On Essays and Letters

“If we say that human civilization has existed for about a millionth of the age of this Galaxy, we may not be far wrong.” —Arthur C. Clarke, 1963.

On every side, we are besieged with theories telling us that, due to man, we are depriving future generations of what they will need to survive in ages when we ourselves will not exist. The mood of these concerns is mostly political. On the supposition that such theories are true about the planet literally “running out of gas,” we are introduced to a new political agenda, the control agenda. We must control our population, our consumption, our desires even. We live not in an abundant cosmos, but in a constricted one. We cannot imagine anything but what we have. Therefore, we will make decisions about the future of those after our time based solely on what we now know. The edge is off the old optimistic and progressive theses.

The title of these reflections comes from the last essay in Arthur Clarke’s Profiles of the Future. The book is dedicated to a colleague of Clarke’s in an organization called “The Institute of Twenty-First Century Studies.” (I checked Google for an “Institute for the Twenty-Second Century.” None showed up but many entries on the next century are already in place). Clarke names a colleague, Hugo Gernsback, who, in Clark’s view, “thought of everything.” No doubt we would all like to meet this phenomenon just to find out if there is something he has not thought of!

On the back cover of the book, we are told: “No! This is not science fiction. This is how we will actually live in the year 2100 A. D. when gravity will be controlled by man, when Mars will be colonized, when machines will be more intelligent than the most intelligent human beings!” Finally, we are informed that this book is “an amazing forecast of the most probable world of tomorrow, based on the most sophisticated concepts of modern science and technology.” Whew! That is only ninety years away.

But if we compare 1910 to 2010, we can see that a lot of things came into being in a hundred years. Few in 1910 thought we would be on the Moon in less than sixty years. Yet, 2010 does not seem to bear the same enthusiasm about the future as existed even forty years ago. We are concerned with earth warming and the exhaustion of resources, not with settling on Mars. We suspect that once we have a colony on Mars, the same old signs of original sin will reappear there among them.

Clarke begins his last essay by telling us that he did not pay enough attention in the book to “medical and biological themes.” This correction has been surely been made in the meantime. He thinks, like Huxley in the Island of Dr. Moreau, that our descendants will “use many intelligent animals to do jobs that could otherwise be performed by very sophisticated robots.” We see this in efforts to combine human and animal genes, a kind of reintroduction of a natural slave intelligent enough to work for us but too dull to have an immortal soul. Indeed, Clarke’s proposal to replace machines or robots with animals is almost the reverse of Aristotle who predicted that if we could develop a machine that moved by itself, we would not need slavery.

Clarke sees a universal “logical” language which can make no errors. He even suspects two kinds of language will be needed, one to speak of our emotions and the other of logical connections. We will make other planets capable of bearing our kind. We will find other such beings as ourselves elsewhere in the universe. With enough time, rational beings could learn to manipulate not only planets, but galaxies. Clarke speaks of a brilliant ray, extending hundreds of light years into space from Virgo A, M 87. No one quite knows what it is. There may be a natural explanation for this phenomenon which we do not yet know. “But it is tempting to speculate about the alternative.” Maybe this jet is a rational signal across galaxies. But it could be a weapon, or even a religious act, something like the Pyramids of Egypt.

We need more than brief human lifetimes to carry out such projects. We need stability of culture over time that, not unlike the building of cathedrals, takes long periods to complete beyond one person’s life. We think that the past has been a long, but it may be nothing compared to our future. Our Sun can go on for billions of years before it becomes a red dwarf. Even then, we might be able to move planets closer to the cooling Sun to keep us warm against the new Ice Age.

At this point, however, Clarke cites a passage of Bertrand Russell in which he prophesies that all the works of human hands will fail. “Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruin.” Such dire things are bound to happen. To this awesome prediction, Clarke responds calmly: “This may be true enough; yet the ruin of the universe is so inconceivably far ahead that it can never be any direct concern of our species.” Apocalypse is not now. Where does this delay of billions of years leave us?

The galaxy we live in seems rather to be at its beginning, not at its end of its cycle. Clarke, ever optimistic, thinks that the “real history of the universe” may only begin when our Sun, and thus our species, is burned out. If this result is so, we must surely wonder if we, our kind, amount to anything at all. Yet, perhaps not just billion but trillions and trillions of years lie ahead. The creatures that survive such cosmic events, whatever they look like, will have “time enough…to attempt all things, and to gather all knowledge.” It is as if such knowledge should be gathered by knowing beings. Clarke, unlike Plato, does not comment on why this completion of knowledge might be so.

What sort of creatures will the ones who know be? “They will not be like gods.” Why not? “No gods imagined by our minds have ever possessed the powers they will command.” One wonders what sort of theology books Clarke has read, for these are commonplace concerns ever since men began to speculate about the heavens and the earth. Finally, Clarke has a flicker of a second thought about this futurology. This is his last sentence: “But for all that, they may envy us, basking in the bright afterglow of Creation for we knew the universe when it was young.” Pity the poor earth warmers. One wonders just why the universe itself, so to speak, might “envy” us. Is it simply because we are at the beginning? Could it be of our power to know itself?

When one reads such analyses of the inner-galactic future of the cosmos, he always is struck by its unacknowledged theological overtones. We find the constant effort to find some purpose to the universe and human life within it. We are told of vast intelligence that is involved in the organization of the cosmos. It seems to be mind but not God. All the while, we wonder about our place. We seem to be the only beings that do wonder about these things. We have not yet contacted others that also think, in spite of our mighty efforts. They may be there, but to this point we are alone. Whether we are in the beginning or the end of the cosmos seems related to whether the human race is at its beginning or end.

The value of reading Clarke’s essay some forty years after it was published is that it is a measure of the fads and cycles of mankind about its own relation to the earth on which it dwells. Clarke was worried about an almost infinite future. We are worried abut running out of just about everything just to keep us alive down the next century. Clarke’s book, like Socrates, even speaks of “immortality.” We contemporaries speak only of keeping us alive as long as possible in this world as nothing else is available. We want no expensive adventures into the cosmos.

Clarke’s friend “thought of everything.” The sub-title of the book is “the limits of the possible.” Again, these are theological themes that are likewise addressed in Aquinas and the philosophers. Clarke speaks of the future of the species man, of the cosmos. What he does not address is the future of Socrates and Mary and Suzie, of the individuals of the species who live four score years and ten in this world. We are fascinated with what man can and cannot know. Whether we think the earth will fail soon or in eons down the “long twilight,” we have, on that score, but little to say to the real person who knows anything at all. The mystery of the universe is not its age, size, depth, or future, but the fact that, within it, we find someone who seeks to know what it is. The universe itself does not seek this knowledge. Yet, we suspect, it is not complete without it. This conclusion does not mean that the human mind puts order in the universe. Rather it means that it finds it already there.

This is why it can know it.

James V. Schall, S.J. is professor of government at Georgetown University.

2010 does not seem to bear the same enthusiasm about the future as existed even forty years ago.