Sunday, December 12, 2021

The Paradox at the End of Modernity

Modernity can be defined as a culture of faith in progress: newer can be better, should be better, is better. The engine of progress is science. Science is a process of refining our understanding of the world. We are constantly learning about the world, correcting our misunderstandings and extending the frontiers of our knowledge. Science doesn't go backwards. Tomorrow's science is better than yesterday's science. We can use our constantly improving scientific understanding to improve conditions in the world around us, to cure diseases, increase crop yields, etc.

This vision of progress based on science was elaborated by Francis Bacon in the early 17th Century, at the beginning of the modern era. The road of progress we can see in front of us remains limitless. Colonizing Mars, autonomous robots, the extension of life expectancy to multiple centuries and beyond... what barrier can we not imagine transcending? And if we can imagine it, step by step we can use the scientific method to resolve whatever problems limit our ability to achieve it.

On the other hand, as science refines our understanding of the world, it reveals some very challenging limits. Of course the way science understands limits on one day may be overturned the next day. Perhaps the rudest limit science has discovered is the speed of light. As the vastness of the universe has been revealed to us, so has its remoteness. Will we figure out some clever way to leap across distances of thousands of light years? This might be the most elementary form of the paradox we are caught in. An irresistable force is contending against an immovable object. What will happen?

Back down on earth, of course, the speed of light doesn't seem like anything worth much worry. We have plenty of technical problems with much more immediate impact. The general problem of global resources: climate change, water, biodiversity; this problem is foremost among our challenges. Pandemics such as covid-19 are to some degree a result of humanity running up against planetary limits, but there is also the problem of pathogens evolving to evade our countermeasures. Our problems can get worse more quickly than our pace of finding new solutions.

At this point, it is not too farfetched to observe that our progress in scientific understanding is revealing more about the limits to our technical progress than it is enabling further technical progress... "technical" meaning our ability to improve our world.

Nowadays it is very easy to find literature championing each of the two poles of this paradox. There are books that show how things have always been improving and will continue to improve. There are books that map out the trajectory of the collapse of modern civilization that we are riding along.

Will the irresistable force succeed in dislodging the immovable object, or will it be defeated?

Paradoxes, like the paradox of progress that we are caught in today, are not generally resolved by the victory of one pole over the other. In general some kind of deeper understanding of the apparent contradiction is required. A good starting point is simply acknowledging that we really are facing a paradox. It would be foolish to dismiss either the vitality of scientific progress or the reality of the planetary limits to growth. To develop a new understanding of our situation that can encompass these two aspects, that is the challenge we face.

I found Kurasawa's film Dreams to be a wonderful vision of how we got here and where might might be heading. The final segment is "The Village of the Watermills," where we see a joyful celebration of a funeral. Death is a reality. However over the top the visions of the colonization of Mars might be, the visions of human immortality make those look very tame. We really do need to grow up and learn, not just to accept our limited situation, but to cherish it. A joyful funeral is one way to do this. But how we age, that is another vital dimension. What can it mean, to be healthy and old? To be healthy and dying? Such a vision might provide a model for our modern civilization as it runs up against planetary limits.