Last month, in “Dreams of a Better World“, I considered some of the immediate problems humanity could solve if we had the collective will to do so. I want to continue that theme in this post, but from a longer perspective.
Historically, humanity’s knowledge has exceeded its wisdom. As soon as we invent a new technology, we begin adopting it on a wide scale, without asking whether we should or what the consequences might be. Many of our most pressing problems – multidrug-resistant diseases, global climate change, air and water pollution, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the ongoing extinctions of species and destruction of habitat – trace back to this impulse.
Our powers of reason have brought us amazing advances in understanding and controlling the world; but those rational faculties have not, as of yet, mastered the baser instincts of greed, xenophobia, violence and tribalism that underlie them. Instead, our reason is too often enslaved to that darker side of our nature, becoming the servant of our destructive passions rather than their master. Hence, we see absurdities such as Islamist fanatics, who reject every other scientific advance of the last several hundred years, struggling to create nuclear weapons. The only scientific knowledge they accept is that which they can use to destroy. Doubtless, if evolutionary theory offered the key to creating deadlier biological weapons, all the universities in Islamic theocracies would have top-notch biology departments as well, next door to the theology departments still repeating the narrow dogmas of a medieval desert nomad.
But it’s not just on those easy targets that I want to pin the blame. Too often, we in the allegedly enlightened West have been guilty of similar deeds, selectively using the fruits of science that offer us the most immediate benefit rather than asking what is moral or sustainable in the long run.
We invent ever-more efficient fishing technologies to scour the ocean of the increasingly few remaining fish, refusing to recognize the downward spiral our actions have created. We fuel our economy with dirty, polluting, high-carbon coal and oil because it’s cheap – at least by the usual accounting – and to get it, we think nothing of drilling oil wells in delicate habitat, or bulldozing whole mountains and dumping the rubble into nearby streams and watersheds. We drain rivers dry to build ever more lavish cities and communities in the middle of the desert. We run industrial agriculture on vast quantities of fertilizers and antibiotics, and let someone else pay the cost for poisoned groundwater, dead zones in the oceans, and multidrug-resistant staph and tuberculosis.
To build a human society that can survive over the long term, we need to turn away from this. What we need, and what I hope, is that we’ll begin asking ourselves not just whether we can do something, but whether we should – and if the answer is that we should not, that we will then collectively agree to forbear.
I don’t mean to imply that there will be a single global authority dictating which technological avenues will or will not be pursued. That would be an abhorrent tyranny. I have in mind a different future: a world where people have as much as or more liberty than they do now, yet where the human race can come, freely and without coercion, to a universal consensus on which courses of action should be taken and which left alone.
This may strike you as an impossible dream. I admit that the evidence so far is against me: historically, if one person or group has been unwilling to cross a boundary, there’s always another that will. But that’s precisely the attitude that needs to change if humanity is to survive and prosper. As technology grows more and more powerful, smaller and smaller groups of people wield destructive potential that the entire human species didn’t have even a hundred years ago. We need to make the transition to a world where this kind of power is used wisely by all who have access to it, and I believe we will.
How can the human race reach this level of unanimity? I answer that the things that hold us apart are mainly irrational impulses – racism, sexism, nationalism, religion – which encourage their followers to value one group, one land or one belief more than a rational accounting of its value would suggest. Thus, the answer is simple: Humanity will come together when we learn to overrule those superstitions and fully acknowledge – and live out – the supremacy of reason as a guiding principle. When that happens, we will be able to reach agreement on all the things that matter.
This isn’t going to be a single event, nor will the world be transformed overnight. It may take centuries to complete. But I believe we’re on the cusp of the transition, and we may even witness the beginning of it in our lifetimes. We’ll begin to see consensus breaking out, unanimity gradually developing. By the time agreement finally arrives, it will doubtless seem so easy and natural, we’ll wonder why it took us so long in the first place.
The literal meaning of the word “apotheosis” is “elevation to divine status” – and as I’ve previously said, I reject the idea that this should be our goal. The gods are petty, jealous, easily provoked creatures; they embody our worst traits, not our best, and we shouldn’t be seeking to emulate them. But “apotheosis” has another, more fitting meaning: “the supreme or the best example”, and that’s a goal I can support without hesitation. We should all seek to become the best example of humanity, to unleash the potential for goodness inherent in every person. This state may seem to be impossibly far off, but if each of us does what we can to bring it into being, we may find it isn’t as far as we think.