In Condemnation of Despair

It has become fashionable in recent years to indulge in public displays of resignation and to celebrate history's darkest moments. The magnitude of today's culture crisis has produced a particular spectrum of despair which, in its worst formulations, has become the justification of further grave-digging. I am referring to the smug celebration of any number of toxic futures which Western military-industrial excess has made possible. This hip resignation takes many forms, from the punk Luddite who welcomes apocalypse as the termination of collective misery, to the capitalist whose tacit cynicism gives him license to rape and plunder until the well runs dry. At least the former might base upon his or her despair a creative exploration of human freedom, dancing and singing on the deck of a sinking ship. The latter is the most dangerous. He takes what he sees as a hopeless situation, and uses it as an excuses to make it worse. The cynicism which permits the ongoing evisceration of the biosphere threatens to become a self-fulfilling prophecy if unchecked.

Perhaps more dangerous still is the acceptance by "ordinary" people that All Is Lost, human nature is inherently self-destructive, the damage is done, and if we don't blow ourselves up in a paroxysm of primate territorialism, we'll suffer a far worse fate at the hands of environmental collapse, cancer, AIDS, ebola, or general widespread barbarism. The best one can do in such a situation is try and grab hold of whatever shreds of the Good Life remain available, to get what pleasure one can from existence, and to die in one's sleep. A form of quietism emerges, a feeling that one is powerless to change anything, so "Why try?" This outlook, on a large scale, invokes Narcosis -- habitual pharmaceutical sedatives, both legal and illegal; promotion of increasingly vapid "activities" and "distractions" as tonic for hectic lifestyles; and, of course, television, the Great Silencer of both inner and outer dialogue.

A more active despair is to be found in the dredging up and cataloging of various human pathologies and excesses. Here is the mass murder fan, the collector of fatality statistics, the connoisseur of human cruelty and stupidity. This phenomenon bears the unlikely stamp of intellectual justification; it presents itself as a critique of the existing order, a brutal reminder that Things Are Not Right. Well, I agree, but celebrating the Sneeze does not cure the Disease. What disturbs me more about this cult of depravity is that it self-righteously proclaims that there IS no cure, that human self-destruction is inevitable. It points to the Holocaust, declares all striving to be a bankrupt endeavor, bangs its gavel and cries "Case closed!" Thereafter we are expected to sit around collecting Charles Manson T-shirts, reading depressing eighteenth-century literature we don't understand, waiting for Society to finally dissolve in some abstract scenario wherein only the people with the most tattoos will survive.

Validating po-mo despair on the most fundamental level is the mechanistic scientific model of the universe. From this world view we get at least two reasons to give up the ghost. First, the sun will expand in a few billion years to engulf the Earth, vaporizing the last traces of humanity's naive bid for immortality. Beyond that, the universe is winding down, dissipating towards an interminable heat-death in which everything will be frozen, inert, forever dark. Thus, even if humans survive technological adolescence, and escape the earth before the sun goes nova, we're only prolonging the inevitable. (This is the case also in the Big Crunch scenario, wherein a sufficient universal mass will draw everything back into the singularity from which it presumably sprang.) Unconsciously or not, this cultural theme sets the tone for many individuals' private philosophies of life. If one does not approach it creatively, it is a tacit sanction for despair. (Some intelligent -- and explicitly optimistic -- alternatives include the transhumanist and Extropian philosophies.)

What most cosmologists and many physicists fail to consider is the phenomenon of biology. The emergence of life on at least one planet in the ocean of spacetime is seen as incidental, a curious sideshow to the Big Top of dust clouds and stellar evolution. And yet biology, as experienced on Earth, can be seen as a major development in a series of increasingly brief, increasingly complex epochs. It is the dynamic conservation of pattern against the tidal pull of entropy. (Creationists who see this as a refutation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics are, however, misguided. Biology doesn't contradict the SLT. However, it doesn't seem to follow inevitably from it. Biology is the deferral of the SLT in isolated pockets. This needs consideration, but it is not a contradiction, I think.) One might start with the condensation of the solar system out of primordial hydrogen. Eventually planets form, and much later one of them sprouts simple biological systems. Life then undergoes a series of evolutionary leaps into successive layers of complexity. Human culture lies at the near end of this chain, with the progression passing out of pure biology and into the cyborganic realm of global computer networks, robotics, and other human-machine syntheses. The point to understand is the acceleration of the process. A possible future epoch of this sort will begin with the development of self-replicating, self-maintaining machines.

Biology as a fact of the universe does not prove that there is a God, or that human intelligence as we know it is inevitable. What it and more recent epigenetic developments suggest is that there is more going on than mechanistic materialism would have us believe. Specifically, it suggests a teleology of sorts, which is anathema in Western science. If the epochs of complexity I have mentioned are accelerating, what are they accelerating toward? There are at least three options. One scenario, the one anticipated by the despairing intellectual, is that at some point the whole system will become so top-heavy that it will collapse in on itself, the speeding train of human culture will slam head-on into the brick limitations of the planet's resources. The other two options are potentially more optimistic. There is the idea that the tightening epochs of evolution point towards some sort of asymptote, where the gradual accretion of novelty we have been passing through shoots abruptly towards infinity, towards unlimited freedom. The third possibility here is that this eruption of novelty is somehow limited by physical constraints, but unlike the first scenario, this limit is a threshold and not a wall. (Think of a neuron collecting synaptic stimulation until it reaches a threshold and discharges.) The second and third scenarios are almost identical in their end results, except that in the latter novelty does not increase forever, but rather reaches a point of maximum saturation or equilibrium.

The millennialist outlook which the last two scenarios promote stands in stark contrast to the tired schadenfreude of postmodern shock-jocks and armchair slackers, who self-righteously dismiss as futile any attempts to improve any situation, and whose boring confessional poetry fills volumes which even their own therapists refuse to read. The human race is on the brink of cataclysmic transformation, but whether that transformation will snuff us out forever, or usher us as children back into the Garden, is far from clear. You do not have to give up too many basic assumptions to be optimistic, and you certainly don't have to embrace New Age extravagance. There is another path, positive, determined, but not falling into the talk-show polarities of militant rationalists and channeling housewives. If you truly think there is no hope, if you are unwilling to investigate the full breadth of possibilities, please kill yourself now. At the very least, shut up and let the rest of us get to work, because there's information to be gathered and ideas to be spread. Whatever happens, you won't have to wait much longer to see who is wasting their time.

©1996 abrupt