Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The audacity of hope

In the middle of the last century, Teilhard de Chardin wrote: "A great many internal and external portents (political and social upheaval, moral and religious unease) have caused us all to feel, more or less confusedly, that something tremendous is at present taking place in the world. But what is it?"

What, indeed?

There are two prevailing opinions:

1) We are going to hell in a hand basket. Global warming, ecological disaster, tribal genocide, overpopulation, economic collapse, nuclear annihilation, moral decay: the future looks bleak, if there is a future. The best we can hope for is that some of us -- the chosen few -- will be raptured out of the cataclysm.

or--

2) The thrust of history is towards cooperation, altruism, individual freedom, and the technological amelioration of famine and disease. We stand at the summit of a long uphill slog away from superstition and internecine strife, and the best is yet to come.

Each of us leans towards one scenario or the other, perhaps depending upon an inborn tendency towards pessimism or optimism. Teilhard, of course, opted for the brighter outlook; his world was heading toward a perfected Omega.

Only time will tell who is right. I personally side with Teilhard, maybe because I came more or less out of the same Catholic tradition, maybe because I was born an optimist, or maybe because the circumstances of my own life have been singularly blessed. I would like to think that my lifelong study of the history of science confirms an optimistic outlook. Certainly, the exponential growth of a body of reliable public knowledge, independent of ethnic, religious, and political prejudice, strikes me as the one most hopeful indications that the future will be brighter than the past.