Archive for the ‘John F. Haught’ Category


Truth and the Consequences of Evolutionary Naturalism — John F. Haught

March 23, 2011

John F. Haught

Evolutionary naturalists, as a rule, do not seem to notice the logical inconsistency between their Darwinian accounts of value, truth and meaning on the one hand and their minds’ actual performance on the other. They instinctively glorify the value of truth, especially scientific truth, as something to which the mind must bend. But their ultimately evolutionary explanations should lead them to doubt their minds’ capacity to put them in touch with truth, as both Darwin and Rorty rightly point out. Assuming that their minds are a product of evolution, after all, there is nothing in the Darwinian recipe alone that would justify their trust that these same minds can reliably lead them to the truth rather than a state of deception. And if they took Darwinian naturalism as ultimate explanation they would have every reason to doubt that they have the capacity to know truth at all.

Even the late Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, who was not a strict adaptationist, could not overcome the naturalistic inconsistency. For Gould, no less than for Flanagan, Dennett, E. O. Wilson and Dawkins, the ultimate explanation of every living phenomenon, including our capacity for truth, is evolution. Life’s diversity and versatility is based on three general features of nature: accidents (undirected events), the law of selection (along with the laws of physics and chemistry) and lots of time. Gould gives more explanatory weight to contingency (especially accidents of natural history) than Dawkins and Dennett do, but the ultimate explanation of organic phenomena, including the brain, is still a combination of blind chance, impersonal necessity and deep time. As far as the present inquiry into the deepest ground of intelligence is concerned, it matters little what proportion is given to each ingredient. The point is that Gould’s evolutionary naturalism views the ultimate explanation of mind — and this would have to include its tendency to value truth — as itself mindless and valueless.

Before Darwin, Gould says, we easily fell into the trap of thinking that nature was inherently valuable and that values and meanings had a reality independent of us. But after Darwin,

we finally become free to detach our search for ethical truth and spiritual meaning from our scientific quest to understand the facts and mechanisms of nature. Darwin liberated us from asking too much of nature, thus leaving us free to comprehend whatever fearful fascination may reside out there, in full confidence that our quest for decency and meaning cannot be threatened thereby, and can emerge only from our own moral consciousness.
[Stephen J. Gould, "Introduction," in Carl Zimmer, Evolution: the Triumph of an Idea from Darwin to DNA (London: Arrow Books, 2003), pp. xvi-xvii (emphasis added).]

According to naturalism, there is nothing beyond nature that could conceivably give any value to the world. So it is left to our own human creativity to give value to things. But does this mean that it is also entirely up to us to decide that truth is a value? According to Gould, values and meaning have no objective status, either in nature or God. The ultimate ground of value is not nature, evolution or God but our own “moral consciousness.” And since there are no values “out there” in the real world, their existence can only be the result of human creativity solidified by cultural consensus.

To be consistent, Gould would also have to claim that the value that naturalists accord to truth is dictated not by nature or God, since nature is valueless and God (probably) does not exist. And yet Gould’s own life and work give evidence of a mind that in fact takes truth to be an intrinsic good. In his actual cognitional performance, both truth and his valuing of truth are irreducible to evolutionary or human creations. The unconditional value Gould finds in pursuing truth cannot be fully explained naturalistically or culturally without rendering that pursuit groundless.

Product of modernity that he was, Gould would probably respond that the naturalist’s sense of human inventiveness allows us to recapture some of the self-esteem that our ancestors gave away to the gods. We can now take back what humans had forfeited during all those millennia when they naively assumed, in keeping with religions, that nature is intrinsically purposeful and that truth, value and purpose are not our own inventions. For Gould, the modern impression of a teleological void is an opportunity to fill the cosmos with our own values and meanings.[Gould, Ever since Darwin, p. 12.]

Once again, however, if we were fully convinced that the value we attach to truthfulness were no more than our own, apparently groundless, creation, then devotion to truth could no longer function as the source of meaning for our lives. Truth would be subordinate to the discretion of our own inventiveness rather than a torch that guides our minds more deeply into the marrow of the real. If evolutionary naturalists took their own doctrines seriously this would only have a corrosive effect on the trust they place instinctively in their own minds’ imperatives to be open, intelligent and critical. As a way of driving home this point, I shall ask you, the reader, to suppose once again that you subscribe to the tenets of evolutionary naturalism. Then I shall ask you whether the facts associated with the actual performance of your own mind are logically compatible with this naturalistic view of reality.

If you are an evolutionary naturalist, you will most probably account for living phenomena, including your own mind, ultimately in terms of the mindless Darwinian recipe for life. As an evolutionary naturalist you will also agree that the ultimate explanation of your various organs — your nose, mouth, eyes, ears and everything else functionally adaptive about you — is Darwinian natural selection. [Gary Cziko, Without Miracles: Universal Selection Theory and the Second Darwinian Revolution (Cambridge. Mass.: MIT Press, 1995), p. 121.] And, to be completely consistent, you will be compelled to admit that your critical intelligence, which to the pure Darwinian is not a blank slate but has been molded to think the way it does by natural selection, can be explained ultimately also in terms of Darwin’s recipe.[ Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: the Modern Denial of Human Nature (New York: Penguin Books, 2002).]

If you follow Gould, you may appeal too to the role of accidents in natural history, and not solely to selective adaptation, in explaining why you have a mind and why it works the way it does. But if you follow ultra-adaptationists such as Dawkins, then the ultimate explanation of your mind and all its features is the (mindless) natural selection of adaptive populations of related genes. In either case, whether by Darwinian adaptation or by sheer accident (or a combination of the two), the ultimate explanation of your capacity to think is itself a set of mindless and unintelligent factors. But if this is right, then on what basis can you trust your critical intelligence, the outcome of an unintelligent process, to lead you to right understanding and knowledge of the truth at this instant? Darwin himself, as we have seen earlier, raised this troublingly subversive question, but he did not follow it up carefully.

Evolution produced intelligence, declares Owen Flanagan, but evolution does not require intelligence to produce intelligence. “Evolution demonstrates how intelligence arose from totally insensate origins.[ Flanagan, The Problem of the Soul, p. 11 (emphasis added).] But how then do you and Flanagan justify the confidence you now place in your mental functioning, especially if the ultimate ground of your intelligence is not only unintelligent but even insensate. If not by magic, then how did your dazzling intellectual prowess and the trust you place in it ever pop into this universe from a state of unutterable cosmic dumbness? It would appear, to me at least, that something momentous in the way of explanation has been left out here. A simplistic appeal to deep time and gradualism alone cannot bridge this explanatory gap since the passage of time itself does nothing to cure the fundamental blindness of the process.

If either aimless evolutionary selection or sheer contingency is the deepest possible explanation of your own mental endowment, then why should I pay any attention to you? How do I know — if I follow your own premises — that your mind is not just taking part in one more adaptive (and possibly fictitious) exercise rather than leading you and me to the truth? In company with Dawkins, Gould, Flanagan and others, you are telling me that a mindless evolutionary process along with physical and chemical laws) is the ultimate explanation of your mind and its properties.

Darwinism, you say, is true. I can agree with you scientifically speaking, but what I need to find out is how your mind’s capacity for truth-telling slipped into the fundamentally unintelligent Darwinian universe that you started with. Although evolutionary explanation is essential, any attempt to answer this question in Darwinian terms alone will be circular and magical. In order to justify the assumption that your own mind is of such stature as to be able to understand and know truth, you will need to look for a kind of explanation that evolutionary science, at least by itself, cannot provide.

If you resort only to the idea of adaptation this will not work, since mindless adaptations, as you know well, can be illusory and deceptive. Perhaps then you will tell me that your highly prized human capacity for truth-telling is an incidental, unplanned byproduct of evolution. Perhaps it is something like what Stephen Jay Gould calls a “spandrel.” That is, perhaps your cognitional talent is analogous to the arched surfaces (spandrels) that appear incidentally around the tops of columns whose main function is to hold up the roofs of cathedrals like San Marco in Venice. Such features are not the main architectural objective, but instead they simply appear, unintended in themselves, as the basilica is being erected.

The spandrels, though unintended as such, may be taken as opportunities for great artists to cover them with frescoes or mosaics. And it may be the spandrels and the works of art, rather than the columns, that attract our focal interest as we enter the building. [J. Gould and R. C. Lewontin, "The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: a Critique of the Adaptationist Programme," Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Series B, vol. 205, no. 1161 1979, 581-98.] Perhaps, in a similar way, your mind’s capacity for truth-telling is a spandrel that just happened to show up as a contingent side-effect of the adaptive (and otherwise often deceptive and deluded)) human brain.

Or, again, perhaps your critical intelligence is essentially the consequence of cultural conditioning that has little to do with natural selection. In any case, whether you interpret your capacity for truth-telling as a Darwinian adaptation, a spandrel, an accident of nature, or the consequence of enculturation, you will still have failed to justify the trust you are now placing — at this very moment — in your own intellectual activity. Both naturalistic and culturally relativistic explanations of mind provide too shallow a soil to ground the inevitable confidence that underlies your actual cognitional performance. Consequently, if up to this point you have professed official allegiance to evolutionary naturalism, you must now roam outside the circle of that creed in order to find a more solid reason for why your mind can be trusted to know and communicate the truth.  

If you are a Darwinian naturalist you will be given to making claims such as this one by biologist David Sloan Wilson: “Rationality is not the gold standard against which all other forms of thought are to be judged. Adaptation is the gold standard against which rationality must be judged, along with all other forms of thought.”[ David Sloan Wilson, Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion and the Nature of Society Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002)]

I wonder, however, if Wilson is aware of how thoroughly his subordination of rationality to evolutionary adaptation logically undermines not only his claim but also the confidence with which his own mind makes such a claim. Assuming that the statement just quoted is one that comes from Wilson’s own brain, and assuming also that his brain is the outcome of an adaptive evolutionary process, on what grounds can Wilson justify his assumption that readers should take his claim to be rational and true rather than simply an attempt to adapt? If a proposition contrary to Wilson’s assertion had been the one to survive adaptively, then would it not have to be judged rational and true according to Wilson’s proposal? If so, truth would have no stable meaning whatsoever, and pursuit of it could scarcely function to give purpose to one’s life.

Are Darwinian selection, sheer contingency and the vicissitudes of enculturation, therefore, the best we can come up with by way of an ultimate account of intelligence? In particular, can evolutionary science, in any of its expressions, be the ultimate explanation of the spontaneous trust that all of us place in our rational faculties? Or is not Darwinism at best just one of several levels of explanation needed to understand critical intelligence? If the critical (truth-telling) aspect of our cognitional life could be explained ultimately in Darwinian terms, on what grounds can we trust it? We do not have to deny that physics, chemistry and evolutionary biology are all essential layers in the explanation of mind. But in order to account fully for the mind’s natural longing for truth we have to move beyond naturalistic explanation.

Purpose As Anticipation Of Truth
Is it time then to call on theology? By no means, answers Richard Dawkins. Theology only complicates matters, doing nothing really to explain intelligence. After all, theology begins by assuming that there was already a creative intelligence operative in the scheme of things, namely, God. But, Dawkins insists, it is precisely creative intelligence that needs to be explained, not just taken for granted. And to the scientific mind any explanation of intelligence has to be in terms of what is unintelligent. Otherwise it is not an explanation. To explain anything scientifically means to simplify it. Before Darwin, Dawkins says, we had no simple and elegant explanation for intelligence, but now we do. “Darwinian evolution provides an explanation, the only workable explanation so far suggested, for the existence of intelligence. Creative intelligence comes into the world late, as the derived product of a long process of gradual change .. . After Darwin we at last have a universe in which creative intelligence is explained as emerging after millions of years of evolution.[ Richard Dawkins, "The Science of Religion and the Religion of Science," Tanner Lecture on Human Values at Harvard University November 20, 2003). Cited on the Science and Theology website: archives/ 2004_february/ web x richard.html]

What I want to know, however, is how the evolutionary naturalist’s own critical intelligence emerged with such pristine purity from utterly insensate origins. Dawkins’ habitual appeal to gradualism here is no explanation. No matter how much time was available for intelligence to be cobbled together gradually (with the help of blind random variation and aimless natural selection, the question remains as to how naturalists’ own minds acquired just those qualities that allow them to assume that they are in an especially advantageous position to contact what is.

No matter how long it takes to bring intelligence into being out of absolute unintelligence, logically speaking this is still pulling a rabbit out of a hat. By appealing to time’s fathomless depth — as though time itself were causal — Dawkins has not avoided magic either. His assumption is that an enormous amount of time is explanatory, whereas a lesser amount is not. [Richard Dawkins, Climbing Mount Improbable New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1996), pp. 3-37] But then where is the cut-off point? How many millions or billions of years of gradual change does it take before time ceases being a framework and becomes an efficient cause? And, again, how is magic to be avoided?

There is no denying, I must hasten to add, that evolutionary biology and the appeal to deep time can contribute much to an explanation of the origin and nature of the human mind. It is just that it cannot fully explain why the mind can know truth or why we should value truth-telling. I have no difficulty in accepting evolutionary accounts of mind, and I am willing to have the sciences push these as far as they can take us. However, I am questioning whether evolutionary accounts are enough to account ultimately for the trust that you, Gould, Flanagan, D. Wilson and Dawkins spontaneously place in your own minds to lead you (and me) to the truth.

Darwinians, as I have already pointed out, even suspect that deception is one of life’s most adaptive characteristics [See Rue, By the Grace of Guile, pp. 82-127, for a convenient summary.] So if adaptive evolution, or accidents of nature, or social conditioning — or any other random or blindly material happenings underlying life — constitute the ultimate explanation of your own mental functioning, then why are you not suspicious right now that you may be deceiving me and yourself by claiming that naturalism is true?

What strikes me here especially is the degree of disconnection between the evolutionary naturalist’s picture of nature’s inherent unintelligence on the one hand, and, on the other, the especially prized scientific mind that has emerged from this foggy background already equipped with an amazing aptitude to understand and know the truth about things, including the truth of Darwinism. Something really big is missing from the evolutionary naturalist’s account. The degree of separateness — between the primordial dumbness of nature as depicted by naturalism, and the trustworthiness of critical intelligence as it is functioning now — is so severe that the very dualism of mind and universe that naturalism is supposed to have conquered has reasserted itself.

Evolutionary naturalism — as distinct from evolutionary science — must be rejected, therefore, because its method and claims are logically inconsistent with the trust that underlies the naturalist’s own critical intelligence and the sense of purpose that comes with the pursuit of truth. On the other hand, a worldview in which truth is known by anticipation can explain this trust and sense of purpose, and it can do so without in any way contradicting the results of evolutionary science. It is because intelligent subjects can be grasped by truth that the surrender to this noblest of values – one that beckons the mind through the sacramental mediation of the natural and cultural worlds — can function to give our lives a purpose. Truth lights up everything and gives meaning to our lives not because it is created but because it is anticipated. And anticipation, in turn, entails a worldview in which the present state of nature is not only the sunset of the past, but the sunrise of an indeterminate future.


Purpose by John F. Haught

March 21, 2011

 I sing the goodness of the Lord
That filled the earth with food;
He formed the creatures with his word And then pronounced them good.
Isaac Watts, 1715

Is it the goodness of the Lord That fills the earth with food? Selection has the final word And what survives is good.
Kenneth E. Boulding, 1975 [Kenneth Boulding, "Toward an Evolutionary Theology," in The Spirit of the Earth: a Teilhard Centennial Celebration, edited by Jerome Perlinski (New York: The Seabury Press, 1981), pp. 112-13]

IN CONTEMPORARY CONVERSATIONS ABOUT THE RELATIONSHIP OF RELIGION TO SCIENCE two questions stand out: is nature all there is? And does the universe have a purpose? The two issues are inseparable. For if nature is all there is, there could be no overall purpose to the universe. That is, there could be no goal beyond nature toward which the long cosmic journey would be winding its way. But if the logic here is correct, then the detection of an overarching purpose in nature would imply that nature is not all there is. In the broadest sense purpose means “directed toward a goal or telos.” The question before us, then, is whether the cosmos as a whole is teleological, that is, goal-directed. Is there perhaps a transcendent goodness luring it toward more intense modes of being and ultimately toward an unimaginable fulfillment? How can we find out?

If cosmic purpose were to manifest itself palpably anywhere in nature, would it not be in the life-world? Yet contemporary biology finds there only an apparent purpose. Scientists, for the most part, seem to agree that there is indeed a kind of purposiveness, or teleonomy, in living phenomena.[Jacques Monod, Chance and Necessity, translated by Austryn Wainhouse (New York: Vintage Books, 1972).] The heart has the purpose of pumping blood, eyes of seeing, brains of thinking, and so on. Purposiveness in this sense is an indisputable fact of nature. However, the orientation toward specific goals in the life of organisms is not enough to demonstrate that there is an across-the-board purpose to the universe itself. Darwin’s impersonal recipe for evolution now seems to be enough to account for what scientists used to think were signs in living organisms of a divine intelligence that orders all events toward a meaningful end. The adaptive complexity that gave earlier generations of biologists reason to believe in an intelligent deity now only seems to have been purposefully intended.[ Michael Ruse, Darwin and Design: Does Evolution Have a Purpose? (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003), pp. 324-28.] Blind evolutionary mechanisms are the ultimate explanation of purposive design.

In a recent interview the famous evolutionist Richard Dawkins states: “I believe, but I cannot prove, that all life, all intelligence, all creativity and all ‘design’ anywhere in the universe, is the direct or indirect product of Darwinian natural selection. It follows that design comes late in the universe, after a period of Darwinian evolution. Design cannot precede evolution and therefore cannot underlie the universe. So purpose, at least in the guise of design, has apparently been fully naturalized by evolutionary science. Natural phenomena that formerly seemed to bear the direct imprint of divine intelligence are now exposed as outcomes of a completely mindless process. The adaptive design of organisms gives only the illusion of being deliberately intended. Purpose, at least in any theologically significant sense of the term, simply does not exist.

Dawkins is willing to grant that we humans have “purpose on the brain, [Richard Dawkins, River out of Eden (New York: Basic Books, 1995), p. 96] and many other naturalists allow that we need a sense of purpose to live happy lives. But this does not mean that life at large or the universe as a whole is in fact purposeful. Viewed from the perspective of evolutionary biology, the old human habit of looking for meaning in nature may be adaptive, but it is illusory. Nature itself has no goals in mind, and the purposiveness of organisms is no signal of an eternal divine plan. It is natural — even for naturalists — to seek purpose, but whatever purpose people seem to find in nature as a whole is in fact a purely human construct, not a reflection of the world as it exists “out there.”

Biologically speaking, evolutionary naturalists emphasize, there is no significant difference between our own brains and those of our ancestors who sought purpose through religion. Our brains and nervous systems are built to look for meaning in things. But in an age of science the personal search for purpose can no longer presume the backing of the universe in the way that religions did in the past. After Darwin the ancient spiritual assumption that purpose is inherent in the natural world has been exposed as nothing more than an evolutionary adaptation.[ Edward O. Wilson, Consilience: the Unity of Knowledge (New York: Knopf, 1998), p. 262; Walter Burkert, Creation of the Sacred: Tracks of Biology in Early Religions (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996), p. 20.]

 Maybe the illusion of purpose was invented by our genes as a way to get themselves passed on to subsequent generations. Or, if not directly rooted in our genes, the human passion for purpose is a freeloading complex, parasitic on brains fashioned by natural selection ages ago for more mundane tasks. [Scott Atran, In Gods We Trust: the Evolutionary Landscape of Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 78-79; Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained: the Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought (New York: Basic Books, 2001), p. 145.]

By either account, the penchant for purpose is ultimately explainable in a purely naturalistic way. All human yearning for lasting purpose, whether in the universe or in our personal lives, is groundless. At best, religious myths about purpose are noble lies, perhaps convincing enough to help humans adapt, but too imaginative to be taken seriously in an age of science. [Loyal Rue, By the Grace of Guile: the Role of Deception in Natural History and Human Affairs (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 261-306.]. There is not the slightest evidence that the whole scheme of things makes any sense ultimately.

Can Purpose Be Fully Naturalized?
However, it is necessary to make two points here. First, it is not evolutionary biology, but evolutionary naturalism that rules out purpose. Dawkins himself, as we have just seen, admits that he believes — but cannot scientifically demonstrate — that evolution undermines any theological sense of purpose. Science as such, even the naturalist must agree, has nothing to say one way or the other about any overarching purpose in nature. Science, strictly speaking, is not preoccupied with questions about values, meanings or goals. Teleology is not its concern.

My second point is that evolutionary naturalists, along with some religious believers, tend to confuse purpose with “divine intelligent design.” And since Darwinism can explain local organic “design” naturalistically some claim there is no need any longer to look for purpose in the universe as a whole. To the pure Darwinian, organisms may seem to be designed, but divine intelligence is not the ultimate cause of their “apparently” purposive features. [Dawkins, River out of Eden; Ruse, Darwin and Design, pp. 268-70, 325] Design is the outcome of an evolutionary recipe consisting of three unintelligent ingredients: random genetic mutations along with other accidents in nature, aimless natural selection, and eons of cosmic duration. This simple formula has apparently banished purpose once and for all from the cosmos.

However, the idea of purpose is not reducible to intelligent design. Design is too frail a notion to convey all that religions and theologies mean when they speak of purpose in the universe. Purpose does not have to mean design in the adaptive Darwinian sense at all. Rather, purpose simply means the actualizing of value. What makes any series of events purposive is that it is aiming toward, or actually bringing about, something that is undeniably good. Is it possible that the actualizing of value is what is really going on in the universe? And is not critical intelligence, with its capacity to know truth, direct evidence of it?

There is a close connection between purpose and value. Naturalists would agree with this point, but they doubt that values really exist anywhere independently of our human valuations. Obviously, most of them would agree, we humans have a sense of values that gives purpose to our lives. For example, I take my writing this book to be purposive since its intended goal is that of achieving something I consider good or worthwhile. Likewise, scientific naturalists consider their own intellectual efforts to be purposeful. They tacitly surrender their minds and hearts to the value of truth-telling, a cause they expect to outlive them and give significance to their work even after they are gone.

If they did not consider truth-telling to be an enduring value worthy of the deepest reverence, they would scarcely care whether readers took them seriously, nor would they write books so earnestly instructing us that religions lead human minds away from the truth. Obviously evolutionary naturalists care about truth, and their lives are made meaningful only because truth functions for them as a value worth pursuing. So, in seeking what is unquestionably good, they too have “purpose on the brain.” Were they to deny it, they would eviscerate their own intellectual achievements.

Naturalists maintain that there is a fully natural explanation for everything. But what about the value of truth itself, the value that gives meaning to their own lives? Can that too be explained naturalistically — as a purely human invention? If we really believed that truth is merely a human construct, then the pursuit of truth could no longer function to give purpose or meaning to our lives. To experience meaning in life, after all, requires the humble submission of our minds and lives to a value that pulls us out of ourselves and gives us something noble to live for. [This is a point made emphatically by Viktor Frankl in Man's Search for Meaning (New York: Pocket Books, 1959)] It entails a commitment to something greater than ourselves. Having a sense of meaning is the consequence of being grasped by a value or values that we did not invent and that will outlive us. If we sincerely thought that we were the sole creators of truth then truth could no longer function to give purpose to our lives, nor would it allow our intelligence to function critically. If evolutionary naturalists consistently thought that truth — along with other values — were nothing more than the products of genes, minds or cultures, then such a fabrication could no longer function to give meaning to their own lives either.

For a value to be the source of meaning it has to function as more than an arbitrary human invention. If I thought of truth as the product of human creativity alone, then there would be nothing to prevent me from deciding that deception rather than truth-telling should guide my life and actions. The naturalist of course will instinctively reject such a proposal. But why? What is it in the naturalist worldview that makes truth-telling an unconditional value, the absolute good that everyone is obliged to revere? If all the ideals that give purpose to one’s life were seriously taken to be contingent concoctions of the human brain or cultural convention, it would seem inconsistent for naturalists to tell me in effect that I must treat the values of truth and truth-telling as though these were not also pure inventions.

In fact, however, naturalists are not consistent. Typically they deny in their philosophy of nature what they implicitly affirm in their actual ethical and intellectual performance. For example, evolutionary naturalists clearly treat truth as a value that judges their own work, and therefore as something they did not invent. Some of them even devote their whole lives to its pursuit. It is what gets them up every morning. In effect they are serving a cause that they tacitly know will outlast them. Their implicit sense of the lastingness of truth gives continuity to their efforts and satisfaction to their careers. Like the rest of us they are grasped by truth and have submitted their minds to it. At the same time, however, some of their own writings portray truth and other values as pure creations of human minds and, ultimately, of genes. They generally fail to see the logical contradiction between their almost religious obedience to truth-telling on the one hand and their evolutionary debunking of it on the other.

Since the universe itself is inherently valueless, their argument runs, people can all the more easily see that values and meanings must spring from their own creativity.’[E. D. Klemke, "Living without Appeal," in The Meaning of Life, edited by E. D. Klemke (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), pp. 169-72; Stephen Jay Gould, Ever since Darwin (New York: W. W. Norton, 1977), pp. 12-13.] Owen Flanagan, for instance, says that “we have to find and make our meanings and not have them created and given to us by a supernatural being or force.” Then he adds, “It seems like good news that meaning and purpose are generated and enjoyed by me and the members of my species and tribe, rather than imposed by an inexplicable and indefinable alien being.[ Owen Flanagan, The Problem of the Soul: Two Visions of Mind and How to Reconcile Them (New York: Basic Books, 2002), p. 12.]

However, Flanagan clearly performs professionally as though the truth-telling to which he apparently bows in writing his books, including the excerpt I have just quoted, is not simply “generated” by his or his tribe’s inventive minds. If he seriously thought that he was the inventor of all the values he follows, among which truth-telling would have to take a prominent place, then it would seem unlikely that truth could function as a standard against which he could measure critically the content of his mind, or as something that could give his life significance.

Once again, then, naturalism proves to be too restrictive a worldview to contain the minds that thought it up. While Darwinian science can go a long way toward laying out the natural history that led up to the existence of our minds, it is too undersized to function as a worldview that accounts fully for why we are purpose-driven, meaning-seeking and truth-oriented beings. Darwinian explanations by themselves, after all, do not rule out the possibility that nature can create a kind of conscious organism that finds illusions more adaptive than truth. In fact, since truth can often be unsettling, and obedience to it demanding, the flight into fiction could conceivably be much more adaptive than facing up to facts. Some Darwinian naturalists understand religion in precisely this way. Religion is adaptive, they claim, because it allows people to avoid facing reality even while it is giving purpose to their lives.

Such a view, however, makes it all the more difficult to state in purely Darwinian terms how the naturalist’s own mind came to be guided by an exceptionally pure passion for truth. What special events occurred in nature’s normal course of making adaptive minds that allows one now to assume that the naturalistic belief system is not just one more way of adapting, no less illusory than all our other adaptive belief systems? As philosopher Richard Rorty admits, “the idea that one species of organism is, unlike all the others, oriented not just toward its own increased prosperity but toward Truth, is as un-Darwinian as the idea that every human being has a built-in moral compass — a conscience that swings free of both social history and individual luck. [Richard Rorty, "Untruth and Consequences," The New Republic, July 31, 1995, pp. 32-36. Cited by Alvin Plantinga: html]

But perhaps, the naturalist might suggest, the passion for truth does not need to be explained in evolutionary terms after all. Maybe the naturalist’s exceptional flair for truth-telling is the product not of natural, but of cultural evolution. Perhaps when humans came along in evolution they could learn to contradict what their genes dictate and thus elevate themselves to a new level of truthfulness and morality. Richard Dawkins insists that “we have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth. [Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 2nd edn. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989, p. 200.]However, it is fundamental to the naturalist creed to insist that humans and their cultural creations are all ultimately part of nature. So it would be more consistent with evolutionary naturalism to insist that there has to be a purely natural explanation of everything, including the urge to create culture.

But let us suppose that the move by humans from nature into culture is so abrupt as to render evolutionary understanding irrelevant at a certain point. Perhaps, in other words, the naturalist’s special ability to value truth is a skill that has been inherited through cultural influence rather than natural selection, since in the human arena Darwinism no longer works to explain everything very well. If so, however, this shift of ground only moves my question sideways. Can cultural influences, which we know to be riddled with relativity and historical contingency, explain any more substantially why the naturalist should have developed an exceptional talent for truth-telling? Dawkins, for example, does not provide a non-Darwinian explanation of why truth-telling is morally superior to deception either.

I doubt that moving over to the historico-cultural setting will make it any easier for the naturalist to say why truth-telling is an unconditional good. In any case, if truth were consistently thought of exclusively as either an evolutionary or a cultural invention it could no longer function as a beacon that arouses the imperatives of the mind or gives purpose to lives. Thus we need to consider another possibility: truth, in order to function as a value that gives meaning, must have its foundation in a region of being that transcends both nature and culture. Truth is best thought of as neither a natural nor a cultural creation, but as the anticipated goal of the desire to know. This is how truth functions in fact for naturalists whenever truth-telling gives zest to their lives.

Truth is not something they possess, but something they anticipate. It is not something they concoct, but something that invites a surrender. What remains to be done, then, is for naturalists to bring their formal belief system into harmony with the way their minds actually work. What they tacitly affirm in every commitment of their minds to truth must no longer be denied when they articulate their worldview.

Truth, to reiterate my point, can function to give purpose to human lives only if it is encountered as a value distinct from or transcending our minds. Of course, human creativity enters into all our finite construal of truth, including this sentence. But even such constructs are responses to something like an invitation. We are addressed by truth even as we participate in its representation. There is no understanding of the world that is not in some measure a human construct, including those of both theology and naturalism. Every proposition can be subjected to layered explanation. At one level what I am saying now can be explained as a product of my own brain. At another level it can be explained as the result of my will to understand. But at still another it can be explained as my response to the attractive power of what is, that is, of being, reality, truth. By focusing only on the creative side of the mind’s meeting with truth, naturalistic explanations fail to articulate what it is about truth that compels, persuades, makes us alive with excitement and gives purpose to our lives. To explain ultimately why truth has the power to attract and give purpose to our lives will require moving beyond the naturalistic worldview.


Is Death Final? John F. Haught

March 11, 2011

Bartolomeo Bermejo’s magnificent painting of the Harrowing of Hell. It depicts the Risen Christ descending into the dreary dungeon of Hades where Adam and Eve, Methuselah, Solomon, and the Queen of Shebah await Him. The Risen Christ descends into the darkness, radiant in the light of his glory. Psalm 106 expresses the mystery of the moment: “Then they cried to the Lord in their need and he rescued them from their distress. He led them forth from darkness and gloom and broke their chains to pieces” (Psalms 106:13-14).

By expelling critical intelligence from the universe that gave rise to it, modern naturalism has led not only to a diminished view of human life, but to a trivialization of death as well. For there can be nothing terribly consequential about the perishing of mind if mind is merely the ethereal wisp that modem thought has taken it to be in the first place. As long as mind is separated from the universe, what happens to the subject can have little bearing on the cosmos and vice versa. When consciousness disappears, the mindless world remains unshaken. Yet today even natural science is demonstrating that critical intelligence, reliant as it is on the proper functioning of brains, is deeply dependent on specific physical features pertaining to the history of the whole universe.

The emergence of each intelligent subject has a dramatic cosmic prelude that we knew very little about until recently. When a mind emerges, the event is more than a local disturbance of indifferent matter. It is a cosmic eruption. Likewise, when a subject dies, something happens to the whole universe. If the physical constituents of consciousness extend historically back to the birth of the universe itself, then the death of every cell and every organism is something more than just another Darwinian inexorability. Death may indeed be biologically inevitable, but in some sense, as both animal and human instinct tell us, it is also a lessening of the universe.

If subjectivity were truly alien to the cosmos, as it is taken to be in naturalism’s modernist (and ironically dualistic) outlook, then thoughts about our own death would make little difference to a full understanding of nature. However, the stereoscopic outlook I have been following changes the whole picture. We cannot properly see the universe if we fail to look simultaneously at the critical intelligence to which it has lately given birth. Looking hard at the cosmos without keeping our own minds in view flattens out the field of vision, obscuring its real depth. A more dimensional empiricism, on the other hand, ties its vision of the world’s remotest physical origins tightly to an awareness of the critical intelligence that has come to birth in the foreground of natural history. By linking matter intrinsically to life and mind, this richer empiricism avoids the conclusion that lifeless matter, purged of subjectivity, is the fundamental reality. Finally, our stereoscopic vision proposes that the perishing of each subject — and not just human subjects — somehow reverberates throughout the universe. So it follows that if there is any hope for our own subjective survival of death, the universe that remains forever the root system of our subjectivity may in some sense be destined to escape final nothingness as well.

However, the question is whether there is any hope for our own survival as critically intelligent subjects. Naturalists will only scoff at such an idea. According to philosopher Owen Flanagan, there is no basis for the belief that anything about us could survive death since science has destroyed the idea of immortal souls. [Owen Flanagan, The Problem of the Soul: Two Visions of Mind and How to Reconcile Them (New York: Basic Books, 2002).]

Nevertheless, he goes on, once we have resigned ourselves to this harsh fact, our lives do not have to be sad. Flanagan is the epitome of a sunny naturalist. The universe is pointless, and death final, but that is no reason to deny that human life can be meaningful and happy. When we die we are gone for good, but in the meantime we can live fulfilling lives anyway. Flanagan concedes that most people believe they have souls and that their souls, or some remnant of conscious life, will live on after death. But, in typically naturalist fashion, he rejects belief in immortality as “irrational.” Why irrational? Because there is no scientific evidence to support it. One might respond that belief in immortality is at least harmless even if untrue. But not in Flanagan’s opinion:

The beliefs in non-natural properties of persons, indeed of any non-natural things, including — yes — God, stand in the way of understanding our natures truthfully and locating what makes life meaningful in a non-illusory way. Furthermore, historical evidence abounds that sectarian religious beliefs not only lack rational [i.e. scientific] evidence or support, but they are at least partly at the root of terrible human practices – religious wars, terrorism, and torture. Yes, I know the answer; such calamities come at the hands of fanatics. Even if this is true, the fact is that fanatics are fanatics because they believe that what they believe is indubitably true.
[Owen Flanagan, The Problem of the Soul: Two Visions of Mind and How to Reconcile Them (New York: Basic Books, 2002).]

The majority of the world’s people, on the other hand, would consider the final extinguishing of mind and “soul” to be the greatest of evils. The possibility that anything as luminously real and palpable as consciousness could end up in the pit of final nothingness is simply unthinkable. Humanity’s instinctive revolt against such a prospect, of course, is no proof that the naturalist is wrong. But it still seems extremely audacious for Flanagan and other naturalists to dismiss as irrational so enduring a consensus of human wisdom simply because empirical science, which is not wired to detect subjectivity even in its present state let alone after death, can find no “evidence” of it.

Most people, both in the past and even in an age of science, have believed in some form of subjective survival beyond death – in spite of the absence of present evidence. Some have anticipated reincarnation culminating in final release from the wheel of rebirth. Others have expected bodily resurrection, and still others the survival of their souls in a state of final liberation from the mortal limits imposed by the physical world. Theistic religions have based their hope for life after death on the foundational conviction that God is powerful and faithful and will fulfill the divine promise to defeat death in due time. God, according to a saying of Jesus recorded in the Gospels, is “a God of the living and not of the dead,” so the everlasting aliveness of God can surely bridge the wide abyss that now divides the living from the dead. Yet naturalism, in keeping with its physicalist assumptions and its metaphysics of the past, cannot fathom how any of this is remotely possible. Hope for immortality is a childish, though possibly adaptive, fantasy from which we must now awaken.

But is belief in life after death as irrational as Flanagan and other naturalists insist? I shall argue to the contrary that, far from being irrational, the expectation of subjective survival may be judged to be a most reasonable belief, precisely insofar as it is supportive of the flourishing of the desire to know. And is the prevalent human hope for survival of death as harmful as Flanagan contends? Granted that terrorists, emboldened by belief in an eternal reward, can do horrible things, does this say anything one way or the other about either the reasonableness or the wholesomeness of the belief itself? Flanagan, speaking with all the confidence of a true believer, consigns most of his fellow humans to the status of madness and potential criminality because they cannot give up their hope for eternal happiness. I have to confess surprise that so esteemed a philosopher seems unaware that almost anything can be twisted to serve evil purposes, and that he considers it necessary to tell us that “fanatics are fanatics because they believe that what they believe is indubitably true.” Perhaps the fanatics could reply that Flanagan is a naturalist because he believes (as he clearly does) that naturalism is indubitably true.

Here, however, I am concerned less with whether hope for immortality is harmful than whether it is consistent with the truth. When I use the word “truth” I mean it in two senses. First, truth is simply another word for being or what is; and, second, truth is a property of all warranted propositions. I am using the term in both senses. My point is that our minds cannot work without anticipating truth. Even in moments of confusion and extreme skepticism our minds still know that it is true that we are confused and in doubt. Truth stands there permanently as the inescapable horizon, standard and goal of all intellectual performance, even when we explicitly deny the possibility of attaining it. Minds are aware also, at least at some level, that truth cannot perish. “It fortifies my soul to know that, though I perish, truth is so,” says the poet Arthur Hugh Clough. I would propose, accordingly, that the expectation of subjective survival of death is completely consistent with and supportive of our performative appeal to the everlastingness of truth. If so, then this belief can be called reasonable, for it fulfills the fundamental criterion of truth: fidelity to the desire to know. Let me now unpack the proposal.

First of all, there is something imperishable about truth. For example, it is still true that dinosaurs once inhabited Earth, even though the dinosaurs themselves are now gone. And it will still be true trillions of years from now that dinosaurs, you and I did live at one time on Earth, even though we and the dinosaurs will have perished long since. Even though this planet, the solar system and the Big Bang universe will be gone, all of these facts will still be true. But since we will be gone, where will it be true? Where will the totality of truth be registered if we are not around to acknowledge it?

Theology has always identified the ultimate repository of truth with the eternal mind and memory of God. Numerous religious texts and teachings express the sentiment that we ourselves are like grass, but that God is forever. The naturalist, on the other hand, is compelled to claim that truth also is like grass. For if truth exists only in our own minds it will perish along with our minds — since there is no eternal registry of what is or what has been. However, if the truth of that claim is a product only of the mind that makes the claim, then it need not be taken seriously. For any truth-claim to be taken seriously the basis or criterion of its truthfulness must reside somewhere other than in the perishable truth-affirming mind alone. To affirm the truth of any proposition the human mind is formulating here and now, critical intelligence must assume at least tacitly that there is something beyond its own fragile existence that can place the seal of truthfulness on its claims, or, as the case may be, judge them to be untruthful. The well-functioning mind is willing to subject its content to such a judgment.

The steady endurance of truth, however, is not something the mind can grasp or focus on, but instead something the mind anticipates in every act of knowing. The truth anticipated by the mind has already grasped that mind, inviting (not compelling) a kind of surrender. Even the hard naturalist must concede that truth-telling requires a surrender of the mind to what is the case rather than to what one would like to be the case. And only an implicit love of what is can be trusted to lead the mind to assent to truth. To be a truthful person one must love the truth. I cannot imagine that the serious naturalist would deny this. Yet the naturalist also believes that the ultimate repository of truth can only be the fragile assembly of human minds. Truth therefore will disappear once all these minds are gone.

However, if we seriously thought that it depends for its existence and survival only on the human minds that are its transient vessels I doubt that we could value truth enough to surrender ourselves to it here and now. Do you find yourself doubting what I have just said? If you do, it is only because you also love truth. But would your love of truth be justifiable if it were nothing more than a temporary attribute of your perishable mind? Or is it not the case that truth transcends your mind and that of others and invites you to surrender to it? And can you be content with anything less than such a surrender? “Naturalism is true,” you will say if you are Flanagan. But is it true because you (and other naturalists) say so? Obviously not. Every judgment the mind makes about the truth of a proposition or belief (including the truth of naturalism) requires a more enduring standard and repository than the entire set of perishable human subjects. Indeed for truth to function as a goal worth seeking, it has to be imperishable. Anything less would allow me to assume that I am the author of truth. And if I honestly thought this to be true, then “truth” itself would be no firmer than the perishable mind that thought it up.

Without a more permanent dwelling place than your own mind, or even the totality of finite minds, truth cannot last forever. And a truth that does not last cannot be deeply valued or loved. It is the nearly universal experience of humans, after all, that it is foolish to trust and love things that have no lasting value. The same principle applies especially to truth. The desire to know flourishes best where truth is valued most. And truth can be more deeply loved if it is judged to be imperishable than if it is only a patina on transient minds. So it seems safe to conclude that the belief that truth never perishes is one that fulfills the fundamental criterion of truth, that of promoting the interests of the desire to know.

I propose next, then, that the almost universal human denial of the finality of death is tied in some way to the mind’s intuitive awareness of the fact that truth never fades. Obviously I have no intention of trying to prove that subjective immortality is a fact in a way that would satisfy those, such as Flanagan, who believe that scientific evidence must underlie every claim to truth. In any case, were I to try to elicit scientific evidence of immortality I would just be capitulating to the narrower empiricism that underlies naturalistic belief. What I will say, though, is that the hope for some form of subjective survival is a favorable disposition for nurturing trust in the desire to know. Such hope is not at all irrational if it undergirds the trust required for the activation of critical intelligence.

On the other hand, a belief that mental existence is destined for absolute extinction, if taken consistently, could easily lead us to under-appreciate the cognitional core of our being. Such a conjecture, if taken with full seriousness, may contribute to the undermining rather than confirmation of the trust needed to activate my mind’s imperatives. My desire to know is most fully liberated to seek its goal, namely truth, only if I deeply trust this desire. And nothing that I know of encourages me to trust my desire to know more completely than a religious hope for the climactic fulfillment of this longing. Such a hope is reasonable if it provides, as I believe it can, a climate that encourages the desire to know to remain restless until it encounters the fullness of being, truth, goodness and beauty. In my own experience nothing outside the world of religious hope comes close to providing such encouragement to embrace the unrestricted dynamism of the desire to know.

The struggle to liberate the desire to know from other desires, from longings that are content to wallow in illusions, requires a tacit trust that the mind can be fully satisfied only when it encounters the fullness of what is. Even the naturalist’s own attempt to free our minds from the illusion of immortality is itself an implicit, though ambiguous, witness to the mind’s longing for enduring truth. Otherwise there would be no good reason to try to convince religious believers that they are wrong. Furthermore, every revision of scientific understanding is undertaken in the interest of getting closer to the goal of complete truthfulness. We may conclude, then, that belief in subjective survival of death need not be an illusion after all. It may be a most reasonable expression of the same spontaneous trust that energizes the desire to know. The ageless religious trust that the core of our critical intelligence is in some sense imperishable is of a piece with an unquenchable trust in the permanence of truth.

“Evidence” for immortality, it goes without saying, could never show up in the naturalist’s picture of reality. However, our wider empiricism and layered explanation have exposed this picture as incomplete. The naturalistic worldview cannot even support a belief that the mind is real here and now, let alone that it will be able to exist beyond death. It refuses, at least in any systematic way, to include the fact of critical intelligence as part of the real world. But once nature is more realistically understood to be the matrix of mind, and mind in turn is acknowledged to have cosmic extension, the landscape on which we inquire about the finality of death changes dramatically. The question of critical intelligence’s ultimate destiny is no longer separable from the question of the universe’s destiny. Here again, mind and the universe are a package deal.

Let me summarize, in yet another way, what I have been saying. The free unfolding of critical intelligence requires a trust in the complete intelligibility of the universe and the imperishability of truth. The desire to know intends or anticipates a fullness of being, meaning and truth. Anything short of this plenitude makes the intelligent subject restless for more. Hence, the naturalistic belief that the universe is essentially and primordially mindless, and that truth will perish along with our minds, would hardly make the world an adaptive habitat for critical intelligence. Only a belief that the world ultimately makes sense through and through, and that truth will not perish, can keep the spirit of inquiry alive indefinitely. If I thought seriously that at the margins of the universe, or beneath its origins and beyond its final destiny, there lurks an environing unintelligibility, sooner or later this picture of things would have a paralyzing effect on my natural incentive to ask further questions.

However, the core of each person’s critical intelligence performatively refutes such a belief. Even though the naturalist may subscribe formally to the materialist view that intelligence is rooted in unintelligence, every act of his or her mind nonetheless tacitly subscribes to a belief in the complete intelligibility of being. This silent anticipation of a fullness of truth is inconsistent with the naturalist’s explicit worldview. Moreover, to deny what I have just said would be to destroy the credibility of all claims, including those of naturalism. The only consistent or coherent worldview is one that lines up our thoughts about the world with what actually goes on in the invariant structure of our thinking and knowing.

My point is that religious hope proves itself to be more consistent with the mind’s anticipation of meaning and truth than naturalistic pessimism does. The desire to know, which cannot function without subordinating the human mind to what is, is not frustrated but buoyed by the sense that the world ultimately makes sense and that there is something imperishable about truth. Moreover, critical intelligence thrives in an atmosphere of trust that all things will be made clear in a climactic moment of illumination when the ground of the world’s intelligibility “will light up all that is hidden in the dark” (1 Corinthians 4:5). Hope for final clarification can give undying zest to the long adventure of inquiry. And a sense that the world is rooted in limitless intelligibility and truth can even serve to give science itself an indefinitely prolonged future.

I would suggest to naturalists such as Owen Flanagan, therefore, that any belief that consistently supports the desire to know – whose goal is nothing short of truth — is by definition realistic rather than illusory or irrational. Consequently, if religious hope supports the mind’s confidence in the worthwhileness of the quest for truth, then such hope cannot be dismissed out of hand as illusion. Unless the world is completely absurd — in which case the quest for intelligibility and truth would be pointless — those beliefs that most fully support the desire to know and that excite the mind’s imperatives cannot simply be discarded as unreasonable.

According to Darwinian naturalists, of course, the real cause of our instinctive hope, including our defiance of death, is natural selection. We possess hope, a Darwinian might say, because it is adaptive, or perhaps it is the byproduct of other adaptations. Belief in an ultimate state of happiness is a fiction that supposedly increases our reproductive fitness directly or indirectly. Hope in life after death has been adaptive at the level of genes, individual human organisms and even religious groups. Darwinian naturalism, by undertaking a genealogy of religious anticipation, proposes thereby to have debunked all hope for immortality. Even though sound logical argumentation demands that the justification of beliefs be undertaken independently of speculation about their origins, most Darwinian critics of religion believe that evolutionary accounts of human religious anticipation should also cast doubt on the existence of whatever it is that is being anticipated. [For a critique of this peculiar leap in logic, see Holmes Rolston, III, Genes, Genesis and God: Values and Their Origins in Natural and Human History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 347.]

My response to this reductive debunking of hope is to turn the attention of the naturalists, once again, to the very minds that are doing the debunking. In exposing religion’s “irrational” longing as adaptation, Darwinian naturalists may be logically subverting the confidence that undergirds their own desire to know as well. What is it that would make their own confidence in intelligibility and truth immune to the same critique that they direct toward the trust that anticipates ultimate fulfillment beyond death?

It seems to me that the mind’s instinctive longing for complete clarity is brought to its most significant expression in the quest for a meaning and truth that will redeem the intelligent subject from the threat of extinction. Hope is one of those virtues that provides support for the desire to know in its anticipation of intelligibility. Hope delivers critical intelligence from the obsession of needing to understand everything here and now. Hope widens out the world in the foreground of critical intelligence, inviting the desire to know to unfold ever more expansively.

But, the naturalist will persist, how do we know that the mind’s performative trust in reality’s intelligibility and its anticipation of a fullness of truth are not just futile stabs in the dark? Perhaps trust in truth too is an irrational belief, convenient for the sake of luring the mind into ongoing inquiry, but lacking any foundation in reality? Is not the mind’s anticipation of intelligibility and truth an adaptive fiction, a trick it plays on itself to avoid facing the ultimate absurdity of the world? Well, once again, I would not have to take this question itself seriously if that were the case, since the mind that issues such a proposal would be merely “adapting” rather than seriously searching for truth. The fact is, however, that such a question is sincerely in search of understanding and truth, and as such it is an exemplification of the very point I am trying to make: each mind, in order to work at all, anticipates intelligibility and truth.

To reduce our anticipation of truth to psychic illusion or Darwinian adaptation would be to negate the trustworthiness of all human thought. It deserves repeating that I am appealing here to what Lonergan calls the fundamental criterion of truth: fidelity to the desire to know. And I am saying that hope in the face of death for final redemption and fulfillment of the desire to know is truthful in that fundamental sense. Naturalism, on the other hand, fails to provide any comparable support for critical intelligence. It confronts each intelligent subject with the prospect of an ultimate extinguishing of both subjectivity and intelligence. According to this mostly modern kind of belief, not only will individual minds perish for good, but minds of any sort will be dissolved into the elemental stupor from which they arose. One cannot help wondering therefore how such a picture of things could ever be a nourishing environment for critical intelligence.

Naturalism, I am convinced, would be a cognitionally ruinous belief system if it were ever taken consistently — which it almost never is because of the innate trust in being and truth that empower even the minds that profess to follow that creed. On the other hand, a theological perspective, being explicitly aware of the limits of nature, enlarges the picture of reality as a whole to make a home proportionate to the mind’s full deployment. Religious hope provides a satisfactorily adaptive atmosphere for organisms endowed with an unrestricted desire to know. Critical intelligence, after all, is at home only in a world whose horizons are limitless. To be fertile and coherent, therefore, a philosophy of nature must allow the world to be large and supportive enough to contain intelligent and critical subjects. I have been arguing that only a worldview that locates the natural world and critical intelligence within a wider than natural environment can fulfill this requirement.


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.


The Atheist Delusion: An Interview With Prof. John Haught

August 5, 2009

Theologian John Haught explains why science and God are not at odds, why Mike Huckabee worries him, and why Richard Dawkins and other “new atheists” are ignorant about religion. He was interviewed by Steve Paulson

Evolution often seems to be a sticking point between those who debate science and religion. As a Catholic who accepts Darwin and Evolution I could never understand what the conflict was and it wasn’t until I read John Haught’s critique of the new atheists where I found a spirited defense of Catholicism that resonated with my own understanding of my faith and science that acknowledges this truth found in John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio:

“The positive results achieved (by science) must not obscure the fact that reason, in its one-sided concern to investigate human subjectivity, seems to have forgotten that men and women are always called to direct their steps toward a truth which transcends them. Sundered from that truth, individuals are at the mercy of caprice, and their state as person ends up being judged by pragmatic criteria based essentially upon experimental data, in the mistaken belief that technology must dominate all. It has happened before that reason rather than voicing the human orientation toward truth, has wilted under the weight of so much knowledge and little by little has lost the capacity to lift its gaze to the heights not daring to rise to the truth of being. Abandoning the investigation of being, modern philosophical research has concentrated instead upon human knowing. Rather than make use of the human capacity to know the truth, modern philosophy has preferred to accentuate the ways in which this capacity is limited and conditioned.”

Here is Haught bringing the needed balance to the debate: “What response can the theologian make to these attempts to provide a Darwinian debunking of religious faith? I have no doubt that one way of understanding faith is to explore it through the tools of evolutionary science, and I am convinced that theology should encourage science to push evolutionary understanding as far as it can within the limits of scientific method. From a scientific point of view our capacity for religious faith has evolved like all other living phenomena, and biology can lend an interesting new light to religious studies. But, like almost everything else, religious phenomena also admit of a plurality of levels of explanation. The phony rivalry the new atheists posit between science and religion is the result of a myth, a myth that asserts — without any experimental evidence — that only a scientific frame of reference, or only what counts as “evidence” in scientific circles, can lead us reliably to truth.

Theology unlike scientism, wagers that we can contact the deepest truths only by relaxing the will to control and allowing ourselves to be grasped by a deeper dimension of reality than ordinary experience or science can access by itself. The state of allowing ourselves to be grasped and carried away by this dimension of depth is at least part of what theology means by “faith.” In spite of what their formal creed states, even scientific naturalists have had the experience of faith as understood in this fundamental sense. To be more specific, they too have made a worshipful bow toward the unconditional value of truth. I have no doubt that Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens feel empowered to issue their bold edicts only because they firmly believe they are serving the noble cause of truth seeking. They probably have not noticed that, in order to serve this cause, they have tacitly allowed themselves to be taken captive, as it were, by their love of truth, an undeniable value that functions for them as a timeless good that will outlast them and their own brief success. Should they express outrage at what I have just said, this passionate reaction likewise could be justified only. by their appealing once again to the value of a deeper truth than they can find in my own reflections.

It is not too hard for any of us to notice that we are always being drawn toward deeper truth, even if we decide to run away from its attractive, but also disturbing, pull. If you find yourself questioning what I have just said, it is because you are allowing yourself to be drawn toward a yet deeper level of truth. So you prove my point. ‘What I mean by faith, therefore, is precisely this dynamic state of allowing yourself to be carried along toward a deeper understanding and truth than you have mastered up to this point. People have faith, therefore, not only because faith is adaptive in an evolutionary sense, not only because faith serves the cause of gene survival, not only because of ultrasensitive predator detection cerebral systems inherited from our remote evolutionary ancestors, not only because they have a need for pattern and meaning, and not only because their parietal lobes are overly active. Without denying that any of these factors may be at work, one may justifiably add that people have faith also because they are being drawn toward a dimension of depth. In theological language they are being addressed by and responding to the infinite mystery of being, meaning, truth, goodness, and beauty that theistic faiths call God. Such a claim is in no way opposed to evolutionary accounts of religion. Contrary to Dawkins, religious faith no more conflicts with science than does his own surrender to the value of truth.” [God And The New Atheism]

This strikes me as a lot better place to be than Stephen Jay Gould’s well known explanation of science and religion as “non-overlapping magisteria,” having nothing to do with each other. The latter struck me as a little too easy, a politically expedient ploy that almost cheapens the religious position. As a student of Catholicism, I knew the answer was “Both And,” that I should never be forced into a choice but always seek Chesterton’s paradox. Haught is  a veteran interpreter of evolutionary theory as well as Christian theology. He is, like Stephen M. Barr whose essays I have also introduced on this site, perfectly situated to moderate this debate for Catholics. Haught has called Darwin “a gift to theology.” by forcing modern theologians to reject arguments about God as an intrusive designer. He does this by reclaiming the theology of his intellectual hero, Jesuit priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin who believed that “we live in a universe evolving toward ever greater complexity and, ultimately, to consciousness.” de Chardin was someone I had read about but was unfamiliar with.

However I was disposed to think favorably of him as Flannery was such a fan.

The interview I’m introducing here is a wide ranging one with Haught on the new atheists, Albert Camus, and how evolutionary biology can be a complement to faith. What makes this a great interview is Steve Paulson who brings a healthy curiosity and knowledge to the questioning on a wide range of issues: why Mike Huckabee worries him (this was done in 2007) and why science is ultimately not equipped to answer questions about love, consciousness and the Resurrection.

Some teasers:

Paulson: But it seems to me that Camus had a different project. He thought there was no God or transcendent reality, and the great existential struggle was for humans to create meaning themselves, without appealing to some higher reality. This wasn’t a cop-out at all. It was a profound struggle for him.

Haught: Yes, it was. But his earlier life was somewhat different from his later writings. In “The Stranger” and “The Myth of Sisyphus,” he argues that in the absence of God, there’s no hope. And we have to learn to live without hope. His figure of Sisyphus is the image of living without hope. And whatever happiness Camus thought we could attain comes from the sense of strength and courage that we feel in ourselves when we shake our fist at the gods. But none of the atheists — whether the hardcore or the new atheists — really examine where this courage comes from. What is its source? I think a theologian like Paul Tillich, who wrestled with the atheism of Nietzsche, Sartre and Camus, put his finger on the real issue. How do we account for the courage to go on living in the absence of hope? As you move to the later writings of Camus and Sartre, those books are saying it’s difficult to live without hope. What I want to show in my own work — as an alternative to the new atheists — is a universe in which hope is possible.

Paulson: But why can’t you have hope if you don’t believe in God?

Haught: You can have hope. But the question is, can you justify the hope? I don’t have any objection to the idea that atheists can be good and morally upright people. But we need a worldview that is capable of justifying the confidence that we place in our minds, in truth, in goodness, in beauty. I argue that an atheistic worldview is not capable of justifying that confidence. Some sort of theological framework can justify our trust in meaning, in goodness, in reason.”

You see Paulson really holding up his end of the conversation there. And this exchange where he introduces “layered explanations”:

I would think the biggest challenge that evolutionary theory poses to most religions is the sense that there’s no inherent meaning in the world. If you look at the process of natural selection — this apparently random series of genetic mutations — it would seem that there’s no place for ultimate purpose. Human beings may just be an evolutionary accident.

Yes, in the new scientific understanding of the universe, there are no sharp breaks between lifeless matter and life, between life and mind. It seems to many people that the new evolutionary picture places everything in the context of a meaningless smudge of stuff, of atoms reshuffling themselves over the course of time. The traditional view was that nature emanates from on high, so that when you get down to matter, you have the least important level. Above that there’s life and mind and God. But in the new cosmography, it seems that mindless matter dominates the whole picture. And many scientists, like Dawkins and Gould, have said evolution has destroyed the notion of purpose. So one thing I do in my theology is to say that’s not necessarily true.

Isn’t there a simple response to the materialist argument? You can say “purpose” is simply not a scientific idea. Instead, it’s an idea for theologians and philosophers to debate. Do you accept that distinction?

I sure do. But that distinction is usually violated in scientific literature and in much discussion of evolution. From the beginning of the modern world, science decided quite rightly that it wasn’t going to tackle such questions as purpose, value, meaning, importance, God, or even talk about intelligence or subjectivity. It was going to look for purely natural, causal, mechanical explanations of things. And science has every right to be that way. But that principle of scientific Puritanism is often violated by scientists who think that by dint of their scientific expertise, they are able to comment on such things as purpose. I consider that to be a great violation.

Who are these scientists who extrapolate about purpose from science?

A good example is the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg. In his book “Dreams of a Final Theory,” he asks, will we find God once science gets down to what he calls the fundamental levels of reality? It’s almost as if he assumes that science itself has the capacity and the power to comment on things like that. Similarly, Dawkins, in “The God Delusion,” has stated that science has the right to deal with the question of God and other religious issues, and everything has to be settled according to the canons of the scientific method.

But Dawkins argues that a lot of claims made on behalf of God — about how God created the world and interacts with people — are ultimately questions about nature. Unless you say God has nothing to do with nature, those become scientific questions.

Well, I approach these issues by making a case for what I call “layered explanation.” For example, if a pot of tea is boiling on the stove, and someone asks you why it’s boiling, one answer is to say it’s boiling because H2O molecules are moving around excitedly, making a transition from the liquid state to the gaseous state. And that’s a very good answer. But you could also say it’s boiling because my wife turned the gas on. Or you could say it’s boiling because I want tea. Here you have three levels of explanation which are approaching phenomena from different points of view. This is how I see the relationship of theology to science. Of course I think theology is relevant to discussing the question, what is nature? What is the world? It would talk about it in terms of being a gift from the Creator, and having a promise built into it for the future. Science should not touch upon that level of understanding. But it doesn’t contradict what evolutionary biology and the other sciences are telling us about nature. They’re just different levels of understanding.

And a great exchange on transcendence, which I’ve been batting about recently with some very bright folks:

What do you say to the atheists who demand evidence or proof of the existence of a transcendent reality?

The hidden assumption behind such a statement is often that faith is belief without evidence. Therefore, since there’s no scientific evidence for the divine, we should not believe in God. But that statement itself — that evidence is necessary — holds a further hidden premise that all evidence worth examining has to be scientific evidence. And beneath that assumption, there’s the deeper worldview — it’s a kind of dogma — that science is the only reliable way to truth. But that itself is a faith statement. It’s a deep faith commitment because there’s no way you can set up a series of scientific experiments to prove that science is the only reliable guide to truth. It’s a creed.

Are you’re saying scientists are themselves practicing a kind of religion?

The new atheists have made science the only road to truth. They have a belief, which I call “scientific naturalism,” that there’s nothing beyond nature — no transcendent dimension — that every cause has to be a natural cause, that there’s no purpose in the universe, and that scientific explanations, especially in their Darwinian forms, can account for everything living. But the idea that science alone can lead us to truth is questionable. There’s no scientific proof for that. Those are commitments that I would place in the category of faith. So the proposal by the new atheists that we should eliminate faith in all its forms would also apply to scientific naturalism. But they don’t want to go that far. So there’s a self-contradiction there.

Do you accept Gould’s idea of “non-overlapping magisteria” — that science covers the empirical realm of facts and theories about the universe, while religion deals with ultimate meaning and moral value?

I think he’s too simplistic. I don’t think we want to remain stuck in this standoff position. First of all, Gould defines religion as simply concern about values and meanings. He implicitly denies that religion can put us in touch with truth.

By truth, are you talking about reality?

Yes, I’m talking about what is real, or what has being. The traditions of religion and philosophy have always maintained that the most important dimensions of reality are going to be least accessible to scientific control. There’s going to be something fuzzy and elusive about them. The only way we can talk about them is through symbolic and metaphoric language — in other words, the language of religion. Traditionally, we never apologized for the fact that we used fuzzy language to refer to the real because the deepest aspect of reality grasps us more than we grasp it. So we can never get our minds around it.

We can’t get our minds around this transcendent reality because we’re limited by our language and our brains?

We have to refer to it in the oblique and fuzzy but also the luxuriant and rich language of symbol and metaphor. But I still think we have the obligation today of asking how our new scientific understanding of the world fits into that religious discourse. I don’t accept Gould’s complete separation of science and faith. Theology is faith seeking understanding. We have every right to ask what God is doing by making this universe in such a slow way, by allowing life to come about in the evolutionary manner in which Darwinian biology has very richly set forth. So science cannot be divorced from faith. However, I think most people do resort to this non-overlapping magisteria as the default position. It’s an easy approach. It allows you to put all your ducks in a row. But it avoids the really interesting and perhaps dangerous issue of how to think about God after Darwin. In my view, after Darwin, after Einstein — just as after Galileo and Copernicus — we can’t have the same theological ideas about God as we did before.

Anyways, hope I’ve tempted you enough to follow the complete interview here.

Kudos to Salon for supporting Steve Paulson’s work.


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