Our Possible Futures
The future is not predetermined; we create our own destiny. Death is final and the world may end, but evolution to Homo civilis is progress to a better future.
What determines the future
Scientific determinism says that, given the state of the Universe at any one time, a complete set of laws fully determines what happens in life, with no possibility for divine intervention. The opposing view from some in religion is that there is a divine plan or sometimes divine intervention, especially when someone needs to be rescued or taught a lesson. Most of us, however, reject the idea that we are predestined to live a certain life or have a certain fate. We accept that our future is largely determined by our past and who we are but also believe that we have at least a measure of free will and are subject to the power of chance. And while we may hope at times for divine intervention, this is not consistent with the idea of a God which (instead of who) is seen as plain goodness, an ultimately benign influence rather than a theistic actor in our affairs.
Death: after life or afterlife?
The idea of life after death is deeply engrained in religion and myth. In societies of suffering, an afterlife brings hope of salvation from present despair. More prosperous societies in the 21st century, though not devoid of individual suffering, are collectively less likely to see such a need. We generally accept now that death is final, though we all live on in memory and through the fruits of our actions. Life is full of repetition and new opportunities, hence metaphorically in our own lives we are each constantly reborn. Society at large also reinvents itself, and individual types within society recur. But in the final analysis, it is the present that counts, for the past is irrevocable and the future is beyond our power to control. If we seek salvation from problems of the present, it should come – indeed can only come – within our lifetime.
The future of the world and the Universe
There are current trends which predict either a gloomy future or no future at all. Ironically, it is humankind, the greatest triumph of the Universe story, which could trigger the greatest disaster. We have developed institutions to protect ourselves but we seem increasingly more vulnerable to threats on a global scale. These are threats which could strike not just singly but in combination: climate change, economic and technological breakdown, rogue nations and so on. This is not to predict a modern Armageddon but simply to acknowledge that the possibility of near wipeout now exists. Extinction is predicted in any case, for science tells us that Earth will eventually be consumed by the Sun and the Universe itself will die. However, it seems anything is possible; for in the words of physicist John Archibald Wheeler, black holes in space teach us that “space can be crumpled like a piece of paper into an infinitesimal dot, that time can be extinguished like a blown-out flame, and that the laws of physics that we regard as ‘sacred’, as immutable, are anything but.”
Grounds for hope as well as pessimism
Humankind has evolved, in part, from Homo sapiens (“wise man”) to Homo civilis (“civilised man”); we have developed previously unimaginable capacities to interact and become collectively as one. This growth of civilisation can be interpreted as a triumph of right order combined with right relationships, joined in long-term creative action. It is a history that gives some reason for optimism about the future of our race, despite all the encircling threats. Meanwhile our evolution continues; we are constantly a work in progress. Philosopher and theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin recognised the potential inherent in the ever-increasing complexity in life combined with the ever-increasing level of consciousness; but whether, as he believed, there is a logical endpoint to our existence where we will transmute to a higher state, remains to be seen. In the meantime, we continue to be inspired by the remarkable few who have achieved a higher consciousness – Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad, Bahá’u’lláh and others.
Creating our destiny, accepting our fate
It is important for us to believe that neither our genetic make-up nor our social background is a prison. Each of us is at least partly free to determine our own future, even if that means, like the Stoic slave-philosopher Epictetus, we have to radically alter our way of living from within. And while we accept responsibility for our own lives, we also accept a wider responsibility, for we are each a citizen of the world and a steward and ongoing co-creator of the Universe. Our capabilities are bounded but they are also real and can be enlarged: we can improve things to at least a small degree. For this to happen, we have to find the Universe within ourselves, the endless possibilities for being truthful, caring and committed to positive change.
And now, for a poet’s perspective, read A World in Old Age
Whatever we make of our lives counts, but rarely in a way we expect. Individually we die, with no release except in death and no salvation after life. However, we each contribute to outcomes on the grander scale. Collectively we appear headed for eventual extinction, but there is always a possibility that we may evolve into some other state before then that will make our present struggles worthwhile.
In the short to medium term future we are in a race between advancing civilisation and descent into forms of chaos. But there is hope. We are potentially at a time of take-off, both literally as we explore the cosmos and figuratively as we journey deeper into ourselves.
Suggested further reading
Elgin, Duane. 2009. The Living Universe: Where Are We? Who Are We? Where Are We Going? San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
Korten, David C. 2007. The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community. 2nd edn. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre. 1976. The Phenomenon of Man. New York: Harper Perennial.
White, Nicholas P. trans. 1983. Handbook of Epictetus. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.