I”ve been thinking about something that the late Nobel Prize winner, Sir John Eccles, said of strict materialism. He called it “promissory materialism”, and said of it:
“I regard this theory as being without foundation. The more we discover scientifically about the brain the more clearly do we distinguish between the brain events and the mental phenomena and the more wonderful do the mental phenomena become. Promissory materialism is simply a superstition held by dogmatic materialists. It has all the features of a Messianic prophecy, with the promise of a future freed of all problems—a kind of Nirvana for our unfortunate successors.” (1994)
Eccles’s observation—“It has all the features of a Messianic prophecy”—especially struck me, and it made me think: Why would there appear to be such a parallel between atheism and theism? Here’s what I think right now:
- The traditional monotheisms have always had a very, very large hurdle to overcome: Why does a universe designed by a good God contain suffering? The solution to the problem seems inexplicable in the present, for in terms of what we actually observe around us, we appear to live in a universe utterly indifferent to our suffering. Thus, to get around this obvious problem, religious believers have set suffering’s solution in the future, in the form of a promissory expectation that God will someday set the world right, and bring poetic justice from outside (though this outside realm cannot be seen by us and is currently beyond our grasp).
- Likewise strict materialists, since being confronted in the 1970s with the problems posed by the Anthropic Principle, have been driven to postulate invisible (to us) multiverses, and to hope that scientists will discover indirect evidence for them in the future. In other words, the universe appears designed for the inclusion of life and mind in it, and cannot seem to be accounted for without the positing of other worlds invisible to it. But just as the theist overcomes the appearance of widespread evil by positing invisible worlds that will set all right, so the atheist overcomes the appearance of design by positing invisible multiverses that will set the atheist thesis into plausible coherence again.
Put in biblical terms, here’s how the Book of Revelation (20:4) glosses suffering for Christians:
And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any pain: for the former things are passed away.
Put simply, suffering will be a “comma” in the progress of history. It is not the final word accompanied by a period. It does not entail the death of God. Likewise, the Anthropic Principle does not entail (for the atheist) the death of atheism, for here is how the promissory atheist might put her (his) contemporary faith:
And scientists in the future shall open our eyes; and there shall be no more appearance of purpose or design in the universe, neither of matter, nor of life, nor of mind, neither shall there be any more ‘woo religion’: for the former things are passed away.
And the atheist congregation said what? Amen?