For one thing, “The end is far” is “scienceTM,” not “religionTM.”
Here, The Atlantic‘s Graeme Wood reports on “What will happen to us?: Forecasters tackle the extremely deep future” (Boston Globe, May 1, 2011), featuring recent Templeton winner Martin Rees and others on deep and distant futures, the theory being that it is now possible to be much more certain of the distant future than in the past:
The community of thinkers on distant-future questions stretches across disciplinary bounds, with the primary uniting trait a willingness to think about the future as a topic for objective study, rather than a space for idle speculation or science fictional reverie. They include theoretical cosmologists like Sean Carroll of the California Institute of Technology, who recently wrote a book about time, and nonacademic technology mavens like Ray Kurzweil, the precocious inventor and theorist. What binds this group together is that they are not, says Bostrom, “just trying to tell an interesting story.” Instead, they aim for precision. In its fundamentals, Carroll points out, the universe is a “relatively simple system,” compared, say, to a chaotic system like a human body — and thus “predicting the future is actually a feasible task,” even “for ridiculously long time periods.”
Past is past now …
While an essential part of the toolkit of a futurologist is knowledge of the past, science is now crossing a line where the past may be less helpful as a guide: It has moved beyond replicating the work of nature, and begun introducing eventualities never before seen on earth. A seemingly benign example is chilling materials to within a fraction of absolute zero, many times colder than the coldest place in the universe. Potentially less benign are certain types of high-energy physics research, or DNA experimentation that creates beings unknown on this planet.
For Rees, then, and many other thinkers about the future, a central preoccupation is making sure that humans survive to see it. Only 0.01 percent of all species that have ever existed continue to do so. We happen to be one of them, for now. When Rees looked at the myriad ways in which the present is more perilous than the past in his 2003 book “Our Final Hour,” he set the odds of human extinction in the next century at 50 percent.
Now the money shot:
So if we really understood the future, how would we behave? “It turns out that the reduction of existential risk turns out to be one of the most important things we can do,” he says. “It turns out, if you act and consider all good — including that of future generations — you could outweigh the good you can do today by eliminating world hunger, say, or curing malaria.” Saving a billion from famine today is, by this calculation, a minor concern compared with making sure no extinction-level event snuffs out the opportunity for a trillion more to live in the centuries to come.
Traditional religion has frowned on attempts to predict the future because one ends up predicting others’ demise rather than one’s own. That can lead, in the hands of powerful people, to feeling okay about, for example, letting people die in a famine. Whereas all fruitful philosophy is learning how to prepare for one’s own death.