The Optimists

A better understanding of our genetic make-up will empower us to tackle all diseases, eliminate sickness and prolong life expectancy beyond 100 years

Most of us are concerned by the acute problems of climate change, scary pollution, scarcity of water and food for the 7.4 billion people on the blue marble – so we are befuddled by those few who are still very optimistic about our future. Their argument is that when they look at our ancestors, some 1000 years ago, when most people had no technological assets and were less happy and how we have progressed to our present state, they allow themselves the luxury of indulging in some extrapolation and predicting a better future for us all. Are we are on the verge of greater and more promising technological breakthroughs? Right now, we just have to work out a method to solve these two thorny problems: (1) excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and (2) produce very cheap energy. That should solve most of our social headaches and open up a modern Eldorado for the planet.

Since the Second World War, Europeans have been enjoying some seven decades of peace. And true to their scientific inquisitiveness, they are asking themselves what are the factors that have contributed to that higher sense of comfort and happiness. Were they the scientific discoveries and new market strategies? Or does it have to do with their rational thinking and total abandonment of superstitious beliefs and religious practices? If so, should the same prescription be extended to all countries? It is becoming obvious that countries like Japan, Korea and China, which have adopted Western concepts and practices in economics and other disciplines whilst at the same time discarding superstitious beliefs have grown to become richer and more stable.

Of course there’s the other side of the coin: people have to work hard, strive for better social cohesion, adhere to a lot of discipline and laws, and find ways to produce more food – though at times through questionable processes like mass fishing and unorthodox farming styles, which unfortunately are the flip side of a free market economy.

All this brings us to the rich atheistic countries and the religious poorer ones excepting the lucky petrol-rich ones. Can we have the best of both worlds? Can we remain religious and theistic and become richer? Or is there after all an inverse relationship between these two modes? Do comfort and happiness demand a constant pragmatic approach to life, something that only science can provide?

In the advanced counties people are always trying to work out solutions for all types of problems, which may later rake up other collateral problems; yet they would embark on further research to find solutions for the latter too. There is no room for despair, and that may be because they have discovered that life is itself a form of perpetual fight against the Second Law of Thermodynamics, a perpetual opportunity for problem solving, a constant struggle to eliminate uncertainties. Life has itself become an adventure. They refuse to believe that it’s a lost battle. It may be a form of unbridled positivism – yet positivism it is.

Experts are awaiting a lot from the recent work on the human genome. A better understanding of our genetic make-up will empower us to tackle all diseases, eliminate sickness and prolong life expectancy beyond 100 years. Will we map out all the regions in the brain that control our behaviours, reducing them to images on an MRI scan, when we are full of bias, hatred, envy and have a murderous disposition? There are people out there asking themselves such questions, just as Edison pondered on the feasibility of an electric bulb, or just as someone else asked whether we can go on the moon. Are other major discoveries awaiting round the corner? We just cannot sit down and pray; we have to rack our grey cells and go out to discover ways to alleviate our sufferings, produce more food, disseminate knowledge and satisfy our curiosity and give life a better and different meaning for the billions.

Y.N. Harari

Yuval Noah Harari, a Professor of History, in his best seller ‘Sapiens’ analyzed the factors that have influenced our life, our hesitant progress through our evolution from 200,000 years ago when we started to talk, Then came our discovery of the script about 3500 B.C., followed by the Renaissance that turned a new leaf, as we went through the Industrial Revolution leading to a new concept of Man, especially after the work of Charles Darwin. With the coming of the scientific revolution and the adoption of a market economy, as proposed by Adam Smith, the aim was not to dissolve one’s ego, but rather to become intelligently egoistic – the opposite of what religious pundits advocate.

In his second volume, titled ‘Homo Deus’, Harari provocatively talks about the bliss, immortality and divinity that await the human race if it continues on its search of scientific truth. To think that this progression towards the future would be plain sailing would be naïve on our part.

Of course, to many of us all this is the height of optimism or idealism. There are grey areas that are picking at our patience and knowledge: for one, the functioning of our brain is still unravelling. We know that everything in our life and the universe are interconnected, but this occult link evades us ; we are far from the day when an algorithm will solve it easily for us, yet we must continue the search. Reconciling the phenomena of the invisible quantum world with the force of gravity, and their role in the universe evading await further discoveries. But will they solve our ignorance and open totally different avenues for new inventions?

Harari is optimistic, though we can guess that this new dawn won’t be for tomorrow.

“Dataism” and Happiness

Critics of Jeffrey Sachs’s book ‘The Age of Sustainable Development’ note the same optimism and positivism that cut through the books of Harari. For Harari the age of ‘Algorism and Dataism’ is here. This is a mathematically oriented approach to all aspects of life which will be as great a breakthrough as the advent of high protein in our meals, the discovery of language and script, of 0 and 1 in the electronic world. Not only will it determine our future stability and comfort, it will change our world, our narrow-minded nationalism and our family life, for better or worse.

Harari is of the opinion that we must not view Man from a regional point of view, nor from a nationalist’s aspect, nor even from a world standpoint – but from a universal perspective. Here the seeming atheist has reached the concept of Atma. As to happiness Harari does concede that it depends not only on our education and our external environment, but also on our genes and internal world. Levels of happiness do not correlate with riches beyond a point, so that a poorer man may well be happier in his own comfort zone. This leads to the possibility that each one of us has his or her own luck or karma, and thus happiness is the result of more than one factor.

But we of the older generation have a sensation of “déjà vu”. This belief in ‘Algorism and Dataism’ that focuses on the inevitable importance of information and its classification for the sake of the comfort and happiness of the maximum number of people (the ‘collectivism’) may, however, mean the dehumanization of the individual. Only the future will tell whether this would have been a good thing or a bad thing.

  • Published in print edition on 22 September 2017

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