Tuesday, October 6, 2009

"When" We Are

I've been watching over my kids' shoulders as they take history classes, both in high school and college, and I got thinking about the class titles: "ancient history", "modern history", and so forth. It's not that I have any quarrel with these labels, but they seem far too optimistic. I think we're now living in the ancient world.

I don't mean that life hasn't changed since, say, A.D. 1. Rather, when some students a few thousand years in the future look back, our times will be grouped with more primitive eras, and be considered the mere beginnings of civilization. I'm not sneering at life nowadays, or saying that we're still barbarians; in fact we may have most of the ideas today that will be alive and well in a few thousand years. But these ideas aren't widespread, they're intermixed with a lot of nonsense, and we have no traditions or mechanisms to pass them on to future generations.

Our knowledge and experience is very very new. Literacy itself, at least in widespread form, is a relatively recent occurrence. It was only within the last 100 years or so that humans managed to set foot on all the continents of the Earth (Antarctica being the holdout; that was discovered in 1821). The wave of Europeans and others who migrated to the Americas goes back perhaps 500 years, but has had significant waves within living memory. We've only been able to map the planet within the last 100 years or so.

Our knowledge of ourselves, primarily through biology but also through psychology, sociology, economics, and political science is quite incomplete. While it may never be fully complete, it isn't unreasonable to think that at some point we will have a deeper and essentially stable knowledge of human physiology, nature, and behavior. The physical sciences have advanced further, amazingly so, but much of that has been within the last 100 years as well: quantum mechanics and relativity both arose within that period. We still don't know many answers concerning the nature of the universe, and we may not even know the right questions.

Politically we seem awfully capable of forgetting lessons we've painfully learned time and time again; the same pathologies seem to keep returning in altered forms in different eras. I would like to hope that in the future we are all free, with autonomous spheres of action untouched and unregulated by any level of government. There always seems to be someone coming along with an agenda that requires abridgement of freedoms, and it never leads anywhere good. I hope that after a few thousand years we will have gotten it right, and know enough not to yet again repeat mistakes. When we do, we'll look back at this time the way we now look back at a time of tribes, small kingdoms, or city states.

It will be interesting to see how religion fares in what is likely to be an increasingly rational and scientific world. If it stands against hubris, it may be an essential element to a world in which humans have increasing power to alter the world. If it stands against reason, it will be lost. I wish we allowed no religion to advocate or encourage killing. Most say they do not, but a cursory glance through history will show substantial exceptions. Any ideology that aims to provide a comprehensive explanation for the world and all the answers to all of the questions seems inevitably to get to the point where it must forciby eliminate doubters. We ought to have learned this pattern by now, and recognize and call it for what it is.

In every area we're learning more, but an equal if not greater challenge is passing this knowledge on. Every generation starts over, with of course no innate knowledge beyond what has been built in genetically; there is little reason to think that human beings will be much different in a thousand years, so the culture and education that exist at that time will have to pass on all that we do discover. This seems so very fragile to me.

Maybe figuring this out, how to pass along accumulated knowledge and wisdom without placing a straightjacket on thought and behavior, will be the advance that will move us beyond our current era. Just as we think of the rise of rationality in the Renaissance as the root of the modern era, perhaps in a few thousand years the development of techniques for the preservation and propagation of wisdom will be seen as the key turning point, the one that finally got us out of our 'ancient' phase.

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