19 May 2008

Just wondering

The entire history of humankind to date is a mere instant compared with the eons that still lie before us. All the triumphs and tribulations of the millions of people who have walked the Earth since the ancient civilization of Mesopotamia would be like mere birth pangs in the delivery of a kind of life that hasn't yet begun. For surely it would be the height of naïveté to think that with the transformative technologies already in sight--genetics, nano technology, and so on--and with thousands of millennia still ahead of us in which to perfect and apply these technologies and others of which we haven't yet conceived, human nature and the human condition will remain unchanged. Instead, if we survive and prosper, we will presumably develop some kind of posthuman existence.
-- a scenario from Nick Bostrom, the co-organiser of a conference on catastrophic global risks, who (unlike Funes the not so memorious) hopes the search for extraterrestrial life finds nothing. The late W G Sebald looked in other directions:
The denial of time, so the tract on Orbius Tertius tells us, is one of the key tenets of the philosophical schools of Tloen. According to this principle, the future exists only in the shape of our present apprehensions and hopes, and the past is merely a memory. In a different view, the world and everything now living in it was created only moments ago, together with its complete but illusory pre-history. A third school of thought variously describes our earth as a cul-de-sac in the great city of God, a dark cave crowded with incomprehensible images, or a hazy aura surrounding a better sun. The advocates of a fourth philosophy maintain that time has run its course and that this life is no more than the fading recollection of an event beyond recall. We simply do not know how many of its possible mutations the world may already have gone through, or how much time, always assuming that it exists, remains. All that is certain is that night lasts far longer than day, if one compares an individual life, life as a whole, or time itself with the system which, in each case, is above it. The night of time, wrote Thomas Browne in his treatise of 1658, The Garden of Cyrus [footnote 1], far surpasseth the day and who knows when was the Aequinox?
This may all be just so much speculation. What looks more sure is that:
working memory enables us to link the past and present, and allows us to conceive of a future. No other species has developed this capacity so completely as humans, and early on it may well have allowed us to steal a march on our most recent ancestors.
-- from How culture made your modern mind.

[Footnote 1: actually it is in Urn Burial]

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