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.)
10 thoughts on “The World As It Is and The Way It Could Be”
Absolutely fantastic article, I look around me and see pain and suffering side by side. But how can you change people? Some you will not,but until we can in a kind way and not by force nothing is going to change.
Insofar as reflection is soul-cleansing, I offer the old saw: if wishes were horses,beggars would ride. There is now an indictment of free speech flying ’round and I wonder where the American notion of conservatism may next wander. How disheartening.
Lovely as such speculation is, I no longer look at the earth as a benevolent “mother” rife with possibilities for paradise. The change came when I read Voltaire: “If this world were what it seems it should be, if man could find everywhere in it an easy subsistence, and a climate suitable to his nature, then it would be impossible for one man to enslave another. If this globe were covered with wholesome fruits, if the air, which should contribute to our life, gave us no diseases and no premature death, .then the Gengis Khan’s and Tamerlanes would have no servants other than their children. . .”
From our primitive state we have carved a civilization so comfortable that we forget the scars “mother” nature left on us. These, I believe, are the source of evil — cold, hunger, want. Given what we were given, I think we’ve done very well.
“Condition of man: Anxiety, Boredom, unrest ” Pascal
however: “The struggle to reach the heights is enough to fill a mans Soul ” Pascal
“Your great Misfortune, is to never have experienced Misfortune ” Seneca
thanks for the thoughtful comments Bruce and for the Voltaire quote—I wasn’t aware of it but he is eminently quotable.
I do think it’s a case of is the glass half empty or half full. You’re right we’ve come a long way from Cro-Magnum or even from the Middle Ages! Perhaps I need to be more patient. I still find it painful to think of how far we have to go.
I love this speculation on mankind’s nature– the positive and negative behavior. I just hope we have time, to evolve into better humans. It seems evolution might be too slow a process. This little world of ours that Carl Sagan said contains all the people we love; all the experience we have had, and for a long time was considered the center of the Universe, does have an expiration date. If our exploding Sun doesn’t destroy us, I seriously doubt we’ll survive another mass extinction. We have had what we think are 5 mass extinctions captured in the geologic record, and some claim we may be in the early stages of a 6th. 99% of all species that ever lived have become extinct. Thus the need to speed up artificial evolution. The historian and intellectual philosopher, Yuval Noah Harari, (Sapiens author) believes our future will evolve into more and more cyborg characteristics, making us post human/transhuman? We’ll see if we can accentuate the positive human interests while eliminating the negative, before its too late.
Thanks for te kind words Kevin. And you are I are on the same wavelength as I agree with everything you say here.
After re-reading your post, I returned for a moment to your opening on Seattle. I have never been to the Pacific Northwest. It seems to me that reflection is severely lacking in the repertoire of many now. We are so distracted with everyday nonsense that the tendency moves us towards deflection. My beloved wonders why I covet silence over senseless television. She grew up, an only child in a household of five daughters—there was little silence in her life and less opportunity for reflection. She never truly cultivated that art and the results are sometimes heartbreaking. Reflection is double-edged: it can bring either warmth or regret. And that is also how the world is.
After all the years, this is still worth reading as an intro:
Thanks for reminding readers of this great piece that I have both summarized
and responded to