Cosmic Pessimism v. Cosmic Optimism

The universe appears to be lacking in purpose in some ways, but not in others. For example, the Holocaust and the panda’s “thumb” would seem to suggest that we live in a historically contingent universe indifferent and blind to both suffering and purpose.  But before leaping to atheism, there is also the thorny problem of accounting for so much apparently purposeful information in the universe (for example, the information inherent in the laws of physics and in the first cell).  These seem to favor the idea that there is at least some sort of mind (or telos ) prior to blind matter in the universe. 

Since the tensions between apparent contingencies and apparent purposes in the universe do not seem readily resolvable, the leaps of atheism and theism ultimately come down to faith, don’t they? If you are not going to be an agnostic, and simply confess to being persistently confused about the nature of the universe, then you must choose whether to imagine yourself living in a blind chaos or a puposeful cosmos. You must, in other words, make a move towards pessimism or optimism. And unless God shows himself (herself?) in an eschatalogical way, like a UFO descending upon the White House lawn with undeniable power and glory, then the tensions between atheism and theism will probably always be with us. A millenia from now there will still be people making the moves of cosmic pessimism (atheism) and cosmic optimism (theism).

At Andrew Sullivan’s blog yesterday, Jim Manzi wrote an extraordinary post on how an apparently contingent universe can also contain purposes. The post, I think, illustrates the ultimate unresolvability of the God question, and deserves a careful reading. I’m still thinking about it. It has my head swimming a bit.

women on a bridge 1904

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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4 Responses to Cosmic Pessimism v. Cosmic Optimism

  1. makarios says:

    Thanks for the link. That was a good article.

  2. santitafarella says:

    You’re welcome.


  3. Heuristics says:

    Christians have throught the millenia solved this by claiming to have access to the testimony and guidence of the holy ghost in regards to the existence of God so that the question of that existence becomes as incorrigible as the belief that one is in pain (one can after all not be faulty in thinking oneself to be in pain even though one might be wrong in thinking that the hammer infact did hit the index finger misstakenly). However if one does not feel/experience this existence then that does not help one all that much on ones quest.

  4. santitafarella says:


    The world is divided among the experiencers and the non-experiencers. Whether you’ve had a personal encounter with Christ, Allah, or a UFO, once you’ve had your hammer-thumb encounter, you have a level of epistemic certainty unavailable to the rest of us. One side, I suppose, is obligated to listen to their senses and experiences and give them at least some epistemic weight, but I think the rest of us are equally correct in our skepticism.


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