Hide table of contents

Hi all,

This is very much someone outside the bailiwick of this forum looking in, but I was told it could be interesting to share this article I wrote recently. 

I'm a Catholic priest, with a prior background in Electronic Engineering, currently working on a PhD in Theology at Durham University. I am researching how the Catholic Church can engage with longtermism and better play its, potentially significant, part in advocating existential security.  I'm particularly interested in how a Christian imagination can offer unique evaluative resources for attributing value to future human flourishing and to develop a sense of moral connection with our descendents, better motivating the sacrifices safeguarding the future demands. 

Much of the material will be very familiar to you as the article was written for a Catholic publication, and so also serves to introduce and promote some of the basic ideas to a new audience.

I'm certainly interested to receive any comments or questions!

 

Called to Share the Father’s Love for Humanity’s Future:

A Scriptural and Patristic Perspective on Eschatological Cooperation in the Age of Anthropogenic Existential Risks

As the 16th day of July 1945 came to a close, the sun set over a changed world. For the first time, humanity had detonated an atomic bomb, and after the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki later that year, society struggled to come to terms with the forces unleashed. Amidst the cacophony of devastation and the uproar of anti-nuclear movements, there were those who caught whispers of a dark threshold quietly crossed. One such thinker, Bertrand Russell, stood in the House of Lords to describe the shadow of a new kind of threat:

We do not want to look at this thing simply from the point of view of the next few years; we want to look at it from the point of view of the future of mankind. The question is a simple one: Is it possible for a scientific society to continue to exist, or must such a society inevitably bring itself to destruction? ... As I go about the streets and see St. Paul's, the British Museum, the Houses of Parliament, and the other monuments of our civilization, in my mind's eye I see a nightmare vision of those buildings as heaps of rubble, surrounded by corpses.[1]

Russell recognised that the development of nuclear weapons marked the dawn of a new age: humanity had become its greatest risk to itself. Adam and Eve, in eating the forbidden fruit, opened the way to individual death, but we have now “eaten more deeply of the fruit of the tree of knowledge” and are now “face to face with a second death, the death of mankind.”[2] An antithesis of God’s creatio ex nihilo, we have obtained our own absolutising power, the “potestas annihilationis, the reductio ad nihili.”[3]

A philosophical response to this new power suggests that threat of nuclear apocalypse is but one example of a category of anthropogenic existential risks (AXRs). Other self-caused threats to humanity’s future potential also include engineered pandemics, human-caused climate change, and unaligned artificial intelligence, all of which could cause existential catastrophe. Further AXRs still await discovery, and we have no reason to believe these will be less hazardous.[4] Without action, the danger humanity creates for itself will continue to grow and Ord, from Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, argues such increasing risk is unsustainable. We will either learn to mitigate existential risks or one of them will eventually play out, causing a permanent loss of humanity’s potential. In the past, survival could be taken for granted as natural threats to the human species are vanishingly rare on the timescale of human history, and technology had yet to develop existential threats of its own making. Yet Ord warns that now our “long-term survival requires a deliberate choice to survive.”[5] He illustrates his point by describing humanity in its adolescence, in urgent need of moral maturation; “just coming into our power, just old enough to get ourselves in serious trouble.”[6] We would certainly be foolish to neglect mitigating natural existential risks,[7] but the possibility of human agency playing a role for species survival, by causing or mitigating anthropogenic risks, poses unique philosophical and theological questions.

How might a Christian respond to these? Why not scepticism? The psalmist assures that “the righteous shall inherit the land and live in it forever (Ps 37:29);” Jesus himself told us not to worry about tomorrow for “today’s trouble is enough for today (Matt. 6:34),” and asked, “can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life (Luke 12:25-26)?” Trust in providence, however, now coexists with awareness that good choices contribute to long and healthy living. By analogy, when any given generation’s influence over mankind’s long-term potential was negligible, trust was the believer’s disposition towards the future. Now, however, faith in divine providence must coexist with awareness that our choices make a real difference for, and could even destroy, the future of humanity. I propose, on Newmanian terms, that theology needs to assimilate awareness of the potestas annihilationis, and so long as no discontinuity of principles arises, any theological implications and adjustments inferred by the discovery of AXRs would constitute authentic development of dogma.[8] There is much to learn about humanity’s role within salvation history from even a brief return to the sources of faith in light of this new power. Assuming dystopian scenarios are the reserve of science fiction has become a dangerous option because we will not get a second chance if that assumption is proved wrong.

Before all else, Genesis reveals a fatherly love. God’s will that humanity be fruitful (Gen. 1:28) culminates in His promise to make Abraham’s “descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky (Gen. 26:4).” Even in the fifth century Augustine understood it was “nonsensical to be sure there are not stars that cannot be seen,”[9] and we now know of at least two trillion galaxies, each with billions of stars.[10] Perhaps God’s promise to Abraham can be taken literally after all? We know of no reason why humanity could not survive for millions of years,[11] so we discover the possibility of “a truly staggering number of descendants, with the time, resources, wisdom, and experience to create a diversity of wonders unimaginable to us today.”[12]

This vast potential future need not be dismissed as fanciful, for Jesus’ commissions of evangelisation show no temporal limitation. In Matthew, the charge to “make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:19, emphasis added),” given at the ascension, binds expectation of the Lord’s return to a universal mission, in response to Jesus’ promise to be with us ‘to the end of the age. (Matt. 28:19).” Jesus’s lordship is not limited to the world as known to his time on earth, as the Easter liturgy reminds us: “He is the Alpha and Omega, to whom all time belongs.”[13] When the first Christians realised Jesus was not coming back soon, they realised the Church had a future of service to “a cosmic Lord,” with a horizon of discipleship “as wide as the world.”[14]

Saint Paul’s letters exemplify the broad scope of the call to evangelise, as “the horizons of Christian mission are pushed beyond the ethnic boundaries of Jew and gentiles to embrace the entire universe:”[15] Colossians celebrating how the Gospel grows in “the whole world (Col. 1:6.),” and Ephesians lauding God’s “plan for the fullness of time (Eph. 1:9-10).” Certainly by the time of writing of 2 Peter, the acceptance of the delay of the Parousia, and the significance therein for the Church’s mission, were firmly established: The Lord, to whom “a thousand years are like one day” is being patient with humanity, “not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance (2Pet. 3:8-9).”

On such scriptural foundations, the spread of the Gospel became a measure of readiness for the Fathers of the Church, who prayed that salvation is not drawn to a close too soon that humanity might have the best possible chance to accept the Gospel in Augustine’s “time of mercy.”[16] Along these lines, Hays and his collaborators from the Oxford Postdoctoral Colloquium on Eschatology have argued from the Tradition that we cooperate within salvation history, and that the time of the eschaton is not just unknown, but un-fixed, contingent in some way on the action of humanity.[17] Many of the Fathers of the Church believed the eschatological timetable can be “delayed or hastened by the piety, prayers, and penitence of God’s people.”[18] Justin Martyr explains that “God delays causing the confusion and destruction of the whole world... because of the seed of the Christians, who know that they are the cause of preservation in nature.”[19] Likewise, Tertullian prays for “emperors, for their ministers and for all in authority, for the welfare of the world, for the prevalence of peace, for the delay of the final consummation.”[20] Perhaps contingency helps to explain why Jesus tells his disciples that He does not know “the hour (Mark 13:32)?” Our Lord says plainly that the “good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations; and then the end will come (Matt. 24:14).”

Bringing the fixity of the eschaton into question has considerable ramifications for a Catholic response to AXRs, particularly considering human freedom, which “has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back (CCC §1861).” To paraphrase Newman, in my freedom and human weakness, I can fail to do the definite service God has created me for. I can fail to live out my vocation, and even a committed Augustinian notion of perseverance as entirely God’s gift maintains that “a man who does not persevere fails by his own fault.”[21] By analogy, if human flourishing has a role to play in God’s plan for the last-things, and humanity itself can utterlyfail by self-destruction through AXRs, then we must take seriously the idea that anthropogenic extinction could just be that, humanly, not divinely, caused. A cosmos without humanity is now conceivable, something Aquinas considered as an impossible supposition.[22] I therefore make a bold, but simple, claim: Awareness of humanity’s newfound potestas annihilationis exposes a presumption that humanity will persevere until some appointed end moment. In the past, if human history were to be ending through some natural cause, a believer would have recourse to an eschatological explanation. Apocalyptic interpretation, however, cannot be uncritically applied to AXRs. Do believers have grounds to presume the Parousia would be triggered in response to mankind’s self-extinction so as to ensure the end of humanity and the end of creation be coterminous?

I contend that theology cannot now remain unchanged because the potestas annihilationis was unthinkable throughout the formation of dogma. Pannenberg’s view that “what is undoubtedly true in science cannot be wrong in theology”[23] suggests we need to consider the possibility that, by failing to mitigate AXRs, humanity could fail to live the fullness of life God would otherwise will for it. Some might argue that anthropogenic extinction would just be the final catastrophe scripture foretells, but to resist shouldering new responsibility on such apocalyptic terms constitutes little more than a projection of human failure onto a diminished eschatological screen, counsel to despair. Hays’ case that the end of history is temporally undetermined establishes contingency on humanity succeeding to live out God’s will, not on humanity failing, as if the eschaton were in some way history’s safety net in case of man-made calamity. God trusts and hopes that we mature and develop the moral capacity necessary to mitigate the risks to our future we cause for ourselves.[24]

Consider a Christian adjustment of Ord’s adolescent humanity: our species can be thought of as a young person, with both a vocation to sanctity and the capacity to squander it. Our loving God wills that His child grow in virtue and make the necessary choices to protect and answer His call. Like a young believer, humanity must now make a concerted effort to face the challenges to growth in the life of grace, and this does not exclude trusting in providence. Let us not forget that the command to take nothing for the journey, “no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money (Luke 9:3)” was not the last word on the matter. After the disciples learned to trust in God, Jesus instructs them that “the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag (Luke 22:35-37).” As the mission on which Christ’s followers were sent became more demanding, a pragmatism was embraced.[25] The challenges that face the spread of the Gospel now include threats to our very survival, so we too must adapt to protect our future from ourselves. We can thus collectively cooperate with grace, to answer God’s calling for humanity. With potestas annihilationis comes the greatest responsibility, to ensure our descendants receive the best possible chance of living out their vocations, to pass on the gifts of life, faith, and the conditions and environment that make those possible. On these terms, hope for future health and wellbeing does not entail the eschatological reductionism such thought might otherwise attract. We do well to follow Augustine: “Belief in the city of God does not mean that the earthly city is a point of indifference. The earthly city strives for peace, an end it shares with the City of God, as the two cannot be thought about as radically different as in this present transitory world, they are interwoven and mingled with one another.”[26]One need not surrender belief in a transcendent finalising moment that will occur in history to have a sense of accountability, and legitimate hopes, for humanity and the Church in the time, of indeterminate length, between today and the Parousia.

Like the first Christians, we too face a little-evangelised world, and so are also grateful for the time of mercy, the opportunity to make disciples of all nations, including the potential trillions of descendants to come. If human history is just the beginning, if we are in the earliest time of the Church, then God could well bestow countless future graces: saints will be raised up, sinners will be forgiven, theologians will explore new depths, the faithful will experience new heights of spiritual experience, carried higher by new insights into the nature of prayer, fostered by the cumulative enrichment of religious tradition. Saint Peter could not have foreseen the baroque basilica that now stands at the place of his last earthly moments. The early Church could not have imagined the beauty of Durufle’s motets on Gregorian themes. Augustine could not benefit from the spiritual exercises of Ignatius, Bonaventure had no way of anticipating the personalism of Saint John Paul II. The Church will be more and more at home in the spiritual richness that the human experience can offer, and perhaps, with the opportunity of millennia, even discover modes of spiritual experience, or categories of theological value, which are unknown today.[27] We rightly believe that the major event in Christian life has already happened in the paschal mystery, and we await the day when the Lord will draw all things to himself. Nonetheless, we can look forward to the future of humanity and wonder what prayer and worship we are blind to, what music are we deaf to. Let us dare to hope the Church has a long and bright future, and let us be unsettled by the threat of that future being lost: In light of scriptural and patristic sources, I have sketched out some conditions of possibility for allowing these sentiments of love and concern for our distant future without fear of doctrinal discontinuity. However, moral judgement is one thing, action is quite another.

Safeguarding humanity’s potential tomorrow involves making sacrifices today, and faith might make its greatest contribution to mitigating AXRs by providing Christian reasons for motivating costly action. A post-Christian worldview lacks evaluative resources for adequately relating to humanity’s future, having set aside beliefs which forged and sustained links between generations. Scheffler, for example, explains that many “experience the poverty of our evaluative thought about the future as a form of privation,” recognising “an inchoate sense that other generations matter to us in way that we cannot easily explain,”[28] so he, Ord, and others, develop theories of value, axiologies, with which one might find underappreciated reasons why we should care about the future of humanity. Faith can provide compelling and greatly needed reasons why the future matters, inspiring believers to act in charity towards our descendants.

Christians aspire to turn to the past with faith, the present with love, and the future with hope, but these triads can be paired in other ways. I propose that faith in the Gospel received from the past also shows how hope can shine more brightly in the present by a love of the future. We need to learn to appreciate the blessings to come in a new way, and a dialogical study of the future axiologies offered by philosophy helps express the rich evaluative resources available to the Christian imagination for overcoming temporal parochialism. Catholics are particularly good at experiencing meaningful communion with those in the distant past. Can we not do so for the distant future too? The stakes are potentially little less than human life itself, and with it the very phenomena of prayer, beauty, and value. In learning to love the future, we can grow not only in fraternity, but in parental love, the desire to “bring life into existence out of nothing… which begins even before any child exists” and does not attach any conditions for the beloved, “it only wants him to be.”[29] Sharing in the Father’s desire that our descendants will be able to praise Him and follow Him as best they can, we learn to love and protect humanity’s future. God realises his promises in the time to come, but that future is now, at least partly, in humanity’s hands.


[1] Bertrand Russell, “The International Situation,” in Parliamentary Debates (Hansard), vol. 138 (The House of Lords, 1945) 89.

[2] Jonathan Schell, Fate of the Earth (New York, N.Y: Avon Books, 1988) 115.

[3] Günter Anders, as cited and translated in U Körtner, The End of the World: A Theological Interpretation, (Westminster, 1995) 181.

[4] For a description of the full range of known existential risks, see Nick Bostrom, “Existential Risks: Analysing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards,” The Journal of Evolution and Technology, vol. 9, No. 1 (2002).

[5] Toby Ord, The Precipice (Oxford: Bloomsbury, 2020) 191.

[6] Ibid.,, 21.

[7] For more explanation of natural risks see Toby Ord, “Natural Risks”, 67ff.

[8] See Chapter 5 Genuine Developments Contrasted with Corruptions in John Henry Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (Notre Dame: Notre Dame, 1989).

[9] Augustine, City of God, Penguin Classics (London ; New York: Penguin Books, 2003), XVI, 23.

[10] Davide Castelvecchi, “Universe Has Ten Times More Galaxies than Researchers Thought,” Nature, November 14, 2016.

[11] Toby Ord, 217ff.

[12] Ibid.,, 21.

[13] “The Easter Vigil in the Holy Night”, in The Roman Missal, 2010, §11.5.

[14] Donald Senior and Carroll Stuhlmueller, The Biblical Foundations for Mission (Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis Books, 1983) 208.

[15] Senior and Stuhlmueller, 191.

[16] Augustine, The Works of Saint Augustine, vol. 1, Sermons on the Old Testament, 20-50 (New City Press, 1990) 369.

[17] For the claim that the eschaton is, at least partially, contingent on human agency, I closely follow Christopher M Hays et al., When the Son of Man Didn’t Come: A Constructive Proposal on the Delay of the Parousia (Fortress Pr., 2017).

[18] Hays et al., 100ff.

[19] Justin Martyr, Opera Quae Exstant Omnia, vol. 6, Patrologia Graeca (Paris: Apud J.-P. Migne, 1857), 2 Apol., 1:190, 456.

[20] Tertullian, Opera Omnia, vol. 1, Patrologia Latina (Paris: Brepols, 1844), Apol. 39, 3:46, 532.

[21] Augustine, A Treatise on the Gift of Perseverance (Aeterna Press, 2015) 40.

[22] St Thomas Aquinas, De Veritate, trans. Robert Mulligan, (Hackett Publishing Company, 1994), vol. I, I.11.

[23] Wolfhart Pannenberg, “Theology and Philosophy in Interaction with Science”, in John Paul II on Science and Religion (Notre Dame, 1991), 78.

[24] For proposed practical steps see Toby Ord, “Safeguarding Humanity”, 187ff.

[25] See Paula Fredriksen, When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation (New Haven London: Yale University Press, 2018), 139ff.

[26] Augustine, City of I, II.I, Book I, preface.

[27] Such ideas are a Christianisation of a mode of thought characteristic of Ord, cf. Toby Ord, 237-238.

[28] Samuel Scheffler, Why Worry About Future Generations? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020) 86.

[29] Jonathan Schell, 175.

Comments18
Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 12:16 PM

[For context, Father, I was raised and confirmed as a Catholic, but I have left the faith. Hopefully that explains something that you might pick up from my comment, a kind of frustration and impatience with attempts to reconcile Christian dogma with developments in secular ethics; and hopefully what I write is nonetheless helpful to you.]

'theology needs to assimilate awareness of the potestas annihilationis, and so long as no discontinuity of principles arises, any theological implications and adjustments inferred by the discovery of AXRs would constitute authentic development of dogma.'

I simply cannot see how the introduction of AXRs into theology could not introduce a discontinuity into Christian principles. The words of the Nicene and Apostles' Creeds are pretty clear: Christ will come to 'judge the living and the dead'.  The words of St Paul are pretty clear: on the day of judgment, those 'who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with [the dead] to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will be with the Lord forever'. The words of Christ himself are pretty clear: 'on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. ' When Christ returns, there will still be living humans 'who are left', and the church will have been sustained through faith and grace. The obvious inference, then, is that humanity shall not go extinct before the parousia.

That Christ will return to his creation is not just an accidental part of Christian dogma; along with the atonement and the resurrection, it is the centrepiece of Christianity, defining what it even means to be a Christian. But his creation must still be there when he returns. Taking seriously the possibility that humanity might destroy itself undermines this very basic level of dogma. You may be correct that providence must be reconciled with responsibility; but the idea of a species-level extinction event seems to me incompatible with any conception of providence. If any of scripture's promises of providential protection are to be taken seriously, this must include the very basic providential protection of the human species itself, which was made in imago Dei.

You speak of our 'awareness' that humanity might annihilate itself. But this is a purely secular awareness, that has come about after the 'death of God' in Western culture (both popular and intellectual) and the emergence of secular science and ethics.[1] I see no way for Christianity to incorporate this awareness while remaining Christian.

  1. ^

    Indeed, it's my scholarly belief that Derek Parfit's arguments about the ethical stakes of extinction (which are the foundation of almost all work on existential risk) came about when he moved away from the cyclical and implicitly providentialist understanding of time that his contemporaries had inherited from Malthus, and moved into a purely secular and catastrophist temporal framework. But I've not published this work yet!

You partly acknowledge this, but I really think there's probably a bit of pre-compatabilist confusion going on here. Knowing with certainty that you will succeed at preventing catastrophic risks does not excuse you from working hard to do it. Prophesies do not undermine agency, they include it, they are about it, they are realized through and in accordance with the agency of their subjects.

Consider this: When I was writing this comment, I was absolutely certain that I would finish writing the comment, and that it would be posted. It wouldn't be in spite of my agency but because of it.

From what I understand, it's impossible to really digest the existence of humanity under the existence of a god that is responsible for everything that happens, without developing this providence-agency compatibalism, I really would expect it to be a majority assumption?

 

I think there's another thing you're identifying which I'd agree is a complication: Secular longtermist models never actually give us a certain prophesy of success even assuming the cooperation of the agency of humanity, that is not our prophesy. We aren't expecting to reach 0 risk of failure.
But I don't know that the metaphysics patch that resolves the conflict is particularly messy... I have something for it... but I'm not quite a christian, so I'll refrain from suggesting a patch unless asked.

I think you've imported some intuitions from the secular free will debate into thinking about providence, in potentially unhelpful ways. e.g., the framing of 'compatibilism', which is unhelpful because nobody (not even the Calvinists!) thinks providence is incompatible with agency; the question is not 'are these two things compatible?', but rather 'how are these two things compatible?'. 'Compatibilism' is thus less a position in the debate than the presupposition that makes the debate meaningful in the first place. But you identify the position that agency is compatible with providence with a particular model of the relationship between those two (a model influenced by secular free-will compatibilism), implicitly begging the question against all other models.

Your model implicitly presumes that, when Christ prophecies that he shall return and judge the living (and the dead), the fact that 'the living' are still around is fully the causal responsibility of human beings—in the nearest (im)possible world where everyone dies before the parousia, nothing about God would have to be different, only some facts about humans. As you had it, prophecies are about agency.

I think this is false on its strongest readings: prophecies are partly about divine providence. And divine providence cannot just mean that the deist god set everything up just right in the beginning such that everything just worked out as planned; it has to mean that God is actively working in his creation, as is Christian dogma. In this case, in the (im) possible world where the gates of Hades really do prevail against the church and creation is destroyed, some facts about God and his providence must be different - he must be acting in a different way. Your model, I think, is incompatible with Christian dogma, although it might be compatible with other religions (e.g., I think Islam might be closer to this, although I'm no expert).

To put it slightly differently, what you call 'pre-compatibilist confusions' are exactly what are necessary for this debate, because secular compatibilism is just the position that arises when you start to ignore divine providence and only bare impersonal determinism remains. Compatibilists all deny that impersonal determinism is at all analogous to some agent intervening in the causal structure (this is part of what it means to be a compatibilist); but divine providence is kinda analogous to that. If you want to call this position a 'pre-compatibilist confusion', you are committed to seeing all views on which God is active in his creation as inherently confused. I might be sympathetic to that view; but I doubt that it's the position you thought you were arguing for.

which is unhelpful because nobody (not even the Calvinists!) thinks providence is incompatible with agency

Mostly I was just trying to derive, in my odd way, that they wouldn't. But if that's common knowledge yeah it might not have been helpful.

And divine providence cannot just mean that the deist god set everything up just right in the beginning such that everything just worked out as planned ... Your model, I think, is incompatible with Christian dogma

Mm, that is my relationship with nature. I'd heard that there were deists in the christian world (I think there still are?) so I didn't realize it was incompatible with Christian dogma as it is carried.

And I guess... personally... I don't understand how very many people could sustain a perception of the world as a place that is subject to ongoing divine intervention so I'm surprised if it's not common. If there are and were interventions, a lot of them must consist of measures to keep people like me from getting to see any sign of them (and I think about that a lot)

Could you unpack "Compatibilists all deny that impersonal determinism is at all analogous to some agent intervening in the causal structure (this is part of what it means to be a compatibilist)" a bit?

If you want to call this position a 'pre-compatibilist confusion' -

I... think I probably don't

'personally... I don't understand how very many people could sustain a perception of the world as a place that is subject to ongoing divine intervention'.

I agree! But that's where you differ from Christianity. OP is a Catholic, and it is part of Catholic dogma that miracles are happening all throughout the world right to this day. It is, for example, one of the criteria for sainthood that (excepting cases of martyrdom) the candidate for sainthood must have performed verifiable miracles in their lives. The Vatican often takes this requirement very seriously indeed, sending teams of serious and seemingly-rational men to investigate every facet of the purported miracles; and in a lot of cases - not most, but many - these men are satisfied that the miracle did indeed occur. The most recent canonisations occurred just last month. 'Miracle' here isn't 'nice thing that happened because of the saint that might seem supernatural but could just be surprising'; it is defined as an event 'which can only be attributed to divine power'.

You might try to explain it away, by saying that the Vatican is just keeping up appearances and the Catholic hierarchy doesn't really believe in constant supernatural intervention in the world; but I think this is pretty unsustainable when you actually look closely at how the people in question behave. This might seem odd to you, but it's a matter of fact that this all happens.

Things are slightly different in other Christian denominations (Protestantism is especially diverse and thus weird), but in general the belief in some kind of divine providence is shared dogma across all different versions of mainstream (Nicene/Chalcedonian) Christianity. Trying to rationalise Christian belief as 'well I guess they must be compatibilist deists' isn't being charitable, it's potentially offensive as well as philosophically incorrect. It might be hard for you to understand that people genuinely do believe in ongoing divine intervention in the world, but that's what it is.

Could you unpack "Compatibilists all deny that impersonal determinism is at all analogous to some agent intervening in the causal structure (this is part of what it means to be a compatibilist)" a bit?

Contrast your earlier example (you are writing a comment, and you are certain that you are going to finish it because that's what you want to do) with an example of coercion (you are writing a comment, and you are certain that you are going to finish it because someone has a gun to your head and is forcing you to write it). In the latter example, there is obviously some sense in which you are 'unfree'; everyone, except maybe Thomas Hobbes, would agree with that. In the former example, incompatibilists would tend to argue that you are also unfree: if you are able to be certain, your decision must be pre-determined in some sense, and this makes you unfree. Compatibilists, however, insist that the former case is not like the latter case: while you are unfree when an agent intervenes in the causal structure of your decision, you are perfectly free when you are 'determined' by the causal structure itself.

The point that I was making is just that God's providence is more like the former than the latter: it's an instance of some agent intervening in the causal order of your decision, not the causal structure just playing itself out. But Christians, of course, can't say that it's entirely analogous to the gun-to-the-head case, since they want to say that providence is compatible with free agency. So the philosophical question for Christians is how to combine human freedom with divine intervention in the world. This is an entirely different question from the compatibilism question in secular philosophy, which asks how free will might work if we just ignored God or denied that he existed. In that case, issues about divine intervention fall away, and the only question is whether you are free if the initial set-up of the universe was just so such that your decision was in a certain sense 'pre-determined'. As you write, 'that is my relationship with nature'. Nature, sure; but not the Christian God.

You might try to explain it away

I wouldn't, I didn't realize they were recognizing new saints! That's quite surprising and I can't see why they'd do it unless they believed it was correct.

Trying to rationalise Christian belief as 'well I guess they must be compatibilist deists'

I will persist with this a bit though, there must be an extent of compatibilist deism, given the extent to which the world was obviously and visibly set up to plausibly work in an autonomous way and the extent to which most of the catholics I know are deeply interested in science, believe in evolution, etc, they know how much how many of these machines drive themselves (although they might draw the line at the brain). They may believe in ongoing miracles, but they know that the miracles are not the norm, and they must wonder why.

The world is 'obviously and visibly' autonomous to you, maybe; but not to Christians. From the CCC:

With creation, God does not abandon his creatures to themselves. He not only gives them being and existence, but also, and at every moment, upholds and sustains them in being, enables them to act and brings them to their final end. Recognizing this utter dependence with respect to the Creator is a source of wisdom and freedom, of joy and confidence.

(Again, similar positions are dogma in other Christian denominations; I focus on Catholicism because I know it best and because OP is a Catholic.) The crucial phrase here is 'at every moment': every single act is enabled only by God, every being is sustained by him at all times. Nothing is autonomous; we are 'utterly dependent', both metaphysically and ethically, on God.

If you think this is an obviously mistaken view, then you believe that Christianity (at least in its orthodox varieties) is obviously mistaken. For what it's worth, I'd warn against being so hasty here: you take your view for granted only because you are benefitting from the centuries of hard intellectual labour it took to even state the naturalist worldview clearly, never mind to argue in favour of it. Your mechanistic view of the universe is not the shared common sense of all humans; it's an incredibly recent intellectual development, and it's worth reading around to discover just how unobvious it actually is.

But regardless, even if you continue to see some version of your position as 'obviously correct', it's important to be clear that it is not an orthodox Christian view. It's far too easy to underestimate the intellectual diversity of the world, and it's something I have seen on this forum in particular innumerable times. When dealing with alternate worldviews, it's easy to treat them as basically similar to and commensurate with our own, imagining that they share the basic 'obvious' foundations even as they differ sharply on important questions. But other worldviews are in fact far more alien than EAs typically imagine.

This is why I'm so impatient with things like 'EA for Christians' , which has tended to focus on some surface-level consonances while not even noticing the immense gulf between secular ethics and Christian ethics at the most foundational level. (By contrast, this immense gulf was obvious to proto-EAs like Derek Parfit, who made it the basis of his ethical methodology, and to a lesser extent Peter Singer.) I really enjoyed OP's post, because he really takes seriously that there is a difficult intellectual challenge in trying to accommodate thinking about x-risk into Christianity. But far too many EAs think of this as a messaging and outreach problem, rather than a fundamental philosophical issue.

I've really enjoyed following this. Thanks so much for engaging here. 

The only thing I'd add is that I see the translation into species-level freedom-to fail as an extension of the individual agent's relationship to providence. We've tended away from talking about how individuals can fail to live up to God's hope for their salvation, despite providence. This is true at a practical level, (people of profound faith checking both ways before crossing the street) , before we even begin to look at sin.  The history theology is rich in proposals for reconciling this for the individual, so to the extent to which we have learnt to live in that tension, including the apparent capriciousness of miracles,  I am optimistic about  this hard-case. I would recommend the publications from the Divine Action Project (https://open.bu.edu/handle/2144/904) which have given me confidence that there is a way forward. 

I'd just reiterate that the discovery of anthropogenic existential risks indeed has massive implications for theology which need to be worked out, a process that will take many hands but  I do not see this as fatal. The core of the Christian faith is the revelation of a means of salvation, but which is a path fraught with opportunities for failure, and a oath we have always had to make a concerted effort to walk.

Thank you for your reply, Father. You're right that this conversation has tended towards broader themes of agency and providence, so I just want to briefly return to (anthropogenic) x-risks specifically in this comment, because I think there's a disanalogy between (a) the well-studied 'hard-case' of individual freedom-to-fail (b) the case of species-level freedom-to-fail.

[I hope it's OK for me to write what follows, purely for convenience's sake, as if I shared your faith. My first attempt at this comment was quite clunky, with a lot of unnecessary phrases like 'Catholics believe' and 'it is Catholic dogma that' cluttering up the argument. But I understand that this way of writing is not always taken well coming from an atheist, and not for no reason. Feel free to read it all as if it were in scare quotes and preceded with 'if I were a Catholic, I would say:'.]

In the case of (a), we know from scripture that (despite God's hopes) not all will be saved. This is a repeated theme, for example, in Christ's parables. Now, there is a serious theological problem about how we might reconcile this revealed truth with God's providence and hope for our salvation; but, as you mention, there are serious proposals for how to answer this question. But (importantly) the question only arises because the Holy Spirit has revealed to us, through scripture, that not all shall be saved. It's part of our duty to puzzle out the mystery of how this might be true; but it is not up to us to doubt that it is true.

By contrast, when we turn to the case of (b) the revelation of scripture is not that humanity might go extinct before the parousia. Indeed, I think there are many verses which seem plainly to have the implication that this is not a real possibility. This is not a case where God hopes for something to come about, but rather one where he has declared that it will come about: Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead. This is not a case where we're asking how something that God has revealed is true, might be true; we're essentially asking how it might not be true. The problem for your position, as I see it, is not primarily a philosophical one; rather, it's a scriptural one.

There are, of course, cases that are more analogous to (b) than (a) that have been discussed by theologians: similar difficulties abound over the question of whether and how Judas might have had the freedom to not betray his Lord, for example, even as Christ has already declared that he will. But none of these cases seem exactly analogous to me. And I think secular thinking about existential risk has been informed, to such an immense degree, by assumptions incompatible with Christianity (e.g., as Thomas Moynihan has emphasised, the separation of fact from value) that it's an insurmountable challenge to try to turn back around and integrate it into Christianity.

Important point - religions evolve. Which would raise the question of whether Christianity would still be Christianity. But many people draw upon core religious teaching and integrate it into their moral compasses or insights into reality - what many of us coin as 'spirituality'. For example, Jesus as a role model and Christian insights on love-unity, 'grace', empathy and compassion.  Buddhist insights on interconnectedness and direct experience. Islamic themes of surrender. It would not be unconceivable that conflict between dogma and secular 'truths' would drive one's religious believes to evolve.

Thank you for the post!

Are you aware of catholic institutes/seminars that discuss themes of AXR? Have you considered starting one?

I could connect you to other Catholics in the EA community who are interested. There's a vibrant community of Christians engaging with these themes.

EJT
1y13
0
0

I haven't read this post yet, but it sounds like you might be interested in this paper on existential risks from a Thomist Christian perspective if you haven't seen it already.

A charming and thought-provoking post , to which I will just add a few minor nitpicks. I cannot stand the framing of everything through Newman's dubious concept of development of dogma, which IMO is a slow-motion bomb blowing up Catholic orthodoxy. In fact I don't see that this adds anything to the piece, which stands perfectly well without it!  All your excellent points about the antiquity of Christian acceptance of a long timeframe between the life of the Lord and his Second Coming work fine without this bizarre insistence that unchanging dogma develops according to completely arbitrary and post hoc criteria of authenticity. For modern Catholicism, of course, with its fixation on the theological authority of the Pope, this sort of thing is quite nice because ultimately both Newman and his modern interpreters simply made the authoritarian turn down the road of church history and turned authentic doctrinal development a simple matter of "whatever Rome wills", but this is IMO historically unsupportable and an evangelistic disaster.

Another nitpick: 'and even a committed Augustinian notion of perseverance as entirely God’s gift maintains that “a man who does not persevere fails by his own fault.”' - I think a secular audience will misunderstand this. Augustine's "fault" is the fallen nature of man: it is not a personal capacity of any individual. Man sins through his own inherited weakness  and natural propensity towards sin- the "fault" - but can only do good through the grace of God. But I think nowadays this is widely misinterpreted as saying that human nature is morally neutral and individual persons simply make good or bad choices in some kind of vacuum, whereas the Augustinian position is that all of us are born defective, entirely irredeemably so absent the grace of God and so we will inevitably choose the bad. I'm sure you know this perfectly well, of course, but I think this audience will not.

But again, these are minor nitpicks. To add some more scriptural evidence to the contention that Christian longtermism is theologically viable: Genesis 15:5, where we can, I think, read the text as God showing Abraham all the stars of the universe, by a special grace of extraordinary vision. This would, I think, imply 300 billion trillion descendants of Abraham, which the Earth could never support, so logically I think this must imply an eventual inter-Galactic  Empire. In Haggai 2:9, of course, God promises that "the glory of this latter house shall be greater than of the former", which we can read as narrowly referring to the rebuilt Temple, more broadly as referring to the New Testament, but which we might read even more broadly as a perpetual promise of the slow ascent of man, up the skyscrapers, towards the stars, and towards the great eventual reunion with the divine. These are, I admit, more speculative readings, but somewhere from heaven I like to think Origen smiles down on them.

Thank you for sharing your response. You make some great points for me to think about. 

 

The only thing I'd add is that, writing to a Catholic theological audience, you have to really work quite hard to justify saying anything new, especially if you want to gain traction in more conservative circles. I guess ultimately it's a rhetorical thing: Newman's idea of the development of dogma is a generally accepted framework for legitimising novel ideas, and I believe is applicable in this case in a softer use, as an example of how, in light of new knowledge outside of theology, maintaining dogmatic principles can lead to some surprising implications.

Dear Fr,

 

Yes, that makes sense. I am actually a traditionalist Anglo-Catholic with a strong Augustinian bent, so in my corner of the Church of England things are a little different and I think there's more acceptance of novelty. Nevertheless, I wonder if even in more conservative Catholic circles it would be easier to gain acceptance of more novel takes if the primary framing was exegetical rather than top-down doctrinal, if that make sense? After all, the Fathers always do theology through exegesis rather than vice versa, and I still feel the possibility space of things we can say about Scripture remains vastly under-explored. 

Thanks for sharing this! One thing I thought you might be interested in is the Pope and Pontifical Academy of Sciences involvement with work on climate change, and biodiversity.

In a recent post (Lord Martin Rees: an appreciation) I noted:

"One particularly notable example on climate is his work at the Vatican. In May 2014, he helped Sir Partha Dasgupta co-organise a major workshop with the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on climate change. After the workshop, Sir Partha spoke to the Pope directly and encouraged him to include climate change in his speeches and to urge people to be better stewards of the planet. The workshop underpinned a major report published in April 2015 by the Vatican. The report in turn partly informed the May 2015 Laudato si’ Papal Encyclical, which focussed on the impending threat of climate change and was influential in encouraging the 1.3 billion Catholics worldwide to support for the Paris Agreement, agreed in December 2015."

So glad to see this come up. I used to 'intern' at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences when I was training to be a priest in Rome and was a fly-on-the-wall for that very workshop.

In hindsight,  my time there was a big part of me ending up doing this sort of thing, getting used to talking about the big questions. It's a great place! 

Wow, that's super interesting! As a member of First Church Love, it's great to see a Catholic priest actively researching and advocating for the Catholic Church's role in promoting existential security. Your background in Electronic Engineering and current Ph.D. in Theology give you a unique perspective on this topic. I'd love to read the article and learn more about how a Christian imagination can offer valuable resources for evaluating future human flourishing. Keep us posted, and feel free to contact the First Church Love community for any questions or comments. We're here to support and engage in these important discussions. 👍