As sea levels rise, machines become smarter and Donald Trump’s finger hovers over the nuclear button, it is no surprise that a sizeable crowd turned out for this apocalyptic Radboud Reflects’ lecture. It wasn’t all doom and gloom however, as Catherine Keller, professor of Constructive Theology at Drew University, began by showing us the bright side of the apocalypse. Moderator Liesbeth Jansen then led individual discussions between Keller and three philosophers from Radboud University: environmental philosopher Lisa Doeland, political philosopher Mathijs van de Sande and philosopher of Artificial Intelligence Pim Haselager.
When we think of the apocalypse we think of doomsday, the ultimate end of the world. Catherine Keller argued that this is a limited reading of the word ‘apocalypse’, which actually comes from the Greek apocalypto – ‘I reveal’, ‘I disclose.’ The apocalypse is not so much about closure but about disclosure, revealing some new world; “catastrophe”, she argued “serves as catalyst for radical new beginnings.”
Keller’s current focus on apocalypse has been prompted by a ‘secularised’ use of the term in relation to climate change. With recent U.N warnings that we have only 12 years to keep global warming below a level of 1.5 degrees, she argued that apocalyptic visions can help us wake up to potential futures and move away from those which most disturb us. In ‘dream-reading’ the apocalypse, we can confront our deepest fears – and hopes – for the future.
Continuing, Keller claimed that the Book of Revelation is one such dream-reading of the apocalypse. In its presentation of environmental catastrophe, imperialist excess and mass slaughter, we can see many themes which resonate with us today. What is key here, though, is what comes after: the ‘New Jerusalem.’ This vision of a rehydrated world, ecologically rich and socially just, should not be conceived of as a distant heaven, she argued, but as an earthly utopia. It invites us to realise it against the odds, against the threat of apocalypse. With every successful move towards social justice in this world, Keller continued, a “facet of this utopia crystallises” and we glimpse a “sparkle of New Jerusalem.”
Concluding her lecture, Keller stressed that this dream-reading is not an optimistic venture, one which allows us to passively expect a better world; rather, it actively encourages us to try and craft a brighter future, to explore new possibilities. “Dream clouds darkly glow with possibility, but they glow”, she finished.
Keller then spoke in turn with the three philosophers from Radboud University. At the start of each segment a short film clip was played to provide inspiration for the discussion.
Let it Go
Lisa Doeland chose to start the discussion with a clip from the documentary How to Let Go of the World and Love All The Things Climate Can't Change. In this film, Doeland explained, director Josh Fox gives up on the concept of a whole, coherent ‘world of man’, and the idea that we can effect change on a global level; he instead focuses on the fight to improve smaller worlds, to work at the level of the personal or the community. Keller agreed with Doeland that this can be a beneficial move, and that losing the “illusion of control” over a unified ‘world’ can liberate us, allowing us to re-engage with the world with a new sense of agency and energy.
Disagreement came when the discussion turned to the usefulness of the idea of apocalypse. Doeland argued that apocalyptic imagery in coverage of climate change is something that should be avoided, as the certainty it implies harms our efforts to negate the worst effects of global warming. Keller, on the other hand, defended her continued focus on apocalypse by arguing that, as apocalyptic imagery isn’t going to go away, she might as well open it up, and show that it is full of possibilities.
Mathijs van de Sande began the next discussion with a clip from a documentary about the effects of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans. He argued that disasters often lead to the formation of new social movements and communities, increasing solidarity as people voluntarily form their own structures. Disasters can open up glimpses of utopia as we get the opportunity to practice a ‘radical alternative.’ Keller agreed that “catastrophe is catalyst” and “emergency provokes emergence”, emphasising the need for us to be ready to take advantage of new opportunities.
Van de Sande then identified as his greatest concern for the future the rise of right wing nationalism across the globe. Keller stressed the role of her ‘open’ interpretation of apocalypse in combatting this, claiming that it could dissuade impressionable churchgoers from falling in with the ‘religious right.’
Pim Haselager began the final discussion with a clip from Terminator 2. The clip highlighted the potential threat of ‘superintelligent’ machines, which could overtake human cognitive capacities as soon as 2045 - no-one knows what would happen in case of such a development. Haselager pointed out that this presents us with a bizarre form of potential apocalypse; it is not one reached through disinterestedness, as in ecological disaster, but is rather actively pursued - Artificial Intelligence researchers are putting all of their energies into creating such machines.
As the evening drew to a close, Haselager questioned the focus on artificial intelligence as opposed to ethics or empathy. Keller agreed that these qualities are crucial, but that we only need to look inside ourselves to find them; continuing her theme from the rest of the event, she concluded that we must be ready to channel these qualities if we are to respond in a comradely manner to the challenges of the 21st century. These challenges, to summarise, can be identified and confronted through a ‘dream-reading’ of an apocalyptic future, and it is through this reading that new possibilities for social change open up. The concept of apocalypse, then, should not depress us; it should energise us, and give us hope for a better future.
This report was written by Michael Goodman, as part of the Research Master Philosophy of the Radboud University.