Maps of History and Maps of the Future
By Hugh Miller
Perception and Prediction
Every perception is rooted in relativity. Every story, no matter how grand or subtle can be traced back to its author and their personal story. Every background has a background. Every measurement suppresses other measures to capture its sample of reality. Every given describes certain limits of what can be given as it dutifully fulfills its own prophecy.
A person without history has amnesia. Though surrounded by artifacts and traces of earlier life she is powerless to interpret them. Such a person looking on the ruins of a massive heroic sculpture exposed by digging isn’t an archeologist, but a dreamer. The unknown past becomes a personal narrative built to satisfy emotional needs and balance cultural accounts. No person is without a history for long because it is a nagging need and an essential frame for self-hood. It is the nature of that history, its quality, meaning, and function that hangs in the balance.
Let me define a History as a distinct community cultural memory, the canon of stories, facts, and myths that define that local community. HISTORY (all caps) is the collection, depersonalizing, and averaging out of these highly subjective, “personal” cultural Histories. It’s like describing a thousand people rather than a single person. The truths revealed are broad and average. Patterns appear. Their view is from overhead and people are smaller in scale. The story is likelier to be true in a general way but suffers a loss of narrative buy-in as it rises too far above ground level.
Our amnesiac’s problem resolves in a different kind of uncertainty if she goes to a historian for help because she will be sold a bill of goods. It’s a bit as if she’d consulted a private eye who delves into her past, and tells her what kind of person she ought to be or could be if she tried. Every historian has a model, a theory about humanity. These aren’t all equal in their depth or accuracy but they all fit someone’s bill of particulars. Even a very modest, even-handed HISTORY is a well ground ax.
Rolled up inside the skin of HISTORY is what people are, and what they are worth.
Every HISTORY is a product and has an implicit view of where the human story came from, where it stands currently and where it must go. Each HISTORY is a trajectory. We’ve got to hope our customer without a history has a critical temperament and lots of curiosity or she’s likely to accept the first story she hears or the first one that pleases her by smoothly blending into the story she already believes.
Nothing on Earth is more believable than the confirmation of our own biases. This dinky and far from complete article examines a few of the theories, paradigms, and trajectories she has to choose from. As she chooses, she accepts assumptions about the causes, meanings, and direction of her own life.
The Collapsed Golden Age:
Or: We have failed.
In The Annals, Tacitus pauses in his history of Rome to offer up one of the commonest myths of human history:
“Mankind in the earliest age lived without a single vicious impulse, without shame or guilt, and, consequently, without punishments and restraints. Rewards were not needed when everything right was pursued on its own merits; and as men desired nothing against morality, they were debarred from nothing by fear. When however they began to throw off equality, and ambition and violence usurped the place of self-control and modesty, despotisms grew up and became perpetual among many nations.”
Here we have the Golden Age and the great decline to modern man (the modern man of two millennia ago). It seems we have a latent image of ourselves as debauched weaklings in the shadow of the ancients. Never mind that the ancients stood a foot shorter and lived half as long. This Great Decline model seems like a somewhat mystical longing for the simplicity of the hunter/gatherer /free wandering life. Village and later city life will necessarily be set up differently; Cooperation will play a bigger part, and we must all dim the lights and sound of our true self in the name of getting along with strangers. The discontent of our current lives suggests a failure to honor some fundamental principle of our ancestor’s lives. The reality, of course, is that hunter-gatherer life WAS simple, pure and egalitarian compared to the complex and jarring existence we all adopted when we grouped together in huge numbers in the proto-cities of the neolithic revolution.
This basic story model can be pressed into the service of many different ends. Creative variations on this model include; Rousseau’s noble savage and Hitler’s Ice Giants for example.
By Our Own Bootstraps (or at least Grandpa’s Bootstraps)
Or: We’re succeeding!
Charles Darwin chimes in from The Descent of Man
“To believe that man was aboriginally civilized and then suffered utter degradation in so many regions is to take a pitiably low view of human nature. It is apparently a truer and more cheerful view that progress has been much more general than retrogression; that man has risen, though by slow and interrupted steps, from a lowly condition to the highest standard yet attained by him in knowledge, morals, and religion.”
How Victorian to stress the cheerfulness of one’s view of evolution! Every vision of the past and its implied story about the present and future supports cultural self-justification. No history will speak blatantly against the way its modern-day descendants are living. Part of the bargain we strike with our history is mutual forgiveness…or at least silence. The relationship can be like a family who are all painfully aware of “That Story” and wouldn’t dream of bringing it up.
Overcoming the Disgusting Weakness Built Into Us On Purpose by God (in His Mercy)
Or: You sinners are going toward God. Look sharp!
Holding Darwin’s map before a fun-house mirror we find St. Augustine holding its parallel ancestor, The City of God that will shape notions of cultural progress as a kind of self-improvement:
“The education of the human race…has advanced like that of an individual, through certain epochs or as it were, ages so that it might gradually rise from earthly to heavenly things and from the visible to the invisible…It was best, therefore, that the soul of man, which was still weakly desiring earthly things, should be accustomed to seek from God alone even these petty temporal boons…in order that the desire of even these things might not draw it aside from the worship of Him, to whom we come by despising and forsaking such things.”
Augustine finds the physical world loathsome yet cites examples of its beauty (in the form of flowers and plants) as evidence of God’s magnificence made manifest on earth. Oddly enough he sees none of this divinity in the beauty of women or the taste of good food (actually he did, but he wasn’t about to include that sort of thing in his official theology). Augustine was a self-indulgent man but a strict and unimaginative theologian.
The stamp of his thought-forms still marks “The West” not by people desiring the things of this world less but by respecting them less. Augustine’s criteria defining a deserving citizen of the city of god will eventually lead to the breaking of uncooperative bodies to release the indwelling spooks known as their immortal souls. Freed from the failure of their gross earthly selves they are fit at last to join his one dimensional “City of God”.
Even detesting this stuff as I do, I suspect that the overall impossible expectations placed on the Christian conscience lead some western minds to strain against their philosophical limits… leading toward a new vision of humanistic values. I believe there may have been a bit of a counter-intuitive payoff for humankind. It doesn’t hurt that this would have pissed off Augustine something awful.
God in Everything: Meaning in the Noise
Or: We are part of an amazing system.
Here is Leo Tolstoy in War and Peace:
“You say you can’t see a reign of goodness and truth on earth. Nor could I, and it cannot be seen if one looks on our life here as the end of everything. On earth, here, on this earth there is no truth, all is false and evil; but in the universe, in the whole universe, there is a kingdom of truth and we who are now the children of the earth are-eternally-children of the whole universe… Don’t I feel that I form one link, one step between the lower and higher beings in this vast, harmonious multitude of beings in whom the Supreme Power is manifest? If I see, clearly see, that ladder leading from plant to man, why should I suppose it breaks off at me and does not go farther and farther?”
Why indeed? Tolstoy has madly wedded Christianity to Darwinism but he has done it forthrightly, choosing what he wants, leaving what he does not. He will not be the first or the last to advance a kind of inspired evolutionary spirituality. I admit I feel somewhat at home in this vision. However, in the culture at large, it will never catch on. Making sense of a shotgun marriage of fundamentalist materialism and hard-rock religion is a big ask. The beauty in this idea is never revealed by coercion and social pressure, it must be discovered for oneself.
Pivoting into a New Paradigm
Augustine diminished humanity by hating and denying all that was animal in us. Early evolutionary science diminished us by denying all that was not.
In a cautious defense against the powerful, relentless forces of organized religion, the followers of Darwin advanced a sensible restriction: “We must not speculate beyond the data,” they say. Well, in the fossil record and the bodies of living organisms there is not the slightest evidence for or against divinity, using modern methods of detection. Solid scientific answers require a replicable experiment which always includes a means of relevant measuring.
If we had a device that could measure spirit, (let’s call it a phenomenometer) we might have some right scientifically even discussing religion but we do not. Due to the vanity of some major scientists explicitly speculating beyond the data we now have a “white elephant” belief system on our hands. It is nearly an article of faith among scientists and an evangelistic talking point. It amounts to this; the same guys who brought a revolution in agriculture, health and consumer goods stand before the “dull normal” populace and inform them that they are living in an absurd, meaningless cosmos. Yay?
And yet, besides YouTube and Twitter, we have no devices to measure absurdity and meaninglessness. Metaphorically, these scientists are saying the patient has no mind because it didn’t show up in the x-rays or the blood test. What conventional science doesn’t appreciate here is that our primitive stories of how the world works are reminiscent of the little external animal souls in the remarkable “His Dark Materials” series by Phillip Pullman. Cutting off the role of spirit only weakens the human. This attitude seems tone-deaf to me, it feels like dishing out harsh medicine in a smug and superior way. To my mind, the role of the scientist in theology is complete, cheerful, agnosticism. Be an inspiring example of the innate value of your path if you want followers. The First Church of Transcendental Agnosticism welcomes you.
The Extra Dimension, and Problem of Humanity
Or: We aren’t exceptional…except…
William James offers this thoughtful consideration in Principles of Psychology:
“The point which as evolutionists we are bound to hold fast to is that all the new forms of being are really nothing more than the results of the redistribution of the original and unchanging materials. The self-same atoms which, chaotically dispersed, made the nebula, now, jammed and temporarily caught in peculiar positions, form our brains; and the “evolution” of the brains, if understood, would simply be the account of how the atoms came to be so caught and jammed. In this story, no new natures, no factors not present at the beginning are introduced at any later stage. But with the dawn of consciousness, an entirely new nature seems to slip in, something whereof the potency was not given in the mere outward atoms of the original chaos.”
The scientific tradition gives us some more or less accepted facts: We have been recognizably ourselves for around 200,000 years. This date correlates to where we find hominid skulls suddenly swollen with their growth of grey matter. This date probably also dates the beginning of laughter, there must have been a first true laugh. Also the beginning of fearing tomorrow. For the overwhelming majority of those 200k years, we had no cities. Villages are a recent phenomenon. In our time on Earth, the human soul has not altered a jot. Why then are our lives so suddenly different from our ancestors?
Here is P.D. Maclean in his Neurophysiology: (this metaphor has been debunked as a neurological fact but not as a useful idea.)
“Man finds himself in the predicament that nature has endowed him essentially with three brains which, despite great differences in structure, must function together and communicate with one another. The oldest of these brains is basically reptilian, the second has been inherited from the lower mammals and the third is a late mammalian development, which …has made man peculiarly man. Speaking allegorically of these three brains within a brain, we might imagine that when a psychiatrist bids the patient to lie on the couch he is asking him to stretch out alongside a horse and a crocodile.”
All societal efforts to change must be ratified by the Horse and Crocodile political parties. Change comes painfully slowly; ethically, and emotionally, we stagnate and drift in eddies around our limitations.
As Ludwig von Bertalanffy says in Problems of Life
“It is rather obvious that the moral standards of Laotse and Buddha were not inferior to ours. The human cortex contains some ten billion neurons that have made possible the progress from stone ax to airplanes and atomic bombs, from primitive mythology to quantum theory. There is no corresponding development on the instinctive side that would cause man to mend his ways. For this reason, moral exhortations, as proffered by the founders of religion and great leaders of humanity, have proved disconcertingly ineffective.”
Now, with this problem in mind, that is, the problem of the intransigent, selfish human race, which epoch of history would you prefer to live in? Daydreams find me in musketeer garb, rattling my saber, but I am drawn inexorably to the age of anesthetics and antibiotics. But also to an age where serfdom is retreating in all but the most tortured third world countries: Where individual freedom is evermore the rule, and where an abundance of goods makes a comfortable life for average people more possible than ever before. Right now is the best I can do.
The conundrum is this: If people aren’t individually becoming better and kinder, (and they are not) why is the average life becoming better and kinder?
My Very Important Theory Which is Mine. Not Yours. Mine.
This is my central dogma of cultural evolution:
Human beings change and improve their lives by creating new and better problems for themselves. We do this through advances in technology which alter our existing cultural rules and roles and (at least temporarily) dissolve old power structures. If it wasn’t for new tech changing the ground rules, no culture would advance. We would be living the human version of every other animal life, an eternal behavior loop. All the way back to paleolithic days, our cultures have shaped and eventually re-shaped themselves via tool using style. A bronze plow farming village is a science-fiction miracle to a bunch of stone ax hunter-gatherers.
These agricultural villagers have solved a number of stone age problems and created some bronze age headaches.
They have ensured a more ample food supply and better odds for their babies but also effectively nailed themselves to one spot on earth where they can always be found by envious neighbors. They have also volunteered for the first time in our history to become an underclass living in want, and beholden to overlords. This endemic miserable condition of humanity did not exist until villages reached a certain level of size and success.
The improvements in the human condition over time are not from accumulated wisdom. These improvements result from the abundance generated by our endlessly evolving technology AND the different behaviors elicited from us by that morphing playfield.
As an example, the French revolution can be looked upon as an industry-based nation-state violently throwing off an inappropriate, old fashioned form of government that didn’t work for the new world they occupied. This is humanity molting off a constricting, dead skin. We shed the problems of a monarchial state for the problems (and new payoffs) of a nation. Someday we will find ourselves throwing off the limitations of nationhood in favor of something that better fits the new system rising spontaneously from the new economy.
With that idea, we have the core of my model for explaining the landscape of the past and future but we don’t have its deeper meaning. It’s beyond obvious that people invent technology but what’s WAY more important is this:
Technology invents human beings.
The Big Wave (Here It Comes)
“Engineers rate an engine in revolutions-per-second. Looking at human history in terms of this metaphor we clearly see that: In the old stone age, the acceleration factor was just slowly beginning to operate. We could estimate change then in, perhaps, revolutions-per-ten thousand years. With the Neolithic revolution and urbanization soon after, the pace began to pick up. We can speak from that point on in terms of the revolutions-per millennium. After Galileo, revolutions-per-century became the normal rate of change.
In this century we have moved into revolutions-per- generation. We are now obviously moving into an acceleration of revolutions-per-decade. By the time …(this series) peaks we will probably be growing accustomed to thinking in terms of revolutions-per-year…”
Robert Anton Wilson, Prometheus Rising
Many people alive today have witnessed this effect for themselves. Along with the good of change comes disorientation, loss of healthy structures and unsettling transformations. The 2016 American election evoked in us a dark vertiginous awareness that the familiar world we believed we were living in had vanished and been replaced by a world that we didn’t understand how to control for our collective good. Alarmingly those who did appear to know how to control it were enemies of ours, exploiting our simple human weaknesses in ways we didn’t know how to resist.
Every technological revolution generates a new intra-human ecosystem. New opportunities and vulnerabilities appear and are exploited. The internet ecosystem is reshaping us drastically and right now.
Karl Marx realized the link between politics and technology; Lenin did not. Well-meaning Americans don’t understand it when they try to impose a demo-poll style of government onto tribal or feudal foundations. There isn’t some divine or random template for political systems, instead, a bit like geological strata, a predictable spectrum of organizational systems visibly emerges from similarly structured cultures and economies. Consider what is common between Canada, France, America, Japan. We recognize the same anatomy in different individuals. If technology is the shapeshifting engine driving economy, culture, and politics the urgent question is “What next?” or better, “What now?”
The answer appears to be very little.
Many millions of dollars are being spent in research around the world on extremely small technology. This sounds like one of those “science tidbits” that we hear and then turn back to the real world. Well, the nature of the “real world” is going to be radically different before these tiny machines are through.
We are nearing a method of making tiny machines that will make still tinier machines that will make …a great many things. Nanotechnology is the name of this new direction. We have grown used to the basic idea and become sleepy observing its impact up to this point. It posits the making of molecule-sized programmable machines. We know that this technology works because life on earth is composed entirely of such machines that have evolved biologically. It is merely our presence as designers and creators on this level that will be new.
“In short, replicating assemblers will copy themselves by the ton, then make other products such as computers, rocket engines, chairs, and so forth. They will make disassemblers able to break down rock to supply raw material. They will make solar collectors to supply energy. Though tiny, they will build big. Teams of nanomachines in nature build whales, and seeds replicate machinery and organize atoms into vast structures of cellulose, building redwood trees. There is nothing too startling about growing a rocket engine in a specially prepared vat. Indeed, foresters given suitable assembler “seeds” could grow rocket ships from soil, air, and sunlight.
Assemblers will be able to make virtually anything from common materials without labor, replacing smoking factories with systems as clean as forests. They will transform technology and the economy at their roots, opening a new world of possibilities.”
K. Eric Drexler, Engines of Creation
This is going to puree traditional politics and economics with God only knows what resulting struggles. We are facing an absurdity of abundance in the none too distant future and as usual, we will have to handle it with a grumpy, unimaginative, and selfish primate brain. Organizationally we live in an ancient system that requires a rich vs poor dynamic. What happens if we outlive that organizational need but not that automatic primate power structure? What happens to the workers when work is finally over forever? More importantly (sarcasm) how will the rich get richer if the workers don’t spend their lives kicking money upstairs to them? It’s all too easy to imagine future parallels to the depressing decades-old battle against accepting global warming and against producing alternative energy as the ultra-wealthy cling to their dirty old world. It’s easy to imagine tomorrow’s billionaires thinking “Not my problem” when faced with armies of destitute unemployed who have no future in that new world. At least until they slowly discover that those ragged armies were the source of their wealth and its only future.
There are obvious horrifying bad things to fear like military applications of nanotechnology, but there are also “good bad things” to consider, there are so different many ways to turn this world upside down.
For example, one fairly straightforward use of nanomachines would be the augmentation of the human immune system. This new system would eliminate cancers, repair cells, knit wounds, fight disease and generally keep us alive and kicking for… let’s be conservative… oh say six hundred years. Sound exciting? It does to our (still reproducing) 5.7 billion friends and relations too. With the co-evolution of CRISPR technology, consumer choices for genetic expression are going to rapidly become profoundly discombobulating in ways a bioethicist can scarcely imagine right now.
Nanotechnology opens the door to space as an ecological niche as well. Good thing, as it appears to leave us no alternative. The “down to earth”, prosaic, likely-hood is that given a couple of centuries, the inner solar system will be host to thousands of moist, green, glittering mini-worlds of our own design. On these worlds are likely to be self-employed, hedonistic, healthy, Methuselahs whose lives will seem to them as ridden with problems and woe as our own. In the fullness of time, these people will go on to create an unimaginable future that will make them feel dizzy to contemplate and seem to foretell an astonishing next step.
What the hell will it be?