In Chronicle 361, which opposed theistic optimism to atheistic pessimism, I wondered both whether optimistic atheism was possible and if it was, to what extent it corresponded to GA. This Chronicle is intended to shed some additional light on these questions.
Put in schematic terms, theistic optimism extrapolates the deferral of human violence in the originary event to the cosmos as a whole, minimally claiming that the Being signified at the origin guarantees that the human scene of representation will be prolonged indefinitely; that the cosmos, although not absolutely guaranteeing the perpetuation and progress of humanity, welcomes it and potentially rewards our efforts to realize it. In contrast, atheistic pessimism reflects the lack of any such guarantee. If the act of representation that defers originary violence has no bearing on reality beyond humanity alone, then even if its repetition can keep us from destroying ourselves, it cannot avail against the inevitable increase of entropy in the universe.
Yet one may accept the optimistic arguments of the theist without positing a divine Subject as their guarantor. Our very existence demonstrates that the universe has not only allowed the emergence of self-perpetuating or living organisms, but that of organisms capable of freely creating systems of representation, and which become conscious of themselves and the world by making them the object of these representations. Given this capacity, it is conceivable that the immanent constitution of the universe is such that humanity will continue to progress, even possibly to the point of immortality and resurrection of those departed—ideas which, however fanciful, cannot be deemed inconceivable, given the ever-accelerating pace of scientific and technological progress.
If one believes that the universe, immanently and independently of any transcendent mind other than our own, can be said, if not to promise such marvels, then at least to give us reason to believe that working toward them is feasible, how is this belief different from one that would attribute these possibilities to a divinity? We should recall that the notion of a transcendent divinity is not a universal one. From what I understand of Buddhism and other east Asian religions, they understand the sacred as immanent in the universe rather than standing transcendently over it; the transcendental status conferred by language is not embodied in a divine subject with power over the world, but conceived as a state of freedom from it, to be arrived at through a long askesis. In the case at hand, we affirm an immanent quality of the universe that guarantees our own activity as intentional subjects. Because cosmic optimism encourages the exercise of human transcendence as a means of operating on the “immanent” world rather than escaping it, it presupposes what we may call an active immanence that falls between the East’s passive immanence and the West’s active transcendence.
Is cosmic optimism a logical consequence of the originary hypothesis? The driving force of the originary event is the danger that humans pose to themselves; the superiority of this danger to that posed by external nature is a defining feature of the human. But the deferral of violence that brings this community into being is not the end but the beginning of the story; its lesson, to defer appetite for the sake of representation, is applicable to all activities conducive to human survival. The point of avoiding violence is to get on with what violence would disturb; the system of cultural representations thus created frees humans not only from their “instinctive” prehuman social hierarchy but from their “instinctive” ways of dealing with nature. The cosmological element of creation stories reflects the fact that the birth of the human community coincides with the first representation of what is “absolutely” outside it. The new community can deal more effectively with problems that impinge upon it, whether caused by nature or other (proto)human groups. From the outset, cosmic optimism is a positive value, up to a point, even when unwarranted. On the one hand, the rain dance reinforces solidarity whether it rains or not; on the other, human bricolage deals with the natural world with ever-increasing efficiency.
The action of conveying intention, which Tomasello has shown to be limited to humans, is an extension from the originary scene to a scenic view of the world, where we can stop what we’re doing and attend to an object of common concern, teach each other techniques for dealing with such objects, and so on. That the first humans took many millennia to make tangible progress in their material culture shows that scenicity, and, we may assume, language, was not at first systematically applied to the details of material culture, although it was a potential of representation from the beginning. The humanization of the world was effected through the categories of the sacred, as Durkheim and his school have claimed—and as the Bible insists—because these were the originary examples of categorical meanings that could be applied to the variety of worldly objects and actions. The homology between the permanence of meaning in the human world and that in the natural world is the basis for the practical use of language that is typically, albeit erroneously, thought to explain its origin.
Today as in the beginning, cosmic optimism delivers an ethical premium over pessimism. Anticipating the universe’s dissolution in entropy, even billions of years hence, weakens our will to live and our attachment to our fellow humans; seeing it as open to the perpetuation of our efforts increases both. Cosmic optimism dissociates belief from passive reliance on God’s protection. My wife recalls a pious friend who, when confronted by a kitchen grease fire, reacted by praying rather than attempting to extinguish the flames. Tragically, this same girl drowned in her car during a flood; it seems likely that she again turned to prayer instead of more practical means of self-preservation. Cosmic optimism, whether or not linked to belief in God, is an encouragement to useful activity; it is obsessing over the universe’s eventual “heat death” that inspires passivity.
Religion was originally a collective phenomenon; the deferral of violence is not a problem for the isolated individual. Yet the debate between religion and atheism is addressed to the individual subject, who is expected to make his choice after listening to the various arguments on both sides. Today as in the past, religious communities offer benefits to their members; their shared belief establishes a solidarity generally more powerful and stable than other forms of group identity, largely irrespective of the belief’s specific content. Such considerations cannot become a factor in the debate. Yet a debate that must ignore the communal origin and nature of religion, including its residual effect even among believers who do not engage in collective (or even personal) ritual practices, distorts the human reality of its subject-matter. Indeed, evolutionary psychologists cite the collective benefits of religion as proofs of its illusory character, as though their own respect for truth derived from a wholly other source.
Whence the value of the originary hypothesis as a “new way of thinking” about the human and its systems of representation that brings together in a rational manner, or we might say, a minimally irrational one, the fundamental characteristics of human origin that religion alone has heretofore integrated. The need for a singularity at the point of departure, the model for the vast series of lesser singularities that constitutes human history, is a more parsimonious requirement than that of God’s existence, and the distance between this singularity as hypothesized by GA and the divinity as conceived by the various religions is far easier to negotiate, in both senses of the term, than that between atheism and theism. The model provided by the originary hypothesis applies not only to the phenomenon of human origin itself but to each stage of our understanding of this origin. Indeed, GA is the first non-religious mode of thinking that makes explicit that what defines us as human is, precisely, that we make use of a system of representations founded on a model, explicit or implicit, of human origin.
The following lines from an intelligent and relatively moderate defense of Darwinian evolution against the attempts of the partisans of Creationism to have it taught as an alternative to evolution demonstrate how unclearly the chief participants in the debate define what is really at stake:
Listen carefully to creationists for long enough and you will realize that they are not so much worried about evolution as they are worried about meaninglessness. . . . We all know the ways that science has conflicted with the Bible in the past and how Christians have worked through these conflicts, and we wonder why creationists get so worked up about this particular scientific conclusion. I think we can better understand the situation if we look beyond the scientific and pseudo-scientific arguments and recognize that what underlies and fuels the issue is a deep philosophical and theological concern about loss of purpose. The creationism controversy is not just about trying to avoid being descended from apes, it is about trying to avoid an existential crisis. (Robert T. Pennock, Tower of Babel: The Evidence against the New Creationism, MIT Press, 1999: 311-12; emphasis mine)
Pennock does not even attempt to explain what it is about the idea of being “descended from apes” that provokes the “loss of purpose” and “existential crisis” that he alleges as the creationists’ real motivation. In fact, the source of this “crisis” is the Darwinians’ effective denial of the eventfulness that marks the human from its origin, their substitution of a history-less gradualism for the Bible’s event of creation. The higher apes, however much of our DNA they share, still live in a natural, “horizontal” world that evolves by natural selection. To the extent that the theory of evolution is presented as subsuming human history within this world, depriving us of the “meaning” that is the essence of our humanity, we cannot afford to abandon the Biblical account, which respects this eventfulness and its connection with the meanings of human language. Although teaching Creationism in the schools would be a perversion of their function, teaching the originary hypothesis would not.
The religious side of the debate, in contrast, tends to see the danger of “godless” Darwinism in moral terms; if God doesn’t exist, then anything is possible. Morality is the basis of all human interaction that derives from the originary scene. C. S. Lewis, in his ever-popular Mere Christianity (McMillan, 1952), takes as his primary demonstration of God’s existence the fact that we all share the same fundamental moral intuition, which he calls the “Law of Right and Wrong” or just “the Law of Nature” (18). In The Language of God, (Free Press, 2006, p. 21), “theistic evolutionist” (and human genome project director) Francis Collins credits this passage from Lewis with setting him on the path toward Christianity. Here again, the originary hypothesis provides the only model of the origin of morality that accounts for its law-like nature without postulating a preexisting Being. The originary event neither presupposes the existence of a divinity nor assimilates human morality to that of the chimpanzee. In contrast, the “atheistic” analyses of evolutionary psychology, however effectively they may demonstrate the survival value of morality and religion, necessarily fall short in what might be called the Durkheimian dimension of these phenomena (one recognized, exceptionally, by Terrence Deacon in his 1997 Symbolic Species): the mere “indexical” reinforcement or inhibition of a behavior cannot produce a law any more than a vervet monkey’s variety of danger calls can produce a language. Morality is not a pattern of behavior that can be selected for; it is a representational model by which we judge behavior.
As opposed to the tenable speculation that the universe, having generated creatures capable of representing it and themselves, is in principle hospitable to the further construction of ever-more-anti-entropic systems, there is and can be no empirical evidence that the natural universe obeys Lewis’s “Law of Nature.” It is no doubt the distinction between these two positions that most clearly separates the “believer” from the “unbeliever.” Theists are well aware of the implausibility of attributing to God the will to impose the moral model directly on the world; but even the most prudent theistic position, that of John Haught, which I discussed in the preceding Chronicle, makes faith in God’s purposiveness the foundation upon which we work toward diminishing human suffering and more generally, perfecting our imperfect world. The ultimate bone of contention between belief and unbelief would then come down to the difference between a universe that gives us the chance to work toward perfection, albeit with no guarantee of ultimate or even partial success (an unforeseen cosmic event could annihilate us in the middle of our quest, assuming we do not carry out this annihilation ourselves), and one ruled by a loving God who, even if he might permit us to fail, affords to at least a “saved remnant” of humanity the grace to be able to obey his commandments.
This interpretation of belief is very close to that of Pascal’s wager, except that, once again, it is an inducement to “Protestant Ethic”-like activity rather than Jansenist passivity. Yet although I esteem this activity all to the good, the emphasis on “process” risks distracting us from the ethical focus that Lewis’s “Law of Nature” so strongly emphasizes. Haught’s theology of promise and continual creativity sees our task as helping move our still fragmentary universe toward an ultimate unity, which will presumably always remain a goal rather than an accomplishment. The notions of suffering and evil recur in Haught’s work, but there is no serious reflection on sin, by which each individual human being is held responsible for his evil and for the suffering that he inflicts. Here is a characteristic passage:
Sin or moral evil . . . would be understood here as the consequence of our free submission to the pull of the multiple, to the fragmentary past of a universe whose perfected state of ultimate unity in God-Omega has yet to be realized. In an unfinished universe, we humans remain accomplices of evil, of course—even horrendous forms of evil. But our complicity in evil may now be interpreted less in terms of a hypothesized break from primordial innocence than as our systematic refusal to participate in the ongoing creation of the world. The creative process is one in which the multiple, the originally dispersed elements of an emerging cosmos, are now being drawn toward unity. Our own sin, then, is at least in some measure that of spurning the invitation to participate in the holy adventure of the universe’s being drawn toward the future (the God-Omega) upon which it leans as its foundation. Here sin means our acquiescence in and fascination with the lure of the multiple. It is our resistance to the call of “being more,” our deliberate turning away from participation in what is still coming into being. (Deeper than Darwin, Westview 2003, p. 174-75)
However attractive I may find Haught’s notion of the “God-Omega” inviting us to participate in an ongoing Creation, I find this passage disturbing. The lack of any anthropological ground, which leads Haught to reject the central biblical notion of the Fall, allows him to ignore the interpersonal element of evil. There is no hatred here, no violence, no resentment, only a “resistance to the call,” as though the greatest evils of recent history were not explicitly dictated by visions of a glorious future to be attained through our own efforts, with only a few eggs needing to be cracked in order to unify humankind in the perfect omelet. Today, it is easy to denounce these visions as perversions of God’s authentic “call,” but how are we to guide ourselves ethically if instead of “love thy neighbor as thyself” we find our motivation in “the ongoing creation of the world”?
It seems to me more appropriate to envisage the future less as a growing unity than as an indefinitely differentiating and articulating complexity. The global marketplace and the Internet offer models of articulated bodies of objects and information that are increasingly less localized. Perhaps this is the kind of unity Haught is really referring to, but his rhetoric of unifying the dispersed suggests a political model more totalitarian than liberal. Haught might respond that politics is not at issue here, but ethics must be. The anthropological model for paradise and the Fall is not, in fact, a perfection to which we seek to return. It is an originary deferral of violence, experienced in its fragility as a state constantly threatened and that must constantly be renewed. No future utopia, however much we alleviate human suffering, will do away with the resentment in answer to which love must ever be generated anew.
Yet the cosmic aspiration expressed in this and other like texts is not irreconcilable with the fundamental intuition of GA. This aspiration must be understood as an object of faith. To express it in the form of a metaphysical conjecture is to distort it; it must be experienced by the believer as part of a human community. Beyond abstract possibilities of future perfection, faith in the human future leads us to renew and enrich the reciprocal deferral of resentment by which these Chronicles define love. Nor is faith exclusively religious, unless we equate religion with faith itself. We can no longer measure a minimal distance between believers and unbelievers when those whom it purportedly separates are united in love with their fellow humans.