2007 : WHAT ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT?

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Zellerbach Family Professor of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania; best-selling author
Psychologist, University of Pennsylvania, Author, Authentic Happiness

The First Coming

I am optimistic that God may come at the end.

I've never been able to choke down the idea of a supernatural God who stands outside of time, a God who designs and creates the Universe. There is, however, an alternate notion of God relevant to the secular community, the skeptical, evidence-minded community that believes only in nature.

Isaac Asimov wrote a short story in the 1950's called "The Last Question." The story opens in 2061 with the Earth cooling down. Scientists ask the giant computer, "can entropy be reversed?" and the computer answers "not enough data for a meaningful answer." In the next scene, earth's inhabitants have fled the white dwarf that used to be our sun, for younger stars; and as the galaxy continues to cool, they ask the miniaturized supercomputer, which contains all of human knowledge, "can entropy be reversed." It answers "not enough data." This continues through more scenes, with the computer even more powerful and the cosmos even colder. The answer, however, remains the same. Ultimately trillions of years pass, and all life and warmth in the Universe have fled. All knowledge is compacted into a wisp of matter in the near-absolute zero of hyperspace. The wisp asks itself "can entropy be reversed?"

"Let there be light," it responds. And there was light.

There is a theory of God imbedded in this story that is based not on faith and revelation, but on hope and evidence. God in the Judeo-Christian theory has four properties: omnipotence, omniscience, goodness, and the creation of the universe. I think we need to give up the last property, a supernatural creator at the beginning of time. This is the most troublesome property in the Judeo-Christian theory: it runs afoul of evil in the universe. If God is the designer, and also good, omniscient, and omnipotent, how come the world is so full of innocent children dying, of terrorism, and of sadism? The creator property also contradicts human free will. How can God have created a species endowed with free will, if God is also omnipotent and omniscient? And who created the creator anyway?

There are crafty, involuted theological answers to each of these conundrums. The problem of evil is allegedly solved by holding that God's plan is inscrutable: 'What looks evil to us isn't evil in God's inscrutable plan.' The problem of reconciling human free will with the four properties of God is a very tough nut. Calvin and Luther gave up human will to save God's omnipotence. In contrast to this Reformation theory, modern "process" theology holds that God started things off with an eternal thrust toward increasing complexity (so far, so good). But mounting complexity entails free will and self-consciousness, and so human free will is a strong limitation on God's power. This theory of God gives up omnipotence and omniscience to allow human beings to enjoy free will. To circumvent 'who created the creator,' process theology gives up creation itself by claiming that the process of becoming more complex just goes on forever: there was no beginning and will be no end. So the process theology God allows free will, but at the expense of omnipotence, omniscience, and creation.

There is a different way out of these conundrums: It acknowledges that the creator property is so contradictory to the other three properties as to mandate jettisoning the property of Creator. Importantly, this very property is what makes God so hard to swallow for the scientifically minded person. The Creator is supernatural, an intelligent and designing being who exists before time and who is not subject to natural laws; a complex entity that occurs before the simple entities, thereby violating most every scientific process we know about. . Let the mystery of creation be consigned to the branch of physics called cosmology. 'Good riddance.'

This leaves us with the idea of a God who had nothing whatever to do with creation, but who is omnipotent, omniscient, and righteous? Does this God exist?

Such a God cannot exist now because we would be stuck once again with two of the same conundrums: how can there be evil in the world now if an existing God is omnipotent and righteous, and how can humans have free will if an existing God is omnipotent and omniscient. So there was no such God and there is no such God now.

Consider now the principle of NonZero that Robert Wright (2000) articulates in his book of the same name. Wright argues that the invisible hand of biological and cultural evolution ineluctably select for the complex over the simple because positive sum games have the survival and reproductive edge over zero sum games, and that over epochal time more and more complex systems, bulkily, but necessarily, arise. Space does not allow me to expand on Wright's thesis and I must refer the justifiably unconvinced reader to his very substantial arguments.

A process that selects for more complexity is ultimately aimed at nothing less than omniscience, omnipotence, and goodness. Omniscience is, arguably, the literally ultimate end product of science. Omnipotence is, arguably, the literally ultimate end product of technology. Righteousness is, arguably, the literally ultimate end product of positive institutions. So in the very longest run the principle of Nonzero heads toward a God who is not supernatural, but who ultimately acquires omnipotence, omniscience and goodness through the natural progress of Nonzero. Perhaps, just perhaps, God comes at the end

So I am optimistic that there may be in the fullness of time a First Coming. I am optimistic that this is the door through which meaning may enter our lives. A meaningful life is a life that joins with something larger than the self and the larger that something is, the more meaning. I am optimistic that as individuals we can choose to be a tiny part of this process. Partaking of a process that has as it ultimate end  the bringing of a God, who is endowed with omniscience, omnipotence, and goodness joins our tiny, accidental lives to something enormously larger.