an alternative thought experiment by Nikola Danaylov
“People always find it easier to be a result of the past rather than a cause of the future.” Unknown
Are we just billiard balls in a predetermined cosmic game of pool? Or are we free to choose our future?
My thesis in this thought-experiment is that our future is indeed determined. But not by some unbreakable and deterministic law of nature. No. Our future is determined by a story that we have created. Because ours is a civilization of story. So much so that today humanity lives and dies not by facts but by and for our stories. And this has gone so far that at present the fate of actual, non-fictional entities – such as animals, rivers, trees, mountains, oceans and even our planet, is determined by stories – such as money, religion, law, corporations, nations and international organizations.
In other words, in our civilization, what is real and we can touch, see, feel and smell, is ruled by what is fictional and doesn’t necessarily exist outside of the shared human imagination. All future possibilities – what is and what is not possible, are not determined by past events or facts on the ground. They are determined by the stories we attach to those because we are story-telling animals. And that is true for us individually – as persons, or collectively – as organizations, businesses, nations and even for our civilization.
I claim that our story determines our future. But I am not claiming that anything is possible. Geographical, biological, physical and economic forces do create constraints. But those constraints leave sufficient room for us to choose our future and not be bound by determinism. Yes, the past does exert a choke-hold on us all but we can break free if we can change the story. And it doesn’t matter if you are an individual, a company, a nation or an international organization – change your story, change your future.
But before we have a story, any story, we must first have a story-teller. Therefore, the most important story, that which all other stories are derived from, the story-of-all-stories, is the story of the story-teller: the human story.
The human story has been rewritten several times already. The last time was somewhere between the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution when we dethroned God as the central authority in the Universe and took his place instead. Since then our story has spread the myth of the supremacy and centrality of the human being – of how we are the pinnacle of evolution, the supreme intelligence and the masters of nature. And everything we have done since then, together with everything we are likely to do in the future, will stem from that story – the story of who we are, what’s our place in the universe, what we are here for and where we are going.
It is, therefore, this story that is the cornerstone of our stunning progress and fantastic accomplishments. It is also the same story that underpins our failures and current predicaments – be it climate change, nuclear war, terrorism or even artificial intelligence. For it is this story that gave us Auschwitz and took us to the Moon. And it is this story that will, in this century, determine if we are going to go extinct like the dinosaurs, or if and how we might populate the universe.
Now, the major challenges we are currently facing are mostly new kinds of challenges. And exponential technologies – such as genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, big data, synthetic biology, nanotechnology, are already causing disruptive change. But new kinds of challenges require new kinds of thinking. And, since we think in and are ruled by stories, we must rewrite the human story yet again. Because our current story is facing many new challenges. And recent events have shown it is starting to fall apart.
But before we can write a new story we must understand how the current story came to be. Only then can we hope to write a better one. This is not just a philosophical exercise but a question of survival for all life on our planet. Viktor Frankl, a Nazi Holocaust survivor, said it best:
“Since Auschwitz we know what man is capable of. And since Hiroshima we know what is at stake.”