04 March 2018


Farflung correspondents, 

I think this quote encapsulates a pragmatic sort of very ​long term optimism better than any other I've seen.
"Everything that is not forbidden by the laws of nature is achievable, given the right knowledge."    --David Deutsch

I might add "and technology," but technically, that's probably ​redundant, since technology, what Americans used to call "know-how," is a form of knowledge. This is one of two frontispiece quotes in Steven Pinker's new book Enlightenment Now, the Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.  This isn't meant to be a review of that book, which maybe I'll post another time. I think what Deutsch is saying in this quote, however, is really important. I've given it a lot of thought, and if come to the conclusion that modern humans, for the past century or so, I've been wallowing in self-deprecation, when the reality is that our capacity to more or less accurately model the way the universe works is the single most significant biological adaptation on Earth since photosynthesis, which took place about 2.4 billion years ago. I would argue that the evolution of this capacity makes it quite likely that we, or our descendants which share, and improve upon, this adaptation, will flourish and prevail over the long long future of life originating on Earth. If you really think about it, what has limited the development, and expansion, of life on our planet over almost all of its 3+ billion year history has been its lack of coherent awareness and intelligence. Now that we have evolved these qualities, the sky is literally the limit. Life in the universe is just beginning to get going. And we, as a species capable of reason and technology, are an absolutely essential part of its future, at least around here, in this little part of the universe where we happen to find ourselves. The existence of beings with this capacity is almost literally in its infancy on Earth, and the effects it will have on the future of life have only just begun to manifest themselves. We can't predict what life will develop into, but human or human-derived awareness and intelligence will be key to its future development, and expansion into environments beyond Earth. If you don't see it that way, I would suggest you might care to give it some more thought.

The idea of progress has become unfashionable, but Pinker pretty clearly demonstrates that it actually is occurring. Not in a linear fashion, always up, up, up, of course, but over time, the sum total of knowledge, and its use to improve the survival and flourishing of human beings and other forms of life, have increased. Any reasonably long period of time (say, a few centuries) of our history will show, globally, a net gain. And if anything, this process has been accelerating, right through the environmental crisis, peak oil, supposed food crises, etc. of the recent past. If you doubt it, consult the sources in Pinker's book. It is undeniable. 

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