SCIENCE FICTION IS BUILT TO SHOWCASE THE FUTURE. BUT PHILOSOPHY TEACHES US SO MUCH MORE ABOUT THE WAY THE WORLD GOES–AND HOW IT MIGHT END.
I love science fiction for the depth of its doom. Besides ancient myth, nothing beats scifi’s ability to project humanity’s grand schemes, habitual mistakes, and failed utopias. Scifi can zoom out far enough for us to look at our experiments with new perspective. While myth casts events in an archaic religious fog—which feels passé to the proudly secular—scifi, when it’s good, holds an air of inevitability. In a way, it serves as a wardrobe for future fashions of phenomena. Want to model how humankind might react to alien or artificial intelligence? Read Arthur C. Clarke. Want to try on the consequences of immersing people in virtual space? Read William Gibson. Want to model a schizophrenic reality? Read Samuel R. Delaney. Lately, I’ve been thinking about the intersections of scifi and philosophy, and what that relationship might tell us about collapse, risk, and the ultimate fate of mankind. You know…the easy stuff.
If you use scifi as your guide, you might find yourself in these poles of thought: humanity is a goofy and rapacious accident that’s doomed to die out; or that humanity is a noble but challenged species that will save itself—vaulting into new modes of life—with its technological inventions. Here’s my favorite living philosopher on the source of that belief:
Science increases human power—and magnifies the flaws in human nature. It enables us to live longer and have higher living standards than in the past. At the same time it allows us to wreak destruction—on each other and the Earth—on a larger scale than ever before.
– John Gray
Gray’s pretty convincing in the humanity-is-fucked department, and he’d probably argue that yes, we’re doomed to die out because of our inability to evolve our ethical processes, but hey, that’s always how it’s been. So how are we to live?
The question assumes that humans can live well only if they believe they have the power to remake the world. Yet most humans who have ever lived have not believed this—and a great many have had happy lives.
An anthropocentric fetishization of reason has carried us through the desert, passing our dehydrated forms from Socrates to Christ to modern humanism, save the exceptions like Buddhism and other Eastern schools of thought. We all want rationality to reign when we’re being tried by judge and jury, but the people that have dug into humankind’s ability to think and act rationally have found it a Quixotic quest. I mean, the judge that may one day decide our fate will be strongly affected by his blood sugar. Recent compendiums of human behavior—like Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahnemann and The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli—are sobering empirical tomes of unwitting, repetitive self-sabotage. Maybe rationality is self-consciousness’s Ponzi scheme. Have we forgotten to live in philosophy’s wise and noble shadow?
Humanity is a goofy and rapacious accident that’s doomed to die out; or humanity is a noble but challenged species that will save itself—vaulting into new modes of life—with its technological inventions.
Enter Nassim Nicholas Taleb. A financial trader gone philosopher and mathematician, Taleb uses history, myth, philosophy, and mathematics to illustrate humankind’s harmful misunderstandings of risk. His latest book, Antifragile, mathematically assesses stuff and classifies it as fragile, robust, or antifragile. The antifragile is simply something that gains from disorder, up to a point. Think hunter-gatherer tribes, artists, and the mythical hydra. Using these properties as a guide, Taleb argues that a return to religion is inevitable and probably a good thing:
Restaurants get you in with food to sell you liquor; religions get you in with belief to sell you rules.
—Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Complex systems—the human body and hyperconnected industrial life—are best managed with simple rules and some randomness. Taleb shows this mathematically, the fuck. Like Gray, he aims to bust human thinking out of its common patterns in the service of a more peaceful and ecologically aligned future.
Nick Land’s work, on the other hand, reads like the manic tract of someone who has chewed up all of Western philosophy through the gunky gear teeth of amphetamine, Burroughs, Apocalypse Now, and shamanism. His essays, collected in Fanged Noumena, leap from Kantian aesthetics to Qabbalist number porn, from Blade Runner to Deleuze. Its scholarship feels orgiastic, carnivorous. It’s a wild document that makes humanity’s transhuman, destructive future seem beautiful. His thinking on philosophy’s place in our self-guidance:
Philosophy has an affinity with despotism, due to its predilection for Platonic-fascist top-down solutions that always screw up viciously.
Gray, Taleb, and Land run the intellectual gamut, but lodged in their central message is the shared idea that humans are incompetent prophets. That our actions—of building edifices to reconstruct or reconstrue the world we’re born into—are more destructive than we’ll ever acknowledge. It seems to me that the three are sort of stuck; that any thinker moored in inquiry this lifelong and intense must find a spot on the wide band of philosophical comfort, or else exit the gene pool…While Taleb wants us to take advantage of fate, staying small and humble, Land wants to embrace our virulent enthusiasms and channel them toward the terminus of our metaphysical futures, no matter the carnage. Gray, like Montaigne, seems to hover in the middle, dedicated to dispelling illusions and encouraging a tempered, intractably irrational—and pleasurable—life.
But the clock ticks. As Joseph Tainter lays out in The Collapse of Complex Societies, industrialized society shows signs of decline. He argues that only a new energy source will grant our complex and globalized way of life some extra time. Tainter writes off humanity’s ability to prevent or postpone collapse using culture—specifically, with voluntary simplification and subdivision—which Nassim Taleb heroically works for. When I read Tainter’s book for the first time, I thought, “Maybe we need to protect ourselves from overpopulation, greed, and neophilia by resurfacing them as horrible, global taboos,” but much less coherently. But can an agreement that big and multicultural be reached? In the essay Of Cannibals—portentously preceded by an essay called Of Moderation—Montaigne writes about a hunter-gatherer tribe his friend has just visited. Montaigne defends their culture against fearful claims of barbarism:
They are not fighting for the conquest of new lands, for they still enjoy that natural abundance that provides them without toil and trouble with all necessary things in such profusion that they have no wish to enlarge their boundaries. They are still in that happy state of desiring only as much as their natural needs demand; anything beyond that is superfluous to them.
Maybe we can get back there. Our chances look grim, though, if you consider recent global politics—failed democratic surges, remote-controlled killer robots, purchasable lawlessness, canonized corporations, or the usual sponsored dictatorships. Our interrelatedness may be totally global now, but our culture sure isn’t.
each man calls barbarism whatever is not his own practice
So it’s looking a little rough out there. But maybe there is a grand narrative. Maybe, like John Gray believes, it isn’t—or, at least shouldn’t—be about homo sapiens. It’s a funny and self-deprecating exercise to imagine people as the byproduct of other processes: humans as the bacterial flora and fauna in technology’s gut; humans as carriers/slaves for genes and memes; humans replicating to fulfill the connective imperatives of the internet; humans as lumbering pollinators, sacrificing ourselves for the god of corn; humans as quick coagulations in the flow of flesh and bacteria. All these ideas build some beautiful and scifi-esque metaphors, lingual tricks that are—like science—tools for discovery, comfort, and destruction. Might the best guide be art? Poetry?
Poetry does not strut logically amongst convictions, it seeps through crevices; a magic flux resuscitated amongst vermin. If it was not that the Great Ideas had basements, fissures, and vacuoles, poetry would never infest them. Faiths rise and fall, but the rats persist.
Poetry’s survival—its antifragility—seems promising, right? Let’s turn to its biological precursor; let’s turn to the rat of rats. The oldest living species on Earth is the sponge, which makes sense, considering its structure. The sponge doesn’t have the human’s common affliction centers: no nervous, digestive, or circulatory systems. Instead, the sponge survives because it’s full of pores and channels that water flows through, its cells unspecialized and able to transform into other types, all highly mobile. Think of time as humankind’s flow, and recast humans as flowers: we take in stimuli from small, dedicated channels, and are fragile, expressive, easily dead. The sponge is a great example of antifragility—the only thing it needs to thrive is constant flow, generous currents. With time and water, this is guaranteed. But sponges are sessile—immobile, fixed in one place—and we humans value our mobility now more than ever. The sponge might seem sad to us, then. Long living, but boring. But isn’t our mobility mostly an illusion? We can hop on a plane and travel across the world in half a day, but we’re totally sessile to Earth. As Georges Bataille likes to point out, all known life exists in a tenuous, wafer-thin layer between uncaring rock and impossible void. Another problem that scifi likes to circumvent.
As Georges Bataille likes to point out, all known life exists in a tenuous, wafer-thin layer between uncaring rock and impossible void.
Let’s assume this question is moot because we’re days away from technological singularity. A comfy assumption, right? But—these immortal but’s—the low hanging fruit of technology has been plucked: fire, antiseptic, the wheel, paper, vaccinations. Each new plateau of sophistication is costly: even Moore’s law slows down. Our pursuit of singularity should feel like a footrace to the death. Old diseases like tuberculosis are catching up, mutating into new promises to beat us this time. And new viruses are a mere evolutionary twitch away. Big data—our new and growing access to trillions of variables from every domain of life—is promoted by its acolytes as the salve for human error. All we have to do eliminate our folly is make the proper connections, reflect, and correct. But big data also provides a painful tide of false causality and erroneous readings, which will probably make things worse before it makes them better. So if you agree with Tainter, your anxiety should be threatening to bust gills in your neck. It’s that old adage: every time history repeats itself, the price goes up.
The industrialized world recently shared scifi’s obsession with escaping this rock, so much so that its nations raced to leave it. The moon landing incites awe because of its emotional images—the lonely masked man, glowing white on a stretch of alien gray and the void; his mythical ability to glide through the air; the great rising fire of the shuttle—but the same nations have mostly lost that emotional connection. Their progressive fervor has traded spatial exploration for economic expansion. Appropriately enough, leaving Earth today is only an obsession of the wealthy, a private project sold as a sort of carnival. If settling off-world is the sole solution to our misuse of Earth’s resources—and if that ability was most fairly distributed by large governments—then our fix has shriveled and disappeared into the pockets of Earth’s grandest clique of leeches: the rich. But science fiction restores that ability to anyone that can afford an acid-eaten paperback. They can remember that promise one yellowing page at a time.
Nick Bostrom thinks that we’re severely underestimating the death of our species, be it by ecological misuse or wicked networked A.I.’s. He came to study existential risk after a realization about the long- lived stasis of most philosophical problems. Existential risk felt morally urgent. “[That realization] helped me to understand that philosophy has a time limit.” In a recent profile about Bostrom and his colleague Toby Ord, Ross Andersen sums up their work. “He is trying to figure out whether our moral obligations to future humans outweigh those we have to humans that are alive and suffering right now.” It’s a tricky question that infects the present with a crushing vitality.
I love 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I think Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick will fail as prophets. I doubt humans will dematerialize into bodiless, godlike intelligences, even though that’s a chilly and appealing promise to intellectuals.But not for a lack of technological sophistication—I just have total faith in extinction events. The history of humanity reads like an ancient myth: We—or our godly avatars—enact a great struggle for a prosperous life, only to be tortuously punished for our hubris. In all our common myths, peace is boring. Humanity’s historical record attests to the rushing blood of that sentiment. Maybe the only real peace comes after deep impact: after the tides have boiled and evaporated, after the dust has settled into a breathless hollow sphere. The most recent extinction event, rendered by Nick Land:
65 million BC.
The K/T-missile, Pregnant with the Entity, slants in. 16 clicks per second. Professor Barker recalls this moment catching the trajectory. He coaxes it across the Cataplex-map, through intricate cartographic dances, shakings, twistings. Scars and vectors slot-together. It sticks. Iridium stink of the Entity so strong it hisses. Tick iterations. Ticks, scratches, chitterlings silt across the Outside. Barker senses it passage stroke him, nerve-tense as the distant twin, weaving through tatters of cored-out schizophrenia, in the habitation blister.
Theta-Station. Antarctic Peninsula. Where it is 2012 forever. He locks in hard against the gut to proximity, each time a little more difficult to Refrain. Last tick of the Time-Lapse. A streaking down towards the Yucatan. Tick freezing the interrupted Tick. Now it terminates the Mesozoic. Mother of a killing-mechanism, ballistic vapor wave: a billion tons of molten calcium toxins, spatters out of the impact- crater. Supersonic particle-storms erase North America. Chalk-Out.
Those of us in the intensely industrialized world have a magical access to history and culture. As long as your wifi’s on, you can call up reams of ancient literature. If you have a smartphone, you can conjure up the proof to Fermat’s Last Theorem from a wilderness preserve in Alaska. You can find likeminded people or shared sentiments quicker than ever. This, too, might be a time bomb.
A theory is a very dangerous thing to have.
So if radical collapse occurs, what next?
Those were simpler times, I think. We may be going back to that, by the way. In a way, good! Because when I read things like the foundations of capitalism are shattering, maybe we need that… Because everything is amazing right now, and nobody is happy.
It’s as if human desire is the malignant fate in Pandora’s box, and certain technological breakthroughs— large-scale agriculture, machinistic computation, high-dollar entertainment—stab holes in the box, each generation wanting more of its hidden air.
We are born into this ceaseless beige cosmos with one promise: entropy. Our bodies dissolve, our self snips out. Scifi imagines alternatives beyond all likely measure. Its fantasy is hopeful, even if its criticism is correct. Eventually, though, we must stop reading.
It is not reasonable that art should win the place of honor over pure great and powerful mother Nature. We have so overloaded the beauty and richness of her works by our inventions that we have quite smothered her.
Our days are numbered, so let’s go one more from Montaigne for the hell of it:
I am afraid we have eyes bigger than our stomachs, and more curiosity than capacity. We embrace everything, but we clasp only wind.
But that’s not sad on its own; you’ve felt a cooling wind on a hot day, haven’t you? No need to go Kaczynski, though—just couch our folly in comedy. As the saint George Carlin said, “The planet is fine. The people are fucked!”
Zoom out far enough, and Earth disappears in an inattentive blink. So keep staring.
time devours everything—Ovid
Books I copped from: Straw Dogs by John Gray, Fanged Noumena by Nick Land, The Complete Works of Montaigne (translated by Donald Frame), Antifragile by Nassim Taleb, The Bed of Procrustes by Nassim Taleb, Metamorphoses by Ovid, The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph Tainter.