What is ancient futurism?

If you do not know where you came from, how can you know where you are going? If you start in a direction not knowing where you came from, you might end up just going the way you came.

It is for this reason that knowing the past matters. In order to be a futurist, you must also be interested in the past. A futurist studies and predicts the future. My earliest interest in futurology was spurred on by an interest in space exploration and colonization. Beyond our atmosphere, with countless stars and planets, the universe seemed brimming with endless possibilities. I was inspired by visions of space colonization and the idea that our species could find its better self in the stars. Surely the self-sacrifice, courage, and shear drive required of space exploration would require us to become better through colonization the universe, or so I appeared to believe.

I am still an advocate of space exploration and I think we may be able to create a human presence beyond Earth someday, but my view of the future has become more sophisticated since that time.

This optimistic vision of humans travelling the stars got me interested in how we could create a better future using science and technology. Since then. I have also become interested in how other technologies can participate in the same. Artificial intelligence, biotechnology, and techno-capitalism all have the capacity to eliminate disease, poverty, and other forms of suffering. On the other hand, they also can contribute to these problems. That is the nature of technology. It can be used for both good and evil. Technology can be used to eradicate smallpox or for biological warfare. Nuclear technology can be used to power cities, or it can be used to blast millions of people out of existence.

Science and technology, despite their capacity to do good, have also been culprits in the environmental destruction and political as well as social destabilization that has affected our world. Technological utopianism did no foresee how things could go wrong. Science and technology have done good things but seem insufficient by themselves to create the world we want. Is there something that we have missed?

I once saw a sign which said, “science can teach you how to resurrect a dinosaur. The humanities can tell you why that might be a bad idea.”

I think this reflects the relation between science and fields such as ethics and philosophy. Science and technology can allow us to do many things, but they don’t tell us whether or why we should do them. Mass production, for example, has created an abundance unimaginable in previous centuries. It allows the wealthy to consume with very little restriction compared to the ancient world, but is it actually good for us to consume without constraint? In order for science and technology to do good, they must have some sort of moral direction. What we do with science and technology quite clearly is determined by what we consider to be the ultimate purpose of technology

We could say that the purpose of technology is to benefit humanity, but what does it mean to benefit humanity? What benefit does humanity gain from technology?

It should be clarified that human nature cannot be entirely separated from technology. We are an inherently technological species and technology is simply the way that we adapt to our environment.

The current age has been marked by a drastic increase in physical well-being. Diseases like polio and smallpox which once endangered our species have been eradicated. Billions have also been lifted out of extreme poverty. In the United States and Western Europe, at least, famine is largely a memory. Advancements in technology in the last century have done extraordinary things, but something seems to be missing. The most technologically advanced nations also have high suicide rates and an epidemic of loneliness and depression. Furthermore, technological advancements have also brought a lot of harm to the well-being of both human and non-human life through environmental destruction and global climate change.

Why is this golden age of living standards accompanied by such social and psychological malaise? The reason is most likely based on a materialistic anthropology which only considers the material dimensions of humanity without considering the spiritual side of human nature. Humans “do not live by bread alone.” There is more to humanity than just material needs. This is where the term ancient becomes important. Although the ancients didn’t know as much about the natural world, they knew that there was more to human nature than material abundance. This wisdom is reflected in all traditional cultures and world religions. Since I most familiar with the western Christian tradition, however, I will refer to it for examples of this ancient wisdom.

The ancient Greeks and the early Church Fathers both talked about what it meant to be truly human. They believed that living a truly human life necessitated living out certain habits or virtues. Ancient Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, for example, talked about the four cardinal virtues, wisdom, justice, self-control, and courage. They believed that living out these virtues required being rational and controlling your emotions and desires. Our desires can be dangerous if left unchecked. If we cannot control our emotions, we are not emotionally healthy. If you cannot control a desire or habit, you have an addiction, which does not lead to true happiness.

Saint Paul the Apostle added three more and they were elaborated on by later Church Fathers and Medieval theologians: faith, hope, and love. They also believed that while reason was essential to these virtues, something beyond human reason alone was also required to live out these virtues since they require people to act in a way that contradicts human nature. The entity that would enable humanity to live out these virtues, they believed, was the Holy Spirit.

While modern science has revealed the fact that we physically share common ancestry with great apes and that our bodies are essentially biological machines, these ancient philosophers and theologians discovered another dimension of human nature. We are not just biological or cultural beings, we are also spiritual beings who are to conform to a moral order based not on physics or chemistry, but on a higher law. There is a way that humans are meant to live which will allow them to flourish that can only be partially determined by science.

We may be naked apes, but we are more than just naked apes. Humans also need a place to belong and a sense that they are valued and wanted. Humans need love. Humans also need something to live for, something for which to wake up in the morning, in other words, hope. Hope and love must be grounded in faith, because without belief in a reason for hope and love, those other virtues will be impossible.

Now I should define what I mean by love, hope, and faith. Love in this case does not refer to sentiment but selfless compassion. It means to selflessly look out for the well-being of the other even if it is at your own expense. Love is not about feelings. It is about action. Hope refers not wishful thinking, but to a well-grounded belief based on reason and experience.

Faith is believing in something that you cannot know through reason and experience because you believe that the source is trustworthy. If you are about to go into surgery, you may not know exactly what the surgeon is doing but you believe him when he says you will make it out alive because he is a trustworthy source. You may not have any direct evidence that you will come out of the surgery alive, but (most likely) you can trust the surgeon enough that you believe that you will based on your knowledge of the surgeon’s expertise and experience.

You should not have faith in just anything. If there was a reason to believe that the surgeon was not trustworthy, say he did not have proper training, you should probably not trust him and having faith in his word would be foolish.

Now if we have faith, what should be object of faith? I believe in the Christian God, and my understanding of God is very theologically traditional, but even if you have trouble believing in that God, having faith in God is still important. Scientific research shows that even if you don’t believe in a personal God, there are health benefits from prayer and participation in religion. Humans have a longing for the transcendent, the volunteer who goes to an impoverished country to work for the peace corps for three years, the socialist activist who dreams of creating a society without wealth inequality or oppression of lower classes, or the missionary who goes to another country to tell others the truth she believes that she has found, humans want to go beyond themselves and be taken up into a greater reality. The Christian writer C.S. Lewis once argued that this desire is ultimately a desire for God.  Whatever your belief is about God at the moment, God is the source of all reality, goodness, hope, and love, so what humans ultimately need is God.

Thus, what humans need most is hope and love. The use of technology should then reflect love for the other and hope of a better world. If these are not there, we will be left with dystopian scenarios like Brave New World where humans are reduced to cogs in the machine to just be kept “happy” so that the state can continue running. Scientific research and technological innovation should ultimately be driven by love, to not just enable the physical well-being of others but also their emotional and spiritual well-being. Technology also needs to ensure that human beings have a purpose to live for and connection to community and to a greater, transcendent reality, the exact nature of which is a topic for a different article.

If we are to create a better future, we need to ensure a future in which humans and other life-forms can flourish along all dimensions, physical, social, emotional, and spiritual. If we focus only on the material aspects of human nature but miss the emotional and spiritual, we will end up with a world in which we cannot be fully human. We will just be living hand to mouth. We must combine the insights of ancient philosophers and theologians with the insights of modern science to create a better world. It is for this reason that I am an ancient futurist. I want to create an ancient-future world which combines the best of the old and the new.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s