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An Emergent Eschatology

by Dr A.B. Kelly


In this paper I adopt the concept of eschatology suggested by Richard Schain. (Philosophy Pathways Issue 101) He says: 'The non-philosopher has only a vague interest in the abstractions of universal ideas, what he really wants is to apprehend the meaning of his own life. This inevitably becomes a matter of eschatology.'

I also take account of Samuel Alexander's recognition that each new Emergent stage of being has its roots in a lower level of existence, but it does not belong to that lower level as it constitutes 'a new order of existent with its special laws of behaviour'. (Space Time and Deity 1920 II,46). Each Emergent Stage is distinguished by its own sphere of law. I identify these spheres of law as the Physical and Chemical laws of Matter, the Genetic laws of Life, and the Moral laws of Human Moral-cultural life.


Science is based on the application of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, which holds that everything has a reason for being, and for being as it is. Science pursues empirical reasons for events. Detectives and Philosophers consider the available empirical facts, and seek the insights needed to discover the meaning of those facts.

Attempts to find meaning in the world, without taking facts into account, have little chance of success. Most such attempts have been heavily influenced by Myth or Religion, rather than by science. Science cannot provide meaning directly. But Hercule Poirot is able to derive meaning from the empirical facts he discovers. Meaning can be derived from sufficient facts.

Cosmology only became a science in the Twentieth Century. It has now provided a mass of evidence of the way the Cosmos has developed since the Big Bang. The Cosmos began some 13.7 Billion years ago with the Big Bang. Before the Big Bang there was nothing, not even a 'before'.

Time, Space and Energy all began with the Big Bang. Matter began to develop immediately, producing all the elements of the Periodic Table in a succession of exploding Stars. Some 4.5 Billion years ago Planet Earth developed. By about 4 Billion years ago, life had emerged on Earth. Life evolved in complexity, producing vegetative, instinctive, and conscious animal forms, which latter form included the Hominids. An advanced Hominid, Homo sapiens, evolved some 160,000 years ago as a new animal species. The Big Bang was thus the beginning of an ongoing process that has operated to date through a series of Emergent Stages.

The Big Bang could not just happen. Nothing 'just happens'. Everything has a cause. Such a cause would need to be powerful, intelligent and creative. I will call this entity the Creator. I avoid the word God because of the mythical and other baggage that the idea of God carries.


Can the Cosmic process make sense? Does the evidence indicate a possible purpose? Motive becomes important here. What motive could the Creator have for initiating the complex process that began with the Big Bang and continues to the present?

Aristotle was the first Philosopher to consider the question of the motive for Creation. He was able to reason from the contingent nature of the world to the necessity of a Creator, but he was unable to reason his way back from the Creator to the world. Aristotle's Creator was perfect, but the world was obviously imperfect. Why would a perfect Creator make an imperfect world?

Was Aristotle unable to resolve the question of motive because his only perception of process was based on the circular, repetitive processes of nature, and he lived in an otherwise static world? The category of a linear developmental process through time had to await Hegel. Modern Science and Philosophy can take development through time into account.


The Big Bang was the beginning of Time. It provided all the Energy needed for the process of Emergence, resulting in all the Emergent Stages that have developed to date. These Emergent Stages are Matter, Life and Human Moral-cultural life. Each of these stages has its own sphere of law. The essential difference between the Emergent Stages is related to the Information that operates within each stage and that gives rise to the law of the stage. The Big Bang was not only the initiation of Time and Energy. It also provided the Information that distinguishes the different Emergent Stages.

Each Emergent Stage is built upon the previous stage. The new Emergent Stage incorporates the previous stage, but transcends it, introducing a new sphere of natural law. While the law of the new stage transcends the law of the previous stage, the law of the previous stage remains in operation. It is the new sphere of law that distinguishes each new Emergent Stage from the earlier Emergent stage upon which it is built. The laws of Physics and Chemistry apply to the Emergent Stage of Matter, the Genetic laws of life to the Emergent Stage of Life, and the Moral Law to the Human Moral-cultural Emergent Stage.

Matter is the first Emergent. Life appears to have emerged as soon as matter had developed a potentially life-friendly environment. Life evolves on Earth, eventually producing a series of Hominids, including Homo sapiens. The third Emergent stage, Human moral-cultural life, is very recent. It began to emerge among Homo sapiens less than 3,000 years ago. There were human cultures prior to that emergence, but no human moral cultures. Homo sapiens took a long time to develop from simply being an advanced animal species to begin to become human, and then begin to become moral.


Time and Energy are important to the process of Emergence, but Information is even more important. It is Information that makes each new Emergent stage different from the previous stage, and provides the law of the new stage. New Emergent stages do not come into being as a result of some pre-existing Law of Nature. Laws of Nature are simply statements of the regularities that are to be found at the Emergent Stages of Matter and Life, based on the Information embedded in each stage, and of the moral activity that emerges at the beginning of the Human Moral-cultural Stage.

The laws of Physics and the laws of Life are embedded in the first two Emergent stages. The moral law, however, is not embedded in the Human moral-cultural stage. The moral law only comes into effect through the activities of individual humans, as it is perceived and conveyed by those individuals.

Each new Emergent Stage operates with greater freedom than the previous stage. The laws of matter are deterministic, material novelty arising from the interaction of these deterministic laws. The laws of life provide greater freedom than the laws of matter. Life is opportunistic rather than deterministic. The Moral Law allows complete moral freedom. As Nicolai Hartmann notes 'The Moral Law commands, but cannot compel.'


Bernard Lonergan argues that the growth in complexity within the Emergent stages of Matter and Life occurs through the process of Emergent Probability. In this process simple components form higher integrations by self-organisation. He maintains that the formation of these higher integrations is not pre-determined, nor is it simply a matter of chance. The higher integrations are considered to be the result of a series of freely operating processes, involving a succession of probable realisations of possibilities. (Insight, 1958, Chapter IV)


As distinct from developments within an Emergent Stage, a new Emergent Stage is not the result of higher integrations of existing components. Each new stage requires further Information in order to operate in a new way. A new Emergent Stage only emerges when the Information needed to initiate it becomes effective. This Information brings the new stage, and its new sphere of law, into operation,

In the beginning of the Emergent Process, Energy and Information combine to provide the Emergent stage of Physical Matter. The laws of Physics and Chemistry express the Information that forms, or in-forms, this first Emergent stage. Matter is informed Energy. We know a lot about the processes by which matter develops from very simple to more complex forms, but we do not yet know how energy is informed to produce matter. We can however deconstruct some matter to produce energy.

Life is the next Emergent Stage. Just as energy is informed to produce Matter, Matter is further informed to produce Life. The laws of Genetics express the Information that forms, or in-forms Life. Again we know a lot about the processes by which Life develops from simple to more complex forms, but we do not yet know how matter is informed to produce life.

Life evolves through a number of distinct sub-stages, including Bacterial life, Vegetative life, Instinctive Animal life and finally Conscious Animal Life. Each sub-stage is subject to the same sphere of law, the Genetic laws of life.

The laws of the Physical Emergent stage are deterministic, but the interactions of various physical laws make for a diversity of physical outcomes. At some time, in some part of the material Cosmos, at least one planet that is capable of supporting life will develop through the process of Emergent Probability.

Earth, a complex life-friendly planet, eventually develops. Life emerges on Earth. Life exercises greater freedom in its self-organisation than does Physical Matter. Life on Earth freely evolves new forms in order to fill every available environmental niche. More complex life-forms develop by the self-organisation of existing Genetic elements.

Conscious Animal Life enjoys more freedom in its range of possible activities than does Instinctive Animal life. Homo sapiens originally evolves as a new species of Conscious Animal life. At some stage Homo sapiens begins to develop cultures. This development of culture is the beginning of self-creation, as distinct from earlier forms of self-organisation.


The early Emergent stages, Matter and Life, both develop through self-organization. Self-organisation is the re-organisation of already existing elements. Self-creation goes further and initiates a new element, such as culture, rather than simply re-organising existing elements. Humans create their own human-ness, both culturally and existentially, as they develop themselves and their cultures. Cultures are processes of human self-creation.

Homo sapiens have been around for some 160,000 years. The species has changed slowly, but significantly, since it first evolved. The first members of this new species were not people, as we now consider ourselves. They were highly evolved animals, but they were simply animals, nothing more.

The gradual development of Homo sapiens, from an animal species to human, took a long time. This development was mankind's own doing. As Bernard Lonergan points out in his 'Second Collection': 'Man's development is a matter of getting beyond himself, of transcending himself, of ceasing to be an animal in a habitat and of becoming a genuine person in a community'. (1974,144)


We are still engaged in this process of becoming more human. As a species, Homo sapiens began the long process of self-creation, from animal to human, by forming and developing cultures, as some other Hominids had also begun to do. Self-creation began with the Hominids. It began while they were simply conscious animals. Every Hominid culture is a potential process of self-creation. Cultures are made by the 'people' of the culture, and cultures, to a significant extent, make the 'people' of the culture.

Homo sapiens gradually developed the capacity to access information from the environment, to a greater extent than had other hominid species. The new species developed a knowledge base, and individual members developed their intellectual ability in the construction of knowledge and in the pursuit of understanding.

Human intellectual development was painfully slow. Apart from the development of language, the first significant cultural change after the evolution of the species occurred in the Palaeolithic revolution of some 40,000 years ago, with the construction of symbolic representations of concepts. That was 120,000 years after the species first evolved. An even more significant change, the beginning of critical thought and of moral sensibility, took a further 37,000 years to develop. The capacity for principled moral perception appears to still be in the process of development. The majority of people today still lack the capacity to make principled moral decisions.


When the intellectual abilities of some cultural groups had become well developed, some of the people of those cultures began to perceive that human situations had a moral dimension. Having first developed the capacity to access and apply information from the natural environment, some individuals began to be able to access moral Information directly. They also sought to apply moral concepts within their cultures. This was the beginning of the Human Moral-cultural revolution.

The transition from pre-moral human cultures to morally influenced cultures is necessarily a slow and irregular process. It appears to be at least partly dependent upon the intellectual self-development and the level of critical rationality achieved by the people of each culture. It is only within the last millennium BC that any significant intellectual and moral development becomes evident in any human culture. Before that time most people appear to have lacked both critical rationality and moral sensibility. All cultures had Laws, but these were simply mores, or cultural rules. They did not stem from a moral sensibility. In his 'The Discovery of the Mind' (1953) Bruno Snell traces the gradual development of both critical rationality and morality, particularly in Greece.

Snell shows how Greek literature provides evidence of the gradual development of a moral perspective in Greece. Homer's stories are ancient and are pre-moral. In Homer, what is declared good is what is successful, not what is moral. 'Good' does not signify a moral dimension in Homer. Some time after Homer, Hesiod (c.750 BC) rationalises the genealogies of the Olympian Gods, but he does not concern himself with their lack of morality. Two Centuries after Hesiod, Xenophanes (c.570 BC) one of the pre-Socratics, declares that the Olympian Deities cannot be Gods, because of their immorality. Moral sensibility has emerged in Greece.

The Hebrew developed a moral perspective earlier than the Greeks. The critical focus of Hebrew thought was primarily directed to moral action. Amos and Hosea, Hebrew Prophets who were vitally concerned with moral action, were approximate contemporaries of the Greek writer, Hesiod, who failed to exhibit any moral concern when he rationally recast the genealogies of the Olympian Gods.

The Human Moral-cultural Emergent Stage is anomalous in two ways. It depends upon self-creation, as distinct from the self-organisation of the earlier stages of Matter and Life. Secondly, the law of the Moral-cultural Stage, the Moral Law, is not embedded in the stage, as is the law of the two earlier Emergent Stages.

In the human Moral-cultural stage Information is accessed in a new way. Moral individuals, those capable of Kohlberg's 'principled morality', appear to have some direct access to moral Information. This access enables them to perceive the moral aspects of human situations.

Such direct access to moral Information is still rare. As Kohlberg has shown, only a very small percentage of people are capable of making principled moral decisions. The development of moral cultures appears to be primarily dependent upon the influence that people with a principled moral perception are able to have within the culture. The 'morality' of the vast majority of people does not rely on principled moral perceptions. It is simply the adoption of societal norms.


What meaning or purpose can we derive from the Evidence of the development from the Big Bang until the present day, including the emergence of matter, of life, and of human Moral-cultural life? Unlike the suggested analogy to a Detective investigating a criminal act, we do not have all the evidence. The Cosmic process does not yet appear to be complete. The human Moral-cultural stage is still developing. It is still anything but perfect.

The vast size of the Cosmos, and the time that has elapsed since the Big Bang, are often invoked to imply that humanity is insignificant in the overall scheme of things. But if we are looking at a freely operating process rather than a directed process, the age and size of the Cosmos may be a necessary factor in that process. It took a long time for a life-friendly planet to develop, and further time for life to emerge and evolve.

It could well have taken even longer, but it could well have occurred at some other place and time, given sufficient places and sufficient time. Lonergan suggests that 'No matter how slight the probability of the realisation of the most developed and most conditioned schemes, the emergence of those schemes can be assured by sufficiently increasing absolute numbers and sufficiently prolonging intervals of time.' (Insight, 1958 Ch.4)

Lonergan does not propose an answer to the question of the purpose of the Cosmic process. I would also prefer to leave it to readers to consider the evidence and reach their own conclusion, which I would be happy to discuss.

© Anthony Kelly 2005