Saturday, December 24, 2016

Creation that keeps on creating

When I think of human freedom, I tend not to think of "free will" in the sense that the future is undetermined. I think there are good reasons to contemplate whether the will is free or not in this sense, but there's another dimension I find more important. The question is really whether human beings contribute anything substantial to the universe. Is the universe a closed system with no room for genuine addition, or is human action meaningful in the sense that it changes something about our world?

Consider two disciplines and the fundamental principles driving them. In physics, the conservation of energy is a unifying principle. Matter and energy are interchangeable, so everything is energy. Everything that happens is essentially an exchange of energy. The total energy in the universe should never change. From this point of view, nothing humans do can ever "contribute," because any addition of energy must be compensated by a transfer elsewhere.

In economics, by contrast, an exchange can be a net positive. Indeed, whenever an exchange is voluntary, it typically follows that all parties have gained something through it. Or consider the work of just one person. Although work involves nothing more than a transfer of energy, it is said to produce wealth. Someone who builds a tool which allows us to more easily harvest food has added to the economy, though matter and energy have neither been created nor destroyed.

The economy is thus said to grow, not just in a fictitious sense but in a way that is apparently meaningful; whereas the total energy of the universe is said to be constant. How do we reconcile these two things?

I don't mean to give the impression that physics is all about constants. There are many physical quantities that meaningfully change. But it seems there is no physical quantity that can make sense of the concept of economic growth. If wealth has any meaning, it is not a physical meaning. More importantly, it is created by human activity, as opposed to merely increasing as a byproduct of random events (as in the case of entropy, for instance).

Most of the time we talk as if such creative action is meaningful, but do we really mean it? The ontological status of wealth seems to depend on whether we are talking about politics or about the ultimate fate of the universe. I suppose even a religious person, who believes in the afterlife, might suggest that all our wealth will ultimately amount to nothing. But certainly a scientist who believes in nothing beyond the physical universe must at some point laugh at the absurdity of trying to make "progress" as a species. Our ultimate fate is apparently either to freeze in an ever cooling universe or else to be swallowed up by a "big crunch." I don't see how either of these possibilities allow for human creativity to be anything more than an illusion. Anything that appears to be created will be compensated by some future destruction. More than that: every act of human beings is simply a transfer of energy from one place to another, and it has no special meaning or purpose. The emergence of intelligence is just one of the many possibilities when some of the innumerable planets in the universe happen to be the right distance from certain appropriately sized stars; the universe as a whole neither gains nor loses significance because of the particulars of its evolution.

That is, unless concepts like "significance" and "value" do have an ontological status similar to matter and energy, and/or they need not be conserved quantities. But to believe this requires certain theological commitments. First of all, it will not do to formulate a dualistic framework in which the significance of human life is completely unrelated to its physical fate. Even the religious believer who insists that the afterlife will be completely disconnected from this present physical existence has essentially condemned all human activity to meaninglessness. Human life is defined by creative activity. If all of it is destined for the void, there was no point in it ever existing in the first place.

To illustrate my point, there is a reason why I write these thoughts down, and why so many people keep journals, and why literature in general is so precious to our species. How can we separate ourselves from the words we choose, from the phrases we carefully construct, from the arguments we thereby assemble, and from the stories we tell? One cannot begin to express what would be destroyed if all of our writing ceased to be. And this is arguably only a small dimension of human activity.

As a Christian, my most cherished hope is that all that we do in the present is destined to mean something eternal. Not that the continuity needs to be perfectly obvious, or that every last detail needs to be taken into account. Just as the cells in my body continue to be replaced periodically, and yet somehow there is a continuity to my identity, so also I believe that somehow the universe will have one continuous identity from now to forever. Even if at some moment there is a cataclysmic event which wipes away all the influence of evil on our world (Lord, let it be soon), there will be those things which hang on, by which we will see that the creation was never aribtrary but was always good.

So now I'm finally getting to my point, which is that I think the purpose of creation is to keep on creating. The universe evolves through transfers of matter and energy, yet each transfer has the potential to contribute something new. In a real sense, the universe grows (and not merely in size, which is rather trivial). Human beings seem to have a key role in this, since we are capable of intentional creation.

Christian tradition has always made a big deal of the declaration in Genesis that we are made in God's image. The meaning of this phrase seems to me that when we speak, something comes into being. I don't know how to resolve the puzzle of free will, but I believe the human will is indeed free in the sense that it genuinely creates something that wasn't there before. A man who says to his wife at the altar, "I do," creates a new bond that did not exist before. A president who pardons a prisoner gives him freedom that he didn't have before. A scholar who writes an influential paper creates a new way of seeing the world that will in turn open new pathways to greater understanding and even prosperity. An inventor sketches a new idea, builds a prototype, and after enough tests changes the world. Most of these examples are indeed merely words, but they have a profound effect on the physical world. As the proverbs say, "From the fruit of their words good persons eat good things..."

It is possible, of course, to "zoom out" and with the mind's eye to view our tiny planet from a great distance, so that all of these supposed creative acts seem to mean nothing at all. There are many who take this view, insisting that it is only for the present life on this world that any of it matters. It is best, from that point of view, to avoid thinking about eternity, about the universe as a whole. No wonder people spend infinitely more time talking about politics than about science! It would appear that cosmology does nothing but crush human dreams of meaning something, whereas politics, despite all of the anguish and fear it causes, at least holds out to us hope of being important.

With Christian faith, it is different. Yet I have a hard time finding even Christians who seem to be able to make the connection. I mentioned earlier the religious believer who finds no connection between here and the hereafter. That is every bit as discouraging as cosmology, I suppose. Perhaps it is even a response to cosmology. If modern science confirms nothing in Christian belief, maybe the only way out for Christians is to separate this world and the next into utterly distinct realities. But this, in my view, is to deny the doctrine of creation. It is to say that everything we see now, all of this conserved matter and energy, is essentially arbitrary. The creationists, for all of their faults, at least have the right instinct on this point.

The key, it seems to me, is to embrace a higher ontological status for things beyond matter and energy. When we look at objects in the "real world," we are seeing more than just physical objects. Their properties go beyond size, shape, mass, temperature, and the like; they also include meaning, purpose, value, and beauty. After all, why should physical properties get any special privilege? We see them just as much "out there," where the earth is small, as we do here in our own little world. The earth is all the more beautiful seen from space. When we gaze out into the cosmos, does not our heart whisper to us that it all has a sublime purpose? Why should a super nova appear so wonderful? It is certainly not because it serves some evolutionary purpose.

I suppose this is nothing more than a romantic discourse without the support of any rigorous arguments, but the alternative seems to me no more rigorously defended. The only reason to believe that our universe is meaningless is out of a desire to be cautious, to resist romanticism because it feels too self-indulgent. I confess I feel a bit self-indulgent as I write these things. Maybe it's all just a fantasy to keep me going.

Or maybe, on the other hand, it actually takes quite a lot of self-discipline to take the universe seriously, as a place illumined with meaning and not just an arbitrary assemblage of matter where we can make our mark however we want. It's both inspiring and frightening to believe in God. If the universe was created for a purpose, and we are working against that purpose, we have nowhere to run from Him. That means our freedom has somewhat high stakes. It is not given to us for our mere amusement.

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