Googling the Future

[Available in PDF format here.]

It has been a long two weeks. They began with me reading a speech that Pope Francis addressed to the European Parliament on November 25, 2014. After reminding his audience of the multiple ways in which realities in Europe have fallen short of ideals, he ends with this:

The time has come to work together in building a Europe which revolves not around the economy, but around the sacredness of the human person, around inalienable values.  In building a Europe which courageously embraces its past and confidently looks to its future in order fully to experience the hope of its present.  The time has come for us to abandon the idea of a Europe which is fearful and self-absorbed, in order to revive and encourage a Europe of leadership, a repository of science, art, music, human values and faith as well.  A Europe which contemplates the heavens and pursues lofty ideals.  A Europe which cares for, defends and protects man, every man and woman.  A Europe which bestrides the earth surely and securely, a precious point of reference for all humanity!”

[If you have not read it, you may find the whole speech at: http://en.radiovaticana.va/news/2014/11/25/pope_francis_address_to_european_parliament/1112318 ]

Pope Francis focused on Europe, as one would expect of an address to elected EU officials. But with an exception here and there (not everyone is fearful and self-absorbed, for example), one could replace his references to Europe and its history with others that would apply to America, to China, to Russia, and so on. He is talking about the state of most of the world. And what he says about it strikes me as absolutely on point.

I also admire the man’s courage in calling a spade a spade: not only in Europe, but elsewhere, respect for human dignity often takes a backseat to more dominant concerns – to economics, societal manageability, and self-seeking, to name only the most obvious. In the face of its chronic obfuscation in common discourse and political rhetoric, that fact needs stating clearly by a public figure whose motives are not easily impugned as partisan.

At the same time, however, it is not exactly an unknown truth, or a new one, for that matter. One grows tired of hearing it repeated because there appears to be nothing that can be done to change it. In other words, I can’t help wondering how Pope Francis envisages its coming about that we will actually start to work together to build that world in which the realities on the ground match our professed ideals. He seems to believe that all it takes is good will. His speech aims at inspiring it. And perhaps that was the best he could do under the circumstances. But much as I resonate to what he says, I am not sure that I share his faith in the power of good will.

Were the state of the human world the result of an absence of good will, then it would make sense to look to good will to repair or improve it. But to the extent that it leaves much to be desired, I see the state of our world as the sum total of the unintended and unanticipated side effects of our creativity. Though not always, that creativity been animated by good will. The European Union, for instance, originated in an extraordinary feat of statesmanship that united a continent of nation states that until then had been almost constantly at war with one another. Its effects include the peace with which Europe has been blessed since then. And in addition to the economic benefits hoped for, that was also the original intention. But the effects, unanticipated, also include the situation in Europe today: a sluggish continental economy, ineffectual administrative structures, and growing alienation from the very idea of transnational community. Partly in response to immigration, nativism, racism, and intolerance are alarmingly on the rise.

Somewhat ironically, it has been the success of Europe as a civilized place that has made it an attractive destination for immigrants who flood it in ever growing numbers, and who exacerbate existing economic and social tensions. More ironically still, it has been the very commitment to treating even illegal immigrants with a measure of compassion that has rendered immigration uncontrollable.

Of course other factors have played into those broad developments, such as, for example, Europe’s enthusiastic commitment to the American model of economic growth. It, too, is an example of creativity with unintended side-effects. It tends to promise much while the going is good, which is to say, until unemployment rises, technology renders the average person’s once sellable skills obsolete, and the insistent focus of capital markets on the bottom line replaces the humane employer, or the responsible business, with others intent only on maximizing profits. Although that is no one’s intention, in Europe or elsewhere, human dignity tends to come out on the losing end of that scenario.

The state of Europe today is one example. The savage Israeli-Palestinian conflict offers another. The foundation of Israel after the Second World War was a creative act that seemed to hold the promise of ending the ravages of anti-semitism by providing a homeland for the world’s Jewish population. For more than half a century since, its unintended consequences have made a mockery of that original intention.

But citing examples this particular comes with the risk of getting caught up in debatable details, like the merits of economic models or the location of blame. One comes away thinking that the issue is not so much (if at all) the problematic nature of creativity itself as it is the making of avoidable mistakes in its exercise. A reminder of the broader picture can help restore one’s sense of perspective.

Our species has been on the planet for at least 200,000 years. Found in Ethiopia, the earliest remains of homo sapiens sapiens go back 195,000. Their descendants arrived in Europe and Eurasia approximately 150,000 years later. Civilization starts 10,000 years ago and does not emerge full blown until some 4,000 years later. In other words, we have had 6,000 years of extraordinary creativity, following upon 190,000+ years of nearly none. Those 6,000 years have brought us where we are today, confronted by an economically, socially, politically, and ecologically unstable world that we have reasons to fear may eventually destroy itself as a consequence of our creative initiatives.

For many obvious reasons, we celebrate our creativity and are proud of it, sometimes to the point of believing it to be an essential part of our uniqueness as a species. It consequently tends to escape us that its fruits tell a story that is in some respects alarmingly at odds with the naïve faith we place in the power of our ingenuity to ensure our well-being. Especially today, in a world less forgiving of mistakes than it apparently once was, one might expect a more sober appreciation of the reality that our creativity has been a mixed blessing, and is likely to remain one.

One need not think of civilization as a whole in order to arrive at that conclusion. The Renaissance entrepreneurs who invented international banking could not possibly have foreseen the global financial crisis of 2008 and its continuing aftermath. Nor were they interested in the long-term consequences of their inventiveness. They were intent only on facilitating cross-border commerce and on possibly enriching themselves in the process.

With some trivial qualifications, one might say the same thing about the religious reformers in Europe who, shortly after those Medici accomplishments, unwittingly smoothed the path of the individual conscience to capitalist acquisitiveness. Luther and Calvin could not have dreamt of the fruits their creativity would eventually bear. They were anxious only to make sense of relations between humans and God. But whatever they may have thought they were doing, the effect of their creative efforts today include a state of affairs in which at least half the world’s population have no access to the economic means required for a life livable with dignity.

The list could go on. The inventors of modern information technology probably did not exercise themselves about the job-killing effects of their invention, or if they did, they hoped that future creativity would mitigate those effects. It probably will. But I would suggest that no one can pretend to know how likely it is that we will emerge in one piece from the nearly unimaginable economic, social, and political upheavals involved.

The consequences of the invention of explosives speak for themselves every time a car blows up in a crowded market place, to say nothing of catastrophes like Hiroshima. The fine creative minds of the scientists who invented the theories that paved the way to those consequences probably did not have those effects of their discoveries in mind. They were just interested in the truth and in crafting new understanding.

When it is not the victim of Nature, as in the ravages of old age, human dignity is typically one casualty, among others, of the unanticipated effects of human creativity. Supposing that can be changed at all, changing it will take more than good will.

Now it is tempting to think that greater thoughtfulness might suffice all by itself to limit the unintended effects of creativity. More thoughtfulness might help a little in some instances, as when business ingenuity takes the form of marketing assault rifles to ordinary citizens. On the whole, however, the unpredictable is just that, unpredictable. There seems to be no getting around it without abandoning creative activities that almost inevitably bring unpredictable, and often negative, consequences in their train. And inasmuch as creativity appears to be built into our genes as a species, that sounds like giving up on who we are.

I have spent the last two weeks wrestling with the question whether the general problem that is our creativity has any solution at all.

II

What seems actually built into our brains is not so much creativity itself as a selective aversion to incongruity. I call it “selective” because incongruity occasionally pleases, as when humor, which trades on incongruities, causes amusement and makes us laugh. Generally, however, and provided that we are aware of them, incongruities that have a bearing on our well-being do not amuse. They induce discomfort. Given the right circumstances, that discomfort issues in creativity — typically in action that aims at resolving the incongruity that is (perceived as) the cause of the discomfort. And for these purposes, thought or reflection are forms of action.

If I had to weigh in on the question why there is no evidence of extraordinary human creativity earlier than 40,000 years ago (cave art), and virtually none of an impressive practical kind until 10,000 years ago, I would suggest that productive awareness of incongruity depends on a degree of mental clarity that may take a long time to set in. It probably depends on the power of language to endow awareness and thought with determinacy. The emergence of language depends, in turn, on the existence of complex social structures. Those structures, again, took time to develop. I suspect that modern humans were not otherwise creative for 150,000 years because they were busy inventing language, also a creative feat, but one that has left no traces in the prehistoric archeological record. (There is evidence of biological capacity for producing and understanding sounds, but no record of its actualization as it occurred and issued in the form of language as we know it.) As for the incongruity awareness of which (by hypothesis) issued in that creativity, we simply don’t know enough to do more than speculate.

I am not attempting here to tell this immensely complex story, supposing even that I were able to. I am interested only in calling attention to the fact that one way of coping with discomforting awareness of incongruity is to suppress it. Arguably, that, too, is a kind of creativity, albeit of a negative sort. It is available only, however, where suppressing awareness is possible. If I am hungry and have no food, for instance, I may try to suppress my awareness of that incongruity, but I will fail. By contrast, I usually do pretty well in that respect in distracting myself in the face of the disagreeable certainty that I will eventually die. Even if I do not go so far as to deny that reality by believing or devising stories according to which a gratifying posthumous existence awaits me elsewhere, I can manage not to think about it, or at least not more often than I absolutely have to. There is nothing I can do about the fact in any case, other than to make the most of the time I still have and hoping that my achievements will outlive me. And I can’t even do that if I allow my composure to be constantly undermined by an acute awareness of my future demise.

Our ability to suppress our awareness of discomforting realities also comes into play in relation to the problematic nature of our creativity. To the modest list of examples I have cited where our creativity has had unintended and sometimes catastrophic side-effects, anyone could add his own, until the evidence eventually becomes overwhelming. It has only been recently, however, that there has emerged a sense, not even clearly articulated, that this is a genuine problem. Until now, we have operated with the notion that every unfortunate side-effect of our past creativity can be repaired or undone, if only we put our minds to it. It has seemed that even man-made climate change can be reversed or at least arrested, if we just get on with the task. Or that human dignity would fare better if we put the brakes on uninhibited economic ingenuity. Our doing any of that has seemed unlikely, but possible all the same. In other words, it has seemed that the problem is not creativity itself, but our making mistakes here and there, some trivial, some serious, others, like climate change, awfully large. But all have seemed correctable through additional creative efforts. We have thought of civilization as a work in progress.

That optimistic faith has begun to wane. It is being undermined by an increasing awareness of the historical record that the near ubiquitous availability of information technology has made possible. The number of Internet users worldwide now hovers somewhere in the neighborhood of 3 billion people, nearly half the world’s population. Their brains are networked. Up to a point at least, the knowledge of all becomes the knowledge of each. Our collective memory now reaches to the beginning of recorded history. It includes both our successes and our failures, all our achievements and our disappointed hopes. To anyone who wants to avail himself or herself of it, that memory can be theirs today, almost instantly.

As a consequence, hitherto ignored or unnoticed incongruities have moved into the light. One of them is that despite our boundless creativity, the human world is in many ways a disaster. And it doesn’t take much for the suspicion to take root that it is that, not despite our creativity, but because of it. Wherever one looks, that seems to be the story. Medicine, for example, has made immense progress in just the last seventy years alone. But the effects of that achievement include countless old people lingering in nursing homes, often abandoned by their relatives, alive or kept alive beyond their functionality as human beings. They also include some countries taking a pass on building adequate sanitation infrastructures (like sewage systems) because the infectious consequences of people living in unhygienic environments could be controlled with antibiotics instead – at least until now, when the promiscuous use of those drugs has issued in bacteria resistant to them. According to recent reports, in India, for example, an estimated 80,000 newborn infants die every year of bacterial infections traceable to sanitation deficiencies, and unresponsive to antibiotics. Who knew that a marvelous invention could have such devastating side effects down the road?

If I am typical, we are growing somewhat wary of progress, as well as suspicious of creativity. That may be one of the chief causes of the chronic uneasiness we collectively feel. Our creativity is all we have, all that stands between us and total impotence, and it is letting us down. The thought induces increasing doubt that more of it will get us out of this fix. More of it is as likely as not to make things worse.

At the same time, however, we do not want to do without the obvious benefits we derive from our creativity – without antibiotics or vaccines, for example, cataract surgery, or electricity, or sewer systems, or comfortable transportation, or a reliable food supply, or information technology. Unfortunately, the price of our enjoying those benefits seems to include the not so pretty side-effects of that same creativity, like antibiotics and other drugs finding their way via our bodies into the ground water, our wells, and back into our coffee or tea.

In short, we find ourselves in a dilemma from which, it seems, there is no exit and that, in its power to induce discomfort is the greater as its ultimate upshot may well be our extinction as a species. It mimics the feel of the prospect of individual death, with this important difference, that the latter is tolerable because the species will live on and the constructive efforts I make may bear fruit after I am gone. If the species dies, all those efforts are wasted. And as though that were not bad enough, we have the sense that while none of us individually can do anything to avoid dying, we ought to be able collectively to avert the extinction of our species, at least to the extent that it will be the consequence of our own doing. Our extinction would be our fault.

That is a lot to confront without flinching and fleeing. As the uncomfortable truth continues to sink in, it is virtually certain that we will strive to suppress our awareness of it, and certain as well that we will become increasingly vulnerable to the appeal of magical solutions. We’ll tell ourselves that the dilemma we perceive ourselves to be in is unreal, that the situation is not as dire as it seems, or that progress in technology will get us out of it, whether in the form of clean energy or of the means to emigrate to other planets. Because those are empty hopes in that they will not solve the basic problem even in the unlikely event that they are realized, one may reasonably think that we would do better bringing our creativity to bear in understanding and facing that problem head on, bringing it to bear, in other words, on our creativity itself and reassessing the role it ought to play in our lives.

III

Inasmuch as creativity carries risks, creative solutions to the problem that creativity itself poses are not exempt from that generalization. They too might bear unanticipated fruits. We could end up having inadvertently made our situation worse. It also seems clear that care and thoughtfulness cannot protect against that risk. As I suggested earlier, no amount of thoughtfulness can get the better of the unpredictable. If those contentions are true, the problem has no reliable solution.

Well, how true are they? One might observe for a start that not all significant creativity has unanticipated undesirable side effects. Art, in particular, stands out as a form of human creativity that has few or none. Cave Art, for instance, which predates the origins of civilization by some 30,000 years, does not appear to have had any such effects later down the road. It merely enhanced the aesthetic quality of the environment in which people lived. The same is true even more obviously of the paintings of Rembrandt or Cézanne, or of the music of Mozart. It is true as well of every effort to put in a flower garden in front of a house or to add a humanizing decorative touch to the look of a living room.

One would be equally hard put to cite negative side effects of enterprises like optometry. Vision correction has only good effects. So do many other inventions that appear to hurt no one and only enhance the quality of life. While it can be abused when pressed into the service of questionable goals, modern communication technology, for instance, pools our cognitive resources, extends the reach of our brains, and generally fosters the emergence of a global human community. That this technology can also increase our dissatisfaction by making us more aware of incongruities that, because they have a bearing on our well-being, call for remedies, is not a negative side effect. It is a positive one in the same sense that better headlights on a car enable one to notice, and then to avoid, obstacles in the road ahead.

Of course, that reflection presupposes that the remedies we devise resolve those incongruities in ways that do not ultimately make things worse. Our being able to do that largely depends on the predictability of the effects of what we do. Which brings us back to the proposition that thought is impotent in the face of the unpredictable.

It is true virtually by definition that it is impossible to know the unknowable. Changing that truth lies beyond our power. In the general practical context in which we are confronted and disabled by it, however, it does not lie beyond our power to convert the unknown into the known. To a considerable extent, the unanticipated effects of our creativity owe their unpredictability to the absence of established and reliable theories about human behavior and its consequences in human contexts. Man-made climate change is an exception in that we originally had no idea that the promiscuous consumption of fossil fuels might lead to massive undesirable alterations in the natural environment. But our doing nothing about it once that became obvious, not to mention continuing denials of that truth, confront us as human behaviors that we generally do not understand and are therefore largely powerless to change. Even if we had known of the possibly detrimental effects of the internal combustion engine on the natural environment, we could not have anticipated the human inertia and outright resistance to arresting or correcting those effects once they set in. But that was not because that inertia and resistance were unpredictable in principle. It was because we had no reliable theory about human behavior. We had no theory either to explain why we had no theory.

It seems to me that the absence of reliable theories to explain and predict human behavior has two main causes, the first historical, the second natural. Some 2,000 years ago, in order to shore up religious beliefs centered on human guilt and the need for divine forgiveness, and to put in place a concept of moral responsibility that could accommodate them, our culture crafted an understanding of human behavior in which freedom plays a central role. Broadly speaking, we are responsible for our actions because we freely choose them, where “freely” means that our choices are not the inevitable effects of natural causes. Instead, the exercise of our discretion is exempt from the operation of the laws of nature. The effect of that understanding was a perception of human behavior as essentially unpredictable, which is to say, not subject to capture in theories because it was in principle free of inevitable regularities that make theorizing about it possible. But the unintended side-effect ever since has been the absence of theories that, were they available, would render the consequences of our creativity predictable, at least to the extent that they depended on human behavior. In short, a creative solution to a problem 2,000 years ago led to our remaining empty-handed when it comes to anticipating and preventing human behaviors the ultimate and cumulative consequences of which potentially include our extinction as a species.

While it is true that psychology presents itself as a scientific attempt to correct that historical error, it does not seem to be getting very far, except perhaps in mental disease contexts. And even there, psychology tends to be outpaced by psychopharmacology, which, though effective, does not amount to a theory of use in explaining or predicting normal behavior. One looks in vain to either field – or to neuroscience, for that matter – for the sort of comprehensive theory that in physics, for example, leaves few phenomena that fall within its purview unexplainable or unpredictable.

Relatively speaking, those three fields are in their infancy as sciences. It makes some sense to suppose, therefore, that as time goes by, they too will eventually emerge as mature sciences that deliver the goods expected of them. I am not so sure that will actually happen. The reason is that the second main cause of the absence of reliable theories on this front appears to be a natural one. There is only so much understanding of itself that the mind (or the brain) of homo sapiens sapiens can sustain without threatening to come apart at the seams.

This natural limitation makes itself felt as a limitation of consciousness. There is only so much self-consciousness that I can tolerate without starting to sense that I am putting my mental health at risk, to sense, in other words, that unless I back off, I’ll end up mentally disabled, with no guarantee that I will recover.

Theory inevitably translates into consciousness. In possession of theory, I become aware of phenomena that fall within its purview under theory-laden descriptions. If I know, for example, that an airplane landing involves a power glide (as opposed to a flying of the plane toward the ground), my awareness of a plane landing turns into an awareness of the event as a a power glide. As a passenger in the landing plane, I understand what I hear as the engines roar. As an observer on the ground, I understand what I see. Similarly, a basic familiarity with physics will supplement my awareness of the stability of a ladder I am climbing with an understanding of the phenomenon as an instance of various forces in balance. That theoretical understanding does not just exist in my head. It alters my awareness in the direction of being a consciousness of the ladder’s stability under theory-laden descriptions.

Now imagine a theory about human behavior that is as compelling and as reliable as theories in physics are about macro-physical phenomena. Possession of it would translate into a person’s awareness of him-or-herself under descriptions originating in the theory. In that sense, he or she would be transparent to themselves. Moreover, as experienced, that transparency itself would be transparent. And so on, and on. There now looms the prospect of a consciousness getting itself caught up in an unending loop of self-consciousness. A person’s mind runs away with itself, yet getting nowhere. It is a profoundly distressing experience, the more so as there is no stopping it. I know what I know, and I can’t make myself not know it. And that knowing keeps translating itself into my awareness in the form of a reiterative cascade that increasingly threatens my sanity. It will not stop until I stop trying to stop it, and perhaps not even then, if my theory is so good as to cause me to know that that is how the mind works, and consequently to recognize it trying to save itself, and me, from the disaster it has gotten itself into. Ultimately, there is no stopping it until I back off the belief that my theory constitutes bona fide knowledge. For if it is really knowledge, it will kill me by driving me insane.

I can know that, too. The upshot is that my mind – my homo sapiens sapiens brain – is incapable of knowing itself without bringing itself to grief. More generally, the upshot is that adequate theories of human behavior are impossible because they are not psychologically entertainable, and that looking to them as a solution to the unpredictable side effects of our creativity appears to be a pipe dream.

IV

Which only leaves this. Wanting to know the history of Mars, we sent a machine to the place because outer space is inhospitable to bodies like ours. And that would be true in spades if we were interested in planets beyond our solar system, never mind beyond our galaxy. If I am right in arguing that something analogous is true of inner space, of our minds being inhospitable to exploration by minds like ours, an analogous solution recommends itself. We could try to build a machine that does our exploring for us. It could generate the theory the sight of which our minds can’t sustain. But we would not need to know the theory. We could not allow ourselves to know it. Which would be fine, provided that we knew its predictive upshot. We might call it googling the future. We don’t need to understand the search engine and can’t afford to.

Wouldn’t someone have to design the machine and expose himself or herself, Marie Curie-like, to the dangers of the enterprise? I am not sure. It is a very old idea that while there are sights our eyes cannot sustain without going blind, we can look at their reflections in water, or in some other medium, and see enough to get by.

I am pretty sure that this is not the sort of thing Pope Francis had in mind when he spoke of our working together to build a world that matches our professed ideals. But it may be the only thing likely to bring that about. On the other hand, it may just be another example of the crazy idea that technology will eventually get us out of the predicament we are in.

©Serge Kappler 2014

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