When I was a kid there was a series on Nostradamus narrated by an Orson Welles surrounded in cigar smoke and false gravitas. I had not seen The Man Who Saw Tomorrow for over 30 years, though thanks to the miracle of Youtube I was able to find it here. Amazingly enough, I still remember Part 9 of the series in which the blue- turbaned, Islamic, 3rd antichrist allied with the Soviet Union plunges the world into thermonuclear war. I also remember the ending- scenes of budding flowers and sunshine signaling the rebirth of nature and humanity, a period of peace and prosperity to last 1,000 years.
It is hard to avoid getting swept up in the utopian optimism of Peter Diamandis. The world he presents in his Abundance: The Future is Better Than you Think is certainly the kind of future I would hope for all of us: the earth’s environment saved and its energy costless, public health diseases, global hunger and thirst eradicated, quality education and health care ubiquitous (not to mention cheap) and, above, all extreme poverty at long last conquered.
The tragic bombing on April 15 by the Tsarnaev brothers, Tamerlane and Dzhohkar collided and amplified contemporary debates- deep and ongoing disputes on subjects as diverse as the role of religion and especially Islam in inspiring political violence, and the role and use of surveillance technology to keep the public safe.
It was a time when the greatest power the world had yet known suffered an attack on its primary city which seemed to signal the coming of an age of unstoppable decline.The once seemingly unopposable power no longer possessed control over its borders,it was threatened by upheaval in North Africa, unable to bring to heel the stubborn Iranians, or stem its relative decline. It was suffering under the impact of climate change, its politics infected with systemic corruption, its economy buckling under the weight of prolonged crisis.
Sometimes a science-fiction novel achieves the impossible, and actually succeeds in reaching out and grasping the future, anticipating its concerns, grappling with its possibilities, wrestling with its ethical dilemmas. H.G. Wells’ short 1886 novel, The Island of Dr. Moreau, is like that. The work achieved the feat of actually being relevant to our own time at the very least because the scientific capabilities Well’s imagined in the novel have really only begun to be possible today, and will be only more so going forward. The ethical territory he identified with his strange little book ones we are likely to be increasingly called upon to chart our own course through.
One of the things that most strikes me when thinking on the subject of our contemporary discourse regarding the future is just how seldom those engaged in the discussion aim at giving us a vision of society as a whole. There are books that dig deep but remain narrow such as Eric Topol’s: The Creative Destruction of Medicine: How the Digital Revolution Will Create Better Health Care, and George Church’s recent Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves. Many of these books are excellent, but one walks away from reading them with a good idea of where a particular field or part of our lives might be headed rather than society as a whole.
It might be said that some contemporary futurists tend to use technological innovation and scientific discovery in the same way God was said to use the whirlwind against defiant Job, or Donald Rumsfeld treated the poor citizens of Iraq a decade ago. It’s all about the “shock and awe”. One glance at something like KurzweilAI.Net leaves a reader with the impression that brand new discoveries are flying off the shelf by the nanosecond and that of all our deepest sci-fi dreams are about to come true. No similar effort is made, at least that I know of, to show all the scientific and technological paths that have led into cul-de-sac, or chart all the projects packed up and put away like our childhood chemistry sets to gather dust in the attic of the human might-have- been. In exact converse to the world of political news, in technological news it’s the jetpacks that do fly we read about not the ones that never get off the ground.
Perhaps one of the best ways to get a grip on our thoughts about the future is to look at the future as seen in the eyes of the past. This is not supposed to be a Zen koan to cause the reader’s mind to ground to a screeching halt, but a serious suggestion. Looking at how the past saw the future might reveal some things we might not easily see with our nose so close to the glass of contemporary visions of it. A good place to look, I think, would be the artistic and cultural movement of the early 20th century that went under the name of Futurism.
This year one of the more thought provoking thought experiments to appear in recent memory has its tenth anniversary. Nick Bostrom’s paper in the Philosophical Quarterly “Are You Living in a Simulation?”” might have sounded like the types of conversations we all had after leaving the theater having seen The Matrix, but Bostrom’s attempt was serious. (There is a great recent video of Bostrom discussing his argument at the IEET). What he did in his paper was create a formal argument around the seemingly fanciful question of whether or not we were living in a simulated world. Here is how he stated it…
The one rule that seems to hold for everything in our Universe is that all that exists, after a time, must pass away, which for life forms means they will die. From there, however, the bets are off and the definition of the word “time” in the phrase “after a time” comes into play. The Universe itself may exist for as long as 100s of trillions of years to at last disappear into the formless quantum field from whence it came. Galaxies, or more specifically, clusters of galaxies and super-galaxies, may survive for perhaps trillions of years to eventually be pulled in and destroyed by the black holes at their centers.
In what follows I want to take a look at the opportunities for new kinds of religious thinking this gap between religion and science offers, but most especially for new avenues of secular thought that might manage, unlike the current crop of New Atheists to hold fast to science while not discarding the important types of thinking and approaches to the human condition that have been hard won by religious traditions since the earliest days of humanity.
Over the last decade a heated debate broke onto the American scene. The intellectual conflict between the religious and those who came to be called “the New Atheists” did indeed, I think, bring something new into American society that had not existed before- the open conflict between what, at least at the top tier of researchers, is a largely secular scientific establishment, or better those who presumed to speak for them, and the traditionally religious.
Four hundred and thirteen years ago to the day, on February, 17 1600, the mystic philosopher, and some would argue,scientist, Giordano Bruno, was handed over by the Catholic Church to the civil authorities in Rome and burned to death in the Campo de’ Fiori. Burning at the stake was a punishment that aimed at the annihilation of the person. The scattering of a body’s ashes, like Bruno’s ashes were scattered into the Tiber river, was not as many now look on similar rituals, a way of connecting a person forever into the fabric of a place they find for whatever reason sacred, but a way to cast a person out from the human world from which they came. It was the way “soulless” creatures such as animals were treated in death.
The technological ecosystem in which political power operates tends to mark out the possibility space for what kinds of political arrangements, good and bad, exist within that space. Orwell’s Oceania and its sister tyrannies were imagined in what was the age of big, centralized media. Here the Party had under its control not only the older printing press, having the ability to craft and doctor, at will, anything created using print from newspapers, to government documents, to novels. It also controlled the newer mediums of radio and film, and, as Orwell imagined, would twist those technologies around backwards to serve as spying machines aimed at everyone.
I am currently reading a monster of a book. At 802 pages, Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature, leaves even a voracious reader like myself a little winded. Pinker’s argument is that the world has become less and less violent over time, so much so that we now live in what is the most peaceful period of human history ever.
What often strikes me when I put the claims of some traditionally religious people regarding “eternal life” and the stated goals of the much more recent, I suppose you could label it with the oxymoronic phrase “materialist spirituality”, next to one another is just how much of the language and fundamental assumptions regarding human immortality these very different philosophies share.
Lately, I’ve had superorganisms on the brain. My initial plan for my post this week was to do a piece comparing earthly superorganisms like the Leaf Cutter Ant with the most well known of science-fiction superorganisms- the Borg. Two things happened that diverted me from this path. First, the blogger and minimalist beekeeper, James Cross, shared with me an article he wrote that largely said what I wanted to say about the Borg and insects as well or better than I could have. Second, during the course of my research I ran into a recent article that stuck in my craw, which I felt compelled to address.
When I saw that the scientist and science-fiction novelist, David Brin, had given a talk at a recent Singularity Summit with the intriguing title “So you want to make gods? Now why would that bother anybody?” my hopes for the current intellectual debate between science and religion and between rival versions of our human future were instantly raised.
When I was fourteen, or thereabouts, one of the very first novels I read was theFoundation Trilogy of Isaac Asimov. Foundation is for anyone so presumptuous, as I was and still am, to have an interest in “big history”- the rise and fall of civilizations, the place of civilization within the history earth and the universe, the wonder at where we will be millenia hence, a spellbinding tale.
Pinker’s book is copiously researched and argued, but it leaves one with a host of questions. It is not merely that tragic incidents of violence that we see all around us seem to fly in the face of his argument, it is that his viewpoint, at least for me, always seems to be missing something, to have skipped over some important element that would challenge its premise or undermine its argument, a criticism that Pinker has by some sleight of hand skillfully managed to keep hidden from us.
James Miller has an interesting looking new book out, Singularity Rising: Surviving and Thriving in a Smarter, Richer, and More Dangerous World. I haven’t had a chance to pick up the book yet, but I did listen to a very engaging conversation about the book at Surprisingly Free.Miller is a true believer in the Singularity, the idea that at some point, from the next quarter century to the end of the 21st, our civilization will give rise to a greater than human intelligence which will rapidly bootstrap to a yet higher order of intelligence in such a way that we are unable to see past this event horizon in historical time.