John Updike and Me
Going head to head with the late author on reason and faith.
February 6, 2009 - 12:11 am
I first encountered John Updike through his Roger’s Version, a cosmological and theological treatise disguised as a porno novel. Updike, as he admitted in Roger’s Version, is really a Marcionite Heretic. This ancient heresy, most recently advanced by the German theologian Karl Barth, holds that God is wholly other, completely unapproachable by reason: theology and science are two non-overlapping magisteria. Technology, being of the natural world and hence other than God, is fundamentally bad.
The greatest challenge to Marcion/Barth is the Anthropic Principle, one version of which says that we can see the Hand of God in the fine-tuning of the laws of physics. Roger’s Version was an attack on this idea. The book’s climax was the humiliation of the idea’s defender, a hapless graduate student, by a wily old Harvard chemistry professor.
Oxford University Press published The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, which I coauthored with Cambridge University astronomer John D. Barrow, the year after Roger’s Version appeared. I sent a copy to Updike, pointing out that two real professors of cosmology could make a better case than a fictional graduate student. Updike replied — on a typewritten postcard; he refused to use computer technology — that he was not convinced by our arguments, but he was glad we were out there.
I think he was conciliatory because he was a bit nervous about taking on two professional cosmologists. But he regained his confidence. In an interview on C-SPAN, he said that he was inspired by reading my later Physics of Immortality to write his 1997 science fiction novel Toward the End of Time. My picture of the future of the universe is the ultimate progressive vision: using technology, we expand into space, engulf the universe, and live forever. In Updike’s view this is a horrible fate. Updike’s vision is the ultimate Luddite vision, unalterably opposed to technology.
In the November 1999 issue of the New Yorker, he explicitly rejected my proof for God’s existence, given “in his large, formula- and graph-ridden Physics of Immortality [Updike's description]” with “a God who could be proved would be an inescapable tyrant, an inert and imprisoning datum. Belief, like love, must be voluntary.”