We’re having a big religious weekend in Judeo-Christian circles.  Jews are celebrating their deliverance from slavery, but of course nothing is simple for the Jews, so we get to argue about inconsistencies and errors and missing pieces in what presents itself as a very detailed instruction manual for the Seder. And try to figure out why a just God would exterminate a generation of Egyptian children to start the Israelites on a (potholed) multi-millenial journey of growth and capacity-building.

Christians are celebrating their more general salvation, conditioned on the sacrifice of one person (God is a lot less bloodthirsty in the New Testament) and Christ’s resurrection to eternal life.  This is the most important Christian holiday, but for some reason the secular culture gives it much less support than it does to Christmas, so a Moslem or Hindu tourist might reasonably infer it to be a celebration of new threads, lately evolved to center incoherently on marshmallow, rabbits and eggs. The public celebration is mostly held in drugstore aisles, with less salience than Hallowe’en, and setting children to poke around under bushes for hidden eggs.

For all the missteps and absurdities of religion, it’s not a bad idea to take a weekend like this to reflect on big questions like the immortality of the soul, man’s place in the universe, and like that. Do we go to heaven; and what are we when we do?   Mark Twain gives us a hilarious take on what our traditional ideas of an afterlife heaven really imply, but no satisfactory concept to replace what he demolishes.  We do not readily give up the hope that we are engaged in something much longer than threescore years and ten: For here have we no continuing city, but we seek one to come. (Hebrews 13:14)

In my view Marvin Minsky put paid to the idea of a literal eternal soul with anything like a human personality simply by asking, in The Society of Mind, “does the soul learn?”.  But someone who combines the skeptical, cleareyed perception of humanity-warts-and-all of a Twain or a Bierce with more underlying kindness, and what I might call a lyric impulse, presents an eschatology I can get behind, along with a good model of immortality.  I think Forster gets this right.


Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

6 thoughts on “Eschatology”

  1. “…to center incoherently on marshmallow, rabbits and eggs…”

    And chocolate.

  2. Wittgenstein in the Tractatus asks how eternal life is supposed to solve anything.

  3. “…try to figure out why a just God would exterminate a generation of Egyptian children to start the Israelites on a (potholed) multi-millenial journey…”

    Michael, that’s an easy one — Being all-knowing, He realized that would make the best story for Cecil B. DeMille.

  4. How about we start with the null hypothesis that there is no such thing as life after death, and then ask if there’s any evidence to the contrary? You know, a reality-based approach.

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