Friday, December 30, 2011

Krauthammer's Existential Dilemma, And an Ancient Alternative Hypothesis

Charles Krauthammer ends his 2011 WaPo contribs with a departure from his usual: a meditation on whether humanity is alone in the universe, and what it might mean if we are.

We insist that gentle readers follow the link and read Dr. K's thoughtful article, and we recommend that they do so before reading our remarks further. But we have no way to monitor that, so here goes.

Krauthammer notes that astronomers are busy finding "exoplanets," which has become the aspect of astronomy in which the public seems most interested since manned space flight became mundane after the lunar-landing program. And finding planets around other starts they are, in impressive quantities.

But finding signs of intelligent life in the universe, they aren't, even though that search has been going on longer than the search for exoplanets.

Krauthammer's explanation is the so-called Fermi Paradox, which asks, Why do we seem to be alone? and after calculating some astronomical odds that intelligent life would arise on other spheres, reasoning that there ought to be such intelligent life in such quantities that some signs of its presence would be available to us, then concludes that the problem is with intelligent life itself: that it inevitably destroys itself.

Dr. K's conclusion is to highlight that the oft-benighted endeavor politics is therefore of utmost importance, as it is by politics that humans manage their propensity to destroy one another.

Reading Krauthammer's essay is like reading a classic presentation of the Christian gospel, minus God. It begins with the assumption that intelligence like humans' is quite special. It is driven to the conclusion that intelligence like humans' is quite dangerous. It seeks for a solution to the danger, a way of salvation. But it lacks everything it really needs to explain the origin of the intelligent creatures, the root of the paradox of their self-destructive tendencies, and a solution that gets to the heart of the problem. All that has to come from the outside.

Politics is not as bad an answer as it sounds, really. We Christians who tend to emphasize the limits of political solutions to human problems should also recognize that the gospel we believe transforms all aspects of human life for the one who believes it, including the way that the converted person relates to others and both exercises power and responds to the exercise of power. That means that the gospel transforms the politics of the people who believe it.

For Krauthammer a key unanswerable question is why I, as an individual, should care at all whether my form of intelligent life endures or not. One can answer that the despair of our fragile, temporal existence with the insistence that our rare (but apparently oft-repeated elsewhere) existence as sentient beings needs to be preserved at all costs. That's Krauthammer's implication, and it's thin gruel, to say the least. Certainly for Fermi, whose contribution to the invention of nuclear weapons was so crucial, it seems to have been the only straw to grasp as he saw his own exceptional intelligence as the genesis of our race's self-destruction.

But what if there's more--someone who transcends the universe, who created it, who did so for human habitation (and others? well, it remains an interesting question but is now less important, for now we are certainly not alone), who understands our paradoxical existence and who acted at the greatest personal cost to address it, and so who in all ways demonstrated that he loves us with a measure that surpasses what we observe in any of our fellows?

What if the answer to our paradox is not politics but love, and not love as some kind of cosmic abstraction that can somehow exist apart from a subject and an object, but specifically the love of the triune God, who gives and receives love eternally within the triunity of his being but who decisively chose to create us, to love us unconditionally, and by that love to rescue us by becoming one of us and taking on himself everything that we experience and, by our stubborn, self-destructive rebellion, even deserve?

Sounds more promising than politics alone.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"... a lonely species in a merciless universe anxiously awaits an answering voice amid utter silence."

The whole article for this one line.

I think one of the things you're getting at here is that K's article is actually intensely theological, although I don't remember reading that explicitly and certainly don't want to re-write the the post!

His theology is that of Ragnarok—one in which the apocalypse means not the triumph of the gods and their people, but the destruction of both. Thus, to fit with his actual political theory, K's overall view of politics is one in which the inevitable might be delayed. You raised the question "Why should an individual care about the preservation of his species." K seems to answer, at least for himself, a similar question when he implies that the "telos" to delaying inevitable human self-destruction is (and I quote summarily) "so that another civilization might hear our voice."

Now, one hears that sort of thing often, on different levels. We're always wanting to leave our mark, as if that creates meaning. Why we have this addiction to altering streams of causality for other sentient beings is beyond me. There seems to be a hint, a slight suggestion in that goal which might say "so that some civilization, somewhere, sometime, might learn the lesson." Although someone like K is far too conservative to admit it, I believe that a utopian heartbeat is the unexplained emotional underpinning of this desire.

And, if this be the case, I believe it sums up the case for the need for a gospel. If, at the end of the day, even a sober conservative like K is deriving meaning from some deep, unexpressed hope in a manufactured salvation, that says a great deal.