Pharyngula

Sunday Sacrilege: The Plan, or not

Believers and I have a fundamentally different view of history.

There are these words that religious people throw about with abandon — prophecy, fate, destiny, God’s plan — that I don’t believe in at all. We’ve recently witnessed an extreme example of this, as certain fundamentalist Christians paraded their eschatology before us, but it was only one narrow and specific version of a more commonly held dispensationalism that maps the history and the future of the world to a series of predicted events that typically include a period of tribulation, followed by a millennium of peace under the rule of a returned Jesus, followed by a a final judgment and the end of the world.

The details don’t matter; the key point is that they have a vision of reality that includes a sequence of events for the future that is as clear as those of the past. It’s rooted in a belief that there isn’t just a future, there is a future with a specific, predictable trajectory, usually imposed on us by the will of a supreme being who shapes every momentous event. We have versions of this idea of a human destiny in most religions: they just have different flavors, whether it’s a wheel of karma or cycles of time or a bounded linear progression capped with an apocalypse. We also have different scales of this expectation, whether it’s a fortune-teller predicting that you will meet a tall dark stranger tomorrow, or a prophet foretelling the fate of a nation, or a holy book containing the full script for the end of the world.

It’s all the same, though, it’s all part of a view that turns time into a road that has already been constructed and paved, and you just have to move down it to your appointed fate.

It’s a sheep’s view of the future. You are all sheep in a chute, channelled to a destination set by your lord and master, and the only question is whether you will buck and bleat on your way, displeasing the big guy with the slaughtering knife, or whether you will walk placidly and without complaint, in the hope that the end will be swift, sharp, and merciful. And, of course, your behavior on the way down the chute determines which post-slaughter fate your immortal soul will meet, which consists of only two choices, both of which are featureless and boring, lacking all hope of change: the bleating troublemakers will get a featureless future of eternal torment, while the obliging ones will get a featureless future of eternal bliss.

You can’t change history, you can’t change the world, all you can do is make decisions that affect your post mortem (that is, imaginary and irrelevant) situation — and often even that is reduced to a binary choice, heaven or hell. Although some beliefs give you an option of a little more nuance: you could be reincarnated as a cockroach or a king or anything in between.

It doesn’t matter, though, whether we’re looking at the prophecies of Daniel or the fever dream visions of the book of Revelation — it all rests on the quaint notion that the future is fixed and knowable. And not knowable in the sense that I know that if I drive my car for over 300 miles, the tank will run out of gas, or the idea that if the sun burns for another 6 billion years, it will eventually run out of nuclear fuel, but the idea that the route my car will take is predetermined, or that the succession of nations and people warmed by our sun have a knowable path.

I don’t believe any of the prophecies and revelations. The believers have never given me evidence or reason to believe they have any kind of foreknowledge, and I do not believe it possible to see a defined future — it doesn’t exist until it is created. I believe in something new.

Well, if an idea 400 years old is new. It’s certainly been tough to get it across to most people.

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This is the frontispiece for the Novum Organum Scientarium, or at least that part titled the Instauratio Magna, the Great Renovation, published in 1620 by Francis, Baron of Verulam, Lord Chancellor of England, better known as Francis Bacon. The motto across the bottom reads, “Multi pertransibunt & augebitur scientia” — “many shall pass through and knowledge will be increased”. It laid out the foundations for a scientific method built on empiricism and careful analysis. It was roughly contemporaneous with the King James Version of the Bible…and what a shame it is that the one became the scholarly heart of our culture, and not the other. But then, the idea of scholars poring over his book and treating it as holy writ is antithetical to the spirit of Bacon, who was plain in stating that his work could be improved in all particulars.

And now it is time for me to propound the art itself of interpreting nature; in which, although I conceive that I have given true and most useful precepts, yet I do not say either that it is absolutely necessary (as if nothing could be done without it) or that it is perfect. For I am of opinion that if men had ready at hand a just history of nature and experience, and laboured diligently thereon; and if they could bind themselves to two rules,—the first, to lay aside received opinions and notions; and the second, to refrain the mind for a time from the highest generalisations, and those next to them, —they would be able by the native and genuine force of the mind, without any other art, to fall into my form of interpretation. For interpretation is the true and natural work of the mind when freed from impediments. It is true however that by my precepts everything will be in more readiness, and much more sure.

Nor again do I mean to say that no improvement can be made upon these. On the contrary, I that regard the mind not only in its own faculties, but in its connection with things, must needs hold that the art of discovery may advance as discoveries advance.

And that’s the heresy: discovery. The future is not known. We stand at the edge of uncertainty; we are not locked into a path, we’re confronted with wilderness and facing surprises and newness throughout.

The frontispiece above illustrates this new way of thinking. It’s a woodcut showing the Pillars of Hercules, representing the bounds of the known world, and beyond stretches an open sea and a far horizon. Front and center is a ship, and you should identify with that central object, poised just beyond the edge of the known and about to proceed into the great, vast unknown. Isn’t that a wonderful metaphor? There will be storms and struggle and risk of catastrophe, but also the possiblity of new worlds and life-changing experiences.

There is no road. There is no certainty. There is no destiny. Most of all, there is no cosmic puppetmaster steering the ship to a limited, predetermined goal.

Perhaps some people find that troubling — they prefer to delude themselves into thinking the future is secure, planned, and definite, and that they’ll encounter nothing but what they expect to encounter. But that’s not true, and even if you don’t yearn to be on that ship setting out to explore, you never know when you might be dragooned into the unexpected, so you’d best prepare yourself.

As for me, that’s precisely the world I want to live in: the one where the future is an adventure.