Death by John F. Haught

March 10, 2011

Dr. John F. Haught

John F. Haught is Senior Fellow, Science & Religion, Woodstock Theological Center, Georgetown University. He was formerly Professor in the Department of Theology at Georgetown University (1970-2005) and Chair (1990-95). His area of specialization is systematic theology, with a particular interest in issues pertaining to science, cosmology, evolution, ecology, and religion. Haught graduated from St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore and subsequently received his PhD in theology from The Catholic University of America in 1970. He was the chair of Georgetown’s theology department between 1990 and 1995.

Haught was the winner of the 2002 Owen Garrigan Award in Science and Religion and the 2004 Sophia Award for Theological Excellence. Additionally, in 2009, in recognition of his work on theology and science, Haught was awarded the degree of Doctor Honoris Causa by the University of Louvain. Professor Haught is the author of numerous books, including most recently: Making Sense of Evolution: Darwin, God, and the Drama of Life (Westminster/John Knox Press, 2010), God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens (Westminster/John Knox Press, 2008), Christianity and Science: Toward a Theology of Nature (Orbis Press, 2007), and Is Nature Enough?: Meaning and Truth in the Age of Science (Cambridge University Press, 2006). The essay “Death” here is a reading selection from the latter. Read the first reader review for some insight on how atheists herd about on the internet…

And all that borrows life from Thee Is ever in thy care,
And everywhere that man can be Thou, God, art present there.

Isaac Watts, 1715

However fragile life may be ‘Tis in the system’s care,
And everywhere that man can be The Universe is there.
Kenneth Boulding, “Toward an Evolutionary Theology,” in The Spirit of the Earth: a Teilhard Centennial Celebration, edited by Jerome Perlinski (New York: The Scahury Press, 1981), pp. 112-13

ACCORDING TO MUCH MODERN THOUGHT, the natural and most intelligible state of the universe is one in which life and mind do not yet exist. Life and mind are puzzling exceptions to the fundamental lifelessness of the cosmos. However, people did not always look at things this way. To most of our ancestors, as Hans Jonas points out, life was the fundamental reality, death the unintelligible exception [Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), pp. 9-10.]Naturalistic belief, however, has supplanted the earlier panvitalist view of reality in which everything throbbed with life. The naturalistic agenda is now that of explaining how life, and eventually mind, emerged from the earlier and simpler lifelessness of the cosmos.

Both Jonas and Paul Tillich have even referred to modern scientific naturalism as favoring what may be called an “ontology of death.”[Ibid.; Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol. III (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), p. 19] What they mean by this designation is that over the course of time the universe has literally died in our hearts and minds. This is a severe assessment, but there is no denying that scientific materialism typically assumes that the fundamental being of the cosmos is lifeless. And this assumption is the result of “expurgating from the physical record our own felt aliveness. [Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life, pp. 9-10.] The alienation of subjectivity from the physical universe has rendered nature vulnerable to being drained of life as well.

To the Darwinian materialist, in particular, lifeless matter is the ground state of being. Somehow nature is endowed with prodigious creative powers which the passage of time can gradually release, but the starting point and ultimate basis of evolutionary creativity is mindless material stuff and blind physical processes. From an evolutionary point of view, of course, death is an important part of the creative process. In order for new and more adaptive forms of life to emerge, the perishing of individual organisms, and sometimes entire species, is a biological necessity. If natural selection is to work, abundant diversity is needed, and there are never enough organisms alive in any present generation to provide the requisite variety.

Each present generation must eventually die off if sufficient numbers of variations are to become available for the selection process. Given the spatial limitations of the terrestrial environment, the perishing of organisms is compulsory over the course of virtually limitless time if there is to be a gradual increase in life’s versatility and complexity. For example, the emergence of primate life and eventually critically intelligent subjects could never have occurred except on an enormous mound of mortality.

Furthermore, if one follows the tenets of naturalism, not only do all organisms, including ourselves, have to die but our perishing will be final. All of life will return to the primordial state of being: lifelessness. Naturalists seriously doubt that even critical intelligence can escape the finality of death, so they make no plans for an afterlife. Science, they point out, has shown that we are purely material beings. Mentality and morality may seem at first to be signs of our substantially spiritual nature, but there is no “evidence” of the existence of spirit, souls or immortality. Naturalists believe that life and mind are explainable ultimately in physical terms. Thought, desire, ethics and even religion are at bottom purely material in their makeup and motivation. They are so intimately connected to a physical brain and central nervous system that when the body dies, critical intelligence and all that goes with it vanish forever.

Naturalists concede that human hope for life after death may be adaptive, but this does not make it any the less illusory. When we die, our minds and memories dissolve into the eternal silence that awaits menacingly beneath the feeble flickering of life. Eventually the whole universe will decay into energetic immobility, and nothing or nobody will be left to remember anything that went on during its long pilgrimage to nonbeing. Many billions of years from now, after the physical universe has lapsed into flame or frost (probably the latter according to the latest physical theories), everything to which it has given birth will be greeted by undying nothingness.

It is hard even for most naturalists to look unblinkingly into such an abyss, but the eventual annihilation of life, mind and culture is nonetheless an inescapable logical consequence of the naturalist creed. The philosopher William James has expressed the bleak implications of this worldview as candidly as anyone:

That is the sting of it, that in the vast driftings of the cosmic weather, though many a jeweled shore appears, and many an enchanted cloud-bank floats away, long lingering ere it be dissolved – even as our world now lingers for our joy – yet when these transient products are gone, nothing, absolutely nothing remains, to represent those particular qualities, those elements of preciousness which they may have enshrined. Dead and gone are they, gone utterly from the very sphere and room of being. Without an echo; without a memory; without an influence on aught that may come after, to make it care for similar ideals. This utter final wreck and tragedy is of the essence of scientific materialism as at present understood. [William James, Pragmatism (Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1964), p. 76.]

As I noted in earlier, sober naturalists find nothing in this desolate picture to lift the human heart. According to Steven Weinberg, for example, the most one can do if naturalism is true is to salvage a sense of honor at not running away from its obvious implications. I find Weinberg’s sober strain of naturalism more intellectually appealing than the prevalent sunny varieties since at least it tries hard to remain obedient to the imperatives of the mind. Weinberg does not ignore, for example, the fact that naturalism is bad news for most people, including naturalists. If the universe is pointless — and here I believe James would agree with Weinberg — we should have enough courage and respect for truth to admit it. If the end of all things is “utter final wreck and tragedy,” then clothing nature in a mantle of “mysterious” benevolence, as sunny naturalists do, is a failure of nerve as well as logic.

Sober naturalists seem willing to swallow what they take to be the poisonous implications of their creed, and they want no part of sunny naturalism’s facile compromises. They frankly acknowledge that science in all its splendor can never make the universe responsive enough to satisfy the human longing for meaning. In fact, they are convinced that science, especially after Darwin, provides solid reasons to question whether the universe could ever be called kind. It is not surprising then that sober naturalists are few, far outnumbered by their more buoyant counterparts. Nor is it unexpected that they themselves seldom stay perfectly true to their grim cosmological assumptions.

Sunny naturalists, however, make even less of an effort to be consistent. They officially endorse scientism and (usually) materialism, and they admit to the finality of death and the perishability of the cosmos, but their general outlook on life remains one of resilient sanguinity. As such, they are the kind of skeptics that a Nietzsche or a Sartre would have denounced for the timidity of their atheism. If the universe is meaningless, and ethics groundless, then truthfulness demands that one pass through the fires of nihilism before finding a post-religious comfort zone. But sunny naturalists have not yet looked down into the bottom of the abyss they have opened up. Instead they have nestled into the cultural and ethical worlds nurtured for centuries by worshipers of God.

Surely naturalism has to have more disturbing implications than sunny naturalists are willing to entertain. If science has in truth dissolved the transcendent ground that formerly upheld nature and morality, then the sober naturalist wins the contest of candor hands down by at least trying to field the full implications of an essentially lifeless world.

However, in my view neither sober nor sunny naturalism has opened its eyes wide enough, either to the universe or to the blinding reality of critical intelligence. Both sets of naturalists in fact begin their reflections on the world by looking only at a very limited range of data. They generally assume that scientific experiment is our deepest access to true being and that the real world, at least as far as serious reflection is concerned, terminates at the limits of what science can potentially see. Some naturalists are willing to admit that science is not the only way of seeing or knowing, and they even make room for affective, intersubjective, narrative and aesthetic patterns of cognition. But, in the end, they still arbitrarily enshrine the theoretic field of science in a position of supremacy over the primal modes.

Naturalism, moreover, is not accustomed to a stereoscopic visualization that allows for different dimensions of the world to come into view. It knows nothing of the wider empiricism that takes in both the data of scientific experiment and the fact of critical intelligence in a single sweep. Nor, when it comes to following the mind’s second imperative, is it at home with a richly layered approach to explanation.

Furthermore, naturalism does not attempt to draw out the full implications of the undeniable fact that critical intelligence is tied into the cosmos in such an intimate way that the whole notion of “cosmos” must he radically transformed in the light of this inclusion. Instead, it persistently envisages nature as something foreign to both intelligence and subjectivity, a presupposition that can lead in extreme cases to an ontology of death and then to magic in lieu of explanation when it comes to understanding the actual emergence of mind in natural history. Embracing the modern habit of tearing critical intelligence out of the universe at the very start of its inquiry into nature, naturalists are bound logically to construe the world “out there” as inherently mindless, lifeless and often valueless as well.

Then, building on the assumption that this fully objectified universe is “naturally” devoid of anything like life and mind, they are led to the view that the entire cosmos is purposeless also. The outcome of the modern divorce of nature from mind is that the intelligent, meaning- and truth-seeking human subject is left stranded in some indefinable place outside an apparently unconscious universe. It is not surprising then that critical intelligence, having been uprooted from nature, seems almost indistinguishable from “nothingness.” And then, when death swallows up this chimera, little is lost because there was never much there to begin with.

Given the way it looks at the world — screening out all traces of subjectivity from the start — sober naturalism at least has the merit of trying to be philosophically consistent with its grounding assumption. If the cosmos is indeed essentially mindless and lifeless it would be cowardly to assume that our meaning-seeking subjectivity can ever find a home there. Sunny naturalism, on the other hand, while having the merit of keeping hope alive, has not yet been able to show convincingly how its zest for life is consistent with naturalism’s dismal picture of the universe.

The position I have been developing has a different starting point. Heeding the imperative to be open to the full range of experiences, and recognizing the primal as well as theoretic fields of meaning in relating to the real world, I have proposed that critical intelligence is a natural phenomenon to which we must attend before going on to construct our philosophies of nature. A widely empirical contact with the real world cannot ignore the fact that nature is the matrix of mind and that mind is in some way cosmic in scope. Even astrophysics and astrobiology are now challenging on scientific grounds the ironic naturalist suspicion that mind does not belong fully to the natural world. The roots of life and human intelligence coincide with cosmic origins, so the cosmos has never been intrinsically alien to mind and life. These facts, if thought through consistently, can make a great difference not only to how we understand nature and subjectivity but also how we think about death.

In our next installment on this topic Dr. Haught will take up the proposal “Is Death Final?” and then a consideration of religious hope.

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