Where are we going, and why are we going there? Broad questions, I’ll grant you, but that’s the sort of mood I’m in. Plus I couldn’t decide on one single topic for the evening. Meh!
The Huge Entity linked to a great article at Seed magazine which, in a way, suggests that science has taken the place of religion in human culture, and that discovery is both a means and an end. There is a certain ring of truth to this – we are certainly seeing a saturation of human culture with technology (which is only one of the products of science, of course), and the ideas that science is exploring (the origins of the universe, the evolution of life, the nature of consciousness and so on) are becoming increasingly philosophical as well as practical.
Neither the article or I are suggesting that there will be the kind of blind faith in science that religion can inspire (although there are examples of this from time to time), but my point is that science is where we look for answers to the big questions. When we ponder the meaning and nature of existence itself, it is to science we turn.
That’s not to say we always ask questions the right way, nor understand the answers provided us – I am sometimes as guilty of this as any other layman, when confronted by big ideas that appeal to my sense of human hubris and futurist grandeur. And sometimes, when the media have ‘spun’ a scientist’s words, people get entirely the wrong message (or the wrong part of the right one), and turn on them as an enemy of humanity – to whit the reaction to Stephen Hawking’s speculations on potential planetary doom and a human diaspora into space.
Mass media trains us to read speculations as statements of certainty, and to react accordingly. This dualistic process is arguably a function of the Western mindset (ah, religion again), and is exploited to the full by politicians – does ‘you’re either with us, or with the terrorists’ ring any bells? Hawking has never said we should write the earth off as a disaster and high-tail it to a new planet to wreck; he’s just contemplating worst case scenarios (which may come alarmingly true unless we pull our collective finger out) and suggesting possible outcomes and responses. For various reasons, this has upset a lot of scientists, too, mostly in the ‘we broke it, so we have to fix it’ ecology lobby. I agree with them entirely that the world needs saving, and fast, and I expect Hawking does too. He’s just realistic enough to realise that we may not manage it in time. Surely all the hand-waving and apportionment-of-blame isn’t helping matters much, and getting the hell on with it would be a good idea, but what do I know, eh?
Maybe one of the many things that will help us fix the ecological timebomb is finding a way to convert natural resources directly into foodstuffs, like the tank-grown meat that is being kicked around the blogosphere at the moment. But what about the ethical implications, and how many people will actually be willing to eat the stuff? The project will get nowhere without a market, and I can’t see many people (except die-hard science fiction fans) being keen on eating it at first; the take-up will be better in poorer regions , but the pampered West will flinch away with protestations of ‘un-naturalness’. As much as we’ve (largely) shed religious dogma, certain ideas are buried very deep. I’d love to do a straw poll on this one; any readers of VCTB have a stance on the clone-meat thing? Would you eat it? If not, why not? I might tout the question around at work tomorrow, see what a cross-section of people tells us. Like a lot of things, I expect the reaction will be ‘great idea, but I wouldn’t do it myself’. That is the part of human nature that I think Hawking understands – that, and of course NIMBYism.
With humans, it’s always a matter of dualism, no matter what subject gets brought up; small or large, inconsequential or earth-shattering. I get the feeling there is a gap forming between transhumanists and singularitarians, too; the transhumanists think the singularitarians are evoking a religious idea (‘the rapture of the nerds’), and the singularitarians are offended by the perceived image-obsession of the transhumanists. They’re both singing from the same ‘augmented human’ songsheet, but there’s a disagreement between them as to what key the tune is in. As the movements gain power, there will be more to gain from widening the split. Oh well…if nothing else, a debate between those two parties would be more interesting to watch than the politics we have at the moment.
So where are we going? We’re heading for the future, of course. But the future (at least as far as our minds are concerned) is not yet set in stone, and so there’s ideology and advantage aplenty to be squabbled over. The issue for me is whether we squabble about how we survive as a species, or over who’s fault it is that we’re not going to.
If you think Hawking is wrong to suggest a diaspora, how do you propose we survive on just one planet that we’ve nearly wrecked already, and have stripped of many resources? If you think he’s right, do you not care about the mother-planet at all? Neither of these absolutes are the only option; there is an infinite spread of grey areas and compromises in between, to the sides, above and below. As much as I want to see the human race exploring space, I think we need to explore that no-man’s-land of ideas first. Talk is cheap, but it’s useful. Action is great, but only when directed by rational debate and consensus. Dualistic politics is the only real enemy here that I can see. One planet, one race, one future. Or no future at all. It’s our choice – and I propose we start making that choice. Like, real soon.