Here I will give a reply in two parts, the second much longer than the first, so those who just want the short of it will know where to stop, while those who want to fully hear me out on this can go on to the rest.
Part I: The Short of It
Even theism is slowly evolving into atheism, if you look at the broader trends, as pockets of fundamentalism continue to shrink. Even the larger networks of para-fundamentalism are draining, as members increasingly flee to more liberal religious notions, which essentially trend in the direction of humanistic deism, which is just a stop on the road to secular humanism. It isn't happening as fast as many claim, but it is happening. But regardless of where that trend will end, as I argue in Sense and Goodness without God (pp. 303-07), the overall trend throughout society is toward a safer, healthier, more moral world.
But our discussion focused mainly on the merits of technology in this grand picture. Neopagans seem distrustful of technology. And some accuse me of having too much faith in it. Once at an event in Ventura an atheist came up to me and claimed environmental over-exploitation led to the fall of Roman Empire and will soon lead to the fall of the American Empire (and oddly someone in San Francisco asked me about a similar analogy just recently). Being an expert in Roman history and technology, I knew the first premise wasn't true. The failure of the Roman Empire was political, not economic. Economic causes contributed, but were only able to affect the situation because of political failures. And those economic disasters were not caused by dwindling resources anyway (much less "environ-mental over-exploitation"), but by loss of faith in the fiduciary value of the currency produced by an empire that had been locked in a destructive civil war for fifty years. All of this would have been averted by successfully enacting an effective constitutional government ensuring the peaceful succession of power. But that didn't happen (and was unlikely to), thus dooming the empire, as all empires that fail at this are doomed. History proves that out.
Though "environmental over-exploitation" was certainly a reality in the Roman Empire, and caused a great many problems that better resource management could have averted, it didn't cause the empire's demise, and probably never would have. For the reality is, in any society that solves problems with technological innovation, technology can always compensate for the effects of environmental damage and declining resources. That had already been proven by the Romans themselves. Their solution to damaged and declining fresh water resources was one of the wonders of the ancient world. Less well known are all the many ways they actually continued to increase agricultural output even as they were reducing the fertility of the land. They would have met the growing challenges of dwindling fuel supplies the same way (coal exploitation was only just beginning in Roman England, and we all know now how much more there was yet to dig out of the ground, and what the Romans could have done with it). And so on for everything else.
Which incidentally is exactly what America has also done. We are using the same solution to the same water problem: technological innovation. We are using the same solution to the same agricultural problem. And now we are using the same solution to the same fuel problem. Which, as with the Romans, is only now starting to hit us, long after we faced the earlier hurdles of water and agriculture, though the issue of water is now returning and we are back to tackling it again. Same problem, same solution. And history shows it pretty much always works. We're just a million times better at it now, thanks to the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions and the three centuries of intellectual capital and infrastructure development that ensued. Which is why if resource depletion and "environmental over-exploitation" didn't topple Rome (and it didn't), it certainly won't topple America. It was only when technology and innovation declined, after Rome fell, that the effects of environmental exploitation caught up with the world and did it in. Gradually, technology and innovation returned, accelerated, and eventually brought us the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution.
After explaining all this to the gentleman in Ventura who made that claim, he responded with a creepy smile, "Oh, so you're a technophile!" evidently confusing values with facts. Just because it is a fact that technology can overcome any environmental loss does not mean I think over-exploiting the environment is okay or that we shouldn't pursue renewable technologies as much as possible or that the best solution is always another technology (since oftentimes less is more). To the contrary, it obviously makes more sense to do things well in the first place, and not have to invent ways to solve the problems that lousy management and bad design create. But nevertheless, we can always invent ways to solve the problems that lousy management and bad design create. I know this, because I have two thousand years of history proving the point, more times than I can count.
Of course, technology only works when you use it. Population growth is a serious environmental problem, for example, but we solved that one decades ago--people just refuse to use all the technologies we invented for the purpose, many because of superstitious voodoo beliefs promulgated by an uppity potentate who thinks he was chosen by God, others because of primitive stupidities opposing the liberation of women, still others because First World countries who ought to know better, can't figure out that funding the sound use of technologies in Third World countries will actually benefit the First World countries more than amply to justify the cost. And so on. But these are all political failures, ideological failures. That's where our focus should be, because it's those things that are getting in our way, not technology. Similarly, the problems technology creates are largely the result of similar stupidities on the political and ideological stage. Technology must be used wisely to work. Thus increasing our wisdom is what we should focus on, not abandoning technology (which, apparently, is the argument of Earth 2100, though that series outrageously exaggerates what will otherwise happen--indeed, exaggerates beyond all rational plausibility--but that's typical of the media).
I encountered a similar pessimism about technological progress in my discussion with Haukur the Neopagan. And that's where my longer digression begins...
Part II: The Long of It
In what follows, I respond to quotations from comments made in that Tao Te Ching thread. Leading up to this, I had defended the point against Haukur that nature is indifferent to us and the source of considerable threat and harm to our interests (as much as also the source of considerable benefit and good), that we have reduced or defeated a great many of her threats (and amplified her benefits) with social and technological advances, and that most problems even of our own creation will eventually be solved by future advances in technology and society--as long as things continue as they so far have been going, and right now I have no reason to believe they won't (though I remain vigilant). Only an extreme (and extremely improbable) global disaster could throw us back into another Dark Age. And even that might only delay or slow things down. After all, we recovered from the last Dark Age, and continued advancing on, well beyond the Romans. It just took a bit of time.
Haukur said... When I try to predict the future I find it difficult to believe that the present period of peace and prosperity (in the West) will continue indefinitely.
That's beside the point. WWI and WWII, even the Civil War, did nothing to slow social and technological progress. To the contrary, in many ways they accelerated them--apart from advances they spurred in technology and industry, women's suffrage in the U.S. was largely a consequence of the lesson of WWI that women were vital to modern warfare, a fact proven almost immediately in WWII; Japan became a free democratic nation, and in a near reversal of its previous course, is now a master of technology and science surpassing in some cases even the U.S.; the Civil War ended slavery, industrialized the South, and expanded all our civil rights with the 14th Amendment; etc.
War still sucks, and I'd rather go slower if that's the cost of peace, but the inevitability of future wars is not going to change our present course any more than past wars did. What would have to happen is something far more catastrophic. Like a severe asteroid impact or a nuclear attack on numerous major American cities. Indeed, the destruction of a few cities wouldn't even be enough, it would have to be a lot more than that. As we can see from the history of Germany and Japan, mind-bogglingly vast erasure of economic infrastructure and human capital from endless firebombing, even the nuking of two major cities, had practically no effect on the advancement of those nations. It's only been fifty years and look at them today. Compare them now with where they were in 1938 or even 1910.
There are often brief cyclic reversals (McCarthyism, Nazism, the Great Depression, even the present economic downturn) but history so far shows these are quickly overwhelmed by the stronger forces of social progress. That's why it would take a hell of a lot more than the worst things that have ever happened since the fall of Rome, to finally throw civilization off track again.
Haukur said... Our current civilization has enormous potential for destroying itself.
So does nature. Just one Shoemaker-Levy and we're done for. It's just not likely. Neither is our own self-destruction. Killing the human race is a lot harder than you think.
Haukur said... Weirdly, this is something most people understood 20 years ago but don't anymore.
Actually, there was a lot of irrationality in that. Almost every film and novel depicting total nuclear warfare greatly exaggerated the actual effects of such a thing, and exaggerated even more the ease with which it could occur in the first place. What scared people 20 years ago was mainly rhetoric--the bluster of two nations in a Cold War, whose only viable weapons were threats they were never going to carry out. Now such a war is even less likely than it was then. And it was pretty unlikely then.
Yet if such a war occurs, and it is on a truly global scale (and not a localized skirmish, like Iran and Israel nuking each other, which wouldn't much affect the long term course of global civilization), that could derail the current pace of social and technological development. In the worst case scenario, it could give us a few hundred years of Road Warrior. Or, to go back to a real example, another early Middle Ages, since the outcome of such a war would be in most respects identical to the fall of the Roman Empire. But it wouldn't wipe us out, it wouldn't produce armies of mutant zombies, and wouldn't prevent another recovery eventually--another Renaissance, Enlightenment, and Industrial, Scientific, and Democratic Revolutions--when we'd get to try again.
Even biowarfare can't do it. As with Small Pox and the Plague, a percentage of the population is always immune, and virulence always declines as a germ spreads. And chemwarfare certainly can't cut it, since it's beyond anyone's economic or industrial ability to make enough chemicals to wipe everyone out. By the nature of the case, all capacity to make chemicals would be lost long before completing the task (since killing the people kills the labor and infrastructure necessary to continue the manufacturing). Nor will global warming do it. We know for a fact the earth has been far hotter than even the worst global warming projections predict, with far higher concentrations of CO2 than we will ever produce, and yet life still thrived in those periods. And humans already have the technological means to ensure we're among the survivors should this happen again.
Not that any of these things wouldn't suck, or couldn't throw us back into a new Dark Age if they occurred with enough severity. But they won't end the human race. So far only nature has the power to do that. She has bombs so big they can melt entire planets. We couldn't even do that if we tried.
Haukur said... Can we really keep the peace for the decades to come?
We have for centuries so far, despite terrible wars, plagues, and economic collapses. Not decades. Centuries. Why would you not expect centuries more?
Haukur said... And can we really transition to a much lower use of fossil fuels?
We will have done so within two hundred years. Guaranteed. Unless, as I've said, the catastrophic happens and the reset button is pushed and another Dark Age intervenes. But even that will only delay the inevitable. Just as it did before. As a historian I see and think in the long haul: I see the world in centuries and millennia, not decades. Most people have such a narrow view of history they fail to see the big picture.
All the things that frustrate you now are trivial in the long run. Oil companies and their graft and greed and lobbying don't matter for sh*t. A hundred years and they're done for. They can't stop it. They are doomed. Within fifty to a hundred years alt power (like solar, wind, seismic, and thermal) and alt fuels (like algal biofuels, hydrogens, and other artificial fuels), will be so cheap, oil won't be able to compete, and materials science will have advanced so far we will be able to cheaply manufacture plastics without petroleum. We won't run out of oil by then (despite repeatedly failed predictions we will), we just won't have any reason to buy that expensive crap anymore. Apart from those world-shaking catastrophes I skimmed earlier, there is nothing that can stop this from happening, any more than anything could have stopped the electric light, the television, the internet, or the iPod. Cities were lit with gas lamps a hundred years ago. They will be lit with a combination of local solar, thermal and seismic power a hundred years from now (just as emergency phones on freeways already are). The gas lamp companies couldn't stop the electric light. The oil companies won't fare any better. It won't happen in "decades," but it will happen. History proves it, logic confirms it. And science explains why.
Haukur said... How can we do that? Either we need some really accelerated technological innovation in this field (something which tends to be blithely assumed with, in my opinion, far too little evidence) or we are going to have to adapt to a drastically lowered level of energy usage.
First: Why does it have to be accelerated in order to happen? From the first electric generator to the television took over a hundred years. Why are you so insistent such developments must happen in ten years or it won't happen at all? That's not how progress works. Even the abolition of slavery took nearly a hundred years after the Bill of Rights; women's suffrage, over a hundred years. Yes, faster would be better. But realistically, history shows that's just not how it works.
Second: We already have "drastically lowered level of energy usage." Almost every single technology today uses far less energy to do the same work than its counterpart eighty or a hundred years ago. Right now we are already transitioning from incandescent to diode lighting, a tenfold increase in energy efficiency, and advancing (LED efficiency has doubled every three years since 1960 and shows no signs of stopping yet). That took fifty years to begin, and will probably take fifty years to effectively complete. And that will happen. It's already happening, and there is nothing likely that will stop it. Yes, increases in population and per capita production have increased overall energy consumption, but this has driven and motivated the very advances that will solve all energy problems in the long run. It will suck for a while, and occasionally more than usual. But not forever, and not catastrophically.
Third: We have always had the strongest incentive to make these advances. Power costs money, so the less power you need to do the same stuff, the more money you make. This basic principle has driven technological advances in energy efficiency for the last fifty years and will continue to do so for the next fifty, and beyond. What is most frequently not understood today is that oil survives as our principle fuel not because of stupidity or politics or corruption, but because it is simply cheaper than every other alternative--far cheaper, in fact.
Large-scale electricity supply is an obvious exception due to efficiencies of scale, but notably we had that solved decades ago--nuclear power. People are just too stupid and scared to use it, another example of refusing to use the technology we already have. Although now the innovation of solar-thermal power is actually a better alternative to nuclear (and won't be blocked by superstitious fear), and such plants are now starting to appear in the U.S. and will inevitably replace all coal and natural gas plants within fifty to a hundred years.
Otherwise, electric cars, trucks and trains will replace gas once we develop batteries that are light and cheap enough--and technologies like supercapacitors are already in the works, which will solve that problem soundly in less than fifty years. Local power generation (e.g. solar panels on homes, seismic generators on bridges and street lamps, small wind turbines on the roofs of hospitals, etc.) will rise as the cost of manufacturing and maintaining the necessary equipment declines. And alt fuels will ultimately become cheaper than mined-and-processed oil. It's just a matter of time. As history teaches us, you can only quibble about when, not if.
Haukur said... The second possibility will be hard to do peacefully and however it happens it is likely to lead to less affluent lives for our descendants.
That depends on how you define affluence. It is often remarked that Swedes have much lower incomes than Americans, yet Swedes have so much affluence available to them from public services (e.g. health care, mass transit, vacation laws, etc.) that their real net wealth is by some accounts actually greater than the average American's.
Similarly, to replicate fifty years ago the wealth we have available to us today due to increases in productive efficiency and advances in technology would entail the same conclusion: that we are vastly wealthier now than our parallel selves would have been then.
For example, imagine what it would have cost in 1960 to have all the then-equivalent capabilities of an iPod, cellphone, computer, and cable and internet service. And that's just some of the things you have at low cost. That's how wealthy you are now. You're fat rich. We just obsess so much over dollarsigns and the remaining failures of our social system (almost entirely represented in the cost of housing and health care), that we fail to see how affluent we actually are.
Now project fifty years into the future. What will your parallel self have then? What would it comparatively cost today to have the equivalent capabilities?
Pay attention to history. It teaches us the future. I do think eventually we will start getting by with less, but by then, "less" will actually be considerably more than we have now.
Haukur said... ...the more actively [atheist bloggers] want to embrace atheism and rationalism, the more they tend to embrace super-optimistic ideas about the future.
I'm a realist. Realists base their predictions of the future on the examples of the past. If the result looks optimistic to you, you are the one being unrealistic, not the optimists.
But we must take care not to confuse hope with prediction. I can talk about what I want the future to be, and what I think it could be if certain things happened that are unlikely to happen (like the widespread embrace of secular humanism and naturalism) unless I promote this causal connection and make it happen (which is presumably what most "atheist bloggers" are doing). But that's not the same thing as making predictions about what's likely to actually happen.
That things will go better if we embrace secular humanism is a reason for promoting secular humanism, just as much as it was a reason to promote democracy and human rights (and those have turned out pretty well where they were achieved). Such promotion thus requires describing the possible future that will result. That shouldn't be mistaken for optimism. It's instead an argument for change. Hence I distinguish that project from making realistic predictions about what is most likely going to happen given the way things actually are so far.
If in doing the latter anyone sounds excessively optimistic, it may simply be because they are downplaying the bad things that will still plague us or pop up in new forms, and choosing instead to emphasize the markers of progress that will be realized. Or it may be because their time-scales are unrealistic. Typically great advances take centuries, not decades. But only rarely do I see people predicting things that will never happen. Take space colonization for example: I doubt we will see any steps toward that even in the next hundred years (much less the next twenty), but five hundred years from now it will be a practical certainty.
Haukur said... Getting yourself cryogenically preserved becomes "massively overdetermined", even at 100K$ a pop.
I don't understand what the phrase "massively overdetermined" means in this context. Cryogenics advocates are advocating present technologies, not future ones, except insofar as they assume future technologies will be able to remake them from the material that present technologies are supposed to preserve, and on that point they are absolutely right. The technologies they expect will exist some day. That's inevitable.
The only questions are (a) do any present technologies really have the ability to preserve the necessary information (personally, I doubt it, but that's not a prediction of the future, it's a judgment of the existing technologies) and (b) can they preserve it long enough (since body and brain reconstruction from any stored material will not be available for at least a hundred years, possibly two hundred). As to what it costs, that's again just a present reality, and not relevant to future predictions. In two hundred years I predict resurrection will not only be readily available, it will be as common and affordable as a cable TV subscription is today. In fact, it will probably be a standard component of life and health insurance policies.
Haukur said... [Or claims that] the "Singularity" is just around the corner.
I agree the Singularity stuff is often muddled nonsense. I just don't know many advocates of it. Those who do advocate it are often unrealistic about the physical limits of technology, and particularly the nature of IQ. They base their "predictions" on two implausible assumptions: that advancement of IQ is potentially unlimited (I am fairly certain it will be bounded by complexity theory: at a certain point it just won't be possible to think any faster or sounder or more creatively) and that high IQ is predictive of accelerating technological advancement. History proves otherwise: even people ten times smarter than people like me produce no more extensive or revolutionary technological or scientific output, much less invent more technologies or make more discoveries--in fact, by some accounts they often produce less in those regards than people of more modest (though still high) intelligence.
However, Singularity fans are right about two things: machines will outthink humans (and be designing better versions of themselves than we ever could) within fifty to a hundred years (if advocates predict this will happen sooner, then they are being unrealistic), and the pace of technological advancement will accelerate. However, this is already accounted for by existing models of technological advancement, e.g. Moore's Law holds that computers double in processing power every three years, Haik's Law holds that LED's double in efficiency every three years, and so on (similar laws probably hold for other technologies, these are just two that have been proven so far). Thus, that technological progress accelerates is already predicted. The Singularity simply describes one way this pace will be maintained: by the recruitment of AI.
It therefore doesn't predict anything remarkable, and certainly doesn't deserve such a pretentious name. Because there will be a limit, an end point, and it won't resemble a Singularity: there is a physical limit on how fast thoughts can be thunk and how fast manufacturing can occur, quantum mechanical limits that can never be overcome, by any technology. Once we reach that point, the pace of technological advancement will cease to be geometric and will become linear, or in some cases stop altogether. For instance, once we reach the quantum mechanical limit of computational speed and component size, no further advances will be possible in terms of Moore's Law (even Kurzweil's theory that it will continue in the form of expansion in size ignores the fact that we can already do this now, yet we don't see moon-sized computers anywhere--a fact that reveals an importantly overlooked reality: what things cost).
Ironically, the same has been discovered about actual singularities: they, too, don't really exist, and for the same quantum mechanical reasons (see my discussion here).
Haukur said... I found an atheist blogger (and a good one too) who's still holding out for neuroscience to tell him whether beliefs and desires are real or not.
He is only being unrealistic if his time-scale is too small. Otherwise, he is quite right to expect this. We are already building unbeatable lie detectors with existing brain scan equipment. With a hundred more years of progress in brain scanning resolution we will inevitably be able to map every single brain process down to the individual synapse and firing event. Once we can do that, we will be able to locate exactly where beliefs and desires exist in the brain, exactly what they consist of (both physically and computationally), and be able to fully explain why they exist and how they work. You can bank on it. You just won't likely live long enough to collect. :-)