Thursday, 26 January 2017

Some late correspondence...

"Theology is never any help; it is searching in a dark cellar at midnight for a black cat that isn't there".  Robert Heinlein.

"(If) the universe is everything that is, what beyond nothing is left to explain its promotion from inexistence to existence?".  David Berlinski.

One of the joys of later life is re-visiting authors that you really enjoyed reading in prior times. The best ones, like good wine, don't loose their capacity to inspire or enthrall, to mystify or delight. All of us, of course, have our particular genres, so I was interested to recently pick up a book of collected more factual essays by Robert Heinlein, and to find a piece entitled 'The Third Millennium Opens'. Written, appropriately for a Sci-Fi writer, "in 2001" (it was actually written several years before his death in 1988), it's a piece that seeks to stride with confidence into a time which has seen us move, in but a few generations, to a point when the very stars appear to be almost ours - or so the optimism of the period it was written believed.

Heinlein, like so many of his day, had a boundless confidence in our ability to step further into the universe, and along with this, was happy to make several predictions about what was about to begin to unfold and become commonplace in the world. It is interesting to re-visit a few of these salient points, and update how they are now viewed a few decades on from that change of century...

First up, is a field entitled 'Science of the Mind'. Noting the use of things like telepathy and ESP for military purposes (what was known as Remote Viewing programs, for example, were implemented in the 70's but were discontinued in the 90's as they failed to produce 'actionable intelligence'), Heinlein suggests that these, and some regressive forms of hypnotism (these instances were also to be examined and dismissed), might have opened the door to the realm of "life after death". Heinlein was sure they had, referring to such incidents as providing a 'certainty' of something more.

As noted above, our writer didn't have a great deal of time for religion, period, but he clearly was fascinated to see if science could open a window into what could only be defined as the paranormal - not something that would be welcome amidst the priesthood of scientific orthodoxy a few decades later. 
Heinlien's 'hunch' may have actually been correct, though not amongst the particular fields he advocated and advanced. In our times, there may be the first substantive data to show that something of us actually continues after physical death, possibly at the quantum level, but it's still early days. 

 If his first conclusion would have driven naturalists mad, his second would have plicated them - 'Man is just a wild animal', and therefore can only be tempered through the punishing  furnace of survival and progress. The era of the original piece was the time when the new Atheism was finding its feet. Over the period since then, we've witnessed all manner of extravagant claims regarding the demise of a creator from that quarter, but we've also witnessed a fascinating and often far more thought-provoking back-lash from many fields. Heinlein speaks of our being 'protoplasm', but notes that we have barely begun to truly study ourselves. The work within the nature of the cell and DNA since that period has truly revealed a 'universe within a universe', and may be the prelude to an understanding as large in scope as the fact that the universe itself had a beginning. It most certainly leaves us with a range of towering questions, especially in regards to how all the essentials of life appear to be 'gifted' and not evolved.

The third assumption was a common one in genre writers of the day - Space was about to be conquered, but the bases on the moon, the manned missions to Mars, the theoretical breaking of light speed so we could reach the stars... these are all still 'for the future' concepts, whilst the troubles with regards to what we are in ourselves have not in any measure diminished.

The 20th century may have given a grasp on applying technology and medicine that prior generations could have only dreamed of, but it also gave some of the darkest chapters in the history of our world, purely because of the human condition. The attempt of recent history to dismiss God may well be due to the indictment that comes with His presence - there is a day of reckoning for our crimes and misdemeanors, which will be coloured by expulsion or mercy, according to Jesus Christ, depending on how we choose to stand in regards to the truth He shows to us - something which causes great unease in our self-reliance.

The times have certainly moved on. The cardinal issues and our deepest needs have not.

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