Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Return of Uncertainty

If uncertainty is increasing as the world grows more complex and interconnected, that is mainly a matter of definition. It was not so long ago that death, accident, disease, and hunger found us rather more easily. Close to half of children did not make it to adulthood; whole families died in epidemics, whole regions in natural disasters. It is defending against such things that is recent.

It is fair to protest that wars used to be more localized and thus did not kill millions, or that droughts might eliminate a whole tribe but not an entire region. But this is observed entirely from the perspective of knowing how many people there are in the world and something of what happens to them. It may seem a small thing to us now if a single band of 150 souls ceases to exist, but it would hardly seem so to its members, who consider themselves to be The People, and know only slightly or indirectly of a few surrounding similar groups. In such a case the world has ended, so far as the individual knows the world. When Squanto returns from Europe to find all his tribe dead and most surrounding tribes reduced by 90%, the world has ended.

One can catch something of the sense of this if you imagine that there are numerous other inhabited planets. All earth catastrophes, even planet-wide ones, would then seem strangely local.

It is only since about 1800 that the idea of some certainty has crept into our thinking. Even at this, it is not until my lifetime that there is much expectation of getting through life unscathed. We get sick, we now expect to get better. Dying before age 60 is now seen as an enormous unfairness, a robbery from your allotted span. A worldwide depression or a nuclear holocaust strikes us as an unimaginable and unprecedented occurrence. Not so; the Great Plague wiped out one-third of Asian and Europe - the New World was devastated by diseases to an even greater degree, upwards of 90% dying. Before that, invaders put village after village to the sword. Wasn't that the whole world to those in those villages.

As science developed since Bacon we have come to expect that the behavior of the world is regular and predictable. Particularly in Europe since the (hah!) Enlightenment, we believe that all events have explainable causes if we could but understand them better. This assurance on our part is more a worldview than an advance. Because we have brought some things under control and made them more predictable, we believe that all of life will become more so. Not so; the catastrophes (and beneficences) simply expand to the new size we are aware of. We share more catastrophes with neighbors distant as well as near.

Nearly everyone still has huge, somewhat unexpected, life-changing events in their brief journey here. We still share this with the great mass of all the humans who have ever existed. It isn't new. Only the expectation that life is "really" different from this is new.

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