In this section I’ll pull together our three authors’ ideas and add my own views.
Kurzweil offers a generally optimistic view of mankind’s future. He sees technology as solving most of man’s biggest problems and providing a very positive future. Perhaps most importantly, he sees man evolving beyond where we are today—merging with technology to become a hybrid man/machine. So when Kurzweil is talking about man’s future, he’s really talking about a future where man as we know him doesn’t exist anymore. If you buy this idea—that this might really happen—then it will be an entirely new ball game. And along with this new ball game come new rules and possibilities. By positing this huge evolutionary change, Kurzweil sidesteps the rather thorny issue of man’s highly aggressive nature that so many other authors wrestle with and worry about.
The only real clouds on Kurzweil’s horizon are a few concerns as to whether man will blow himself up, or poison himself or the environment to such an extent that we don’t survive long enough to reach his high-tech new era. But Kurzweil doesn’t really think this is going to happen, as the new era is overtaking us very rapidly. He shows a bit of concern that perhaps evil people might try to harness technology to their own evil ends, or that technology itself will turn on man. But here again, Kurzweil believes good will conquer evil and smart people will be so on top of the evolving situation that we will be able to reign in anything bad that begins to happen, nipping it in the bud before it becomes a real problem.
I think Kurzweil is a little too optimistic. He spends most of his time talking about the positive developments that will apparently happen in the near future. But surely scientists supporting the world’s various military regimes are also working feverishly to exploit the new technologies. Scientists supporting Big Pharma are doing the same in pursuit of higher profits and not necessarily the betterment of mankind. It may be that good will conquer evil in the end, but I think there will be a much more prolonged and pitched battle than Kurzweil predicts before such matters are settled.
Fromm is much less optimistic because he believes man has serious existential and character problems. The existential problem is that, due the history and nature of our physical bodies, man is a part of nature. But our self-consciousness, imagination, creativity and rationality separate us from the world so that we are not, and never will be, truly comfortable in our natural environment.
Man’s reaction to this is what Fromm sees as posing the more serious problem: Man has developed character traits to try to deal with his discomfort with the natural world, but this just leads to more problems. We try to create our own environments, including civilization, but this doesn’t help much. It raises the standard of living for some people, and even helps them create wonderfully artistic and scientific cultural artifacts, but often on the backs of those at the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder. And still, with all this, man is not content. He desires more objects, more land, more power in hopes that these things will bring harmony and contentment. Over the thousands of years of human history, this type of behavior and these desires have coalesced into character traits which are now very much a part of the human condition. Fromm points out that man continues to either not get, or to ignore the message that these things will not bring contentment, and that man will have to look in a more spiritual direction to satisfy his psychic cravings and to restore some form of unity with nature.
Fromm acknowledges that a few times throughout human history man has been able to tamp down his covetous desires and pursue higher, more spiritual goals. However, he also notes that these rare occurrences were quickly overwhelmed by dark waves of greed and aggression.
So Fromm doesn’t hold out much hope for a sunny human future. Unfortunately, it seems to me that the problems he points to are being made even worse today by the rapid development of modern technology and hyper-manipulative psychology. Our weapons continue to evolve, multiplying the killing potential of individuals and small groups and isolating soldiers from the results of their actions. At the same time the religious/political leaders of ultra-violent organizations have recognized how malleable the human psyche is and are “brain-washing” recruits by the thousands, playing upon man’s critical needs for excitement, being committed to some thing or someone, and being effectual.
Moving on to Mathewes and his discussion of evil, we learn several important things. Evil has been with us since man’s beginning; it takes many forms all the way from the personal level to the societal level. Theories of its origin are very diverse, ranging from it being an unfortunate natural force occurring throughout nature, to being a “gift” from the Gods, to being something inherent in our DNA or psychology, to being a by-product of civilization.
After sharing these rather bleak facts and theories Mathewes pushes on to the question of whether man will be able to control or eradicate evil. He says that if one views evil as essentially “transcendent” (arising from forces beyond man himself), we have little hope. However, if we view evil as “mundane”, and there is a mountain of evidence to suggest it is, we have a chance. This chance, however is very slim and seems to be hanging by a fast-fraying thread.
Mathewes cites example after example of how even good people can be manipulated into doing evil deeds. In recent years, it appears this insight has been increasingly exploited by political and religious leaders for the purpose of enlisting followers in the pursuit of greater territory, wealth or power. New technologies, particularly the Internet and social media, provide these leaders with an unprecedented ability to reach out to people all over the world, in all walks of life, and to spread their manipulative messages. These technologies allow initiates to surround themselves in a virtual environment where little by little, all countervailing messages are removed. The result is a powerfully-consistent environment where violence and evil become accepted means of achieving a supposedly brighter, more egalitarian future.
Summary and Speculation
While thousands have great thinkers have tackled the issue of where mankind is headed, I believe the situation has changed over the centuries. New facts have come to light. Old theories have been disproved. Consequently to answer this question today we need to build on the important insights from the past and apply them in a new way to our contemporary situation.
There is no doubt that man’s creativity will push technology forward at an ever-greater pace. It seems very likely that this pace will increase as computers themselves start aiding in the design of future technology. Where will this lead us? I think we will increasingly incorporate technologies into our bodies, both for health maintenance and for enhancing our senses and thinking. This will enrich our lives in many ways. But in regard to our main question here, it will allow us to do more space investigation. Our scientists are already saying this is the golden age of astronomy. I think we are just getting started. Before long I believe we’ll be able to colonize other worlds and that we’ll set off on that adventure as soon as we’re able. So I see one part of humanity taking off to the stars.
But not everyone will want to go. Those who stay on earth will be benefitted by technology making it possible for most of our physical needs to be met with ever-lessoning human effort. However, It seems to me quite clear that man’s character is not likely to be changed by all this--quite the contrary. I believe that man’s greed and lust for power will persist and there will always be people who will want to dominate others—even if it is not necessary for survival. Unfortunately I believe these character traits will mean that wars will persist on earth until we have destroyed our environment, our buildings and each other to such an extent that living on this planet will be nearly impossible. At this point many more will leave earth, looking for new territories to exploit. Those who remain will either die off in time, or will scrape along at a subsistence level over the eons it will take for the earth to heal itself and make possible another round human civilization.
This scenario suggests that the two waves of emigrants—the explorers and the exploiters—will both be out there in space at some point. Perhaps the universe is big enough that each group will be able to find their own worlds and leave each other alone. We can only hope.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this series. If you would like to discuss these matters, please email me at email@example.com