There is a kind of cosmic optimism, best exemplified by the work of the great Terence McKenna*, which claims that the universe is always moving towards states of greater complexity and novelty and that this should be a cause for great hope and joy among us. There is a kind of movement, an eternal progression, which lead from the primal soup that existed at the beginning of the universe to ever more complex elements and chemical compounds and from thence to organic matter and life. Life which began with single cell organisms evolved in its turn into to more complicated multi-cellular forms: from simple bacteria, to invertebrates and then vertebrates; from amphibians to mammals. From the mammals came the human beings, a species of creature which developed from the apes and which started out living in small groups organised along very simple tribal lines — not that far removed from the social groupings of other higher mammals like chimpanzees in fact. These small groupings evolved into ever more sophisticated and highly structured societies to our modern day form of global interlinked, technologically advanced human society.

The fact is that you can’t reduce the subject matter of say sociology or economics to biology. These fields deal with highly organised and complex systems that have interesting, and we might call them, emergent properties in their own right, over and above what can be determined from studying human biology or animal biology in isolation, and that have their own laws and methods of investigation. Similarly, biologists are eminently justified in regarding their field as reliant on, but to some extent independent of chemistry, and similarly for the relation between chemistry and physics.

If it is in the nature of the universe for things to keep progressing towards more and more advanced levels of organisation, which then end up throwing up new kinds of phenomena, then, surely, according to this variety of cosmic idealism, modern day culture isn’t a dead end: something even more sophisticated will evolve from our human society? But no, I don’t think it follows. Take things from a universal perspective. Perhaps there are billion trillion or more other such worlds playing host to similarly complex organisations of matter and information. What if we’re just one little branch on the tree, the one that leads nowhere: like the dodo and all those other plants or animals that turned out to be evolutionary blind alleys for one reason or another? Couldn’t we just be a failed experiment that’s destined to peter out while a trillion others move forward onto the next stage? Maybe our planet will end up nothing but a burnt out sphere in a couple of thousand years or so, with all traces of human civilisation completely wiped out. It’s really starting to look that way unless we get our fucking act together.

At the end of the day, I think that one can be optimistic in the sense of holding a belief in a universal movement towards towards ever increasing levels of organisation and complexity, without losing one’s emprically well justified pessimism about humanity.

*I’m not saying McKenna ever came out and said it in exactly the way I describe in the following text but I think this kind of optimism about the future of humanity is inherent in a lot of his work.


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