Looking Ahead

“I see the dungeon’s gloom, I hear the clank of chains. I see the fagot’s flames, the scorched and blackened face, the writhing limbs. I hear the jeers and scoffs of pious fiends. I see the victim on the rack, I hear the tendons as they break. I see a world beneath the feet of priests, liberty in chains…. This was.

I look again, and in the East of hope’s fair sky the first pale light shed by the herald star gives promise of another dawn. I look, and from the ashes, blood and tears the heroes leap to bless the future and avenge the past. I see a world at war, and in the storm and chaos of the deadly strife thrones crumble, altars fall, chains break, creeds change….

I look again, but toward the future now. The popes and priests and kings are gone – the altars and the thrones have mingled with the dust – the aristocracy of land and cloud have perished from the earth and air, and all the gods are dead. A new religion sheds its glory on mankind. It is the gospel of this world, the religion of the body, of the heart and brain, the evangel of health and joy. I see a world at peace, where labor reaps its true reward, a world without prisons, without workhouses, without asylums for the insane…. I see a race without disease of flesh or brain, shapely and fair, the married harmony of form and use, and as I look life lengthens, fear dies, joy deepens, love intensifies. The world is free. This shall be.”

—Robert Green Ingersoll, Which Way?, 1884

A hundred and twenty years have passed since Robert Ingersoll wrote these words, and it seems only right to provide an update on the status of this great man’s vision. How well have we done since this passage was first penned? How much progress have we made, and how much still remains to be made?

To be sure, humanity has progressed in many ways. We have made great strides toward the full and universal equality of all people regardless of gender, race, national origin or creed, not just in law but in fact. We have done much to make human rights a reality and not just a noble idea. We have wrought marvelous works with our science, eradicating many diseases with antibiotics, disassembling and reassembling the human body, peering down to the molecular roots of life itself and unraveling the code of heredity. We have risen above gravity’s pull, orbited the Earth, walked on the surface of another world and sent our robot emissaries to visit the planets and carry messages to the stars. We have assembled a remarkably complete picture of the origin, nature and fate of the cosmos. We have every right to be proud of these achievements.

On the other hand, we must not lose sight of the fact that very much still remains to be done. It is our tragedy and our failing that, in certain areas, Col. Ingersoll’s vision seems farther from fruition than ever. We still have prisons, asylums, and sweatshops. There are many diseases that, despite heroic efforts, still elude our attempts at a cure. Though the industrialized West has realized tremendous advances thanks to our science, those benefits have not been fully extended to the rest of the world, and millions of people still live in poverty and fear. There is still war, hatred, bloodshed, division. There is still greed, ignorance, and short-sightedness. And there is still religion – religion that is a force for evil at least as often as it is a force for good, religion that still demands people practice obeisance before airy thrones and that diverts time and effort that could more usefully be spent improving human beings’ lot in this world.

We have gone far from where we started, but we have an enormous distance left to travel before our journey reaches its end. However, we are not without a guide: In the east, the star that gave Ingersoll hope still glimmers, heralding the coming of a new dawn. From where we stand now, how much can be seen of the daybreak? Looking ahead, what lies on the horizon? Though human vision is fallible, some promising sights beckon…

In the near future, I see a world where human knowledge will continue its exponential growth, where the increasingly complete picture of the world being assembled will bring integration – where science and technology will revolutionize every aspect of daily life.

I see a world where all the greatest works of art, literature, philosophy, all the records of our history, and all the discoveries of our science spanning millennia of human cultural development will be gathered together and compiled into a vast digital library, open and freely available to anyone, that would have made the ancient chroniclers of Alexandria weep for joy. I see a world where the entirety of human knowledge and culture can be transmitted across the planet at the speed of light or stored on a computer that can be carried under one arm.

I see a world where science will make obsolete all the old myths and superstitions, where for the first time ever we will have not just guesses, but real answers to the most fundamental questions – a world where we will know with certainty exactly where the universe came from, how it has developed and where it is going.

I see a world where humankind has eradicated disease and illness: a world where wheelchairs and canes and hearing aids are discarded, unnecessary; a world where genetic diseases are wiped out, the broken genes repaired and recoded in the womb; a world where no one has to die before their time. I see a world where powerful and effective pharmaceuticals with no side effects custom-tailored to an individual’s genetic makeup can be produced in minutes at the touch of a button; a world where supercomputers skilled at protein folding anticipate how our eternal enemies, disease-causing microbes, will adapt, and design new strategies to block them even before they do; a world where humans will have at last and for all time triumphed in the four-and-a-half billion year evolutionary war; a world where the victory of brains over genes is complete. I see a world where we will be masters of matter, where we can rewrite the genetic code and recreate the human body on a molecular level.

I see a world where literacy is universal and higher education is available to all.

I see a world where humanity understands who it is and where it came from, where archaeology will have exposed our long-buried history to the light of day again at last, where sites that are part of the heritage of the human race will be preserved for all to see.

I see a green world: a world where all our energy comes from the sun, the wind and the tides, a world that has no endangered species list and needs none, where the air is clean and all the water is safe to drink. I see a world where all the mistakes of the past will be corrected – where genetically engineered bacteria will be released into the soil to break down unnatural toxins, where vast fleets of aircraft will scrub greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and reverse global warming, where deadly radioactive waste will be converted in a lifetime into harmless base elements again.

I see a world where the ozone hole will heal, the ice caps will reform, and the world’s coral reefs will be vibrant with life again; a world where the ocean deeps once again resonate with whalesong. I see a world where the vast natural beauty of wilderness will spread again across the face of the Earth.

I see a world where all people are equal, where the old prejudices and bigotries will once and for all be defeated; a world where human rights are a global guarantee. I see a humanistic world – a society that regards compassion, wisdom, and peace as the highest virtues; a world where anyone can without reservation depend on his fellow humans; a world where governments everywhere will enshrine justice, democracy, and freedom; a world where improving the common good is recognized as the highest of virtues.

I see a world where the inequality of wealth has begun to narrow, where those fortunate enough to be born into the rich and industrialized nations have taken the first major steps toward lifting up all of humanity to the same level, where it is finally realized that wealth can serve only as a means to a greater end and never an end in itself. I see a world where a truly global community is forming.

A little further on, I see a world further along in its development, where our full attention is turning to focus on things of this world, the only real or important things. I see a world where our wisdom and our morality have fully caught up with our intelligence. I see a world where we have put away childish things, a world where the fantasies of our youth have begun to fade at last.

I see a world where everyone understands that no place is more sacred than any other.

I see a world where the sun will rise on all people alike, where olive trees and grapevines grow where once there were walls and fences and checkpoints. I see a world where brotherhood takes the place of barbed wire.

I see a world where dust gathers on the faded covers of holy books.

I see a world where the churches have become libraries and schools and museums, institutions dedicated to the preservation and expansion of knowledge, where reason is enshrined rather than faith.

I see a world where all the time and money and effort that is currently spent on religion, on flattering and praising and appeasing invisible phantoms, is instead spent on improving life for our fellow human beings.

I see a world at peace, where war is only a distant, painful memory, like a dark dream that fades upon awakening in the light of the morning; a world where militaries are disbanded and their weapons rust peacefully in museums.

I see a world where there are no more poor.

I see a world where politicians can tell the truth and still be elected; and a little further on, I see a world where politicians must tell the truth if they want to be elected. I see a world of truly participatory democracy where critical thinking and reasoning skills are taught to everyone from childhood onward.

I see a world where all the barriers that divide human beings from one another have fallen.

On the far distant horizon, I see a world where the human species has begun to engage in engineering on a planetary scale. I see a world where we control and direct and regulate the movement of the continents, easing stress at plate boundaries, redirecting force to where it will do no harm, tapping the molten energy beneath the earth’s surface to power our civilization.

I see a world where we rule the weather, once the sole domain of the primitive storm gods, now the dominion of the hand of humanity – a world where we send the rain where it is needed, break up hurricanes and other destructive storms before they can form, harness the wind and the jet stream to power offshore turbine farms, make all the world’s deserts bloom with life and turn continents into gardens.

I see a world where vast radio telescopes, dishes many kilometers in diameter, listen patiently to the night sky for messages from civilizations out among the stars, and perhaps transmit some of their own as well.

I see a world where we have created minds in silicon – benevolent artificial intelligences, sentient machines that think as we do. I see a world where consciousness is deemed inherently valuable and worth protecting, regardless of the nature or composition of its substrate.

I see a world of engineering marvels, civilization at its apex – universities on a scale undreamed-of, great cities of tens of millions of people, highways that span canyons and mountain ranges, bridges that cross oceans – and yet a world, for those who desire it, of greater peace and solitude than was possible even in our time. I see a world where the simple and ancient ways of life are still practiced in country villages, in remote mountains and valleys; a world where technology and achievement have made us closer to the earth, not farther from it.

Further still, I see a world where we have taken our first steps into the stars: a world where great colonies hang above the Earth like islands in orbit, a world where we have successfully sent the first manned mission to Mars, where perhaps we have established colonies and begun terraforming.

I see a world where human beings have seen the red plains and valleys of Mars, the great storms of Jupiter, the eruptions of Io, the ice of Europa, the majestic rings of Saturn, and the frigid blue of the outer planets with their own eyes.

I see a world where we reach out and pull rocky worldlets from the asteroid belt, installing them in orbit and mining them for whatever rare elements we need.

I see a world where fleets of robot probes, humanity’s emissaries, sail into interstellar space bearing greetings and information about us for whoever else lives in this vast and uncharted cosmos.

I see a world where solar sails and ion engines, tugboats powered by hydrogen bombs and ramjets that scoop up the stuff of space for their fuel, or other technologies, more advanced still, which we cannot even presently conceive of, form the first fleets setting out tentatively for our sun’s nearest neighbors. I see a world where humanity has at last begun to inherit the cosmic birthright we were first promised when the first wanderer looked up at the night sky and felt the stirrings of awe and wonder.

I see a world where death is no longer an enemy we need fear.

I see a world beyond all description, a terrestrial paradise, where we have attained the potential we have always had.

Of course, no one can know if we really will turn out like this. The tree of contingency has branches beyond all counting, and while one of them may lead to the hopeful future I have described, there are many others that could lead to very different scenarios indeed. Rather than an infallible statement of what will be, I encourage readers to view these thoughts as a guidebook – a map to describe the route we should take, and hopefully will take. Perhaps it is our fate to end in fiery apocalypse, in a slow dwindling slide to oblivion, or in a descent back into the darkness of superstition and theocracy – but I do not think so. We have come too far and accomplished too much for that. Despite all our failings, we have too much potential for it all to go to waste.

As an atheist, one of my greatest regrets is that I will never know if this vision of the future came to pass. I will never know what happens next, after my life. But just because we will never witness the future personally is no reason not to work towards it. We should all consider it our mission to have made the world a better place, even if only a little, by having passed through it, because in the end that is what life amounts to – the chance to do good. Out of empathy for those not yet born, out of gratitude to those in the past who gave their lives to fight and improve the world for our sake, let us do the same. Let this vision of what is to come not fail. Let us take charge of our own destiny, that the day may come when life will lengthen, joy deepen, love intensify, and the world shall at last be free.