Martin Rees on knowledge and posthuman potential
In the first of his Reith Lectures this morning, Martin Rees defended science and scientific authority. But he always retains some humility for the wealth of our ignorance. That we have increasingly many answers does not conflict with the fact that we have increasingly many questions, and in the future we may well answer them, as he explained in the Times at the weekend.
Ever since Darwin, we’ve been familiar with the stupendous timespans of the evolutionary past — the billions of years of evolution that led to our emergence. We are more than just another primate species. We are special: self-awareness and language were a qualitative leap, allowing cultural evolution and the cumulative diversified expertise that led to science and technology.
But we should be open to the prospect that some aspects of reality — a unified theory of physics, or a full understanding of consciousness — might elude us simply because they’re beyond human brains, just as Einstein’s ideas would baffle a chimpanzee.
Even so, that need not mean that the fundamental questions were for ever unanswerable. That’s because we humans need not be the culmination of the evolutionary tree: indeed it seems implausible that we are, because astronomy makes us aware that immense time-horizons extend into the future as well as into the past. Our Sun formed 4.5 billion years ago, but it’s got six billion more before the fuel runs out. And the expanding Universe will continue, perhaps for ever, becoming ever colder, ever emptier.