Dr James Martin's essay on the future of the world in the last, Trinity issue of Oxford Today led to a very welcome response from readers. Many of you wrote letters. Some were in favour, some against, and many simply highlighted other avenues of inquiry. The following response by Oxonian Brendan Kelly is really an essay rather than a letter, so we decided to add it to the website as a further addition to this valuable debate.
When I came to Oxford, to Christ Church, in 1998, to read PPE, I was hoping and expecting to experience not merely subject-specific academic instruction and guidance in forms of academic and intellectual methodology, but something much higher, induction and enlightenment in a comprehensive philosophy and ethos which would take account of the great corpus of present and emerging knowledge, be convincing, and satisfy not only intellectually but spiritually. I have always set my sights high. Had I matriculated in 1398 I would indeed have encountered such a philosophy, in the form of self-confident medieval Christianity buttressed by the philosophies of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. For all the errors of Thomism and Scholasticism now apparent to most of us, I would most likely have left - or remained - convinced and satisfied, given the state of knowledge and society then obtaining. Instead, at the close of the Second Millennium of the Christian era, I found a state of great confusion on the fundamentals of human existence, so that, even among England's most eminent teachers, there were few if any with the confidence to give a lead to the young people who had come there seeking light, neither at the college nor at the university level. I came to realise that even the best of our universities today are no Lyceum, Academy or Sangams, having been overwhlemed by the complications and doubts introduced by the scientific Enlightenmnet and the Industrial Revolution, both of which are properly treated not as only historical but as ongoing and indeed accelerating phenomena, and having yet to reconcile in a comprehensive and broadly accepted philosophy the realm of science and technology on the one hand and of human nature and consciousness on the other. It is indeed the supreme challenge of our civilization, even our species. The confident certainties of Christianity which Oxford embodied and taught for all those centuries from Alfred to Gladstone have largely fallen away, to be replaced, not only in this university but throughout most of the world, by a new philosophy, tacitly where not explicitly, in the minds of the great majority of the most eminent senior members of those universities and, consequently, in the minds of most of the students graduating from them and going on to play, in so many cases, prominent and formative roles in this world in the Twenty First Century.
It is the prevailing philosophy of Britain today, indeed of Europe and increasingly of other areas of the world, and might be called a religion did it acknowledge any deity: the naive worship of and faith in technology, and of the sustained economic growth which depends upon it. Technology which is represented by the disciples of this creed as being above all what sets us apart from all other species, makes us human; which we have used with gradually increasing skill until a couple of centuries ago when a combination of circumstances enabled an exponential rate of development, underpinned by burgeoning science; science which, to paraphrase Nietzsche, has killed God, and technology which has usurped His place, demanding the unquestioning adoration of the peoples of the world, its essential beneficence not to be doubted or even questioned, so necessary is it to increasing material wealth and the worldly power of nations, corporations, individuals. We are lured with the siren sounds of improvements beyond all imagining, immortal lives of blissful leisure by the end of this century, will we only continue to serve and sacrifice to this great Juggernaut. The early reactions to the Industrial Revolution by such percipient men as Thomas Carlyle, witnessing its birth in Britain, have been increasingly ignored without ever having been satisfactorily answered.
For all his caveats, James Martin's article 'Predicting Our Century' in the Trinity 2011 'Oxford Today', epitomises this philosophy. The author is not only an adept computer scientist and businessman who has made his fortune as a protagonist and advocate of the computer revolution of the second half of the Twentieth Century, but something far more inscrutable and unimpeachable, a 'futurologist'. Beware futurologists in every form, for the term is suggestive of one so wise, or so gifted with prophetic vision, that he is far better able than the rest of us to 'see' the future, and will now descend from Mount Pisgah and share with us the mighty vista which has been afforded to him. The futurologist is almost obliged to articulate his predictions in an excessively confident style so as to make an impression on his audience, as he cannot, from the very nature of his field, argue from events in the manner of a historian. I do not impugn the sincerity of the author, an admired philanthropist making a highly valued contribution, nor that of some other eminent futurologists including the famous Ray Kurzweil, and I applaud his genuinely noble desire to spread the good news which he articulates: what I find fault with is the naive optimism of the great majority of futurologists. Their backgrounds are almost invariably in technology, yet it is surely the insights of historical study, of human psychology, and of animal behaviour, which best enable us to predict the most important developments of the ensuing decades. Humility should be the first quality of any futurologist, and his highly influential pronouncements should always be preceded by a discalimer to the effect that reality is so very complex a thing, and human beings such very intricate and mysterious organisms, that no person, no matter how experienced, reflective, intelligent, can foresee the future with anything approaching to true clarity. We have only to look at the predictions of the most eminent futurologists a hundred years ago to see how far off they turned out to be, how they often foresaw, as Jules Verne did, certain technological advances, but, in the complacency of late-Victorian and Edwardian peace and prosperity, missed so many crucial elements of the bigger picture, even for the first half of the century, not least the Russian and Chinese revolutions and the two world wars.
The chief purpose of the futurologist is usually to vindicate the cause, the religion, to which he has devoted his life: the frantic, urgent advance of technology, specifically information technology, what future generations may well term the Rise of the Machines. It is a common device among futurologists to describe a paradise of enhanced human health, extended lifespan, even medically elevated consciousness, in short drastically improved happiness, by late in this century, often after a turbulent transition during the middle years, as if the Twenty First Century will simply repeat the pattern of the Twentieth. By repeatedly warning us of the coming crises of excessive demand for natural resources, and of climate change, gross and relatively easily understood and predicted developments of physical geography, the author appears to counterbalance his rosey predictions for the direct human relationship with technology and thereby to make the latter appear all the more plausible. Nowhere does he acknowledge that they are all part of the same great phenomenon, the hectic advance of science and technology far beyond a point at which humans can make informed and wise use of it, driven in truth not so much by 'consumer demand', but by exactly such men (almost always men, not women) as are most leading futurologists, the drivers and heralds of the technology juggernaut, in industry, the military and academia. Most may be cleared of the suspicion of cynicism, as they have convinced themselves of the overall goodness for the human species of the cause to the advancement of which they devote their life's efforts. Yet I find almost invariably that they are unable to 'think outside the box', but can only come up with variations on the same theme, blind faith that a continuation of the present relationship with technology will take us to the Promised Land, after perhaps some years labouring through Sinai.
Human nature has not changed essentially in the last fifty thousand years, as we see from such work as the neuropsychological analysis of cave art by Professor David Lewis-Williams. What has changed in the last two long human lifetimes, and changed to a staggering degree, is the power of humans to manipulate the material world within and around them at various scales through technology predicated on science. To echo Malthus, while this change has been, and continues to be, geometric, the advance of human wisdom, self-knowledge, self-mastery, is not even arithmetic, but advancing, if at all, at a glacial pace. The likely consequence ought to be obvious even to a child. It is like giving a troop of chimps a hand grenade to play with. Already, in the peak Cold War years from the early 60s to the mid 80s, the global civilization faced devastation from the targeted detonation of upto 50,000 hydrogen bombs, came very close on several occasions, most notoriously the Cuban missile crisis, a situation which would have been impossible but for the high technology, the product of the genius of such men as Teller and von Braun, in whose tradition of technological wizardry our contemporary futurologists largely belong. Yet the power of technology today greatly exceeds that of fifty years ago, and in another fifty years will be far greater still, if it has not yet destroyed itself by destroying us, its creators. Advances in technology which, if desirable at all, should have been spread over many lifetimes, to allow for proper adjustment, have been compressed into far too short a period, the result chiefly of the scientific enlightenment coinciding with a period of already very high population and therefore of potential ultra-specialisation, as described by Adam Smith . What has been happening these last two centuries, what we are living through, is a colossal experiment probably unprecedented on this planet, and therefore its outcome is extremely uncertain. Very few people in leading positions seem to understand this.
There is much to be said for Utilitarianism, for asking ourselves whether people, and indeed all sentient lifeforms, individually and in sum, are being rendered more happy or less happy as a result of any proposed act. The burden is on the high priests of technology, including Dr Martin, to show that the machine-addicted and machine-dependent individual and society of the Twenty-First Century, constantly made sick by technology and then cured by it like the toadeater to a quack, plugged in to a host of information and entertainment devices, increasingly observed, monitored and otherwise deprived of liberty and privacy by the abuse of technology (CCTV, wiretapping, compulsory collection of DNA etc), living ever under the prospect of nuclear, chemical and biological war and terrorism, increasingly divorced from the natural world, offered an endless supply of Big Macs and cokes and iphones in her individualised 'cocoon' as a substitute for natural human society and spiritual satisfaction, is truly better off, happier, more fulfilled, than the Australian Aborigine of years gone by, living for two thousand generations in what Europeans loved to call 'primitive savagery'. In the realm of individual human consciousness and happiness, which has always mattered far more than material wealth beyond what is needful for survival, it is unclear that any major progress has been made for a long while, nor is any likely to be made through devotion to this philosophy. Knowledge does not automatically translate into happiness, as Adam and Eve learned, but too many of our leading scientists would have us think otherwise.
In Salvador Dali's 'The Temptation of Saint Anthony' emblems of worldly and technological hubris and excessive materialism are depicted atop elephants with impossibly long and spindly legs, a device used elsewhere by the artist also to show grand and powerful and alluring elements of civilization whose bases are far from secure, with the implication, 'The taller they are the harder they fall'. History recent and ancient abounds in examples of this truth, from Lehman Brothers and the World Trade Center to Lincoln Cathedral spire and the Roman Empire. I have long regarded our increasingly machine-reliant civilization as just such an elephant.
As a sobering alternative to the vision of Dr Martin for the remainder of this century, I offer another, which I consider far more likely. Added to the catastrophic consequences of climate change and the over-exploitation of such basic natural resources as water, which he does indeed predict, and interacting with them in extremely complex ways, there will occur a cataclysmic war between leading nuclear-armed nations, most likely led by China on the one side and the United States on the other, the two proudest and most ambitious and powerful nations of the first half of this century and on a collision course with each other, like Britain and Germany a century ago. India and Japan will by then be in close alliance with the US to contain China, while Pakistan and Iran will be joined on the opposing side. The belligerents will embark on the war each believing his technology (National Missile Defence, cyberwarfare etc) will afford an advantage which renders obsolete the strong deterrent of mutual assured destruction, much as in 1914. There are fewer and fewer left who even remember the Second World War, most today have never witnessed major war: this war will eclipse any known to history, and may well in itself suffice to precipitate us into a new dark age, as Einstein said.
Global pandemic, long overdue (1918-19) and perhaps deliberately genetically engineered, will be spread worldwide by air travel, quite likely not a disease of the H5N1 sort, but more like the Black Death. It might kill 50-90% of humans. These catastrophes will be the fruit of the technology, their rapidity of onset and their extent impossible without it, but we also have the machines themselves. The best science fiction is the work of futurologists superior in their understanding of human nature and the relationship of man with machine, such great writers as Frank Herbert and Arthur C Clarke, the latter a correspondent of mine in his final years. If you want a plausible vision of man's relationship with robots and computers in this century, think of '2001: A Space Odyssey', and the background to Herbert's 'Butlerian Jihad'. Of such horrors, should they come to pass, today's leading computer scientists will have been the grandfathers. Added to this we have the incipient merger of humans with machines, initially for purely medical reasons, which, combined with the reengineering of the human genome, xenotransplantation and the increasing experimentation with the microbiology of other organisms, pioneered by such confident futurologists as Craig Ventner, are a Pandora's Box which none but the most naive or the most hubristic would ever have opened. Throughout the oldest western traditions we find warnings of the perils of inappropriate Knowledge, from the Fall in Genesis to the punishment of Prometheus for stealing the technology of fire from the gods, allegories we should set against the ebullient Humanism of Alberti which declares man to be 'the measure of all things', who 'can be anything if he will'. We should draw a sharp distinction between science itself, which, being the acquisition of understanding of how the universe works, is among the highest pursuits of conscious life, and the unrestrained application of that understanding in the form of rushing through the development, production and distribution of ever more complex and powerful machines and biotechnologies, the urgency driven above all by the forces of corporate and military competition, rather than spontaneous demand from the citizenry.
The catastrophes of the Twenty First Century, combined into one protracted crisis, what the Hindu sages called a paralaya - the true 'singularity' - will dwarf those of the Twentieth, the Fourteenth, the European Fifth-Sixth, to take recent examples. The closest analogue, including from the perspective of climate change, would be the centuries immediately prior to the Holocene, concerning which our knowledge remains vague. Humans survived that period of tremendous upheaval, as a species, but it took us thousands of years to make anything like a recovery from it. We shall probably survive this century too, but, as Elvis put it, 'only the strong'. Most people now living will not only be dead themselves by 2100, but will have no survivng descendants. Dr Martin does admit, 'society will be burnt out by diverse catastrophes and extreme technology', but this statement is made in the context of such a state being a prelude to the golden age of effortless bliss (in which machines will do all work and we need only enjoy meaningless recreation), like the vision of St John the Divine at Patmos. He would do better to make this proposition the title and the theme of his whole article, as, taken literally and not figuratively, it pithily and, I believe, accurately, describes where we're going.
On one essential point he and I are in agreement. He writes, 'Extreme reaction to...traumas will bring a determination to make major changes. Much of society will want lifestyles of higher... spirituality'. This is ever the way with humans, it has happened time and again in the past, is there in the Bible and in the fall of empires throughout time, whether from natural or man-made causes. To imagine we have now escaped this cycle is as naive as to decalre the end of the business cycle, or of the seasons.
Already I think we see the beginnings of this spiritual revival, especially in the nations we might collectively call post-Christendom, in the rapidly increasing practice of yoga. Yoga, the essential 'technology' of Buddhism and Hinduism, which form the cultural basis of one third of our species, can be exactly that comprehensive and spiritually satisfying system and path fully compatible with the present and emerging corpus of scientific knowledge, with the need for which I began this article. India has proved, over thousands of years, that an advanced civilization can continue in the long term without being dominated by the unbridled and headlong pursuit of ever more advanced technology. Throughout that period its ethos has been founded on the self-awareness, and knowledge of the nature of things beyond the self, derivable from meditation and from other disciplines within the broad realm of yoga, a complete alternative system to that of the Western intellectual tradition, which latter has come to value only what has been called 'the alert, problem-solving state of consciousness'. Whatever the turbulence ahead, this development is one which will survive and grow.