John F. Haught on a Metaphysics of the Future

7594258386_2f8da9e013_oJohn Haught’s delightful book “God after Darwin: A Theology of Evolution” offers many ideas. Although I do not fully agree with all of them – I am a bit reluctant about the Whiteheadian threads in some of Haught’s proposals – I think Haught does a tremendous job in showing how theology could be in consonance with evolutionary theory and, moreover, offer an ultimate explanation of evolution.

The one idea I like the most and will try to use in my own research, is the idea of a “metaphysics of the future”. Haught develops this in the 6th chapter of his book, “A God for Evolution”. He refers to Teilhard de Chardin, who, according to Haught, has been wrongly discredited as a scientist by e.g. Daniel Dennett and Stephen J. Gould because Teilhard insisted upon the need for a new metaphysics to understand “what is really going on in an evolving universe” (Haught 2008, 89). That metaphysics, Haught argues, should be a “metaphysics of the future”: 

An exclusivist preoccupation with “being” may have seems appropriate to a static cosmos (…), but evolution requires that we now entertain an alternative understanding of reality, one that stresses the prominence of the future. (Haught 2008, 91)

Haught readily admits that such a metaphysics has religious roots, but holds that this does not necessarily denies it truthfulness or accuracy. Instead, he points to experience as the ground for a metaphysics of the future:

(…) the metaphysics I am espousing here is rooted deeply in the experience that people have of something that to them is overwhelmingly and incontestably real, namely, what may be called metaphorically the “power of the future”. Of course, it is perhaps only by adopting the religious posture of hope that they have been opened to the experience of this power. But that they are prepared for such an experience by participation in a particular religious tradition, one that encourages them to place their trust in the promise of a surprising future fulfillment, need not be taken a priori as sufficient reason for our suspecting its veracity. (Haught 2008, 96)

What is theologically most fruitful about this proposal, to me at least, is not only that it allows a recontextualization of biblical metaphors that already express “the power of the future”, as Haught himself hints to on a few occasions (Haught 2008, 91 and 94-95), but moreover the critical perspective it offers on evolutionary explanations of religion. Haught discusses interpretations of evolution, such as Dennett’s, as framed in a “metaphysics of the past”, characterized by the assumption that both present and future are nothing more than the actualization of the potential of the past:

Such a metaphysics no more allows for the emergence of real novelty in evolution than does a religious metaphysics fixated on the eternal present. (…) Materialist versions of neo-Darwinism claim that all events in nature, including the story of life and mind on Earth, were coiled up implicitly in lifeless primordial cosmic conditions. Nature needed only to undergo the somewhat incidental drama of gradually unfurling over the course of time in order for life and mind to make their unremarkable appearance. Conceived of in this way the entire life-process, rather than being evidence of nature’s openness to the arrival of genuine novelty, is only the explication of what was fully latent already in lifeless matter from the time of cosmic beginnings. (Haught 2008, 93)

This raises the question of whether this metaphysics is also at work in evolutionary theories about religion. Do they reduce religion today to what religion was the day before yesterday? I think that this unfortunately is indeed the case, at least in certain interpretations of evolutionary explanations of the origins of religion, like Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell. They are marked by a determinism “a retro”, in which “(…) the future is nothing more than the predictable “outcome” of what has gone before in time or eternity” (Haught 2008, 103). This does not imply that one should not take evolutionary studies of religion seriously. On the contrary, they offer fascinating insights on religion as a complex cultural phenomenon. But I think such studies need the framework of a metaphysics of the future, following yet another remark made by John Haught:

As long as we keep looking “back there” in the cosmic past for what is most “fundamental” – as physicists, biologists, geneticists, astronomers, and other scientists are accustomed to doing – we close our eyes to what is most obvious to all human experience, namely, the arrival of an always unprecedented future; and we inevitably rob science of its own future as well. (Haught 2008, 101)


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