On Being An Optimist in Troubling Times…
It is said that every science fiction writer is an optimist by definition, for even if the world in that author’s imagined future is bleak or violent, the author is projecting that there will be a future to be written about. People tend to reminisce about the good old days, seeing the past through a rosy lens–but the truth is human history is a sad violent tale. So where does optimism fit in? The reason I remain optimistic is because I see an overall pattern of increasingly higher moral standards to which we as a race are holding ourselves accountable.
When before in history have nations condemned the action of foreign governments in regard to ecological concerns and human rights within their own borders? When have nations risen to aid one another in times of national disasters, famine and civil war? The extent of humanitarian support offered today was unheard of in the past. Generosity, previously seen only in terms of individuals and small communities, is now extended on global levels. Modern technology has made us aware of events happening over the entire globe. Before that, Northern Europeans could offer little help to starving Africans, when they had no knowledge of their plight or any way of assisting them even if the knowledge became available, but now we have instant communication and the ability to move supplies and food and medical treatment to places where such help is needed. Yes, we have a long ways to go, but clearly humanity’s sense of community and responsibility is growing. These things give me hope for our survival as a species.
As we transition from a small view of ourselves and our immediate surroundings to one that encompasses those of many others around the world, it’s like changing from the selfishness of childhood to responsible adulthood. Not everyone on the planet is maturing at the same rate as evidenced by civil wars, terrorism, internal strife, racial violence, and continued squabbling over land and religious beliefs. Still, it seems to me as a whole we’re making progress.
Scientific discoveries are making us more aware of our place in the universe, our vulnerability to extinction and the need to unite in a common cause, while advances in technologies are not only uniting our disparate cultures, they are holding us accountable for our actions by measuring the results. Like children, we have been egocentric beings seeing the world only as to how it relates to ourselves and taking little responsibility for whatever occurs. Adults understand that we are responsible for our own actions and that our lives and futures depend upon what we do rather than what is done for us. We must put away our fantasies of being rescued by some higher power and take responsibility for ourselves.
Science tells us that we are the culmination of a star-filled dance of immense proportions. The chemistry of our flesh was created in super-nova explosions, cradled in nebulous gasses, condensed into planets, and suckled to life by time, evolution and natural selection. We are children of the Universe in the most concrete sense. Perhaps the well-known prayer that begins “Our Father who art in heaven” should be reworded to “Our Father who art all that is heaven.” All that has come before—the billions of years of cosmic dust swirling through the Universe in unimaginable complexity of time and space— has all come to one thing, the creation of intelligent life—which is us. If that doesn’t make you feel special, then not much could.
Because we are self-aware, we are able to appreciate the beauty and mystery that surrounds us. It has been argued that the universe has these qualities only because we perceive that it does. Without that perception, the universe merely exists. It is the presence of intelligence, our own and perhaps others we have yet to encounter, which gives the universe purpose and meaning. As we study everything from quarks to quasars, each new bit of knowledge leads to more questions. We still know very little about the physical make-up of the universe and how it was created.
The very word ‘create’ implies a plan, an intentional act. So it’s not surprising that in the face of such overwhelming complexity, we turn to the belief that our existence is not some cosmic accident, but the product of intentional design by an intelligence we call God. I do not dispute that possibility. What I must dispute is the insistence that the answers to these mysteries can be found in tall tales contained in ancient texts. Must be those rosy lenses at work. Whether a grand master of our design actually exists remains an unknown. Instead, people rely on faith—the belief in something that cannot be proven. Perhaps one day the existence of God will be proven as fact or fallacy, but until that day comes, there is only faith, which is only unsubstantiated opinion. This may anger you, but I ask you to stop and consider the possibility that you don’t really know. If we could all recognize we have more questions than answers, we might actually find peace with each other.
Mankind is experiencing an adolescence of philosophy and self-awareness, a time which promises excitement, change and spurts of growth, but it is also a dangerous time. Nothing is more tempestuous and unpredictable than one’s teenage years. We’re speeding on the freeway, and could crash and die in some spectacular explosion unless we ease off on the curves and share the road. Assuming humanity survives its adolescence and continues to learn and grow, maturity will come of its own accord. Improved understanding of the physical world is already transforming our most basic beliefs. It is my hope that one day, we will put away our childish fantasies and take our place in the universe as rational adults. I have to believe that we will make it, but then I’m a science fiction writer, an optimist by definition.