You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.
You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please SUBSCRIBE!
Question of the Month
What Is The Future Of Humanity?
The following philosophical forecasts of our fate each win an unforeseeable book.
From the onset of the Industrial Revolution, human progress has been unprecedented in its sheer speed and scale. Anyone born before the mid-1980s, remembering the world before the internet, will surely appreciate technology’s power to uproot our lives. There is no doubt that advances in technology and automation will keep on transforming our lives. Soon the devices we use will respond to our voices, performing many routine chores as we talk with them. The testing of self-drive cars and of drones delivering packages have already reached an advanced state. The virtual world will become ever more developed and sophisticated, offering us yet more unimaginable ways to experience reality. Humans will in all probability make it to Mars before the end of this century; and afterwards leave our imprint further out in space. Meanwhile humanity’s dabbling with and control over nature will continue to know no bounds in the years to come, thereby helping societies more effectively combat illness, disease, infertility and ageing. But the most terrifying aspect of the future will be when the code of life is altered to suit the vanity and greed of humans, the ageing process is prolonged or postponed, and human mortality is eventually overcome. I think such developments could indeed spell the doom of humanity, as they spark an all-out war between the haves and have nots. It cannot be denied that in all epochs of history we have continuously resorted to war and violence to solve our conflicts, and to the present day humanity has failed to organise societies truly capable of addressing the unequal distribution of resources. Meanwhile the systematic degradation that has been wrought on the natural environment in the name of progress still cries out for our care and attention. Above all, climate change remains the most pressing problem to be tackled on a global scale if the future of humanity is to be safeguarded. Nevertheless, I do hold some hope that humanity can be saved if an influential world movement recognises that the availability and sustainability of natural resources must be foremost in whatever economic philosophy is advocated; that unless the sharp inequalities in different regions of the world are truly addressed, the world will remain bedevilled by uncontrollable immigration, hatred and terrorism; and that unless humanity becomes consciously aware of the futility of war and violence, the path of self-destruction will continually be sought. Alas, the future of humanity can only be truly safe if humans accept that they are mortal beings and that happiness on this planet can only be achieved if the comfort and convenience bestowed on us by technological improvements is reconciled with meaningful and uncomplicated lives.
Ian Rizzo, Zabbar, Malta
Noam Chomsky has, on more than one occasion, pointed out that the two biggest threats that face humanity are global warming and nuclear war. Let’s entertain these two ideas briefly.
Nuclear war: Although some have speculated that nuclear weapons are impractical compared to the ever-advancing smart bombs, the devastation from fallout can quickly persuade a ruler or government to end a war and submit. In violent and warring minds that may be reason enough to want to retain them – see Theresa May’s and Donald Trump’s cavalier sanctioning of nuclear strikes. The consequences of such a strike, not to mention an all-out war, would be hellish: apart from untold deaths and injuries, birth defects and ruined soil and crops for decades.
Climate change: The long-term effects of icecaps melting, of fracking, of beaches being eroded, and air and water pollution, are frightening. Equally as frightening are the unspoken effects animal agriculture is having: for example, the build-up in the oceans of waste from cattle farming (too much for plankton to break down fast enough) can create dead zones where no life exists; not to mention the land, water and food which livestock take in order to feed us a proportionally smaller amount. This creates much more scarcity in an already competitive and difficult-to-get-by-in world.
These scenarios, which seem increasingly hard to separate, unfortunately indicate a grim future for humanity of scarcity, war, nuclear fallout and environmental devastation. Although very bleak, there is always hope; and to recycle another cliché, the future is not set. Passivity on the part of those appalled by such potential futures only increases the chances of them coming about. Conscientious action is, as seems to be the norm nowadays, needed. While people may, rightly or otherwise, distrust their elected officials and the media, there are other people and groups that they can trust. A lesson taken from the revolutionary left, particularly the libertarian socialists (anarchists), would teach us that coming together and organising into groups to cause change can happen, and can succeed. Educate, agitate, organise!
Shane Mc Donnell, Navan, Co. Meath, Ireland
Based on fossils and archeological artifacts from around the world, modern humans have existed for about 200,000 years; but the roots of civilization only go back 20,000 years, to when we first began planting grain and building walls. These dates slide back and forth on history’s timeline depending on the viewpoint, but practically all sources agree that up until about sixty years ago, humanity’s footprint on the sands of time was for the most part biodegradable.
Today, the footprint of humanity has toxic radioactive waste all over it. The World Nuclear Association reported in 2016 that 450 nuclear reactors were generating electricity in thirty countries around the world. Incredibly, sixty new reactors are being built on the heels of Fukushima!
It is chilling to think that between 1962 and 1983, the world faced nuclear annihilation more than once, when the only thing between humanity and devastation was a red button under a human thumb! An age-old question here begs an answer: Is humanity an experiment gone badly wrong?
The first mainland Greek philosopher, Anaximander, theorized that all things are generated from, and returned to, an endless creative source that he called ‘the Boundless’. In more recent times Carl Jung fleshed out Anaximander’s idea somewhat with his theory of the Collective Unconscious. Jung believed that this is the collective mostly-forgotten memory of our personal relationship with a higher authority. His philosophy was that in the final analysis nothing is as important as the life of the individual, whose hidden resources ultimately transform the world. Jung wrote: “In our most private and subjective lives we are not only the passive witness of our age, and its sufferers, but also its makers. We make our own epoch.”
Ancient devastations such as a globally-remembered great flood were believed to be acts of God or gods which humanity barely survived. Perhaps humanity’s future has always rested on the shoulders of extraordinary individuals, who manage to keep us afloat during the darkest of times. God willing, such an individual will come along to show future generations how to render radioactive waste inert, or gift them with the formula for cold fusion. In the meantime, it wouldn’t hurt to show Mother Nature a little respect and quit living like there’s no tomorrow.
Connie Koehler, Austin, Texas
Let’s look at our future in terms of two adaptive strategies in the evolutionary process: competition and cooperation.
We start with single cell organisms, which become multicelled ones. They develop diffuse nervous systems. These in turn organize into central nervous systems that serve the basic needs of complex organisms. Eventually, these blossom into the frontal cortex that allows the higher cognitive functions that land us here trying to answer the big questions.
This trajectory has left us with two often-conflicting modes of negotiating an environment filled with other organisms. The competitive mode involves our baser impulses utilizing our cognitive functions strictly for the sake of our baser impulses. We can see here the brutal world described by Hobbes and Ayn Rand. By contrast, the cooperative mode sees its interest in a trajectory from inward self-interest out to the interest of others. Here, we see the less brutal world of Marx or Rawls. Consequently, we find ourselves at an important evolutionary crossroads. Do we stick with the competitive instinct which has, via capitalism, got us to this point, and risk, at best, subjecting ourselves to a global oligarchy, the dismantling of our democracies, and the depletion of our natural resources: or, worse, our extinction as a species through manmade climate change and war? Or do we turn to the next evolutionary step, and evolve? Do we become better than market economics tells us we are?
I’m not optimistic, not only because of the growing influence of the right in America and other advanced nations, but because of the sensibility of the voters perpetrating this. As a progressive in the American Midwest, in last year’s election I enjoyed a front row seat for watching otherwise decent and intelligent people succumb to dogma, sensationalism, and misinformation – a complete lack of critical inquiry supplanted by fancy – as can be seen in political campaigns that resembled some Quentin Tarantino revenge fantasy. But this only makes sense as an evolutionary backlash in which our higher cognitive functions act strictly in behalf of baser impulses and immediate self-interest.
Still, we can hope. And sometimes the only way out is through. Perhaps the current evolutionary political backlash, by demonstrating in very real terms the actual consequences of competition, is what we’ll need to put it behind us and truly evolve.
D. Tarkington, Bellevue, Nebraska
The future of humanity is speculative, and so I’ll apprehend it more with hope than knowledge. Our first two hopes are that we do not annihilate our species with global biological or nuclear warfare, and that we do not destroy our planet. If we assume that we will avoid those futures, then we can expect that science and technology will advance and provide us with many blessings, and some dangers. But I think the cardinal question about our future is, “What kind of government will we have? This is because we are political animals, as Aristotle famously said. We are part nature and part nurture, and the latter is shaped by the society we happen to be raised in, which in turn is determined by the nature of our government. Thus, our future will be largely a function of our future society and government.
About this we can expect increased globalization and commingling of peoples until, perhaps in a few millennia, we are one people with one language and a complex global federal government. Perhaps there will be an end to war, and other benefits. However, in federations, the superior government tends to accumulate power by diminishing that of subordinate governments. Power corrupts proportionately, and this presents us with the specter of a dystopian society.
Trends in history strongly indicate two possible primary developments: freedom or slavery. Many see in history an increase in individual freedom; but clearly there also has been an increase in state power. The source of the former lies in the hopes and aspirations of individuals. The source of the latter lies in the fact that the power of the elite naturally enlarges itself.
Freedom or slavery: which will it be? That is, what will be the balance of individual freedom and self-determination versus state control and state determination of what humanity is? It depends on the nature of the over-arching supergovernment. Specifically, of who will rule the rulers: the people, or an established elite? A global government may be a Frankenstein we cannot control. But then we are an amazingly adaptable species.
There are too many variables to speculate about the future fruitfully. We can only hope it will be a future of liberty.
John Talley, Rutherfordton, North Carolina
In the future, humanity will still ponder the concept of death and its meaning, but perhaps with an additional clause: the fear of our private digital minds left behind. Digital footprints, the memorial grooves in the wax, the living binary representation of lives typed, clicked, or swished by our physical hands, our handiwork floating in the digital ether forever. It is not hard to imagine with some advances in technology that the digital self, made feasible with the use of holograms, or mediums such as virtual reality could provide representations of our persona after death. A digital likeness filled with the essence of you, the ‘ghost in the machine’. In other words, I think, therefore, I am your entire life’s browser history. A collection of algorithms, from preferred GPS haunts, from online shopping preferences to your late night browsing searches, all composed and collated to represent the embodied holographic you after death. Sartre’s ‘human existence precedes essence’ made all the more relevant, the digital essence of your earthly existence left behind.
In the future, after your funeral, relatives shall be able to buy such a holographic essence. A grieving partner comforted by a more than passable intuitive Turing system finely tuned to represent you. Perhaps, also the curiosities of grandchildren, wishing to know who their grandparents really were, reanimated in the holographic flesh. Indeed, you could even give your own narcissistic eulogy, the voice from beyond the grave. In every instance, a visual binary essence that can speak, listen, gesture, reason, appear to show emotion, and bring meaning to those still in life. Unfortunately, unbeknown to your internet provider, you also shared a flat with Dave, who had a penchant for the darker side of the web. Additionally, on your daily commute, roadwork traffic lights had an uncanny knack of holding you just outside a Ku Klux Klan hall. All information impartially collected and collated, unfairly representing the essence of you. The repercussions aren’t hard to predict; loving relatives shocked to find you had a secret life, one that included nefarious activities and racist tendencies. In such a technological future, every word typed, every destination you travelled would take on an uncontrolled limbo existence. The fear of death may be relegated to second place by the anxiety of judgements passed on an eternal digital future you.
John Scotland, Kilsyth, North Lanarkshire
In the future corporations and governments will create a variety of virtual worlds, in which all humans will eventually choose to live. Most will choose to live in simulations of the Twenty First Century, because life was much better back then. Of course, these humans will not remember that their world is virtual. Some philosophers and scientists in these virtual worlds will present skeptical arguments about the existence of a real external world, but most people won’t take these arguments seriously. Some of the skeptics will argue that empirical observations are consistent with their world being a simulation. However, most people won’t care because the virtual world feels so real and people value the useful, not the true. Philosophers will also present interesting arguments about how human minds could never, in principle, fully grasp higher dimensions, just as two-dimensional minds could never know there’s a bird flying above them because there is no ‘above’ for such minds. Although a two dimensional mind could use math to infer that there is a higher dimension with some sort of entity casting the observable light-and-dark patterns, that mind could never see or even imagine it. Still, others will sometimes believe their world is virtual because they ate a special mushroom, had a mystical experience, or simply because they momentarily trusted their intuition. Most of these people will be virtually locked up. Some geniuses will argue that it is likely that we are living in a virtual world: If the universe is as big as we think, and advanced people create virtual worlds, then there are many virtual worlds and only one reality: therefore, it is more likely that the future world is virtual. But wait, the future is here.
Paul Stearns, Blinn College, Texas
The organic and inorganic will become less distinct. Bioengineers will create living cells capable of performing simple ‘Turing functions’ (programmable tasks), and on this basis, organic computers will transform humanity. Almost certainly, organs will be artificially produced, this extending human life; and with the tweaking of genes we could end up living almost indefinitely. Cancer, AIDS and other fatal diseases will be eradicated, as smallpox was in the 1970s. Unfortunately, new and deadlier diseases (such as Zika) will spring up and become lethal weapons. Disease, famine, war and terrorism will turn cities into savage ghettoes run by marauding gangs. Humans will be microchipped from birth and monitored by surveillance satellites. ‘Genetically compromised’ individuals will be sterilised, leading to mass sterilisations. Only the healthy super-rich will be able to afford to live in biodomes with pollution-free air and Eden-like forests and gardens. The rest will be forced to “defend themselves against the ever-present menace of barbaric, atavistic and reactionary forces.” (Winston Churchill in Civilization, Niall Ferguson, p.297, 2012).
Fortunately, the philanthropic wealthy will continue to repair the damage wreaked against nature since the start of the Industrial Revolution. Humanity’s goal must therefore be to diminish our ‘inner animal’ in favour of the power of reason, thereby becoming truly human – Homo sapiens victorens! “The future of humanity must gaze harder upon… looking within.” (Buddha, in Dogen’s Shobo Genzo, p.47, 2012).
Aaron V. Adosa, Swansea
There will only be two types of human beings in the future: the minority having enormous brains and tiny bodies, and the majority with tiny brains and muscular bodies. The size of the average brain will gradually diminish; not because of our innate laziness, but because of our over-concern about our physical appearance. In the old days, most people dreamt of having shelter and a stable food supply. As we no longer struggle for the basic necessities, our dreams focus instead on the search for physical beauty – how to obtain and maintain the ‘ideal body shape’ and healthy life the media promotes. Physical beauty will become the main goal of the majority. They’ll do exercises everyday, taking nutrients to maintain their shape while not noticing that their brains are shrinking. Actually, there is no doubt that they’ll work extremely hard to make their brains smaller. Unfortunately, both the majority and minority will enter states of extreme depression and show hatred towards the other set. Many who cannot categorize themselves into either the majority or the minority will eventually commit suicide as the pressure from both extremes will be overwhelming.
Science has caused the separation of intelligence and health. The misinterpretation or over-interpretation of health and evolutionary facts by the public is causing the decay of intelligence and the increase in concern about physical beauty; in fact we are just eliminating ourselves.
Cyrus Aegean Lamprecht, Hong Kong
What is the future of humanity? Answer: Extinction within a few thousand years. Mother Nature, God, or the blind forces of evolution (take your pick) has arranged it so that we higher animals reproduce by engaging in sex for pleasure, with babies as a by-product. However, human ingenuity in creating contraceptives has cut the link between the pleasure and the babies, and so in the wealthy parts of the world the replication rate has fallen below the 2.1 per couple necessary to maintain a stable population. And the world is getting steadily wealthier. So it is a fairly modest assumption that in a hundred years from now, the planetary human population will have peaked at ten billion, but most of them will be as wealthy as today’s average in the West. It is also plausible that sexbots will be widely available, be far more beautiful than most real women or men, and be far better at giving pleasure than another human. So, finally, it is plausible that the average reproduction rate will then become 1.5 or less. The rest is arithmetic. Dividing 1.5 by 2 to give the reproduction rate per person of 0.75, and taking this rate to the power of 30, we get a value less than 0.0002. So dividing, thirty generations later, or about a thousand years from now, the world population will be about two million. This will ensure civilizational collapse. But I expect the sexbots will still be there – a few thousand per person. So another few thousand years will see us all gone.
The only obstruction to this that I can see is religion imposing a sexbot ban. The Roman Catholic Church has had indifferent success in similar sexual bans; the Muslims might do a little better. But it seems unlikely that a world populated by only a few million religious believers would survive for long; and all the more intelligent and creative people will have experienced a blissful death long ago.
John Lawless, Crawley, Western Australia
In the opening chapter of The Napoleon of Notting Hill, G.K. Chesterton introduced us to the traditional game of ‘Cheat the Prophet’. This is played when, extrapolating from current trends, a wise man (sic) predicts how we will live in the future. He’s listened to respectfully; and, once he is dead and buried, humanity does something totally other than he predicted.
Towards the end of his life Karl Marx said that he was not a Marxist. I believe that what he meant was that he did not join in with his followers’ confident Marxist predictions. That is, he believed that his philosophy could explain the historical processes which had led to his contemporary situation, explain current trends, even exhort humanity how to respond to them; but his theories could not determine or predict the future. Despite this, Twentieth Century prophets such as Leon Trotsky, H.G. Wells, and Francis Fukuyama, have asserted that they know where humanity is going; and humanity has duly responded by going in a different direction entirely, or, when feeling particularly bloody-minded, several different directions. We have difficulty enough in understanding the past: the future is unknowable. The only safe prediction is that every prediction about the future of humanity is almost certain to be wrong (and, to paraphrase Einstein, I’m not sure about the ‘almost’).
Martin Jenkins, London
Niels Bohr supposedly said that prediction is very difficult, especially about the future. Yet a spacecraft’s path is predictable to extraordinary precision, and it must be, because by the time it gets anywhere interesting the right time to correct its trajectory has long past. Then there’s the long-term cyclic reliability of the Sun, Moon, and the planets. The future of details is difficult to predict, but if the details average out, then barring the odd black swan, the future is predictable to a degree. In the 1950s, Isaac Asimov invented ‘psychohistory’, the statistical extrapolation of future events and the behaviour of significant figures from society’s present state. However, if some unforeseeable details grow to dominate, even the broad shape of the future becomes uncertain. This is likely where many actors and forces interact, as they do in human reality. Self-reinforcing cycles can form. Thus predicting the near future is a little like forecasting the weather. So if we cannot forecast humanity’s ‘weather’, can we at least forecast its ‘climate’?
Today the world is more peaceful, better educated (particularly women) and proportionally less affected by extreme poverty than ever before. With these trends, population will level off at around ten billion, and apart from in a few wretched countries, the prospects for a democratic near-future are favourable. However, democracy relies on rising expectations being fulfilled through economic growth; and today there is a collision course between greening technology and population growth, rising emissions, and diminishing resources. A good outcome depends on cutting personal consumption and the conventional industrial employment that leads to the growing gap between richest and poorest. However, denying expectations is unpopular, and confounding them risks the instability of political reaction. The costs are so high that governments may yet seek ways to distribute wealth more evenly, even if they won’t yet admit it. Barring a world epidemic – more likely given ease of travel – or a climate or other catastrophe, population will fall gradually through elective non-replacement rather than as a result of collective action. The environment will improve, but nature may still be diminished unless people build greener cities. Earth is special, and exploration of other planetary systems will yield many wonders, but few habitats. Apart from on Mars, any colonies will be too far away to interact with Earth. Ultimately, human progress can carry life throughout the universe, but as we suppress our evolutionary pressures, this life may not be us.
Dr Nicholas B. Taylor, Little Sandhurst