The Case for Far-Out Possibilities

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Robert Wallis/Corbis
David Deutsch, Christ Church, Oxford

Since people began to wonder about human destiny, there have always been prophets of hope and prophets of doom. Long ago in Mesopotamia, as recorded in the book of Genesis, Abraham fell on his face and God talked with him, saying:

Behold, my covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be a father of many nations…. And I will make thee exceeding fruitful, and I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee. And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant….

Abraham was the first prophet of hope in the Western tradition. He set the pattern of our culture. He was a traveler, moving into a new country to take possession of it for his descendants. A little later, other prophets of hope, Gautama Buddha and Lao Tse, started other traditions in other places. Meanwhile, in the West, Jeremiah the prophet of doom raised his voice in Jerusalem against Abraham:

The word of the Lord came also unto me, saying, thou shalt not take thee a wife, neither shalt thou have sons or daughters in this place. For thus saith the Lord concerning the sons and concerning the daughters that are born in this place, and concerning their mothers that bare them, and concerning their fathers that begat them in this land. They shall die of grievous deaths; they shall not be lamented; neither shall they be buried; but they shall be as dung upon the face of the earth: and they shall be consumed by the sword, and by famine; and their carcasses shall be meat for the fowls of heaven, and for the beasts of the earth.

Other prophets of doom proclaimed in other traditions the anger of gods and the helplessness of humans. The dialogue between Abraham and Jeremiah continues today. It is still one of the main themes of our history. So what is new?

One thing that is new is modern science. Science has not displaced religion as the way most people approach the problems of our destiny, but science allows us all to look at these problems in a new way. Francis Bacon, the major prophet of modern science in the British tradition, did not proclaim the word of the Lord but spoke with his own more modest voice: “If we begin with certainties, we will end in doubt, but if we begin with doubts and bear them patiently, we may end in certainty.”

Bacon was writing at the beginning of the seventeenth century, when religious wars were raging in Europe, when Pilgrim fathers filled with Abrahamic hopes were building a new world in America, when Puritan divines filled with visions of Jeremiad doom were preaching hellfire and damnation. He offered a third alternative to the certainties of heaven and hell: the alternative of patient inquiry. He told us to ask questions instead of proclaiming answers, to collect …

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