Discussion by: Nunbeliever
When the Eagle landed on the moon in 1969 the world stood still. Although it was a part of a quite cynical cold war between the USA and the USSR, most people remember this event not as a victory only for the USA but for mankind as a whole. For one brief moment it seemed like humans were united in pride due to this tremendous achievement.
I can, at times, feel great envy towards the generations that lived to see the 50s and 60s. No, I'm not entirely deluded. These were times of great distress. The life expectancy in the western world was much lower than today. Women and ethnic minorities were largely discriminated against. They of course had very few of the conveniences that we today take for granted. Nonetheless, I envy the sense of optimism about the future that seemed to be prevailing in the western world at this period of time. This idea that, yes, they had their problems and the world was full of suffering. But, if we only do more research and science we can achieve anything we want. We can build a better world. Nothing is impossible. As a child I used to read my father's old magazines, and in almost every issue there were articles about the future and how awesome the world would be. There would be pictures of flying cars, space ships, and everything else a kid could possibly imagine. Most of all, people seemed really happy in this future world of ours … and the common belief seemed to be that all we needed to achieve all this was more science and more research.
Fast forward half a century and the world has dramatically changed. During my 35 years on this earth I have witnessed unprecedented technological and scientific progress. Just the fact that I can write this article online and possibly reach thousands of people would have been unimaginable just thirty years ago. The world has undeniably changed for the better for countless people. Still, I feel something crucial is missing and this is the reason I want to discuss the limits of human progress.
I lack a sense of optimism and the idea that we as humans can achieve anything we want. In many ways we have achieved much of what earlier generations thought would solve the great problems humans have struggled with for all time. We have technology and the knowledge to feed every single human being on earth. We have the knowledge to prevent and cure most diseases. The ones we can't cure we usually can make much less painful and devastating. In fact, we have the means to make the lives of most human beings on this earth quite decent. If we really wanted to.
This should be good news. This should give me hope of a better future. Interestingly enough, this realization actually makes me very sad and depressed. Why? It takes no genius to realize that this is not what the world looks like. Yes, statisticans like Hans Rosling show that the world is a better place today than fifty years ago. This is undeniably true and something we ought to appreciate. The reason why it makes me sad and depressed is because it also suggests that the limit of human progress really isn't about technological achievements or scientific progress. It really isn't even about intelligence and creativity. This suggests that the limit of human progress is really all about our limited ability to feel empathy and compassion. It's about the fact that most human beings are quite narrow-minded and reluctant to really invest time and energy in anything that is not related to our local environment. Or in other words, it does not matter how much more knowledge about the world we get. It does not matter how much scientific or technological progress we achieve. We will still have all the same problems as before. Some things will get better and that is very well worth mentioning. Lives that would have been lost fifty years ago can be saved today. Still, we could do so much more and solve so many problems. Despite all the progress that has been made and all the lives that have been saved, this is something that just can't be denied.
That's what's really different. For the first time in human history we could make life decent for most human beings. That is really remarkable if you think about it. From a technological point of view we have actually achieved the future earlier generations dreamt of. But, this future is still nothing like in the old magazines. Therein lies the depressing realization that the problem is a much deeper one. It's human nature. Technological progress is something we can strive for and achieve. But, how on earth do you change human nature?
I think this quote by Carl Sagan illustrates this problem quite well: "It will not be we who reach Alpha Centauri and the other nearby stars. It will be a species very like us, but with more of our strengths and fewer of our weaknesses, more confident, farseeing, capable, and prudent."
So what do you think? Do you think we can solve the great problems of this world with more science and research? Or do we as human beings have traits that make it impossible for us to really make any significant progress as a species?