Monday, January 10, 2011

A Still More Glorious Dawn Awaits

The sky calls to us
If we do not destroy ourselves
We will one day
Venture to the stars
A still more glorious dawn awaits
Not a sunrise, but a galaxy rise
A morning filled with 400 billion suns
The rising of the Milky Way

Upon reflection, I think the primary reason our current cultural and political milieu fills me with so much pessimism is its almost total lack of a cosmic vision.  It still begins and ends with nations, tribes and absurdly myopic myths rooted in Iron Age cultures that knew nothing of the true vastness of our universe.  At best it offers a tepid globalism that attempts to place commerce and economics on an altar as our species' highest source of inspiration.  Where are the great men of vision today who offer more than this the Carl Sagans and Arthur C. Clarkes who imagine an unlimited future among the stars?  Where are the builders of our Cosmic Culture?

How slowly we progress as a species!  When I read the words of visionary writers from seven or eight decades ago like Lovecraft, Stapledon, Asimov and Clarke, I am struck by how little the awesome scale of modern scientific thinking has yet penetrated the public imagination or affected our prevailing myths.  True, we have had Star Trek, 2001, Apollo and Cosmos in the intervening years.  But those too are decades old, while today we seem more mired than ever in our myriad terrestrial dramas.  

Where is the cosmic-religious dimension to modern life?  Certainly the ancient Babylonians, Egyptians and Mayans incorporated their celestial truths more directly into their daily lives than do we in the 21st century.  Are the heavens to be nothing but a hazy ceiling over our earthly metropolises, unseen and forgotten by the busy citizens below?  Are they to be reduced to mere bits in the databases of our information society?  Even as the boundaries of the known universe continue to expand, are we content to retreat ever further into microcosmic virtual worlds of pure fantasy?  Meanwhile, in the world outside, our planet faces unprecedented perils of our own making, and the cosmic doomsday clock continues to count down.  Surely we must do better than this!

But can we do better?  Has the truth about our perilous position in the cosmos become too immense and too frightful for us to face?  Are our minds, evolved to meet the microcosmic exigencies of survival upon the African plain, too small and too weak to embrace the stark macrocosmic truths that our sciences have so recently gleaned?  Are we doomed to flee, as in Lovecraft’s famous prophecy, into the peace and safety of a new dark age?
"The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age."

Is there a plausible alternative to such a bleak vision?  Is there anything we humans can hope to do that is significant on the unimaginably vast scale of the cosmos?  Is there any reason at all for optimism toward the human enterprise?

Perhaps not for the foreseeable future, but what of our distant, post-human descendants – beings who might exceed us in intelligence and power as we exceed the cockroach or the protozoa?  Might they be capable of traversing intergalactic space and bending the universe to their wills like gods?  Might they harness the energy of entire galaxies, bring life and intelligence to billions of dead worlds, and explore the outermost limits of accessible reality?

If we accept this as a possibility – and our current scientific understanding does not preclude it – then the answer to my first question is an emphatic yes!  For if we are to be the ancestors of future demigods, we must first survive.  We must avoid both the self-destruction which looms ever closer on the horizon, and the cosmic annihilation which doomed so many species before us.  An asteroid might do to us what was done to the dinosaurs, or a gamma ray burst might incinerate us at any moment without warning.  In a billion years the Earth is expected to become an uninhabitable desert due to the warming sun; our galaxy will collide with the Andromeda galaxy in 3 to 5 billion years, with presumably catastrophic consequences; a black hole might swallow us up before that.  The only hope for long-term survival in such a hostile universe lies in interstellar space, in propagating intelligent life across the galaxy and beyond. 

But we might have only one shot at achieving this as explained by the visionary astrophysicist Fred Hoyle in 1964:
"We have or soon will have, exhausted the necessary physical prerequisites [necessary for maintaining a high-level civilization] so far as this planet is concerned. With coal gone, oil gone, high-grade metallic ores gone, no species however competent can make the long climb from primitive conditions to high-level technology. This is a one-shot affair. If we fail, this planetary system fails so far as intelligence is concerned. The same will be true of other planetary systems. On each of them there will be one chance, and one chance only."
As we begin to exhaust many of these physical prerequisites, and run up against the environmental consequences of consuming them so rapidly, it seems that the stakes of our civilization's global gamble couldn't be higher.  The fate of intelligent life in the universe may literally be at stake right here, right now!  Fortunately, a rational analysis of the problems suggests that there are solutions to our resource extraction challenges if we have the will to do what is necessary. 

What's more, the extraterrestrial environment is so hostile that to leave Earth in a serious way will probably require us to move beyond our primate physiologies into more flexible transhuman forms.  This means genetic modification, or some kind of instantiation into cybernetic bodies; it also means that all the old anthropocentric assumptions will have to be discarded, and along with them the religious and humanistic values that viewed man as a being created in the image of God or as the measure of all things.  

This, therefore, must be the starting point of any new myths we create: an understanding of both the vastness of the cosmic ocean and of the urgent need to expand our civilization into its waters, even if it means abandoning our very humanity.  I find such a perspective as inspiring as it is humbling and terrifying, and believe it must be adopted species-wide if we are to avoid being snuffed out soon in our earthly cradle.  I also believe humanity is ready for this cosmic vision ready to leave behind its tired old ancestral myths and move beyond our terrestrial birthplace like an insect shedding its imago.  For despite my frequent pessimism, I choose to believe, like Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking, that a still more glorious dawn awaits us!