The Future of Mankind and the Universe

5-07-05

Mankind’s Future

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The End of Mankind and the Universe

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This essay is only Part 7 of a larger essay. 

Read the full essay by going to “Evolution:  Understanding Physical and Mental Existence”

That essay is now available in the following separate sections:

1.  Cosmogony, Cosmic Evolution, Evolution of Earth

2.  Origin of Life, Molecular Biology, Natural Evolution, Humans

3.  The Evolution and Function of the Human Mind

4.  Evolution and Functions of Societies and Cultures

5.  “Intelligent Design Theory” as opposed to Natural Evolution

6.  Extraterrestrial Intelligence?  What could it Mean to Us?

7.  The Future and Expected End of Mankind and the Universe (this essay)

8.  Closing Comments and Conclusions

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Content of the essay“The Future of Mankind and the Universe”:

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Introduction                                                                  1

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1.  Diverse Views of Mankind’s Future                       2 

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2.  The End of Mankind and the Universe                   6

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Introduction:

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When we pause for a moment in our busy life – at lunch, during a holiday, on vacation – we can perceive the wonderful and sometimes cruel existence we live in – the universe, nature on this planet Earth, our surroundings, our body, our mind.  In trying to understand this existence, we find that everything in our world is evolving – has always been evolving and will continue to do so.  If we want to understand our existence, we should attempt to understand this evolution.

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Not too many years ago, one of the early NASA space projects provided the very first and rather beautiful pictures of Earth as seen from outer space.  Astronomic telescopes had already provided excellent pictures of distant galaxies.  Now we could visualize how our own “Milky Way” galaxy would look with the tiny spot of our Sun as one of a billion others somewhere in its outer reaches – and a still smaller, blue planet, "Earth”, whirling around that tiny sun – about four billion times already since its appearance.  That small Earth is our only home, but our brains that evolved only a few ten thousand years ago allow our minds to span the universe in time and space.  What were the starting conditions, principles, laws, and forces of nature that let this evolution occur?

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Recent progress in astronomy has taught us how our universe originated in one spot some 14 billion years ago and has been expanding in all directions ever since.  What happened in time and space that, out of the original burst of energy at that time, finally we humans, with all our exceptional talents, came to exist and live on this tiny planet where we now are – and to develop the mental capabilities we now have?

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A few key aspects of Creation and evolution appear to be fundamental to the understanding of what occurred.  They are especially surprising and impressive [1] and were discussed in the preceding essays. 

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This essay will bring the mental voyage to an and – the exploration of the existence which we live in – from the vastness of the universe to submicroscopic molecular life, the virtual phenomena of the mind, and unfolding civilizations – from an origin in the distant past to an expected end in the distant future!

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This essay is only on part (Part 7) of a larger overview of all of existence in the essay “Evolution: Understanding Our Physical and Mental Existence”, to be found  on the website www.schwab-writings.com in the Section on “Science and Evolution”.

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1.  Diverse Views of Mankind’s Future

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Predictions of the future, whether for the next few years or long-term, can be found in three categories:

-        More or less of the same as we have seen so far, with all the ups and downs through history, but not leading to any extremes neither in the positive nor in the negative direction for the whole of mankind – but certainly for those concerned in some regions

-        Pessimistic predictions of great dangers, often of the doomsday variety for all of mankind

-        Optimistic predictions, extensions of science and technology trends, often leading to science fiction forecasting ideal conditions on Earth.

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More of the same:

The history of civilizations over the past few thousand years, whether in urban or rural life, appears as a sequence of waves, with positive and negative periods alternating – even though not always in the same regions.  Devastations and plagues in some regions were followed by new high cultures in different regions.

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This implies that mankind, as a whole, is resilient and can survive catastrophes, subsequently developing new strength for further progress.  It also implies that new devastations and plagues do occur again and again, leading to great instability and the demise of existing high cultures – only to see new cultures appear eventually – based on the inherent resilience and strength of mankind.

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Pessimistic predictions:

Doomsday predictions have a long history.  About 2,000 years ago, apocalyptic visions were rather common.  Great religions appeared and expanded based principally on arguments for the salvation of the souls in another, better world to come or offering a Nirvana upon resignation from this world of endless suffering. 

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A few hundred years ago, the dangers of comets or meteors were widely propagated. 

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But the worst modern catastrophes to subsequently arrive, the World Wars and the ideological persecutions under dictatorial regimes in many places, had not been predicted.

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What can be said from today’s point of view?

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Earth’s population is close to 6 billion, with an increasing portion of that number in the major cities of underdeveloped countries.  This population can be supported only as long as the production and distribution of energy, food, textiles, building products, industrial products, and medications function at low prices and as long as climate does not change excessively.  In other words, such a very large global society is fragile.  Following are some specific comments:

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New diseases will certainly appear.  They will be more devastating as more people live closely together in big cities.  Resurgence of old diseases (e.g., resistant strains of tuberculosis and malaria) and the appearance of new diseases (e.g., HIV/AIDS, SARS) occur at a surprising rate.  As long as research in the advanced Western countries functions well, these threats can be countered.  But if political or social unrest – lately, one must add to it religious unrest from Muslim radicalism – reduces the Western potential, these diseases can become major threats. 

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A moment of imbalance can occur when destabilizing forces lead to a weakening of the pharmaceutical industry.  Further international destabilization could occur upon the arrival of the next major disease in a downward spiral.  This can result in the death of billions of people in a very short time and the destruction of all political order and higher civilization.  Pockets of remaining civilization may find themselves at the level of about 500 BC or lower.

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One must also think of diseases attacking animals or plants – with possibly the same devastating consequences.  Science fiction can also think of microbes invading and destroying the world’s oil supplies.

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Environmental changes, possibly including a warming of the climate, appear as great dangers.  Warming would lead to three consequences; sea levels around the world would go up and inundate fertile areas.  The suitability of land for agriculture would move to different areas, for example, farther north on the Northern Hemisphere, leaving deserts behind where fertile areas had been before.  Another effect could be a change in ocean currents with catastrophic consequences (for example, frequent and intense El Niños or the stopping of the Gulf Stream).  With fairly settled populations and rigid national borders preventing mass migrations, any one of these effects would create disastrous political problems.  If the world order collapses, the previously indicated consequences for civilization must be expected.

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Natural disasters may occur once more, like the great catastrophes of millions of years ago, causing new “extinctions”.  The greatest natural disasters in our time causing some locally restricted extinctions were gigantic volcanic eruptions (for example, Thera in the Mediterranean and Krakatau in Indonesia).  New eruptions of large basaltic “traps” from deep within Earth, as they occurred historically in India and in Siberia, or major meteorites may bring the most destructive extinctions, including the extinction of mankind.

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Man-made disasters and extinctions have occurred and will occur again.  Religious, political, or criminal movements or organization may lead to great catastrophes, as the recent “Jihads” and the “war on terrorism” indicate.  Specifically, the possible availability of weapons of mass destruction can bring the risk that world order may get out of control.  Locally released germs may devastate sufficiently large portions of mankind in critical areas to lead to the above described loss of balance in society, leading to a total breakdown in energy, food, pharmaceutical, and industrial production and product distribution. 

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There may be slower risks for mankind, as from over-breeding or down-breeding.  Over-breeding can lead to social destabilization, first in some countries only, ultimately internationally.  Down-breeding can, theoretically, occur in human mental capability – the lowest performers having the most children, the highest performers the fewest – with consequences for social balance.  The greatest danger may result from medical down-breeding.  Life’s struggle in modern society is no longer related to medical conditions.  Social standards make it desirable and civil rights make it mandatory that the medically “challenged” be given equal opportunity and equal right to propagate.  Natural evolution indicates that, in the long run, only evolving adaptation to changing environmental conditions ascertains survival.  Will environmental conditions for mankind not evolve?  Initially, this would merely result in an increase in society’s medical costs.  Ultimately, social destabilization could occur.  But at our present level of science, we expect genetic engineering to take care of most of these problems.

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On the other hand, it takes only a small percentage of the population to provide the key functions – intellectually or in leadership.

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The most advanced civilizations are also the most fragile ones.  The well-being of the world – a population of 6 billion and growing – depends largely upon the functioning of our advanced civilizations. 

 

When any of the above-indicated major social upheavals occur, though, the breakdown would most likely lead to dictatorships.  Dictators are known to take care of their core group and not of the population at large.  Dictators spend money on internal security and on weapons for either empire-building or military defense.  Such societies will not be able to cope with major new diseases, major environmental changes, or natural catastrophes.   

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Intellectually, there may be a standstill or regression in religious or fundamentalist-political perceptions, as observed by some people in our time.  Established hierarchies may not be able to cope with modern situations any longer (for example, the prohibition of AIDS-preventing condoms by the catholic church or inhibition of stem-cell research by some political parties).

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In more general terms, mankind proceeds on a precarious course through history, hemmed in on all sides by the dangers and risks of extremes:

-        Too much control by religious, ideological, or political forces – as by fundamentalist religious leaders or sects, ideologically excited mass movements, or dictators with their mind control and secret police forces.

-        Too little restraint through loss of all values and direction – leading to general decay, not only in moral terms and law-and-order, but also in loss of governance and corruption of public finances.

-        Too much progress, in science or technology and in society’s structure or loss of structure (globalization) – leading to large unemployment, need for migration, and loss of “culture” or mental stability.

-        Too little progress, whether in terms of science and technology or national and international structure – not allowing the resolution of social problems in many nations and large sections of the world, and not allowing the absorption of an increasing population of the world in decent living conditions, mainly in the ever growing, very large cities.

 

In Toynbee’s interpretation of the course of history, the above risks constitute the challenges for the world elites – in politics, the media, and the all-influencing business world.  In a more democratic view, not only in blessed countries like Switzerland, the above risks constitute challenges for all and every citizen.

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Optimistic predictions:

When automation appeared in the factories, predictions appeared showing men to be freed from all work in the future.  When the first electrical household appliances became available a hundred years or so ago, predictions appeared showing women to be freed from all household chores in the future. 

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During the acceleration of technological progress in the 1960s, some newspapers had the habit of bringing year-end editions with exciting predictions for the future.  Few were ever correct.  For example, helicopters were predicted to replace cars and space travel appeared as imminent.     

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Recent predictions refer to the progress in genetic manipulation, foreseeing the end of all diseases.  In the more distant future, new kinds of “human” beings with higher mental capabilities and greater beauty are predicted – hopefully also with higher morality.

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Pseudo-genetic processes are being used for increasingly automated scientific research.  Experimental approaches are used as if all the experimental variables were genes.  They are then more or less randomly varied.  Improved results lead to further pursuits along the successful line.  Unsuccessful lines are being abandoned.

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What can be said from today’s point of view? 

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Predictions usually follow one or another of the most recent developments in a linear extension far into the future.  This is never possible.  Such specific developments would get out of balance with the reality of the world.  For example, society will do whatever it can to keep men and women working, if not for gain, then as volunteers in some worthy cause.  Environmentalism would like to reduce individual vehicle use – not only cars, but, more specifically, helicopters.  Space travel should be replaced by space probes with robots.  Environmental concerns and bioethics turn against gene manipulation. 

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But the most important scientific or technical innovations were those never predicted – for example, genetics, the computer, and the internet revolution.  We just cannot foresee what we never experienced before. 

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Developments do not follow a straight line where systems become fragile.  The next developments appear in unforeseen areas.  There will be progress, but more moderate than optimistically predicted and in directions we cannot foresee.  “Growth” may not be in “more”, specifically not in more material consumption.  The “growth” of mankind from ancient times through the Middle Ages was primarily not in numbers of people or consumption, but in mental or cultural growth – after substantial set-backs lasting for centuries and new starts in different directions. 

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And in the far future? 

Homo sapiens occurred only a “short” time ago.  Can super-humans appear in the future?  Possibly not so easily – since there are no islands of evolution left for separate development – and since propagation no longer goes with the “fittest”, in the sense of the most advanced. 

 

But what can genetic engineering accomplish in the future?  How little did we predict technical progress in other areas in the past – in manufacturing, transportation, medicine, communication, or data processing. 

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Who knows how little genetic adjustment it will possibly take to substantially improve certain human performance parameters?  The genetic difference between humans and other primates is very small.  Evolution of humans may move from natural evolution to genetic engineering.

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What may not be dangers for the future but often is seen as such?

The most common pessimistic prediction about mankind’s future concerns moral and political decay, with consequent catastrophes for society. 

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On the other hand, moral laws and the resulting laws and regulations of society ultimately correspond to, and are anchored in, mankind’s natural needs – protection against violence, protection of personal property, protection of children and the weak, support in distress, some “dignity”, availability of opportunities, and some civil rights.  The vision of progress during the time of “enlightenment” found its balance in the denial of progress in “back-to-nature” movements of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Romantics.  The emphasis on intellect with drift in morality found its balance in mystical ideas with emphasis on ethics, such as the Rosicrucians and subsequent Free Masons.  Whenever things get out-of-hand due to political or religious imbalances, they will swing back to cover human needs.  This will prevent moral or political decay going too far or lasting too long – as long as resources are available – see the other dangers coming from diseases, overpopulation, or climate change – all possibly resulting in catastrophic political and then also moral developments.   

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The other most cited danger for mankind’s future is the running out of resources – of sources for energy, water, certain metals, and more.  While this danger is real in the short term, adaptations are more likely and possible than generally presented.  The total influx of energy to Earth from the Sun far exceeds mankind’s energy need for the very distant future.  Atomic energy, after all, is an equally “un-exhaustible” energy source – and energy conservation, if not conversion, is always a goal.  Scarce minerals can largely be substituted, albeit at somewhat higher energy need or cost.

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In sum, when things go to well, indiscriminate waste of resources and the abuse of power reduce progress.  But when the downtrend reaches the level of a disaster, the resilience of human nature and the onset of corrective forces will bring things back to a bearable level – this can be observed in the political as well as the economic world.

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What else could come in the very distant future?

The reversal of the Earth’s magnetic field may bring high levels of radiation for a limited time – resulting in extensive damage to plants, animals, and humans – and the acceleration of evolution.  The extinction of the magnetic field due to solidification of the core (crystallization) upon cooling (within billions of years) could bring permanent high levels of radiation.  The next passage of Earth through one of the spiral arms of our galaxy (just beginning now) may bring high levels of radiation and higher probabilities of meteor encounters.  Ultimately, the Sun will first overheat, then lose most of its energy, letting Earth first be scorched, then freeze over permanently.

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2.  The End of Mankind and the Universe

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Astrophysics has arrived at a certain understanding of the dynamics of the universe.  For example, within a certain time, one must expect the extinction of all the stars in the universe as their atomic fuel is consumed.

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At some time, there will be no further formation of new galaxies or stars, as all the dust is used up in the universe.  It is not absolutely clear how much gas and dust is left at this time – in our Sun’s neighborhood, in the Milky Way, and in the universe.

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In one scenario of astrophysics, all galaxies will ultimately collapse into their centers – into “Black Holes”.  Furthermore, over very long periods of time, many black holes may collapse into a few gigantic black holes.  All Black Holes will ultimately dissipate into radiation – based on quantum effects over long periods of time (Hawking’s theory).  In the end, only radiation will be left that dissipates into ever more distant space and, thereby, cools to close to “Absolute Zero” (about minus 500 degrees) in absolute darkness.

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In an alternative scenario, the “repulsive” energy of space, that presently accelerates the dispersion of all galaxies  in space, may possibly be reversed, leading to renewed attraction and, consequently, a future collapse, the “Big Crunch”, of the whole universe, a reversal of the “Big Bang”. [2]

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In the recognition of the end of all existence as we know it, within the laws and principles of the universe as created, there is no room for permanent and invariable storage of “souls” – neither in a “heaven” nor in a “hell” or any other form of existence.

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But there is the basic principle of theoretical physics of “Conservation of Information”!  This would result in the theoretical possibility of time and evolution running backwards.  Is there a conflict with the concept of “free will”?  Or does conservation of information not apply to the brain processes in connection with will-formation?  Or is the conservation of information the only and ultimate form of permanent existence? 

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5-07-05



[1] An excellent presentation of cosmic and planetary evolution – also covering the origin of life on Earth, going into detail and a depth considerably beyond this essay – is presented in Peter Ulmschneider’s book, “Intelligent Life in the Universe”, published by Springer in 2003/4, ISBN 3-540-43988-9, 250 pages.  Additionally, the swift progress of astrophysics and astronomy requires ongoing awareness of the newest leading publications in that field. 

[2]  This was proposed most recently, in 2003/4, by Andrei Linde and Renata Kallosh of Stanford University, predicting such in “crunch” in 10 to 20 billion years.