I was thinking about Thomas Nagel’s notion of the absurd. For Nagel, the discrepancy between the importance we place on our lives from a subjective point of view and how insignificant they appear objectively is the essence of the absurdity of our lives. In other words, we take our lives seriously, yet from a universal perspective, they are unimaginably trivial.
But I was thinking about another incongruity—between the nature of our reality and what we imagine it could be. Our reality contains pain, suffering, anguish, poverty, hatred, loneliness, depression, violence, war, and death. Yet we can envision a world in which all of us flourish, develop our talents, partake in satisfying work and constructive leisure time, creatively cooperate, create knowledge and beauty, share in close friendships, and love without limits. As Bertrand Russell wrote in his final manuscript,
Consider for a moment what our planet is and what it might be. At present, for most, there is toil and hunger, constant danger, more hatred than love. There could be a happy world, where co-operation was more in evidence than competition, and monotonous work is done by machines, where what is lovely in nature is not destroyed to make room for hideous machines whose sole business is to kill, and where to promote joy is more respected than to produce mountains of corpses. Do not say this is impossible: it is not. It waits only for men to desire it more than the infliction of torture.
There is an artist imprisoned in each one of us. Let him loose to spread joy everywhere.
Now Russell may be mistaken—the world we envisage may not be possible. Yet, intuitively, our utopian visions do seem possible. We can imagine a heaven on earth or a transcendent future that is exponentially better than our current reality. And, if the future will be radically different than the past, then it’s at least possible it will be better.
Furthermore, our consciousness of this disparity is painful. We can build homes, so why are people homeless? We can produce food, so why are people starving? We can cooperate, so why is there so much violence? And even for those whose material needs are met, why are so many of them lonely, anxious, and depressed? Why is something amiss about life?
At first glance an easy explanation presents itself. The universe is contingent and so are we. The cosmos wasn’t created for our benefit and appears indifferent to us. And we are evolutionary accidents infused with all the leftover residue of our evolutionary history. We are both cooperative and violent, loyal to the in-group and hostile to the out-group, territorial, acquisitive, and status-seeking. Our cognitive and ethical faculties are deficient. Given our nature, it’s not surprising that life often falls short of our highest expectations.
So I would say—in a Shakespearean reference—that the problem is both in the stars and in ourselves. (“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves…”) The reality in which we find ourselves (the stars) is our home and gave birth to our consciousness, but it is not finely tuned for our flourishing despite what the religious apologists imagine. Other than our little planet the cosmos could hardly be more inhospitable.
As for ourselves, Shakespeare writes, “What a piece of work is a man, How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, In form and moving how express and admirable, In action how like an Angel, In apprehension how like a god …” But all we need to do is look around us to know that this is no more than partly true, as Shakespeare notes,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assur’d;
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven,
As make the angels weep.
The only answer I see to all this is to change both the stars and ourselves. (For me this involves transhumanism—using science and technology to overcome all human limitations.1) Perhaps this will happen, perhaps not. In the meantime, we should live reveling in the beauty life offers and stoically accepting all the bad fates that will inevitably befall us. In the end, we can find comfort in living lives guided by the hope that life can be bettered.
But what if our pain becomes unbearable? What if life no longer seems worthwhile? What if the gap between what life is and what it could be is too great? Shakespeare pondered these questions in quite possibly the most famous soliloquy in all of world literature.,
1. Transhumanism affirms the possibility and desirability of using technology to eliminate aging and overcome all other human limitations. Adopting an evolutionary perspective, transhumanists maintain that humans are in a relatively early phase of their development. They agree with humanism—that human beings matter and that reason, freedom, and tolerance make the world better—but emphasize that we can become more than human by changing ourselves. This involves employing high-tech methods to transform the species and direct our own evolution, as opposed to relying on biological evolution or low-tech methods like education and training.
If science and technology develop sufficiently, this would lead to a stage where humans would no longer be recognized as human, but better described as post-human. But why would people want to transcend human nature? Because, as the transhumanists say,
they yearn to reach intellectual heights as far above any current human genius as humans are above other primates; to be resistant to disease and impervious to aging; to have unlimited youth and vigor; to exercise control over their own desires, moods, and mental states; to be able to avoid feeling tired, hateful, or irritated about petty things; to have an increased capacity for pleasure, love, artistic appreciation, and serenity; to experience novel states of consciousness that current human brains cannot access. It seems likely that the simple fact of living an indefinitely long, healthy, active life would take anyone to posthumanity if they went on accumulating memories, skills, and intelligence.
And why would one want these experiences to last forever? Transhumanists answer that they would like to do, think, feel, experience, mature, discover, create, enjoy, and love beyond what one can do in seventy or eighty years. All of us would benefit from the wisdom and love that come with time.
The conduct of life and the wisdom of the heart are based upon time; in the last quartets of Beethoven, the last words and works of ‘old men’ like Sophocles and Russell and Shaw, we see glimpses of a maturity and substance, an experience and understanding, a grace and a humanity, that isn’t present in children or in teenagers. They attained it because they lived long; because they had time to experience and develop and reflect; time that we might all have. Imagine such individuals—a Benjamin Franklin, a Lincoln, a Newton, a Shakespeare, a Goethe, an Einstein— enriching our world not for a few decades but for centuries. Imagine a world made of such individuals. It would truly be what Arthur C. Clarke called “Childhood’s End”—the beginning of the adulthood of humanity.
(The 2 quotes above are taken from the frequently asked questions section of the Humanity+ website.)