A Detailed Overview of Clement Vidal’s “The Beginning and the End” (Part 2)
Continuing our discussion from the previous post we move to Chapter 3.
3.1 Religious Worldviews – Vidal now invokes his criteria to test various worldviews. To demonstrate how the process works he compares intelligent design (ID) with flying spaghetti monsterism (FSM). They are both objectively consistent and equally unscientific, although ID is larger in scope. ID does better in terms of subjective consistency, since the designer of ID is amorphous, while FSM has a very specific designer. ID is also more useful and emotionally satisfying, as it is disgusting to think that a monster designed the world. FSM is more intersubjectively consistent since it has not killed millions, but ID is collectively more useful. ID’s narratives are more developed than those of FSM. From this analysis we can conclude that ID is a better worldview than FSM. (Of course it may be a much worse worldview than others.)
Now that we have a sense of how these comparisons work we can consider religious worldviews in general. Religions usually excel in personal and collective utility,emotionality and narrativity. “… a religious worldview gives meaning, provides answers to fundamental questions, and has a pragmatic value in terms of both psychological benefits and social cohesion.” (Vidal, 43) Yet religions have few rational methods to resolve conflict–hence the ubiquity of religious conflict–and they are generally low on objective criteria, their tenets often contradict known scientific truths. They typically respond by invoking a god of the gaps, using god to explain current gaps in scientific knowledge. (This strategy is notoriously weak, as the gaps are continually closed causing religion to continually retreat.) In short religions are generally much better with subjective and intersubjective criteria than with objective criteria.
3.2 Scientific Worldviews – The strength of science is apparent–it constructs our best models of what is, where it came from, and where it’s going. It is strong in precisely those areas religion is weak. (I would say this is because science is the only cognitive authority in the world today.) But science often ignores integrating its models with questions of value, actions, knowledge, and meaning. Essentially, science is strong regarding objective criteria but less so regarding the subjective and intersubjective.
3.3 Philosophical Worldviews – In order to correct the flaws in their various worldviews, theologians try to develop theologies more consistent with science, while scientists may expand their worldviews to include values, emotions, and meanings. Building a naturalistic worldview entails starting with objective, scientific principles, and extending them to include the subjective and intersubjective. For Vidal this is the essence of a philosophical worldview.
Vidal now examines three analogies to help us grasp how to build comprehensive and coherent worldviews. First consider worldview questions as an axiomatic system where worldview answers are structures satisfying the axioms. Many philosophies and religions use axioms such as god, immortality, or freedom as postulates in their systems. In general scientific worldviews are coherent but incomplete; religious worldviews are relatively complete but incoherent. Second consider worldview questions as a system of equations. In this model solving philosophical questions about worldviews compares to solving intricate sets of equations. Third consider worldview questions as problems to solve. In this case we might employ problem solving techniques to resolve these problems.
Now that we have some idea of what it entails to develop a philosophical worldview, Vidal’s next task is to reformulate worldview questions in light of modern science.
In Chapter 4 Vidal turns to issue of the beginning of the universe. Answers to these questions are no doubt found in the realm of science. “Modern science can successfully connect physical and chemical evolution with biological and cultural evolution … Thus, it seems reasonable to assume that science is an effective method to understand cosmic evolution.” (Vidal, 59) But the multiple challenges for any ultimate explanations include:
a) epistemological – What are the epistemological characteristics of an ultimate theory? Are all ultimate theories either circular or infinite regresses?
b) metaphysical – Why not nothing? Why is there something rather than nothing?
c) thermodynamic – Where does the energy of the universe comes from, and how will it end? Can something come from nothing?
d) causal – What was the causal origin of the universe? Was it self-caused? Is its causal chain infinite?
e) infinities – Is the universe spatially finite or infinite? Is it temporally finite or infinite?
Vidal begins by discussing a foundational starting point for the universe–a cause which does not need another cause. Examples of points include a god or the big bang. By invoking a creator god one avoids an infinite regress (the idea that the chain of causation goes back infinitely) but one can still ask questions like: “Where did god come from?” “What was god doing before he created the universe?” Theologians often answer that god is self-caused. Of course one could say the Big Bang was a self-caused starting point too.
To avoid these issues we might assume the origin of the universe has no foundation–that ultimate explanations are cyclical. Cyclical thinking is found in various disciplines: recursive proofs in mathematics and computer science; networks of meaning in linguistics; and feedback loops in systems theory. (Jean Piaget thought that all of the sciences ground each other in a “circle of the sciences.) Might cyclic cosmologies like those of the Stoics and Hindus better explain the origins of the universe? The problem with cyclic theories are many. Cycles appear to have no endpoint, and thus don’t supply an ultimate explanation. Cycles also imply an eternal return–an endless repetitive cycle.
To fully engage these deep issues Vidal encourages us to take current cosmological theories seriously. “It is crucial to take seriously our best theories to answer our questions about origins. Major physical theories like quantum mechanics or general relativity can have counterintuitive consequences, which nevertheless we must take into account. Such theories are more reliable than intuitions coming from our brains, which are mere products of biological evolution. The brain is well adapted to recognize cycles in natural environments, or to recognize starting points in human actions, but not to guess what happened in the Big Bang era.”(Vidal, 75)
Vidal concludes that building scientific models involves the interaction of the external system and an observer who constructs models of that system. And understanding how observers models the world gives us the best chance to avoid the cognitive biases that lead us astray.
(For a readable, in-depth discussion of the important topics introduced in this chapter see: Jim Holt, Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story, New York :Liveright Pub. Corp., 2012)
Chapters 5 and 6 continue to investigate the question of the origin of the cosmos. Perhaps the most important result for the average reader is that the argument for a fine-tuned universe is inconclusive. The discussion in chapters 4-6 leads to the question of the future of the cosmos in Chapters 7 and 8; the question of whether we are alone in the cosmos in Chapter 9; and Chapter 10 the possibility of a cosmological ethics.. There are simply so many profound and novel ideas in these chapters that I’ll leave them to the readers of the book to explore.
The crescendo of the work appears in the last section’s discussion of immortality, where Vidal distinguishes five kinds of immortality:
1) Spiritual – The belief in a supernatural realm where a non-physical soul “goes” after death. This belief is widespread and appealing, but anathema to the rationalistic mind.
2) Individual – The belief that we can be biologically or digitally immortal. Vidal suggests that motivation for individual immortality arises primarily because we are cultural creatures. Our genes survive to a large extent but “most of the information we gather during our lifetime is cultural and gets lost at the time of death. And this is pure waste.” (Vidal, 298) The way out of this problem is biological or digital immortality or some combination of the two. Critics question whether cybernetic immortality is possible without embodiment, whether it’s worth it to live in a simulation, whether its cost will be prohibitive, whether death is good because it motivates us, etc. But Vidal suggests that immortality would force us to worry about things like climate change and the death of our sun and universe, since we will live into the far future. Still we don’t need to be immortal to have transpersonal concerns–we can care about others who will live on after we have died. And the same with our projects, concerns and goals. If they take many generations to achieve, then our deaths do not undermine them. Such considerations lead us to consider transpersonal immortality in three different varieties.
3) Creative – The belief that immortality can be achieved by leaving a cultural legacy. The main problem here is that even the achievements of an Aristotle, Shakespeare or Darwin may be forgotten in thousands or millions of years.
4) Evolutionary – The belief that immortality can be achieved by leaving a biological legacy. For example we are almost immortal at the level of the genes and are potentially immortal as part of a global brain. But even this is not enough if there are cosmological constraints on the immortality of the universe.
5) Cosmological – The belief that true immortality can only be achieved by a connection between ourselves and the immortality of the cosmos. But can the universe continue indefinitely? Perhaps universes could reproduce other universes ad infinitum, or our descendants will become smart enough to determine the fate of the cosmos. Vidal believes that we can be concerned with the issue of cosmological immortality, we can see the immortality of the cosmos as our ultimate goal.
Let me conclude by stating my belief that only with cosmic immortality can complete meaning in life be found. And I agree with Vidal that this is our ultimate goal–the creation and continuation of a good, meaningful, immortal cosmos.
Finally let me reiterate what I said about this work previously. It is a carefully and conscientiously crafted work of immense scope and daring imagination, one of the most important and timely books of the last few decades. Vidal is aware of the speculative nature of his work, but he reminds us that speculation plays a large part in the scientific and philosophical enterprises. He knows his speculations could turn out to be wrong, but given the choice between careful speculation or silence, Vidal chooses the former. And we are glad he did. For his assiduous scholarship reveals the possibility that a scientific cosmology can provide a narrative which gives life meaning. A narrative so desperately needed as the old mythological ones become increasingly passé. And we are privileged to journey along with his well-ordered and visionary mind as it contemplates perhaps the most important question of our time–how do we find meaning in the cosmos revealed by modern science.
I have thoroughly enjoyed reading the book.
John G. Messerly, Ph.D taught for many years in both the philosophy and computer science departments at the University of Texas at Austin. His most recent book is The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Scientific, and Transhumanist Perspectives. He blogs daily on issues of futurism and the meaning of life at reasonandmeaning.com