PROLOGUE - 2
How can we gain a valid (even if only tentative and incomplete) knowledge of the future?
How can we orient ourselves today toward some expectable future, and make a constructive, sensible and as little wasteful as possible transition from this today to tomorrow? This is the great problem confronting at this time all perceptive, responsible and creatively oriented individuals. To this problem two basic solutions can be given.
The first, and today most "official," solution is to extrapolate what we know of the past into the future just ahead of us. A whole science, called in France "prospective," is being built, and its perhaps slightly less formal equivalent is spreading fast as well in our country. A number of organizations and specialized firms are busy with selling to large corporations (and as well to the Government and to city-planning commissions) "profiles" of expectable future trends in this or that area of our national economy. These estimates of potential growth (of production, group-behavior and population) and of probable discoveries or achievements in specific fields (industrial and military, here and as well in other countries) are based on statistics, on curves of previous growth, and on various more or less imponderable factors (for instance, what would the Russian Government do in this or that situation, or how would the general public react to this or that new promotion scheme or new gadget). The analyst establishes the speed at which human productivity and social changes have occurred in the past centuries and millennia, and from these data they calculate what the situation will be ten or fifty years ahead.
This can produce evidently very interesting and valuable results; but it takes for granted that processes already started will unfold at a rate determinable by past performance. There is, however, a major flaw in this entire procedure. What the flaw is can be most simply illustrated by taking the example of the physical growth of a child from birth to, say, age seven. Suppose that some beings from another world who have never seen mature human bodies happen upon a group of children between these ages, steal them and leave our planet. Their scientists might determine the rate of growth of human bodies from birth to seven; but if they were to project this rate into the future they might believe that at the age of 30 human beings are great giants.
This illustration may sound very fanciful, yet it actually applies to modern science's approach to the universe. We speak of "universal laws," and on the basic of our calculations we somewhat pontifically give expert opinions concerning the age of the universe, what has happened and will happen to our solar system and the structure of our planet, the drift of continents, etc. All of this is based upon the concept that "evolution" (cosmic, planetary, biological, mental) progresses more or less in a straight line (even if with relatively small ups and downs in the process).
But how do we know that these "laws," not only apply unchanged to the whole universe, but are the same today as they were at the time when this universe was just "born"? We take for granted this unchangeability of our "universal constants"; but why should we? Nothing around us suggests that we should, simply because all that we see, and experience has a beginning and an end, and the process of unfoldment from beginning to end proceeds according to varying rates of growth and decay. Why should we believe, for instance, that the force that we call gravitation has always the same strength?(1
) Is the "vitality" of a living organism the same in its infancy as when it approaches organic disintegration?
Our official mentality retains still the basic character of nineteenth century thinking. New scientific cosmologies are challenging these old concepts, but only hesitatingly and without really accepting the possibility that our universal constants might be dominated by the rhythm of an immense cosmic process which introduces "cyclic" patterns of change. We still believe most of the time in a straightforward ascent of humanity from primitive "barbarism" to ever more glorious "civilization."
This concept is a typically "Western" concept. In contrast to it we have the more characteristically "Oriental" picture of a "cyclic" universe or even more of a multiplicity of universes, each of which is a cosmic Whole which is born, develops, matures and disintegrates after a moment of perfect fulfillment — a fulfillment which nevertheless leaves "ashes" — that is, waste material, drop-outs and "karmic" residua — to be reincorporated into another universal Whole, a Whole different from the first, but not essentially "superior." Each universe represents the working out of an immense set of potentialities; but as potentialities of existence and of cosmic Wholes of existence are infinite, there is no end and no beginning to the process of existence. The concept of progress — in the usual, ethically colored sense of the word — can be applied to the vast cosmic and planetary movement which leads to the perfect actualization of the initial birth-potential of the cosmic or planetary Whole; but, symmetrical to it, there is also a process of "devolution" or disintegration, that is, a constant dropping out of unusable waste materials and of what one might call (relatively speaking) evolutionary failures.
The basic fact is that the entire process is cyclic. Unfortunately since the Council of Constantinople in the fifth century, Western thinkers are conditioned by their culture to think of cycles in terms of exactly repetitive sequences of events
; and Nietzsche, (to satisfy his own psychological need) glorified and popularized this type of thought in his poetic picture of an "Eternal Return." I believe, however, that a reformulation of the concept of cyclic process
is today of crucial importance; for without a clear and sound understanding of what the concept of "cycle" implies — and especially does not imply — our present attempts at orienting ourselves toward the future of humanity in terms of "prospective" will lead us to conclusions, and make us depend upon procedures, which are likely to prove both useless and destructive.
That this idea that I have often stated for many years is no longer too startling for the modern scientist is shown by the great physicist Fred Hoyle's new book Galaxies, Nuclei and Quasars
(Harper and Row) in which he says that gravitational attraction between bodies may not be a universal constant and the behavior of matter may vary with different planets or solar systems. Return
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