Scientific American has asked some scientists what they call “20 big questions about the future of humanity.” Not all of the questions are strictly about humans, but most of them are, and I think we can forgive them for those that are not. They’re still interesting questions.
We asked leading scientists to predict the future. Here’s what they had to say
Interestingly, they begin with the question, “Does humanity have a future beyond Earth?” Lifting the eyes, I guess. Setting the tone to think beyond the mundane. They asked Martin Rees, an established and well-respected British cosmologist and astrophysicist. To paraphrase his answer: yes, sort of, eventually.
I think it’s a dangerous delusion to envisage mass emigration from Earth. There’s nowhere else in the solar system that’s as comfortable as even the top of Everest or the South Pole. We must address the world’s problems here. Nevertheless, I’d guess that by the next century, there will be groups of privately funded adventurers living on Mars and thereafter perhaps elsewhere in the solar system. We should surely wish these pioneer settlers good luck in using all the cyborg techniques and biotech to adapt to alien environments. Within a few centuries they will have become a new species: the posthuman era will have begun. Travel beyond the solar system is an enterprise for posthumans, organic or inorganic.
Another question I found interesting has to do with consciousness, and whether we’ll ever understand it. The answer is not the usual one.
Some philosophers, mystics and other confabulatores nocturne (simply, people who make up stories in the night time – rjb) pontificate about the impossibility of ever understanding the true nature of consciousness, of subjectivity. Yet there is little rationale for buying into such defeatist talk and every reason to look forward to the day, not that far off, when science will come to a naturalized, quantitative and predictive understanding of consciousness and its place in the universe.
One of the questions that isn’t strictly about humans has to do with extraterrestrial life. I suppose it is about us in a way because the discovery of extraterrestrial life, or the prolonged lack of discovery, will affect us profoundly. I like this answer because it almost perfectly recapitulates what I said in my post, “Alien Life on Titan.”
If there is abundant microbial life on Mars, I suspect that we will find it within 20 years … Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Titan are more compelling places. Europa is a water world where more complex forms of life may have evolved. And Titan is probably the most interesting place in the solar system to look for life. It is rich in organic molecules but very cold and has no liquid water; if life exists on Titan, it will be very different from life on Earth.
There are many more questions and many more interesting answers in the linked Scientific American article. They discuss the brain, which is getting a lot of interest from researchers right now. Will greater knowledge of the brain affect criminal law? Will we ever figure out afflictions like schizophrenia and autism? Then there’s the planet itself. Can we stop Earth’s sixth great extinction? Spoiler alert: scientists tend by their nature to be optimistic people. Follow the link and check out the article for yourself. You might find it stimulates some questions in your own mind.