What Can We Reasonably Hope For?

A Millennium Symposium

Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 99 (Januray 2000): 31-33.

[Symposium Contents]

Jeffrey Satinover

Millennia are really big events—like when the odometer on your car rolls over from 9999.9. Well, the kid brought his car in for its 2,000 year check-up, so I did it. But I warned him, the news is really bad, so fixing it is really going to cost a lot.

Here’s one problem. The redeemers have already arrived. The Thousand Year Reich may seem to have lasted a scant few years, but if you look carefully, you’ll see that after three days in the bunker, almost every one of its core ideas was resurrected to radiate future-ward over ever spreading territory. Mercy killing, abortion, infanticide, the whole conceptual structure of unlebenswertige life, once seen as repulsive, has within but one generation been transformed into the very portrait of beauty. Eugenics, insistent racialism, and nationally demarcated socialism are now the common heritage of all enlightened Westerners. Governor George W. Bush got it (inadvertently) right: it’s ridiculous to whine that we’re "slouching toward Gomorrah"—we’re in a dead sprint, chest at the tape, proud of our imminent triumph.

That’s one problem. Another is this: Fairness. The hereditary aristocracies have vanished, but a new cognitive elite has just begun its ascent to dominance, and everyone is invited to join—if they are smart enough to know how. At our best universities, the largest proportion allow their brains to be shaped by useless drivel: deconstructionism, alternate sexualities, loony methods for achieving "social justice." The American mind isn’t just being closed, it’s being evacuated.

But there is another, much smaller, group on campus. It pursues quantitative studies. Year by year, the content grows ever more sophisticated and complex. Many years of training in sophisticated mathematics will allow a student to but scratch the surface of, say, early quantum mechanics. To really get its present state requires many years more. This group is naturally both elite and meritocratic.

Math and physics students are now being recruited by Wall Street because even finance is becoming ever more quantitative. The right shoes and the right social network may still help at the beginning, but increasingly, it’s the right number on your Stanford-Binet, and the application of that number to the right stuff, that does the trick. It’s not for nothing that the riches of Silicon Valley were created by nerds. Of all the major universities, MIT produces the largest proportion of entrepreneurs and has the reputation elsewhere in the world of being "the best."

When the rising elite have consolidated their ability to manipulate emerging biomolecular and quantum computational technologies, they will form a club whose barriers to entry will be the most scrupulously fair in history—and the most ruthlessly impenetrable to the unqualified. Having little need to preserve dominance by force or trickery, they may form, if they have a mind to, the most benign and self-centered ruling class imaginable. The arrogance of today’s "caring" elites is a mere foretaste of the unasked-for helpfulness to come.

Perhaps we will even alter human nature itself, and turn ourselves into something utterly alien, a race for whom the old standards—wisdom, humility, nobility, kindness—will be discarded like a serpent’s skin. We’ll just become winners, until we meet an alien race better at it than we, but since at that point we will be genetically convinced that might alone makes right, it won’t matter.

Yet another vehicular system that seems to be failing is religion. I suppose that God Himself is doing just fine, but His earthly defenders are on the ropes—and it’s our own fault. Religion deservedly comes in for more criticism in its failures than does science, because genuine religion claims for itself the ability to know what’s true, whereas genuine science claims for itself only the ability to quantify the probability of a thing being wrong. (Bad science and bad religion simply swap roles, the former proclaiming Truth, the latter worshiping Doubt.) Religion’s bête noire is the fact that a genuine truth arrogantly asserted—that is, without so much as a moment’s consideration that it might be false—is a most pernicious kind of falsehood, far worse in its effects on the humane than a flat mistake.

It’s a matter of modesty. It never uses the term, but science itself is a method to insure modesty of claims (however arrogant its practitioners). Religion, on the other hand, speaks constantly of the virtues, and then, on the whole, displays them with no greater consistency than does any other human institution.

This defect interacts dangerously with a second one. The rising cognitive elite doesn’t care for religion. For them, fine-sounding phrases about "brotherly love" are a joke. In their world, it’s simple: if you’ve got the brains and can back them up with action, you’re a full-fledged member. It is among this elite that the highest proportion of truly multiracial progeny can already be found, and more than anything else, that expanding reality will be a far more convincing argument that they’re right and the religionists wrong.

But the biggest problem is this: the world is changing far more dramatically than I think the boy can appreciate. It’s a world where quantum teleportation, quantum computation, and quantum cryptography, for example, are not only being taken seriously, some have already been implemented at practical scales and are the object of intensive commercial research and development. It’s not just a matter of some really cool technologies for us to gape at, but of a world where only those capable of mastering the wizardry behind the technologies will rise, and where our creations may well outstrip their creators.

How about, say, self-evolving brains composed of teleporting quantum computational elements processing information simultaneously in multiple universes? Science fiction? Nope. Between July 16 and 19, 1999 at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA and the Department of Defense held their first annual conference on evolvable hardware. A sample of the presentations:

• Evolving Circuits by Means of Natural


• Embryologic Electronics

• The Design and Use of Massively Parallel

Fine-Grained Self-Reconfigurable

Infinitely Scalable Architecture

• Self-Repairing Evolvable Hardware

• Genetically Engineered Nanoelectronics

• Co-Evolutionary Robotics

• Evolving Wire Antennas

Willy-nilly, we have embarked upon an adventure that leads to shores far more distant and alien than any we have ever set out for before. Attempts are being made, naturally, to link all this weirdness to philosophies and theologies of yore, to take the utterly mysterious and make it at least sound familiar. But I suspect that we are on the verge of something that we’re not going to be able to grasp quite so simply. It’s possible that we’ve all been wrong in important ways all along. Even human immortality is not so remote a scientific possibility as was once thought.

Picture a world, then, in which, long before the dawning of the fourth millennium, mankind has created conscious, brilliant semiconductor simulacra made of endlessly self-repairing parts; it has itself eaten of the second tree in the Garden, that of Life, and thus acquired the immortality it has long sought—or at least a select group has, whose members have likewise devised methods for the enhancement of their already concentrated pool of intelligence-associated genes. Where in such a world would there be a place for divine justice? Nowhere. (Unless, of course, there really is a Heaven, in which case the justice would be perfect.)

So, what were the damages for all this? You won’t be surprised at the reaction I got: "Change myself? But it’s the car that’s got the problem!" All I can say is, between now and the next checkup he better bring the thing in to an authorized service center—and on a regular basis. And you know, I don’t get his dad. What lunatic gives a teenager with a long record of moving violations a souped-up Lamborghini, an instruction booklet, and a set of keys? It’s no wonder that sometime around 2450 a group of traditionalists are going to take off for the new world found orbiting around Cygnus 351.

Jeffrey Satinover is the author of Homosexuality and the Politics of Truth, Cracking the Bible Code, and The Quantum Brain (Wiley, forthcoming). He has long been a psychiatrist in private practice in Connecticut and is currently a student in physics at Yale.