The end is not near

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The end is not near

At the Trollstigen lookout, Norway. Photo courtesy Vegard Haugland

Thanks to science, most of us accept the deep past – so why are our imagined futures so shallow?

J L Schellenberg is professor of philosophy at Mount Saint Vincent University and adjunct professor of philosophy at Dalhousie University, both in Nova Scotia, Canada. His latest book is Evolutionary Religion (2013).

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In Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle (1987), Stephen Jay Gould tells the story of one John Playfair, who in 1788 accompanied the great British geologist James Hutton to see an ‘unconformity’ at Siccar Point in Scotland. With the help of this geological visual – an ancient erosion surface dividing two layers of rock, one gently sloping, the other vertically tilted – Hutton explained to Playfair that the Earth is a machine ceaselessly repeating a cycle of erosion, deposition, and uplift. Playfair later wrote: ‘The impression made will not easily be forgotten... Revolutions still more remote appeared in the distance of this extraordinary perspective. The mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far into the abyss of time.’

Giddy. That’s how trying to penetrate ‘deep time’ has made people feel ever since its discovery, by science, a few hundred years ago. With a little practice, one can contemplate thousands of years, but thinking in the millions is a bit like staring into a bottomless well or crevasse. No doubt this has something to do with the name, ‘deep time’.

By now most of us have absorbed and integrated quite a large number of facts about deep time. We acknowledge that our universe began with the Big Bang about 14 billion years ago. We know that our planet has ‘gone cycling on’, to use Charles Darwin’s phrase, for about 4.5 billion years. Darwin himself didn’t know the age of the Earth, and would have been greatly relieved to hear of it, because natural selection requires hundreds of millions of years to do its creative work, to produce the vast number of forms that sprint along the Earth’s surface or splash and soar in its seas and skies. To the extent we have begun to internalise this idea of deep time, we have started to make the difficult transition from human timescales to those of science.

This is all well and good, but did you notice that all of those references to deep time have us looking backward, into history? In most of our talk about deep time, what we really have in mind is the deep past. Every day, we are reminded that we come at the end of a long evolutionary process. But there is little to stimulate the thought that we come at the very beginning of one, too. Where in all of this, one might reasonably ask, is the deep future?

It’s helpful to think about these things spatially, so imagine a line one might draw that is 20ft long, and let that stand for the ‘distance’ of a billion years. A billion years at least is needed to get you all the way from the first stirrings of human philosophy, science, and religion, about 50,000 years ago, through the immensities of time that lie ahead for species on our planet, before the Sun’s unbearable drying heat causes the evolution of life on Earth to grind to a halt. So think about that billion years of evolution, that 20ft line. How much of it have we traversed?

You’ll suspect it to be not much. But I’m guessing you won’t be prepared for how little it is. The ground we’ve covered as a species is not even discernible with our usual measuring devices. Indeed, for it to fill a visible segment of that 20ft line, say, a meagre eighth of an inch, we would have to carry on for nearly half a million years more. It takes a great deal longer than one might think for intelligent life to travel any distance at all through scientific time, and in that journey we are still disconcertingly close to the starting point. The beginning is near!

Looking forward from where we are into the abyss of future time, imagining what yet may be, is not something we’re used to doing. But it’s something I believe we ought deliberately to do much more often, in order to correct what amounts to an unbalanced outlook and to discover our place in time. To see things as they are includes seeing them as they will be, and that means picturing ourselves and our own position in time not as coming at the end, jutting out into empty space with nothing beyond, but as tucked in with manifestations of life both behind us and ahead of us. Tucked in, just as Darwin’s or Hutton’s time is for us as we look back on it now. This is how things will be.

Why has recognising the deep future been so difficult for humanity? Why, after discovering the place of the Earth in the solar system, the place of the solar system in the universe, the age of the Earth, the age of the universe, and evolution by natural selection over aeons of Earth’s history, do we still need to be prodded to perform the simple act of turning around, to position ourselves to see both forward and back in time?

The first, and most obvious reason, is simple human self-preoccupation. The line of evolution reaches us, and we find it hard to imagine it moving further. Hugely impressed with our own accomplishments, including those just listed, we give little thought to beings who might come after us or to ideas not yet a twinkle in evolution’s eye. There is also a more practical reason. Most human goals, including altruistic ones, rise or fall over the short period of a human lifetime. And although we might look back – even far back – with interest, perhaps to learn from our kind’s history, there is nothing in the far future that is similarly tied up with our goals. As a result, we haven’t developed the habits of mind necessary to consider it carefully.

The past has another kind of allure for us, one tied closely to the way we see ourselves. When we do lift our heads from immediate human concerns and exert the imagination needed to think in scientific timescales, our attention is often drawn in a special way to times gone by. As attested by hundreds of television programmes, many narrated by the enthusiastic David Attenborough, things that occurred in the recesses of evolutionary time can touch us deeply, for they affect our very sense of identity. Having discovered evolution, we now know that many secrets about who we are might be exposed by the palaeoanthropologist’s shovel or brush. But there is no bed of deposits where one can dig up the fossils of one’s descendants.

We all want to live in the most exciting, most consequential chapter of time, it seems

Finally, we can always blame the Bible. Whether you think of it as casting a long shadow across the history of Western culture or as fathering a great light within it, there is no denying the Bible’s powerful influence on the way that we think today. And you might have noticed that there’s not much about a billion-year future in it. The Bible does not tell us ‘The beginning is near!’ but rather ‘The end is near!’ When I was a child, I helped my father put an actual sign at the end of our driveway that said ‘Jesus is coming soon!’ And although his brand of enthusiastic evangelicalism sponsored endless disputes with other Christians – even other evangelicals – as to how things will transpire in the near future, on the matter of whether we are living in the end times he was in lockstep with other biblical believers. If you allow for secular eschatologies, he was also in lockstep with the rest of the culture, which has by now spun out rather a large number of variations on the biblical Armageddon-just-around-the-corner theme. We all want to live in the most exciting, most consequential chapter of time, it seems.

What might it mean to shed our temporal myopia? Perhaps we will learn to think of human enquiry – whether it be philosophical, scientific, or religious in nature – in a radically diachronic way, as spread out over enormous periods of time, including future times. This would be a nice corrective to the tendency thinkers often have to regard enquiry as identifiable with what’s going on at the moment, and as involving tasks they and their contemporaries should be able to wrap up in their own lifetimes. In 1900, Lord Kelvin, nearing the end of one of the most productive lives ever in physics, famously suggested that work in his field was virtually complete: he could detect only a few ‘minor clouds’ in the otherwise clear sky of physics. How wrong he was! Within a few years, one cloud had rained down Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity and the other quantum mechanics. Much of Lord Kelvin’s classical world lay in ruins.

Perhaps someone will soon discover how to reconcile quantum mechanics and general relativity – one of the great uncompleted scientific tasks of our time. But this so-called ‘unification’ might leave loose threads of its own. Maybe a new awareness of our place in time will lead us to see science as the laying of foundations, for discoveries that will come long after we’ve departed the scene. Maybe we will see ourselves as being involved in one of those critical turning points that can only be seen later on in the journey of the mind.

A deeper perspective in time might also bless us with a new attitude toward daring suggestions in the realm of ideas, which today are often greeted with disdain. I’m thinking of an attitude of tolerant and empathetic curiosity, fed by the desire to affect our limited intellectual capacities in ways that permit us to evolve. This empathetic curiosity would motivate us to understand why things strike someone in the different way they do, while at the same time preventing us from ridiculing or discouraging unconventional forms of enquiry that at first appear quixotic.

An illustration is afforded by Thomas Nagel’s book Mind and Cosmos (2012), which was panned by the intellectual elite for daring to suggest that a teleological conception of nature might have a role to play in future science. Teleology was largely set aside when the shift from Aristotle to Isaac Newton was negotiated: the idea that heavy bodies are drawn toward the centre of the universe, seen as the centre of the Earth, was dropped when purely mechanistic systems were devised that accurately predicted and explained a much wider array of astronomical data than Aristotle ever knew. Teleology remained outside science when much of what we learnt from Newton was supplanted by Einstein, and most scientists today suppose it ought to be gone for good. As a result, Nagel was crucified. But was this swift reaction yet another consequence of our short-sightedness?

for all we know, some of the new ideas of the future will be old ideas, whose time has finally come

It’s true that science and philosophy have limited budgets (of money and time) and that some filtering of the conversation is necessary to keep disciplines fresh and on the move. Not every intellectual whimsy can be indulged. But given our place in time, and our limited understanding, strange ideas proposed by academics, who to all appearances are full of a love of truth and have no obvious axe to grind, should be met with curiosity not a curse. We should at least let Nagel come down from the cross long enough to explain more fully the teleological view that he thinks might be needed to give consciousness a place in nature. Realising that our enquiry into the fundamental nature of the world is just beginning, we might have to say that, for all we know, some of the new ideas of the future will be old ideas, whose time has finally come.

For all we know. This critical part of my claim is that we are not in a realm where belief or confidence is appropriate. It is hard, at an early stage of any investigation into matters that resist our cognitive powers and sponsor so much disagreement, to see how belief or confidence could be the thing to emphasise. Belief says we’ve reached the end of the investigative journey. And given our place in time, we will often need to resist that siren call. What’s important is that we voluntarily accept, for now, where our peculiar pathway through the evidence has led us, and it’s important that we continue enquiry from there, interacting with the work of others in such habits of mind as the one I’ve dubbed ‘tolerant, empathetic curiosity’. As it happens, this point about focusing on acceptance rather than belief means that Nagel was just as short-sighted to countenance his book’s subtitle Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False as were his detractors in suggesting that teleological ideas are simply beyond the pale and should be off-limits.

All of these consequences, and many others too, might be waiting for us in a proper perspective on deep time and our place in it, which cannot be far off now. None of these consequences – do notice – requires us to say that intelligent life (whether in a human form or as configured in some species coming after us) necessarily will travel on a great deal further, traversing much more of the 20ft line, or that deep new insights will necessarily be won. In particular, our travels so far through logical space – the space of ideas – might not be as near a beginning as our travels through temporal space, scientifically construed. But, by the same token, they might be. Even half the humility of Darwin will lead you to see that there might be aspects of reality we’ve not yet evolved the ability to handle intellectually. And so, allow yourself to get giddy. For all we know, human enquiry on our planet is still in its infancy.

Read more essays on general philosophy, history of ideas and the future


  • JohnnyLaird

    The I often wrestle with the thought..."what if we're not at the closing stages of the story of humanity*, but rather we're at the beginning"?

    *as seems to be a pervasive point of view

    • G

      Nicely said, very much so: 'what if we're not at the closing stages of the story of humanity*, but rather we're at the beginning?'

      In order for this to become real, we must a) achieve sustainability, which means reducing population and consumption levels and converting our energy supplies to non-carbon sources, b) cease aggressive warfare, and c) continue progress in the sciences and core technologies. Each of these points implies others (e.g. achieving a sustainable population requires legal, cultural, and educational equality for girls and women, worldwide), and taken together they add up to radical change in the way civilisation goes about its business.

      • JohnnyLaird

        all good stuff...

      • Agga

        I would add to those excellent points of yours one more; we need to protect diversity - biological-, thought-, and resource diversity. We surely want as many aces up our sleeves as possible to aid us in facing future challenges. Problem is, we don't know which of the millions of species that we are eradicating, ideas that we are smothering, or resources that we have all but burned through, will become aces.

        • G

          Agreed, and that's a core element of sustainability. Though, nature has its own impacts on species diversity, and we don't know what benefits to our collective future may have been lost when various species have gone naturally extinct.

          One might wish to trust that natural selection has a kind of innate but impersonal (or perhaps transpersonal) wisdom in preserving an overall viability of life on a planet. However, what is good for the whole, going forward from point A in time to point B, is not necessarily the same as what is good for species Q going forward from point B to point C, even if species Q (that would be us) has within its grasp the preservation of most or all other species at some point much further down the line.

          Whether or not one trusts nature in some abstract way, we ourselves still bear a responsibility to gain as much knowledge of the whole of life as possible, and then to intervene wisely if and when such interventions are appropriate (such as by protecting endangered species).

  • Michael Hanlon

    Our temporal myopia is indeed startling - and troubling. If we believe the end of the world is just around the corner that gives us little incentive to make anything better. It also gives us humans little incentive to make very long-term plans when the idea of constructing, say, a dam or a power station, flood defences or a building to last 2000 years seems simply silly to most people.
    Yet this myopia seems to be a (mostly) a Western thing. It is an irony that the civilisation that gave us science, the West, also seems to be one which cannot easily cope with the concepts of Deep Time - backward and forward - that science has given us. Fortunately there are people starting to think differently. I wonder if the psychological barrier of the Millennium has something to do with this. Remember the start of Blade Runner? We were told that the impossibly futuristic Los Angeles in which the movie was set was in the year 2019 - just 37 years in the future from when the movie was released. No one today would imagine a city looking that different in 2051.

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    • Jeff Blanks

      We used to think things would change a lot. Now, not only have many things changed back, we've largely lost our ability to believe that much change at all can happen, much less will. I still (if you'll excuse me) believe, though.

  • G

    (I've been thinking along similar lines for over a decade, and expect to be publishing at length later this year. It's remarkable how these ideas seem to be popping up in various places now, even to the point of using the same somewhat obscure language such as the word 'diachronic.')

    Thinking of the deep future, we have (according to the estimates with which I'm familiar, which differ from those of the present author) about 1/2 billion years until the increase in the Sun's luminosity renders Earth unfit for life. Those who are living at that point in time will not voluntarily go to their extinction: never before has there been a long-lived culture whose central mythos ended with 'and then we all decided to perish.' The obvious solution is interstellar migration, so the lineage of Earth-originated life can continue elsewhere in the cosmos.

    That 'teleology' has a direct impact on the present: We do not have the moral right to deny our distant descendants the choice to go to the stars. Yet if we continue with unsustainable life-ways, that is exactly what will occur: we will burn through resources that would be needed to develop the science and technology and then actually manage the project of the first voyages to other star systems. We are morally obligated to not foreclose our distant descendants' choices.

    This I refer to as 'diachronic cooperation,' or 'the diachronic golden rule:' 'Do unto the future as you would have the past do unto you.' (Unfortunately, an Ixquick search of 'do unto the future (etc.)...', when I first came up with it, led to a posting using a similar phrase, by someone I would frankly describe as a misanthropic crank; but his usage and mine are substantially different.) The underlying principle is that the clearest expression of moral character occurs in the absence of self-interest, and nowhere is that more clear-cut than with respect to our treatment of the deep future.

    As the future cannot defend itself against the present, good will toward the future, beyond one's own offspring, is a pure case of moral conduct without self-interest. It is pure altruism. But it also reflects what we most honour and respect from those in our past, such as those who fought in World War Two, those who developed vaccines against deadly diseases, and those who developed the space program: these people and others like them, gave us what we most value about our world today.

    The opposite behaviour is 'diachronic competition,' the phrase that set me thinking down that particular path, that I first encountered in an essay published online about a decade ago. The author was writing about 'competition with the future,' such as by using up nonrenewable resources.

    The stark choice we face today is whether to steal from the future by using up resources and by plunging the Earth into a potentially unrecoverable ecological crisis, or to give to the future by exercising a modicum of self-restraint in our consumption habits whilst continuing the forward development of science and core technologies.

    It would be a splendid thing if this idea of 'the deep future' became a viral meme. There is an organisation devoted to this goal, 'The Long Now Society' or something along those lines, and they are looking forward a few tens of thousands of years.

    Ten thousand years are enough to develop the technology for the first interstellar voyage and send a colony ship to a nearby star system, based only on the science we have now and the technology we expect to have shortly (e.g. nuclear fusion).

    Ten thousand years are also just another tiny distance along the present author's 20-foot line. And even that 20-foot line is an infinitesimal in comparison to the anticipated lifetime of our universe.

    Billions of years from now, the universe will still be infested with life and teeming with intelligence. Whether any of that life and intelligence will be able to trace its roots back to Earth, is directly in our hands today.

  • Grant

    Consider a visit to The Long Now Foundation ( ) ."The Long Now Foundation was established in 01996 to creatively foster long-term thinking and responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years "

  • Guest

    Olaf Stapledon was thinking along the same lines when he published his thought experiments "First and Last Men" and "The Star Maker" in the 1930's, giving inspiration to subsequent generations of creative thinkers (such as Arthur C Clarke and C.S. Lewis). Much-recommended reading.

  • simon

    Not mentioned in this article is that much of this short-term thinking can be attributed to not believing we're going to last another couple of hundred years due to the myriad ways we're destroying this planet.

  • JenJen10

    I once told a friend that it seems humanity is a virus growing across the face of the earth, and that the earth might find a way to get rid of us one day. He physically recoiled from that thought, which surprised me since he seemed very intelligent (even a genius). But I understand his visceral reaction, it is scary, but it may be true.

    If you look at a composite picture of the earth at night with all the lights we have put on the surface, and then imagine all the damage we're doing to the crust of the earth with fracking & mining & bulldozing, & look at the skylines of skyscrapers & manmade changes all brought about just by us humans in the last few hundred years, well, I see what looks like a fungus growing across a petri dish getting bigger & bigger, only we're the fungus & the petri dish is the earth.

    Everything plays out to our size, we have trouble seeing things that are much bigger than we are & trouble seeing things that are much smaller than we are. But in what we have been able to see with telescopes & microscopes, the forms & the activities interact in similar patterns. Our molecules are formed of tiny solar systems that rotate around a nucleus with electrons passing from one to another & sometimes knocking one out of place, it is a smaller version of our bigger solar system with our nucleus sun & our planetary electrons & protons planetary bodies. We are limited to being a surface dweller on just one of the revolving bodies.

    What if our activities alter the function of the entire solar system & cause an electron-like body to come from outside the system smashing into us? Perhaps it's already happened many times in the past.

    What we do has a ripple effect I doubt that we can see. I think our uncontrolled population growth and our emphasis on "productivity" have led us into uncharted territory. We should be looking at the long-term.

    • Walter Braun

      The misanthropes come out in full force.
      Humanity a virus? Of course, any sane person will recoil. Putting a pristine nature, an unchanged surface of the planet ("the damage we are doing to the crust of the earth" - sacred crust??) above human well-being is not 'sensitive', not 'well-meaning', not 'wise' but incredibly stupid.
      Similar to this dumb Johnny Laird above - "reducing populations" ... let's start the killing? Forcefully prevent people from having children? Because a fungus is more important than humans? Arrgh ...
      Pseudo-rationality of pseudo-educated pseudo-intellectuals with their fake concerns.

      • BlueBoomPony

        All geeks sites are like this. It's why I'm a recovering ex-geek. The whining and the moaning and the Humanity Is Teh Doomed talk gets old so quickly. It's a shame. The geekverse used to be optimistic and future-positive. Now it's just a cesspit of narcissistic losers.

        • Ormond Otvos

          It's "Humanity is doomed if it doesn't fix itself." You just missed the point. And it's a supportable position that humanity has little interest in fixing itself. The anti-science trend in the media is the telltale, which you missed.

        • G

          Hardly. Wired magazine online, both the .com and versions, is steadily chirpy about techno-consumerism, even cheering at each new increment of surveillance and control so long as it's conducted by Wired's private-sector heroes such as Google and Facebook.

          For which reason I call Wired 'Dystopia Digest.' Their hoped-for consumerist control-state in the hands of faux-libertarian overlords, where the overlords achieve immortality via soul transfer to machines, and the rest of us content ourselves with an endless supply of purchased 'experiences,' reminds me of nothing so much as Aldous Huxley's _Brave New World_ with a serving of social Darwinism and an underside of neo-slavery.

          Speaking here as a geek of long standing, whose views of the future are amply expressed in my other postings to this article.

    • BlueBoomPony

      He recoiled because it's silly Matrix philosophy.

      Do a web search on the term Nibiru. You will find your people.

  • Robert M

    The basis for the belief that 'the end is near' is in some ways historically sound, at least when thinking on smaller societal levels. The vast majority of humanity has lived in conditions of subjugation and precarity. The histories in the bible and other religious traditions speak to this and the want for a time of peace -- a possible future as intuited by mystics and thinkers. Very few have come to develop lasting cultures of peacefulness based off of these revelations, but love and peace seem to be a constant of the lasting traditions.

    Not to be overly negative, but I've heard of at least two points in the Cold War where nuclear attacks were a real possibility, and some of the reported discussions of those in positions of power at the time showed a remarkably sociopathic worldview that is not alien to thought processes historically attributed to ruling and oligarchical classes. Though the privileged (us) are protected from the worst of those tendencies, the tendencies are still very much in existence today and can be easily seen in modern styles of neo-colonialism and clientelism, where third world nations are financially ravaged and exploited in ways that predictably lead to unrest and, in some cases, mass death.

    Taking a classicist's look at recent history also reveals a sort of cycle of rediscovery that generations go through, as wisdom is taken for granted and then reasserted. The allowances given by advances in science and American global dominance to advance culture have come at a huge cost to most of humanity and the Earth's self-organizing processes are being tested in ways that could change the teleological trajectory of the entire system (while we're talking about teleology, heh).

    I do think that a look far off into the future is necessary to properly contextualize the present and form good ethical systems to advocate, and is a powerful corrective to the doom that's perpetually predicted. We'll see how things go, I guess.

  • Ormond Otvos

    Teleology, the presumption of purpose, is about as inane a viewpoint as possible, since everything we've learned from science indicates otherwise.

    I like the virus analogy, personally, but I'm open to a bacterial one. I think we've exceeded our sociological capabilities, and will likely make a radioactive mess of things.

    • JenJen10

      A radioactive end to civilization is a 1950's view. That was a very dark period in history, very depressing. I remember.

      Today I'm more inclined to believe the Mayan version of regular destructive episodes on earth that almost wipe out humanity & we have to start over again. I think evidence shows there was once at least one 'great' civilization on the earth that was wiped out by a natural disaster (or perhaps a manmade one) about 10-20,000 yrs ago. The Egyptians had the technology in their pyramids to make airplanes and batteries, so did the Mayans. There were runways on the earth. The Mesopotamian story has a king who traveled very far in a ship without oars or sails using technology that was disappearing & that no mechanics were left to repair. There's so much that was lost. Humans had technology, they lost it.

      We take for granted today that everything we have now will still be here & more in the next 100 yrs, but what if it's not? What if the same happens to us?

      I think we humans are self-destructive, and we always have been. I wish we weren't. I wish there was some way to change that. Before it's too late. We're part of a cycle, things ebb & flow. We're on the crest of the wave.

      • Michael Hanlon

        There is no evidence that humans are self-destructive. This is such a persuasive trope that it is hardly ever challenged, and yet all historical evidence points to ours being an absurdly robust species. Our population now stands at 7.2bn; just 20,000 years ago it was probably less than 15m. That is a 450-fold increase in about 10% of the time our species has been in existence. Extraordinary. And the percentage of humans living in dire poverty and under the threat of violence continues to decline. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are quite rubbish as it turns out.

        • G

          There is no evidence that humans are self-destructive? What do you call the correlated curves of fossil fuel usage, atmospheric carbon, and global mean temperatures?

          If you believe that a human population of 7.2 billion or more is a good thing, as compared to a lower number, the onus is on you to demonstrate how such a population can be sustained indefinitely at a civilised standard of living, without recourse to magic.

          • Michael Hanlon

            I am not saying there are no problems. But the simple fact that we have managed to increase our population to more than 7bn and furthermore in such a way that most humans alive now have enough to eat (not the case throughout 95% of our history) is quite remarkable and worthy of celebration.
            That a clever species given access to several gigatonnes of fossil fuels would start to burn the stuff before belatedly realising that this would cause a problem is entirely predictable. The science and technology needed to harness the power of coal and oil is a lot simpler than the science and technology needed to model, measure and predict climate change. Thus it is certainly the case that ANY intelligent species that arises on a planet like ours would run into the same problems that we have. We should not beat ourselves up about this.
            The best thing is that we have the brains and, now, the money to do something about this. Yes I do think seven billion humans is a 'good thing' insofar as this represents a triumph of ingenuity over 'nature'. Nasty, brutish and short becomes pleasant, safe and long. What is not to like? However I agree that we cannot allow the population to increase much further otherwise living standards will drop, and irrevocable damage will be done to the planet's species. Happily, the seeds of population stability have already been sown. It is all about educating and empowering women and despite all the grim stories from Afghanistan and elsewhere the general trajectory is positive. We will see 8bn but not, I think, nine.
            We are not out of the woods yet, but there is no sense in giving up just at the point when we really have a chance to set the wheels in motion for several millennia of peace and rising prosperity.

          • JenJen10

            I think your optimism (or blindness) is indicative of the human race. Very few people look at the long-term. You focus on humanity as a positive thing, but in the overall picture, we are blindly overrunning the earth & eating ourselves into oblivion. You speak of the massive increase in our numbers as though it is a good thing. Good for whom?? Not for the planet itself. Not for the other animals on the planet. Not for the plant life we're destroying at record numbers. Not for the fish we're polluting & overfishing. WHO exactly is benefiting? Not even us.

            Just look at history. In any one area when one group became overpopulated, they killed off or made slaves of all the others in their area. War & disease has been our only birth control. Even supposedly well-meaning groups like the Catholics are incredibly stupid in this area. And we even created a drug that increases men's procreative abilities, for god's sake!!! Just what the h___ did that do for humankind??????

            The irony of it is that those few intelligent humans who do realize they have to exercise self-control in their appetites are the very ones who should be reproducing their intelligent genes, yet it's the idiots who run around impregnating any woman who will let them (or even those who won't) who do more of the procreating.

            That is why I say we're a self-destructive race.

            I see nothing positive in our population explosion. As for optimism that it will end soon, I'll believe it when I see it. I wish.

          • G

            Ironically, the drug to which you refer, if compounded with a male birth control drug, could be the key to saving our proverbial arses from the overpopulation alligators.

            Envision this: a 'male pill' that simultaneously reduces the sperm count to an infertile level, whilst at the same time giving a literal lift to the (how shall I say this?) male hydraulic system.

            No religious or secular authority could stop it. Men would take it for the sheer joy of the deed, and care not that their precious genes were derailed from the path toward dominance over the rest of the species.

            That does not solve for the issue of unwilling persons at the receiving end of newly levitated male hydraulics. However something else does: adding an entactogenic drug to the mix, to induce a heightened state of empathy, so males taking the pill would find its hydraulic levitation effects nullified in the absence of a consenting partner.

          • Michael Hanlon

            Humanity is a positive thing because only humans have the capacity to appreciate the things that we threaten. An irony, yes, but that doesn't mean it isn't right. Say our species disappeared overnight; I think many people would see this in some way as a 'good' thing. The Earth would be free of its burden and it could revert to Eden. But with no one there to appreciate it why would this matter? With no humans you have no value.

          • JenJen10

            "If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?"

          • Michael Hanlon


          • Ormond Otvos

            "The best thing is that we have the brains and, now, the money to do something about this."

            We have neither. The money is buying yachts and estates and legislators. The brains are shorted out by propaganda.

            It's a sad story, that we got so close to making it, but the reason that physics types like myself are so gloomy is that every unbiased projection gives us climate-induced food wars a few decades down the line, and fervent efforts by the rich to keep their riches by lying to the public. A democracy is just a solidified opinion poll.

            Refusal to see what's not pleasant in the future is not a rare thing. It's the norm, and you're normal.

          • Michael Hanlon

            Ormond: This is simply not true. Who is predicting 'climate-induced food wars a few decades down the line'? The WHO? The UN?
            Certainly not everyone. Granted, I know this scenario is sometimes raised, as are others such as GM-pandemics and so forth but the fact is that if we keep our wits about us we have the chance to avoid such calamities. A lot of money is being spent on stupid stuff, I agree, but a great deal is not.
            Billions are being invested in cleaner, cleverer technologies. Look at the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 70s - that was a bit of money and a LOT of brains that saved billions of lives. JenJen10 - you seem to rather despise your own species. But, can you imagine ANY intelligent organism evolving that would behave better than us? It is not in our interest to sterilise the Earth so, my guess is, we won't. Humans are not 'bad'; we are simply very clever animals that usually act in their own interests, as all species do. If we go extinct, as you seem to wish, then what? Who appreciates the beauty of the Earth then?
            My main worry is still nuclear war - on a big scale it wouldn't be literally the end of the world but it could set us back 200 years.

          • Ormond Otvos

            "It is not in our interest to sterilise the Earth so, my guess is, we won't."

            I love how you presume humans as rational actors, when so many people voted for George W Bush twice, allowed Hitler, enslaved Africa, engaged in stupid world wars. We have a name for that - Pollyanna. "All's for the best in the best of all possible worlds." Voltaire, in Candide.

          • Michael Hanlon

            They did, but Hitler was defeated. Some humans have behaved badly and will continue to do so but my point is that we are behaving notable less badly than we did.
            But the real problem is we have only one data set to look at - one single intelligent species. We can only really say anything sensible about humans being 'bad' if we have another intelligent species with which to compare ourselves with. Which we don't. There are bad humans, sure, and good ones too. And my thinking is that the latter massively outnumber the former.

          • Ormond Otvos

            There was only one Hitler, but the soil he sprouted in was the result of the stupid decisions of millions of people. You have a genius for the inapt analogy.

          • Michael Hanlon

            You brought Hitler up, not me!
            Pessimism about the future is so fashionable it feels almost heretical to suggest otherwise. And this has long been the case. Back in the 1960s if you had asked just about any economist or sociologist what life would be like in the 2010s, you would have been told about the inevitable famines, plagues, social unrest and probable global war that everyone then assumed were just around the corner. But none of these things came to pass. Despite there being an extra four billion people to feed, FEWER people, in absolute and proportional terms, go hungry now than they did in 1960. This is an astonishing achievement that NO ONE ever remarks upon. Why not?

          • G

            It's an achievement based on a boost in production of chemical fertilisers based ultimately on a finite resource, natural gas.

            And per an article in _Forbes_ online, most of the new natgas and oil development via fracking, turns out to be short-term, with the new frack wells typically becoming economic losers after the first couple of years.

            Let's be clear about this: Myself and others like me are quite optimistic about the long term, by which we mean anything from a few centuries hence to billions of years hence. We are also highly concerned about the short term, by which we mean everything up to a few centuries hence. The point of raising a fire alarm is not to convince people to become depressed and remain in bed whilst their block burns to the ground. It's to convince them to call the fire service and then not stand in the way of having the fire put out.

            It would have been a far more proud achievement to have kept world population at 3 billions and achieved a Western European standard of living for all, than to let the population run up to 7+ billions and then bifurcate the standard of living such that the middle classes shrink and a large plurality continues to live in conditions that are medieval at best.

            Think of this: it's the twenty-first century and approximately one third of the world's people have no access to a WC.

          • JenJen10

            I don't "despise your own species", I rather enjoy being a human (in the time that I have been one). But I don't think we're a 'good' species, to continue your use of words. I don't think we will go extinct, I think we've come pretty close to it in the past, perhaps more times than we know, and we're still here.

            Unfortunately, we show a tendency to treat sex as an unlimited treat, we glorify it, we even dote on it, with catastrophic results. We're not sensible about sex.

            We don't look at the long-term.

            The point of being "very clever animals" is that we can't fail to see the long-term results of our stupid ideas about sex, and yet there is still not yet a world-wide movement to reduce the population. China is the only country whose gov has actually acted to reduce their population, heavy-handedly, with short-term sightedness, and now they have a whole generation of single children who have aging parents, aggravated by their economic embrace of capitalism & the upheaval that becoming an industrial age brings to families split up by children going off to the cities to work - 2 revolutions at the same time. They obviously didn't think long-term. And yet they're the only ones even trying.

            It's obvious to me that we humans have a tendency to be self-gratifying to extreme extents; we drink too much, we procreate too much, we eat too much (when we have the food), we're simply without self-control (and lest you think I'm setting myself apart, I'm not, I'm just as guilty as the next person). We do not think long-term. And therefore we are doomed. We're living in a golden age, we're on the crest of the wave, loving it, basking in it. But it can't last. Ahh, it's been fun.

            If you don't subscribe to this, then ask yourself why every civilization on the earth that we know about came to an end; They all had golden ages in time where they lived wonderfully, built great monuments, discovered great truths, seemed destined to exist on & on forever; but it always came to an end. Always. The forces of self-indulgence took over, sex became a game (or a job), food became commonplace, people's lives became boring and obesity & drug use became the norm. I see that here, right now in the US.

            We're not gonna fall right now, we'll go on for probably several hundred more years, gradually getting more & more self-indulgent; we're too big to fall fast & hard in one blow, it'll take lots of small attacks by outside forces to nip away at our boundaries, gradually taking off small bites here & there, reducing us slowly. So don't worry, your lifespan will probably never see the demise of the US gov. But long-term, you can't help but know it will end.

            Not knowing it will make it happen sooner. That's the whole point of saying it. In fact, the only way to stop it or slow it down is to focus on it & make changes based on it. It's like dieting, we have to deny ourselves what is easy today to get in order to get leaner tomorrow, and we have to be willing to deny our own selves, it can't be imposed on us. We have to set the goal.

            I wish human beings had less selfishness, but we don't. And I don't see us developing into a less selfish race, I wish I did. Humans acted just as selfishly in the 'ancient' world as they do today, that's why the myths of the past still appeal to us, they're still a mirror. But even though this civilization won't last, human beings probably will, somewhere, even if there's a worldwide disaster. Because we always have.

            So think long-term. It's not depressing, it's actually exhilarating.

          • Michael Hanlon

            Sorry, this just isn't correct. We 'eat too much ... procreate too much ... etc' - well, 'too much' compared to what exactly?
            Show me one other species which does not eat too much and procreate too much when given the opportunity? Humans can be selfish as individuals but as a species? Come on. Yes we care about humans more than anybody else but could you really imagine anything else being the case? Do lions care about squirrels? The problems of modern life - obesity, drug use etc - are real and not good, but compared to the problems most people had to face in the old days they are walks in the park.

          • G

            That is exactly the point. Every species, without exception thus far in all of natural history, multiplies up to the limits of its food supply, and then has an overshoot and dieoff back down to the limit that can be sustained.

            The difference is that we have foresight and free will, so we can choose to do differently. We also have atomic bombs, hydrogen bombs, and worst of all, germ warfare, which can continue to spread long after nuclear fallout has decayed to safe levels.

            This is the turning point century, when we will set ourselves on the path to either cosmic civilisation or a dieoff leading to a permanent caveman existence. Mars and the stars, or graves and the caves. Our choice. Our responsibility.

          • Michael Hanlon

            I agree with this point. I'm going with Mars and the Stars.

          • JenJen10

            Yes, I believe we are very selfish as a species. Look at what the accumulative effect of what we do on the earth is. Have you ever actually thought of comparing how the earth looked 5000 yrs ago to how it looks today? Have you ever stood in a big city & looked upwards at the skyscrapers reaching into the clouds and realized this is all manmade alterations to the earth? This is what WE have done to the surface of the earth. Have you looked at pictures from space? I downloaded one as a screensaver, taken of composite pictures of earth at night showing all the manmade lights. It's unbelievable how much land mass we occupy and alter for our own benefit. Other animals don't do that.

            And that's just environmental. I haven't even touched on drug abuse & obesity & all other forms of overindulgence.

            Have you ever actually tried to figure out what it would take to support you alone? If you were to be say in a woods, alone, what would you need to survive? And then compare that with what you do and have today, & what you consume as just one human being during one lifetime. And then multiply that by billions.

            Frankly, I'm surprised we're still here.

            The Mayans had a calender, they believed in cycles. One longterm cycle ended just last year or so, and everyone was waiting to see if something catastrophic happened. It didn't. And then the experts explained that the Mayans weren't predicting the end of the earth, they were predicting the end of a human age, but we still don't know exactly what that meant because the idiot Catholics destroyed every record they could get their hands on. Mayans believed that humanity went in cycles, and no civilization lasted forever. Sounds like what history has already shown.

            If you think other species eat too much or procreate too much compared to humans, then frankly I don't know what to say. Lions eat when they're hungry, they don't go around hunting down animals just for sport (like we humans do). Squirrels play, they only eat as much as they need; they get fat if the food is plentiful & easy to get, they're like us in that respect, but nature usually culls their numbers with predator animals. Who are our predators? Maybe we need a predator in the form of a superior being to come & cull us since we can't seem to do it ourselves. Do squirrels even know they need to be culled? I kinda doubt that. But we do know. And yet we still have people like the Mormons having 4, 5, 6, 7+ children. Does that make sense to you?

          • Michael Hanlon

            "Frankly, I'm surprised we're still here."

            Well I am not. Humans are hard to kill. We made it through at least four ice ages, remember. And few other large animal species have managed to spread to all continents (save Antarctica). In fact I cannot think of one.

          • G

            Re. 'who is predicting climate induced food wars'?

            The United States Department of Defense (USA spelling), also known as The Pentagon. Hardly an institution known for being cosy with liberal tree-huggers, but certainly an institution that must deal realistically with every scenario that could lead to local, regional, or global conflict in which American forces would become engaged. And as go American forces, so very often go British forces.

            The climate crisis is a core element of The US DOD's current strategic doctrine document, which was published a couple of years ago, and of which I have a copy. It is not classified and you can find it online.

            The Pentagon are absolutely up in arms (pun intended) about the climate crisis. They see it as the leading threat to American national security and to global security, for the entirety of this century and into the next century. Something to think about as we read the articles in the Beeb about the centenary commemoration of World War One.

            One more thing. Food wars are not the first threat on the horizon. WATER wars are.

            For just one example: The Jewish Israeli birth rate is 2.8 children per woman, and the Palestinian birth rate is 5.2 (CIA World Factbook), vs a sustainable birth rate of 2.2. Two steadily increasing populations vying for one strictly finite water supply. As they say in the cinema, 'Ka-BOOM!' Multiply that dynamic by the rest of the Middle East, Shia vs. Sunni vs. Wahhabi, with oppressed women and unsustainable population growth, add a handful of atomic bombs in unstable countries, and you have what Americans call 'a real clusterf---.'

            About which I'll make a prediction. There will eventually be a limited nuclear war in the Middle East, with a total of fewer than five atomic bombs detonated. This will be immediately conveyed to the world via the internet and other media, giving the entire world's peoples a close-up view of the horrors of nuclear war fought over dwindling resources. That will be the turning point at which humanity gets urgently serious about world peace, and about sustainability. Mark my words. And here's to hoping that we come to our collective senses and this does not come true.

          • Michael Hanlon

            Maybe you are right. A small nuclear war between, say, Israel and Iran is possible and it would be a disaster. I hope it doesn't happen, of course. The fact that humans seem to be inventing ever more clever ways of wrecking themselves and their planet does not mean, however, that a gloomy future is set in stone. This is what I am attacking: the lazy assumption that we are all doomed.

          • Ormond Otvos

            "Certainly not everyone." You DO realize this is a semantically null statement? You do this a lot. A little of one side, a little of the other, offending no one, neutralizing your own statements. Why even bother posting?

          • Michael Hanlon

            The statement I was responding to was 'every unbiased projection'. If my own statements are so neutralised, then why bother interacting with them?

          • G

            When humans talk about the conquest of nature, I'm reminded of dogs talking about the conquest of their neighbours' yards by the expedient measure of pooping on their lawns. "MY turf!" thinks the doggie, as he does his business, "Conquest is mine!"

            Nasty, brutish, and short, becomes pleasant, safe, and long, for a few generations, and then, if those generations burn through nonrenewable resources and quadruple the level of atmospheric CO2, nasty, brutish, and short once again.

            Understand that by 'long-term thinking,' I am thinking in terms of _billions_ of years going on tens of billions of years and ultimately to the heat-death of the universe over a trillion years hence. For humanity to become a cosmic species, and then evolve into new species for its new habitats, humanity must shift its individual and collective gears from consumer consciousness to cosmic consciousness.

            Consumer baubles will not buy us a civilisation among the stars.

            And it would be far more worthy of celebration had we kept our population at 3 billion and provided 100% of them with an approximately European lifestyle. That plus nuclear and renewable energy sources, would be permanently sustainable until fission was replaced with fusion, and rockets were replaced with something that could achieve a respectable single-digit percentage of c.

      • G

        Ancient airplanes?

        Humans have desired to fly since humans first observed birds. And indeed we do experience flight, in our dreams and under the influence of entheogenic plants such as psilocybin mushrooms. Sufficiently compelling subjective experiences become narratives, that are elaborated over time as carriers of cultural wisdom and values.

        Today we fly higher than birds and cross oceans in hours, yet for some reason we still find it in ourselves to complain about the security lines even as we prepare to soar.

        If humanity truncates its collective future, it will not be for lack of ancient batteries and flying discs, but for lack of thorium fission and the male birth control pill. And the way to choose the deep future instead of the steep fall, is to relentlessly support the search for knowledge and its application not only in technology but in wisdom.

        • JenJen10

          There is an airplane model in an Egyptian museum, I have seen pictures of it. Part of the tail was gone, so when they found it, they didn't recognize it at first, now they do. Also, small gold charm-like size copies of 2 airplanes were found in a Central American pyramid, one looks exactly like a modern jet fighter plane, the other is eerily similar but so different it isn't like anything produced today. But they're obviously airplanes, they have the same features of body, wings & tails. 100 yrs ago, humans wouldn't have recognized them.

          If you look at hieroglyphs in light of today's inventions, some things that made no sense 100 yrs ago do make sense today. One Egyptian hieroglyph shows a battery-powered light using a simple chemical formula we teach to high school chemistry students today. (I would tell you about a Jewish story of the birth of Jesus, but it's a corollary of this)

          It's obvious such technology existed once before, and now it has been rediscovered. We are not the first "civilization".

          You're right, it will not be airplanes or batteries that make us a successful civilization, it will be self-control and perhaps a male birth control pill since some people are over-sexed. But our society has pushed "progress" over "wisdom", to the point where we are creating many things that hurt us, like pesticides.

          Perhaps the Amish have it right, that all the technology we really need is subsistence farming. But even they don't use birth control, they have an average of 4 children per couple. It seems that sexual self-control is the hardest thing of all for humans to do, and the most important.

          • tesla3090

            Sustenance farming is only viable if you reduce the global population. If you're referring to the Saqqara bird, that's not evidence of an airplane. It was probably a toy glider, similar to paper airplanes today. If the Egyptians had the capability of building aircraft we would find relics like engines, fuselages, mining sites where they gathered fuels, etc. As cool as it would be, there is no credible evidence of ancient aircraft usage.

            Although, if you have links to credible sites, I'm open to hearing any evidence. :)

          • JenJen10

            I'm thinking we wouldn't find evidence of engines, fuselages, etc, not if there was a big natural catastrophe like the Flood in Mesopotamia, it's been proven that it was a worldwide flood, it flooded China for instance, and the American plains. Such a flood would wash almost everything back into the sea, and what survived on land would be cannibalized for the metal, melted down to make basic implements to survive. The evidence of this last, in case you wondered, is that the Bronze Age preceded the Iron Age. Bronze is infinitely more difficult to work than iron is, needs a higher temperature, etc, but iron is easier to smelt & shape from scratch.

            There are plenty of ancient stone monuments all over the earth, from South America to Cambodia to Japan (underwater) to any continent. All we know for sure is that civilization covered the earth before the catastrophe; people were everywhere with big cities, statues. And that the catastrophe ruined so much that we only have bits & pieces left.

            This is not a new theory, it's been around a while, and it's not mine.

            Also, the Saqqara Bird is not a glider, it is too heavy to glide. And the tail is different from a bird's, so are the wings. And there's a piece missing. Take a look at Wikipedia.

          • G

            There are instances of ancient technologies that remained mysteries until re-discovered in more modern times. For example the Roman road network and certain examples of Roman architecture, appeared to be impossible to construct using any technology known to exist when modern scientists first examined these structures.

            Then Ernest Ransome discovered concrete in the late 1800s, and decades later, other scientists determined that the Romans had in fact first discovered concrete in their own times, using volcanic ash as their form of cement. Today we suspect that the ancient Egyptians also discovered concrete and used it to cast at least the upper courses of the pyramids, solving the puzzle of how those upper courses were constructed.

            If someone can build a light using the Egyptian hieroglyphs as a starting point for the battery and the light, and using materials that would be realistic for the times, I'll be convinced that the Egyptians invented electric light.

            But that, as with hypothetical ancient Central American delta-wing jets, may instead be an example of 20-20 hindsight seeing modern patterns in ancient objects whose actual purposes remain lost to us none the less.

            I have a wild hypothesis about the huge designs found drawn in the sand in the South American desert plains. They were not intended for hypothetical ancient aircraft or spacecraft pilots to see. They were intended for their own shamans and their own average people to see whilst engaged in out-of-body experiences both in dreams and with the use of entheogenic plants. That is, if you had a dream or a vision of flying above the landscape, you would be able to find your way home with those designs in the desert.

            Whether or not that means that these peoples really did have the routine use of out-of-body experiences, we will never know. And whether their out-of-body experiences really did involve successful remote viewing of actual objects such as lines in the desert, we will never know (though of course we can study out-of-body experiences today, such as in dream labs that are set up to record brain activity).

          • JenJen10

            Nazca makes no sense from the ground, it is only from the air that the drawings can be discerned as representative of something. So that is why they were not "discovered" until the advent of air travel. I don't know about "remote viewing".

            I've seen the runways from the air, they're quite distinctive, and like the figures, unnoticeable from the ground.

            Egyptian hieroglyphs don't teach how to build a battery light, they show one in use. And the Assyrians (I think it was them) also had the same technology, they've found them. So I don't think the Egyptians invented them. They're older than the hieroglyphs.

            I remember reading about Roman concrete, their concrete using volcanic ash was stronger than ours today. But how or when they developed their formula I don't know.

            I think it's fascinating that older stoneworks are composed of blocks of stone that are of different sizes and shapes and some are obviously too big to be moved, and they came from different locations, so they are reused stones, recycled we would say today. I did a paper in college on this. There are several places in the Middle East where stoneworks are obviously made of older cut stones.

            Everything points to an older civilization that we know nothing about. There's a brass device found in a shipwreck in the Mediterranean, I can't think of it's name, but it has interlocking gears that are as finely designed as advanced devices today, yet it's at least 2500 yrs old; it was on a Greek ship that sank about that time, yet the Greeks had no technology like this at that time period. And the great library at Alexandria in Egypt that the Romans accidentally burned to the ground (by legend) held thousands of books that were copied from much more ancient works, it was a truly tremendous loss, as if the Library of Congress or the Vatican Library burned today. The fact is we don't know enough to say what existed in the way of civilization 10-20,000 yrs ago, and we know even less of what came before.

    • G

      The presumption of purpose is inane? Tell us, have you been an opportunistic drifter all your life?

      Or, do you have a university degree and a track record in your career? Then, were those achievements purely random? Or were those achievements guided in some way by a sense of, for want of a better word, purpose?

      Humans have purposes. We have goals, and the actions we take to achieve our goals have effects on the world around us. Purpose is a property of human minds, human minds exist in nature, therefore purpose exists in nature. That is not the same thing as asserting that purpose exists in inanimate matter, any more than the assertion that humans perceive beauty implies that beauty inheres in the objects of perception.

      One should be careful to not attribute to nature that which resides within oneself. But one should equally be careful to not deny that which does reside within oneself, when one can't find it elsewhere.

      'The universe is dead and meaningless!' is hardly a rallying cry for sustainability, much less for achieving our highest aspirations. It's not even true, but beyond that, it's 'not even wrong.'

      • The Sanity Inspector

        Upvote for the Wolfgang Pauli quote.

      • Ormond Otvos

        Ah, but I'm not trying to rally for sustainability by drafting purpose in the universe to my cause. Yes, humans have directed behavior, but that's an evolutionary derivative, not a universal.
        What do we call it, anthropomorphism? I think anthropologists and animal behaviorists are more aware of this pitfall.

        Yes, you do "want for a better word."

        • G

          Saying that purpose is 'an evolutionary derivative' is equivalent to saying that it emerges in conjunction with consciousness in intelligent self-reflective organisms. In that case it still exists in ourselves, and thus in the universe at-large via our existence.

          I'm highly sceptical of anthropomorphism. But lo!, anthropomorphism rears its head in the strangest of places, as today humans who stare at screens instead of skies, abandon traditional Sky Gods for Computer Gods such as AI. Just as where one stands depends on where one sits, what one sees depends on where one looks.

    • Robert M

      Teleology is more the presumption of ends. Whether or not one draws purpose from that is another matter. Given the evidence for the emergent properties of the world, and the constraints that naturally become exerted on these properties, nature does seem to tend towards ends. Humans are one part of that system; we are subject to it and we affect it, like any other part of the natural system.

      But that does imply that there is a way to best mold humanity to those natural systems to minimize suffering. Is that what you mean by purpose? Someone could make that a purpose, and I'd think most would agree that it's a good one.

  • Derek Roche

    What we really need to do is learn how to map the diachronic dramas of deep and shallow time on the grid of a synchronic whole. Like this:

    • The Sanity Inspector

      That looks interesting; where can I read more about it?

      • Michael Hanlon

        It looks like totally incomprehensible cobblers to me ...

  • Casey

    well, the Bible and Al Gore...

  • AssHat900

    Maybe it because we are fighting for scrapes to stay alive and don't have the time to think about tomorrow.

  • BlueBoomPony

    I only really see it on the Internet. It's geek nihilism. There's nothing deep about it. It's sound and fury emitted by virtual echo chambers.

  • The Sanity Inspector

    Finally, we can always blame the Bible. Whether you think of it as casting a long shadow across the history of Western culture or as fathering a great light within it, there is no denying the Bible’s powerful influence on the way that we think today. And you might have noticed that there’s not much about a billion-year future in it. The Bible does not tell us ‘The beginning is near!’ but rather ‘The end is near!’

    I don't think that American fundamentalist end-times theology is a wide enough lens through which to view the Bible nor its influence on our attitudes through the millennia. Sure, the Bible makes no mention of billions of years--but its authors were very pre-occupied with eternity, which for humans amounts to the same thing. Psalm 103:17 says that "But from everlasting to everlasting the Lord's love is with those who fear him, and his righteousness with their children's children." The old king who narrates Ecclesiastes muses at length on the passage of time and the successions of generations stretching into the future. Remember that the Christian Bible was written by dozens of authors over the course of about 600 years. They weren't all just huddling around the altar all that time, waiting for the world-ending thunderbolt to strike.

    Indeed, a case could be made that the thinkers of antiquity, both Judeo/Christian and Greco/Roman, had a firmer grasp of the immensity of time and their own minuscule place within it. Since the beginning of the Mechanical Age, events have rushed past in such a blur, that the present has perforce absorbed most of our attention. In addition, we spend the yet-to-be-created wealth confiscated from yet-to-be-born posterity for our own present gratification. "Just keep the checks coming til I'm dead, and then the world can go hang!" Attitudes like that are not found in people who plant acorns, the shade of which trees they will never sit under.

    An attempt to excogitate from scratch a new way of regarding the future will most likely sound strangely familiar, in some parts. It's part of our heritage, if you know where & how to look.

  • nemo

    Personally, I would prefer the following view of the Trollstigen:

    By evolutionary religion is the author writing about going from polytheism to monotheism since worshiping one god is more efficient than worshiping many gods?

    There seems to be evolution in modern day religion such as how the catholic church evolved into protestant churches and how those churches spawned movements of their own. Also it is interesting that religions often mandate their followers to procreate and avoid contraceptives as if the religions that were celibate were less successful than those that were not. We no longer call the pope the Pontifex Maximus either instead we call him the supreme pontiff or Pope. Perhaps language evolves too. Religion and evolution do seem compatible since religion is subject to similar evolutionary pressures and beneficial mutations.

    Science does not seem immune to this phenomenon either, perhaps at one point the Earth centric Ptolemy model of the universe was actually an improvement helping farmers plant and harvest food more efficiently to provide for more of their descendants. Maybe Kepler applied a new evolutionary pressure to the Ptolemy model in the form of the orbit of Mars. I should write a paper...

  • Mike

    In Darwin's book Origin of the Species he states...“If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down. But I can find out no such case.”. The fact is scientists have found many such organisms that have irreducible complexity, meaning you cannot take anything out so it could not be created by "successive, slight modifications". One great example(one of many) being the flagellum motor which is a lash-like appendage that protrudes from certain cell bodies. Darwin didn't know about these because he didn't have the proper tools to observe these organisms. Therefore by Darwin's own admission, his theory of evolution has absolutely broken down. So the first two paragraphs are false and that is where I stop reading.

    • G

      That entire post (Mike, above) is a recap of Creationist talking points: irreducible complexity, the flagellum, etc. The only thing missing is the talking point about the human eye as another example.

      Too bad you didn't finish reading the article; it's your loss.

      Whether or not a deity has had an invisible hand in nudging evolution, or even in initiating the Big Bang, is a matter of faith and is untestable in any empirical sense. About that, individuals are free to believe as their own nature or choices indicate.

      But the belief that the universe and the Earth were created 6,000 years ago and all species created more or less as they are, is patently and conclusively false. For it to be true, said deity would also have had to create simulated fossils containing isotopes with simulated half-lives, and a simulated cosmic red shift, all for the purpose of testing the strength of our faith. The belief that a deity did those things to test our faith, is a textbook case of 'ideas of reference,' which in turn is a key diagnostic symptom for schizophrenia.

      We should no more expect our historical religious prophets to have an accurate grasp of physics and astrophysics, than we should expect our physicists to have an accurate grasp of ancient theology. Attempting to do either of those things demeans both prophets and physicists.

      When you play American baseball, the act of hitting the ball in the air requires your brain to process complex trigonometry in a small fraction of a second. But that does not mean that you can ask your baseball coach to teach you trigonometry, nor that you can ask your maths professor to teach you how to hit a baseball. Attempting to do either of those things is merely foolish.

      • Mike

        Radio metric dating is completely off for starters. The assumptions you have to make in order to use radiometric dating should make most people question the validity of our dating methods. Samples from Mt. Ngauruhoe were dated using these methods, (Samples from this volcano were known to be under 100 years) the outcome was dates ranging from 250,000 to 3.5 million years. So how can you possibly think that these methods are accurate? Diamonds which are "known" to be over a billion years old still contain carbon. Carbon dating cannot date anything over 100,000 years because there should be no carbon left in what you are dating. There are huge holes in what you believe but you go on believing anyway. Sure there are many things I cannot explain but there are many things that science cannot explain and is horribly wrong about, but they keep on going. If one theory they have is proven wrong they find some other theory to explain it instead of sitting back and looking at the maybe true but maybe not foundation they build their beliefs on.

        • Michael Hanlon

          Oh dear. The only way you can reconcile Judeo-Christian Creationism with science is to assume that the entire universe is a slightly sinister, bonkers set-up. Forget the ancient rocks; God must have created the light rays in situ to allow us to see objects millions of light years away, carefully embedded the fossil seashells in the Himalayan strata, carved the Norwegian fjords and so forth to look ancient. You are effectively promoting an Earth built by the Magratheans to fool its inhabitants. I just do not know why people wish to believe this, or (for that matter) what on earth it has to do with the Christian faith. Was Jesus a young-earth Creationist? Maybe, but he never mentioned it ....

          • Mike

            Fossil seashells in the Himalayan strata, this evidence fits very nicely and supports a worldwide flood. "Norwegian fjords and so forth to look ancient" Just because something looks ancient doesn't mean it is,at least use "facts" to back up what you believe. I'll skip the Magratheans comment. Jesus a young-earth creationist? I'm confused on what point you are trying to get at or the purpose of that comment. At the very least recognize the huge holes in what you believe. Whenever scientists find holes in what they believe they come up with a theory that helps cover up that hole. You may not believe it but you rely greatly on faith to believe what you believe. Evolution scientists have one worldview so they try to fit any "evidence" they have to help that worldview. All i'm saying is try looking at the other side. In debate you should know the other side so shouldn't you do the same here for something so central to life? With so much at stake why not just have an open mind to the possibility that you are not correct in what you believe. I apologize if I have come off sarcastic at times, it has not been my intent.

          • Michael Hanlon

            European and American scientists used to 'believe' that the Earth was a few thousand years old. And then they discovered overwhelming evidence that it is not. So they changed their minds. That is what distinguishes science from every other belief system. It LOVES the holes; the holes are the whole point!

          • Mike

            What is this overwhelming evidence? Please provide me with some examples. I have given plenty examples showing how scientists are correct in observation but wrong/flawed in their conclusions.

          • David Malek

            Mike, what you fail to see, is that science is humble. Science comes up with a testable hypothesis and then tries to prove it wrong. If it can do that, great, it will look for another hypothesis, if not, that will be the best explanation until you prove it wrong. Sometimes, you don't even prove something wrong, but you find it incomplete. A case in point is Newtonian model of the universe. In true scientific sense of the word, it is wrong, but it is "Good enough" to some extends. You need more accuracy? See Special and General Relativity. That's how science works, as opposed to firmly & blindly believing a whole bunch of somewhat contradictory stories from a few books left behind by a few of vaguely known ancient dudes.

          • Mike

            I was only saying you should question what you believe and what is taken as truth without question. I'm sure you guys are smart it just strikes me as odd your inability to question the foundations of what you believe, no matter what evidence pops up, ex. "65 million year old" dino bones with soft tissue still intact. Anyway, I wish you all the best.

        • David Malek

          Facepalm. Radiocarbon dating is done using Carbon-14 which is different than what you see in Diamonds.

  • T Clark

    It's not true that deep future time is ignored. It is one of the central themes of cosmology. What the future of our universe will look like in billions, even trillions, of years has a big impact on some of the central issues in physics - dark matter, dark energy, and others.
    However long the universe lasts, there is no particular reason to believe that humans will still be around. Species go extinct. Why shouldn't we. It seems every other movie these days is about one of a dozen ways we could come to an end soon - asteroids, technological singularity, solar flares, alien invasion, nuclear war, zombie attack. What we have learned about the past indicates that at least some of these are not unlikely in the long run.
    I agree that thinking that we are at the end of science as Kelvin did a hundred years ago is arrogant and short-sighted. If I had to guess, I'd say there is no end. We just keep looking closer and closer and the bottom keeps sinking deeper as we chase it. But if you want to make the teleological claim - that the universe has a purpose and direction of development - you are stepping outside of science. I can't understand how a universe with purpose is any different from God. It's not that it's not true, it's just not science. Show me the evidence that we need that assumption in order to understand the way things are.

    • G

      To say that the universe has purpose and meaning, is of the same form as to say that the universe has beauty.

      Astronomy gives us pictures of galaxies and the like, and we see these pictures as embodying beauty in one of its most ultimate forms. Yet the inhabitants of those galaxies, not to speak of the galaxies themselves, know nothing of our feelings of beauty at seeing them.

      This should come as no surprise: How often do any of us pause to reflect on the beauty felt by inhabitants of other galaxies upon seeing their own pictures of our beloved Milky Way?

      In the same way, purpose and meaning exist in ourselves; and since we are a part of nature, they exist in nature. But the key distinction I'm seeking to get at here, is what exists in the universe through its existence in ourselves.

      A universe with higher elements in the periodic table is different to a universe without. Once successive stellar life cycles created those elements, the universe was changed. A universe with life is different to a universe without. A universe with intelligent self-reflective life is different to a universe without.

      Each of these things, whether in measures great or small, changes the fundamental nature of existence to include something that did not exist before.

      As for our extinction, we have it within our powers to continue forward and spread throughout our galaxy: during which time evolution will take its normal course and we will diversify into a range of new species each adapted new environments. Neither with a bang nor a whimper, but with evolution as we rise to the challenges of becoming a cosmic civilisation. That is not so much extinction as it is a kind of transcendence.

      • T Clark

        Pardon me if I misrepresent what you said.
        I agree that people assign purpose to the universe and believe it beautiful. I personnally find it a wonderful place. I don't think that's what the author meant. I think he means that there is a purpose which directs the development of the universe. Maybe I'm wrong. As I said, I think that's the same thing as God.
        As for extinction, I think what you propose is possible, at least for a while, but unlikely. I have no particular evidence to back that up. Maybe Murphy's Law.

  • A Nonymouse

    Every moment for any and all of us is another potential "Butterfly effect" event. Knowing the sum of all of those events for all of us might be enough to know the near future, but the distant future...?

  • Ivan Boatwright

    I believe that for man the end is near because we are destroying the earth we need to survive. Something else may take over. The second reason is that the greed and need for weapons that are available to destroy the planet as we know it are going to be used by the greedy business interest or religious fanatics to usher in the so called end times. Either way man looses and the earth will regenerate with a new set of ?????

  • intempore

    You scientists are a joke.

    How can science not be teleological? It's just an abuse of language to say its off limits. What purpose do your answers serve if not to ultimately "know the mind of God" as Hawking put it? There is no lasting satisfaction in more informed choices, greater personal comfort and life expectancy, if human nature, why we are here and how it all finished up remain unsettled.

    Science is metaphysics; plain as day. It's just getting harder and harder to deny it. And the public is growing tired of the just-around-the-corner theme.

    • G

      Not all scientists; only certain prominent individuals who claim to speak for science. For example Richard Dawkins proudly proclaims that the universe is purposeless, meaningless, blind, cold, and impersonal. That is about as welcoming as the prospect of a stay in HM Prisons, so it's no wonder you react to it as you do.

      For a more balanced view, read the writings of the physicists whose theories and findings have illuminated some of the most compelling mysteries of nature, from Einstein through the founders of quantum mechanics. Each of them has much to say about the majesty of the universe and the meaning of our lives in it.

  • Laurence Target

    Nagel is the intellectual elite, not trashed by it.

  • mckay25

    LIke some other commenters, at the end of the article I remain confused as to its starting point: do we really not pay any attention to the deep future? He starts with his key hook, "This is all well and good, but did you notice that all of those references to deep time have us looking backward, into history?" Yes, I did notice. I noticed that your selected list of examples were all looking back. But if we can show via these comments that there are dozens and hundreds of references and places people do look equally far forward, does that not counter the whole basis of the article? From where I sit, as a whole in society there is no myopia at all.

    Maybe the author is in different circles, but I feel I read regularly about such thinking of the distant future with no such assumptions the future will be short. There is the whole rich and prolific genre of science fiction for the deathly obvious counterfactual where hundreds of authors/producers and millions of readers/viewers regularly investigate what the earth, universe and humanity might look like from the perspective of millions or even billions of years. I watched a rerun Doctor Who episode just last week that gave strong question to humanity's relevant roll over a trillion years into the future. So I'm not seeing the "only looking back" perspective the article is based on. Hard science too equally thinks ahead. I've seen projections of how the continents will continue to drift over the next 50 million years and one of the hottest topics in cosmology has been the shape of the universe and its implications on whether we'll expand forever into a heat-death scenario or reverse into a "big crunch". Astronomers talk about where our orbital procession will shift which star "north" will point to in millennia to come and climatologists base their models on solar input decline projected millions of years into the future. Serious foundations like the Long Now (well mentioned in an earlier comment) have been giving serious investigation to deep time and environmentalists discuss how the current Anthropocene era might be seen as a mass-extinction event when viewed looking back from the far future. And on and on.

    So do we as a whole actually have a temporal myopia? Perhaps it is only *part* of society that is more myopic or backward-looking than others. And that would make an interesting and topical discussion. But for the first time I honestly think this is an Aeon article that hasn't been thought through.

  • SmilingAhab

    Well, bigwig evangelicals have been shouting at the last three generations that the end is coming - is it any wonder that, having apparently survived dozens of apocalypses, we are more willing to see the long march of time?

    The Long Now Foundation, of which I am a member, is a premier example of groups of people deliberately thinking about thinking as though we will be around for eons.

    However, it takes a certain amount of psychological education and willpower. A cursory introduction to psychology shows a biological predisposition to paying attention to the immediate in visceral, which simply puts the species at a disadvantage for long term, systemic thinking.

  • stevenharp

    A tipping point could happen very suddenly given the uncertainties of weather and climate change. And given the oil burning juggernaut fueled by human greed and fixed belief systems the earth as a suitable habitat for humans could end very quickly. Optimistic predictions are merely sunny optimism. The end is near if there is the possibility of an end and man has now created that possibility.

  • Rocky Lane Moore

    Plato said there are periods of destruction for mankind. Sometimes its happens on the seashores, and sometimes it happens in the mountains where large numbers of humans are killed in periodic upheavals. These periodic upheavals sometimes are so great, and so few survive that the knowledge of when these events occur is lost over time. In fact, I believe that a table of these events was lost at the end of Plato's book on the destruction of Atlantis, because there are a few people that do not want us to know when these events occur. According to the ancient Sumerians, our sun is in a binary system with another star (which includes the planet Nibiru (sp). I am just guessing that this star is in plain sight like the North star which is bound to us by some celestial mechanism and stays in Northern sky. It dimmed as it sped away from us but now is on a trajectory coming back to us and is brighter. This star was seen in the sky on Jesus's birth, and will return in 3,600 according to Sumerian traditions. This is 2014 and that leaves us 1,586 years before it returns to our neighborhood, but the forces coming to bear on our sun have already begun. Still, ancient civilizations lasted extremely long times in the past. So, unless this missing information from Plato is found which is called the tablet of destinies, we will have to hunker down for the upheavals, and rebound from its effects. This binary sun causes our sun to move up and down on the milky way plane, which is the real cause of the procession, otherwise our sun would simply circle around the milky way as do most other stars. These forces are what causes the destructions to be periodic, and can be expected at certain intervals. I believe there are annunaki, the fallen ones, who live on the planet with us, and they will take steps to protect themselves and some necessary humans for they clearly understand the tablet of human destinies. They know when to expect these periodic events, but it is impossible to save all of humanity. But our lot is to be fruitful and multiply. This is the secret of our success thus far, our ability to tame this planet, and have so many offspring. No matter how bad it gets, they tell us there will still be human survivors. But as the bible says in the end of days, men will raise their fists, and curse the gods because of their suffering.

    • Michael Hanlon

      So why assume this particular account is correct, and not the dozens of competing and contradictory accounts? Or, for that matter, science? If there was a star hurtling towards our Solar System and destined to arrive in 1500 years I think one or two astronomers may just have noticed it by now ...

      • Rocky Lane Moore

        Its not my fault that astronomers are incompetent at finding our sun's binary partner, but one of the stars that change places as  the Polaris North Star is bound to our sun, forever causing our procession while the other stars in our galaxy just revolve around the milky way.   Something is pulling our sun up and down the Milky Way Plane in a 52,000 year cycle.   The only logical force that could do that is another star that performs a dance of death with our sun.   We can observe other stars doing the same thing all around the universe.   I have lived a long time, and I have seen astronomers eat their hat more than once.   If you think that astronomers know everything, you will probably live long enough to see them rewrite this entire scenario in your lifetime.   You have not presented any proofs, except to say astronomers would be able to see a companion star, if it were there.   I say Astronomers are incompetent, their technology is so weak, that even if they looked at the binary star, they are not smart enough to know what it is.  These bodies move incredibly fast over vast distances, and the equations that are needed to track their movements have never been discovered or applied.   They can not see it because they are lazy, incompetent and liars.   They know a little more than they did, but half of what they know is not even valid science.    I would trust local weather reports more than what astronomers say.   Moreover, they can not even give us an advance warning of uncharted asteroids.   How can they find the sun's nemesis?   Also, native legends one after another say that the North Star is the home of the Gods and the creators.  We have over 300 separate sources that say the North star is the home of the gods that created us.
        The ancient Arabs saw Polaris as a hole in the sky, an evil star called Al Kiblah. According to them, the star killed the great warrior of the sky who forever resides in a giant coffin that is outlined by the stars of the Big Dipper. The other stars are in mourning for their fallen hero and march slowly around the night sky, forever in funeral procession. Meanwhile, the northern pole star acts as a villainous outcast, forever motionless and fixed at the coldest corner of the northern sky.
        Mankind is doomed by this star that they will not see until it is too late.  It has killed men and will kill men again.  But mankind is saved by the fact that it can go from 2 to seven billion people in a very short time.  There always will be survivors.   Luckily, our short conversation will start a few people considering the truth of native American legends.

        • David Malek

          If we assume you are right and astronomers are incompetent, what made Sumerian astronomers competent to discover this and predict it with that much accuracy?

          • Rocky Lane Moore

            You are right to insist on a logical argument.  And I challenge you to present an adequate response to the following proof for a Binary partner for our sun.   If our star moves up and down on the galatic plain in a 52,000 processional cycle, then some great force must be pushing and pulling our star while other stars simply orbit around the galaxy in a normal fashion, and since the only force that can do that is a binary star, then our sun must have a binary partner.   Astronomers have increased their understanding of the stars, however, they take too many coffee breaks.   Every few years they come to conclusions which they have to quickly abandon with egg on their faces.   I took a conceptual physics course as an undergraduate.  Admittedly, my masters and doctorial work is not in astronomy, but I do not deserve your uneducated comments.   Any High School physics class would welcome this discussion.  But I am waiting for you to answer my proof, if indeed, you are capable of the task.  Anyone who may inadvertently peruse this, may offer additional proofs pro and con.  And I await challenges to my binary theory.   Thank you for attention to detail, and a spirit of fairness in a scientific endeavor.  On behalf of my colleagues who support my arguments, I offer sincere thanks.

  • John G Messerly

    There is much to recommend in this piece. The focus on the distant future is revealing, and I topic I explore by using transhumanism to provide insight to the question of life's meaning. (For more see It is also good the author asks us to be humble regarding knowledge and that he takes Nagel to task for the hubris of his book titled. That said, some ideas have much more support than others and the rational person proportions their assent to the evidence. So we do need to be open minded but as Carl Sagan said "no so open-minded our brains fall out.

  • David Malek

    Mankind is not mature enough to think deep in the future. We guzzle earth resources like there is no tomorrow. We are essentially like a virus sucking up all the resources for stupid purposes. We want our economy to grow at least %5 every year. But we do not understand that %5 growth every year means we are gonna double everything in a mere 14 years. Do that ten times which is a mere 140 years and you have grown 1024 times bigger. This is simply not sustainable. With this attitude, the end (At least for our own kind) seems pretty near after all.

  • disqus_rKMyKInpDN

    What I would give to get a piece of Schellenberg. He is such a hottie.

  • Gerald R Everett

    Who you callen "We"? Us science fiction fans have long been fascinated with vast and distant futures. Check out "Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future" by the British author Olaf Stapledon.

  • G Maurice Cohen

    MY take on all of THIS? Well, all I can say is...QUE SERA, SERA. In other words, let us ALL (or, at least, "whosoever will") "PREPARE for the WORST...but also HOPE for the BEST". 'Nuff said. :-)