Is Western civilization collapsing?

A perennial topic for me (and many of us) is the notion that there is a deep malaise in Western civilization. There are, it seems to me, three main camps on this question.

1. The conservative position. "Yes. And it's a horrible thing. For one thing, elites have basically stopped reproducing. They're inviting people from foreign cultures into their countries, and they're reproducing faster than their elites. The result will be an inevitable cultural replacement after a few generations, although probably not before we go through a period of bloody civil wars. And Western traditions are not being passed down. We are becoming less Christian every year. Our universities are teaching less and less of the classics of Western civilization. Though they spend longer in school, our graduates are more ignorant of their cultural roots. We have no desire to create beauty any longer. We have nothing, really, to live for. Our heart is simply not in it any longer; we're in the death throes of this civilization."

2. The postmodern position. "Are you really even asking this question? So you think Western civilization is 'collapsing'? Well, maybe it is. If so, good! But if we're going to be honest with ourselves, we should recognize that there is much about Western civilization that deserves to die, and the sooner the better. What will replace it? Who knows? Who cares? But you must be a racist Islamophobe if you think it will be Islamic. But probably, you're just an idiot because there is no reason to think Western civilization is 'collapsing.' It might be, however, transforming, and into something better, something more tolerant, open, and multi-cultural."

3. The optimistic position. "Oh, not this again. Haven't you read Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now? Look, almost all the metrics look better than they've ever been. People always think we're on the brink of disaster even when things are awesome. The world is better educated than it's ever been. People in third world countries are moving into the modern world. Look at the Internet! Look at technology! Look at all the entrepreneurship and discovery that is happening every day! How on earth can you fail to recognize that, far from being in our death throes, we are ramping up a new global civilization with, perhaps, some new values, but which enjoys radically transformative changes for the better every year."

Here are a few notes to put these into perspective. The conservative position is a position about the health of traditional Western values and culture. It takes the view that these values and culture should be preserved, that they aren't being preserved, and that Westerners therefore are living increasingly meaningless lives.

The postmodern position is a primarily a reaction to the conservative position. It denies that there is a problem worth solving because Western values and culture are better off dead and buried.

The optimistic position certainly appears to be about another topic altogether, although it pretends to be about the conservative worry. It equates "civilization" not so much with Western traditions and values, precisely, as with the sort of globalist system of capitalist economies and the largely Western-derived education and culture that has sprouted and flowered in the 20th and especially the 21st centuries. You can see it in most of the big cities of the world. The success of this civilization is not to be evaluated (on this view) by some subjective measures of morality, or religion of course, or using sociological metrics that go proxy for these, but instead by more objective measures of well-being such as GDP, literacy rates, and longevity rates.

These positions interact in interesting ways.

  • A very strong case can be made that it is precisely certain Western traditions (democracy, industrialism, free enterprise, science, etc.) that have enabled the global success celebrated by the optimistic position.
  • The postmodern position is, too, absolutely rooted in some Western values (such as cultural tolerance and Christian charity).
  • And the optimistic position is widely (and in my opinion rightly) regarded as too optimistic; almost all of us detect some manner of deep moral malaise in Western civilization (such as dangerous populist racism, on the one hand, or the dangerous weakening of Christian values, on the other), even if we don't necessarily think of it as threatening civilization itself, and the happy talk does not do this justice.
  • And the postmodern position is surely right to suggest that Western civilization has undergone and is likely to continue to undergo radical transformations that have made the Western roots of American and European societies look positively foreign. But does that mean the collapse of civilization, or its transformation?
  • And if it is transforming and not collapsing, is that unequivocally a good thing?
  • Are important values, that conservatives perhaps talk about more than progressives, being lost? Put aside your political differences and ask yourself: might that be important? And what consequences might that have for the new global order?
  • Is it true that there must be some transcendent purpose and deep values that undergird our lives, or else (as conservatives suggest) civilization, that will cause not merely its transformation but its wholesale replacement with some other civilization that does celebrate some transcendent purpose? And if that's true, what values would replace Western ones?
  • Could something like progressivism itself constitute a global value system?
  • We already know that any such progressive value system largely conflict with traditional Christianity and some other Western values, but doesn't it also conflict with Islam?

I don't suggest any conclusion now. I just thought that contextualizing the debate would be interesting.

Could God have evolved?

1. How a common argument for the existence of God failed—or did it?

As a philosophy instructor, I often taught the topic of arguments for the existence of God. One of the most common arguments, called the argument from design or teleological argument, in one formulation compares God to a watchmaker.

If you were walking along a beach and found some complex machine that certainly appeared to be designed by someone, which did something amazing, then you'd conclude that it had a maker. But here we are in a universe that exhibits far more complexity and design than any machine we've ever devised. Therefore, the universe has a maker as well; we call it God.

This is sometimes called the Watchmaker Argument—since the mechanism our beachcomber finds is usually a watch—and is attributed to William Paley. Variations on this theme could be the single most commonly-advanced argument for God.

The reason the Watchmaker Argument doesn't persuade a lot of philosophers—and quite a few scientists and atheists generally—is that all the purported signs of design can be found in the biological world, and if biological complexity and appearance of design can be explained by natural selection, then God is no longer needed as an explanatory tool.

Some skeptics go a bit further and say that all the minds we have experience of are woefully inadequate for purposes of designing the complexity of life. Therefore, not only are natural mechanisms another explanation, they are a much better explanation, as far as our own experience of minds and designing is concerned.

But here I find myself skeptical of these particular skeptics.

2. Modern technology looks like magic

Recently, probably because I've been studying programming and am understanding the innards of technology better than ever, it has occurred to me very vividly that we may not be able to properly plumb the depths of what minds are capable of achieving. After all, imagine what a medieval peasant would make of modern technology. As lovers of technology often say, it would look like magic, and we would look like gods.

We've been working at this scientific innovation thing for only a few centuries, and we've been aggressively and intelligently innovating technology for maybe one century. Things we do now in 2017 are well into the realm of science fiction of 1917. We literally cannot imagine what scientific discovery and technological innovation will make available to us after 500 or 1000 years. Now let's suppose there are advanced civilizations in the galaxy that have been around for a million years.

Isn't it now hackneyed to observe that life on Earth could be a failed project of some super-advanced alien schoolchild? After all, we already are experimenting with genetic engineering, a field that is ridiculously young. As we unlock the secrets of life, who's to say we will not be able to engineer entirely different types of life, every bit as complex as the life we find on Earth, and to merge with our inventions?

Now, what havoc should these reflections wreak on our religious philosophy?

3. Could an evolved superbeing satisfy the requirements of our religions?

The scientific atheist holds the physical universe in great reverence, as something that exists in its full complexity far beyond the comprehension of human beings. The notion of a primitive "jealous God" of primitive religions is thought laughable, in the face of the immense complexity of the universe that this God is supposed to have created. Our brains are just so much meat, limited and fallible. The notion that anything like us might have created the universe is ridiculous.

Yet it is in observing the development of science and technology, thinking about how we ourselves might be enhanced by that science and technology, that we might come to an opposite conclusion. Perhaps the God of nomadic tent-dwellers couldn't design the universe. But what if there is some alien race that has evolved past where we are now for millions of years. Imagine that there is a billion-year-old superbeing. Is such a being possible? Consider the invention, computability, genetic engineering, and technological marvels we're witnessing today. Many sober heads think the advent of AI may usher in the Singularity within a few decades. What happens a millions years after that? Could the being or beings that evolve create moons? Planets? Suns? Galaxies? Universes?

And why couldn't such a superbeing turn out to be the God of the nomadic tent-dwellers?

Atheists are wrong to dismiss the divine if they do so on grounds that no gods are sufficiently complex to create everything we see around us. They believe in evolution and they see technology evolving all around us. Couldn't god-like beings have evolved elsewhere and gotten here? Could we, after sufficient time, evolve into god-like beings ourselves?

What if it turns out that the advent of the Singularity has the effect of joining us all to the Godhead that is as much technological as it is physical and spiritual? And suppose that's what, in reality, satisfies the ancient Hebrew notions of armageddon and heaven, and the Buddhist notion of nirvana. And suppose that, when that time comes, it is the humble, faithful, just, generous, self-denying, courageous, righteous, respectful, and kind people that are accepted into this union, while the others are not.

4. But I'm still an agnostic

These wild speculations aren't enough to make me any less of an agnostic. I still don't see evidence that God exists, or that the traditional (e.g., Thomistic) conception of God is even coherent or comprehensible. For all we know, the universe is self-existing and life on Earth evolved, and that's all the explanation we should ever expect for anything.

But these considerations do make me much more impressed by the fact that we do not understand how various minds in the universe might evolve, or might have evolved, and how they might have already interacted with the universe we know. There are facts about these matters about which we are ignorant, and the scientific approach is to withhold judgment about them until the data are in.