Thursday, July 21, 2016

Lucretius in the Evolution/Creation Debate

From ancient Greece and Rome to the present, one of the fundamental debates in human history has been over a deep question: Is our universe mindful and purposive or mindless and material?  Do we live in a cosmos that was intentionally created by a divinely intelligent designer who cares for us and judges us by his moral law?  Or do we live in a cosmos that arose unintentionally by natural evolution through chance and necessity with no concern for us or any moral law?

Today, this debate is between the creationists or intelligent design theorists, on the one side, and the Darwinian evolutionists, on the other side.  Some theistic evolutionists (like Francis Collins or Owen Gingerich, for example) have tried to take a third position: that the Creator has designed the parameters of certain natural constants so that cosmic evolution is fine-tuned for producing intelligent human life as the fulfillment of the Creator's purposes.

In ancient Greece, some of the pre-Socratic natural philosophers (like Empedocles and Democritus) developed materialist or mechanist explanations for how the world and all living beings in it could have emerged by natural causes without any divine design or purpose.  In some of Plato's dialogues--particularly in book 10 of the Laws and in the Timaeus--this anti-teleological cosmology was rejected as a dangerous atheism that would subvert the moral and political order of human life. Plato's Athenian Stranger (in the Laws) argues that everyone in the political order he proposes must believe that the gods exist, that the gods think about and care for human beings, and that the gods enforce justice by rewarding the good and punishing the bad.  Those people who openly question this cosmic theology should be imprisoned, and if they cannot be persuaded to accept this theology, they will be punished with death.  Plato's Timaeus argued that people should be taught that everything was created by a divine Demiurge or Craftsman assisted by other gods according to a model of an eternally enduring nature, so that the cosmos could be seen as the best of all possible worlds.

Later, Epicurus challenged this Platonic cosmic teleology by developing his own anti-teleological cosmology based on the atomistic science of Democritus.  Everything could be understood as the patterns of order arising from the combining and dissolving of atoms moving in a void, so that all possible combinations of these atoms would arise as worlds coming into being and passing away.  All life is mortal, so there is no afterlife, and no divine judgment of human beings after death. The gods exist, but they live outside the world of human experience, and they do not care for or intervene in human affairs.  All of the organized religions that teach that the gods have created the world and judge human beings both in this life and in the afterlife deprive human beings of happiness by promoting a fear of death and of divine judgment that creates unnecessary and unreasonable anxiety.

Epicureans can be happy because they don't fear god, they don't worry about death, they know that the goodness of pleasure is usually easy to get, and they know that the badness of pain is usually easy to endure.  This is possible because their freedom from religious fears and their understanding of how everything is ultimately explained by natural causes allows them to live out their mortal lives with tranquil minds.

Although Epicurus wrote many books, most of his writing has been lost, and we now have only fragments quoted by other writers.  The most extensive text of Epicurean philosophy is the Latin philosophical poem of Lucretius--De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things)--which he wrote sometime before his death in 55 B.C.  Although he does not mention Plato by name, Lucretius can be seen as defending the Epicurean anti-teleological cosmology against the Platonic teleological cosmology, particularly as it was reformulated by the Stoics.

Christian theologians were able to accept modified forms of the Platonic and Stoic cosmology of divine creation as compatible with Biblical creationist theology, which became the predominant model of the cosmos in Christendom for over 1,500 years.  But Christians had to scorn the Epicurean/Lucretian cosmology of materialist atomism as promoting a dangerously atheistic view of the universe. 

The texts of Lucretius' book were either destroyed or hidden away, until a text was rediscovered in 1417 by Poggio Bracciolini.  Many early modern philosophers and scientists could then see the Lucretian materialist and anti-teleological model of the cosmos as the alternative to the creationist and teleological model of Christian cosmology.

Finally, with the publication in 1859 of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of the Species, the Darwinian theory of the evolution of species by natural selection in the struggle for survival seemed to provide a modern scientific version of Lucretian cosmology as an alternative to Christian creationism.  If so, then the debate between evolutionists and creationists today continues the debate between Platonists and Epicureans over whether the cosmos has been intelligently and purposefully designed or not.

As I have indicated in some previous posts, this cosmological debate is also a moral and political debate, because while the Platonic/Christian cosmology of order as a top-down imposition of intentional planning seems to support moral and political authoritarianism, the Epicurean/Darwinian cosmology of order as a bottom-up emergence of spontaneous order seems to support moral and political liberalism.

 But is it really true that the Epicurean cosmology of Lurcretius' book conforms to a Darwinian evolutionary conception of the universe?  Gordon Campbell (a classics scholar) has helped me to think about this through one of his papers--"Zoogony and Evolution in Plato's Timaeus: The Presocratics, Lucretius, and Darwin" (2000)--and one of his books--Lucretius on Creation and Evolution (2003).  Campbell's writing illuminates Lucretius' place in the evolution/creation debate from ancient Greece to the present.

And yet I do disagree with Campbell on four points.  First, I disagree with his claim that the only "fully evolutionary theory" of the cosmos in the ancient world is in Plato's Timaeus (Campbell 2003, 2).  He distinguishes between two kinds of evolution (Campbell 2000, 14).  "Inter-specific evolution" is "the Darwinian model of the origin of species by the gradual accumulation of variation over time leading to the formation of new species."  "Intra-specific evolution" is "the accumulation of variation within a species that stops short of crossing species boundaries."  He claims that Plato is the only ancient proponent of Darwinian inter-specific evolution, because Plato's Timaeus describes an evolutionary process in which the Demiurge first creates human beings and then morally degenerate human beings evolve into four kinds of animals--birds, footed land animals, footless land animals, and fish--with the animals ranked from the more thoughtful animals to the thoughtless animals.

The first problem with Campbell's claim is that what Timaeus describes is not a natural evolutionary process at all, because he asserts it to be the work of divine creation by the Demiurge and the other gods (Timaeus 41a-d, 92c).

The second problem is that it's not clear that Plato or Plato's Socrates endorse Timaeus's story of cosmic creation.  Timaeus's story is so utterly ridiculous that many readers have doubted that Plato takes it seriously.  A. E. Taylor, for example, made this point, but Campbell casually dismisses this and insists that Timaeus's story must be seen as a serious teaching of Plato (2000, 158).  But Campbell doesn't explain the many strange features of this dialogue.  First of all, it's not much of a dialogue.  After some brief exchanges between Socrates and Timaeus, Timaeus launches into a long lecture that takes up most of the book.  Socrates remains silent, which suggests that Timaeus's story cannot withstand any Socratic questioning. Timaeus says that his story will be a "likely myth."  Socrates says that it will be a nomos--a song, a custom, or a law (Timaeus 29d).  So Timaeus's story is not a reasoned account of the cosmos.

Moreover, what Timaeus says is often self-contradictory.  For example, Timaeus says that the best account of astronomy depends on sight--looking at the stars and the Sun--and this shows the primacy of our eyes for our knowledge of the world (47a-c).  But then he condemns as "light-minded" the empirical astronomers who believe that our knowledge of astronomy must begin with what we can see with our own eyes.  Such people are punished by being turned into birds (91d-e).

My point here is that Campbell does not consider the possibility that while Plato might have thought that a teleological cosmology of divinely intelligent design could be a salutary belief for many people, it could not be a rational account of the cosmos for natural philosophers.  Aristotle suggested this in observing that such cosmic myths were little more than traditional folk tales (On the Heavens, 270b1-25, 283b26-284b5, 291b24-292a20, 298b6-299a2; The Movement of Animals, 699b12-31; Metaphysics, 1050b20-25, 1074b1-14).

Not only do I think Campbell is wrong in identifying Plato as an evolutionist, I also think he is wrong in denying that Lucretius was an evolutionist.  This is my second point of disagreement.  Although Campbell is right in noting that Lucretius never explicitly affirms the "inter-specific evolution" of a new species from an ancestral species, Lucretius does at least implicitly suggest that human beings have evolved from an earlier species that was human-like but not fully human, because it did not have the human digestive system that requires food cooked with fire.  Lucretius could not explicitly elaborate this idea, because he lacked the evidence for human evolution that is available today--including the fossil record, the archaeological record, human physiology, and comparative primatology.

In Book 5 of De Rerum Natura, Lucretius explains the origin of all living beings as the spontaneous generation of life from the Earth (5.785-1012).  Just as today we can see the spontaneous generation of worms and cicadas from the Earth, Lucretius claims, we can imagine that at the beginning the Earth was so fertile that it could generate all forms of plant and animal life (2.871-72, 898-901, 928-29, 3.719-36, 5.797-98).  For this reason, Lucretius observes, the Earth has rightly been called the Mother of all life.

At first, the Earth experimented with many monstrous animal bodies with grotesque appearance--such as animals that were both male and female, animals without feet or hands or mouths.  These forms of life "were created in vain," because nature extinguished them.  They died from starvation. Or they could not reproduce. Or they could not compete with other animals.  Only those species adapted for survival, reproduction, and competition were naturally selected for preservation.  Those human beings who lived in these early days were tougher and larger than human beings today.  They lived as solitary foragers and like savage beasts, with no families, no farming, no customs or laws, no use of fire or clothing.  Men and women came together for sexual copulation and then separated with no enduring attachment.  (Here is where Rousseau found his first "state of nature" of "nascent man" for his Discourse on the Origin of Equality.)

Some modern commentators have argued that this Lucretian account of the origin life is refuted by modern science.  One criticism is that Lucretius speaks mythically of Mother Earth as a teleological creator.  Another criticism is that the belief in the spontaneous generation of life was refuted by Louis Pasteur's famous experiments showing that living organisms cannot arise spontaneously from lifeless material.  A third criticism is that the modern fossil and archaeological record shows an evolution from simple forms of life to more complex forms, including a human fossil record showing human evolution over millions of years, which denies Lucretius's claim that all forms of life originated simultaneously and his claim that the first human beings lived as utterly solitary animals who lived on raw food without fire for cooking.

Campbell rightly defends Lucretius against the first two criticisms.  But he cannot defend Lucretius against the third criticism.  Against the first criticism, Campbell can point to clear statements from Lucretius that he uses teleological metaphors--like Mother Earth--to aid his anti-teleological message (2.655-60).  In doing this, Lucretius is like Darwin, who explained that in personifying "survival of the fittest" as "natural selection," he was employing a metaphorical expression that was not to be interpreted literally as suggesting some intentional agency or deity (see Chapter 4 of the second edition of The Origin of Species).  For Darwin, nature "selects" only in the sense that those traits that impede survival, reproduction, and competition tend to go extinct.  Similarly, for Lucretius, those forms of life that cannot survive, reproduce, or compete successfully tend to go extinct.  There is no teleological cosmic plan guiding this evolutionary process.

To answer the second criticism--that Pasteur refuted the belief in the spontaneous generation of life--Campbell rightly points out that while Pasteur's experiments showed that at present life cannot arise from lifeless material, this does not show that originally life could not have been spontaneously generated in the earlier conditions of the Earth.  Indeed, any scientific account of the origin of life from non-life through natural evolution rather than intelligent design would have to be a spontaneous generation of life.  There is today no generally accepted theory for explaining the natural origin of life, and so it remains one of the great mysteries in modern science.  But there is general agreement among scientists that any successful theory for resolving this mystery will have to find a natural mechanism for the spontaneous generation of the most primitive form of life.  For example, one popular theory today is that life originated from 3.2 billion to 3.8 billion years ago in very hot geothermal vents at the bottom of ancient oceans.  Even if this does not prove to be the correct theory, it illustrates the search for a spontaneous generation of the first life forms like that sought by Lucretius.

Campbell does not defend Lucretius against the third criticism--that his assertion that all forms of life that we see today arose fully formed simultaneously at the beginning is contrary to the evidence for the evolutionary history of life as we know it today.  Here, Campbell argues, we see why Lucretius is not truly an evolutionist in the modern Darwinian sense, because here we see that Lucretius believes in the fixity of species: although Lucretius allows for some evolutionary change within a species, he does not allow for evolutionary change by which one species evolves into another.  Species can go extinct, but all of those species that have survived to the present are essentially the same species as they were at the beginning.

Although there is good evidence for this interpretation of Lucretius, there is some ambiguity here, particularly in what Lucretius says about the origins of fire and cooking (5.955-58, 1012-20, 1091-1104).  Lucretius says that the first primitive human beings were tough enough to live on raw food like other animals.  They had no knowledge of how to use fire for cooking.  But then from observing the effects of wild fires and the warming of the Sun, they learned how to cook their food, which was part of a suite of changes that allowed them to live in family settlements that made them fully human for the first time.  In his comments on this section of Lucretius's poem, Campbell observes: "Humans become truly human, and finally civilized when they have been mastered by fire, marriage, and love, and when they in turn master nature with new technologies.  Fire and cooking were chief among these" (2003, 329).  This shows the "process of becoming fully human" (2000, 154-55).

Doesn't this imply that those first primitive human beings who lived totally on raw food were not "truly human" at all, and so what we see here is evolution from a non-human but somewhat human-like animal species to a fully human species?  If so, then this points to human evolution as inter-species evolution.  Lucretius could not elaborate this idea explicitly because he did not have all of the empirical evidence available today for human evolutionary emergence from primate ancestral species.

That evidence--from fossils, archaeology, primatology, and evolutionary anthropology--confirms the truth of Lucretius's insight about the importance for human evolution of controlling fire for cooking.  Richard Wrangham has surveyed this evidence in support of his "cooking hypothesis" for explaining human evolution (Wrangham 2009; Gowlett and Wrangham 2013).  No human societies have ever relied on raw food for most of their diet.  And no human beings have been known to survive for more than a few weeks by eating only wild raw food.  Unlike every other animal, human beings need a large portion of their food to be cooked.  Compared with the great apes, human beings have a reduced digestive system--small molars, mouth, stomach, and large intestine--that is adapted for digesting cooked food.  Moreover, the brain is a metabolically expensive organ that requires lots of energy; and therefore the increase in the size of the brain that characterizes human evolution required a reduction in gut size and energy costs and the consumption of higher quality cooked foods to reduce the metabolic constraints on brain size by delivering increased energy to enlarged brains.  The evidence of the hominin fossils indicates that Homo erectus had such enlarged brains that would have required digestive systems needing cooked food.  There is also some archaeological evidence for the controlled use of fire appearing at around 1.5 million years ago, at the time of the first major increase in the brain size of early Homo.  All of this evidence suggests that what Lucretius describes as a transition from primitive humans living "in a manner like wild animals" (more ferarum) (5.932) without fire and cooking to fully human beings living with fire and cooking was actually an evolutionary transformation from a pre-human species to a truly human species.

According to Campbell, "Lucretius' early humans evolve in response to their changing environment, but they are still unable to cross the species barrier imposed by the atomic laws of nature (foedera naturae); they evolve but remain within their own species" (2000, 155).  Does this mean that there can be a major change in the physiology and anatomy of the digestive system without a change of species?  Or should we say, in the terminology of modern taxonomy, that there has been a change of species but not of genus?

Campbell says that the evolution here in Lucretius is not Darwinian evolution but Lamarckian evolution, because it's the evolution of acquired characters.  Contrary to what Campbell assumes, Darwin accepted Lamarckian evolution.  Today, some evolutionary theorists would say that there are at least four levels of evolutionary inheritance--genetic, epigenetic, behavioral, and symbolic (Jablonka and Lamb 2014).  Could we explain what Lucretius describes here as genetic/behavioral coevolution?

Oddly, while Campbell argues that Lucretius was not a Darwinian evolutionist, he also argues that Lucretius was a better evolutionist than was Darwin!  This is my third point of disagreement with Campbell.  According to Campbell, Lucretius suggests that evolutionary adaptation in the struggle for life can occur at five levels--survival, reproduction, competition, competition avoidance, and cooperation.  Campbell thinks that Darwin recognizes the first three levels but not the last two (Campbell 2003, 119-23, 129, 252-61).  I disagree.  Lucretius claims that human beings could not have survived if they had not learned to cooperate: "It was then that neighbors, in their eagerness neither to harm nor be harmed, began to form mutual pacts of friendship, and claimed protection for their children and women, indicating by means of inarticulate cries and gestures that everyone ought to have compassion for the weak" (5.1019-23). 

Campbell sees this idea as confirmed by recent work (by Robert Axelrod and others) on the evolution of cooperation, but he does not see this idea was first elaborated by Darwin in his account of the evolution of the "moral sense" in The Descent of Man.  All of the recent thinking about the evolution of cooperation through kin selection, reciprocity (direct and indirect), and group selection is building on Darwin's thinking in Descent.

Lucretius also recognizes the human domestication of animals as mutually beneficial for the animals and human beings (5.862-78).  Campbell identifies this as "extinction avoidance through symbiosis and the survival advantages of becoming tame" (2003, 129).  This also was well studied by Darwin, particularly in his Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication (1868).

My final point of disagreement with Campbell concerns his understanding of teleology.  He is right in seeing that modern Darwinian biology agrees with Lucretius and the Epicureans in their anti-teleological view of the cosmos as a spontaneous order that has not been designed to serve any purpose.  But only obliquely does Campbell recognize that modern biology can affirm immanent teleology while denying cosmic teleology (Campbell 2000, 152, 170-71).  Although the evolutionary process does not serve goals, the organisms emerging from that process do.  Reproduction, growth, feeding, healing, courtship, parental care for offspring--these and many other activities of organisms are goal directed.  Biologists cannot explain such phenomena unless they ask about ends or purposes immanent in the evolved nature of the species.  This allows for a biological understanding of morality as natural right or natural law rooted in the immanent teleology of evolved human nature.


Campbell, Gordon. 2000. "Zoogony and Evolution in Plato's Timaeus: The Presocratics, Lucretius, and Darwin." In M. R. Wright, ed., Reason and Necessity: Essays on Plato's Timaeus, 145-80. Swansea, UK: The Classical Press of Wales.

Campbell, Gordon. 2003. Lucretius on Creation and Evolution: A Commentary on De Rerum Natura, Book Five, Lines 772-1104. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gowlett, John A. J., and Richard W. Wrangham. 2013. "Earliest Fire in Africa: Towards the Convergence of Archaeological Evidence and the Cooking Hypothesis." Azania: Archaeological Research in Africa 48: 5-30.

Jablonka, Eva, and Marion J. Lamb. 2014. Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life. Revised edition. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Wrangham, Richard W. 2009. Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. New York: Basic Books.

Some of these points are elaborated in other posts here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here., and here.

Saturday, July 09, 2016

Does Moralistic Religion Promote Human Sacrifice and Other Moralistic Violence?

At the beginning of On the Nature of Things, Lucretius promises that his teaching of Epicurean atomism, according to which the world is governed by natural laws and not by the gods, will liberate human beings from the suffering caused by religion.  He recognizes that many people will see this teaching as promoting impious wickedness, because the gods are not understood as enforcing a moral law in human affairs.  Lucretius's answer to this objection is to argue, on the contrary, that the religious belief in moralistic gods will support the most impious and wicked crimes, and he illustrates this with the story of Agamemnon sacrificing the life of his first-born daughter Iphigeneia to appease the anger of the goddess Artemis, who had sent unfavorable winds to detain the Greek fleet at Argos.  Thus, a father's natural love for his daughter was overcome by the religious belief that the gods could intervene into human affairs and command the killing of his innocent daughter.

Lucretius concludes: "Such evils could religion prompt" (1.101).  This is one of the most famous lines in Lucretius's book.  Voltaire praised this as one of the most insightful ideas in the book.

The fearful evils of religion arise, Lucretius believes, from the fear of the gods, and particularly the fear of eternal punishment by the gods after death.  Such fear is dispelled by seeing that the gods exist in some realm beyond our world, and that they live a self-sufficient life in not caring for us and not intervening in our world.  The natural world in which we live is governed by natural laws, and so "all things happen independently of the gods" (1.159).  By nature we are mortal, and so we must die.  But death is not fearful, because death is nothing to us, since we cannot suffer anything when we don't exist.  Death becomes fearful only when we have a religious belief in an afterlife with eternal divine judgment.  Such religious fears weaken our natural moral sense and promote unjust violence, such as human sacrifice, when we think we are obeying divine commands.

But is this true?  Wouldn't most religious believers today say that the belief that God demands the human sacrifice of innocent people is a false superstition rather than true religion?  And haven't some evolutionary scientists shown that the religious belief in moralistic gods--gods who enforce moral conduct by rewarding the good and punishing the bad, in this life and the next--was necessary to sustain human cooperation in the large agrarian states that began to emerge for the first time about 4,000 years ago?

Lucretius might have found some confirmation for his argument in some recent research on the evolution of ritual human sacrifice (Joseph Watts, et al., "Ritual Human Sacrifice Promoted and Sustained the Evolution of Stratified Societies," Nature 532 [2016]: 228-31).  This study examined 93 traditional Austronesian cultures (in parts of Asia and the South Pacific).  The scholars found that 40 of these cultures had practiced ritual human sacrifice, and that the practice of human sacrifice seemed to create and preserve social hierarchies.  Through human sacrifice, ruling elites could legitimize their power by claiming supernatural authority and by enforcing obedience by the intimidation of human sacrifice.  So while some evolutionary scientists have seen evidence that moralistic religions have supported cooperative behavior in large states, the scholars in this study suggest that there is a dark side to this that is evident in the religious practice of human sacrifice.

Even the Bible shows some evidence of human sacrifice, which must trouble Biblical religious believers.  The most famous example of this is in Genesis 22, where God decides to test Abraham's obedience by commanding him to sacrifice his son Isaac.  Abraham obeys, although an angel intervenes to stop his hand from plunging a knife into Isaac.  He has passed the test by showing that he was willing to engage in the ritual human sacrifice of his son.  According to Soren Kierkegaard, this shows the "teleological suspension of the ethical" in the Bible--that the faithful believer must obey any command of God, even when it is immoral.

Another example of human sacrifice in the Bible is Jephthah killing his daughter.  He had promised to God that if God gave him victory over the Ammonites, he would sacrifice as a burnt offering to God the first person coming out of his house on his return.  The Ammonites were defeated, and when Jephthah returned, his daughter came out of his house to greet him.  According to his vow, Jephthah sacrificed her, and the Bible says nothing to indicate that this was mistaken (Judges 11:29-40).

The most prominent example of ritual human sacrifice in the Bible is the crucifixion of Jesus.  God demanded the ritual sacrifice of His only son, who was both fully human and fully divine, as atonement for human sin.

More generally, one might see the Biblical teaching of capital punishment for violating divine law as human sacrifice.  Blasphemy, apostasy, witchcraft, homosexuality, and many more crimes are to be punished by death.  Up to the middle of the 19th century, many Christian legal systems dictated capital punishment for hundreds of crimes.  Islamic sharia law continues this tradition of divinely commanded capital punishment.

Remarkably, even Thomas Aquinas upheld God's command to Abraham to kill his son, and he also upheld the killing of apostates in the Inquisition.

In recent history, most Christians, Jews, and Muslims have rejected divinely commanded human sacrifice or capital punishment.  Does this show the influence of a Lucretian natural science that denies or minimizes divine intervention into nature?  Today, if parents think God has commanded them to kill their children, we assume they are insane.

We are also less inclined today to believe in an afterlife with divine judgment and eternal rewards in Heaven and eternal punishments in Hell.  Even the most fundamentalist Christians have largely given up any belief in Hell.  As indicated in a previous post, Dante's cosmic model of the universe with Heaven above and Hell below was replaced in the 17th century with a cosmic model that had a Heaven but not a Hell.  Increasingly, it seems that even devout Christians agree with Charles Darwin that eternal punishment in Hell is a "damnable doctrine."

Friday, July 01, 2016

Cosmic Teleology in Big History?--Owen Gingerich's Response

In an email message, Owen Gingerich has replied to my previous blog post on cosmic teleology in big history.  He has permitted me to post it here:

"Thank you for sending your thoughtful blog post, including a cogent critique, not of what is in my books, but rather, what is not in them.  It is difficult to contemplate the beginning of time; without meaningful change there is no way to measure the existence of time.  Likewise it is difficult to contemplate the end of time.  The closest I come to this in my two books is the quotation from Dorothy Sayers on p. 114 of God's Planet.  Hoyle notes there is an interesting but insoluble problem here concerning the future of time.  Sayers doesn't really solve it, but indicates that there is something different that surely exists.  It would take a book in deep philosophy to tackle this issue.  Just as palaeontologists can reconstruct the past without ourselves being present, astronomers can construct the future in plausible ways long after Homo sapiens is extinct, but they will run into a problem if they start to think about the end of time.  The Bible has some hints about "many mansions" in the afterlife but these do not give a coherent picture of what to expect.  Perhaps one must observe Wittgenstein's advice, "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."    --     Owen Gingerich
He has asked me to include the quotation from Dorothy Sayers.  She was responding to a radio talk by Fred Hoyle.  He had observed: "Here we are in this wholly fantastic Universe, with scarcely a clue as to whether our existence has any real significance."  He went on to say, "It strikes me as very curious that the Christians have so little to say about how they propose eternity should be spent. . . . Now what the Christians offer me is an eternity of frustration."  He added that he thought 300 years would be enough.
Writing under the heading "The Theologian and the Scientist," Sayers noted that "when modern scientists begin to discuss religion, I often wish that some kindly soul had thought of sending them to Sunday School.  For they do not seem to know the meaning of the words that Christians use.  Here, for example, is Mr. Fred Hoyle.  He finds the idea of immortality 'horrible' because he himself would not care to live more than 300 years.  And he complains that Christians 'have so little to say about how they propose that eternity shall be spent.'"
She went on to say: "Christians have, in fact, said a good deal about the nature of eternal life--in particular that it does not consist (as Mr. Hoyle seems to think) of endlessly prolonged time of the kind we know.  They insist that, although we are often obliged to picture eternity in terms of time, the two things are really incommensurable."
"Sayers went on," Gingerich notes, "to use the analogy of a novelist, over an undisclosed length of time developing a character, whose entire trajectory is then on display simultaneously, the difference between eternity and immortality."
I do wonder, however, whether Sayers accepted the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body, as taught by Paul.  Thomas Aquinas interpreted this to mean that people in the afterlife would have real bodies, although in some perfected form, like the body of Jesus.  And since Jesus was about 32 years old when he was crucified, Aquinas reasoned, that suggests that when we are resurrected, we will have the body that we had when we were 32 years old, or, if we die earlier than that, we will have the body that we would have had at age 32, if we had lived longer.  But does that mean that that 32 year old resurrected body will never age?  Would such a body frozen in time be a truly human body?  Wallace Stevens raised such questions in his poem "Sunday Morning," which was the subject of a blog post.

I do see Gingerich's point about being silent about that whereof we cannot speak.  The questions we are raising here might be what he calls "questions without answers," because they are questions about that of which we have no experience.  Why is there something rather than nothing? is one such question.  Since no human being has any experience with everything arising from nothing, it's not clear that the question is even comprehensible to us.

Christian, Brown, and Benjamin write: "What existed before our universe appeared remains unknown.  We simply have no evidence, so we cannot say anything scientific about the moment when our universe appeared" (19).

And just as it's hard to say anything sensible about the beginning of time, it's hard to say anything about the end of time or the eternity outside of time.