The New Cosmic Story by John Haught (2017): A Revival of Cosmic Optimism?

9780300217032_p0_v1_s1200x630Why do human beings, regardless of their cultural upbringing, seek beauty, eternity and righteousness above all else? To what extent do empirical sciences render religious perspectives obsolete in the modern world? Most intriguingly, why on earth do people hope, fear, love and pray, and what’s the cosmic meaning of such behaviour? These questions are by no means easy to answer, and any literature attempting to address them will easily be an ambitious volume aiming to solve the fundamental puzzle of existence. American theologist John F. Haught is clearly a Christian, but after reading his book The New Cosmic Story, I realise that he is embarking on a much bigger mission that transcends cultural and historical barriers. In the page-flying book narrating the cosmic story, Haught explores three approaches, namely archaeonomic naturalism, analogy and anticipation, to look at the universe and make sense of that seemingly eternal backdrop of human civilisation. An incredibly optimistic attempt to justify the meaning of religious awakening situated in a broader cosmic narrative, Haught’s argument reconcils religious rituals with modern scientific advancements and treats anticipation as the best lens to read and understand the cosmic story.

Archaeonomic naturalism, according to Haught, is today’s default mode of academic inquiry across disciplines thanks to the domiance of scientific method. Similar to the controversial scientific reductionism, archaeonomic naturalists believe that physical existence, social phenomena and God-consciousness can be traced back in time and reduced to something primitive and mindless, namely fundamental particles or forces. Archaeonomic naturalism fuels cosmic pessimism, a popular position in philosophy after the rise of modern science, notably European nihilist and existentialist thinkers. The perspective treats the entire universe as determinsitic and purposeless despite human beings’ fevent desire to seek meaning for their existence. It invalidates, if not ridicules, the human desire for eternity, beauty and righteousness. Haught dismisses archaenomic naturalism for its inherent irony. On the one hand, archaenomic naturalists doubt that the universe can have an overarching purpose of any sort or a conscious mind capable of value judgement. On the other hand, scientists always trust their own minds and seek truth in scientific enquiries. Scientists paint a purposeless picture of the universe while valuing causes such as truth and integrity. According to Haught, this is an obvious inconsistency: scientists have no reasons to trust their own minds and values systems if the universe on the whole is pointless to them. Inevitably, Haught argues, objectifying the universe overlook the inferiority of human existence and its significance to a broader cosmic narrative.

In human intellectual history, analogy is another historically popular position to adapt when looking at the universe. The position treats the current universe as a parallel, analogical entity or an imperfect copy of a perfect world that is ideal and eternal. Famous analogical positions include classical Platonism, which establishes the existence of human soul and an ideal world of forms. Analogy used to be a very popular position in theology, as it acknowledges the limit and fragility of the imminent world and demands religious rituals and beliefs to transcend mundane daily experiences and project them onto something eternal and pure. Haught thinks that the analogical position is credible in the sense that it gives people reasons to hope beyond everyday lives although it still falls short as an ideal perspective to read the cosmic narrative and comprehend the religious awakening. According to Haught, analogical position has gradually lost its appeal since the dawn of modern science. It treats the physical world as an imperfect entity and a dead end with nothing to hope beyond its morality and fragility. However, Haught argues that modern sciences have established that the physical world is still constantly changing and evolving. It seems less credible to assume that the world is a dead end, at least the assumption has become less appealing to most people. Haught believes that there are reasons for people to hope for eternity and righteousness without transcending their daily experiences; there are reasons to hope in the current, imminent world.

Prof. John F. Haught

Finally, Haught seeks solution in the perspective of anticipation. Anticipation incorporates the strengths of both archaeonomic naturalism and analogy. It treats the physical world as an ongoing process towards righteousness and beauty. It acknowledges the contribution of modern science in comprehending the exterior aspect of the cosmic narrative: the universe is an ongoing, physical existence based on certain fundamental particles and forces. Anticipation also borrows the idea of transcendence from analogy, but it does not demand the existence of another ideal world. The physical world, according to Haught, is slowly becoming an ideal world with time and patience. The reason why Haught is so optimistic about the real, physical world is because of the religion awakening in the real world. Human beings seek truth, beauty and righteousness across cultures despite stumbling with wrongness once in a while. Religions tolerate wrongness, just like how the real world may tolerably get those concepts wrong at the current stage. Religious symbolism seems to give people directions towards righteousness, and religious prayers seem to help people learn righteousness. With enough time and patience, the real, physical world will become eternal and ideal, or at least move towards that goal, as believed by Haught. I categorise Haught’s position as cosmic optimism. If successful, Haught’s argument can be an impressive account that interprets religious awakening in a bigger cosmic awakening, or cosmic becoming as I would like to put it. It fills in an important gap in the current scholarly literature. In a way, it answers profound questions and reassures people of the value of their imminent physical world full of imperfections and morality.

Still, there is something that I wish Haught can elaborate more on: the nature and properties of mind, and in particular how is cosmic consciousness, if exists, different from human consciousness. Currently, Haught is borrowing people’s faith in human consciousness and applying that faith on a cosmic level while hoping that it gives people faith in the cosmic consciousness, or at least the assumption that the real world is evolving towards righteousness and beauty as suggested by religious awakening. To me, there is a leap in the association of concepts. Due to Haught’s rather bold move and ambiguity on the nature of cosmic mind, I find his dismissal of cosmic pessimism not yet complete. Cosmic pessimists may well rebut Haught’s argument that human mind seeking truth and meaning is perfectly compatible with a meaningless, purposeless universe as the backdrop; in fact, people are free to create their own meanings for their existence. Human scientists, although many claim to be cosmic pessimists themselves, are subject to the same false consciousness that they can find meaning for their existence in the universe. I do not see a necessary inconsistency within cosmic pessimism and scientific faith in truth and integrity. The two aspects can be separate things: scientists are trying to fight truth for themselves as meaning-seeking Homo sapiens although there is really no such thing in the entire universe as a whole.

I find Haught’s book a worthy addition to the literature dealing with religious awakening and its conflict with modern sciences and meaning in a cosmic perspective. The ambitious, exciting book would have been clearer if Haught can explain in details why he makes certain associations, and why those associations are indeed true besides their psychological and religious appeal. The next move for Haught’s noteworthy project is therefore to fully explain the myth of mind, and why exactly cosmic consciousness and human consciousness are in some sense similar. It is understandable that Haught partially skips this step at this time, as the myth hasn’t even been deciphered by scientists. I will be excited to read more about the future development of his project with more exciting breakthroughs in neuroscience.

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