Scanning Retrospective, No. 16

Foresight Snippets – No. 16

[Originally published] September 2001

  • The 200-Year Present
  • Life Extension and Immortality
  • Scientist Says Mind Continues After Brain Dies

The 200-Year Present

It is common for people in futures workshops, when asked to focus on the future 20-50 years out, to say things like “it doesn’t worry me; I won’t be around by then” or similar words to this effect. This is something which Stewart Brand wrote about in The Clock of the Long Now (Snippets No. 11, 30 April 2001), where he says [p.1:50]: “The great problem with the future is that we die there. This is why it is so hard to take the future personally, especially the longer future, because that world is suffused with our absence. We can plan only in the bitter knowledge of personal extinction.” Given that most people really don’t like the idea of personal extinction, this may be why many people don’t want to confront the future too closely. The sociologist Elise Boulding came up with the idea of a “200-year present”, where “the present” extends 100 years into the past, and 100 years into the future. Or, as she spelled it out more explicitly, it includes not only our own generation, but those of our parents and grandparents, as well as those of our children and grandchildren. These five human generational links in the great chain of humanity are just close enough to have a meaning to us beyond our own lives. We might not survive into the future we are creating, but our children, and theirs, most likely will. An old Native American saying puts it like this: “We do not inherit the earth from our parents; we borrow it from our children.” So, what sort of world do we wish to return to them?

Source: Elise Boulding, Culture of Peace: The Hidden Side of History. Syracuse University Press, 2000. “A Possible Future”, pages 257-273.

Life Extension and Immortality

But, what if what we now consider to be the “longer future” was no longer “longer”? What if the 200-year present was but a mere passing stage in our many centuries of potential lifespan? What if we were able to live long enough to see the consequences of our actions, even though they might be very long term? (For example, climate change, which occurs over centuries, would no longer be “someone else’s problem.”) Perhaps then we would start to take the future more personally, not just because the consequences would affect our children and grandchildren, but because they would affect us, too. There is the prospect of human lifespan being extended from the current apparent maximum of 120 years or so, to 400-600 years, and possibly up to 2,000 years. Imagine the idea of living long enough to witness both the fall of Rome and the launch of Apollo 11? It is believed the knowledge for how to do this could be available by about 2015. Some people are even working towards the prospect of immortality. Whether or not you believe these attempts will succeed is really only a secondary issue. The fact that they are approaching the realm of the plausible gives rise to very many issues which we would need to solve, and the manner in which we handle them is a measure of our humanity. Consider the ethical and moral issues of extended lifespan or immortality; for whom would it be available, exactly? And, what to do with all that time?

Sources: Aeiveos Corporation — Life Span
The Prospect of Immortality — online book

​Scientist Says Mind Continues After Brain Dies

But even if immortality is not possible, what if we still had to face the long-term consequences of our actions, after death? How? Well, Reuters news service writes: “A British scientist studying heart attack patients says he is finding evidence that suggests that consciousness may continue after the brain has stopped functioning and a patient is clinically dead. The research, presented to scientists [in June] at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), resurrects the debate over whether there is life after death and whether there is such a thing as the human soul.” Now, in the rational scientific worldview, this notion of a soul is not exactly mainstream, but the above report purports to show that some physical/empirical correlations (which are the domain of science) have been observed which are quite suggestive in this regard. In foresight work, it is often useful to completely shake up the thinking by shifting mental gears (as it were) into a totally different worldview. We do this in order to see how our current assumptions are challenged, which assumptions we are unwilling or unable to let go of, and to see how it affects our current perceptions of “reality” (whatever that is!). In the Tibetan Buddhist worldview, for example, the transmigration of souls is old hat. One form of the Tibetan model suggests that a deeper “essence” of us continues to exist after our physical death, but that the “frontal” consciousness (ie ego) does not, so “we” would not return, only our soul-essence. Thus, we would live again, with the same soul-essence, but still be a totally different person(ality) living a new life. In this worldview we discover that, even though we die (and the future no longer affects us as “us”), we would still have to live with the consequences of our actions in a future world which we had helped create (through our action or inaction)! It’s interesting to contemplate this thought, and ask ourselves how it changes our view of just how personally we might need to take the “longer” future.

Source: Reuters News Service via San Diego Union Tribune

Foresight Snippets are interesting, intriguing or weird things we find during our strategic scanning which may or may not have direct obvious relevance to Swinburne, but which do provide signals about what the future might be like. Brought to you by the Foresight & Planning Unit.

An archive of the Foresight Snippets and a list of Frequently Asked Questions are available at [deleted].

Copyright © 2001 FPU and Swinburne University of Technology.
Feedback is welcome. Send feedback to [deleted].

NOTE: In all the posts in this series, the original source URLs are left exactly as they were when published 20-odd years ago. This means they will almost certainly be dead links (or good ol’ 404 errors). I do not have the patience or inclination to follow-up or find any archived or re-located versions of those web pages (because, well, life is too short). But, if it really bugs you, I invite you to see if you can find archived or relocated versions of those dead-link pages. And if you do, let me know, and I’ll update these posts with due credit to your detective work.

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