The year’s end is traditionally a time for retrospection but also for looking ahead. December 31 should be a holiday in its own right, not a mere preface to New Year’s but rather equal in status. It’s a perfect time to consider Martin Rees’s book On the Future: Prospects for Humanity, first published in 2018 and now reissued with a new preface by the author. Talking about “the future” quite naturally involves talking about “the past.”
I mean no disrespect to the publisher of On the Future, Princeton University Press (whose imprint I revere), nor to the distinguished astronomer Martin Rees (whose books for a general audience I have routinely read with profit over the years; “Astronomer Royal” is his title, and he is a co-founder of The Centre for the Study of Existential Risk) when I observe that this book would be much more interesting if it were a novel, identical with Rees’s text but composed with fiendish, deadpan ingenuity by a writer seeking to illuminate the pretensions of a familiar pontificating genre draped in the mantle of Science with a capital “S.” (When I learned of the existence of “The Centre for the Study of Existential Risk,” I immediately began to think about which contemporary satirist might be the ideal one to build an irresistible work of fiction on this trope.)
My own preference, when thinking about the future, is to emphasize the degree to which it is likely to differ from our expectations, while acknowledging that some outcomes are more likely than others. As I have reported on other occasions, I grew up in a setting (“evangelical,” it might be labeled in retrospect) in which my fellow (mostly Baptist) churchgoers talked earnestly about the prophetic significance of the founding of the State of Israel and more generally about the proximity of the “End Times.” This was in the early 1950s, in Southern California. As the decade advanced, I began to notice—though I couldn't have articulated it at the time—that this talk seemed wildly disconnected from the everyday decisions and preoccupations of most of the people we knew. And when I began to read a lot of science fiction, starting around the age of ten, I gradually grasped the possibility that we (that is, humanity) might be much earlier in our history than I had been encouraged to suppose. I want to stress the word “possibility.” As a Christian, I hold firmly to the promise in Acts 3:21 (my favorite verse) that we can look forward to “the restoration of all things” while emphasizing the folly of dogmatism about the timing of this consummation and the form it will take, matters that clearly exceed our grasp.
How far does my sense of “the folly of dogmatism” extend? When Martin Rees observes that “Organic creatures need a planetary surface environment, but if posthumans make the transition to fully inorganic intelligences, they won’t need an atmosphere,” or when he writes on the following page that “by any definition of ‘thinking,’ the amount and intensity of thinking that’s done by organic human-type brains will be utterly swamped by the cerebrations of AI,” is my reluctance to assent a sign that I am still in thrall to fundamentalist dogmatism? I don’t think so. And when I find Rees blandly asserting that “Science, optimally employed, could offer a bright future for the nine or ten billion people who will inhabit the Earth in 2050,” or that “Our civilisation is moulded by innovations that stem from scientific advances and the consequent deepening understanding of nature,” I am reminded of the Academy of Lagado in Gulliver’s Travels.
Of course, Rees himself frequently acknowledges that the findings of “science” can be misused. But then he proceeds, unruffled, to utter banalities such as one might find in a dumbed-down magazine article: “The erosion of routine work and lifelong jobs will stimulate ‘lifelong learning.’” Satirists, start your engines. I enjoyed this one too: “Our knowledge of space and time is incomplete.” And many readers of First Things will relish the conclusion of the section titled “What About God?,” in which Rees counsels fellow atheists to downplay attacks on “mainstream religion”; the wise atheist “must be aware of ‘religious’ people who are manifestly neither unintelligent nor naïve” but who could easily be driven by forthright criticism into the embrace of “fundamentalism and fanaticism,” a sort of Nicodemism in reverse.
Whether read straight or, as I counsel, as a brilliant fiction, On the Future will beguile you as you begin 2022, the “future” mysteriously becoming “the present” and then “the past.”
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.
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