Zygon: Journal of Religion & Science
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Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science
10 (3), September 1975

Table of Contents


September 1975 Editorial by Ralph Wendell Burhoe

This issue of Zygon is based on papers and discussions of the symposium on “The Human Prospect: Heilbroner’s Challenge to Religion and Science,” held in Washington, D.C., on October 23-24, 1974, by the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science.

Readers may judge from the contents of this issue whether we have a significant response to the prophets of the crumbling of civilization and a new Dark Ages. Robert L. Heilbroner’s An Inquiry into the Human Prospect is a careful picture (shared by many of mankind’s best-informed minds) of present facts and dynamics of human population and technology with respect to environmental limits. But more than with the particularities of the implied economic stresses, the book is concerned with the inability of men and societies under these circumstances to control themselves so as to avoid an agonizing “sustained and convulsive change.” For a more viable and stable society, his evidence forces him to conclude what seems to him to be a threat to human freedom and to science: a return to religious controls. The weaknesses of human nature and the potential for resolving what for Heilbroner are irreconcilable conflicts between man’s private desires and long-range social necessities are here reexamined in the light of some new, scientifically based understandings wherein science, religion, and freedom properly fit together.
DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9744.1975.tb00545.x

Papers from the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science Symposium on the Human Prospect

Robert L. Heilbroner’s vision of History by Langdon Gilkey

Science in its broadest sense—what man knows about the nature around him, his social patterns, and himself—has always affected what man thinks about his role in temporal passage, that is, his view of history and of his own ultimate destiny. Two centuries ago a Hedgling natural science, after several stages of gestation, spawned the theory of progress and a century ago spawned the theory of cosmic and social evolution. Both of these structured modernity’s understanding of and confidence in history. But now a quite different scientific understanding of the dynamics of present social process, and so of its probable effects in the future, has led to a new view of history and of destiny, an implicit philosophy of history in the starkest contrast to its predecessor.

Science seems to be—and seeks to make us believe it is—a purely cumulative store of tentative knowledge and so as different as is conceivable from the Hip-Hop fads of philosophy and theology. It seems to be quite free of myth, in fact to be as antithetical to it as detergent (so I am assured) is to gray spots on sheets, and so to be quite independent of any more ultimate vision of what things are like and where they are going. This, one may say, might be true enough of the intramural hypotheses or conclusions of inquiry, though Thomas Kuhn may question even that; here we are in the sanitized world of the proximate, the relative, and the testable. However, the history of science, with this its present example, shows that this limited horizon is for the questioning mind of the scientist, if not for his official discipline, far too cramped an intellectual space. Because of what he knows, because of its possibilities for his use, and because of its implications for his life, his world, and his future, the scientist’s mind is driven beyond the merely empirical data to raise questions of destiny and freedom and of ultimate meaning—and so, if not “scientifically,” still qua scientist, he utters philosophies of history. Such was, of course, the theory of progress, an implication of the creative possibilities for the future of a culture dominated by science and its child, technology; such in our day is also the new vision represented by Robert L. Heilbroner’s An Inquiry into the Human Prospect.

Not only, then, does science imply and bring forth such visions; when one looks at its views of history and of destiny, one discovers an even more violent swing from optimism to pessimism, from Francis Bacon, Herbert Spencer, and Julian Huxley to the present somber tones of Donnella H. Meadows and Heilbroner. As is obvious, the purpose in the following remarks on Heilbroner’s extraordinary book is to relate that piece not to the data or even to their probabilities (for in that field I am not at all competent) but to the questions of the structure and prospects of history, to the philosophy and theology of history, and to see what it seems to mean in that context. For here surely scientific thinking is treading, as it did in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when it fathered the theory of historical development, closely—and we shall see how very closely, like some powerful but baffled predator—on the territorial preserves usually frequented only by those endangered if not quite extinct species: speculative philosophy and theology of history. …
Langdon Gilkey is professor of theology at the University of Chicago.
DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9744.1975.tb00546.x

The Conflict between Social and Biological Evolution and the Concept of Original Sin by Donald T. Campbell

This presentation is related to Robert L. Heilbroner’s concerns¹ in perhaps five ways. First, it joins Heilbroner in his distrust of the shortsighted selfishness of man. Crudely speaking, I am going to relate that notion to the concept of an innate predilection to sin. Speaking in more functional, evolutionary, and systems-theoretical terms, I am going to be concerned with aspects of human nature that are nonoptimal for complex social interdependence. On this theme there are a number of other current works that are equally relevant. The biologist Garrett Hardin’s “The Tragedy of the Commons” and the economist Mancur Olson’s The Logic of Collective Action both point out that there are many settings in which, if each individual with full information optimizes his own well-being, such optimization jeopardizes collective goods.² Another book that reminds us of this theme is Langdon Gilkey’s Shantung Compound, a report on one of the great experiments in modern social science.³ Here was collected the most ethically committed and ethically sophisticated group of persons one can imagine (missionaries and religiously oriented professors) interned by the Japanese for three or four years. Gilkey documents in detail the emergence, among this group, of original sin, selfishness, greed, avarice, and petty self-centeredness (centered around food and space), present as vivid temptations for all and yielded to in overt sin by most. This experience was a turning point in his career, changing him from an optimistic liberal theology to a more traditional religious belief in the sinfulness of basic human nature. We can see a similar conversion on Heilbroner’s part, from an optimistic utopian designer of future social systems to his present pessimism about the human prospect, based on his present pessimism about individual human nature. I will return to this first theme later in the section “Genetics of Altruism” and will treat it as an attribute of man’s biologically based human nature, a product of biological evolution. …
¹ Robert L. Heilbroner, An Inquiry into the Human Prospect (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1974).
² Garrett Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science 162 (1968): 1243-48; and Mancur Olson, The Logic of Collective Action (New York: Schocken Books, 1968).
³ Langdon Gilkey, Shantung Compound (New York: Harper & Row, 1966).

Donald T. Campbell is professor of psychology at Northwestern University.
DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9744.1975.tb00547.x

Christianity and the Fear of the Future by Victor Ferkiss

Our most basic problem today is in essence a theological one: It is a crisis of hope.

The world of classical society was dominated by a cyclical view of history, the “myth of the eternal return.” Time was a serpent devouring its own tail. Christianity shattered this essentially static view of human destiny in two ways. It offered the possibility of individual salvation, by means of which the human personality escaped from history into eternity. It also postulated the possibility of collective redemption within history, extending through time and eventually culminating in parousia. The Enlightenment secularized these two notions.

In this way both individualism and liberalism can be said to be derived from the idea of salvation postulated by Christianity (and, in somewhat different fashion, by Judaism and Islam as well). The possibility of eternal salvation became the possibility of self-fulfillment here on earth. And the possibility of collective redemption was transformed into the possibility of human progress through science, through technology, through industrialization, and through growth, in which parousia would occur right here on earth without the need for any second coming.

What has happened to the world today is quite obviously that we, or at least some of us in the West, have begun to question the validity of both of these assumptions: the possibility of individual fulfillment within our society and the possibility of the collective redemption of that society through technology. This questioning takes basically three forms. One is fear of mechanization as presented graphically in such films as Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, dominated by the symbol of the man on the assembly line, or as presented in more sophisticated fashion in such works as Jacques Ellul’s The Technological Society, in which we have what I would argue is a secularization of Calvinist predestination applied to the relationship of society to technology. This fear of the growing mechanization of the individual and society long troubled critics of modern industrial society; it goes back to the early nineteenth century and stems in part—though by no means entirely—from a romantic yearning for the past.

The second kind of fear from which we suffer is fear of environmental destruction, a fear which has become widespread in recent years, though a few years ago it was the concern of only an esoteric few.

The third form our fear takes is exemplified by Robert L. Heilbroner’s An Inquiry into the Human Prospect. In this view, though it emphasizes our ecological plight, things do not go boom in a final ecological catastrophe, but rather our social, economic, and physical world—national and international—begins to fall apart as the result of the pressures of scarcity and the dangers posed by easily available nuclear weapons. In order for organized society to survive, Heilbroner contends, the world will have to reject the whole culture of the Enlightenment upon which modern civilization has rested and live under “military-socialist” regimes capable of ensuring social solidarity and order. …
Victor Ferkiss is professor of government at Georgetown University.
DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9744.1975.tb00548.x

Science, Belief, and Facing the Future by Joseph Caggiano

The grim prospects and slim hope held out by Robert L. Heilbroner for the human future are an invitation to pessimism, if not despair. Overpopulation, political confrontation, and social dislocation resulting from environmental constraints on industrial activity comprise a litany of terrors making for an “oppressive anticipation of the future.”¹ It is not surprising that, numbed by Heilbroner’s vision of industrial disaster, some among his readers will resign themselves to the fate he depicts, making peace with themselves and their God while awaiting the collapse. Nor is it surprising that others will resist his conclusions by either rejecting his premises or invoking the ability of men to change the course of events once informed of the dangers lying ahead. In this paper I endorse neither resignation nor resistance but seek to inquire how religious knowledge can be brought to bear on the place of science in the scenario. …
¹ Robert L. Heilbroner, An Inquiry into the Human Prospect (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1974), p. 14.

Joseph Caggiano is a graduate student in the history of science at Johns Hopkins University.
DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9744.1975.tb00549.x

Heilbroner’s Historicism versus Evolutionary Possibilities by Edgar S. Dunn, Jr.

Participation in the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science symposium on the human prospect left me with an unresolved restlessness evoking the following commentary. I was surprised to discover that the issues raised by Robert L. Heilbroner in An Inquiry into the Human Prospect¹ were treated differently from my expectations. This was more surprising because I correctly anticipated that modern evolutionary theory would be the dominant metaphor guiding the discussion. Since, in my view, Heilbroner’s thesis is at variance with this weltanschauung in several important respects, I expected a more critical reception. Countervailing implications of the evolutionary paradigm were largely overlooked, save for the symposium commentary by Victor Ferkiss suggesting that the buffers intrinsic to a system as complex and metastable as genus Homo would tend to prevent a precipitous decline.²

Heilbroner’s book seems a good example of the “poverty of historicism” called to our attention by Karl R. Popper.³ Heilbroner exhibits the pretension of “prediction as prophecy” that Popper demonstrates to be inconsistent with the evolutionary process. This is the tendency to see the events of future history as uniquely determined by our current historical situation and the process that brought us here. Historicism identifies the “fate” of mankind in the emerging era. In this case, a scenario is sketched identifying historical challenges alleged to yield behavioral regressions of a specified kind.

Current intellectual discourse on these matters seems to have polarized. It is dominated by the doomsters with their historicist scenarios and the technological optimists with their faith in our capacity to engineer the future we want. I would interpret what we know of evolutionary processes to suggest that neither polar position is likely to be verified by history. …
¹ Robert L. Heilbroner, An Inquiry into the Human Prospect (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1974).
² Victor Ferkiss, “Christianity and the Fear of the Future,” this issue.
³ Karl R. Popper, The Poverty of Historicism, 3d ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1964).

Edgar S. Dunn, Jr., is senior research associate, Resources for the Future, Inc.
DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9744.1975.tb00550.x

The Human Prospect and the “Lord of History” by Ralph Wendell Burhoe

In his Inquiry into the Human Prospect Robert L. Heilbroner, as some of our discussants at the symposium suggested, sounds like a good Old Testament prophet calling upon his people to see the error of their ways and warning them of a dreadful future if they do not repent them of their folly in seeking to do what is forbidden by the supreme reality that rules history.¹ And in spite of his avowed distaste for religion,² in his last chapter, “Final Reflections on the Human Prospect,” he comes to the question, Is there hope for man? Under the inexorable rule of the reality system against which we have sinned and under our own incapacity to do otherwise, he concludes, “No, there is no such hope,” at least “without the payment of a fearful price.”³

If this kind of statement were the complaint of a single pessimist with a “morning-after” bellyache, we would discount it. But when it confirms similar reports by a large group of our best informed minds who have been scouting what lies ahead in the direction in which man is moving, grounded in the best information they can gather from all sources, then we do find that many of the people of the world share his dread of a fearful price. …
¹ Robert L. Heilbroner, An Inquiry into the Human Prospect (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1974).
² According to an interview by Nicholas Wade (“Robert L. Heilbroner: Portrait of a World without Science,” Science [August 16, 1974], p. 599), Heilbroner says: “The things I see in the future are all personally abhorrent to me. I am against religion, for science, a liberal social democrat or whatever. I find myself very much like the king’s messenger.”
³ Heilbroner, p. 136.

Ralph Wendell Burhoe is senior fellow, Center for Advanced Study in Religion and Science, and professor emeritus in theology and the sciences at Meadville/Lombard Theological School, Chicago.
DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9744.1975.tb00551.x

In Memoriam

Henry Nelson Wieman, August 19, 1884-June 19, 1975

DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9744.1975.tb00552.x

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