The Future of Humanity
The faith-based presidency of George W Bush, as well as an overall increase in fundamentalist religious activity in both Christian and Muslim countries, are symptoms of an intense backlash against science and rational inquiry. Today we see a great deal of anti-scientific posturing from extremist religious groups, and an increasingly polarized popular opinion with fewer shades of grey than was previously the case. A great deal of the backlash seems to focus on the alleged "failure" of science to answer fundamental questions regarding the meaning of life, as well as the relatively hysterical claim that modern lifestyles are less healthy and "emptier" than those of our predecessors. Neither claim is true; both are based on false claims as well as straw-man arguments that do not hold up under scrutiny.
The idea that scientific scrutiny has failed to answer certain fundamental questions is predicated on the incorrect assumption that science tries to provide such answers in the first place. Science, despite claims to the contrary by certain religious leaders, is not a religion; every tenet of scientific inquiry is subject to revision and rejection should contrary evidence be uncovered. While it is true individual scientists have occasionally held opinions that flew in the face of contradictory evidence, science itself does not operate in this manner. Science is a means of evaluating physical phenomena and testing conclusions under conditions that minimize or eliminate human bias. Despite the assertions of various religious figures, as well as the unfounded opinion of some dyed-in-the-wool atheists, science does not attempt to disprove the existence of God. Nor does it attempt to provide the "meaning of life" or provide a substitute for religion. Again, specific scientists may make such claims, but they reveal a remarkable bias in doing so. True science is not possible without objectivity, and an openness to all possible answers to a given question (note that this does not mean all answers are equally valid; such posturing is simply post-modernist nonsense) .
The idea that our lives are somehow worse than those of our ancestors is simply disposed of using basic historical facts. Pre-industrial humans lived lives often described as "nasty, brutish, and short" due to a lack of basic knowledge in a number of areas:
- Humans died in vast numbers during plagues that could have been minimized or eliminated by the adoption of modern sanitation techniques.
- Many suffered from malnutrition, or from diseases such as rickets, scurvy, smallpox, and polio, that have been largely eliminated by modern medicine and nutrition.
- Until the Industrial Revolution, many religious persons believed natural phenomena such as earthquakes, tornadoes, and even thunderstorms were "signs of God's wrath" or displeasure, and cowered in abject terror when such events occurred. Priests made good use of such beliefs in order to maintain control over their congregations.
- The life span of humans in modern, industrial nations has been increasing steadily as the result of improvements in medical care and nutrition.
- We are safer today than ever before. The advent of high speed communications networks and electronic data sharing means that both criminals and lost children can be located much more quickly than ever before. It also provides more advanced warning capabilities during natural and other disasters than was ever possible before.
- From a psychological viewpoint, we know far more about the human mind than ever before. Schizophrenics and other mentally ill individuals are no longer treated as defective or dangerous, and receive treatment rather than incarceration.
Opponents of modern life point to allegedly higher crime rates or illness that, they claim, are the consequence of industrial conditions or a "falling away from God." The former claims are ridiculous, the latter a common theme found throughout history. We may perceive a higher cancer rate in industrial states, but one must also realize that statistics regarding the occurrance rate for such illnesses during the pre-modern era are unreliable for several reasons.
- Prior to the advent of modern diagnostic technique and disease identification, certain types of disease were often misreported or wrongly identified.
- People living in more rural societies were more likely to make use of folk medicine, lacking access to trained physicians (who, during that period, were unlikely to be able to effect a cure in any case). Thus, many instances of terminal illness in such societies simply went unreported.
- Reports of death by "natural causes" in older obituaries and medical records could have been the result of an undiagnosed and more specific illness, such as cancer or heart disease. Thus our understanding of mortality rates and causes, even as recently as the early 20th century, may be skewed.
Additionally, detractors of modern living persist in making claims that, while vaguely accurate, fail to take the entire picture into account. For instance, claims that vaccinations or prescription drugs can cause death are occasionally accurate, yet these same treatments have saved the lives of millions. This fact is often overlooked when hysterical claims about vaccination or prescription "dangers" are made. These same detractors often claim we're "sicker" than in the past -- a claim that is totally without merit or foundation.
In short, people today live healthier, wealthier, safer, and longer lives than any of our ancestors. The next generation will experience even better conditions, unless the entire edifice of human history collapses as a result of a natural or man-made disaster.
An Empty Life?
What of the claim that, without religion, our lives are somehow emptier or less meaningful? Religious fundamentalists usually seem to equate the idea of emptiness with a lack of emphasis on religion, which is understandable given their bias regarding this subject. However, a religious bias overemphasizes the alleged presence of an external meaning to the presence of humanity and, indeed, the universe as a whole. Religion provides meaning in the sense that the Believer derives hope from belief in an afterlife, or comfort from the claim that humanity was placed on earth for divine purposes. Under such a mind set, any event or situation can be justified by simply claiming it's "part of God's plan." Such people are likely to react badly when scientific discoveries threaten their belief system. This largely explains religious opposition to evolutionary biology, deep time cosmology, the "God gene" theory, and other subjects that touch on areas long thought to be the exclusive province of the0logy.
If religious concepts of "God's plan" are proven incorrect, what remains as a motivation for our race? If we accept that humanity is not present in the universe as a result of divine will, then we must also accept that our first priority is survival. Thus, it behooves us to learn as much about the true nature of the universe as possible. Understanding improves the odds of survival, as any wilderness expert would agree, so it's in our best interest to expand the boundaries of our knowledge, both scientific and otherwise.
We also need an internal motivation for progress, and for society as a whole. If our meaning is not to be derived from a religious hope for salvation or paradise in an afterlife, then we must create our own objectives. Some may find personal meaning in pleasure, financial success, or in experiencing life to the fullest. However, a longer term and more global goal is also advisable, since society itself is in need of legitimate, useful objectives in order to thrive.
If we couple the primary objective of survival with the necessity of long term social goals, our destination becomes clear (though idealistic). Currently, nations and races struggle over natural resources and land, competing with one another for reasons that amount primarily to stubborness and an inability to discard old ideas. Nations cling to the illusion of sovereignty, and religions to unprovable claims of moral or ethical ascendency over others. In an ideal world, these barriers would fall in favor of cooperative ventures among regions or even the entire planet, for the purpose the of overall improvement of the human condition. Will this happen? No, unless a threat presents itself that involves danger to all of humanity.
We can still make a start for totally non-egalitarian reasons, however. Evidence exists, and more is found every day, showing that the Earth has been subject to major cataclysms (meteor impact, massive vulcanism, earthquake, tsunami, etc.) on numerous occasions in the past; it is therefore in humanity's best interest to develop the means and ability to plant colonies elsewhere in the solar system. This is not science fiction, but irrefutable fact based on massive amounts of evidence. The sooner we start, the better.
Notes & References
Note: All information contained in these pages is © 2007 Richard E. Joltes. Excerpts may be used where proper credit is given and permission is obtained in advance. All rights reserved.