Dec 072014

I have just read an article in El Pais  which alerted me to a debate that appears to be raging in many academic circles. The writer refers to the immortal opening lines of Dicken’s novel Tale of Two Cities, which he finds particularly relevant. And who could disagree?

It was the best of times,
it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom,
it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief,
it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light,
it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope,
it was the winter of despair,

Just as in Dickens’ time, the debate stands between those who hold that this is the best of all possible worlds, and that it will just continue getting better and, on the other hand, those who hold that, at a steadily accelerating pace, we are heading for an apocalypse. The article warns against both the complacency of the one camp and the irrational alarmism of the other.

The article continues that it is true, as Professor Steven Pinker reaffirms (cf. The Better Angels of Our Nature, 2011) that people know more than ever before about ongoing and imminent disasters thanks to the global internet. That is a very good point which certainly goes a long way to explain the anxiety with which many people view the future. According to the article, many scientists who do not see eye to eye with Professor Pinker agree, too, that the number of deaths due to war has tended to decline, but that, they add, is not necessarily the result of a decline in violence: From 1946 on, medical care in war zones has improved, so that fewer lives are lost as a result of, for instance, inections and fevers. However the number of permanently physically incapacitated persons has risen from 3 for every war fatality to 10.

At any rate, there are also other very serious issues that need to be addressed fairly rapidly. What gives rise to alarm is not so much the issues as such as the fact that they are not really being addressed.

Personally, by my very nature, I am rather inclined to complacency. But being one of the last living specimens of my species, cetacea hirsutis, popularly known as the furry whale, I can’t help noticing that the waters I traverse increasingly taste, smell and feel like last week’s soup. Ugh!

I certainly admit there is much to be said, very much, in favour of the six or seven decades following WWII. But as for the future, I beg to differ with Professor Pinker, whose intentions, I am sure, are honourable: He is a psychologist, after all. If I were a psychologist and lost faith in humans’ commitment to improve the world we all live in, I would have to call in sick. Fortunately, I am not a psychologist.

I can only meekly refer, once again, to the afore-mentioned soup we have got ourselves into and urge friend and foe alike to get their acts together quick.

Added on 18 March 2018: See interview of Stephen Pinker on Al Jazeera

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