Frontiers

In April, Ross Douthat wrote about the Fermi paradox, which holds that since there’s bazillions of starts, we should expect some of them to host life, and some of that life should have learned interstellar communication and travel and come and visited us, but that they have not done so, which is a paradox. 

One answer, Douthat says, is that conscious life is just a very unlikely outcome, unlikely enough that you would not expect it to be found elsewhere.  Perhaps it should not be expected anywhere, and its existence here implies cosmic significance for humanity; or perhaps it is just unlikely enough that we should expect it on exactly one planet in the universe.  Another answer, Douthat says, is that people just can’t travel that far- we humans won’t get beyond our solar system, and neither will anyone else.

The possibility that the Final Frontier has closed “haunts our era in subtle, unacknowledged ways.”  If our summum bonum is technological progress, and the pinnacle of that progress is space, and we’ve reached or are up against our limits there, then think what that implies. 

Our abandoning space means either we no longer care about it or we believe we’ve approached our limits, Douthat says (another possibility he suggests is that we think we have too many problems here on earth, but I don’t believe this for a minute.  People do what they care about.) 

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Why should we have turned inward and stop pursuing/believing in the frontier at some point in the last four decades?  Why do we look back on the space age as an optimistic time, when there was plenty of talk at the time that the World Wars, the Holocaust, and Mutually Assured Destruction had refuted Progress?  Why should we look at our post-Cold War era as pessimistic, when it opened with end-of-history confidence in capitalism and globalization and the tearing down of walls?

We have all heard that WWI was devastating for the belief in progress, and WWII and the Holocaust made the idea completely incredible.  After the Cold War ended, people came to believe once again that history was a march toward greater liberty, democracy and wealth.  A recent book argues that violence of all kinds is on a downward path throughout history, and the interest this idea attracted is to me a sign of our times.  Then of course there was the great post-Cold War period piece, The End of History by Francis Fukuyama.

But maybe that’s the problem.  History is at an end, we’ve already done everything.  Tyler Cowen views the Great Stagnation as partly psychological; he once had a weblog post noting that we refer to “the developed world,” which means we think development is at an end, which he finds sad. 

By contrast, WWI, by destroying an old order that was on its last legs, unleashed a great burst of Roaring 20s energy as people perceived themselves as free from a dead hand of the past.  Politically, it directly created Wilsonianism and Leninism, self-confident political movements who competed to replace the old world order and offered competing claims to be the culminations of modernity and progress.  Fascism also offered competing claims in that regard.  (The Germans wanted living space- a new frontier!) 

WWII seems to have unleashed similar combinations of utter despair with, at least in America, energetic belief that we could achieve great new things.  As low as European civilization sunk, we saved things, the good guys won, it wasn’t an absurd, amoral war like World War I. 

I would trace today’s apathy to well before the Cold War victory; maybe to the time of Détente, when both sides stopped caring as much about winning it, a time that would coincide with the beginning of the Great Stagnation, a world-wide embrace of cynicism at the popular, not just intellectual, level, and the rise to prominence of ideas of environmentalism and “limits to growth,” which offered a new kind of challenge to the idea of Progress.

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Even science itself is a kind of “developed world,” as perceived at the popular level.  Newton and Galileo energized a civilization with a science that could once be seen as very consistent with common sense- sure, the sun didn’t revolve around the earth, but that was easy to understand once you thought about it.  Einstein stretched things a little, people struggled to understand him, but he was seen as the great hero of our civilization, and people could be confident that he was allowing man to expand the frontiers of his knowledge.  Today, few people know or care what scientists are doing (what games they are playing?) with string theory or quantum mechanics. 

Instead, those who see themselves as interested in the fate of science feel the need to defend past gains, in the face of a religious fundamentalism that supposedly threatens to return us to the time of Galileo’s forced recantation.  As an evaluation of our situation, this is nonsense, but it is psychologically consistent with much else about this era.

Furthermore, the hot-button issue for “pro-science” people is global warming.  Science for them is no longer about progress as much as it is about warning us of the dangers of progress.  Scientists align with critics of progress rather than with the modern project.  The leading popular spokesman for “science,” Al Gore, is also the man who wrote a 900 page tome, Earth in the Balance, arguing that we’d taken a wrong turn, made a metaphysical and spiritual mistake, at Descartes and Bacon.

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All this mostly suggests that our era is characterized by cynicism rather than despair.  We’ve already done everything we can under our current horizons, it all may or may not really be valuable, but there’s not much urge to create new horizons.  We’ve reached our limits and can more or less stay put.  In the negative sense we’ve eliminated all sorts of evils over the past 500 years, which has helped us to not be miserable, but there just isn’t any grand hope for anything positive.

An exception to this picture is the New Age ideas of the 1970s, which offers not only a negative critique of industrial progress but an alternative in the form of “higher consciousness,” like that experienced by Luke Skywalker.  This is obviously progress in a totally different direction than the one that has powered the modern world and its various ideologies. 

This idea proved somewhat influential, but all things considered most people probably still prefer cynicism.  There’s an episode of Seinfeld where they talk about the meaning of life and whatnot, and how people say you’re supposed to live every day as if it’s your last so that you do really important things.  But, Seinfeld asks, how do you do that?  What would I be doing differently if it were my last day?  Wouldn’t I still be hanging out at this restaurant?

It seems to me that New Agers have evolved over the decades into the singularity nuts, and have after all embraced the idea that technological progress is the source for eventual spiritual progress.  The aforementioned Mr. Gore, the same Gore who rejected Bacon and modernity, is after all the enthusiast of the Information Superhighway, the man who “took the initiative of creating the Internet.”  These TEDTalkers, techno-utopians and singularity-mongers aren’t mainstream, but they do think they have a new frontier in mind for humanity, or for humanity’s replacement.

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