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The Depressing Limitations of Salvation Through Science
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This is supposed to be, at least occasionally, a Mormon/Religious blog, but other than last week you would be forgiven if you had missed that point. Even easier than missing the religious element of the blog would be missing the theme of the blog, which I haven’t touched on in quite a while. This post will attempt to rectify that.
Given that it has been so long it might be worth a brief review. The theme of the blog comes from the Book of Jeremiah chapter 8 verse 20:
The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.
Which I sometimes amend to say, “The harvest [of technology] is past, the summer [of progress] is ended, and we are not saved.” Meaning that I am more interested in the interplay of religion and progress than I am about one or the other. (You may wonder where politics enters into it, given the amount of time I spend there, but that’s a subject for another time.)
Writing about this interplay can be difficult, particularly given that conventional wisdom views them as being exact opposites of one another. And there’s a good reason for that. But they also have many things in common, and it’s one of those commonalities that I want to focus on.
Returning to the theme, I’m saying that technology and progress have not saved us, but what does it even mean to be saved? From a religious perspective salvation is pretty straightforward. For most religions it’s living forever, ideally in a fashion which doesn’t suck. And unless they’re a truly hardcore atheist most people would agree that there is some chance of this salvation coming to pass, with the actual odds of it happening varying with the belief of the individual.
Outside of religion the concept of salvation is less clear. And I can certainly see some people, encountering my theme, and saying of course progress and technology haven’t saved us, because that’s a religious concept which doesn’t mean anything outside of religion. But I would argue that these people are in the minority. Though the majority which remains may not recognize that “salvation” is what they’re really after when they lay their chips on the space marked progress.
In other words everyone wants to be saved, and everyone who’s not actively religious has decided to use technology and progress to accomplish that. They just may not call it salvation or realize that that’s what they’re doing. So what does salvation mean for these people?
At the lowest level, for many people “salvation” consists of nothing more than a life enjoyable enough that it’s preferable to not being alive. You would hope that very few people would be on the fence about this. But unfortunately some people are, and many of those people go on to attempt, and in far too many cases succeed at, committing suicide. Perhaps equally unfortunate, progress and technology don’t seem to be doing much for this group of people, and they may even be making things worse, since if anything progress seems to be positively correlated with suicide risk. I already mentioned in a previous post how suicide was essentially unknown in pre-industrial societies. And lately the rate has continued to increase. This is worse than it appears, since if anything advances in trauma care should be making attempted suicides less likely to succeed. And indeed I just saw a journal article which claimed that suicide attempts were up over 25% between 2005 and 2013, with a disproportionate increase among younger adults with no college degree.
Above this level, there is the “salvation” of being able to live the life you want to. And this is definitely the level where technology and progress have made the biggest impact. For most people the standard of living is at levels unheard of even 50 years ago. This includes inventions people barely dreamed of, travel at speeds which would have baffled our ancestors, and rights that would have been unthinkable. In other words for gay couples, who love posting pictures of their European vacation on Facebook, technology and progress have been very good to them.
Of course even if you have “saved” yourself in this life, that’s a pretty short span of time, and that’s just if you consider things from an historical perspective, if you consider things from the potential of eternity it’s even more stark. However, I’m guessing that people at this level don’t consider things either from an historical perspective or an eternal perspective. Making the decision, even if not consciously, that they’re going to ignore any possibility of an afterlife in favor of maximizing this life. Meaning, deliberately or not, that this is the “salvation” they have chosen.
At the next level, are people who contemplate achieving “salvation” by leaving behind a legacy of sorts, but who stop short of considering actual immortality (or maybe in addition to immortality.) This contemplation takes a wide variety of forms, from people who hope to be remembered by their descendents, to authors, artists and even politicians who hope to achieve a form of immortality through their work, to the philanthropist who has a building named after them. These efforts have the advantage of past evidence of success, though this evidence is only for other people, you’ll have to take it on faith that it will work for you. And it might not. For example, if you’re hoping to be remembered by your descendants you will actually have to have descendants, which an increasing number of people do not. And even then, once a few hundred years are past you’ll be lucky to be remembered as anything more than a name and a few dates.
On the other hand, if you’re hoping to be remembered for your work, then the chances of success are even smaller (though the potential reward is correspondingly greater.) To begin with the number of people who are remembered by the general public after they’re gone is always going to be tiny and most, even of those, will not be remembered for more than a few hundred years. If you wish to be remembered forever then the competition is even fiercer. It is possible that Socrates and Caesar will be remembered for as long as there are humans, but I doubt if there are more than a few such people every century.
Next we move on to people for whom salvation is a group effort. Meaning that whatever else they may believe, they would really like to see humanity continue to exist. Obviously, there will be some overlap between the various levels, meaning there are certainly some people who are individually happy to find “salvation” in the life they’re leading right now, but also take comfort from the fact that humanity will continue on after they’re gone. Out of this group there is a smaller group who takes more comfort in this continuation if they know their descendents are going to be part of it, while for others it doesn’t matter.
At least in the near term, the chances of humanity continuing are quite good. There are some potential extinction level events, but it’d have to be something pretty big, as I said before, even a nuclear war would probably not lead to humanity's extinction.
The final level are those people who will consider salvation to have occurred only if they, personally, achieve immortality. If you hope to achieve this through the religious route, the path is pretty straight forward. Most religions provide clear instructions on how to achieve immortality. The only question is how likely are those instructions to work. But if you’re hoping for technology and progress to provide this salvation, either because you’re not religious, or because you’re hedging your bet, or you’re a religious transhumanist and you’re hoping to combine the two, then your options for technological immortality are broad, but so far unrealized.
There’s cryonic suspension, e.g. freezing your body (or possibly just your head) when you die. This is a gamble, since thus far no one has successfully been revived from such a condition (and I’m record as saying that no one ever will be.) Also, I heard recently that thus far only 300 people have entered cryonic suspension in the US, so even if it will eventually be possible the number of people who can be saved through this method is a tiny fraction of people alive today, and an infinitesimal percentage of the people who have ever lived.
Outside of cryonic suspension you have the dreams of the transhumanists, who, while not eschewing cryonics, have pinned their hopes more on medical advances, technological augmentation, and eventually brain digitization. Each of these areas holds some promise, but even medical advances, the area where the most progress has been made, has mostly extended the length of life without doing much to preserve its quality.
I think with the exception of a couple of fringe ideologies we’ve basically covered all of the various paths for a human to achieve some degree of salvation. Which, means, returning to my theme. If you want to claim that I’m wrong, that, “We are saved.” Those are your options. Hopefully you’ll agree that the first two levels, which consist of focusing just on this life, at either the survival or the enjoyment level, do not really constitute salvation except in the loosest sense, and even if we accept that they represent individual salvation, they certainly don’t represent ways in which “We” are saved. For that we need something more.
Salvation as being remembered after death, is more promising, as a means for group salvation. I imagine that you might be able to say that the Sumerians have achieved a degree of salvation to the extent that they’re still remembered. Still if humanity as a whole goes extinct, then the memory of the Sumerians will perish with them. Which leaves us with only the last two levels as offering potential, true salvation: the continuation of humanity, or individual immortality.
I suppose at this point one might argue that they don’t actually care about these levels of salvation, but I suspect if anyone feels this way that they haven’t really thought it through. Eliezer Yudkowsky, who apparently I can’t get away from, mentioned how odd it is that someone could be horrified by say, what just happened in Las Vegas, but contemplate the extinction of all humanity with a calm detachment. Perhaps even offering up a facile explanation like, “Well I guess humanity didn’t deserve to survive.” If you aren’t interested in salvation for the whole of humanity, then I guess there’s not much left to say, but if you are, there’s only two ways to bring that about: Religion or Science (or both if you’re in the MTA.)
As usual I find the overlap between Religion and Science to be very interesting. Essentially both promise the same thing, more or less, the difference comes in the degree to which we’re saved (presumably actual exaltation would dwarf even the grandest dreams of transhumanism) and the odds of that salvation happening (the assessment of which varies from person to person). The spectacular advances of science and technology have served to convince most people that the odds of salvation through science are a lot better than was previously expected and the odds of salvation through religion, a lot worse. As you might gather I disagree with this. In my opinion, the odds of salvation through progress and technology are a lot lower than people think, and the odds of salvation through religion are much higher, also I think playing the odds with respect to religion is easier and more rational than most people think.
This blog, while not shying away from religion, is not primarily concerned with convincing people to look for salvation through religion, i.e. I’m not trying to convert you. There are lots of people working on that. (Some of them are young men and young women who roam around two by two. You should chat them up. They’re invariably very nice.) This blog is more about convincing you that odds of salvation through science are not as great as you’ve been led to believe. In particular it will be a lot harder and entail more sacrifices than people imagine.
I recently read Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson. And I think it did a great job of illustrating exactly this point. And unfortunately to explain how, I’m going to have to spoil the book. So if you were hoping to read the book, and don’t want to be spoiled, you should skip the next five paragraphs.
Aurora takes place on a generation ship sent to colonize Tau Ceti, and whereas in most science fiction involving interstellar expansion by humanity, the expansion is viewed as inevitable, almost triumphal, this novel was decidedly different. In Aurora, it turns out that extrasolar colonization is so difficult that the novel revolves around the fact that after getting to Tau Ceti, about half of the crew decides to turn around and head back to Earth. (The half that remains eventually perishes.) I didn’t find the twist to be that revolutionary, but I’ve talked to other people whose minds were blow by the idea of a science fiction novel where a space ship gives up on colonization and expansion, turns around and goes home.
In the novel, the difficulty of colonization isn’t limited to the Tau Ceti system, the Aurora mission (Aurora is actually the name of the moon they’re supposed to colonize) was one of many generation ships, and they basically all failed. It turns out extraterrestrial colonization ends up being ridiculously difficult for a variety of reasons. As just one example, every planet needs a large amount of terraforming which, in the novel, is something they have trouble accomplishing even on Mars, and it’s right next to Earth. Once you’re outside of the Solar System, terraforming is functionally impossible. As an aside, this is somewhat humorous if you’re familiar with Robinson’s best known work, The Mars Trilogy which is all about terraforming Mars, and in that series it ends up being pretty straightforward.
Robinson offers up these difficulties as a potential explanation for Fermi’s Paradox. And I can see how if a species is restricted to a single Solar System that it could make things difficult. Still, we haven’t even made it off our home planet, and we have the technology to engage in interstellar communication, to say nothing of something like a von Neumann probes (self-replicating spacecrafts). Meaning that this is another explanation for the Paradox I find unconvincing. Still it’s undeniable that if you can’t get out of the Solar System that your chances of being completely wiped out are going to be higher than if you can.
Anyway, returning to the book, and as you may already be thinking, yes it is a work of fiction, and therefore we shouldn’t read too much (or too little) into its description of the difficulties of extrasolar colonization. And really that’s not what I want to focus on in any event. For me, the key scene comes after the main character, Freya, has made it all the way back to Earth. In the course of her journey it has become apparent that extrasolar colonization is doomed to failure, and that the people who originally sent out the generation ships, along with the crews of those ships, were deluded and narcissistic; sending people out to slowly die in space, because of some exaggerated view of the inevitability of human progress and expansion.
Once back on Earth, Freya ends up at conference where the topic is sending more ships into space, even though all previous attempts have been unsuccessful.The reasoning being that they will just have to keep trying until they do succeed. At this point Freya punches the person saying this, and I think it’s fair to call the punch the moral climax of the book. But regardless of how heartless the person is being when he makes this claim, from the perspective of salvation through science, it’s essentially true. Regardless of how hard it is, regardless of how many attempts it takes before you succeed, regardless of how many people die, in order to be saved by science, you have to get out of the Solar System. Because, on a long enough time horizon being confined to a single star is just too fragile.
All of this is to say that science does not have any inherent morality, it does not have any built in kindness or compassion. As the novel illustrates there is no law that says it has to be easy to colonize other planets, no law, in fact, which says it has to be even possible, and most terrifying of all there’s also definitely no law guaranteeing humanity’s continued survival.
The truths of science are often very difficult. As an example, one truth which science fiction has had to grapple with (though it’s just as often ignored) is the speed of light, which is 670 million miles an hour, but even at that speed it takes over four years to get to the nearest star. Even if we restrict ourselves to something more manageable, I’ve already discussed how hard even a colony on Mars would be.
To bring religion back into the discussion, religious salvation depends on kindness, and justice, and love. Science doesn’t, science only cares about how well your beliefs match reality. And on that count I don’t think we’re doing as well as people think. Now I’m religious, so I’m expecting love and kindness (along with stuff like faith and chastity) to save me. But I think there are a lot of people who aren’t religious, but who are expecting love and kindness to save them as well. I’m not complaining, but I’m not sure that they recognize that love and kindness are not going to get them to Tau Ceti. They’re not even going to get them to Mars. And given that science doesn’t care about love and kindness is it possible being too kind actually thwarts scientific progress and technological advances?
I can think of one major example of this right off the bat: nuclear power, specifically nuclear waste. Is it science that keeps the Yucca Mountain Repository from being used, 30 years after it was designated or is it kept from use by being too kind to those who oppose it? Perhaps you might argue that it’s not love and kindness, but the will of the people. Well the will of the people doesn’t necessarily have any connection to science either, and in fact under our democracy we spend a most of our money on stuff that has nothing to do with science. And if you’re honestly expecting science to save you then isn’t every dollar spent on something other than science a dollar wasted?
Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps we have enough money to do both, perhaps spending more money on science would just corrupt it. But the point I’m trying to get at, is that because science doesn’t care about democracy, or kindness, or happiness, or whether we live or die, that there will very likely come a time, when if you’re expecting to be saved through science you’re going to have to choose between science and minimizing danger, or science and the will of the people, or, almost certainly, science and your vision of fairness. Or to put it another way between the way the world actually is and the way you want it to be.
As evidence of this I once again direct your attention to Fermi’s Paradox. While it’s certainly possible that there are civilizations out there who achieved their own salvation through science. And are consequently spread throughout the galaxy. And we have just, thus far, completely missed all the evidence of this. It’s becoming more and more likely that there is some kind of filter, a chasm if you will, a chasm no one else has been able to cross. Hopefully this uncrossable chasm is behind us, and we are the lucky ones, but if not, and the chasm remains to be crossed, then we still need to make a leap which no one else has. Meaning it can’t be easy. Meaning it will require some hard choices. Choices like spending money on space exploration or on welfare. Choices like whether to switch to nuclear power or to continue to use coal (while pretending to switch to renewables.) Choices about whether we should send people to Mars if we can’t get them back, and they’ll probably die there or whether we should only send them if we’re sure they’ll survive. And eventually the choice of whether to send out the 100th generation ship, even though the first 99 have failed.
Salvation is only going to come from science or religion, and if you believe it’s science then there may come a time when we have to abandon many if not most of our cherished beliefs about love and fairness and equality for the cold hard realities of a universe that doesn’t care about us.
Salvation is almost certainly not going to come from reading this blog. So I guess you definitely shouldn’t waste any resources by donating to it. Yeah, I guess I really painted myself into a corner on that one didn’t I?