Wisdom and Avoiding the End of the World


Ḥasan Ibn al-Haytham (Latinized as Alhazen c. 965 – c. 1040) was an Arab mathematician, astronomer, and physicist of the Islamic Golden Age.

I received the following correspondence from a reader (a retired Ph.D. in theoretical physics) who goes by the name Alhazen. It was a response to my post “Reflections on the ‘Real Possibility’ of the End of the World.” (I’ll provide my own brief replies at the end.)

I do not believe the world will come to a catastrophic end due to man’s activities. It is still possible to change course now or later.

The world now is mostly governed by people whose minds are dominated by cleverness, desire for material pleasures, greed, hatred, violence and cognitive biases of all sorts. These people are driving the world into destruction. This is the racist mind which enabled our ancestors’ groups to fight nature’s scarcity and each other for survival and is taken to its extreme capability with the help of modern technology. Let’s call this sort of mind the mundane mind.

What we see in the world now is a result of such a mind which is dominating the world.

[For example in] the 19th century a British officer introduced some wild rabbits which were imported from England into Australia for the purpose of enjoying sport hunting. There were no natural predators for rabbits such as foxes in Australia. As a result, the rabbit population spread throughout Australia like wildfire destroying in its wake many farmlands and ecosystems until the rabbit was declared a pest and was fought openly by man. Thus, the man who was aware of the destructiveness of rabbits became the artificial predator that kept them in check.

The mundane mind armed with high technology has become the new animal on earth who had no natural predators. And it is only logical to expect that it would tip the natural balance in its own favor to the point of possibly destroying its habitat and itself if left unchecked. Thus, the need to create an artificial predator (i.e. has not arisen naturally by natural selection). Fortunately, this artificial predator has been in existence since a few thousand years but has not been encouraged and nurtured as the mundane mind. It is the mind, which is driven by rationality and wisdom, love, generosity, empathy the search for peace and is alert to its cognitive biases. This is the stoic and spiritual mind which strives for eudemonic wellbeing and not for power and material gains. Let’s call this mind the super-mundane mind.

There are many ways of dying. But broadly speaking we can say there are ways that take too short a time to do anything about it and those that are extended, slow and take time for something to be done about it.

Now, the super-mundane mind is weaker and not as widespread as the mundane mind because the negative effects arising from the domination of the mundane mind in the world is not impactful enough to awaken the super-mundane mind on a wide scale.

The way I see it is that the world will not collapse suddenly and die. The world will gradually get sicker and sicker over at least many decades. During this period, the folly of the mundane mind’s worldview will be seen for what it is. The efficacy of the super-mundane mind’s ways of thinking will be gradually appreciated and adopted by more and more people and the culture associated with it will spread more and more in communities, schools, universities, pressure groups, and political parties. Positive remedial actions will arise everywhere and at all levels in the world and thus enabling the planet’s health to gradually improve until complete recovery.

Perhaps the following painting, “Rituals of Ecstasy” by the Jordanian artist Mohammad Awwad captures the final triumph of the super-mundane mind, as represented by the whirling Sufi dervishes, over the mundane mind as symbolized by factory chimneys and parched land;

Brief Reflections – I hope that the wise mind that Alzhazen describes will arise. Perhaps necessity really is “the mother of invention.” Maybe the shallowness of mindless materialism and consumption and the ecological destruction that follows from them will awaken us. But if humans can evolve to be a wiser, more gentle and intelligent species I’m all for it.

Yet I’m somewhat skeptical. I’d argue that in addition to low-tech solutions like education,  we need to high-tech solutions to transform our moral and intellectual faculties. We need to use genetic engineering, neural implants, and the like to become posthumans. I know this is risky and that we currently don’t have these capabilities, but at some point, we may have nothing more to lose. If we are going to destroy ourselves or be destroyed then we might as well use everything at our disposal to try to save planetary life.

At the moment we have either a terrible future or none at all unless we radically change humanity. None of our problems will be solved unless we transform ourselves. On this Alhazen and I agree.


Note – I have written about transhumanism in detail many times on the blog. Here are just a few entries:

A Philosopher’s Lifelong Search for Meaning – Part 5 – Transhumanism and Meaning

Transhumanism and Religion

Death Should Be Optional

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8 thoughts on “Wisdom and Avoiding the End of the World

  1. Nature will prevail, as Mr. Crawford noted. Whether we will is another story. Rough translation of above “as long as there is life there is hope.” JGM

  2. “Whether we will is another story”

    We do know that cockroaches can survive apocalypse.

    First priority is to remove the Trumps and Putins from power. Next year will be the year of Dump Trump and civil disobedience. If he is re-elected, it will be time for a general strike.

  3. Though I noted my hope in the earlier comments that we might emerge from our ecological crisis more rational, empathetic and wiser than we are now, I do wonder if expecting an age dominated by the super-mundane mind — whether with the help of technologies as transhumanists may suggest, or otherwise — isn’t simply a bit utopian. Humans, I suppose, have always moved between the mundane and the super-mundane. I do not expect an age of, or a kind of human, that does not continue to do so. I only think there is some hope that we develop systems of thought and interaction that result in our living differently and more rationally with the natural environment than we now do.

    There was a time when we had child labor in the Western world and when women were relegated to the private sphere. We have moved beyond that, I believe becoming more rational and a little bit wiser. Yet, for that, we haven’t left the mundane behind us and generally become sagacious. I don’t expect that we ever will. I do think that certain habits of mind and possibilities for action can, however, become obsolete, that our education systems and systems of economic and political interaction might simply leave them behind. I’m not entirely convinced that we will not revise various inglorious elements of the past, but I’m hopeful that we won’t come out of the ecological crisis and into a new age of barbarism, in which the advances that have been made are lost and we simply continue to exploit the earth senselessly.

    Yet I wonder if the ideals put forward of an age of the dominance of the super-mundane mind wouldn’t simply be an age in which the human was transcended — something I find implausible. My hope is for no more than that we can simply continue to do what we have always done, but a bit more rationally, with a bit more empathy, and a little more wisdom. In that world, we will always move between the mundane and the super-mundane. There would be sages, occasional, rare, devotees to sciences and arts, also more rare than common, and a lot of people more concerned with elements of day to day life than anything else. I can’t say I’m optimistic that we will manage this. But for this, I think there is some reason to hope.

  4. To Darrell

    I agree with you completely. I never meant that there would be a mass transformation in mentality from the mundane to the super-mundane. However, the influence of super-mundane thinking will increase in the world as a natural response in order to survive in our only living space. I meant that there would be incremental changes in governments and institutions analogous to changes that led to the establishment of the United Nations which have saved the world from world wars even though it has not ended wars in the world or which have led to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which has been used with effect to reduce suppression and injustice in many countries.

  5. “But for this, I think there is some reason to hope”

    Statistically, it is more likely that many will die than it is likely the biosphere will be destroyed– or that cockroaches will dominate the Earth. There’ve always been casualties, thus we can expect many more casualties in the future. Perhaps hundreds of millions.

  6. But it is worst-case scenario. People do not care much what happens after they die; though naturally they have great concern for their descendants, and do what they can to ensure the welfare of their descendants. However, they know that after they are gone only their legacy remains. So the future is thus passed on to descendants with no real input from sires.
    It does appear humanity harbors a death wish. Best-case is status quo– which is unlikely.
    Years ago, many transhumanists were saying that we ought to reduce global population to one billion–unlikely as well. Statistically, one might postulate that between single digits millions and hundreds of millions will die. Thus tens of millions dying would, in this nasty short and brutish scenario, die.

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