The uncertainty of the future and the certainty of death

Planning and provision for the future have gained in importance as economic and social action chains have become longer, and people have become more closely interconnected - while at the same time, the past as a source of legitimacy and a treasure house of experience has become significantly devalued. This shift in emphasis from the past to the future is a marker of the process of modernization. Now, though, we find that a paradoxical situation has arisen: the more important the future is for us, the more confusing is the picture we make of it: the more we plan, the more frequently unexpected things happen.

In fact, we are now dealing not with one future but with many futures. All kinds of developmental processes are being projected into the future by arithmetical or geometrical models. So now there is a future of population growth - soon nobody will be able to be on their own anywhere. Or a future of the car - soon every family in China will have one, yet the promise of more autonomy through individual choice of mobility will be lost in automatic traffic with self-driving cars. Or the future of tourism - soon, ever more hordes of people will be directed to highly organized hot spots of overcrowded cultural highlights or, according to taste, to covered-over tropical paradises with artificial climate regulation. Or a future of water supply - everywhere deserts are growing, and drinking water is becoming scarce. Or a future of medicine - more and more the human body will consist of artificial organs, tissues and fluids. Or the future of flora and fauna - increasingly, we will encounter living beings who owe their existence to human activity in laboratories. Many of our decisions and our behaviour will be governed and controlled by artificial intelligence working with algorithms in anonymous computers.

Everybody can perpetuate this list according to their specific area of information and experience.

Some futures only have local significance. Others seem mutually exclusive. These developmental tendencies are interconnected in a manner so deeply complicated that it is impossible to establish anything with certainty. Even when considered on a fairly long-term basis, some developments have shown a rather absurd continuity as far as their numerical development is concerned. For instance, the fact that the number of scientists working worldwide has for the last two hundred years (!) doubled every fifteen years (Price, 1975), we still don’t know when and according to what influences such exponential growth curves enter into a critical phase (i.e. when they grow indefinitely in zero time which is of course impossible and leads into a crisis the nature of which we cannot anticipate) and what happens then. Slowly we begin to understand that it is impossible to predict the evolution of complex systems, because their course is decisively influenced by singular events, often marked by a high degree of improbability, and their feedback loops and interconnections with people are incalculable, because human emotions (i.e. the human brain) seem unfathomable - see the US election of President Trump or the UK's vote for Brexit. Of course, nobody of serious scientific stature predicted the terrorist acts of 9/11 and its enormous consequences. Also, quantitative developments -which we do know - can turn into qualitative ones, generating those differences which alter cases. Many indigenous people considered that the largest part of their tribe always consisted of those who had died and those still unborn; those that were alive were somehow nothing but the tip of the iceberg making up the whole of the tribe - a beautiful concept. Now though, the earth’s population is greater than the sum of all those who have died in the course of human history. The future remains uncertain, and hugely alarming.

In contrast, a new kind of certainty is only gradually dawning on us - the certainty that it is not only single human beings but humanity itself that is mortal. This insight is rooted in a qualitative leap in the history of humanity whose witnesses we are. Humanity is about to enter a completely different phase of its development, marked by the following five facts:

  • 1 Humanity as a species has become capable of self-annihilation since it is now possible for the entire planet to sink into a nuclear winter.
  • 2 Through this realization, humanity has irreversibly become a whole. The development of our media of communication and of the means of transportation are necessary but not sufficient conditions for this development.
  • 3 Human civilization can be extinguished simply by an accident of the nuclear war machine or through a series of civil nuclear accidents.
  • 4 Simply by our way of life, we can destroy our own conditions for living and those of many other species. We are capable of making ourselves ill through the way we live and of perishing as a civilization in consequence of our human-made catastrophic changes to our climate.

5 Computer technology and gene technology are taking the first steps on a road at whose end - in the relatively near future - human beings may have found the capability of transcending themselves through biological and engineering technologies.

Nothing can better bring home to us the relationship between power and powerlessness than the possibility of taking our own lives. The power to inflict death on ourselves equals our powerlessness to revoke this deed. This fact may help us to sense that we are mortal, even without making a specific contribution to expedite this outcome.

Here I would like to pick up two connected threads. The first again originates with Robert Jay Lifton (1979). He drew attention to the fact that our human ability to destroy ourselves and our natural resources also affects what he calls our available resources of immortality experiences - the inner standards of meaning we attribute to our lives and our relationships which constantly form the background to our actions, even while normally they remain outside awareness. Lifton distinguished between five modes of historical experience people use to create a connection between themselves as individuals and the species:

  • 1 Religious ideas of immortality, whether belief in resurrection or re-incarnation.
  • 2 The thought of living on in one’s own offspring as part of an endless chain of biological concatenations.
  • 3 The thought of surviving in one’s works; the idea that one’s contribution to human culture, whilst not eternal, may constitute a slightly more enduring participation in the history of the species than one’s own quickly passing life - ars longa, vita brevis.
  • 4 The idea of living on in nature as a part of its elements and thus being part of the breeding ground of future generations.
  • 5 The authentic mystical experience of time and death simultaneously disappearing, which Lifton calls “experiential transcendence”.

The fact that humanity is now capable of collective suicide affects these experiential possibilities. How might we picture some kind of spiritual continuity on a planet whose conditions no longer allow any life except perhaps in some sort of microscopic form? If Lifton is right, then all our ideas of a hereafter -apart from the mystical one - are based on the physical continuity of our species and of our biosphere. In any case it is clear that in a culture where humanity is aware of its mortality, we cannot defer anything to the next generation - neither our own survival, nor unlived life chances nor unfulfilled desires. It is more than likely that our children will not have a better life. Instead, our children will pay for everything we are doing - and for what we fail to do - unless we and they succeed in developing a new quality of embodied mindfulness.

The other thought again is concerned with death’s certainty. The capacity to commit suicide, in itself is not quite on a par with mortality; it just makes us think - for example, about time horizons. A highly sophisticated audience gathered in the Berlin Wissenschafts-Kolleg to hear Stanislaw Lem, the Polish philosopher and science fiction author, report with great seriousness and commitment on a problem concerning the whole solar system in the near future, including the earth - about which he was worried. It involved the fact that our solar system is located at the outer edge of one of the widely spreading spiral arms of our galaxy and - he presumed - we will soon be catapulted like the spark of a Catherine wheel into intergalactic space with dire consequences. After a while a lady interrupted him anxiously, asking when this event was likely to occur. “Oh, soon, very soon”, he answered, “it is likely to happen in less than half a billion years!”

The Earth is 4.6 billion years old. That is 4600 million years. We cannot imagine such a number. Perhaps a comparison from an eco-fiction novel by Trevor Hoyle can help us here. Literally taking our breath away, he clarifies just how quickly our planet could run out of oxygen by imagining as an experiment the age of the earth in terms of our experience of time (Hoyle, 1983): Let’s imagine that the earth just turned 46 years old. We know little about the first ten years; it must have been the time of God separating heaven and earth. The next twenty years were required for the earth’s surface to calm down. Only in her forty-second year did the earth manifest primitive life forms, first as plants. The last year is well remembered. It is the year of the dinosaurs, even though they did not last for the whole year. How many species of animals and plants the earth has known during these last two years! Most of them have already disappeared. In her forty-sixth year, events occurred thick and fast: eight months ago, the first mammals appeared. In the middle of last week humans evolved from primates. But they soon had a hard time, since only last weekend, there was another ice age. Historical humans have been populating the earth for just the last four hours; only an hour ago they invented agriculture. The Industrial Revolution started a minute ago. During this one minute we have changed the earth to a massive extent, and perhaps in this very moment we have been as destructive as the impact of large meteors would be.

Measured on a cosmic scale, humanity is a tiny experiment as short as God blinking an eye. Nothing suggests that our species will last even as long as the dinosaurs - a few hundred million years, or just a few months in the course of our planet’s forty-six years. Of course, here, too, we must differentiate between quantity and quality: the length of time is not the only differentiating factor. Here, too, nature may squander inconceivable amounts of time to hit the bull’s eye once it had created consciousness. But the law of entropy applies to us, too: as a species, humans are unavoidably condemned to die out and we cannot exclude the fact that death may happen very soon due to our own carelessness. It is interesting that as I write of all people two American writers pleaded to give up our illusions to stop climate change, i.e. intellectuals living in the country whose last president denied the existence of anthropogenic climate change and whose culture, always generally noted for its optimism, produced “Silicon Valley” with its fantasies of technological solutions for all problems of humankind. Right or wrong, they are the first Western intellectuals (others have followed by now) with the courage to break through the fog of anxiety to confront our illusions: These are Nathaniel Rich with his book Losing Earth (Rich, 2019) and Jonathan Franzen, with his essay: What if We Stopped Pretending? (Franzen, 2019).

People who are deeply narcissistic, as adolescents naturally are, think of themselves as immortal or rather feel immortal right in the face of the obvious. Of course, they know about death, but this knowledge does not impact on them; it does not make a difference to them. But perhaps humanity is reaching the end of its own adolescence and slowly beginning to allow itself to be touched by its mortality. That is the biographical analogy. The analogy with the contacting process leads us to a different image; in its relationship with the environment, humanity perhaps stands at the beginning of the full contacting phase and that would really be the qualitative point of change. Interrupting the contacting process at this point we would be holding on to neurotic control needs called narcissism, which is based on the retroflection of melting, opening-up, surrendering to a healthy confluence with high degrees of energy and high measures of awareness. Can we learn something from this picture? Perhaps this is the place where the repressed anima is hidden; perhaps here is the place where - as we let go of all intentional, planned action sequences - we could begin to search for the female energy we are lacking in our relationship with nature and repressing in our society.

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