"An Excess of Reality": Alexandre Leskanich reviews On the Future by Martin Rees
Today it is not only the past, as Marx so memorably wrote, which weighs like a nightmare on the minds of the living, but also the future. Yet one of the obvious problems facing anyone who wants to think about the future, or speculate as to its eventual shape, is not just that it is not yet, but that it is not. It consequently remains impervious to sustained insight of a concrete or absolute nature. To the extent that the future hasn’t ensued, we cannot know precisely what will happen next, what fate or folly will erupt in the course of time to come. For this reason, I am generally suspicious of books “on” the future, because I doubt that even the sincerest and most insightful author knows more than anyone else about what it might entail. Indeed, not only is the evidence base for our reasoning about the future indeterminate (as Pascal aptly observed, “our reason is always deceived by the inconsistency of appearances”), but our minds, being of limited temporal duration, are intrinsically inadequate to the future: they can never be sufficiently informed to fully conceive or encompass it. That’s because even the immediate future, although immanent in the present is never directly encountered as such, being a conceptual projection from what persists in consciousness as an enduring and irrevocable present.
As José Ortega y Gasset reflects:
Life is an operation directed toward the future. From the beginning we live toward the future, and are aimed toward it. But the future is in its very essence a problematical thing; we cannot put down a footing in it, it has neither a determined shape nor a definite profile. How can it, if it does not yet exist? … Hence the paradoxical condition, essential to our lives, that man has no way of orientating himself in the future.
To the extent that books purporting to say something substantive about the future cannot do so, they’re not about the future: or at least, they are not about the future in the way that a book about the migratory habits of birds can be reasonably expected to say something true about the migratory habits of birds based on observable facts about their behaviour. What books we have “about” or “on” the future instead consist of a catalogue of mental projections proceeding on the basis of reasoning which, lacking sufficient information, cannot help being inadequate.
Still, although no one has ever lived in either the past or the future, since, as Schopenhauer rightly observes, “the form of life or of reality, is really only the present, not the future or the past”, we nevertheless conceive of ourselves as connected to the future through what A.N. Whitehead calls “an effort of abstract imagination”. Our anticipatory conceptualisations of the future may fall short, and yet through them the future, like the past, presses upon us, becoming freighted with a conflicting host of fantasies which we project upon it. These feed constantly back into our imagination, informing our everyday choices and decisions, and in part explaining our propensity to achieve feats of creation designed to outlast us. Indeed, it is this impetus, this ineradicable urge to think forwards, to act with a view to the future, which seems fundamental to our existence.
This impetus derives from our being conscious, perhaps to excess, of our contingency; forever imperilled by our lack of time, by the inability of mortal beings to see all things through to their end. For Hannah Arendt, this occurred through a monumental shift in cultural emphasis. As she writes in The Life of the Mind, “it is obvious that the advancing secularization, or, rather, de-Christianization, of the modern world, coupled, as it was, with an entirely new emphasis on the future, on progress, and therefore on things neither necessary nor sempiternal, would expose men of thought to the contingency of all things human more radically and more mercilessly than ever before”. Now the mere prospect of futurity, the primacy of the temporal over the eternal, of the inevitable erasure through time of what exists for us in present experience, imposes upon us the fateful transience of all things. It imbues our waking moments with the awareness of limits we cannot surpass, of things left undone, of plans unaccomplished, of goals still to be achieved; in short, of time as a finite, ever decreasing “commodity” or resource from which every ounce of value must be relentlessly extracted.
In possession of a historical consciousness that has never before been so acutely, excruciatingly heightened, we are bowed beneath its weight.
In possession of a historical consciousness that has never before been so acutely, excruciatingly heightened, we are bowed beneath its weight: in regard to the past, our fate is to know that things are other than they were, and cannot be changed back; and in regard to the future, that through the choices on which we decide, things will become other than they are. But we are particularly burdened by the fact that because our choices are disproportionate to the growing complexity of the conditions under which they are made, and since, as Paul Valéry says, “one can never foresee nor limit the almost immediate results of what one has begun”, we cannot precisely see the future consequences in which our present choices will result.
Moreover, although we may have a good idea of what our future selves will aspire to, the personal dreams, desires, needs, foibles, motivations, purposes, and goals of future people are opaque to us. Nor do we know what ideological demands could jeopardise or distort their decision-making, or what contextual constraints of a material, political, or moral nature might compel them. This is particularly resonant when one recalls just how large the number of people – barring some sudden existential calamity – that have yet to exist could actually be. If approximately 100 billion humans have so far existed, think how many more may yet be born and die. Even if homo sapiens continues for only another few thousand years (a not unproblematical assumption, especially given that what counts as a human being could expand in the future to include bionic variants), then we would be looking at a scenario in which trillions of humans will have existed, and with a still indeterminate, but potentially gigantic, number still left to emerge.
Further illustrating the insurmountable difficulty the future presents to our thinking, there exists an insuperable tension in how the mind allocates importance or lends things significance in respect to the present as opposed to the future. This is because it contemplates what it encounters in the present with a tangible immediacy; an immediacy which insists on being recognised and responded to, even if only involuntarily, e.g. the sudden rainstorm that drenches me; the screeching sound of brakes on a bus that causes me to cringe, the feeling of mounting irritation in the face of yet another SUV owner who leaves their engine idling, and so on. Then there is the constant demand to respond to and interact with the individuals in my environment: to laugh at their jokes, to judge their conduct, to acquiesce (or not) to their wishes, to meet their needs as loved ones or friends. Precisely because future things do not exist in this dimension of present immediacy, a dimension in which they must be interpreted and responded to whether we prefer to or not, they necessarily hold far less influence over our thinking. Spinoza articulates this tension most clearly in his Ethics:
If we could possess an adequate knowledge of the duration of things, and could determine by reason their periods of existence, we should contemplate things future with the same emotion as things present; and the mind would desire as though it were present the good which it conceived as future; consequently it would necessarily neglect a lesser good in the present for the sake of a greater good in the future, and would in no wise desire that which is good in the present but a source of evil in the future … However, we can have but a very inadequate knowledge of the duration of things; and the periods of their existence we can only determine by imagination, which is not so powerfully affected by the future as by the present.
In a great many cases, our imagination proves insufficient to determine whether the fulfillment of our desires in the present will necessarily adversely affect the future, or whether the sacrifice of a present good will necessarily produce a greater good in the future. And given that we cannot know things future to the same extent we know things present, our responses are inevitably mismatched: we cannot contemplate the future in the same emotional register in which we contemplate the present. Hence we will prioritise and defer to the demands of the present, because we do not know the future to an extent sufficient for us to override the priority of things known as opposed to things unknown.
Simply put, the difficulty of the future lies in its resistance to being adequately thought or predicted, in spite of our determination to constantly invest our lives in its creation. Originally, the modern idea of history could in theory compensate for this difficulty through the imposition of a rational order, progressive arc, or directional process through which the future could be adequately encompassed, even by minds of limited insight and duration; that is, “known” through rational anticipation or causal conjecture. But the coordinating capacity of history runs up today against the vast extensions in temporal scale that invalidate all rational taxonomies produced in purely human historical terms. Given that the vast age of the universe portends stretches of time far more immense than previously imagined, that our species can effect changes to the planet at a much faster rate than before, that the simultaneous coincidence of complex events and inventions with unknown consequences is only increasing, and that the world is thus teeming with incomprehensible possibilities once confined to the realms of science fiction, apprehension about the future is fueled by the deficiency of our minds and concepts in respect to it. Temporally the future (meaning, for example, an existence of indefinite length hospitable to the continuation of some form of human life) could by far exceed the almost comically minute reaches of historical time granted by historical periodisations such as “century”, “epoch”, or “age”. As Charles Darwin remarks in On the Origin of Species, “the mind cannot possibly grasp the full meaning of a hundred million years”; it struggles to articulate, let alone imagine, tracts of time so vast that “not one living species will transmit its unaltered likeness to a distant futurity”.
Given our cognitive and temporal limitations, discussion of the future proceeds – as it always has, as it always must – through speculation, suggestion, prognostication, inference, evaluation, hypothesis, extrapolation. It tends towards the analysis, always fraught with ambivalence, of discernible trends of a societal and scientific nature. It is invariably influenced by personal preference and wishful-thinking. And so it is with Astronomer Royal Martin Rees’s 2018 book, On the Future: Prospects for Humanity, re-issued in paperback last year. Modestly branded as a guide showing how our species can “survive the century – starting now”, he insists we ought to be “technological optimists”: in other words, “evangelists for new technologies” who are “upbeat about science and technology”, and shouldn’t “put the brakes on progress”.
But contradictions in his approach soon emerge. For example, it is difficult to square Rees’s professed technological optimism with his views, later expressed, that “there has been an explosive disjunction between the ever-shortening timescales of social and technical change and the billion-year time-spans of biology, geology, and cosmology”; that “we have zero grounds for confidence that we can survive the worst that future technologies could bring”; that “my pessimistic guess is that political efforts to decarbonise energy production won’t gain traction”; or that “a depressing theme threading through this book is the gap between what is technically desirable and what actually occurs”. A somewhat jaded, cautiously qualified conclusion emerges: science and technology are good if deployed wisely, are dangerous if not, and politicians need to think ahead a lot more. (This is a good, if oft-repeated point: “present interest makes men forgetful of their posterity”, as David Hume long ago observed.) Also, there could be robots in the future, and a lot of other things could happen, or not happen, if certain conditions are in place, but it’s difficult to say for sure. Although not intended to be authoritative or unambiguous, I categorise a selected range of Rees’s many conjectures as follows:
Incontrovertible Facts: “[I]t’s a dangerous delusion to think that space offers an escape from Earth’s problems. We’ve got to solve these problems here”; “[I]t will gradually get warmer. Pressures on food supplies, and on the entire biosphere, will be aggravated by the consequent changes in global weather patterns”; “[F]ood production uses 30 percent of the world’s energy production and 70 percent of water withdrawals”; “[T]echnical advances make appliances more efficient”; “Extinction rates are rising”.
Confident Propheticism: “[D]uring this century, the entire solar system – planets, moons, and asteroids – will be explored and mapped by fleets of tiny robotic space probes, interacting with each other like a flock of birds”; “[W]e will become nomadic – especially as more business and socialising can be done online”; “[A]rtificially directed enhancement of intelligence… is only just beginning”; “[I]t’s likely that ‘inorganics’ – intelligent electronic robots – will eventually gain dominance”; “[I]nternational tensions will get more acute”; “[T]he erosion of routine work and lifetime careers will stimulate ‘life-long learning’”; “[T]he world will get more crowded”; “National and religious loyalties and divisions will persist”.
Speculative Forecasts & Modified Predictions: “[T]he climate could be actively controlled by geoengineering”; “[C]onsumerism could be replaced by a ‘sharing economy’”; “[P]erhaps one day we’ll find evidence of alien intelligence”; “[P]erhaps in the far-distant future, posthuman intelligence… will develop hyper-computers with the processing power to simulate living things – even entire worlds”; “[M]ost likely there will be a societal shift towards more intrusion and less privacy”;“Pilotless planes may be acceptable for air freight”; “[S]elf-driving vehicles may be quickly accepted in limited areas”; “[W]e are perhaps near the end of Darwinian evolution”.
Inconsequential Truisms & Unobjectionable Banalities: “[E]ffective action needs a change in mindset”; “[S]cientific progress seems patchy”; “[F]uture evolution – the posthuman era, where the dominant creatures aren’t flesh and blood – could extend billions of years into the future”; “[W]hether the long-range future lies with organic posthumans or with intelligent machines is a matter for debate”; “[I]n most contexts, there’s a fundamental limit to how far ahead we can predict. That’s because tiny contingencies […] have consequences that grow exponentially”; “[S]cientific and technical breakthroughs can happen so fast and unpredictably that we may not properly cope with them”; “[T]he greater the population becomes, the greater will be the pressure on resources”; “[O]ffering more aid is not in itself enough”; “[W]e need to repair and upgrade rather than replace”; “[A]ll countries could improve energy efficiency”; “[L]ong-term goals tend to slip down the political agenda”; “[T]echnology needs to be ‘wisely directed’”.
Rees has much to say, but fails, as I suppose he was bound to, to shed much light on his subject. And while well-written, the book certainly doesn’t merit the abundance of over-the-top endorsements taking up the first three pages – it’s possible I failed to spot it, but I couldn’t identify anything original or even especially illuminating at any point in the book. Admittedly, Rees is not a philosopher, and so it may be churlish to mention the lack of engagement on a conceptual or abstract level with “the future” on which he purports to be writing, one assumes, with some authority. He sticks instead to his strengths as a communicator of scientific credibility in his own field. This is fair enough, so far as it goes.
Rees does rightly emphasise the discombobulating fact that we are in “the first era in which humanity can affect our planet’s entire habitat: the climate, the biosphere, and the supply of natural resources. Changes are happening on a timescale of decades”. The emergence of the “Anthropocene” inspires predictable anxiety, since to the extent that such changes erode the earth’s capacity to accommodate life, the future tense becomes pregnant with existential crises either waiting to emerge, or in which existing crises ramify to potentially cataclysmic effect. Moreover, and especially for a species which possesses apocalyptic, inherently suicidal weaponry, as well as the power to alter the biosphere, the future, as Günther Anders realised at the dawn of the nuclear age, “belongs within the scope of our present”. Suddenly, horrifyingly, one could envision as an actual reality what centuries of fundamentalist religious crackpots had merely hoped for in principle: the comprehensive fatality of the human world; the destruction of life at the hands of those with the power to preserve it. In this sense, the future has already begun since the actions we undertake (or fail to) will shape the world to which future generations belong; will shape, indeed, their capacity to survive at all.
If books such as this demonstrate anything, it is that the human capacity for creation is birthing forms of existence that were once unimaginable.
If books such as this demonstrate anything, then, it is that the human capacity for creation is birthing forms of existence that were once unimaginable. What George Steiner evocatively describes as “an unbounded tomorrow” is made possible in principle through the inauguration of a scientific and technocratic age of creation in which theological ideas of redemption, of an everlasting futurity in the kingdom of God, have been supplanted; the messianic hope of another world eclipsed by a belief in the continual betterment of this one, as realised through revolutionary political action or technological tinkering. Creations of a scientific or artistic nature become acts of hope, expressions of an abiding belief in the possibility of a better world tomorrow. As Steiner says, “there is an actual sense in which every human use of the future tense of the verb ‘to be’ is a negation, however limited, of mortality”. However, as he points out (and this in the late 1990s before the reality of ecological crisis and planetary tipping-points had begun to seep into everyday consciousness), “the twentieth century has put in doubt the theological, the philosophical and the political-material insurance for hope. It queries the rationale and credibility of future tenses”.
The twentieth century, and now the early part of the twenty-first, have proved beyond any doubt that we do not really know what we are doing; that the unspeakable horrors of which human beings are capable create premonitions of even greater catastrophes to come. Read the newspapers today, glance at the organs of the digital age through which contemporary reportage occurs – particularly the images and videos of burnt, flooded, collapsed or exploded habitations once filled with life – and the sense of fragility Steiner describes is overwhelming. And as it is with the present, so it is with the future: for T. S. Eliot resembling a decrepit “heap of broken images” which cannot be made whole. The years loom darkly ahead, inscrutable.
The human world struggles to bear so much reality. “We are in a state of excess”, Jean Baudrillard aptly remarks; we endure “a society of excrescence” in which more is possible than can be rationally anticipated or prepared for. We suffer most, then, from an excess of reality – a reality which, being born of the human mind, we cannot escape any more than we can escape ourselves. A species which does not know what it is doing, what it is creating, cannot know what it may yet do, or may yet create, in the future. But even as reality has increased to excess, and its opportunities for disaster therefore amplified, we are simultaneously frozen, numbed to the unfolding devastation of living things permanently destroyed in the wake – if one insists on the term – of progress. So much so, it seems that some futures are always in the process of being foreclosed due to human action even as others loom obliquely into view: previously possible futures, however desirable, will now never be realised. Iterations of life that might otherwise have evolutionarily emerged can no longer do so.
But the extent to which our actions jeopardise what is or is not able to exist in the future hardly registers in human consciousness, simply because our attention is increasingly withdrawn from the world, redirected towards technological artifacts that themselves render our lives more and more conditional upon them. As Jonathan Crary astutely observes in his latest book, Scorched Earth, so long as we remain passively “enveloped in the algorithmic nullity of electroluminescence” which dominates our waking hours, “we are rendered incapable of directly apprehending the fragile interconnectedness of all living things”. That’s why for him, the only liveable future will be one that is offline, that dispenses with our confinement to “the dessicated digital closets devised by a handful of sociocidal corporations”.
The French Enlightenment thinker Nicolas de Condorcet once elegantly expressed a belief in the future as a repository for hope in the advancement of humankind, on the grounds of its achievements to date:
Our hopes for the future condition of the human race can be subsumed under three important heads: the abolition of inequality between nations, the progress of equality within each nation, and the true perfection of mankind… [W]e shall find in the experience of the past, in the observation of the progress that the sciences and civilization have already made, in the analysis of the progress of the human mind and of the development of its faculties, the strongest reasons for believing that nature has set no limit to the realization of our hopes.
For all we might wish to “forecast the future on the basis of [our] experience of the past”, as Condorcet assumed, and to believe in the benevolent promise of progress, we today possess a more fraught sense of futurity: we sense constantly that change is upon us, overtaking us, consuming us; that our minds and institutions are dangerously mismatched to the lethality of the world we have created, and that we cannot shape it into the enlightened form, still optimistically hoped for, that we desire. There is a tragic sense of time at work here, a sense that far from being its master, we are the playthings of historical contingency; the utopian world of our dreams pushed further beyond our reach with every passing moment. In this increasingly despondent state of anticipation, overmatched by this condition of perpetual peril, “every day”, observes Cioran gloomily, “vomits up its tomorrow”.
The immensity of the future makes “men feel a heaviness upon their minds”, says Lucretius; “no one knows what the years to come will bring – what joy or strife may lie in store for us, what outcome’s looming in our lot”. More than ever, thoughts of the future produce an intuition of being untimely situated: a sense, as Martin L. Davies puts it, “of being marooned in a historical limbo between an age which has finished and an age yet to come”. At least in one aspect, however, the future is unmysterious, if no less difficult to comprehend or accept. This aspect we can recognise when we turn our gaze away momentarily from the grander reaches of historical time, and from fashionable speculations about our collective species potential (or doom), and return to the limitations of the individual bodies who actually comprise it. To the limitations, in other words, that behove us to make of our lives something meaningful, precisely because they cannot last.
Perhaps these limitations go without saying, but they lend an undoubtedly “earthy” corrective to the urge, and sometimes even injunction, to technologically or ideologically deny them. Inexorably, the body ages, organs become diseased, vital systems fail, it grows gradually weaker and more decrepit. Even as medical science – rightly celebrated – becomes more proficient at extending old age and at keeping us alive in the face of previously fatal illnessess, the future will remorselessly deprive us of our faculties, our wits, our abilities. As finite organisms – as precarious bodies in space – we know that the future will rob us of everything. That is the simplicity of our fate as mortal beings. Attempts to counteract this fate are legion, since, as Freud ponders in his beautifully expressed essay “On Transience”, “the mind instinctively recoils from anything that is painful”.
Down the ages, countless people – often male sociopaths and megalomaniacs – have thought themselves imperious instruments of historical destiny.
Down the ages, countless people – often male sociopaths and megalomaniacs – have thought themselves imperious instruments of historical destiny: co-opting the credulous, they placed themselves at the head of what they imagined was a glorious process of which they formed an essential part, in the hope that their lives would be redeemed by it. Innumerable others have anticipated the future in metaphysical terms, as an infinity to which they would be finally called; saved by God’s grace from the bitterness of their mortality, which they despised as a sign of their fallen nature. But neither strategy, and certainly not the contemporary attempts at indefinitely prolonging life through biotechnology fashionable among Silicon Valley cranks and egoists, can evade or forestall the passage of time; time which renders life that urgently limited space of possibilities to which we are nevertheless called to constantly attend. As Valéry writes, in the last analysis “we are a succession of transformations” whose final form we have yet to create or possibly even imagine.
On the Future: Prospects for Humanity by Martin Rees was published last year in paperback by Princeton University Press.
Alexandre Leskanich is an independent writer and editor in London interested in European philosophy, politics, and the philosophy of history, among other subjects. He is working on his first book, The Anthropocene and the Sense of History: Reflections from Precarious Life, a philosophical study of the sense of history in the Anthropocene. He also works part-time as a carer for the elderly, ill, and disabled.