Sunday, May 17, 2015

How Our Lives Became a Sci-Fi Cliché – AND – Why Progress is a Pipe Dream


A certain online science fiction magazine used to have a list of "Stories We've Seen Too Often." One of them read:

"The future is utopian and is considered by some or many to be perfect, but perfection turns out to be boring and stagnant and soul-deadening; it turns out that only through imperfection, pain, misery, and nature can life actually be good."

I can see how this might be viewed as cliché. But there is something eerily sweeping here, as if the editors had completely lost patience with the idea of questioning Utopia or progress. Is it not interesting that they receive so many stories of just this sort? Isn't it maybe a little disturbing too?

In the New York Times there was an article recently called "Why Not Utopia?" which considered the increasing automation of the workforce (due to computers, mostly) and how this is causing inequality and putting people out of work. The proposed solution was to embrace a utopian socialist society of perfect equality and let the robots do the work for us. The author failed to mention the fact that automation depends on fossil fuels and other nonrenewable resources. He dismissed global warming as a "scientific" problem. He said nothing about soil depletion, mine depletion, or the staggering loss of biodiversity directly and indirectly caused by the industries that allow for this automation to happen. Nor does he mention that most of the economic inequality that needs to be addressed is between nations and not within the U.S. Since we use at least 5 times our share of resources I guess we'd have to give up 80% of our wealth. Why not Utopia? I don't know, give away 80% of your belongings and income and we'll talk.

People like to say (or at least imply) that human ingenuity can solve all such problems eventually. I don't think it can. Life is essentially a set of evolved responses to problems. No problems, no life. But even if I'm wrong about this, it still seems like a weird, eery idea.

Let's say you had a future like this. Robots do all the work for us. They grow our food and repair themselves and build more robots. Humans, for lack of anything better to do, spend their days in virtual reality experiencing whatever they want to. Does this sound good? Bad? Personally I find it sort of terrifying. When I imagine the end point of progress, as people seem to define it, this is what I see. I don't see how it would be avoidable if progress were continuous. Things get more and more convenient until they are maximally convenient and nobody has to do anything.

The idea has always baffled me. I once wrote a science fiction short story based on it, where robots take over not through violence or intelligence but through human laziness. The result is a new ecosystem of animal-like robots that take care of the bodies of the VR-addicted humans, until the humans, who forget to breed at all, simply die out of old age.

It's never been accepted for publication, but that's all right. I understand that I wasn't the first to think of such an idea. But that doesn't mean it's somehow irrelevant.

I find the idea of Utopia terrifying not because it's at all plausible, but because it's considered a legitimate goal of human life by so many intellectuals. It's not uncommon among scientists and in the sci-fi community to imagine a future where all humans are uploaded into VR and there you have it. A large part of the success of the Matrix movies, I think, was that they tapped into a collective uncomfortableness with the prophecy. A similar idea is Ray Kurzweil's Singularity. He argues that once computers have become more complex than humans ... SOMETHING! What exactly we can't know because our brains are too simple compared with what's coming. The idea is absurd: a tablespoon of healthy soil already contains more complexity in bacteria than the entire human brain. The Singularity has already happened and is still happening, and it used to be called Nature.

Nature used to be considered a good thing. It was mysterious, romantic, full of danger, and rich with life. In contemporary literature you see this mystique portrayed occasionally, but rarely well. Fantasy literature uses a nature aesthetic most often, but even this is derided as old-fashioned and reactionary by the most influential genre authors today. Michael Moorcock called Tolkien's work "strongly anti-urban" as if this undermined its relevance. He said the books sold because "people have been yearning for an ideal rural world," as if something were wrong with this. It reminds me of philosophy papers on environmentalism proposing that nature might have intrinsic value that ought to be respected. Since when did this idea become something controversial to be proven? When did we decide that yearning for a more natural rural life was unhealthy?

Our civilization is unsustainable, and massively so. Our cities are unsustainable. A return to a more rural life is therefore inevitable.

It's madness to yearn for robots and VR, rather than forests and farmwork. It's environmental shortsightedness to teach our children to value human-crowded convenience over gardens and free-ranging animals.

Another story the science fiction editors had seen to much of was one where:

"In the future, all learning is soulless and electronic, until a kid is exposed to ancient wisdom in the form of a book."

This is an apt summary of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, which itself is an apt prophesy of everything that has gone wrong over the past century. That these editors consider it a moot point to harp on shows another very eery sort of complacency.

Part of the soullessness of modern learning is that we use textbooks, not classics. Since we see modern philosophy as more progressed, we do not read ancient wisdom, though ancient wisdom is time tested and more reliably useful in day-to-day life, and less provisional than modern studies and hypotheses.

Ancient wisdom is what we're missing. It's what we've lost. In losing it we have made ourselves madly focused on giddy techno-utopian dreams. Too many are preaching against nature and tradition, and therefore against sustainability and ecology. Michael Moorcock attacked Tolkien like this:

"Since the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, at least, people have been yearning for an ideal rural world they believe to have vanished - yearning for a mythical state of innocence ... as heartily as the Israelites yearned for the Garden of Eden. This refusal to face or derive any pleasure from the realities of urban industrial life, this longing to possess, again, the infant's eye view of the countryside, is a fundamental theme in popular English literature."

But this brings me hope, not despair. If science fiction magazines receive "too many" stories about the bleakness of industrial life and the importance of ancient wisdom, that's a sign that they've lost touch with their audience. (That they often receive more submissions than subscriptions might also clue them in.) If people want novels about the country and about nature, this is not a sign of backwardness but of farsightedness amidst an unsustainable civilization.



Our taste for old books has been ruined by the notion of progress, by the idea that newer is better. We assume that newer is smarter and more humane, that ancient thinkers were old fashioned, irrational, unscientific, and tied to dogma, religion, and supersitition, and that therefore what they said was tainted and any of us can do better without trying.

I think this attitude is worse than unfair. It is pernicious, nonconstructive, and breeds a funny kind of ignorance. We think we know where we're going but we don't even know where we've been. We don't realize that our schemes for progress are already centuries old, millennia old even, and that this idea that newer is better has self-destructed repeatedly since the dawn of civilization.

We neglect to read Immanuel Kant's philosophy because it was Christian. Yet Isaac Newton, the founder of physics, was not only Christian but an alchemist and a mystic. Aristotle believed in a final cause. Einstein was a theist.

Darwin, it is true, began to lose his faith as he developed his theory. He wrote,

"I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine."

Is it any less damnable to let rot every book written by a theist, or by an aristocrat, or by a conservative, a liberal, a Marxist, or a Pagan?

A friend of mine once dismissed Tolkien because there weren't enough female characters in his books. It is certain that Tolkien could have been better about portraying women, but it strikes me as harsh to dismiss every other good idea or beautiful vision he might have had for this single weakness, however annoying.

Another intelligent person I know has questioned the value of the Greek philosophers in light of the fact that they owned slaves. This should doubtless give us pause when weighing their writings. Nothing can excuse their owning slaves, even if slavery was a universal practice in ancient Greece. But I must ask whether it means anything that out of thousands of philosophical books written in ancient Greek, these few by Plato and Aristotle—who rarely mentioned slavery in their books—were copied and recopied thousands of times by hand, through dark ages, by monks and scribes whose superiors might have preferred they copy Bibles or Korans instead, in books that cost a fortune to make (think new car rather than cheap paperback) that would nevertheless decay over just a few generations, at best, and were in ancient, unspoken languages? Today we can pay $3.50 on Amazon for a high quality English translation, or even get an old translation on Kindle for free, but I guess we're too progressed to read it and don't have the time anyway.

Thomas Jefferson owned slaves as well. Should this throw any doubt on the veracity of his phrase: "All men are created equal," or should we torch our tainted Constitution? Perhaps we should torch all contemporary American books too, given our dependence on wage-slaves in Mexico and overseas.

This idea that we are so progressed has muddled our thinking. Is there any making sense of a notion of progress that conjures such callous illusions? Maybe. I think we need to do everything we can to shake our dependence on foreign labor and stop the exploitation of poor countries. It is one reason I try to buy locally. If this is a kind of progress, then I whole-heartedly endorse it.

The fact of the matter is, I don't believe progress is happening. I don't think our civilization is moving forward at all. Someone recently asked me if I thought Western civilization was winning. I said of course not, but I didn't give much of an explanation. Here's my explanation:

You ask whether Western civilization is "winning." To make sense of this we must measure "winningness" in terms of energy, money, power, complexity or some other quantitative measure. But looking at success in terms of quantity is ultimately absurd. If having a larger population is better, then the best organisms are microbes. If having greater concentrations of energy is better, then we should all want to collapse into a black hole. If power or control is the most important then we are forced to the conclusion that Stalin was the greatest man who ever lived. If you mean complexity then a teaspoon of soil with its millions of species of bacteria is many orders of magnitude "better" than all of human technology combined.

You might say something like, "No what I mean is that Western Civilization has the highest culture, in terms of science, philosophy, and art." But the success of our science is measured in terms of technology, which lands us back in the quantitative fallacy. The success of our philosophy is usually explained in terms of science. It's true that we've produced a lot of art, but whether it is genuinely better than that produced in other cultures or in previous ages begs the question of what "better" really means, and we're back to square one.

So no, there is no meaningful notion of "winning" that applies to Western civilization.

But can we define progress? I want to say no, because I want to be rid of the notion of progress so we can talk about old books and the human story.

Let's humor the idea for a minute, so we can truly refute it and leave it behind. To progress, I suppose, means to become better. Fortunately for me, in order to define "better" you will have to define "good," and the question of what is ultimately good has remained an open problem in philosophy since it began. Different religions, for example, have different notions of good. The U.S. considers itself to me one of the more progressed nations, but Islam considers it one of the most retrograde. When conservatives say that family values are being eroded in America, they are claiming regress. When liberals say that ecosystems are being degraded, they are also claiming regress. But both Christians and social liberals have a tendency to say that America leads the world in human rights. There are countless axes of "goodness" along which to measure progress or regress.

I enjoy G.K. Chesterton's view on the matter:
One of the ablest agnostics of the age once asked me whether I thought mankind grew better or grew worse or remained the same. He was confident that the alternative covered all possibilities. He did not see that it only covered patterns and not pictures; processes and not stories. I asked him whether he thought that Mr. Smith of G— got better or worse or remained exactly the same between the age of thirty and forty. It then seemed to dawn on him that it would rather depend on Mr. Smith; and how he chose to go on. It had never occurred to him that it might depend on how mankind chose to go on; and that its course was not a straight line or upward or downward curve, but a track like that of a man across a valley, going where he liked and stopping where he chose, going into a church or falling drunk in a ditch. The life of man is a story; an adventure story ...
... and not a line graph.

The most common view among intellectuals, because it most evokes feelings of compassion and indignation to injustice, is that progress is the increasing satisfaction of every human's material needs—food, clothing, health, and shelter. A thousand schemes for progress have been proposed along these lines, starting with the Marquis de Condorcet and Karl Marx, and continuing today in the writings of Amartya Sen and Jeffery Sachs.

Pollution and resource depletion are huge obstacles to this sort of progress. We like to assume that renewable energy, sustainable farming, and recycling all our waste might be attained in the next few decades. There are a few countries that have succeeded in one or more of these goals. Denmark is largely wind powered now, much of Ireland uses sustainable permaculture, and Sweden recycles nearly all of its garbage. But all of these countries are in the top 20 wealthiest nations. The biggest polluters and ecosystem destroyers are actually the poorest countries struggling the hardest to keep up. This creates a very deep conflict of interest: is it more important to help these countries industrialize or to help them become ecologically sound? Only the second option is sustainable in the long run, but it is very expensive and will lead to more starvation in the short run.

But let's pass over these serious questions and say all the environmental problems are solved. Say we've developed some sustainable system of farming and industry that's cheap enough for everyone. The next hurdle for Utopia to overcome is population growth.

Though population growth has slowed, it is still happening at an exponential rate. And it's happening faster in certain countries and among certain ethnicities. That means that these faster growing peoples, usually bound by religion or nationality, will be ever more numerous. For example, though Amish and Mennonite communities are a small minority in North America, at current rates of growth they will be in the majority within 200 years. The same goes for Muslims in Europe. I'm not uttering this as a warning, because I don't see the population "problem" as a problem but a fact of life. Are we going to form a world government and legislate family size? It's unrealistic. I also believe it would be wrong.

For the sake of argument, let's say we've leaped this hurdle to Utopia as well. We've developed a sustainable system of agriculture and industry and instated a world government capable of enforcing a strict two-child-per-family policy. I don't think it's anywhere near doable but I know some people disagree. So let's consider.

The next issue you're going to face is genetic decay. Humans are organisms, and all organisms are built according to the code in their DNA. DNA is a really long molecule composed of four submolecules called "nucleotides," represented by the letters A, G, T, and C. We've all got a DNA sequence that determines our physical traits, something like this: AGCTGCTCTAGTGACCCAG...

When scientists first sequenced this molecule it kind of looked like gibberish, but over the last few decades we've started decoding its language, which codes for proteins—the components, motors, and machines of the human body. It's a very precise language, molded by billions of years of natural selection.

How does natural selection work, exactly? We all know it's survival of the fittest, but how did the fittest get so fit? DNA changes randomly as it is passed from parent to child. This can happen in numerous ways. As the mother's DNA combines with the father's DNA, you can get new combinations that weren't there before. DNA molecules can also be modified by stray chemicals or radiation from space. Sometimes the molecule in charge of copying the DNA malfunctions and copies it wrong. This happens less than once in a million times, but you have several million nucleotides in your DNA so it normally happens a few times per generation.

Mutation is random. It acts on DNA like noise, creating little random changes that usually damage its function. Once in while, no more than 30% of the time, it actually changes the DNA in way that is not worse but only different. This is why every human (and every dog) is different—we're the results of different combinations of mutations. Some rare combinations of mutations result in an organism that produces more offspring. "Natural selection" is what biologists call this process. Over time DNA types that produce the most offspring become more common in a population.

Let's look at the theoretical limit of Utopia where every family is limited absolutely to two children. What will happen? There will be no natural selection. In order for a couple's genes to spread through the population, they must have more than two. If they don't their genes will be as common as before. There might be four grandchildren but they will include 50% genes from different couples, so their commonality will stay the same. Meanwhile, mutations are building up every generation from cosmic rays. There is no species on earth that has survived in the long term without any natural selection (i.e. with two offspring per couple). In most cases six or more is the norm, and this is even true for most traditional human societies.

Why is our culture so abnormal in this respect, averaging less than two? Humans are unique organisms because they have two systems of inheritance of equal importance: genes and culture. From this point of view it is just as important to pass on your genes as to pass on your ideas. And people do, in fact, behave this way. Religious people love making conversions, smart people love to sell their books, and scientists want more people to think scientifically. Modern Western culture, in fact, puts much more stress on spreading ideas than spreading genes. This way of doing things has its intellectual advantages but is certainly not sustainable. There are already a number of subcultures in America that do have larger families, including Amish, Mennonites, Rabbinical Jews, Mormons, Catholics, Mayans, and many Baptists. Over then next few centuries these populations will gradually come to predominate in this country. This is nothing new—it's a big reason why conservative Christians have predominated in Europe since Roman times.

But let's come back to our fantasy of eliminating poverty by developing sustainable agriculture and industry and enforcing a birth rate to two per family worldwide—a tall order, right? But it's getting taller. What about the build-up of mutations we discussed? Mutations are a kind of noise, a kind of randomization, and so you'd get more and more people who want different things and do things differently. There would be more genetic ailments and physical limitations. As a fear of what might be happening in our society, this is irrelevant and hearkens back to fascism. If people mutate and no longer can or will support our nation it doesn't matter—better to let it collapse and go back to a more natural way of life than try to control people's personal choices. But as for our spotless theoretical Utopia of sustainability and population control, it is fatal. Unless, of course, you use something like genetic engineering.

If you think I'm about to endorse genetic engineering you've been reading too hastily and with too much seriousness. Genetic engineering of humans would be a monstrous thing to undertake. Romance, love, and sex have been the beautiful, natural way of selecting genes for millions of years. It would be scientific idiocy to end this. The term "idiot" comes from the Greek and originally meant someone who was stuck to a single idea. If you are so stuck to the idea of Utopia that you feel the need to regulate the sex life of every individual on the planet, you are being, in a word, evil. Are we so in love with technology that we would literally make it the eternal bride of every human on earth? I hope not. In any case we probably don't have the money or the biotechnology for it. It's hard enough feeding everyone let alone genetically engineering billions of new people.

So where does this leave us? I say forget Utopia already. The idea was insane to begin with. Toss progress. Scratch it. It was a fad, a short-lived cult, a brainstorm of a culture drunk on fossil fuels. You will never completely eliminate hunger and disease from the world. It's just part of the way life is. It's not our job to engineer-out all the pain (and thus also all the danger and adventure) of human life.

Here's my question. It's the reason I'm writing this post, and why I'm writing this blog to begin with. Hell, it's the reason I first became interested in philosophy: What is the point of life without progress?

Here's my answer, if I must with extreme brevity. It is living your own life to the best of your ability. To live in the most romantic and adventurous and heroic and compassionate way possible. That's all. It's not saving the world. You can't save the world. It's not creating a world government that redistributes all the wealth and feeds all the poor. No such creation would last and in the past such schemes (read: Stalin, Third Reich) have done more harm than good. It's better to fix yourself first. Then when you've got your own life in order, help your family members. Help your close friends. Help your local community. I guarantee you will be more fulfilled than if you throw yourself heart and soul into Utopian idealism, as so tragically many young people have done over the past 150 years, to the detriment of their minds, spirits, and souls.

So there's my argument against progress. At one point I was going to make it a book, I guess because it seemed big to me. But now I don't think I want it to be big. I want it to be little. I want it to be a hurdle anyone can jump. Because what is really important lies on the other side of the veil of the illusion of progress. Ancient wisdom. A connection with the past. A connection with nature and the earth. Value in gardening and fishing and farming and quiet nights trading stories on the porch. Value in old books. I am an evangelist for old books. I'm an apologist for ancient wisdom. The experiment of reevaluating our values isn't working. We should refresh our values. We need new old values. We need to jog our memory for what it was really like to value hard work, nature, and simplicity.

I've shared this argument against progress with a lot of people. I suppose I haven't always been very eloquent about it. Some have only heard my list of horrible problems and gotten the impression that I myself am a Utopian idealist. Others get the impression I hate technology or think we should all become Amish. All of this misses the point. The point is that each individual is free to pursue their own idea of the sacred. We should not value civilization and comfort over freedom and nature and wisdom. All the problems I've listed above (population growth, DNA mutation, world government) should be forgotten, not tackled harder.

Those progressives who still disagree with me have a tendency to listen to the end, skirt the veil, balk, and pull back because they see that one of the implications of what I'm saying is that our civilization will collapse. This is indeed part of what I'm saying. Give it at least another 10 years, maybe 210. I don't know. But it's happened to ten thousand civilizations before ours and it will happen to ten thousand civilizations after. It won't be fatal to what matters. Whatever books and music and culture and belief systems survive the next 1000 years will be the cream of the crop, because they will be what got people through the most formidable of all adventures: an apocalypse.

Next time:
-Why we need philosophy now more than ever
-Rediscovering basic common sense by reading the classics

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