It means that the life that we do have is ultimately absurd. It means that the life we live is without ultimate significance, ultimate value, ultimate purpose.

In his book, Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe, philosopher Erik Wielenberg responds to this objection to naturalism (as well as a number of others). He calls Craig’s argument “the final outcome argument” against the meaningfulness of life. And its key premise, Wielenberg points out, is that the value that attaches to something’s final state is the value that we should attach to the whole thing. This, Wielenberg rightly notes, is a mistake. If some activity is intrinsically worthwhile, then it remains intrinsically worthwhile even if it comes to an end. If my life is full of such worthwhile activities, then my life has value—intrinsic value—even if it should come to a final and irrevocable end.

Wielenberg’s point can be made by thinking of matters in reverse: If my life has no value if it ends, then it will have no value if it is made endless. An infinite sum of zeros has the same value: zero. And so, for an immortal life to have value, the finite slices of that life must have value too—which implies, in turn, that a mortal life can have value even if what lies beyond the boundary of death is nonexistence.

In short, this particular objection to atheistic naturalism isn’t very strong. If life can have value at all, then it can have value if it comes to an end. And so belief that life comes to an end—in the limited sense of a particular organism’s inevitable death, or in the cosmic sense of the universe winding down until it, too, is dead—is not as such a reason to think life has no significance, value, or purpose.

But perhaps Craig, and others who put forward arguments of this sort, just aren’t expressing themselves very well. Maybe the problem isn’t that, if life and love and laughter must end, then they have no value while we are living and loving and laughing. Maybe the worry is better expressed in terms of Karl Barth’s Das Nichtige—the “nothingness” that lies beyond the boundaries of finite existence. This is a concept I’ve talked about before. For Barth, Das Nightige has a power, a force, that no finite creature can ultimately confront head-on without the support of an infinite God. The problem, put subjectively, is this: If you look beyond your limits, what you are not utterly dwarfs what you are. Perhaps the problem that Craig and others like him are pointing to is this: Given a naturalist universe, life and love and laughter, while intrinsically valuable, are a speck in an endless ocean of non-life, non-love, non-laughter. The value of these goods is utterly swamped by that which is entirely devoid of value, making the goods of this life of trivial significance in comparison. It’s not just that you’re dead for a lot longer than you’re alive. It’s that your dead forever. The finite value of one’s life, set against this infinite void of non-value, has a relative significance that is infinitesimally small.

In a way, of course, the same can be said of a theistic universe: Whatever value my existence has, it is swamped by the infinite value of God. But in that case, what dwarfs the finite value of my existence is positive value—and so the ultimate message is that value wins. Not my value, but value. Not my goodness, but goodness. And so, if I stop being self-absorbed and simply treasure the good wherever it is to be found, then I find myself in a world overflowing with the good, overflowing with significance. The same is not true in a reality where there is no infinite good, no infinite reality, to set against the non-being that swamps the finite reality of each creature here below. In that case, to live beyond myself, to embrace ultimate reality and live for the whole, is to live as if all positive values are, relatively speaking, trivial.

And so, in that case, I need to resist all temptation to set my worldly life against reality as a whole, to attend to its relative significance—because to do so is like stepping back from a patch of color to see that it is but a speck set against an endless sea of blackness. To appreciate the color, I have to come in close, so that the patch fills my entire vision, so that I don’t see that which swamps it. Coming in close doesn’t mean paying attention only to my own life, or only to human life. It could mean immersing oneself in the diversity of life on earth, studying it, focusing on it. Or it could stretch beyond the boundaries of this planet to the teeming galaxies and mysteries of time and space and the origins of the cosmos. What it won’t allow is dwelling on what lies beyond the borders of this finite treasure of goods. Because what lies beyond a finite reality—in the absence of an infinite source of being such as God—is the all-consuming maw of Das Nichtige.

Given a theistic universe, stepping back and taking in the whole has a different implication. Doing so will, as before, render that patch of color just a speck—but it will be a speck in an endless sea of vibrant color and beauty, one tiny fragment of a vast masterpiece.

But let’s assume that none of this is sufficient to strip life of meaning on naturalistic assumptions. Let us suppose that naturalists can preserve a sense of subjective meaning by, in effect, saying, “The great sea of nothing is nothing, and hence nothing to worry about.” If there’s nothing beyond the patch of color, then staying focused narrowly on the patch of color is staying focused on what is. And that is where we should stay focused. To set what is against everything that it is not is to set it against what we should ignore because, well, it’s nothing worth paying attention to.

If this approach can be defended successfully, then the modified version of the “final outcome argument” might admit of an effective naturalist response. Whether such a response can be adequately developed I won’t pursue here, because there is one other point I want to make about Wielenberg’s response to the “final outcome argument”: it succeeds in doing more than neutralizing a specific theistic objection to naturalism. It also neutralizes a common naturalist objection to theism, one that Wielenberg himself articulates. Here’s how Wielenberg puts it:

If we know that God will make the universe perfectly just in the end, we lose one reason for trying to promote justice, namely that if we do not, no one will—though we still have a self-interested reason to promote justice, since presumably God rewards the just.
This idea is sometimes put less cautiously that Wielenberg puts it. Essentially, the atheist asks, “If God’s providence ensures that justice will prevail in the end, then why should anyone on earth care about promoting justice? Let God do it! And if there is a reason to promote it, it can only be because we don’t want to be on the receiving end of the uglier side of God’s justice. But if we promote justice simply because we don’t want God to smite us, are we really being just at all? We’re just doing the right thing out of fear of punishment. Caring about justice simply can't be a motive for theists to pursue it, since they think it will be realized even if they do nothing. And so theists who do pursue justice can only be doing it for self-serving motives.”

But notice, if the value of something here and now isn’t erased by its coming to an end, then the disvalue of injustice here and now isn’t erased by its coming to an end. An assurance that all will be well in the end doesn’t erase the reasons we have for seeking to eliminate or reduce the severity of the evils that afflict living creatures in this life. Even if we live in the assurance that God ultimately will realize perfect justice, that doesn’t change the fact that there are injustices here and now and that it would be better here and now if there weren’t.

And so, those who care about justice would have a reason to seek to reduce or eliminate the injustices that prevail around them, even if they believe that there is a divine guarantee that all injustices will be eliminated in the end. More broadly, theists have reasons to care about reducing earthly suffering, promoting happiness, and making the world a better place—even if they’re universalists who think that in the end, all will be saved, every tear will be wiped away, and the lion will lie down with the lamb.

If this is right, then ultimately our conclusion should be this: Whatever lies beyond this life and the finite boundaries of the physical reality in which we live, whether it be Das Nichtige at one extreme or the infinite and all-redeeming God at the other, the intrinsic worth of goods in the life and the intrinsic disvalue of evils provide reasons here and now to act.
(Assuming, of course, that there can be intrinsic goods and intrinsic evils if Das Nichtige is all that lies beyond the borders of physical reality--but for the moment, at least, I will grant Wielenberg's assumption that this can be true even if reality is conceived in broadly naturalistic terms).

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Singularity Party Pooper

I just finished reading the cover article in this week's Time Magazine--an extended look at the notion of the coming "Singularity," that is, the predicted revolution--espoused most famously by Raymond Kurzweil in his 2005 book, The Singularity is Near--that will fundamentally and permanently change humanity. This revolution will, supposedly, be brought on by the emergence of supercomputers that surpass the brainpower of all humans combined--a level of intelligence so profound that it will bring unthinkable changes to everything we know.

Let me say, first of all, that I love science fiction, and that the greatest science fiction writers offer speculations about the future that can sometimes hit the nail very close to the head. I love such speculation. I delight in it, and I'm grateful that creative minds engage in it. But these speculations are just that. What Kurzweil and other "Singularitarians" offer are not speculations but predictions.  That is, they think they have reasons to believe that they are describing something that's likely to come true.

What are those reasons, and are they compelling? In thinking about this question, I cannot help but do so in the light of the talk I've been working on for an upcoming panel at this year's meeting of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science. The panel topic is this: "If the culture of growth is unsustainable, what needs to change?" The topic is born out of the recognition that the growth of human society--a function of both population and per capita consumption--is exponential, and is crashing up against the limits that our ecosystems can sustain. Kurzweil also speaks about exponential growth, but in his case its the growth of information technology that is at issue.

One essay I read as I was thinking about my panel topic was an essay by John Michael Greer, "The Onset of Catabolic Collapse,"--which was also an exercise in prediction. In Greer's case, however, the prediction was not of a technologically induced revolution, but of the decline and fall of the American Empire. His view is that the current recession is the first step in an ongoing process of America (and the world) coming to grips with exceeding its resource limits. His vision of peasant farmers plowing their fields "in sight of crumbling ruins of our cities" comes at the close of a timetable of fitful collapse that directly maps onto the timetable of the supercomputer revolution posited by Singularitarians.

So which is it? Peasants tilling the soil in the shadow of ruined cities that have long gone dark? Or a world of supercomputers and ageless cyborgs spreading across the universe?

What drives the vision of the Singularitarians is the observed trajectory of technological development, especially information and computer technology, which has taken on an astonishlingy consistent exponential growth curve across a range of different parameters--from the number of transistors that can be fit on a microchip to the speed of microprocessors. If this trend continues, then given the nature of exponential curves we'll be confonting almost inconceivable rates of advancement over the next decades, changes to dwarf the amazing changes that we have seen over the last five hundred years.

But the ecological sciences that stimulate Greer's grimmer picture also think in terms of exponential growth curves. But ecologists know something about these curves, something that seems to be a pretty consistent truth about them in the natural world: They can't be sustained At some point, exponential growth culminates in collapse--sometimes in catastrophic collapse--when the growth hits up against the reality of limits.And even when these limits don't produce collapse, the can and do stop the growth. Imagine a one centimeter lily pad on 100-meter diameter pond that doubles in size every day. For a long time it won't seem like much. Then it will suddenly burst across the pond--covering an eighth of it three days before the fateful day, a quarter two days before, half the day before--and then the whole pond. And then? Well, if we assume that lilly pads can't grow beyond the limits of the ponds they inhabit, then nothing. It's done. Astonishing growth that people have a hard time fathoming, followed by...stagnation.

Does growth in information technology face inherent limits of this sort? Is there just a point at which we can't fit more transistors on a microchip? I don't know. But even if--unlike pretty much everything else--growth in information technology has no inherent limits--such growth is coming at a time when human civilzation is hitting limits all over the place: water resource limits, arable soil limits, energy resource limits, etc., etc. And the collision of human civilization with all of these limits is guaranteed to have an effect on the funnelling of labor and natural resources towards the continuing growth of information technology.

Will we hit the so-called Singularity before catabolic collapse? Will the advent of a new technological epoch usher in miraculous solutions to all our troubles (or hasten our end, as computers decide we're expendable)? Or will the exponential growth in information systems slow, stall, and slide backwards as the rest of our society comes to grips with the impossibility of limitless growth?

I don't know. But given these uncertainties, it seems that the Singularity is more speculation than prediction. Great science fiction, but not much more than that.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Petitionary Prayer

Tomorrow morning my father has surgery to remove a cancerous bladder--a complicate surgery that may take anywhere from 4 to 7 hours to complete, with subsequent hospitalization for up to two weeks. I flew into Buffalo yesterday, just ahead of the major winter storm sweeping through the country, to be with my parents during the procedure and for a few days afterward.

Of course, friends have been calling or stopping in throughout the day. This morning Luigi called. Luigi is a former grad student of my father (a retired geology professor) who left geology to become a Catholic priest serving a mission in Peru. I sat nearby reading The New Yorker while my father talked to him. I looked up when my father became abruptly quiet.

"Well," my father said. "You know, that's something...I just don't know. I can't know. And so I don't have any beliefs about that. And that's okay with me. I'm at peace." The Catholic priest was asking the agnostic scientists about death, about what might lie beyond. Luigi, who is one of my parents' many "adopted" kids, accepted my father's response with his usual grace. He said something else, and my father replied, "I appreciate that."

A prayer had been promised.

Just a few minutes later, a neighbor knocked on the door. He'd heard about my father's surgery and wanted to express his concern. After a few minutes he said, "He's such a wonderful man. I'll light a candle for him at St. Peter St Paul's."

I've been assured by my pastor that she and many others are praying for my father. Many friends and relatives have offered up their prayers.

To be honest, I've had a troubled relationship with petitionary prayer ever since a time in college, when I was still flirting with a fundamentalist/charismatic Christian group. I was attending one of their meetings, and during an unstructured moment, someone in the group--call him Joe--mentioned that he had an injured thumb. One of the group leaders immediately grabbed me (since I was standing nearby) and asked me to join him in praying for this kid's thumb. He placed one hand over the damaged digit, raised his other hand, closed his eyes, and--with me standing there nonplussed, began this heartfelt prayer that went something like this:

"We ask you, Lord, to touch Joe's thumb, Lord, to just let your healing power flow out upon his thumb, Lord. We know that you are gracious, Lord, that you are the great physician. We ask that you reach out this night, Lord, to your servant Joe, whose thumb is hurt, Lord..."

And so it went. A part of me wanted to laugh. Another part of me wanted to blurt out, "That's absurd! Don't you think God has better things to do?" Another part--the budding philosopher--wanted to trot out the problem of evil, and ask why this guy expected God to miraculously intervene to heal a bruised thumb when He doesn't intervene to save starving children, to prevent rapes and murders, to save people buried alive during earthquakes, and on and on. In fact, I wanted to say, a God who did respond to the thumb prayer would be despicable, given that He doesn't respond to the anguished cries of so many others whose need is so much greater.

I still have trouble making sense of a theology in which God responds to human prayer requests in cases where, in the absence of such prayer requests, He would let those prayed for rot. It seems to me there is a strong argument for the view that either petitionary prayer is needless or it is useless. Either God cares enough to intervene and has the power to do so, or He does not. If the former, petitionary prayer is needless. If the latter, it is useless.

That said, I have read theological and philosophical arguments that strive to overcome this prima facie case against petitionary prayer, often with considerable subtlety.

But in a way, all of this misses the point. And--as is so often the case--the point is about love.

Luigi is far away, and he loves my father, and love expresses itself in tangible ways. As Simone Weil put it (I don't have the text here in Buffalo, so this is just a paraphrase), "The only way we can really show love for that which is eternal in persons is by caring for their tangible needs here below." Luigi cannot perform the surgery. He cannot do much to heal my father's diseased bladder or promote his body's recovery from the trauma of surgery. He cannot even bring a casserole to the house.

But he can pray. He can pray for healing. He can will that powers greater than he is might reach into this mortal coil, nudge the quantum forces that underlie my father's flesh, steady the surgeon's hand, and so move him back towards health.

The neighbor who came by this morning cannot do much for my father's health. But he loves my father and wants to show how much he cares for my father's health. A visit is nice, but it isn't directed towards healing, which is what my father needs. And love responds to needs. The neighbor can't remove the cancer. Be he can light a candle and say a prayer.

And tomorrow, when I sit for hours in the surgical waiting area, unable to do anything else for my father, I will pray. And if any of you want to do the same, I won't laugh or call your gesture absurd.