This post is being expanded. Last edit: 11/9/18
“The only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation.”
– Bertrand Russell
Whether it be a cell or a civilization, the existence of every living system¹ depends on the coordination of its components. As the survival of the body depends on trillions of cells, the survival of the human species will require the cooperation of several billion minds.³ In the words of Jesus Christ and Abraham Lincoln, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” Even with the smartest technology and the most innovative thinkers, our civilization will fall if it fails to realize this truth. But how on Earth do we get seven billion people to work together?
¹In this discussion, the word “system” is used in both physical and mental contexts. I will discuss mental systems in the next post; here it is used in the context of a physical system: an assembly of interacting components that forms one or more causal relationships between its inputs and outputs. “Inputs” describe the matter and energy that is transferred into a physical system, and “outputs” are the matter and energy transferred out. To give a simple example, consider the system of a coffee maker. Its inputs consist of the matter (water, fresh grounds) and energy (electricity) that go in, and the outputs are the matter (coffee, used grounds) and energy (heat) that come out. The “causal relationships” of a system describe the internal processes by which its inputs become outputs (the operations of the coffee maker).
In college, I was told that everything in the Universe, from galaxies to atoms to cells, could be seen as a physical system, a relationship between inputs and outputs—causes and effects—that can be described by some mathematical function. Science seems to suggest that any event in our universe, be it a collision of stars or a firing of neurons, involves an exchange of matter and energy within or between systems.
I define “living system” as a system whose perpetuation is necessarily dependent on the perpetuation of biological organisms, whether it be a virus in a cell, a tissue in a body, or the ecological cycling of matter and energy throughout our biosphere. Please note that I don’t use the word “living” as a synonym for “biological.” Rather, living systems must involve, but are not limited to, biological life. Most scientists don’t consider a virus to be biologically alive, and none of them consider a whole species to be an organism. But just because a civilization or its biosphere are not necessarily “alive” or “self-perpetuating” in a biological sense does not preclude such an analogy from being useful for the preservation of our species. Should we persist as living beings, then perhaps we should behave as one. Throughout my philosophy, I will justify my use of this analogy and my belief that it may be more than just a useful analogy—it may define a necessary reality.
“A new consciousness is developing which sees the earth as a single organism and recognizes that an organism at war with itself is doomed. We are one planet.” – Carl Sagan
“Only justice, fairness, consideration and cooperation can lead men to the dawn of eternal peace.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower
Presently, our world is run largely by politicians, financiers and other figures, many of whom exhibit traits of sociopathy and narcissism. Power seems to be held by those who manipulate society without much regard for its citizens. But while they may fail to see the benefit of amity, they are surely in the minority. And though they stand at the top of society, it is innovation that feeds the roots of every industry, and science that upholds every facet of our civilization. Clearly, the true potential of our species remains not with the short-sighted ends of the selfish, but with the thinkers who work for the broader visions of humanity. Should there be an ideological revolution, a global cooperation, then it must begin with those who are capable of embracing a cosmic perspective.
“For peace to reign on Earth, humans must evolve into new beings who have learned to see the whole first.” – Immanuel Kant
Carl Sagan: “Once we overcome our fear of being tiny, we find ourselves on the threshold of a vast and awesome Universe that utterly dwarfs the tidy anthropocentric proscenium of our ancestors. We gaze across billions of light-years of space to view the Universe shortly after the Big Bang, and plumb the fine structure of matter. We peer down into the core of our planet, and the blazing interior of our star. We read the genetic language in which is written the diverse skills and propensities of every being on Earth. We uncover hidden chapters in the record of our origins, and with some anguish better understand our nature and prospects…
…We invent and refine agriculture, without which almost all of us would starve to death. We create medicines and vaccines that save the lives of billions. We communicate at the speed of light, and whip around the Earth in an hour and a half. We have sent dozens of ships to more than seventy worlds, and four spacecraft to the stars. We are right to rejoice in our accomplishments, to be proud that our species has been able to see so far, and to judge our merit in part by the very science that has so deflated our pretensions…
…[But] the sword of science is double-edged. Its awesome power forces on all of us, including politicians, a new responsibility—more attention to long-term consequences, a global and trans-generational perspective, an incentive to avoid easy appeals to nationalism and chauvinism. Mistakes are becoming too expensive.”
“We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.” – Carl Sagan
We exist at a peculiar moment in the time of our species. As I update this post in the year 2018, the LIGO gravitational wave detector has recently recorded its 10th black hole collision, and the scientific community is denouncing the naive attempt of the world’s first gene-edited baby. The United Nations has just issued another report on the impending collapse of Earth’s ecosystems, and the actions needed to prevent the worst of what’s to come.
“We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.” – Roy Amara, cofounder of the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, California
While some of us dream of colonizing Mars or achieving artificial intelligence (AI) supremacy, others claim that the Earth is flat or that homosexuals cause hurricanes. Sure, we’ve always had a diversity of ideologies, but never have we seen such a divide between our awareness and our ignorance. Just as we begin to discover our capacity for growth and exploration, we find ourselves on the verge of self-destruction. If humanity is to survive, then we must mobilize the intellectual community to take its place as the head of the human system. We need an agreement among the thinkers who will ultimately guide the future of our species.
The Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland is the world’s largest machine, built in collaboration with over 10,000 scientists and engineers from more than 100 countries.
“Science is international but its success is based on institutions, which are owned by nations. If we wish to promote culture, we have to combine and organize institutions with our own power and means.” – Albert Einstein
The ALMA array in Chile is the world’s most complex telescope and largest astronomical project, built in collaboration with the scientific communities of Asia, Europe and North America. Photo by ESO/José Francisco Salgado.
“Science knows no country, because knowledge belongs to humanity, and is the torch which illuminates the world.” – Louis Pasteur
There is no foreseeable end to the progression of the human mind and the evolution of its intellect. The growth of our knowledge is accelerating. We predict cosmic and quantum phenomena with increasing precision, and manipulate the laws of nature in ways that are inconceivable to the ordinary mind. We expect to find and spread life beyond Earth within a few centuries. We will soon have the ability to edit our own genes, and to guide our own evolution. And we will soon create machines more powerful—minds more intelligent—than ourselves. We dream of colonizing the galaxy, and of discovering the truth about our origins.
“If humanity is to survive, then we must mobilize the intellectual community to take its place as the head of the human system. We need an agreement among the thinkers who will ultimately guide the future of our species.” For this reason, my argument is directed towards an academic audience. But these ideas are meant to give everyone a sense of purpose and a reason to hope—you don’t have to be very smart to understand this discussion. The following is meant to make you think outside the box, but the argument I present is conceptually simple and, for many readers, fairly intuitive. And if you’re anything like me, then you might find this idea to be deeply satisfying on both an intellectual and emotional level.
And regarding our moral progress, it seems very much bound to our intellectual progress. In fact, the Enlightenment ideals of liberty and equality were born largely from the critical reasoning advanced by the Scientific Revolution. Together, these movements formed the moral and intellectual foundations of Western Civilization. But now we see a growing divide between the two as reason threatens to weaken the ethical constructs of modern democracy: what is liberty when science says free will isn’t real? And what is equality when nearly nothing about us is equal? With the ease of data collection and mass manipulation, and with foreseeable advances in machine learning and gene editing, the answers to these questions are urgent. Human progress now requires an ideological framework that grounds our morals and aligns our values. We need a set of principles that makes practical use of the compassion and altruism potentiated by every major faith. We need a movement that stirs both the cold intellectual and the Good Samaritan. But unlike other spiritual¹ awakenings, this one must begin with the rational mind.
“I believe, indeed, that overemphasis on the purely intellectual attitude has led directly to the impairment of ethical values. Without ethical culture, there is no salvation for humanity”…”A new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels.” – Albert Einstein
¹The word “spiritual” can mean different things to different people. As neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris writes in his book, Waking Up (2014), “Scientists generally start with an impoverished view of spiritual experience, assuming that it must be a grandiose way of describing ordinary states of mind—parental love, artistic inspiration, awe at the beauty of the night sky…Many atheists consider all talk of spirituality to be a sign of mental illness, conscious imposture, or self-deception.” But he argues that “the landscape of human experience includes deeply transformative insights about the nature of one’s own consciousness,” and that many of these insights “confirm some well-established truths about the human mind: Our conventional sense of self is an illusion; positive emotions, such as compassion and patience, are teachable skills; and the way we think directly influences our experience of the world…” While he is referring to the benefits of meditation and mindfulness, I reason that the spiritual inclinations of the mind allow for more than just a momentary grasp of these insights or a brief escape from the burdens of consciousness. In the following discussions, I will show how human nature might allow for a different type of enlightenment.