Jun 24, 2014

Christian theism isn't lost in space

Modern cosmology has made some religious ideas impossible, according to Tim Maudlin, a professor of philosophy at New York University and the author of Philosophy of Physics: Space and Time. Knowing what we now know, for example, the idea that human life is central to the meaning or purpose of the universe is incredibly implausible.

We now have precise knowledge of the distribution of galaxies and know that ours is nowhere near the center of the universe, just as we know that our planetary system has no privileged place among the billions of such systems in our galaxy and that Earth is not even at the center of our planetary system. We also know that the Big Bang, the beginning of our universe, occurred about 13.7 billion years ago, whereas Earth didn’t even exist until about 10 billion years later.

No one looking at the vast extent of the universe and the completely random location of homo sapiens within it (in both space and time) could seriously maintain that the whole thing was intentionally created for us. This realization began with Galileo, and has only intensified ever since.
For Maudlin, this is important because theism, "as religious people typically hold it," entails the idea that the universe is meaningful, but specifically meaningful to humans. They think "that the universe was created specifically with humans in mind," he says.

It is true that many versions of theism do entail anthropocentrism. It is not as integral to theism as Maudlin imagines, however.

The philosopher Charles Taylor identifies exactly this sort of human-centeredness as a shift that happened within Western thought with modernity. It's a change that importantly contributed to the modern, secular age, in which exclusive humanism (and scientism, incidentally) become live options. In A Secular Age, Taylor writes that "the change which is fatefully to the story I'm following here is the narrowing of the purposes of Divine Providence. God's goals shrink to the single end of our encompassing this order of mutual benefit he has designed for us."

That is to say, the sense of the universe as rationally constructed as a moral order for the purposes of human flourishing is not as old as theism. In fact, this idea involves a bending of some of the most traditional aspects of Christian beliefs about God.

Taylor writes:
The discourse of the modern moral order reshaped the understanding of Providence . . . . Of course, a crucial feature of God's order, deriving from the very way in which we discover and define it, is that it is directed to the good of the creatures which make it up, and especially ourselves. This is not new in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. But it had always been thought that God had further purposes as well in his creation; that these were largely inscrutable, but that they included our love and worship of him. So that a recognition of God and our dependence on him places immediately on us a demand which goes beyond our human flourishing.
Traditionally, Christianity taught what was good for humans, ultimately was good for something beyond that. Not only was the universe and creation nor orchestrated for the benefit of human life, human life wasn't orchestrated for the benefit of human life.

In traditional Christian thought, the meaning and purpose of everything is God's glory, which may work out incidentally to involve humans, but certainly doesn't center on them.

Historically, Maudlin is just wrong about the idea that theism always or almost always is anthropocentric and thus is undercut by modern cosmology. Sometimes it is, though even there, and even in contemporary cases from after the anthropocentric shift that Taylor describes, there is an argument that that anthropocentrism is actually thought of as secondary. It is a sort of benevolent byproduct.

Besides that, Maudlin underestimates how theological reflection on the vastness and inscrutable otherness of God can lead to this anti-antropocentric perspective as surely as looking up at the vast expanses of the universe. Some, in fact, have done both. The first major American theologian, the Puritan Cotton Mather, is an example of this. Writing about Biblical references to an apocalyptic fire that would consume the whole earth at the end of human history, Mather reflected on how God's action, destroying humanity, might well be meaningful to other parts of the universe.

He wrote,
If the Satellit of this Earth walking in her Brightness [the moon], have any Reasonable Inhabitants, we know not what Reflections they will have, at the Beholding of what is done to this Globe, when they see GOD hath enkindled a Fire, & it hath devoured the Foundations thereof. Nor know we, how dire, how dismal, how doleful a Spectacle This may be to any of the other Planetts, if there be in them any Rational Spectators, of what Appearances may now be discovered here. But this we do know.
Mather, for one, wouldn't necessarily find his theism undone by the idea that "our planetary system has no privileged place among the billions of such systems in our galaxy." While he admits he's only speculating, he wouldn't be surprised if God was making an example out of humans for the benefit of aliens, that they might learn about Providence. It's difficult to see how any revelation of the vastness of the universe would be a problem for someone like Mather.

The vastness of time and space certainly poses problems for anthropocentric views of the universe. But Christian theism isn't that anthropocentric.