Monday, December 27, 2010

The reified future

From J. D. Bernal, "The World, the Flesh, and the Devil" (1929):
The whole question is one largely of numbers, and would become entirely so as soon as the quantity and quality of population were controlled by authority. From one point of view the scientists would emerge as a new species and leave humanity behind; from another, humanity - the humanity that counts - might seem to change en bloc, leaving behind in a relatively primitive state those too stupid or too stubborn to change. The latter view suggests another biological analogy: there may not be room for both types in the same world and the old mechanism of extinction will come into play. The better organized beings will be obliged in self-defense to reduce the numbers of the others, until they are no longer seriously inconvenienced by them. If, as we may well suppose, the colonization of space will have taken place or be taking place while these changes are occurring, it may offer a very convenient solution. Mankind - the old mankind - would be left in undisputed possession of the earth, to be regarded by the inhabitants of the celestial spheres with a curious reverence. The world might, in fact, be transformed into a human zoo, a zoo so intelligently managed that its inhabitants are not aware that they are there merely for the purposes of observation and experiment.
That prospect should please both sides: it should satisfy the scientists in their aspirations towards further knowledge and further experience, and the humanists in their looking for the good life on earth. But somehow it fails by the very virtue of its being a possible and probable solutions on the lines of our own knowledge. We do not really expect or want the probable; all, even the least religious, retain in their minds when they think of the future, an idea of the deus ex machina, of some transcendental, superhuman event which will, without their help, bring the universe to perfection or destruction. We want the future to be mysterious and full of supernatural power; and yet these very aspirations, so totally removed from the physical world, have built this material civilization and will go on building it into the future so long as there remains any relation between aspiration and action. But can we count on this? Or, rather, have we not here the criterion which will decide the direction of human development? We are on the point of being able to see the effects of our actions and their probable consequences in the future; we hold the future still timidly, but perceive it for the first time, as a function of our own action. Having seen it, are we to to turn away from something that offends the very nature of our earliest desires, or is the recognition of our new powers sufficient to change those desires into the service of the future which they will have to bring about?
(emphasis added) 

Interesting to note that he classes "[man's] desires and fears, his imaginations and stupidities" under the Devil.

Note too the tight relationship between the notions of "science" and "the future"  (of which the making of both into opaque things is only a facet) -- as expressed here, they're co-dependent.


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