In a recent book by Robert Burton ("On Being Certain", 2012) the author went to his 97 year old mother and asked her what knowledge she had gained from her long life on this planet. She replied, "So what?" Not grasping the significance of her response, Burton explained, "I was just wondering what you had learned from your long life." Mrs. Burton replied, "That's what I've learned: so what?"
Several decades earlier a cadre of philosophers, known collectively as "existentialists", gave similar voice to the human condition. From the early days of the movement with Soren Kierkegaard and his notion that it was the individual, not society, that was responsible for giving meaning to life and living it passionately and sincerely to the final stages, present in the writings of Sartre and Camus, these writers focused on the "absurd", defined as "man's futile search for meaning, unity and clarity in the face of an unintelligible world devoid of God and eternal truths or values" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Myth_of_Sisyphus). Their notion of the absurd was perhaps a bit more dramatic than Burton's mother's "So what?", but both seem to be saying that human efforts at locating meaning and value in the human condition is futile.
In 1986 K. Eric Drexler wrote "Engines of Creation" in which he introduced the notion of nanotechnology to the world. He expressed his opinion that when nanotechnology was a realized, everyday factor in human life, it would transform the material basis of civilization. Briefly, everything that we manufacture today could be composed in something called a Drexler box, a microwave-like appliance, that would sit on every kitchen counter. It would provide all the food, clothing, resources, etc. that today occupy much of our daily concerns. The implications are numerous, including: the end of hunger, poverty, pollution and health and aging concerns. We could become immortal at whatever age we desired and we would have all the time in the world to do whatever we wanted since there would be no need for employment. In 2013 Drexler wrote "Radical Abundance" in which he provided an update on the progress of the nanotechnology movement. In a "Question and Answer" session at a talk on his new book, Drexler was asked for a time scale for the realization of this technology. He responded somewhat guardedly that it could be realized in 10 to 20 years if the government put its weight behind the effort.
The human condition can be described as the pursuit of sex, sustenance and security, what I call the "survival triad". If we generalize that our search for meaning and values is a function of this pursuit to fulfill the survival triad, what happens to those meanings and values if (or when) Drexler's vision of nanotechnology becomes a reality? Drexler emphasized in his latest book that it is time to open the discussion on matters such as this so that we can prepare for and/or guide our transition to the "new" state of the human condition. Is our search for meaning and value "absurd", as the existentialists would have us believe? Is it simply futile as in Mrs. Burton's "so what?" And, if we do realize the condition in which everything we need can be fabricated on our counter tops, does this effect our search, and, if so, how? For example, will there still be value in searching for a meaning to life?
Join us Thursday and share your views with us. I look forward to hearing them.