The race to immortality
In the history of humankind ‘soon’ is a relative term with plenty of room for extension when needed. So I can predict that ‘soon’ we shall hear the sounds of intelligent, sentient life on another planet, without raising expectations that it will be next week. The mathematical probability of there being other inhabited planets like ours is high. The expectation that we will populate and civilise another planet is also now realistic; a few years ago it was considered impossible.
Our discoveries about the body and brain lead us to conclude that pretty well all of man is matter, much as we would like there to be spirit, too. Certainly we have creativity that enables our matter to produce pictures and sounds that we may qualify as spiritual. Certainly our thoughts, about which we still know relatively little, can be noble or ignoble. We think we have some control – perhaps spiritual – over them. As yet we have no evidence that, if we produce a body and brain that does not wear out, we will not be able to conjure up the good and the bad, the clever and the banal.
From the big breakthroughs of recognising our ignorance to an understanding of DNA we have encouraged science to replace our beliefs with facts. It has done so handsomely. Such knowledge as we have is now universally available. Contributions to better using that knowledge come from all walks of life, not just from those whose formal education has taught them the discipline of thinking. We are now at a point, I suggest, when we can envisage both immortality and intergalactic living. How should we prepare for this new technological era?
A feature of mankind’s brain development has been the ability to perceive relationships. This is the creativity our matter can produce. We have got better at it during my lifetime but are still not smart. It took 300 years to discover the carcinogenic effects of nicotine and will take another hundred to rid people of the smoking habit. Sensual pleasure often dominates discipline when there’s a battle. As resources to fund science grow, rules for leading a sensible life become better known. They amount to wisdom. As much as we decry the apparent lack of wisdom in a technical world, I think our wisdom improves over time. Not in a straight line, not always greater but nudging better.
We have paid little attention since the early great philosophers to developing wisdom. To handle roles we previously ascribed to gods, we must pay a lot more. Our education systems have failed us in this respect. Replacing theological morality with scientific sense should have been a prime purpose of teaching. Rather the contrary, it has promoted a belief in the rightness of everything we feel a desire to do. We do not want another threat of hell-fire but we do need developed reason.
We have devoted significant resources to technological progress but relatively small amounts to the promulgation of wisdom. Scientists and technologists are generally financed to seek resources for commercial exploitation – their sponsors want to see the buck in the short or medium term. As a result less pure research is done than a wisdom-seeking society requires. What has mainly determined this has been our relatively short life span. Now that span may last as long as we want, the incentive to seek longer-term solutions should be greater.
Without some additional push this improved incentive is likely to lag behind the actual extension of life. The threat therefore is that we may obliterate ourselves as a result of our short-term vision before the need for longer-term wisdom is recognised as – literally – vital. What could we do to reduce the consequences of such short-sightedness?
There is no panacea for such fundamental cultural changes. Education, clearly, must be at the root of philosophical growth. It is more a matter of small steps by individuals than life-changing laws by governments. My own small efforts have been to encourage everyone to read three hours of philosophy a week. Once the habit has been started it becomes a joy not a chore. It certainly concentrates the mind on the future as well as helping to preserve it for the present.
Equally successful has been our wide distribution of Yuval Noah Harari’s excellent book Sapiens – a Brief History of Humankind. Everyone who reads it says how thoughtful it makes them.
As Norman Collins, editor & author (1915-1990) said: History is a vast early warning system.
May you be prepared enough to be blessed in the coming exciting chapters of humankind.