The Hubble Ultra Deep Field. Source: S. Beckwith & the HUDF Working Group/HST/ESA/NASA. Is everything you see here part of a high-tech stab at survival by a mega-species? That’s what Clay Naff has proposed recently.
Click on the image for a nice high-resolution 19-MB version. It may take a minute to load, but once you have it you can have a boatload of fun getting lost among the galaxies
Clay Farris Naff, an acquaintance of mine and fellow science & religion junkie, is to be applauded for putting himself out there.
On Friday a bold article of his was published at Scientific American. In it he expresses his discontent with the usual suspects in the ongoing science-religion fracas. In light of this, he has staked out a new, unexplored corner of the rumpus ring: supernatural-free intentional creation.
I won’t spell out his argument — it is brief and well worth reading — but what it amounts to is: Perhaps there was life before us, in a universe before ours. That universe was doomed to its death (just as ours is) by the inexorable creep of entropy, so our universe was created by the aforementioned super-species in order to preserve life. There you have it: Intentional creation, thoroughly natural, thoroughly secular. Which becomes a secular humanist like Naff.
But how secular is this, really? A mega-species that intentionally designed the universe with life as a goal? Am I wrong to hear some distinctly religious overtones here? I think not.
But there are other frequencies: For me this is resonating strongly with Carl Sagan’s Contact, wherein perfectly boring extraterrestrials — pure minds, really — somehow slake the (IMO) essentially religious thirst of at least one human being (sorry to mix metaphors).
Like Sagan’s, Naff’s proposal strikes me as a truncated religious story, one that makes God big but not infinite and therefore underestimates humanity’s essential spiritual crisis.
Like Sagan’s, Naff’s is perfectly reasonable, perfectly possible, and perfectly unmatched to the deepest needs of human beings as I know them: perpetually and profoundly unsatisfied with everyone and everything they can smell, touch, imbibe, hold, have sex with, taste, control, beget, design, conceptualize, manufacture, wear, create, eat, drive, live in, shoot up, snort, imagine, hear, and see.
My question: How can a super-species, benign as it may be, be anything other than just another damned thing?
This may be unfair; Naff’s point, after all, is precisely that these creators (about which he is agnostic) are things. And perhaps I have overinterpreted him. Perhaps his post is not meant to deal with anything other than the intellectual problem of justifying hope within a closed system. And perhaps even that is asking too much. Perhaps he’s just pointing to a possibility. After all, he’s working alone (so far as I can tell) in some pretty hard soil.
Still, I wonder: Why bother? Naff’s idea is clearly religious in essence, but it lacks the depth that makes full-grown religion worth the trouble. It is an idea that wants to be fully religious but just can’t commit.
And in this essay at least, Naff himself strikes me as not-so-secular. Certainly he perceives this. Any intellectually astute person who admits publicly (in Scientific American, no less) to being “hopeful… that life is a gift, given in trust” cannot but see what I mean.
P.S. Just today, Naff told me that all of the new atheist commenters at Sci Am read his agnosticism toward mega-species as agnosticism toward God. This is clearly an error, and perhaps only points out something I have always said about new atheists: they cannot stop thinking of God as some super-object in the sky. So they easily conflate Naff’s super-objects with God. Isn’t life fun?