Thursday, June 21, 2012

Fatalism, Fear and the Future of Humanity

By Steve Rensberry

 In another 1,000 years, what will the people of planet earth think of the world of the early 21st century? That the people of today were barbarians? That they were the last of a fading civilization that still carried with them the superstitious baggage that has been a part of humanity for thousands of years?
   Technologically, biologically, mechanically and scientifically we are bound to be at a place we can barely imagine. Psychologically, emotionally and culturally? Perhaps not so much, for as long at 1,000 years may seem, human nature has proven time and again to be nearly intractable.
   There will be, I imagine, the continued obsession with feeling that one's own period of time remains the most important period of time there has ever been. "We are at the precipice of human civilization," they will say. "The end of the world is just around the corner." But facts are stubborn things and, like clockwork, such pronouncements have proven repeatedly to be devoid of substance, whether their source is a 4,800-year-old Assyrian clay tablet, the apocalyptic pronouncements of the early Romans, or the hundreds if not thousands of end-time predictions made at practically every turn in human history.
   "It should be recalled that early Christians thought the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth would be soon," authors William Ebenstein and Alan O. Ebenstein write. (Great Political Thinkers, Fifth Edition, Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1991, pg 201).
   Then there is the intense rationalization that so often accompanies such pronouncements in the interests of maintaining the integrity--real or imagined--of one's core assumptions about reality, a much easier route to take than to exercise one's faculty of critical thinking or to admit that there are some things about life that we just don't know. But what good is faith if the object of one's faith is imaginary? And if it takes faith to make something real (as in the oft-heard appeal to "just have faith, and 'he' will reveal himself to you"), does this not make it obvious the imaginary, mental source of such "reality" or "truth?" Reality stands on its own merits and commands us to believe by a preponderance of overpowering evidence, without an appeal to some hocus pocus trick involving the adoption of an absolutist frame of mind to make us "see," to manifest reality.
   Another quote from Ebenstein and Ebenstein, this time speaking about the early church, end-time prophecies and the practice of slavery: "As time went on, however, and the advent of the heavenly kingdom was pushed further and further into the future, those church fathers who took an objective look at institutionalized slavery were hard pressed to rationalize its injustices. Some slaves were very good individuals, and therefore not deserving of the 'punishment' of their enslaved condition, while some masters were hateful tyrants. Regrettably, rather than taking the position that slavery was inherently unjust, the institutional response was that one's reward for Christian behavior could only be expected in the next life, not this one." (ibid 201).
   Whatever the source of the fatalism that so many people feel so compelled to embrace, whether it be karma, Biblical prophecy or any variety of superstition, I would suspect that it will be around well into the next millennium. Perhaps this is only to be fatalistic about the endurance of fatalistic thought itself, but is not 1,000 years but a blip on the timeline of human history?
   Then, like now, I would suspect that vast portions of humanity will exhibit the same subconscious urge to surmount the fundamentally suppressive and limiting natural environment. They will love and hate, they will exhibit jealousies, arrogance, and the same discriminatory, self-serving behaviors that they often do now. They will deceive one another for personal gain, pretending to be one thing will desiring another, while many others will remain humble and honest. Hopefully we will have found a cure for many of today's ills, such as cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer's Disease and a host of other modern-day plagues such as Parkinson's Disease, AIDS and Multiple Sclerosis.
   Consider the revolution going on in at least three areas: biotechnology, information and computer science and physics.
   In looking at what has transpired in each of these fields over just the past 15 years it is difficult not to be skeptical of the shape of things to come. We have yet to know exactly where the mapping of the human genome will take us. And what of the tremendous advances in artificial intelligence, neurology, wireless digital communications, quantum science and cosmology?
   Who knew where we'd be today, just in the area of biotechnology? In a 2009 Popular Mechanics article, Melinda Wenner writes about "20 Biotech Breakthroughts That Will Change Medicine." Included are: decay-fighting microbes, artificial lymph nodes, an asthma sensor, a biological pacemaker, nerve re generator, speech restorer, a rocket-powered arm and nanosecond adhesives, among others. See: breakthroughs.
   Genomic is a related area where great strides are being made.
   "Today, genomic, the study of all the genetic material in an organism, is leading to tremendous advances in biotechnology. Genomic is both generating new tools and techniques and producing huge amounts of biological data. The deluge of genomic data has even led to the new science of bio informatics, which enables the data to be stored, accessed, compared, and used," a public statement from the United States Department of Agriculture notes. See: biotech.
    The future is bound to place at our fingertips vast amounts of knowledge about ourselves and the natural world that is nothing short of phenomenal. The downside is that human nature is such that many of our base emotions, feelings and desires act to filter what is ultimately perceived. People see what they want to see and no amount of evidence will convince them otherwise, especially when that belief involves some hypothetical, transcendent reality that contravenes all known laws of physics and that is--by definition--beyond one's ability to experience until after death. How can you prove it wrong (or right) when it is by definition outside the only reality we have access to?
   The reality is that if current population trends continue, in another 1,000 years earth will be home to an incredible 84.9 billion people. This assumes a current growth rate of 78.8 million people per year. To survive in such a shrinking world, future civilizations must surely learn to temper the brute scramble for limited resources that has become such an essential feature of today's capitalistic enterprise. More necessary still will be the need to temper the human impulse toward radicalism, in both thought and deed. Technology may help, but what is technology but a tool used to extend, amplify, augment or add to the basic attributes human beings already possess--a tool that can be used either for good or bad?
   The future of humanity may very well require some very rudimentary changes in the way we human beings have thought for literally thousands of years, in learning to frame our differences in terms of constructive rather than destructive debate, in establishing policies that foster economic fairness and opportunity rather the same measure of personal responsibility for persons with unequal genetic attributes and unequal environments, and in solving problems of crime and public threat in ways that don't exaggerate the threats and cost us more in the long run than the crimes themselves. Individual freedom is important to preserve, but who would argue that it should be totally unrestrained in a limited world of shared resources? Ethnocentrism and bigotry, along with the philosophical ideas that fuel them, will most certainly find themselves up against the wall as times we move in the future--particularly so in the wake of the current exponential growth in information and other forms of knowledge working to shed light on the human condition.
    "In this triumphant era of molecular biology and the first draft of the human genome, one might have supposed that we would know the answer to the question, What is life? Yet we do not. We know bits and pieces of molecular machinery, patches of metabolic circuitry, genetic network circuitry, means of membrane biosynthesis, but what makes a free-living cell alive escapes us. The core remains mysterious," writes biochemistry professor Stuart Kauffman in his essay "What is Life." (The Next Fifty Years: Science in the First Half of the Twenty-First Century, Edited by John Brockman, Vintage Books, 2002, Pg. 126).
    As long as there are people uncomfortable with uncertainty, an uncertainty that seems to be built into the very fabric of the universe itself, we will have our debates. But nurturing an acceptance of life's unknowns, of the relative nature of things, may be just the key that we need. Yes, we can be very, very certain of some things, things that can be readily demonstrated and observed--like one plus one equal two, or the fact that people must be born before they die--but everything has its limits. Open minds are inquisitive and empathetic minds. They are minds that value the living over the dead and the here-and-now over the hypothetical, and mind which concern themselves first and foremost with the needs and cares of real people in current time and space, rather than in that which is by definition light years beyond the realm of temporal existence.

Carl Sagan on God, Faith and Religion