Some Thoughts & Commentary
Typically, much of our life is taken up with the pragmatic issues of the everyday world. Even so, most of us will occasionally come to reflect on the more profound purpose of our existence. As the years pass, the cycle of life and death becomes increasingly real to us and we have to face up to the idea of our own non-existence, which can be a disconcerting thought for many. While the terms ‘non-existence’ may seem a strange choice of words, it is used deliberately because it may better convey the potential finality at the end of life.
But is the idea of non-existence really the central concern?
In many respects, it is possible that the main issue of concern is our desire for there to be some purpose to existence, i.e. both our own and the wider universe. For many, the idea of the universe, and the life within it, evolving without purpose can appear profoundly depressing. If there is an element of truth in this position, it may explain the development of so many different worldviews, which have come to bias the way we describe the nature of existence. For example, we might characterise the purpose of existence within a range of conceptual worldviews as follows:
1. Purpose is a result of
This position assumes that any purpose within the universe must results from the laws of physics. As such, it might imply the purpose of our own existence is merely a transitory by-product of mechanical laws. Of course, many reject this position on the grounds that it provides no real explanation of the complexity of life and seemingly requires the universe to begin as an ‘effect without a cause’ .
2. Purpose is a result of
As an alternative, you may prefer the universe, and the life within it, to be the result of some intelligent design, e.g. God. However, this position can then imply that the purpose of our existence be constrained within some preordained design and, on the scale of any universal design, may not have any significance worth mentioning.
3. Purpose is subject to
Finally, irrespective of its cause, the evidence suggests that the universe, and the life within it, has been subject to constant evolutionary change. So while life may have begun with only one simple purpose, i.e. survival, the evolution of life towards conscious self-awareness has also allowed the purpose of our existence to evolve.
Let us, for the purposes of this discussion, label option-1 as a ‘non-believer’ worldview, while labelling option-2 as a ‘believer’ worldview. While both these options aspire to explain the ‘true’ nature of the universe, one lacks sufficient evidence, while the other requires a leap of faith. My own ‘agnostic’ position is reflected in option-3, which rejects the certainty of any fundamentalist position, i.e. both non-believer and believer, in preference of an on-going examination of the observable evidence of evolution. Within this option, the issue of the ultimate nature of the universe remains unknown, while the issue of life after death extends beyond any known means to verify. On this basis, it is argued that the only pragmatic option left open to us is to take responsibility for our own existence and reflect on the fact that our on-going evolutionary survival requires us to continuously adapt to changes in our universe. As such, we must look at the fact as they are, not as we would like them to be:
A fundamentalist is a person who
considers whether a fact is acceptable to their belief before they explore
So, in a way, this website has come to represent a personal quest to try to better understand the world and the larger universe in which it exists. Of course, like all such ‘grandiose’ quests, it was possibly doomed to fail from the outset, as a ‘true’ understanding of such matters may continue to be an elusive goal beyond the reach of mere mortal man. However, this does not mean that the journey itself was in vain, for simply gaining some perspective and understanding of the issues adds purpose to life, at least to mine.
But why do facts become so subjective within different worldviews?
While we all inhabit a single world and glaze at the universe with a common set of physiological senses, there appears to be no common consensus about what we see. In part, this may be due to the fact that 'what we see’ is not a true picture, i.e. analogous to a photograph, but rather a subjective construct within each and every mind. In this respect each and every worldview is subject to both mis-information and mis-understanding, such that it is both fallible and incomplete. In the past, our personal worldview was anchored in a shared and common understanding of physical survival, which allowed little scope for abstracted debate. However, over time, the survival worldview was replaced by a collective ‘worldview’ that was more reflective of some given culture defined by time and place. If so, we possibly need to ask ourselves another question:
To what extent has our worldview abstracted physical reality?
In the modern world, few of us grow our own food and most of us prefer not to think about the millions of animals that are bred and led to slaughter ever year in order to feed a growing global population. In this respect, and many others, it may be argued that we now have an abstracted perception of the physical world, based on the last 10,000 years of cultural development. On the other hand, evolutionary genetics would suggest that humanity is still much the same has it was at the outset of the process of civilisation. As such, we may still have to reflect on the old adage that we are only ‘four meals away from anarchy’ to realise that the veneer of modern civilisation may be much thinner that we might like to imagine. The reason for raising the dichotomy between our abstract worldview and the underlying physical reality of the world is that it leads to a key question that future generations will need to consider:
How important is it for your worldview to remain anchored in truth?
The apparent simplicity of this question belies the scope of its implications; for it questions humanities need to believe in things that the physical world does not necessarily support. For a retrospective review of history suggests that some, if not all, worldviews have been based on false assumptions, as all knowledge is fallible or, at least, subject to correction.
So while some fundamentalists may cite the infallibility of the word of God in support of their specific worldview, history, science and the human condition would appear to cast serious doubts on such claims. This position is not a rejection of all belief systems, for to do so would be to misunderstand the underlying nature of humanity and the emotional necessity for some to believe in a higher purpose. However, there is an inherent danger in a belief that disconnects itself from any physical evidence, which this website has often expressed in the words of William Clifford:
`it is wrong always, everywhere,
and for anyone,
to believe anything on insufficient evidence `
While this statement itself may be seen as an abstracted intellectual goal, divorced from the day-to-day needs of mainstream humanity, it has been argued that Clifford’s essay ‘The Ethics of Belief’ still has validity, otherwise future decisions will be based on false assumptions. To quote:
"The danger to society is
not merely that it should believe wrong things, though that is great
enough; but that it should become credulous, and lose the habit of testing
things and inquiring into them, for then it must sink back into savagery.
It may matter little to me, in my cloud-castle of sweet illusions and
darling lies; but it matters much to Man that I have made my neighbours
ready to deceive. The credulous man is father to the liar and the cheat."
However, this quote is not only being directed towards religious belief, for it may equally be said to question the current belief in science. For example, just over 100 years ago, Lord Kelvin stated that:
"There is nothing
new to be discovered in physics now.
All that remains is more and more precise measurement."
With hindsight, we now realise that the last 100 years has essentially re-written the scientific description of physical reality in terms special and general relativity followed by quantum mechanics and quantum field theory.
“Doubt is not a pleasant
but certainty is absurd.”
Based on the assumptions of these theories, many still essentially unproven, the science of cosmology now appears to talk with the same confidence as Lord Kelvin about a sequence of events in the very first microseconds of the creation of the universe. Equally, this confidence also appears to extend to the current description of the micro-structure of the atom or the macro-structure of the universe, which implies a distance-scale spanning some 40 orders of magnitudes and a time-scale extending some 13.7 billion years into the past and possibly trillions of years into the future.
So are we really on our way to becoming ‘masters of our own universe’?
While it is clear that modern technology has transformed the perception of our world, it is possible that the future of humanity is still precarious, both in terms of stability and direction. For despite the apparent confidence of science to describe the wider universe in ever greater detail, the more practical issue of socio-political stability now appears to be increasingly undermined by issues of cultural identity, religious divides and climate change, all possibly resulting from the an ever-increasing growth in the global population.
This question needs to be considered from several different perspectives. However, as a general outline of the scope of issues involved, it would seem that it is part of human nature to want to ‘procreate’, where until quite recently the only control imposed was defined in terms of an appalling high childhood mortality rate. However, history and statistics suggest that as the global population started to double in exponentially shorter periods of time, especially since the start of the 20th century, it was reflected in a corresponding fall in the childhood mortality rates around the world.
Note: For record, the idea of higher children mortality as a mechanism for population control is immoral by any definition. As such, the management of the global population has be achieved by other means.
Today, the global population is fast approaching 7 billion and generally projected to be in the order of 9-10 billion by 2050, possibly peaking to 15 billion by 2100. While the ecology of planet Earth already appears to be under threat, even with current population levels, it might be possible for further efficiencies, brought about by technology developments, to support a doubling of the global population. However, this optimism ignores the 50 fold variation in resource usage between the top 1% in comparison to the bottom 1% of the global population. Should the bottom 50% of the global population aspire to use just half of the resources of the top 1%, this could equate to a 10-20 fold increase in resource usage, even if the population remained static. While technology undoubtedly has the potential to help support a larger population, it is far from certain that it could support such a large increase in resource usage without inflicting even more environment damage.
Note: Today, based primarily on the uneven distribution of resources, e.g. food, clean water and basic health care, some 21,000 children still die every day around the world. This equates to over 7.5 million child deaths per year. While morally it is unacceptable to let children die due to a lack of basic resources, this problem cannot be seen in isolation from the larger issues associated with the overall global population and resource usage required per person.
While it is obviously too simplistic to suggest that an increasing global population and increasing demand for resources are the root of all evil in the world today, it is probably not so much of an exaggeration to say that they underpin many of them, e.g.
- Urban sprawl is destroying millions of acres of farmland.
- Over 1 billion people do not have enough food or safe drinking water.
- Increased demand for resources is leading to increased deforestation.
- Traditional energy sources are becoming scarcer and more expensive.
- Current use of traditional energy sources exacerbates global warming.
- Global warming is now threatening the entire global ecosystem.
- Environmental change is threatening to displace millions of people.
- Growing resource demands increases competitive tension between nations.
As suggested, technology may be able to provide some relief for the problems cited, but it is unclear that is capable of solving these problems without some form of population control. However, as outlined, even if the population was stabilised today, the gross discrepancy between the resource usage of the richest and poorest nations could still lead to resource demands that cannot be met. If this is the case, the problems stemming from the current, let alone an increased, global population will not be solved by simply handing out free condoms or providing sex education and family planning advice.
So what is the scope for wider socio-political solutions?
As a starting point in trying to address some of the many issues implied by the question above, it is suggested that the reader considers the arguments of Hans Rosling in one of his many video presentations on global population, which can be found by searching the web. Within these presentations, Hans Rosling addresses the change in population demographics in terms of the rich and poor, which has led to lower childhood mortality rates. Rosling’s presentations also explain how the transition from ‘poor country’ to ‘developing country’ not only changes the mortality rates, but also the birth rates, which then suggests an eventual stabilisation of the global population at some point in the future. However, while Rosling declares himself to be a ‘possibilist’, as opposed to an optimist or pessimist, it might be argued that Rosling’s presentations are inherently optimistic because his statistics appear to be based on legacy data from the last 50 years or more. As such, the results ending in today’s world are based on an economic growth model that has also resulted in the crisis of global warming and growing resource shortages. Therefore, it is unclear whether Rosling’s positive projection can be extrapolated into the next century, where the global population may double and the demand for resources could increase 20 fold. We might also have to consider the changes in the global age demographics, especially in the developed world.
As the diagram suggests, an increasing life expectancy will change the number of people over 60. As a result, the number of people of working age will decline as a proportion of the total population. The social and economic implications of such change may be profound in terms of increasing health care cost and the ability of the state to support its various pensions schemes, which are often funded by the next generation. With 360 million older workers set to leave the global workforce by 2050, the burden of supporting the ever-expanding ranks of retirees will put the working population under increasing strain in many countries. In others, a growing population will need to be fed, housed, educated and employed in order to sustain growth and cohesion. Within the changing demographics being driven by life expectancy and population growth, the additional issue of employment, or more specifically unemployment, also needs to be considered.
As the leading economy of the world over the last 50 years or so, America may be seen as a trend model for many future economies around the world. In the diagram above, it might be suggested that only ‘manufacturing’ and ‘agriculture’ represent wealth generating sectors, while the ‘services’ and ‘government’ sectors primarily represent cost centres required to support an growing, fractious and aging population. In an article for ‘The Economist’ , David Graeber, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics stated:
“…much of modern labour consists of stultifying ‘bullshit jobs’, e.g. low and mid-level screen-sitting that serves simply to occupy workers for whom the economy no longer has much use. Keeping them employed is not an economic choice; it is something the ruling class does to keep control over the lives of others.”
The article then goes on to state:
“…drudgery may soon enough give way to frank unemployment. There is already a long-term trend towards lower levels of employment in some rich countries. The proportion of American adults participating in the labour force recently hit its lowest level since 1978, and although some of that is due to the effects of ageing, some is not. In a recent speech that was modelled in part on Keynes’s ‘Possibilities’, Larry Summers, a former American treasury secretary, looked at employment trends among American men between 25 and 54. In the 1960s only 1 in 20 of those men was not working. According to Mr Summers’s extrapolations, in 10 years the number could be 1 in 7.”
However, almost by way of contradiction, many economies in the developed world are now battling to maintain the growth of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) figures as the ‘indigenous’ birth rates fall. In a recent census, Germany discovered it had lost 1.5 million inhabitants, which by 2060, could see the country shrink by an additional 19% to about 66 million. Apparently, a similar future awaits other European countries and the issue may grow even more pressing if Europe’s economic troubles accelerate this decline, possibly compounded by the on-going problems associated with bank liquidity, dwindling budgets and pension fund deficits. While this discussion has only outlined some of the potential issues, there is the suggestion that an increasing population and even greater demand for resources could cause profound socio-political problems, which may only be exacerbated by the increasing uptake of technology automation across all employment sectors.
Can a democratic government really instigate the necessarily change?
Without necessarily going into any details, we might like to consider two example issues, which we might expect our government to manage on our behalf. First, we might reflect back on the recent economic crisis of 2008 and ask whether the government regulation of the banks was adequate in light of the cost to mainstream society and whether any significant long-term reform has now taken place. For embedded in this issue is the practical question as to where political power really lies, i.e. is it the majority, as defined by the people, or a minority, as defined by money and institutions? While we shall simply table this question, you may wish to reflect on the following diagram, which suggests that the rich are getting richer, while the poor only get poorer in comparison.
The second issue for consideration is global warming, i.e. is it real and what should be done about it. In part, the two issues selected as basic examples of a government’s ability to initiate long-term action are closely inter-related. While the effects of global warming was once a key topic of political debate, the 2008 economic crisis appears to have dramatically changed its priority on most political to-do lists. This assessment is recently supported by Doug Miller, the Chairman of GlobeScan in the following statement:
“Evidence of environmental damage is stronger than ever, but our data shows that economic crisis and a lack of political leadership mean that the public are starting to tune out”
As a result, fewer people now consider air pollution, animal species loss and fresh water shortages to be such serious problems than at any time in the last 20 years. Likewise, fears over global warming are now significantly lower than they were between 2003 and 2008, with less than one person in every two regarding it as a very serious issue. As stated, the intention is not to debate these issues, but simply use them as an indicator of the priority of our governments and their ability to initiate significant change, especially in the face of powerful and wealthy interest groups.
So what will really be done about population growth?
Issues like the global economic crisis, global warming and global population growth are problematic for any national government because they require a global solution. Often a solution will imply a disproportionate economic cost for some specific group or nation, which is not shared, although it may affect its long-term competitiveness. Sometimes, a government’s hold on power will be jeopardised when ‘the people’ will not support any further fall in their living standards or, alternatively, results in the withdrawl of influential support from some powerful interest group. In the specific case of population growth, political discussion can quickly become a matter of ‘taboo’ if powerful religious institutions are driven by doctrine to oppose any control on birth rates when interpreted as contradicting God’s will. As a result, many democratic governments end up having very limited scope, or incentive, to take action on long term issues, i.e. beyond the next election.
So does this mean that no action will be taken?
In practice, limited action will probably have some success in addressing aspects of the global problems outlined, although political and religious conflicts could still destabilise many areas of the worlds. In addition, the balance of power between the western and eastern economies appears destined for further change, which may then further destabilise world markets, especially in terms of the demand for resources. Such demands will probably cause resource prices to rise, which may become a prohibitive barrier for some poorer countries. Likewise, the increase in the demand for resources may not offer any obvious hope for any closing of the gap between the ‘haves and have nots’. It is also probable that competitive pressures may lead to further conflicts over territory, especially where important natural resources are involved. However, some aspects of Hans Rosling’s analysis may continue to see some countries climb out of poverty, although many of these countries may remain extremely vulnerable to a down-turn of fortunes in the developed world. On a slightly more positive note, technology developments could have a profound effect on the efficiency of food production, especially in battling the effects of climate change. However, while technology may eventually allow the farming of oceans and the mining of resources in the world’s most hostile environments, such developments may also have further unforeseen, or ignored, consequence on the global environment.
So what other predictions might be made?
While the various socio-political models of today’s world may continue to survive for some considerable time, in evolutionary terms, it is difficult to see how global stability can be maintained long-term without radical change - see Growing Storm. Of course, if nothing is done, there is another global model that may still return to transcend all our abstracted worldviews and institutions. It is called ‘survival of the fittest’ and it is both brutal and without compassion. None the less, it is known to be very effective in addressing excessive population growth across the entire animal kingdom. Whether humanity can claim to have fully transcended the definition of an animal may well depend on what responsibility, and action, it is prepared to accept for its own future evolution, i.e. natural or man-made. Clearly, based on what has been predicted elsewhere within this website, technology in the form of AI and genetic modification could come to profoundly change the world, especially if humanity is forced to adapt to even more radical change. Again, while we who are products of today’s world may perceive the implications of such predictions as something to be avoided at all cost, it is unclear whether the possible inhabitants of some future world will not look back at us as being something closer to Neanderthals. If this is the case, then we may only be able to wish them well.
far as we can discern,
the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle
a light in the darkness of mere being.