What is the opposite of progress? Congress! I have nothing against politicians, just thought we’d start out with a little levity. But seriously, I don’t believe in progress, I believe that progress can occur in what I’ll call a closed system, but as far as a belief that everything is getting better, no. Some things are better, some are worse.
What will we have with cold fusion? Well, for some areas things will be quite different, but I venture to guess we will still be human. I do not know that for sure, if/when cold fusion comes in, we will change from being energy dependent on the sun, either directly or indirectly through burning wood/coal/oil, to being independent from the sun, a status that only nuclear energy has right now.
Back to things being better or worse. Epimenides the Cretan (600 BC), famous for saying that all Cretans are liars, also called members of the same household “sharers of smoke.” Just thinking about it makes my childhood asthma act up. Epimenides was also a kind of Rip Van Winkle character who was said to have lived, in some versions, to be over 154 years old.
While that kind of lifespan seems outrageous (but remember, ‘all Cretans are liars,’ said Epimenides the Cretan), there are people who lived in antiquity to 80, 90, 100+ years. Yes, we have modern medical miracles at our disposal, but in antiquity they all ate that great mediterranean diet, not very much meat, lots of grains and vegetables. They had no processed foods, no white flour, no white sugar. and they walked everywhere. If one did not come down with an illness or injury, one could live in antiquity for quite a long time indeed. If one thinks about how much modern medicine gives us, but also how expensive it is, and how bad off we get due to bad diet and lack of exercize, one has to wonder about how much the trade offs are worth. We could say that we will imitate that diet and exercize, but most of us do not change before its too late. They didn’t have our temptations, we don’t have their simplicity of life. In life it is not only what you do have but also what you don’t have, the absence of something can actually be a plus. Modern medicine can keep us alive, but it is usually a matter of treatment not cure.
Modern medicine reminds me of the story of a sibyl who asked Apollo for eternal life. Unfortunately she did not ask for eternal youth and therefore wasted away forever, not able to die.
Once upon a time, it was required that for a proper education, one should learn Latin, and only after several years of Latin, one then could learn Greek. Today, Latin programs in high school are scarce and Greek students often do not have a background in Latin. Is this a bad thing for the study of Greco-Roman antiquity? It is now realized that Greek studies, because of the old education system, was anachronistically understood only through a Latin (Roman) filter. The general loss of high school Latin classes, in a way, is liberating for understanding the ancient Greek culture and language. It is not just what you have that creates the world for us in positive way, it is also what you don’t have.
I would like to have been in the audience of a Master Bard, listening the Trojan cycle of Epic poems, or in the audience of Sappho as she recited her poems, may walk with Socrates through Athens or hang out with the Pythagoreans in Greek Southern Italy. Maybe Grand Theft Auto is the cultural equivalent of Homer, and Sylvia Plath is the equivalent of Sappho. Seriously. Are we better off? We have a lot more creature comforts these days. Are we progressing? Well, educationwise, we are (quantitatively) more educated. By that I mean that more people have a minimum level of education (and indoctrination). However, at the same time the cultural elite of today are not as sophisticated as the cultural elite of the past. Our cultural elite are specialized, while the giants of the past were polymaths, “renaissance men.” The “lows” are higher, but the “highs” are lower. Think about it, we probably have more philosophers and playwrites and, yes, scientists alive today than ever before. But who established the generas in the first place?
But we do have progress in one sense, in what I’ll call a closed system. What I mean by that is when we have endeavor that over time develops and reaches completion. If I watch a TV program, it develops as time goes on, if I read a book, the argument or the plot develops, or if it does not develop, at some point I put it down and give up. If I bake a cake, I follow a recipe and if someone asks me about how the task is developing, I can say I’m about half done. That “half done” may mean the amount of time taken so far, it may mean the number of steps followed so far. It may mean that I’m finished with the mixing and have just the baking to do. We go through various “progressions” all the time, but that does not mean that things in absolute sense are progressing. For there to be progression, one needs to specify what the system is, unless one is really just expressing a feeling of optimism. While I don’t believe in progress, at the same time I also don’t believe that things are getting worse. Or again, some things are worse, some things are better.
What does this have to do with cold fusion? We like to think of cold fusion as a force of progress, and in many ways it is. But for better or worse, it is like an iceberg and we only see the tip. There are the effects that we can guess, but underneath the surface is most of the mass of the iceberg. This is true for all technology, who guessed from seeing communicators on original Star Trek that distracted driving from cell phones would be such a problem? But my point is not that cold fusion will present problems, although I do have faith in the human ability to foul up a good thing. My point is that we don’t really know how revolutionary cold fusion will be. However, no matter how revolutionary it is, I don’t think of it as progress for I have no doubt that the human race will continue to eat, ‘greet’ and excrete the same way we always have. We may get rid of old problems, but we probably find new ones in the process.
To leave you with a parting thought about Epimenides and Homer, and how a lack of something can be a positive thing; it is an interesting thought that not only are Homeric tales and Epimenides’ “sharers of smoke” roughly contemporary with each other, but maybe Homeric tales were created because the ancients had to do something while huddling in the cold, “sharing smoke.” We are getting ready to no longer “share smoke” in our society through fossil fuels, but at the same time, what else do we gain or lose? Cold fusion is an exciting possibility. But what we will actually find out in due time, only time will tell.