Predicting the Future (of Freethought)

Presented at the January 3rd, 1999 monthly service the North Texas Church of Freethought

Were it not for the fact that an altogether different sort of human activity has long been regarded as The Oldest Profession, fortune-telling might well enjoy that distinction. For soothsayers and prophets, seers and diviners, have been with us since time unremembered. The ideological heirs of the earliest shamans are with us today, the "psychic" prognosticators, the astrologers, and the New Age channelers. They are joined by their more credible newspaper editorialists and TV anchors, the media pundits, the polls, and our own good guesses as to the shape of the future, near and far. The most credibility attaches to those who call themselves "futurists" or even "futurologists."

But no one should be fooled. As Dan Quayle put it,

"It's very hard to predict, especially about the future."

Still, there are some basic rules of prognostication. For example, very specific predictions tend to get people in trouble. That's what we saw with, "There's no reason to push on to Baghdad, because Saddam Hussein has been soundly defeated," or, more recently, "President Clinton will never be impeached." Apollo, for example, who delivered his prophecies through the Pythia, or priestess, at the Oracle of Delphi was always careful to keep his pronouncements vague and ambiguous.

Nostradamus did the same in his quatrains, much to the delight of all the kooks, con artists, and supermarket tabloids who continue to squeeze a profit out of his vague and ambiguous "predictions." For example, concerning 1999, the 16th Century physician-astrologer wrote [this was just in yesterday's FWST!]:

"The years 1999, seventh month, a great King of Terror will descend from the skies. It will bring to Life the King of the Mongols. Before and after, Mars reigns happily."

So, of course, there are people saying now that, come this July, a giant asteroid will hit the earth, wiping out everybody but the Chinese. Or that Chinese ICBM's will rain down on the U.S. But it these "prophecies" could also be fulfilled if, for example, sometime in July, a movie based on one of Stephen King's horror stories is beamed by satellite into some Asia nation. Of course, "Mars reigns" all the time, so where's the prophecy in that?

Another good approach for a seer is to predict what is predictable, while taking care to do so, perhaps, in an unpredictable way. People in their 20's, 30's, and 40's tend to have children, for example. Very old people tend to suffer from illnesses and, of course, eventually die. Hurricanes tend to hit hurricane-probe regions and earthquakes tend to hit earthquake-prone regions. Every year, somewhere, record temperatures, rainfall, frost or whatever tend to occur. And various countries go to war with one another. And it hardly takes much effort for anyone with a sense of showmanship to inflate these sorts of predictions with attention-getting details that will be forgotten anyway if the main event happens. So the psychics and seers who want to build up a track record of "hits" are going to make a lot of safe bets, even if they strive to make them look speculative.

On the other hand, when the prognosticating scamsters are ready to rake in some money on the book and lecture circuit once they've built up a good "success" rate by predicting, say, trouble for farmers in the Midwest or big (but unspecified) political surprises, then it's time for riskier predictions like: (You never know; they could happen!)

This last one should remind us that the literary genre of science fiction has certainly come into its own as the most interesting and engaging form of futurism. Much of it is not meant to be prognostication as much as a device for exploring entirely different issues, much as The Wizard of Oz was intended.

But quite a lot of science fiction is clearly intended to be extrapolation of current trends into the indefinite future. This was certainly Jules Verne's approach, as well as that of the late Gene Roddenberry, creator of the Star Trek series and its spinoffs. And this, I think, is the most interesting sort of predictive speculation, because it gives us a window not just into what the future might be, but also into the significance of the present, and of the path that we took to get to where we find ourselves today. Nor do I think it a happenstance that so many Freethinkers are science fiction enthusiasts.

I'm going to beg off with the Dan Quayle excuse about making specific predictions about the future of Freethought generally. For one thing, this depends heavily on what happens with state/church separation and the status of religious tolerance and diversity in America, because, as we know, we are a religious minority even though we are numerous. Nor can we say such things as, "Well, if vouchers pass that will be the end of it for atheists." Because, for all we know, it could have precisely the opposite effect. I can think of several reasons why this might be so, many of which depend on the commonly-understood fact that "the devil is in the details." [There's a phrase ripe for theological dissection!]

What I will take a stab at is how we might, as Freethinkers who do not expect the world to end at any moment, think about the future. There are, of course, an endless variety of ways in which we could imagine the future unfolding. But let us just consider the broadest possible outlines of how it is likely to play out from where we are today. After all, if you see a rock rolling down a hill, you might not be able to say exactly what path it will take or exactly where it will end up, but you can nevertheless say a good deal about what the future of that rock is.

Now, let us also look into the future with the sort of cognitive dualism that I've previously argued is the proper epistemological (having to do with knowledge) basis for rationalists like ourselves. That is, we Freethinkers are not Cartesian dualists who accept the idea of two realities, one which is material, natural, earthly, and human and another which is immaterial, supernatural, heavenly and divine. But we do recognize the distinction between — and the value of both — the objective and the subjective, the actual and the imaginary, the what is and the what might be, and the only world that we can know and all the other worlds that we either fear or strive or create.

What is the future of biological life as such? Will human beings evolve into something else, as some claim? Perhaps. But where are the forces of natural selection that will work this change? It seems to me that they have been largely overcome by technology. Will human beings become hybrid life-forms of flesh and metal and silicon as we engineer our way to perfection? Perhaps. But it seems unlikely that these options will ever become much more satisfactory than eyeglasses, which led people to the development of contact lenses, which led to the development of surgical procedures to correct refractive errors of vision. There is a reason why we are carbon-based life-forms, and it is simply that carbon chemistry is so much more versatile than metallurgy or silicon chip technologies. Well, then, what about genetic engineering? Will gene-tinkering be the basis of our biological future?

Of all the possible paths to the future, this last one is closest, I think to the one that is being taken even now. But the biological future of our species is in our genetic material. That is, I do not believe it is in our DNA. For we are already beginning to acquire an altogether different sort of genetic material other than long complementary paired chains of deoxyribonucleotides. Just open up a biochemistry textbook and you'll see the future: letters on paper, ATGCCTAATTACGG ... Oh, but those are just representations of DNA, you're thinking. Yes, and DNA is a representation of RNA. And RNA is just a representation of polypeptides. That's Francis Crick's "central dogma" of life, by the way, and well worth remembering: that DNA makes RNA makes protein.

But this is probably not how it actually happened. For on the vast scale of the billions of years of the history of life on our planet — and here we are allowing ourselves to get excited over a measly 1000 years! — it seems likely that DNA was an innovation among primitive life forms based on RNA. And RNA itself may have come along only after self-replicating populations of polypeptides — chains of amino acids — had come into being. So what would be more natural than for "the selfish gene" to have found a way to make itself even more successful and enduring by reincarnating itself into strings of letters representing the four nucleotides of DNA?

And, just as DNA does not simply sit idly in the nucleus of cells, the alphabetical characters into which it has now been translated are not sitting idly as ink on paper or electronic signals flashing through the internet. These sequences are being studied, used to create the same or similar DNA sequences for study and experimentation, and ultimately serving as the basis for everything from new disease-fighting vaccines to improved agricultural species. Like RNA billions of years ago, DNA is now becoming an intermediary, replaced by strings of alphabetical characters in books, on magnetic disk drives, and, ultimately, in the brains of human beings who are themselves the newest of the forces of natural selection. This will become the new "central dogma" of life. For while the near-term applications of human genetic engineering will appear to be clever but limited and minor innovations, they will actually be the first steps in a struggle, not just to restrain and modify, but to replace the classical powers that have always been the sole judges in the competition Darwin called "the survival of the fittest." As the first tentative steps in this process are taken, the Human Genome Project — the task of completely translating all of the DNA in the human cell — nears completion. A new chapter in the future history of life on earth is beginning.

Is this sort of future one that represents a promise, or a threat? The truth is that, as with all innovation, it represents both. After all, how many houses would burn down if we human beings had never "mastered" fire. But how many houses would exist in the first place had we not? Of course we will "master" the new biotechnology and exploit its enormous promise. But it is unreasonable to suppose that we will master it any better than we have mastered fire, or metallurgy, or gunpowder, or nuclear energy. Human mastery of these things will never substitute for our mastering ourselves.

Can you just imagine what all the ordinary RNA-based primitive life forms might have said to the first of their number which harbored DNA as a kind of "master copy" of itself? "Get rid of that! It's dangerous! It will lead to all sorts of horrible things! As if we don't have enough RNA viruses already, next we will have DNA viruses, and who knows what else, perhaps even monstrous multicellular horrors! It may start out serving us but we'll end up serving it!" And so on.

Well what about sociological life? Is the future of human civilization in space as a race of star-faring beings? Will babies be grown in bottles and food come out of matter-duplicating Xerox machines? Will we get "cold fusion" after all, or even tap, as some have suggested, the energy contained in mere empty space? Will we crack the speed of light? Visit other dimensions? Time-travel? After umpty-odd science fiction books and movies it should be difficult for anyone to imagine a future where something like these things is not a commonplace. But, again, let us take a broader view of the future, and let us view it from the distant past.

When the primates who were our remote ancestral predecessors came down from the trees, when the natural selective process began some hundreds of thousands if not millions of years ago that eventually resulted in us, it was very much a matter of "the survival of the fittest" in a natural world "red in tooth and claw" and governed by the Law of the Jungle. And for a long time after that you were either one of the "lives" or the "lives not," depending on how well you were able to get along in the troop — by any means whatsoever — and on your luck.

Since food was perishable and, in any case, there was no place to store it in those "bad old days," it may have been tool use that introduced the notion of property. Tools were also a way that, for the first time, someone could effectively play a part in the survival of others without even being there. I can make you a spear, you see, that allows you to bring down more game. In fact, I can sit back home making spears that will make better hunters of several other people.

But even more important, perhaps, were those who first figured out how best to make the tools, whether spears or plows or whatever it might be. These were the innovators. Perhaps they were the first real communicators as well. For the secrets of tool-making would be short-lived unless those who figured them out were able to convey them to others. These were the pivotal individuals of prehistory. Indeed, they were probably some of the last of our prehistoric ancestors, because these were the innovators who made the dawn of civilization possible. This is probably also about the time that there began to be such a thing as the "haves" and the "have nots."

At one time in Western nations, and it sadly remains true in many nations today, the "haves" and "have nots" referred not just to material wealth but to civil and political liberties as well. There are those who still see this struggle as the principal controversy or issue today. But while there is still much room for progress, it is nevertheless true that probably Solomon in all his reputed biblical glory did not enjoy so many advantages nor live so well as some of the poorest in our own nation today. And even the life led by the homeless in the United States is an incomparable improvement over the existence of a Cro-Magnon some tens of thousands of years ago. And so it is reasonable to ask: what next?

Well, throughout human history, as I have said, those who discovered new and better ways of doing things, or who invented new and improved tools and methods of creating material wealth came to occupied the places of honor among our species. They are those like Archimedes, who built ingenious machines, military leaders like Alexander the Great and the Roman conquerors who founded vast political empires that fostered peace and commerce, scientists like Galileo, Newton, Priestley, Coloumb, Faraday, Mendel, and the avalanche of names of those who found ways to exploit the new discoveries in physics, chemistry, and medicine. Indeed, after Samuel Morse, Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, and Marconi, it is difficult even to keep track of them all.

It may not be unreasonable to suppose that, in the not far-off future, no one, except perhaps the patent office, will be able to keep track of even a tiny fraction of all the innovators and inventors of things large and small. [In all honesty, some of the small things only seem small in comparison. Consider what a "small" thing it was to cut grooves in the inside of a gun barrel to set the bullet spinning and give it better accuracy!] What has caused this technological mushroom cloud, and what is giving rise to it? Human ingenuity, of course. But, more importantly, it is the fact that there are so many more technological bits and pieces for human ingenuity to work with. In addition, whereas in the past all new devices had to be literally hammered and screwed and soldered and wired together, it is possible today to invent a new machine that does what no other machine ever has simply by writing down a set of instructions and telling a machine that someone else has built to do it.

That's what software is. We all quickly tire of the obvious, of course, and it is obvious that computers will be a large part of the future. But we should not focus on a future in which keyboards and CRT displays are ubiquitous as much as on how such a future will affect the human condition. I think that it will eventually, perhaps even very soon, lead to a turning point in human history in which whether you are a "have" or a "have not" will be eclipsed by the importance of whether you are a "think" or a "think not." The future of our species is a future in which, in order to participate and be productive, it will be increasingly necessary to be a problem-solver.

This is clearly an encouraging idea for anyone sympathetic to a religion of thinking as opposed to the many religions of unthinking and unquestioning faith. But a future of this kind will have its challenges as well. The biggest one is that of all those who, for whatever reason, remain among the "think nots." It's going to be difficult, if not impossible, for government programs or charitable organizations to do anything about the future poverty of the mind, even among those who are otherwise untroubled by material wants. You cannot write, nor can anyone else cash, a check for intellectual skills. It is not even possible to educate everyone to some minimal standard because education is not something that you do to people. It's something that people do to themselves. And what if they don't? Does that make them worthless? Do they become the new underclass?

Well, where is history going, anyway? What is going to be the ultimate endpoint — or rather, what is the furthest point that we can imagine — given these inexorable trends? It's nice to suppose that thinking is going to matter more and more in the future, but if we can build thinking machines, as many people are trying to do, how long will it be before even thinking is no longer so critical to material and social success?

In the last century, there were celebrated contests between machines and muscle-power, whether human or animal. Several mythic characters, including John Henry and Paul Bunyan, were said to have tried to best their mechanical counterparts. They lost, of course. Even the abolition of slavery in America, for which politicians claimed credit, was doomed by the Industrial Age more than anything else. But no one even thinks in these terms any more. Who, for example, denigrates the accomplishments of Olympic athletes because we have machines that can go faster, soar higher, and dive deeper than people?

Yet even The New York Times recently editorialized in emotional terms about the significance of the IBM Deep Blue computer's defeat of the grandmasters of chess. Several novels and movies have raised the specter of machines taking over the world, with unhappy results, of course.

Yet when we build machines to do our work, isn't the purpose to be free of such work ourselves? Surely, then, the purpose of our building thinking machines, is to be free of such thinking ourselves. Why the concern about our somehow becoming shapeless unthinking blobs? For the machines that do our work are merely doing the work that exhausts us. And so, likewise, machines built to think for us will be set to do the thinking that we find too tedious, boring, or difficult for us to do. They will free us to think more about thinking itself, and to explore the farthest limits of what thinking can do, just as, in this age of labor-saving machines that replace the muscle-work of human beings, human athletes are nevertheless setting new records of physical achievement.

Now, eventually, we will not even need to think about how to build the machines that will do the thinking that we would rather not be troubled about. There are already efforts underway to create such machines, and to create them in the same way that we were created. Not by design, in other words, but through a process of selective forces acting on populations of machines that are all just a bit different from one another, and repeating the operation on successive generations of the descendants of those selected. Nor will it be necessary to their function for us to know exactly how such machines will do what they do.

And so now we come to the flip side of the cognitive dualism that I referred to earlier. What will the future mean to the subjective human experience, to the human imagination, and to the human spirit?

For the foreseeable future I see no reason to suppose that we will lack for the sort of dissatisfaction with any aspect of the human condition that is, as the saying goes, "the mother of invention." There are enough wars and starvation and poverty to contend with, I think. We will be fully occupied with devising new machines, new organizational structures, new social approaches, and even new politics — we must have new politics — to address the many problems that beset us, including, even, the problem of worrying about things that are not problems. But if the trends of the past continue into the future, if we really can keep from blowing ourselves up and can continue to make scientific and technological progress, then there will be more and more people whose material wants will be more and more satisfied. And so there will be more and more people who will have the time and resources on their hands to figure out what really matters to them.

If we extrapolate this notion out to its furthest point, we might imagine a world in which people are effectively immortal, and whose material wants are restricted only by the physical "Laws of Nature" as they might then be understood. What might such people like to do with their lives?

Well, perhaps they would sate themselves with entertainment. Perhaps they would plug in to the so-called "pleasure centers" of their brains. They might travel, perhaps even to distant galaxies, just for the fun of it. And I feel certain that many people would spend their time thinking, not because they had to, but, again, just for the fun of it. Would this be a decadent way of living? To the sensibilities of some in the present-day, perhaps so. But I think I would very much enjoy living in such a future.

The difficulty that I have is imagining what might come after that. What might come, for example, of somehow wiring together all the people and all the intelligent thinking machines in all the universe in a future as many years from now as it may be, until there were no more questions that could be asked and no more discoveries and insights that could be experienced? Probably it is impossible, if not a logical absurdity. But, if it were possible, and whether or not it were a logical absurdity, perhaps we would have finally created a real god. The challenge then might be that of how not to live down to the reputations of all the other gods that people have ever created. The challenge would be to become something better.

But we can do that right now; here; today. In fact, we must do it. No one else is going to do it for us, though there are many who say they have "the answers." Moreover, unfortunately, we are not yet immortal and so the time is short for us to pay attention to the things that really matter the most. But, for starters, let us resolve that in 1999, and for all the years that any of us have left to us, that we will redouble our efforts to say what we know we should say, do what we know we should do, and be what we know we should be. And not for anyone's sake other than our own. Because we must do what god(s) cannot. That is a prophecy that any Freethinker ought to feel confident in making.

Thank You and Good Morning.

© 1999 Dr. Tim Gorski