History, provided we have a future, will doubtless look back at the political and social upheavals of this generation and coldly assess our era as being interesting. It’s a fair comment, but currently “interesting”, feels less like objective observation and more like the apocryphal curse “may you live in interesting times”. Without the benefit of time, it’s very easy to become overwhelmed at our current state. Politics is rotting, war looms and aside from that, the earth is burning. Dismay, anger and fear are the easiest strongholds to retreat to, but I want to try and argue that through scientific optimism and technology, there is a reason for hope.
If you will allow me the indulgence, I’d like to tell you a little bit about myself to help frame this argument. I have throughout my life largely been a scientific pessimist. I was raised as a Christian in my youth but apostatised in my teen years. This happened, not because I saw wonder and beauty in reason and rationality, but rather science more consistently explained the worst of the world.
Further, I’m caught somewhere between being a member of Generation X and a Millennial. My worldview has long been sarcastic and cynical, and this approach stretched beyond politics and into science. Neither the numerical nor the numinous could provide a sense of wonder.
My Interest in Science
My interest in science was pragmatic, lacking the “sense of the divine” that TV scientists got excited about. Evolution, Geological Time even The Pale Blue Dot; these didn’t instil the marvel of creation. At best I found this to be efficient, complex but still lacking beauty. At worst a reminder of one’s insignificance and a promotion of a nihilist philosophy. Worst still, every time personalities or peers pointed to these as “the real miracles”, I’d find myself doubting either their understanding of “wonder” or assume a cheap, disingenuous motive to promote science in an area of human life it couldn’t or shouldn’t exist in.
So far, so grimly depressing. But in my dark night of the soul, I turned to a third option outside of data or divine. Art, for me, became truth hiding in fiction rather than fiction proclaiming the truth. Similarly, it wasn’t a miserable measuring of how the world is; rather art is a proposal for other possible worlds there could be.
Does Science Limit Possibilities?
It’s true that any sufficiently advanced science would be indistinguishable from magic. And that’s most true in fiction. As we learn the physical limits of our universe and our physical existence, science in works of fiction becomes more like magic, in the sense of its impossibility. For instance, trans-light speed, whilst theoretically possible, due to energy costs remains a dream. Science, by its transforming nature, isn’t inherently concerned with what is possible. The Scientific method is the way of measuring that, which isn’t possible. Its function rules out that which is not the case. As a cynic, one would argue that science, limits possibilities.
It’s tough to say which came first, the cynic or the cynical universe. At one point space travel was a real societal concern and prospect. Did our knowledge of the limitation, struggles and cost stop us chasing that dream, or did society change in such a way to no longer consider that dream valuable? Given that at one point it was our goal to travel through space, one can’t help but feel that it is the prior that is truer.
In an excellent article, Michael Chabon writes about how his son considers the end of humanity to be a given and it’s easy to see why. We’re told, quite correctly, that environmental disasters are just around the corners. The power of weaponry could wipe humanity out in an instance and we’re due and extinction event. In this way, science, or society through science, pushes the future toward the category of the impossible.
Scientifically Interesting Times
So what about this hope that I mentioned way back at the beginning of this article? Well, that’s arisen because we do indeed live in interesting times. In addition to the post-truth, nationalistic, death rattle of neo-conservatism, history will remember this as a time full of scientific optimism.
There have been a number of scientific and technological news stories in recent months that feel like we are exploring the possible worlds of fiction again. Robotic bats, eels, a flying car and let’s not forget the dinosaur chicken (if we still need a name for the last one, can I suggest Archeopter-Chix or Tyroostersaurus Rex?).
These inventions and discoveries have a quality of science fiction despite them being science fact. They suggest that not only could we actually have a future; parts of the future are already here. There are other stories that have scientific significance too, the discovery of exo–planets, for example, is literally another possible world, but it’s too remote from our current state to be truly hopeful.
Scientific optimism in this hopeful, engaging form is beyond the mundane but without being abstract. Rather than claim “the universe is huge, indifferent and you are just a wonderful accident” these advancements shout “have you seen how cool this is? It’s wonderful!” These examples are also somewhat superficial but this gives them a sense that they are achievements on their own merit. They are created because they can be created.
Does the rescue bat have to be a bat? In addition to the benefits of its design, it feels like its bat shape is exciting and offers us a glimpse of a robotic animal kingdom. A flying car has no obligation to look like a car, but it’s what the Jetsons promised us. To reduce the dino-chicken to a Jurassic Park gag doesn’t fully explore the science but it’s exciting. It doesn’t mean that we’ll be able to recreate dinosaurs and if Jurassic Park is anything to go by, nor should we. But it does blur the barrier between the possible and the impossible. And in that blurring, hope grows.
The Elon Musk Debate
Quite recently a friend and I were discussing Elon Musk, specifically his hyperloop. My friend had followed the development much more closely than I had and was citing various tests the development had undergone and was concluding that Musk won’t reach his goals. They were too scientifically ambitious, 700mph was too high a speed. It was impossible.
Perhaps because I was less informed of the projects failures or because I had spent the afternoon watching a robot bat fly in slow motion, I didn’t share his concern. That’s not to say that I didn’t recognise the limitations of the current technology or the laws of physics, I did. Only I didn’t accept the conclusion that the project’s goal was impossible, only impossible for now.
For me, science still differentiates between the possible and the impossible, but science is a tool, not a philosophy. It has no mandate to stop us from reaching for the impossible, quite the contrary it should and can encourage us to do so. The boundaries of the cynical universe are maintained by the cynic. Out with the cynicism, out with the boundaries.
You might already have guessed where this is going. Society is in a difficult place right now, for some, it’s outright terrifying. Problems are numerous and systematic and worse we seem to be regressing on social problems and in the areas where science and politics overlap. Change and stability seem impossible. But it’s precisely because of these areas we can have hope, we can blur the absolutes of current political and scientific certainties. If we can demonstrate that there are no impossibilities, only impossibilities, for now, we can take on and overcome the curse of interesting times, and make time for hope.
The opinions in The Freethink Tank’s Opinion category are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.