(August 10th, 2011; revised April 15, 2012)
Perhaps you have heard somebody, or read an article by or of somebody, who once claimed that we, as the human race, already know practically everything there is to know in the world? That we’ve already made every significant discovery that there is to be made? (Maybe you’ve even thought this yourself?) It always strikes me as a particularly shallow and short-sighted viewpoint, especially considering current rapidly advancing trends and the multitude of obviously wrong viewpoints of the past and, most crucially perhaps, the vast reaches and mysteries of the universe we are continuing to discover which persistently continue to baffle even the brightest among us.
I can only wonder at how many points in our long history somebody has proclaimed such an idea—that there was nothing else of significance to be discovered in any of the sciences, even in anything at all. I have seen and heard such claims made numerous times, sometimes by friends, sometimes in articles, sometimes by scientists. And it’s not difficult to be caught up in the wonders of recent technological advances, because every breakthrough has a certain “magical” quality to it, inherent in its suddenness and in the incredible possibilities of its applications. It might seem at the time like this one can only be the pinnacle of human achievement in its field, but how often has this train of thought been wrong?
Well so far, at least when it’s been able to be demonstrated, every single time.
There is a quote I’ve always been fascinated by, from the great Arthur C. Clarke, which goes “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I think this idea rings true in so many cases, when people seem to be unwilling to accept a new idea because of how deeply it refutes previous assumptions, how deeply it seems to defy our intuition of how a thing, or an idea, is, perhaps just simply because of how outlandish it seems. But how outlandish do you think some of the most fundamental discoveries in the history of the human race seemed at the time? It is paramount that we do not dismiss anything simply because of some seemingly intuitive notion against the idea—our evolutionary upbringing may very well pit us against certain discoveries simply because they are not intuitive to our senses. Our dear senses, which are perhaps our most valuable commodities we have to make sense of the world, are extremely biased to the conditions they evolved within, and these conditions most likely did not leave room for certain technological advancements which were simply impossible by the standards of the times. They are entirely adaptive to our furthering understandings of the universe in respect to the environments in which they came to be, and could not have been carefully and selectively included into the genes of our ancestors while they were still struggling over how to most efficiently bring down a woolly mammoth or how to effectively navigate terrains by established landmarks, or just how to continue to survive, through passed-down knowledge.
When we strike out on our own into some unknown territory of knowledge, we have to be able to provide the credibility necessary to replace any ancient upbringings that might be entirely against such an idea so that we can truly recognize it as the beneficiary that it truly is. Because it will, in all likelihood, challenge our cherished beliefs and the cumulative collection of what we call “common sense.” Just think of all of the most significant technological or otherwise beneficial advances that have been made throughout history—to name a (woefully inadequate) few, in no particular order: the wheel, fire, agriculture, writing, the discovery that the world is round, the concept of “zero,” any number of psychological discoveries, germs and sanitation, domestication of animals, music, the discovery that those twinkling points of light in the sky are actually other far-away stars, calculus, Newton’s laws of motion, electricity/magnetism, x-rays, the theory of relativity, geosynchronous orbits for artificial satellites, the Internet, DNA… the list goes on. All of these have proven crucial to benefiting humankind in all of our technological prowess, quality of life, and simple mindset, and they are surely interwoven into each other and into countless other branching discoveries throughout the ages that have transformed the quality of life, or at the very least the potential to increase it, into previously-untold heights at every point along the way.
We used to think the earth was flat, but we realized that it’s actually an enormous sphere of landmasses, oceans, plate tectonics, and complicated weather patterns. We used to think the sun and the stars and planets revolved around the earth, and eventually we realized that we inhabit but one “lonely” world in the midst of all these revolving bodies revolving around other bodies revolving around still other bodies—without a “center.” We used to think that the earth was only roughly as old as recorded history, until we looked more closely at the geological records and fossils that have continuously been discovered and provided insight. We have been thoroughly humbled by many of these discoveries, but for this we have realized so many other ways to appreciate this vast, crazy universe. We used to think that a human being could never take flight into the air and soar like the birds, until some clever people finally did just that. We used to think that we’d have walked on Mars by the mid-1980s, until the political space race cooled down and we realized just how dangerous, expensive and labor-intensive it truly was. Not everything has been productive like we had begun to plan, but even in this there is profound insight. We need to know, as best we can, where our powers can be best utilized in any moment, and where we might have over-indulged our desires.
Needless to say, we’ve come a long way. And how much do we really owe to these fundamental discoveries, made by such ruthlessly curious minds, sometimes sacrificing the majority of their potential social lives, all along this way? …Words could never ever be enough. These people, these discoverers, these pioneers of our collective knowledge, sometimes made ultimate sacrifices in order to bring to light countless ideas and discoveries and laws of nature that today it sometimes seems so many of us take for granted without hardly giving any passing thought to the struggles and difficulties and personal sacrifices endured. And, at the time, these people might not have even grasped the full implications of what they were on the brink of revealing—maybe they were solving some somewhat-unrelated problem, or simply proving a point to someone, or just exploring their random curiosities. Many of them lived the rest of their lives without ever witnessing the final fruits of their endeavors that were finally more fully understood. I wonder what any of them would think if they could be resurrected from the dead, today, and shown what further discoveries their initial discoveries have led to. I do not doubt that they would be fascinated and appreciative beyond compare. And, if given the chance, they would probably delve back into “the lab” to pursue even further, sacrificing again any number of social possibilities they may otherwise have been capable of pursuing.
Who can say what sorts of unparalleled discoveries are, even at this moment, waiting on the horizon? In my own wildest imaginations I see the widespread use of teleportation, of somehow-faster-than-light space travel, of communications with extraterrestrial intelligences, of implantable knowledge-chips infusing a person’s brain with a level of expertise in a given subject such as physics or calculus or architecture or grammar or any other knowledge-base you can think of, of flying cars not reliant on crude gasoline, and so many other potentials. And of course I realize that most, if not all, of these may never see the light of reality, but who knows? Maybe with enough time they all will. Any idea that challenges the current sum of all of our knowledge may only be “ahead of the times” by some degree. Or maybe they will forever remain in the realms of the wildest imaginations. Only time will tell, but at the same time only the most dedicated pursuits will likely ever bring them forth if they really are capable achievements. A genuine breakthrough is, by definition, something that happens so suddenly that perhaps nobody had the forethought to give much consideration to it. Something leads to another, and before anyone truly realizes it, some incredible power has been harnessed, or some amazing insight has dawned on somebody, and then the future is laid bare for all it’s worth. And those that are ready, or at least in the right place at the right time, have the opportunity to seize the reins and pursue what only the wildest imaginations might have ever predicted… and what countless people would undoubtedly sacrifice a good chunk of their worldly possessions to have the chance to be a part of.
By that same definition, none of us will ever be able to accurately gauge the future of the discoveries awaiting our discovery. The highest geniuses among us may be the ones farthest along this track, but even they cannot really know what all is truly on the horizon, as close as they might be able to predict knowledgeably. And, of course, as the time frame being considered is extended, the potential for having absolutely any meaningful opinion on the matter dwindles exponentially. The discoveries to be made 50 years from now are, most likely, things that even the most hopeful imaginations have not thought up yet, let alone the brightest, most deeply-engrossed. And just consider the possibilities of a few hundred years from now. Or more! At this moment, if any one of us was shown a glimpse of such a future, we would probably shrug it off as “magic”—some expert playing an elaborate trick on us. We probably wouldn’t believe that it truly is in our future if some undeniable evidence was not given along with it.
I, just like any of us, can only dream of the incredible discoveries and breakthroughs that are to come in the glaringly bright future of our species, but I’m sure that when the time comes and when each of these such discoveries has been made and adequately documented and proven then each will, in turn, then seem like it had always been the next logical step despite any amount of vehement opposition to the idea throughout its development and implementation. We’ll wonder what took so long to find it. And long after the discoveries that are today only in our wildest imaginations, once they’ve been so engraved into common, everyday life that their origins are hardly even considered, at this point they’ll seem as trivial and “common sense” as gravity and algebra and sanitation and Newton’s laws of motion are to us today.
All of this speaks of our species’ potential, of the untold possibilities that our utterly unique (as far as we so far know) capacity to pursue knowledge and insights holds, but what if there are extraterrestrial civilizations out there so far ahead of us intellectually and knowledgeably that all of the frontiers of our thoughts are like preschool practice sessions to them? How incredible would it be to converse with them, assuming a means to do this, let alone simply be in their presence?
I do not imagine that they would just willfully hand over all their hard-won knowledge and insights, but I absolutely believe that there would be so much to learn from them simply by their cultural mannerisms and understanding of their history. It’s an ultra-generic idea in science fiction (and non-fiction) that the reality of a space-faring civilization must be the result of them having ended inter-species warfare, but the arguments really are very powerful…just look at us, spending so much of our precious resources on defense budgets and weaponry and, well, just general warfare, and all of these efforts put toward national boundary security and media censorship and the trivial bickering over petty opinions that societies create such disparage over. I don’t mean to trivialize the necessities of protecting our country (and other countries) and property rights and the like, but only that this shouldn’t need to be the case. But it would take the uncompromising cooperation of all humans for this ideal, a species-wide peacefulness, to be a reality. It is not impossible…
And this is one of the many reasons why I believe a permanent off-world settlement has one of its deepest benefits—carefully chosen, devoted members could focus on genuine problems and solutions and applications for furthering the glory perpetually hinted at by the vast frontiers of our thoughts without the distractions and the dangers and the resource-gobbling vortexes of all this mindless, unnecessary fighting amongst ourselves. And if a peace-faring, super-knowledgeable race of extraterrestrials ever does make their presence known to us, such a colony would arguably be the best suited to establish contact with them because they will be utterly devoted to the furthering of our own species’ knowledge and well-being. They will not be hindered by budget restraints due to interspecies warfare, or catastrophic damages brought upon the earth, or the general ignorance so seemingly acceptable by most citizens relative to such all-important universal scopes. Such a colony would, of course, be conversing on behalf of all mankind, but they would be presenting our side in the absence of so much “trivial” difficulty amongst ourselves. They would be able to offer the furthest advances our species has to offer, and at the same time able to accept any kind-gestured deliveries of things we have not yet unlocked on our own terms (if they do indeed have such things to offer us). With any luck, such generously administered knowledge would help us to rid our world of so much hurt and turmoil and struggles—while at the same time furthering our pursuits of what will ultimately benefit our species most of all, some unforeseeable insight perhaps, and the wings of our species could unfurl at last to make use of this updraft which will bring us ever more within the realm of all of our wildest dreams come true.
And maybe, just maybe, we would be able to offer them some sort of insight into what to do or not to do or how to go about pursuing some currently-unknown path. There’s no reason why we couldn’t offer them something in return, even if only by the demonstration of what not to do within a thriving worldwide population (although hopefully we’d have something more positive and hopeful to offer). They would almost certainly be much more advanced than us, but that doesn’t mean that they will have already experienced every possibility of something that can be learned from. Sometimes all that is needed to solve some problem is an entirely different viewpoint upon it.
We just need to reconcile with each other, come to peaceful terms on what each person on this world is inherited unto, and, most off all, stop killing each other over such things. I know it will almost certainly take many, many long years of fighting and negotiations before this can become anything close to a true reality, but long-term goals are no less important and impactful when such drastic far-reaching endeavors are considered. But it can be this way. Nothing is stopping it but our own unwillingness to compromise amongst us.
Of course I know this may sound hopelessly optimistic, but really stop and think about it. If, in the most unlikely of cases, everybody on the face of the planet could truly stop and consider such an alternative, would it not fuel the spark of so much more potential in us? But there’s too much at stake—nationality, oil and other natural resources, pride, vengeance, grudges from the past, general selfishness, and so many other such factors. And so this argument returns to the off-world settlements which might actually have the hopes of utilizing the dreams and the determinations that so many share, but are not putting genuine effort into or are impeded by so much conflict, because they will be united in their goals and in the pursuits of all that the frontiers of our thoughts have every hope of achieving as no other group in the history of our species has been able to strive for as productively as they could. Because separating a group of ourselves from that which is the most demeaning to our collective potential has never before been a reality—we’ve been stuck with each other for practically all of human history. But if a small representative collection can get away and really focus their efforts on some of the real problems of this day and age not always given the focus they deserve (not discounting the worldly problems that are, after all, best fought here on the surface) then both pursuits can grow and evolve and exceed their forbearer’s wildest dreams. We could be able to focus on both of the extremes, simultaneously and independently and cooperatively, to the benefit of all like never before.
And maybe we will live to see this day, whether it’s triggered by the arrival of a hyper-intelligent species or simply by the arrival of an agreement settling so many of the problems being addressed in this day and age by the governments of our planet. Either way, I hope that we will always be open to the endless possibilities of what scientific (and all other knowledgeable pursuits) has to offer, and put them to the highest and most practical use that their properties allow. Because who knows how useful they will prove in the future? The frontiers of our thoughts do not have an agenda of their own; it is up to us to realize them and decide how to effectively pursue them with whatever resources we have at our disposal.
Especially if we can overcome all this senseless fighting and actually make ourselves into the knowledge-seeking, life-benefiting species that we clearly have every potential to be (at least the least ruthless, unforgiving and vengeful among us), then we can construct a sail as huge and as powerful as our wildest dreams allow, and let it carry us though the turbulences of the vast universe as we work on unlocking every single hidden discovery that is ours to make sense of.
And one day we will be the hyper-intelligent, space-faring civilization bringing our knowledge and our peace-loving mannerisms to another less fortunate species struggling to overcome the national boundaries abundant in their devotions to make sense of their world. The frontiers of their thoughts will be intuitive to us, after all we’ve been through, and so we will hold an empty torch, designated for them, up to our own, which has been burning so brightly for millennia, and we will spread the power of this light onto this gift which we will pass along to them, so that they may flourish in their newfound light and in turn one day pass along the torch in their own name as we have done for them.
Such should be the fate of all civilizations. The Universe is much, much more than big enough for all of us. So let’s cooperate, amongst ourselves first and foremost, and then cooperate amongst them, whoever they might be, and help those who are struggling in the same ways we have been for so long. Everybody, and every civilization, has the ability to fly once they overcome the difficulties that have been holding them rooted to the ground. This is inherent in intelligence and reasoning, and we most certainly have these luxuries at our disposal. This is so blatantly obvious by how far we have come. 4We owe it to ourselves, by our very position in this hierarchy of life, to progress ourselves to the farthest reaches that we can achieve. The best is yet to come when we work together for a common goal and participate in the cooperative efforts of every new frontier that our thoughts become capable of understanding and shaping to our will to lay the vast potentials of this universe out before us.