Apotheosis

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.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://bridgingschisms.org Eshu

    I think it depends on what issue you’re discussing. For some uncontentious and seemingly “obvious” issues the world humanity is already reaching agreement. On other issues agreement doesn’t look like it’ll come any time soon. I agree that this transformation is possible and I’m optimistic about it, but I also think that I think this will be a slow transition piece by piece.

    Secondly, while I don’t like the idea of a planet-wide authority, it may be the lesser of two evils if some inhabitants are on the verge of causing an ecological disaster that would affect us all. That would be akin to an act of war, albeit perhaps an unintentional one.

  • Dave

    Ebon:

    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.

    I think humanity started the transition long ago. But the full property humanity is beginning to express is an emergent one, not something one would predict based on the elements that underly our human nature. We have to have had sufficient time to make a sufficient number of mistakes that we can accumulate wisdom to forego certain possibilities. Nothing replaces time and mistakes.

  • Mike

    This post reminds me of a recent XKCD comic: http://xkcd.com/588/

    Sorry that my first comment here doesn’t really contribute to the discussion. :P

  • penn

    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.

    I don’t think this is an achievable objective. How can all of humanity freely come to a universal consensus on anything? As free thinking individuals we can, will, and should disagree on a whole range of issues. Disagreement is not a bad thing. Discussion and debate are good things because the universal consensus has been so wrong so many times (e.g., the morality of slavery, the personhood of women, and the existence of angels, demons, and deities).

    I also don’t see what the problem is with mutually accepted coercion, even from a global government. Coercion is used in every society to prevent people from breaking the social contract to benefit themselves. In a democracy, in theory at least, we are able to determine what coercive rules are placed on ourselves, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. There needs to be rules, and there needs to be consequences for those who break the rules. I also think further globalization and unification of national and regional governments is a good thing. It won’t and shouldn’t happen overnight, but I certainly think in the coming centuries such a development is almost inevitable barring a complete global economic and societal collapse.

  • Lynet

    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.

    Well, yes. But note that sometimes this is just because consequences are hard to predict. Which auto executive was it who said they thought they had a market for about 1000 cars, because that was about the number of chauffeurs available? I forget. But the point is, who would have been worrying about air pollution back then? Only one thousand or so of these things — how much damage could they do?

    Early on, the public debate over trains seems to have been more along the lines of whether or not it was possible to travel at over 10mph without getting a heart attack. It reminds me of the debate over genetically modified foods. Somewhere out there, somebody might be making the argument that we should all be listening to about the most damaging potential consequence of the new technology — but hearing it over the noise about ‘frankenfood’ is going to be difficult.

    You’re asking us to be better predictors than the luckiest, cleverest science fiction writers. How likely is that?

  • Entomologista

    Ridiculous. If we sat on technology until we were 100% sure it was safe and had predicted every single possible outcome, nothing would ever get done. In real life, scientists have deadlines imposed upon us by nature.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Idealism is great, but it too is subject to the Law of Unintended Consequences.

  • rob

    multidrug-resistant diseases, global climate change, air and water pollution, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the ongoing extinctions of species and destruction of habitat

    I agree with Lynet at number 4. However, some of these problems we did notice as they were developing, but postponed action. Usually we had reasons to do so, even if they were not, in your opinion, very good.

    Global climate change and drug resistance are known problems, but there is no consensus on what the best fix is. The statement that our knowledge exceeds our wisdom suggests to me that we know the perfect solution, but don’t particularly care about implementing it. In fact, both of these problems are being addressed in a variety of ways, and any solution will take many years to implement. In both cases, there are certainly things we could have done to make the problem less bad. But in the case of global warming, we still don’t know what the ultimate fix will be. Technology that allows the mass production of clean, affordable vehicles (that don’t cause other problems) still doesn’t exist – and a grand awakening of the human race wouldn’t make the infrastructure for such an endeavor instantly pop into existence anyway.

    As for the the ongoing extinction of species and the destruction of their habitat, a lot of that is the result of our own human habitat expanding, as well as overcrowding and natural competition. Sad as it is, there will be many more of these to come if our population continues to grow at even a fraction of its current rate, grand awakening or no.

  • nfpendleton

    @EbonMuse:
    “…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.”

    We’d all do better to remember this. Nice point.

    @rob:
    “However, some of these problems we did notice as they were developing, but postponed action. Usually we had reasons to do so, even if they were not, in your opinion, very good. ”

    Bad politics is almost as hard to purge as religion. Bad politics is what keeps us from doing the correct thing in the face of evidence. While we still have a very long way to go, with a few severe (Bush) hiccups along the way, the overall long term trend is toward the betterment of our human condition and the health of our world.

  • rob

    I don’t think politics are the whole reason we didn’t do enough about global warming or drug resistant bacteria when we had the chance. We still don’t know what the appropriate response is to these problems. Most likely, we won’t know until (if) they are actually resolved. Maybe we’ll be able to look back then and say, “If the political will had been there in the ’90s we would have developed it sooner,” but maybe we won’t.

    I’m also not entirely sure “bad politics” makes any coherent sense. Politics is and always will be adversarial, and one side will always end up labeled “bad.” Even if everybody were perfectly rational, there would still be disagreements on what the best approach to global warming is, and those disagreements would be hashed out politically, and politicians would largely take the position that they felt was most likely to get them re-elected, because that is the rational thing to do given their assumptions and position. (And further, the republican system assumes they will do so, as that is what makes a republic different from a plutocracy.)

    Whether or not the overall long term trend of politics is toward the health of our world and the betterment of the human condition is certainly debatable. It’s not like global warming, or even the far more obvious problem of water pollution, began in the last decade, and to date we’ve done nothing remarkable about it. If we all end up dying in the resulting cataclysms, I guess that would be a big step towards making the world more healthy, but in that scenario the betterment of the human condition and the health of the world would be mutually exclusive. Regardless, I’m not sure I would put the credit of this trend to politics. (I’m also not sure such a trend even exists if you expand your view beyond Western culture since the Dark Ages.)

  • http://www.brucealderman.info/blog/ BruceA

    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.

    That’s a nice sentiment, but it puts us in a prisoner’s dilemma: If we all agree it’s better not to pursue something because of the consequences, there will always be someone who decides it is worth it to him/her to violate that agreement. Humans are born thinking only of themselves, and have to learn to put the good of others first. Some never learn this.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    As free thinking individuals we can, will, and should disagree on a whole range of issues. Disagreement is not a bad thing.

    I don’t entirely agree with that assessment, penn. I think the value of disagreement is only instrumental: many issues are complex, the truth is hard to discern, and it makes sense to have an adversarial system of free speech so that we can hash out whose position is right and whose wrong. Having a diversity of viewpoints gives us a greater chance that at least one of them will be correct. But disagreement is not an intrinsic good; there’s nothing praiseworthy in disagreeing with the truth, once it’s sufficiently clear what the truth is.

    You’re asking us to be better predictors than the luckiest, cleverest science fiction writers. How likely is that?

    I don’t think I’m asking that, Lynet. I’m not saying the problem is that people, up till now, fail to foresee the negative consequences of some technology from the very beginning. The problem is that people continue to use that technology even after its negative effects are abundantly clear. To just one example, there are still people arguing that there’s no such thing as anthropogenic climate change, and that even if there was, it would be a good thing.

    There are still far too many people willing to put their narrow, short-term self-interest over the long-term good of humanity. That’s a trend that we can’t sustain forever. Sooner or later, purely for necessity’s sake, people are going to have to learn how to put the proper value on the collective good of the species and set parochial interests aside. The alternative is extinction, or at least mass catastrophe. Can we do it? I’m optimistic that we can.

    Global climate change and drug resistance are known problems, but there is no consensus on what the best fix is. The statement that our knowledge exceeds our wisdom suggests to me that we know the perfect solution, but don’t particularly care about implementing it. In fact, both of these problems are being addressed in a variety of ways, and any solution will take many years to implement. In both cases, there are certainly things we could have done to make the problem less bad. But in the case of global warming, we still don’t know what the ultimate fix will be.

    There won’t be a single ultimate fix, rob, but I’m sure you weren’t implying that. I realize that these aren’t problems that can be solved overnight. But there are many things which we indisputably can do, which will immediately begin to alleviate the problem, and which are unavoidable components of any long-term solution. In the case of climate change, we need to increase the uptake of alternative energy sources, and transition away from a fossil-fuel-based economy as rapidly as possible. That should be a no-brainer, yet there are still utilities trying to build new coal-fired power plants and to open new mountaintop removal mines. A total decarbonization of our economy will take a while, even with everyone cooperating; but everyone is not cooperating, and there are still special interests actively working to set back the cause of reform.

    Humans are born thinking only of themselves, and have to learn to put the good of others first. Some never learn this.

    BruceA makes the point admirably, and I agree: we’re faced with a multitude of prisoner’s dilemmas, and we need to teach people to cooperate. Where I disagree is that selfishness is intrinsic and cooperation is learned. Human beings have the inborn capacity for both impulses. Which one is expressed more strongly depends on environment and upbringing. What we need to do is to design a society that favors cooperation.

  • jack

    As for the the ongoing extinction of species and the destruction of their habitat, a lot of that is the result of our own human habitat expanding, as well as overcrowding and natural competition. Sad as it is, there will be many more of these to come if our population continues to grow at even a fraction of its current rate, grand awakening or no.

    Rob hit the nail on the head. All of the problems we are discussing in this thread would be easier to solve, and some would go away completely, if there were fewer humans on the planet.

    Much can be accomplished when governments put sensible incentives into place. The widespread adoption of solar photovoltaics in Germany is a good example. My concern is whether or not enough governments will institute enough sensible incentives soon enough to avert a global ecological disaster. I confess I am not optimistic.

  • rob

    A total decarbonization of our economy will take a while, even with everyone cooperating; but everyone is not cooperating, and there are still special interests actively working to set back the cause of reform.

    Indubitably.

    And no, I certainly didn’t mean to imply that there is one ultimate fix. All I’m trying to say is that a grand awakening will not necessarily fix the problem that much faster. Maybe we’d be a decade ahead of where we are now, which would probably be immensely helpful. As I understand the state of our knowledge right now, though, it’s unclear how much of the problem that would really fix, in that we may already have been too late by the time there was any kind of consensus that the problem even existed. (But hey, I’m just a layman with a high school education trying to parse what I read on the internet. Don’t take that as an authoritative statement.)

  • André Phillips

    What we need to do is to design a society that favors cooperation.

    Sounds awfully socialist to me!
    :)

  • abusedbypenguins

    It all boils down to a level playing field to use a sports analogy. As long as there are the very, very, very rich this will never happen. Guys like Bill Gates and Ted Turner who both have a conscience and will use their wealth to do some good, but whose power expands past most of us and are contrasted by the Donald Trump’s who are selfish assholes and ride roughshod over all of us. What will it take for all of us to feel the same way the French did in Paris in 1792. I don’t mean to chop off the heads of the rich(although not a bad idea) but the feeling they had to come together to do something about it. Our ancestors had this at one time and they were with General Washington at Valley Forge. The street riots of 40 years ago accomplished something but will it happen again? No, authority will use extreme violence this time in the name of “National Security”. We need an anti-corporate party that appeals the the majority of us to level the playing field. Or am I tugging on Supermans’ cape.

  • Jormungundr

    What we need to do is to design a society that favors cooperation.

    Why? We shine the brightest when competing with one another. Also, ‘cooperation’ sounds suspiciously like ‘forced government servitude.’ I know you fantasize about a happy, friendly future in which the flower children hold hands and work together for everyone’s good; but in the real word certain societies have tried to force everyone to cooperate for the greater good. It ended poorly.
    I would be immediately suspicious and against any group that wanted to help the world by getting us all to cooperate. I suspect that many (if not most) people would agree with me on that.

  • http://my.opera.com/dovish Sister Twister

    This site is so serious and civilized. What am I doing here?

  • Demonhype

    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.

    Have I told you I love you, Ebonmuse? I am saving that quote, and if I ever finish my damned story I am totally thanking you in the dedication because that is bound to figure as a big inspiration! (I’m on act two right now, and I was kind of stuck with the concepts and metaphors. In fact, where the action is for Act Two makes this a perfect thought to get me going! Thanks!)

    I love that you mentioned that we may never see that day. I think that’s the biggest problem is that magic-bullet solutions that won’t work are much more attractive, because who wants to spend their life working toward a better future that you might not even see for generations? I had a friend in HS who thought I was a racist because I tended to tear apart her brilliant ideas of “well, if we just outlawed racism, then it would go away, dont’ you see?” Like that hasn’t been tried before, and like it’s ever worked, beyond the apparent ethical bankruptcy of simply outlawing opinions. I hate racism too, but lets face it, law can only go so far. You can make that white supremacist give a black guy a fair shake, but you can never force him to like it, and certainly not by making it illegal for him to dislike it. That basis of racism is something that will take generations of delicate but difficult effort to achieve, always edging uphill while constantly trying to keep that insistent weight of our tribalistic roots from dragging us any further back and ruining our progress. Same for every other irrational and tribalistic characteristic of our society–there are no magic-bullets even for individual psychology, much less the overwhelming collective problem we have right now. In fact, magic bullets tend to make things worse, IMO.

    And personally, I prefer the wasp in the room to be visible. If it’s out in the open, it can be squashed, but if it’s hidden it’s all the more likely to bite you in the ass. Same with bad ideas, which can only be effectively fought by using good ideas, not by legislation.

    Sad thing was, she was an honor student. Apparently history wasn’t really her strong suit. Of course, in her defense, she was one of those goody-two-shoes who obeyed anything that was a “rule”. Wouldn’t even put a chocolate bar in her pocket at the movies because it was against the rules. So she might have had difficulty understanding how not everyone feels the impulse to unquestioningly obey when they see something listed as a “rule”, and so couldn’t envision any other possible outcome than every white supremacist dutifully throwing the switch in their heads to “not racist”.

    I’ve often thought that “idealist vs. realist” would be more attuned to reality than “good vs. evil”. Not that realists can’t have ideals, but a realist is aware of what can work and can face the unpleasant reality that (s)he might not see the results. It takes a special kind of maturity that I don’t think a lot of people have, same as “freedom” takes the maturity to accept that people who disagree have an equal share in that freedom.

    There is an advantage to the realist position, I think. It does seem kind of depressing that you might not get to benefit from your efforts, but at the same time it makes the goal seem more possible. I think it can be very overwhelming to see it from an idealist perspective, wherein you need to envision “everything” being fixed by the time you kick off. You take a look at how much has to be done and how little time you actually have, and you think “aw,fuck it, there’s nothing I can do, so why should I be inconvenienced”–a combination of all the negative characteristics you cited, made all the worse by the sense of complete helplessness before the problem. I think that the realist position can be framed in a more positive and attractive light when you take this into consideration, because then even the little a single person like you can do in your lifetime counts for something and no effort is ever futile.

    Never used tags before. Hope this blockquote thing shows up right like it is in the preview. Took me long enough to figure it out!

  • Alex Weaver

    Why? We shine the brightest when competing with one another.

    Justify this statement.

    Also, ‘cooperation’ sounds suspiciously like ‘forced government servitude.’ I know you fantasize about a happy, friendly future in which the flower children hold hands and work together for everyone’s good; but in the real word certain societies have tried to force everyone to cooperate for the greater good. It ended poorly.
    I would be immediately suspicious and against any group that wanted to help the world by getting us all to cooperate. I suspect that many (if not most) people would agree with me on that.

    The fact that you apparently don’t differentiate between encouraging cooperation and demanding total submission to an agenda is a sad commentary on your state of mind.

    Also, an arrangement in which people’s cooperation is enforced (IE, coerced if necessary) in certain areas is kind of the underpinning of an organized society even existing. Such arrangements can be abused, and have been, this is true; the absence of them has been abused far more thoroughly whenever it has prevailed.

  • Entomologista

    Rob hit the nail on the head. All of the problems we are discussing in this thread would be easier to solve, and some would go away completely, if there were fewer humans on the planet.

    Yes! Thank you. Nobody wants to talk about this because we might infringe upon the right of religious wackos to drop litters like dogs.

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    Sooner or later, purely for necessity’s sake, people are going to have to learn how to put the proper value on the collective good of the species and set parochial interests aside. The alternative is extinction, or at least mass catastrophe. Can we do it? I’m optimistic that we can.

    I tend to think that a mass catastrophe will be the catalyst that prompts humankind to reassess its collective and parochial values.

  • Scotlyn

    Rob hit the nail on the head. All of the problems we are discussing in this thread would be easier to solve, and some would go away completely, if there were fewer humans on the planet.

    Yes! Thank you. Nobody wants to talk about this because we might infringe upon the right of religious wackos to drop litters like dogs.

    Entomologista, there is also the issue of our own extinction, which may stop us discussing the issue of “fewer humans on the planet.” We could solve the problem both by reducing fertility (but we have already globally reduced our fertility in a massive way over the past 100 years). Or we could die quicker, making our numbers smaller, and making more room for other species…unfortunately, the global death rate is falling even faster than the birth rate, and we have no intention of refusing to avail of every extension of life expectancy that we can – thereby also imposing ourselves on the planet as destructively as anyone contemplating having a baby.


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