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January 23, 2010

Delayed Corrections of Past Errors; how humans became a smart species with a grim future

One of human cognition's most neglected areas is our tendency to overlook a relatively simple concept: most progress in human knowledge can be seen as new information (partially) correcting widely believed errors of the past, some of which had achieved great credibility. The best known example may be when Galileo’s observations through a primitive telescope corrected the then-accepted notion of a geocentric universe. For me, the most important part of that story is the one most often omitted: that the orthodoxy that induced Urban VIII to punish Galileo for heresy still dominates human affairs; even as the existence of our species is threatened by its stubborn preference for myth over the more plausible explanations of empirical science.

There are many reasons why; one is that our highly evolved brains can't keep pace with our rapidly evolving culture. In Darwinian terms, our need to compete still trumps our ability to cooperate for our own good; thus “success” becomes vanquishing contrary ideas, even when it means preferring the siren songs of a Hitler, a Pope, or an Ayatollah over hard-headed (but uncertain) scientific reality, a process greatly enhanced by scientific ignorance. Is there any better explanation for the gutting of that most sacrosanct of all Constitutional Amendments by a gaggle of Catholic jurists added to the court by Republican presidents intent on reversing Roe v Wade?

Another reason is our well-demonstrated preference for denial; a tendency facilitated by our relatively brief life-span compared to the almost impossible-to-grasp concepts of infinity with which modern cosmologists must wrestle. In that context, it’s easy to understand why our concepts of the "future" are so truncated.

As I’ve often been moved to explain in the past, these existential warnings were not on my radar in 2001; they are a natural consequence of having to understand how the American federal bureaucracy could have been led so far astray from a more readily understandable explanation of the juvenile pot use that caught our national attention in the Sixties. That realization eventually led to others: competition, greed, and denial play critical roles in most human interactions. In fact, without them, today’s huge, technology-dependent global economy could not have evolved into an engine capable of sustaining, however imperfectly, a human population of between six and seven billion.

A key interjection at this point is that the failure of Communism demonstrated the importance of consumer rewards in balancing the drudgery and repression intrinsic to planned economies; however Capitalism has its own problems. One is that population growth has been a continuing requirement for “success.” In other words, is prosperity even possible in a shrinking economy? We have yet to find out.

At the same time, the most troubling problem facing the world's economy may be its dependence, since the Industrial Revolution began, on population growth and competition, both of which were also greatly facilitated by scientific technology. Unfortunately, the most recent scientific discoveries now suggest that exploitation of the Earth’s resources may have been overdone to a point that forces us to conserve and recycle more efficiently even as we must also consider replacing major energy sources; all without any assurance that they could be accomplished soon enough or, as importantly, that political stability could be maintained during whatever interval proves necessary.

Given current levels of global strife, the track record of international decision making, and currently favored methods for conflict resolution, the smart money would have to bet against "success."

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at January 23, 2010 06:13 PM