A Thought

The cumulative accumulation of human knowledge is occurring at an ever-faster pace, augmented by improving means of communication within and between various previously separate societies, and by parallel improvements in data storage and transfer. By way of example, doubtless during the medieval period many isolated alchemists tried identical methods to turn base metals into gold, all with the same sorry results; nowadays, it seems unlikely that failed experiments would be replicated quite as frequently (aside from socialist economics, that is).

Whereas at one time a particular band of hunter-gatherers may have deduced how to make better weapons, or grow crops, and that knowledge may have taken hundreds of generations to traverse the globe, in recent decades some of the world’s least scientifically advanced peoples have progressed from medieval technologies to splitting the atom over the course of one or two generations.

The history of science shows that many momentous discoveries and inventions (e.g., the automobile, Darwin’s theory, maybe even the theory of relativity) happened virtually simultaneously in different places, with different people making the discoveries. This is exactly what we should expect, given that the same physics apply in one place as another, and that all parties can now start their inquiries with substantially similar sets of knowledge.

In this light, our most brilliant minds – Newton or Einstein, for example – look more like people who were several steps ahead of the crowd in arriving at a given knowledge set than like individuals without whom the crowd would never have arrived at the same places. I do not mean to demean their importance; in advancing our common knowledge before others could, they gave us the gift of time by speeding along mankind’s learning.

Instead, the direction of my musings is toward the following inference:

Wouldn’t any human society have eventually invented or learned more or less precisely the same things that have emerged over the last few centuries? If so, and if the only humans were the ones who lived in America before 1492, eventually those people would likely have invented the internal combustion engine and driven around in cars that looked a lot like Toyotas. And they would have split the atom. Because they could. Meaning that not only would their brains have eventually established similar knowledge sets, but also the physical and mechanical realities that make an automobile or nuclear power possible, would have been the same for them as for us, and the products just as useful.

Granted, it may have taken a few thousand extra years, but in the end the realities of what is possible in our physical word would have drawn them to the same, or very similar, places.

So we are all traveling along the path of the possible. And the path has its own direction. We just don’t know where it leads.


M.H. Johnston


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