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Life Preservers for Mermaids

The new religious sensibility I began to sketch out in last week’s Archdruid Report post is a subtle thing, and easy to misunderstand. It was thus inevitable that a number of commenters over the last week misunderstood it, or what I was saying about it. Typical of this response were those who thought that the new sensibility I was talking about was simply a matter of ecological concern, and pointed to a variety of existing religious and irreligious traditions that embody ecological concern as a way of suggesting that the new sensibility wasn’t anything new.

Just now, the state of the world being what it is, the presence of ecological concern in any tradition of human thought is something to celebrate. Still, the new religious sensibility I have in mind isn’t simply a matter of caring about the environment. It implies certain things about the relation between humanity and the rest of nature, to be sure, and some of these things are radically different from the implications of the older sensibility that’s shaped the religious thought of the western world for the last couple of millennia. Still, it’s possible to care profoundly about the environment from within the old sensibility, and it’s no doubt possible to ignore humanity’s dependence on the natural world from within the new one, though I admit I haven’t yet been able to figure out how.

To grasp what’s actually involved in the new religious sensibility, we can begin with Ugo Bardi’s thoughtful response to my post of two weeks ago, The Next Ten Billion Years. In his post, Bardi noted the difference between those visions of the future that see history as repeating endlessly—the eastern vision, in his phrasing—and those visions, more common in the western world, that see history as passing through a single arc from beginning to end. He pointed out, and correctly, that the distinction between these two visions rests on fundamental presuppositions about existence, and arguments between them end up circling endlessly without resolution because the common understandings that would allow agreement simply aren’t there.

It’s a valid point. Still, our visions don’t fall as cleanly on either side of that line as a casual reading of Bardi’s post might suggest. Both our portrayals of the future incorporate the inevitable death of the Earth’s biosphere due to the steadily increasing heat of the Sun—Bardi used an estimate of when this will take place that differs from the one that guided my narrative, but it’s not as though anyone alive today knows exactly when the thing will happen, and either story could be made to fit the other estimate with a modest change in dates. Both presuppose that the Earth will be changed profoundly by its history and the presence of intelligent life, and that these changes will affect whatever future civilizations may rise on this planet. Bardi’s “good future” ends, for that matter, with a far more dramatic circling around to the beginning than mine did, with his artificial intelligence taking on God’s role in Genesis 1:1 et seq. and saying “Let there be light” to a new creation.

Those parallels aren’t accidental. Partly, of course, they’re a product of the fact that both narratives are set in the same universe, governed by the same facts of stellar, planetary, and biological evolution, and partly they’re a product of the fact that I deliberately modeled my future history on Bardi’s. I could have done so even more exactly, avoiding all references to historical cycles, and my narrative would still have gotten the fascinating split response I fielded last week. The core issue that distinguishes my narrative from Bardi’s isn’t that mine is cyclical while his is linear.  It’s that in his “good future,” history has a direction—the direction of cumulative technological progress toward cyber-godhood—while in his “bad future,” and in my narrative, it has none. 

That’s the fault line that my narrative was intended to demonstrate—or, from the point of view of devout believers in the religion of progress, the sore toe on which it was designed to stomp. Certainly those of my readers who found the narrative infuriating, depressing, or both, zeroed in on that point with commendable precision. To borrow a turn of phrase from one of the more evidently anguished of my readers, if I’m right, we’re stuck on this rock—“this rock” meaning, of course, what those of a different sensibility would call the living Earth in all its vastness and wonder, the unimaginably rich and complex whole system of which Homo sapiens is one small and decidedly temporary part.

It’s interesting to note the wholly abstract nature of that passionate desire to leave “this rock” somewhere back there in the interstellar dust. Neither the reader from whose comment I borrowed that phrase, nor any of the others who expressed similar sentiments, showed any particular concern about the fact that they themselves were unlikely ever to have the chance to board a starship and go zooming off toward infinity. In Bardi’s narrative, for that matter, no human being will ever get that chance. To believers in progress, none of that matters. What matters is that Man, or Life, or Mind, or some other capitalized abstraction—in the traditional folk mythology of progress, the initial capital is what tells you that an abstract concept has suddenly morphed into a mythic hero—is going to do the thing.

To the believer in progress, history must have a direction, and it has to make cumulative progress in that direction. That’s specifically the thing I went out of the way to exclude from my narrative, while including nearly everything else that the mythology of progress normally includes. My portrayal of the future, after all, allots to human civilizations of the future a time span around 2200 times the length of all recorded history to date; it assumes that future human societies will accomplish impressive things that we haven’t—the aerostat towns and floating cities of a million years from now were meant to whet that particular appetite; it even assumes that relics of one of our species’ proudest achievements, the Apollo moon landings, will still be around to impress the stuffing out of a future intelligent species a hundred million years from now. To believers in progress, though, long life, stupendous achievements, and a legacy reaching into the far future aren’t enough; there has to be something more.

We’ll get to the nature of that “something more” later on. For the moment, I want to refocus on just how much time and possibility my narrative allows for human beings. One of the subtle traps hidden in the extraordinary human invention of abstract number is the bad habit of thinking that because we can slap a number on something, we can understand it. We talk about millions of years as though we’re counting apples, and lose track of the fact that “a million years” is a symbolic label for a period that’s quite literally too huge for the human mind to begin to grasp.

A human generation is the average period between when a child is born and when it fathers or bears children of its own. Over the course of most of human history, that’s averaged around twenty years. Those of my readers who have had children, or who have reached or passed the age when having a first child is common, might want to take a moment to think back over that interval in their own lives. There have been just under twelve generations—twelve periods as long as it took you to grow from infancy to adulthood—since the signing of the Declaration of Independence, seventy-seven since the fall of Rome, around two hundred fifty since the beginning of recorded history, and 12,500 or so since Homo sapiens evolved out of its hominid ancestors. By contrast, over the period my narrative allots to the human future, there’s room for 550,000 more—that is, well over half a million further generations of humankind—and most of them will experience the cultural and practical benefits of one or another of the 8,638 global civilizations to come.

The point I’m hoping to make here can be sharpened even further if we imagine that my narrative had included, say, the successful human colonization of Mars, or even the establishment of human colonies on hypothetical Earthlike planets around Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani, during the course of that eleven million year span. In that case, we would have gotten off this rock, and onto a few others, with a few orbital colonies or moonbases thrown in for good measure. Would that have satisfied those of my readers who were angered or depressed by the narrative? To judge by previous experiences, not if those colonies don’t spawn colonies in their turn, and so on out to infinity. To believers in the civil religion of progress, anything short of limitless cumulative extension just won’t cut it.

It’s in this context that the intrusion of religious imagery at the end of Bardi’s narrative is so revealing—yes, it was just as revealing in its original setting, in the Isaac Asimov short story from which Bardi borrowed it. Such things are astonishingly common in progress-centered visions of the future. I’ve talked more than once about the contemporary faith in the Singularity, that supposedly soon-to-arrive event—Ray Kurzweil’s prophecy puts it in 2045—when every detail of modern Protestant Rapture theology is supposed to appear in science-fiction drag, with superhuman artificial intelligences filling the role of Jesus, outer space that of heaven, robot bodies that of the glorified bodies of the elect, and so on through the list. More generally, from Olaf Stapledon right through to the present, attempts to project the curve of progress into the future reliably end up borrowing imagery and ideas from the mythic vocabulary of the western world’s theist religions, and the further they go into the future, the more extensive the borrowings become.

An earlier post in this sequence pointed out that civil religions like the modern faith in progress are derivative from, even parasitic on, the older theist religions that they replace. Partly that’s because theist religions inevitably get there first, and make extensive use of whatever superlatives their culture happens to prefer, so the civil religions that come afterwards end up borrowing images and ideas already shaped by centuries of theology.  I suggest, though, that there’s more to it than that.  Many of the people who dropped Christianity for a belief in the future triumph of science, progress, and human reason in a godless cosmos, for example, still had the emotional needs that were once met by Christianity, and inevitably sought fulfillment of those needs from their new belief system.

Those needs, in turn, aren’t universal to all human beings everywhere; they’re functions of a particular religious sensibility that began to emerge, as I described last week, in the western half of Eurasia around 600 BCE.  That sensibility shaped a variety of older and newly minted religious traditions in at least as diverse a range of ways, but the core theme with which all of them contended was a profound distaste for nature, history, and the human condition, and the conviction that there had to be an escape hatch through which the chosen few could leap straight out of the “black iron prison” of the world, into the infinity and eternity that was supposed to be humankind’s true home.

Exactly where to find the escape hatch and how to get through it was a matter of fierce and constant disagreement. From one perspective, the hatch would only fit one person at a time, and could be passed through by rigorous spiritual discipline. From another, the unique qualities of a prophet or savior had opened the escape hatch wide, so that everyone who embraced the true faith wholeheartedly and kept some set of moral or behavioral precepts could expect to leap through at some point after physical death. From still another, the hatch would someday soon be opened so wide that the whole world and everyone on it would slip through, in an apocalyptic transformation that would abolish nature, history, time and change all at once. Much of the complexity of the last two thousand years or so of Eurasian religious history comes from the fact that devout believers in any faith you care to name embraced each of these options, and blended them together in a dizzying assortment of ways.

As western civilization moved through the same historical transformations as its predecessors, and the rise of rationalism drove the replacement of traditional theist religions with civil religions, the same quest for an escape hatch from nature, history, and the human condition expressed itself in different ways. The discussion of civil religions earlier in this sequence of posts explored some of the ways that civil religions borrowed the rhetoric and imagery of their theist predecessors.

The civil religion of progress was arguably the most successful of all in coopting the forms of older religions. It had an abundance of saints, martyrs, and heroes, and a willingness to twist history to manufacture others as needed; the development of technology, buoyed by a flood of cheap abundant energy from fossil fuels, allowed it to supplant the miracle stories of the older faiths with secular miracles of its own; the rise of scientific and engineering professions with their own passionate subcultures of commitment to the myth of progress gave it the equivalent of a priesthood, complete with ceremonial vestments in the form of the iconic white lab coat; the spread of materialist atheism as the default belief system among most scientists and engineers gave it a dogmatic creed that could be used, and in many circles is being used, as a litmus test for loyalty to the faith and a justification for warfare—so far, at least, merely verbal—against an assortment of unbelievers and heretics.

What the civil religion of progress didn’t have, at least in its early stages, was the escape hatch from nature, history, and the human condition that the religious sensibility of the age demanded. This may well be why belief in progress remained a minority faith for so long. The nationalist religions of the 18th century, of which Americanism is a survivor, and the social religions of the 19th, of which Communism was the last man standing, both managed the trick far earlier—nationalism by calling the faithful to ecstatic identification with the supposedly immortal spirit of the national community and the eternal ideals for which it was believed to stand, such as liberty and justice for all; social religions such as Communism by offering believers the promise of a Utopian world “come the revolution” hovering somewhere in the tantalizingly near future.

It was science fiction that finally provided the civil religion of progress with the necessary promise of salvation from the human condition. The conceptual sleight of hand with which this was done deserves a discussion of its own, and I intend to discuss it in next week’s post. Yet one consistent result of the way it was done has been a reliance on overtly theistic imagery far more open and direct than anything in the other civil religions we’ve discussed. From H.G. Wells’ Men Like Gods straight through to the latest geek-pope pontifications about the Singularity, the idea that humanity will attain some close approximation to godhood, or at least give metaphorical birth to artificial intelligences that will accomplish that feat, pervades the more imaginative end of the literature of progress—just as the less blatantly theological ambition to banish poverty, want, illness, and death from the realm of human experience has played a central role in the rhetoric of progress all along.

There are, as it happens, at least two serious problems with the project of perching humanity on some approximation of a divine throne in heaven. The first, as discussed here at length, is that the project isn’t exactly performing to spec at the moment. Three hundred years of accelerating drawdown of the Earth’s irreplaceable natural resources, and the three hundred years of accelerating damage to the Earth’s biosphere made inevitable by that process, have exempted a rather small fraction of our species from the more serious kinds of poverty and the more readily curable diseases, and handed out an assortment of technological toys that allow them to play at being demigods now and then, when circumstances permit.  As nonrenewable resources run short and the impacts of ecological blowback mount, it’s becoming increasingly clear that only drastic efforts are likely to preserve any of these advantages into the future—and those drastic efforts are not happening.

Talk, as Zen masters are fond of saying, does not cook the rice, and enthusiastic chatter about artificial intelligence and space manufacturing does nothing to keep contemporary industrial society from stumbling down the same ragged trajectory toward history’s compost heap as all those dead civilizations that came before it. If anything, the easy assumption that the onward march of progress is unstoppable, and the artificial intelligences and orbital factories are therefore guaranteed to pop into being in due time, has become one of the major obstacles to constructive action at a time when constructive action is desperately needed. The use of emotionally appealing fantasies as a source of soothing mental pablum for those who, for good reason, are worried about the future is wildly popular these days, to be sure, but it’s hardly helpful.

Yet it’s at this point that the new religious sensibility I discussed in last week’s post throws a wild card into the game. It’s been my repeated experience that for those who already feel the new sensibility, the old promises haven’t just lost their plausibility; they’ve lost their emotional appeal. It’s one thing to proclaim salvation from nature, history, and the human condition to those who want that salvation but no longer believe that the ideology you’re offering can provide it. It’s quite another to do the same thing to people who no longer want the salvation you’re offering—people for whom nature, history, and the human condition aren’t a trap to escape, as they have been for most people in the western world for the last two millennia, but a reality to embrace in delight and wonder.

That’s the unexpected void that’s opening up beneath the feet of civil and theist religions alike at this turn of history’s wheel. In order to appeal to societies in which most people embraced the older religious sensibility, with its desperate craving for escape from the world of ordinary experience, religious traditions of both kinds have come to picture their role as that of lifeguards throwing life preservers to clumsy swimmers at risk of drowning in the waters of existence. What are they to do when a growing number of the swimmers in question ignore the flotation devices and, diving back into the depths of the water, show mermaid’s tails?

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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