This Chronicle was inspired by John Haught’s Is Nature Enough? (Cambridge UP, 2006—recommended to me by Andrew Bartlett). Haught’s variant of “process theology” is the first defense of belief against naturalist/Darwinist absolutism I have seen that not only firmly rejects Intelligent Design but offers an empirical rationale for linking theology with cosmology.
A point I have made many times is that theology is good anthropology but bad cosmology; whether one is a believer or not, talking about God teaches us much about ourselves, but nothing substantial about the natural world. The creationist, even at his most extreme, has a point about the origin of humanity that the most sophisticated Darwinian cannot refute: the human cannot be reduced to the biological; its origin is an event, and even if natural science can describe the state of the universe during the first 1030 second of its existence, it cannot explain events. But Creationism can’t tell us anything about the origin or any other feature of the universe.
Nonetheless, to divorce the human altogether from the cosmological is to make human origin into a miracle. We smile at the naïve arrogance of partisans of the “anthropic principle” who marvel at the precision with which a certain number of cosmic constants have been “set” in order to permit the existence of stars, planets, life, humanity… But however absurd it may be to calculate the probability that our universe is the way it is on the basis of our current understanding of physics—an absurdity compounded to the point of delirium by the reasoning that, given the tininess of this probability, the existence of our own universe is only plausible if we assume the existence of countless other universes in which the constants are set differently—we cannot deny the core truth of this principle, that the universe is such as potentially to give rise to humanity. The late nineteenth century reacted to its version of this understanding with cosmic pessimism, betting against Pascal’s wager: we are alone in the universe, the accidental and probably ephemeral product of natural forces. The vitalist reaction of thinkers such as Bergson or the less rigorous Teilhard de Chardin is too pseudo-scientific to refute the naturalist position; their arguments rely on positing a drive to self-organization as an immanent property of matter, yet one that escapes the Kantian understanding that is supposedly qualified to deal with such properties.
But this very inadequacy can be turned into the best argument for a prudent association—a chaperoned dating relationship rather than a marriage—between theology and cosmology. The positing of an external source of transcendence beyond the human can be understood as the acknowledgement of the universe’s capacity to generate beings of indefinitely complex organization, independently of any quality immanent in matter. The élan vital not only has shallower historical roots than “God’s will,” but its naturalistic formulation implies an empirical knowability that reference to God indefinitely defers.
Our relation to the divinity involves at the minimum the faith that the meanings of our representations transcend time. In the language of the originary hypothesis, the timeless Being that presides over the central locus of deferral and sparagmos guarantees human historicity, our ability to represent and thereby become conscious of events situated in time. From this point we may take a step further into a minimal theodicy in which the divinity, in guaranteeing human historicity, may be said to guarantee the historical potential of the universe within which our history occurs. It is the impossibility of locating this self-organizing principle in the natural world that makes theology a necessary mediator between us and this world.
To take this vision of theology seriously is to read creation scenes as accounts of the birth of the new transcendental form of being that is the human rather than as the distillation into temporal reality of a prior divine perfection. In this perspective, the trajectory of Paradise and Fall (or Golden Age and Iron Age), so much a part of the Judeo-Christian tradition and of virtually all others, must be interpreted as a movement from potentiality to reality rather than from perfection to mortality. Adam’s Fall is ambivalent; it is seen by Jews and Christians alike as a felix culpa that permits the essentially progressive phenomenon of human history. From the same perspective, eschatology is speculation on how humanity might be able to fulfill the promise of the originary potentiality manifested in the Creation. The Last Judgment or the coming of the Messiah are images of the imagined end of indefinite deferral that only the naïve seek to situate in time.
Haught’s is a cosmology of emergence; he constantly reminds us that the “critical intelligence” with which we construct scientific/naturalist explanations of phenomena is not amenable to simple causal explanation because of its anticipatory, or we might say, intentional character. The example of our self-aware intelligence is, on the one hand, alleged as in itself a refutation of naturalism and, on the other, put forth as an example of the emergent nature of the cosmos in general. The following passage sums up this double role:
Emergence at all levels of being, and not just at those of life and mind, requires that nature possess an anticipatory rather than simply a cumulative character. It must be open to a domain of potentiality that makes a quiet entrance—from the future as it were—and thus opens up the otherwise unbending fabric of things to the later-and-more. However, in order to comprehend the shift in worldview implicit here the point of departure once again must be my readers’ own awareness of their own critical intelligence. (86)
Thus the human is both one level of emergent being among others and the level at which emergence is (finally) understood and theorized, albeit not reduced to a causal scheme. Hence the attribution to nature of an “anticipatory” or intentional character is ambiguous. Maximally, nature is understood as ruled by a transcendent “purpose,” if not anything so concrete as an “Intelligent Design.” But minimally, whatever the potentiality inherent in “nature” for the formation of complex, self-organizing, and reproducing beings, culminating in humanity, only this last obliges us to reject the merely naturalistic, which is to say, Darwinian explanation of emergence. Although Haught cites terrestrial life in general as an example of a phenomenon not explained by science, he cannot demonstrate that science is incapable of accounting for it; why should the emergence of organisms capable of self-reproduction be not merely unexplained but eternally inexplicable? It is only in reference to the subjective experience of intentionality that Haught can claim to have demonstrated the impossibility of deriving self-conscious purposiveness from a “blind” material causal chain. The human mind is irreducible to biological evolution because it is capable of representation, which alone unambiguously distinguishes purposiveness from mere reflex or “instinct.” That the universe is such that anticipation/intentionality may come into being is a fact perceptible only by a creature who can embody it and consequently, represent it.
Haught makes room for purposiveness by suggesting a layered explanation of phenomena, where the theological and the scientific layers are complementary rather than antagonistic. He gives the example of a pot of water heating on the stove. When we explain the warming of the water as a result of molecular action, we overlook the purpose or “final cause” of heating the water—say, for tea—absent which the pot would not be on the stove at all. The naturalistic explanation of a given phenomenon would then be the equivalent of describing the effect of heat on H2O, leaving it to the theological “layer” to account for the overall purposive context in which it takes place.
The trouble with this analogy is that if a “layer” of explanation analogous to tea-making exists for all phenomena, then we are in a world of occasionalism, where each phenomenon must be understood as obeying a specific divine intention. This is no doubt taking the analogy too literally, but to the extent that it can be applied to natural phenomena at all, it imposes on them an external will and consequently contradicts the cosmology of emergence that Haught is presenting. It is more parsimonious to limit our layers of explanation to those that are instantiated in the worldly context of the phenomenon. If we find water boiling on the stove or come upon the proverbial watch in the desert, we can confidently attribute these phenomena to human intentionality because there are humans available to embody this intentionality. Animal or even plant “intentionality,” although the “subject’s” inability to formulate it weakens the tea analogy, can likewise serve as an explanatory principle. If, in contrast, water is boiling in the woods after a lightning strike has set off a forest fire, there is no need to evoke a final cause. The point to be retained is that, in the general case, the overall purposiveness that is the minimal article of faith is not translatable into a “layer” of explanation for natural phenomena.
From the perspective that has hitherto been that of GA, theology has been reduced to that which can be derived from the originary scene, with any cosmological element “bracketed out” of consideration. Representation is a human creation/discovery/gift, of which the story of the creation of the cosmos in Genesis and elsewhere is, from the standpoint of the originary hypothesis, an extrapolation. Thus we may “minimally” defend Creationism as having as its kernel the impossibility of understanding human origin in naturalistic terms, independently of whether the creation and subsequent evolution of the cosmos can continue to be understood in such terms. The supernatural element in Biblical creation can be understood as a way of pointing to the inadequacy of naturalism in this specific domain.
To consider the application of theology to the cosmos as a legitimate extrapolation of the originary event is to acknowledge the truth that GA has bracketed: that humanity is indeed a part of the natural world. On the basis of this acknowledgement, we might then criticize the exclusive application of religion to humanity as not truly parsimonious, since making the emergence of the human a unique miracle in a universe otherwise wholly explicable in naturalistic terms in fact places a greater burden on the divinity than the traditional creation story. Even prior to human intentionality, the emergence of self-preserving and -perpetuating life forms may arguably be said to justify the faith that the universe, even within an overall framework of increasing entropy, will continue to tend toward ever higher levels of purposive organization. The miracle of the human is not eliminated but made more plausible if it is understood as the culmination of a movement inherent in the universe from the beginning.
This minimal theodicy allows us to understand what separates “believers” from “unbelievers” without reference to the “supernatural.” If we take the minimal core of religious faith to be that humanity is in the broadest sense in harmony with the cosmos, this “cosmic optimism” can be contrasted with the pessimism of the unbeliever. Belief implies a view of the universe as dominated by self-organization (traditionally seen in the Biblical context as culminating in man “created in God’s image”), whereas unbelief sees the universe as dominated by entropy. These perspectives present the familiar complementarity of the glass that is both half empty and half full. Theism, minimally defined, is a transcendentally guaranteed natural optimism; atheism, a natural pessimism, which needs no guarantee. The questions as to whether an optimistic atheism is definable in this system, or whether it is coextensive with GA, demand further reflection.
As Haught puts it, faith that the universe is in ultimate harmony with our intentions explains suffering and death, not as forms of punishment or acts of an inscrutable divine will, but as sacrifices for the sake of the future—one in which we may even imagine that our losses will somehow be made whole.
A more logically consistent alternative to the tragic vision, I believe, is one in which life’s suffering and sacrifice can be interpreted in terms of the anticipatory, unfinished state of the universe. Most of life’s suffering makes sense neither as punishment nor reprisal. Nor is it ultimately absurd. It is part and parcel of a universe still in the making. Suffering, which at one level of understanding may simply be information about the dangers to an organism’s existence, at another level is information about the unfinished state of the universe.
The response to suffering, therefore, should not be to justify it theoretically or scientifically, but to strive to conquer it in hope of its final vanquishing. (183-84)
This is a faith that does not require a divine Subject who has inscribed these future developments in advance in a great scroll in the sky. We need only a transcendent guarantee, in whatever form, of our striving. The several religions may then be understood as systems of practice and thought adapted to maintaining the confidence of their respective communities of faithful in this transcendental scheme, which extends to infinity the deferral of violence inaugurated in the originary event. The unbeliever is one who finds insufficient evidence in this originary deferral that the universe as a whole does or can be made to participate in the peaceful fulfillment of human intentionality.
In the minimal sense, “divine justice” is the promise that the overall movement of the universe that surrounds us is in harmony with the human faculty of intentionality. The danger of a maximalist theodicy arises when this transcendental guarantee of a self-organizing universe is translated directly into natural terms. In Voltaire’s immortal caricature, Leibniz-Wolff’s meliorism is subject to refutation by the 1755 Lisbon earthquake because it translates faith in this overall guarantee into the presumption that a given human community will be protected by it.
The critical lesson of a minimal theodicy is that we not expect intentionality from the universe, or from God. Having recognized that humans alone, as far as we know, embody the highest form of intentionality, we must conclude that humanity should not expect to be saved from itself or from nature by anything other than itself. The extension of minimal faith to the creator of the universe as well as of humanity should not—and in minimal terms, does not—absolve us of our responsibilities as the only speaking and thinking beings in this universe. This faith does not even guarantee that our species’ existence will be eternally prolonged, merely that the universe is not in principle hostile to this prolongation. Its real point is to encourage us to work toward the ultimate deferral of violence, in the deepest meaning of the adage, “God helps those who help themselves.”