Ever since I read that New York Times headline, “Trump Triumphs,” things have seemed surreal. The psychedelic visionary Terence McKenna keeps coming to mind.
McKenna sought to answer what theologians call the problem of evil: If a loving, all-powerful God created us, why is life often painful and unjust? Why do good things happen to bad people (like you know who), and vice versa?
McKenna explained his worldview to me in 1999, a year before he succumbed to brain cancer. Reality, he said, “has a strange artfulness to it that betrays the hand of a kind of director, or author, or some kind of intelligence which is shaping this supposedly chaotic and random thing.”
The ultimate purpose of the “director,” or God, according to McKenna, is not the salvation of our souls, or the attainment of paradise, but the generation of “novelty.” McKenna saw evidence for his worldview in modern science and technology, which are generating novelty at an accelerating rate.
McKenna acknowledged that novel events–from the Black Plague and Nazi Germany to thermonuclear weapons—can produce enormous devastation, at least in the short term. But from destruction and suffering, new possibilities emerge.
McKenna’s theology, which values drama and excitement over peace and harmony, resembles an idea floated by physicist Freeman Dyson in his 1988 book Infinite In All Directions. Pondering why life is so difficult, Dyson suggested that reality might be ruled by “the principle of maximum diversity.” This principle, he wrote,
“Operates at both the physical and the mental level. It says that the laws of nature and the initial conditions are such as to make the universe as interesting as possible. As a result, life is possible but not too easy. Always when things are dull, something turns up to challenge us and to stop us from settling into a rut. Examples of things which made life difficult are all around us: comet impacts, ice ages, weapons, plagues, nuclear fission, computers, sex, sin, and death. Not all challenges can be overcome, and so we have tragedy. Maximum diversity often leads to maximum stress. In the end we survive, but only by the skin of our teeth.”
But let’s get real. The idea that God gave us Trump to shake things up is, well, it’s like something Trump might say. No, God didn’t create this mess, we did, all by ourselves, and only we can fix it. I still believe in progress, but we have a lot of work to do to overcome this big, backward step.
John Horgan directs the Center for Science Writings, which is part of the College of Arts & Letters. This column is adapted from one originally published on his ScientificAmerican.com blog, “Cross-check.”