Self Help

Future Stories - David Christian

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Matheus Puppe

· 60 min read

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Here is a summary of the introduction:

The future is a mystery that we face in every moment of our lives. There are many possible futures, then suddenly one becomes the present that we must deal with quickly before it slips into the past. The future is enchanting yet terrifying, giving life richness and meaning. We want to glimpse what’s ahead but have no guides since no one has been there. The future matters deeply since that’s where we’ll live our lives, so we constantly scan for patterns and trends to imagine possible futures. Historians study the past but rarely think about the future, yet our only clues about the future lie in the past - like driving while looking in the rearview mirror. Thoughtful future thinking is especially important now as humanity holds the future of Earth in our hands. What we do in the next decades will shape the planet’s future for millennia. Our actions depend on how we think about the future and what futures we try to build. Understanding the future requires linking past and future thinking to illuminate possibilities ahead.

  • Despite the importance of the future, we rarely teach general skills for thinking carefully about it. This book aims to provide an accessible introduction to the future and future thinking.

  • It takes a “big history” perspective, exploring the future through multiple lenses and disciplines. This can yield richer understanding, like linking villages through travelers created history’s great trading networks.

  • Studying the past is key to future thinking. Teaching big history’s sweep of past time led the author to also discuss the future.

  • This book looks at how we try to understand, manage, prepare for, and imagine futures of humanity, Earth, and the universe. It draws on diverse thinkers from many fields.

  • Historians usually study the past, not future. But patterns and trends in the past can guide future action. The author was persuaded to think more about the future through teaching big history.

  • The book originates from playful lectures on optimist vs pessimist futures. This confirmed the value of considering the future when trying to understand all of time.

Here is a summary of the key points about the two approaches to time and the future:

  • There are two main metaphors for thinking about time: as a flow or river (A-series time), and as a fixed map or timeline (B-series time).

  • The river metaphor sees time and the future as dynamic, constantly changing, and hard to know. This aligns with our everyday experience of time.

  • The map view sees time and the future as fixed, with change as an illusion. From this god’s eye perspective, the future should be knowable.

  • Philosophers often refer to these as the A-series (dynamic) and B-series (static) views of time.

  • The river metaphor implies we are embedded in time, while the map view implies we can stand outside it.

  • In practice, there is overlap between the two views - e.g. Isaac Newton combined notions of flowing time with absolute, fixed duration.

  • The two metaphors have deeply shaped philosophical and religious ideas about time, change vs permanence, and how knowable the future is.

  • Understanding these two approaches provides an important foundation for thinking about the future.

Here is a summary of the key points about A-series and B-series time:

A-Series Time

  • Time flows like a river, carrying everything into the future. The metaphor of a raft on a river captures this feeling of passage.

  • The future lies in a particular direction from the past and present.

  • The future is hidden in a fog, while the past has details and the present is vivid. As the future approaches, possibilities collapse into one actual outcome, like the “collapse of the wave function” in quantum physics.

  • A-series time is depicted in a future cone diagram, with a single past line narrowing into a fan of possible futures.

B-Series Time

  • Time is like a map, with past, present, and future just regions on the map. An observer’s “now” depends on their position, like directions on a map.

  • On this map, all moments are equally real, so there is no special present. This is the “block universe” view.

  • Without a definite present, everything is extended in time. Objects have “temporal parts” in the past, present, and future.

  • B-series time is depicted as a worm-like diagram without a future cone.

In summary, A-series sees time as flowing while B-series sees it as a fixed map. A-series has a special “now” while B-series does not. The future is open in A-series and fixed in B-series.

  • There are two main ways of thinking about time: A-series and B-series. A-series sees time as flowing from past to future, with the present moment being special. B-series sees time as a fixed sequence of events spread out in space-time, with no objective present moment.

  • B-series time avoids some paradoxes of A-series, like what constitutes the present moment and where past/future are located. But it raises problems around determinism (no free will if all events fixed) and causality (no clear direction of cause/effect).

  • Determinism - the idea that all events are predetermined - seems to deny free will and ethics. But there are good arguments against extreme determinism, like human agency and randomness in quantum physics.

  • Causality and the arrow of time give a direction to time’s flow, allowing prediction and planning. But the origins of the arrow of time are still debated, with possibilities like entropy, cosmology, and quantum theory.

  • Overall, modern philosophy and physics have moved away from extreme deterministic views, preserving free will and causality while accepting some objective flow and directionality in time. The possibilities of the future remain open, even within the block-universe concept.

  • In the 18th-19th centuries, many scientists believed in strict determinism - that the future could be predicted perfectly if one knew the positions and motions of all particles. This view was associated with Newtonian physics and Pierre-Simon Laplace.

  • By the early 20th century, most scientists had abandoned hopes for such extreme determinism, due to several developments:

  1. Philosophers like Russell showed no logical system could guarantee absolute certainty.

  2. Quantum physics revealed fundamental unpredictability at the subatomic level.

  3. Chaos theory showed tiny differences in initial conditions can cause hugely divergent outcomes.

  4. Evolutionary theory implied organisms have choice-making abilities, which wouldn’t make sense if the future was fixed.

  • These developments led to more probabilistic views of causality and the relationship between past and future. Causation was seen as useful for predicting likelihoods but not certainties.

  • Physicists found time symmetry in fundamental equations, but causation and a direction of time reemerged in more modest, perspectival forms when dealing with complex structures. The arrow of time points in the direction of increasing disorder.

Here is a summary of the key points about practical future thinking from the passage:

  • Future thinking requires reconciling our immediate, subjective experience of time (the A-series) with the block universe view from physics (the B-series).

  • What matters most is not abstract ideas about time, but what we must do moment-to-moment to deal with uncertainty.

  • We live in the turbulence of the A-series but yearn for the predictability of the B-series. The Bhagavad Gita explores this through Arjuna’s glimpse of the timeless perspective.

  • Our experience of time and the future is relational - it depends on our position and viewpoint. Einstein showed there is no absolute temporal flow.

  • Einstein used thought experiments with trains to show that space and time measurements must differ for observers in different states of motion. This led to the theory of relativity.

  • There is no one definitive answer to how the future works - it depends on your perspective. Future thinking involves negotiating between our immediate viewpoint and the wider universe we struggle to see.

  • Einstein showed that simultaneous events can appear non-simultaneous to observers in different frames of reference. He demonstrated this with a thought experiment involving lightning strikes observed by a stationary Isaac and a moving Albert.

  • This means there is no absolute way to specify when the past ends and the future begins - it depends on your frame of reference. The future and our understanding of it must be viewed perspectivally.

  • Einstein also showed that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. This limits the speed at which causal effects can propagate.

  • Being alive gives organisms a distinct relationship to time and the future. Living things are complex systems subject to decay over time. They also exhibit goal-directed behavior, caring about and trying to shape their futures.

  • Complexity means things are made up of diverse, precisely arranged components that give rise to emergent properties. This makes them subject to change and eventual breakdown over time.

  • Living things thus have a fundamental interest in the future - they want to survive, flourish, and achieve goals. This leads them to make predictions and plans to shape their futures.

  • Living organisms have a unique relationship to time and the future compared to non-living things. They are complex entities constantly at risk of breaking down, so the future is full of drama and uncertainty for them.

  • Living things seem to act with purpose and “agency”, unlike non-living things which behave passively according to physical laws. This purposefulness appears to arise from natural selection, which has gradually built organisms that can anticipate and creatively respond to the future.

  • Organisms have no direct evidence about the future, so they must use indirect strategies to anticipate it, primarily by studying the past and present for clues. Their ideas about the future can also shape the future.

  • Two main ways organisms get hints about the future are 1) asking other purposeful beings about their intentions, and 2) studying past trends and patterns and projecting them carefully into the future. But predicting the future is always uncertain.

  • Overall, living things have a tense relationship with the future, but are not completely powerless. They can influence their fate through purposeful action, even if the future is never fully knowable or controllable.

  • Trend hunting involves studying past trends and patterns in order to anticipate likely futures. It is probabilistic rather than certain.

  • There are four main methods of trend hunting: direct detection of correlations, random sampling, shared knowledge, and studying causes behind trends.

  • Inductive logic underlies trend hunting. It involves making leaps of faith that past patterns will continue into the future, though there are no guarantees.

  • Trend hunting works well because the universe follows general rules and regularities, even if the details are not predetermined. These rules ensure the existence of trends that can reasonably be projected into the future.

  • Identified trends can be used to generate models of possible or likely futures. Humans are particularly adept at building such mental models to prepare for what may come.

  • Optical illusions demonstrate how the mind builds models even when full information is lacking, by interpolating and filling in gaps based on past experience.

  • Thinking about the future is a fundamental ability of humans and other organisms. It allows us to prepare, predict, and shape the future.

  • We build models of possible futures in our minds, like chess players calculating moves. This model building is essential for science and all future thinking.

  • Trends provide clues about the future, but they vary in reliability. We must distinguish real trends from noise and identify different shapes of trends.

  • Predictions should avoid being overspecific (likely wrong) or overgeneral (uninteresting). Finding the right balance is a subtle skill.

  • Our ideas about the future can be visualized as “future cones” with different domains:

  1. Preferred futures we want to aim for and bad futures we want to avoid.

  2. Domains of predictability from preposterous (unpredictable) to probable (highly predictable).

  3. Domains of anxiety linking our preferences to probabilities - we worry most about bad outcomes that seem probable.

  • Overall, these future cones represent the types of landscapes we may find in the future, not the actual future itself. Our ability to imagine possible futures guides our actions today.

Here are the key points in summarizing how cells manage the future:

  • All living organisms go through three basic steps to manage futures: deciding on preferred futures (Utopias), identifying likely futures by spotting trends, and acting to steer toward Utopias.

  • Even the simplest organisms like bacteria can distinguish between good and bad futures.

  • Identifying trends requires sensors and some form of memory to compare present and past. Memory may exist primarily to enable future thinking.

  • Managing futures is like Bayesian statistics - constantly updating estimates of the probability of different futures based on new information.

  • Cognition, including anticipation, sensing, remembering, and learning, allows organisms to prepare skillfully for likely futures.

  • Even viruses and single-celled organisms manage futures, using biochemical mechanisms.

  • The first person to observe cells was Robert Hooke in 1665, who coined the term “cell” for the box-like structures he saw in slices of cork.

  • Cells are the fundamental building blocks of life and the smallest living things. Even simple cells show sophisticated future management capabilities.

  • In 1665, Robert Hooke first observed individual cells through a microscope. He called them “cella” (Latin for small rooms) because each cell has its own membrane dividing it from the outside world.

  • In the 1670s, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek discovered microorganisms consisting of just one cell, which he termed “animalcules.” This revealed that large organisms like humans share the planet with a miniature microbial world.

  • In the 1800s, Matthias Schleiden, Theodor Schwann, and Rudolf Virchow established the cell theory of life - that all organisms are composed of cells and that cells are the basic units of life.

  • A cell’s membrane enables it to exchange energy and information with its environment while maintaining an internal living system. Though individual cells may seem simple, they can contain extraordinary complexity and precision.

  • Even single-celled organisms like bacteria can make sophisticated decisions about their future, using biochemical networks that effectively compute needed information. These capabilities likely existed even in LUCA, the hypothetical last universal common ancestor of all life.

  • E. coli bacteria have been studied extensively as model organisms. Though tiny, each E. coli cell contains complex machinery to manage its future, including sensors, genome, and worker proteins. By examining E. coli’s survival strategies, we gain insight into the basic machinery of future management common across life.

Here’s a summary of the key points:

  • Cells store information about their goals in their DNA. The genome contains instructions for making the proteins and molecules the cell needs to survive and reproduce.

  • However, which genes are expressed at any given time is determined by transcription factors and epigenetic processes. These sense the cell’s internal and external environment and determine which genes to turn on or off.

  • Cells detect trends in the outside world using sensor molecules in their membranes. These can detect chemicals and send signals about changing conditions inside the cell.

  • Proteins do much of the work inside cells. They are made of chains of amino acids that fold into specific shapes. This gives them specialized functions and abilities to capture molecules, rearrange them, and change shape to send signals.

  • Sensor proteins detecting external trends can signal changes inside the cell. Messenger proteins spread this information by changing shape themselves as they move randomly through the cytoplasm.

  • Cells process information and decide how to act using regulatory networks of proteins. These amplify signals, make decisions based on thresholds, and turn genes on or off. This allows the cell to respond appropriately to changing conditions.

Here are a few key points about how multicellular organisms manage the future:

  • Each cell uses similar future-management machinery to bacteria, but they also have to coordinate with trillions of other cells to manage the future of the whole organism. This requires elaborate communication, negotiation, and collaboration machinery.

  • Multicellular organisms are built from eukaryotic cells, which are larger and more complex than prokaryotic cells. All cells contain the same DNA, which creates loyalty to the larger organism. Cells can also specialize into different types like muscle, nerve, etc. to divide labor.

  • Stem cells early in development can turn into different cell types depending on signals they receive about their position. This kicks off specialization and division of labor.

  • Different tissues and organs take responsibility for specialized future-thinking roles, like the plant root growing toward water sources.

  • Nervous systems and brains evolved to gather information, make predictions/simulations about the future, and coordinate responses across the organism. Hormones help communication between organs.

  • Plants can’t move but have complex future-thinking abilities, like sending roots to likely water sources or flowering based on day length predictions. Animals with nervous systems have more flexible and mobile futures.

  • Plants actively manage their futures like all living organisms, using goals, trend analysis, and action. Though passive in motion, they make sophisticated probabilistic bets using energy and nutrients.

  • Plants have species-specific microgoals built into their genes, like biochemical tricks and maneuvers for survival.

  • Plant cells use sensors to detect external molecules, energies, scents, sounds to gather information. They communicate locally through membranes and farther via vascular channels (xylem, phloem), electricity, pheromones.

  • Assessing likely futures means recognizing trends, which requires memory. Plants can remember prior events to compare to current ones. Carnivorous plants use memory to decide if closing energy-costly traps is worthwhile.

  • Plants share information on threats via pheromones, collaborating on defense. Trees share nutrients and information between roots in “Wood Wide Web” fungal networks.

  • Informed betting improves future outcomes. A plant that starts making toxins after sensing neighbors’ pheromone distress signals has acquired information to make the probable threat more likely, placing informed bets.

In summary, though sessile and passive in motion, plants actively manage their futures by gathering information, assessing probabilities, placing informed bets, and collaborating, all aimed at improving future outcomes. Their future thinking may seem primitive, but shares fundamental qualities with more complex organisms.

Here are the key points about how plants and animals manage their futures:

  • Plants gather information about their environment through their roots, leaves, and other structures. They process this information to anticipate future needs and threats.

  • Plants have short-term memory, allowing a Venus flytrap to remember an initial touch and spring its trap on a second touch. They also have long-term memory, using epigenetic changes to remember past seasons.

  • Plants have internal circadian clocks that allow them to anticipate daily and seasonal changes.

  • Plants take action through motions like circumnutation, spiraling exploratory movements that allow them to find sunlight, water, and nutrients.

  • Animals face greater challenges than plants because they must hunt living prey that can flee. This requires more complex information processing and action planning.

  • Animals have nervous systems for rapid information transfer. Brains allow for central information processing, memory, and coordinated action.

  • More complex brains, like those of mammals, allow for greater intelligence, learning, and flexibility in dealing with the future. But even simple brains enable effective future planning, as seen in bee navigation.

  • Animals need to think about the future more than plants because they have to hunt for food. Plants can usually get nourishment without moving much.

  • Assessing trends and analyzing the environment poses a big challenge for animals. They need elaborate neurological systems (nervous systems) to model likely futures.

  • Nervous systems are built from networks of neurons that specialize in communication. There are sensor neurons, motor neurons, and interneurons that analyze information and make decisions.

  • The proportion of interneurons increased in more complex animals as their ability to analyze futures became more sophisticated. Interneurons are concentrated in brains.

  • The computational power of nervous systems has increased exponentially over time as more neurons are integrated into more complex networks.

  • Vertebrate brains have three main parts - the forebrain is best at modeling possible futures. The human forebrain expanded rapidly in evolution to support greater intelligence.

  • Neurons are linked in networks like transistors in computers. They communicate using electric pulses and can perform complex computations to build rich models of reality and likely futures.

  • Neurons are the basic cells of nervous systems. They have dendrites that receive signals, a cell body, and an axon that transmits signals using electric pulses called action potentials.

  • Action potentials allow neurons to rapidly transmit signals over long distances without degradation. Parallel signaling by many neurons enables immense computing power.

  • Synapses between neurons can transfer signals rapidly via electric pulses, or more slowly using neurotransmitters. The neuron sums inputs from other neurons before deciding whether to fire an action potential.

  • Memories are stored in networks of connected neurons. Learning strengthens or weakens synaptic connections. Long-term memories require permanent changes like new synapses.

  • Three basic forms of learning help animals predict the future based on past correlations: habituation (unlearning false correlations), sensitization (strengthening real correlations), and classical conditioning (learning new correlations).

  • Memories and interpolation help build elaborate models of the world that fill in gaps and allow complex thinking about the future. The brain’s parallel computing power enables rapid modeling and prediction.

  • Humans have exceptional ability to think about, imagine, plan for, and model possible futures compared to other species. Our brains evolved neurological and biological adaptations over millions of years that greatly enhanced these skills.

  • The impact of human future thinking was magnified exponentially by the development of language, which allowed humans to share ideas and accumulate collective knowledge over generations.

  • Language and collective learning enabled human technologies, cultures, and management of the future to evolve much faster than biological evolution, becoming more complex and powerful over hundreds of thousands of years.

  • Together, enhanced future thinking abilities in individual brains and collective learning through language have transformed humans’ relationship with the future and the planet. We have become uniquely powerful creatures when it comes to anticipating and shaping the future.

  • These abilities give humans immense power but also responsibility for stewardship of the planet and wise management of the future. Other animals adapt to the world; humans can adapt the world to themselves, for better or worse. Our future thinking makes us “Dragon-kings” - creatures of outsized impact on our environment.

Humans have exceptionally large brains compared to other animals. Evolutionary biologists believe this rapid brain expansion was driven by positive feedback loops between brain size, sociability, and collective learning. Larger brains gave humans enhanced abilities to imagine and compare alternative futures. Collective learning through language allowed accumulation of knowledge across generations, enabling cultural evolution. This transformed humans’ abilities to manipulate their environments. Key trends unleashed by collective learning include accumulating knowledge, increasing societal complexity, and accelerating rates of innovation. Together these changes gave humans exceptional power over other species and planetary systems.

  • It is difficult to track how human ideas about the future have changed over history due to lack of evidence. Modern hunter-gatherer societies may preserve traces of ancient ideas, but it is speculative.

  • In the past, some thinkers like Whorf argued societies had no sense of time. Others like Eliade saw ancient views of time as cyclical “profane time” and stable “sacred time”, unlike modern linear time.

  • Most anthropologists today agree all humans experience sequence and duration. But diverse attitudes to time arise from blending natural, psychological, and social rhythms.

  • Natural time follows astronomical and seasonal cycles. Psychological time is mercurial, speeding up and slowing down with moods and life stages. Social time aligns individuals to rhythms of larger society.

  • In the past, natural and psychological time dominated. But over history, as human societies grew more complex, social time has become increasingly powerful in shaping human experience of past, present and future.

  • In the foundational era of human history, communities were small and personal. As a result, the future was also seen in a personal way, focused on the lives of people, animals, and plants in one’s local homeland.

  • People had a sense of living within the natural world, rather than dominating or manipulating it. There was a belief in universal laws and limits that humans had to respect. The future was seen as similar to the past, with an underlying permanence beneath surface changes.

  • The world was seen as full of spirits, beings, and forces that could influence the present and future. These had to be negotiated with through ritual.

  • Knowledge, especially ecological knowledge, was a major source of power and authority. Special knowledge of the future may have been restricted.

  • Social time existed through calendars, but did not dominate in the way it does today. People aligned activities to natural and psychological rhythms rather than imposing rhythms on the world.

  • The future was local, cyclical, respectful of natural law, influenced by spirits and beings, and based on traditional knowledge. It was not seen as a realm to be manipulated or transformed by human will.

  • In ancient hunter-gatherer societies, people lived in harmony with the rhythms of nature rather than according to standardized clock time like today. The past faded into mythic time and was not conceived as a single timeline.

  • These societies had a stable, Parmenidean view of time in which the world was fundamentally unchanging beneath surface variations. The past and future were less distinct and history timelines were less important than maps.

  • The future was often seen as knowable through spirits, gods, and occult forces that could be contacted through rituals. Most societies believed in these supernatural forces due to innate aspects of human cognition.

  • Specific short-term futures like migrations or harvests were predicted pragmatically based on trends and astronomy, which allowed prediction of annual cycles. But there was little long-term future planning.

In summary, ancient concepts of time and the future were more cyclical, spiritual, and rooted in nature’s rhythms than the linear, secular view of history dominant in modern society.

  • The agrarian era lasted from around 8000 BCE to the early 1800s CE. It was a period of profound change in human societies driven by agriculture and accelerating collective learning.

  • Agriculture allowed populations to grow from about 6 million to 900 million by 1800 CE. Most people now lived in sedentary villages rather than mobile camps.

  • New technologies like farming, sailing, writing, and metallurgy enhanced human control over the environment and expanded exchange networks. This catalyzed further innovation.

  • Time itself changed as people had to coordinate activities over large areas due to trade, taxes, ritual etc. The pace of change accelerated.

  • The creation of cities and states allowed elites to manage futures on a large scale. Writing helped track long-term trends. Elite future thinking diverged from popular traditions.

  • Elites thought more about empire/nation-wide issues and trends. They sought deeper spiritual voices and larger-scale knowledge. Their future thinking became more ambitious as they could shape millions of lives.

  • Elite rituals and belief systems gave their future thinking greater authority and prestige. But popular traditions continued in villages and among the poor.

Here is a summary of the key points about elite future thinking in the agrarian era:

  • Elites in the Axial Age (first millennium BCE) developed more universalist worldviews as trade networks expanded and large empires emerged. Thinkers sought universal truths and principles beyond local traditions.

  • There was a conflict between elite universalist thinking and popular local superstitions and divination. Elites were aware their thinking differed from most people’s.

  • In ancient Greece and Rome, divination was ubiquitous and part of daily life. Elites were skeptical of popular forms but respected some types like astrology.

  • Chinese elites developed correlative and yin-yang thinking to understand cosmic patterns and harmonize human affairs with them. But folk religion and divination persisted.

  • Despite elite universalism, astrology and prophecy remained influential as they claimed insight into divine plans. Apocalyptic thinking emerged in Judaeo-Christian tradition.

  • Elites recognized their different worldviews from common people but had limited ability to transform popular thinking until the modern era. Conflicts sometimes emerged between elite and popular future thinking.

Here is a summary of the key points about future thinking in ancient Greece, Mesopotamia, and China:

  • In ancient Greece, many methods of divination were used to predict individual futures, including interpreting omens, dreams, and prophecies from oracles like the one at Delphi. Oracles like Delphi often gave ambiguous answers that priests interpreted. City-states also sought advice on collective matters like wars.

  • In Mesopotamia’s bureaucratic empires, divination became more centralized and controlled by rulers. Records from Mari in the 18th century BCE suggest prophecies may have been propaganda supporting rulers. Later records from Assyria described more impersonal, empirical techniques like reading animal entrails. This suggested a shift toward seeing the future as governed by cosmological laws and trends rather than direct divine messages.

  • In ancient China, the earliest divination involved consulting ancestor spirits and gods like Di. Oracle bones record empirical observations of phenomena thought to predict the future, showing an early impersonal and bureaucratic approach. The goal was to aid rulers in decisions about agriculture, war, and other state matters rather than individual fortunes. Over time, divination became systematized into practices like astrology that sought to discern orderly patterns and principles dictating future events.

  • Oracle bones with early examples of Chinese writing were used for divination by Shang dynasty kings starting in the late second millennium BCE. Questions were carved into scapulae or turtle shells, which were then heated to produce cracks as answers.

  • Over 200,000 oracle bones have been found, showing divination was an important practice. Questions often related to royal family matters, the weather, military decisions etc.

  • Divination practices became more elaborate over time, with specialized officials by the Zhou dynasty. Questions and answers were tightly controlled.

  • Divination shifted from appealing to ancestors to investigating natural laws and cosmology, becoming more ‘this-worldly’. Astronomy was increasingly used.

  • The I Ching originated as a divination text called Zhou I in the early Zhou era. Over time it accumulated layers of interpretation, becoming a philosophical system focused on yin/yang rather than communicating with spirits.

  • In the agrarian era, future thinking and divination methods of the educated elite became more impersonal and focused on universal principles, as seen in the shift from inspired divination to practices like astrology and the I Ching.

  • However, the I Ching still required complex interpretation, showing the persistence of obscurity in divination. Sacrificial rituals also continued, implying relationships with spiritual beings.

  • Glimpses into popular future thinking show it was shaped by diverse local traditions and spiritual beings. Examples include Russian peasants’ use of spirits, ancestors, and magical practices for protection and divination.

  • Anthropological accounts similarly reveal widespread traditional divination practices, such as poison oracles among the Azande and mirror divination in Russian villages.

  • Villages often had specialists like healers and diviners to help with futures and negotiate the spirit world when traditional methods failed. Their practices remained more personal and inspired than elite divination.

  • There was likely significant overlap between elite and popular attitudes as cultural ideas diffused, but the educated elite knew they operated in a different intellectual world.

Here is a summary of the key points about divination and popular future thinking in the agrarian era:

  • Most people relied on divination and prophecy to gain some sense of control over the future. Methods included interpreting dreams, omens, astrology, consulting oracles, mediums, and shamans.

  • These practices were driven by deep anxieties and lack of security in precarious lives without modern science or medicine. Belief in spirit worlds was universal.

  • Professional diviners like shamans used rituals, costumes, drugs, and tricks to enhance their authority. They claimed to negotiate with spirits on behalf of clients.

  • Some educated philosophers like Cicero and Socrates believed divination tapped into dormant human abilities. But frauds existed too.

  • People understood diviners weren’t always reliable, but still believed in the powers. Failures didn’t undermine the system. Divination offered reassurance.

  • The “Oracles of Astrampsychus” text illustrates the experience of engaging with an oracle through ritual questions and cryptic answers.

Here is a summary of the key points about modern future thinking:

  • The modern era of human history, over the past few centuries, has seen extraordinarily rapid changes, faster than in any previous era. Technological and scientific innovations have soared, global exchange networks have expanded, and as a result, human future thinking has been profoundly transformed.

  • We have entered the Anthropocene epoch, where human activities are shaping the future of the entire planet, not just human societies. Modern future thinking is increasingly concerned with the future of all humans and species on Earth.

  • In just 220 years since 1800, the human population has grown nearly 9-fold, to 8 billion people today. New technologies have enabled this population growth while also dramatically increasing food production.

  • Economic growth has also soared, with global GDP multiplying by over 100 times since 1800. Expectations of continued economic growth shape modern future thinking.

  • Humans have gained unprecedented abilities to shape the future through science, technology and economic growth. But we also face growing risks of human-caused disasters, so managing risks is a large part of modern future thinking.

  • New intellectual tools like statistics, probability theory, and scientific forecasting have transformed our ability to predict the future rationally. But old traditions of prophecy and divination persist alongside rational forecasting.

In summary, the modern era has expanded humanity’s powers to shape the future enormously, while also forcing us to be more thoughtful and responsible about managing risks and unintended consequences. Both rational and mystical modes of future thinking coexist in navigating this new era.

  • Modern technologies have given humans unprecedented power to transform the future, for better or worse. They allow instant communication over vast distances and study of the infinitesimally small or unimaginably large. But they also create new dangers like climate change and nuclear weapons.

  • Globalization linked all human communities into a single global network, displacing traditional rhythms. It imposed new global schedules and destroyed traditional lives while enriching Europe.

  • The pace of change has accelerated so that constant change is normal. Technologies that once amazed now seem mundane.

  • Science emerged with a more mechanical view of nature that minimized unpredictable forces, seeking mathematical regularities. This “disenchanted” the world but gave humans more power over it.

  • Understanding of deep time showed species and the universe themselves have changed profoundly over billions of years. The future will differ from the past.

  • Awareness grew that humanity’s new powers could lead to ruin as well as progress, making the future dependent on how humans manage the planet.

  • The founders of modern science rejected anthropomorphism, animism, and magical forces in favor of impersonal, universal “scientific laws” laid down by God. This intellectual shift is called the “disenchantment of the world.”

  • Disenchantment led to a more mechanical view of the universe as predictable and controllable like a clock. This allowed for more precise prediction and control through understanding causation, probability, data collection, statistics, and information technology.

  • Causation: Understanding why things happen (like germ theory) allows more accurate prediction and control (like vaccines).

  • Probability: Even when specific events can’t be predicted, probabilities allow prediction of likely outcomes.

  • Data/Statistics: More data analyzed with statistics reveals probabilistic trends and clues about the future.

  • Information Technology: Computers allow analysis of massive datasets for trends.

  • These improvements are most effective in non-human domains like science and technology. Prediction remains difficult in human domains like politics.

In summary, the mechanistic worldview of modern science enabled major advances in prediction and control through causation, probability, data, and computing, especially in non-human domains. Prediction in human affairs remains imperfect.

  • Modern probability theory arose from attempts to improve prediction in domains where causal links were looser and less mechanical than in astronomy and physics.

  • Games of chance prompted early systematic studies of probability, like Girolamo Cardano’s book in 1564, the first systematic treatment of probability.

  • Cardano solved problems like why throwing 3 dice yields 10 more often than 9, using the idea of sample spaces - lists of all possible outcomes.

  • In 1654, Pascal and Fermat advanced probability theory by tackling the “problem of points” about dividing stakes in interrupted games.

  • Pascal proposed using complete enumerations of possible outcomes, but this missed real-world messiness. His famous “wager on God” used unrealistic simplifying assumptions.

  • In 1662, Pascal’s colleagues offered a more realistic defense of probability’s use clarifying reasoning about medicine, law, ethics when causal links are loose.

Here is a summary of the key points about likely outcomes in the real world:

  • Probability theory provides a mathematical framework for thinking about the likelihood of different outcomes. It allows us to quantify uncertainty and make judgments about what futures are more or less likely.

  • Early pioneers like Jacob Bernoulli showed how probability theory could be used for “inverse probability” - making inferences about whole populations from limited samples. This laid the foundation for modern statistics.

  • Over time, probability theory became more sophisticated mathematically. A key development was recognizing that many events are genuinely random, not just a result of our ignorance. This meant probability was not just about coping with ignorance but accurately describing indeterminacy in the world.

  • Modern statistical thinking, with its emphasis on gathering large amounts of data, allows us to make increasingly precise quantitative judgments about likely futures based on past trends and patterns. The more data, the better the predictions.

  • But there is always a leap of faith involved in projecting past trends or probability distributions into the future. The future never perfectly replicates the past. Probability and statistics give us tools to think rigorously about likelihood, but uncertainty always remains.

Here is a summary of the key points about the history of modern future thinking:

  • In the 17th-18th centuries, new mathematical tools like probability theory allowed more rigorous analysis of complex phenomena like life expectancy and population growth. Governments became interested in statistics to understand and control society.

  • In the early 19th century, governments and scholars began collecting huge amounts of statistical data on population, crime, disease etc. to search for patterns and “laws” that could predict human behavior.

  • The IT revolution of the late 20th century enabled storage and analysis of massive datasets (“big data”), revealing hidden trends and allowing more accurate predictions. Computer models like World3 also allowed complex global systems to be simulated.

  • Modern predictive methods have increased forecasting ability in many domains, especially those governed by regular processes. However, the future remains fundamentally uncertain in complex adaptive systems like the economy or climate.

  • While data and computing power have expanded, ultimate limits on prediction remain. Randomness, exponential change, and human agency mean the future can never be fully known or controlled. Wisdom lies in recognizing the limits as well as power of prediction.

Here are a few key points summarizing the passage:

  • Modern future thinking utilizes empirical, statistical, and mechanical methods, as opposed to divination and astrology. Fields like medicine and science have seen remarkable successes in prediction.

  • However, predicting human behavior and events shaped by chaotic processes remains difficult. Forecasting in politics and economics is still unreliable.

  • Specific future thinking skills like statistics are respected, but future thinking as a general domain of knowledge is still fragmented and lacks prestige.

  • Modern future studies emerged from the planning needs of the Cold War era, with optimism about scientific prediction. But the unpredictability of human affairs means the future remains obscure in many domains.

  • Overall, while there have been gains in rigor and methodology, the fundamental challenges of future thinking remain similar to ancient times. Respect for particular skills coexists with neglect of future thinking as a unified discipline.

  • The next 100 years is a critical period because it is the first time one species - humans - can determine the fate of the entire biosphere.

  • There are some predictable trends in the near future, but many unknowns remain, especially regarding human choices and actions.

  • The 100-year future is personal because it affects people we know and care about, so we have a responsibility to consider it carefully.

  • In the next century, Earth will likely cross a major threshold by coming under conscious management for the first time. How humanity manages the planet matters greatly.

  • Our ideas about the near future shape the decisions we make today, which can have long-lasting impacts for millions of years.

  • There is debate about whether studying future images should be the focus of futures studies versus trying to understand objective probabilities. Both are important.

  • Overall, how we imagine and prepare for the near future is hugely consequential given humanity’s current power over the biosphere. Careful, creative thinking about the next 100 years is critically important.

  • Imagining potential futures is important but challenging. We must consider what futures we want, which seem likely, and how to steer toward better futures.

  • Despite diversity, we should be able to build consensus on a broadly shared vision of a good future, because we have common needs and hopes as humans. Ethical traditions across cultures have core similarities, like the Golden Rule.

  • Condorcet wrote an influential early modern secular utopia grounded in optimism about scientific progress and human betterment. He envisioned progress in science, social justice, and education. His views were surprisingly prescient given the massive changes of the next two centuries.

  • Global issues like climate change now require unprecedented global cooperation, unlike past eras. But global networks and conversations give hope that consensus is possible. We must act decisively while there is still time to steer toward more desirable futures.

  • Condorcet was optimistic that moral and scientific progress would increase equality, respect for rights, and longevity. He believed building consensus around these goals would be easy since humans share moral sentiments.

  • Condorcet thought removing barriers to free thought and intellectual progress, along with inequalities of race, class, and gender, would unleash creativity. Medical advances would also extend lifespans.

  • Since Condorcet’s time, fantastic scientific and technological advances have made many of his hopes seem commonplace. Founding documents like the Declaration of Independence and UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights also expressed Utopian hopes.

  • For the first time, 20th century global organizations like the UN could plausibly claim to represent much of the world’s population and voice their aspirations, despite political weakness.

  • The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the first global Utopian sketch, assumed science and technology would provide the material basis for a fairer, more prosperous world. This represents the “growth” path.

  • Since mid-20th century, awareness of planetary limits has forced consideration of “stabilization” paths to Utopia, balancing growth with sustainability.

  • Works like Limits to Growth argued growth trends in resource consumption must be flattened or reversed to avoid collapse, while preserving modernity’s gains within an “equilibrium.”

  • Sustainable development aims to balance growth and sustainability. Climate change now dominates discussions of growth limits. UN agreements aim to stabilize greenhouse gases to prevent dangerous climate change.

  • There are powerful long-term rising trends in human history driven by collective learning, such as population growth, expanding technology, increasing energy use, and rising consumption. Some trends have accelerated dramatically in modern times.

  • However, some trends like population growth and resource consumption are reaching planetary limits and starting to stabilize. This fits with the universal pattern of “punctuated equilibria” - rapid growth followed by a plateau phase.

  • Looking ahead, there are three types of trends shaping the future:

  1. Growth trends: e.g. technology, education, health improvements. These can suggest an improving future.

  2. Stabilizing trends: e.g. population, consumption hitting limits. These suggest approaching a plateau.

  3. Unpredictable political trends: fights/discussions over future direction. Hard to forecast.

  • Together, these trends hint at the possibility of something new emerging on planet Earth - perhaps a more sustainable balance between growth and planetary limits.

  • But the future depends significantly on how politics and public opinion steer trends over the next few decades toward better or worse futures. There is a broad consensus emerging on ideas like sustainability, but it remains to be seen if humanity can actually reach agreed targets.

  • Economic growth and technological innovation since the 18th century have brought many improvements, including rising living standards, longer lifespans, and reduced poverty. This aligns with Condorcet’s vision of progress.

  • However, some rising growth trends are now recognized as unsustainable and dangerous, such as population growth and greenhouse gas emissions. Several growth trends are beginning to flatten naturally, including population growth and economic growth rates.

  • Population growth rates have declined since the 1960s as urbanization and changing lifestyles have led people to have fewer children. This removes pressures on resources and women’s roles.

  • Greenhouse gas emissions and climate change represent an existential threat from unchecked growth. Evidence shows CO2 levels and temperatures rising dangerously compared to the past million years.

  • Climate forecasts predict severe impacts if emissions are not rapidly reduced. Some rising trends must be deliberately stabilized via policy interventions, rather than just flattening naturally.

  • Overall, growth has brought progress but planetary limits mean stabilizing key trends is now crucial, via both spontaneous flattening and deliberate policy action. Managing growth sustainably is a defining challenge.

Here is a summary of the key points about climate change policies and technologies in the passage:

  • The IPCC reports represent the most sophisticated climate change modeling and predict global temperatures could rise 1.5-5°C by 2100 depending on emissions scenarios. Even 1.5°C of warming could have severe consequences like rising seas, expanding deserts, erratic weather, and undermined food production.

  • Carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for a long time, so emissions cuts now could limit warming to under 2°C by 2100. Methane release from melting ocean clathrates could trigger feedback loops and tipping points that accelerate warming.

  • Human activities are transforming environments in ways that could undermine planetary systems and threaten collapse. We have exceeded boundaries for biodiversity loss and nitrogen flows. Climate change and species extinction rates are accelerating.

  • The destructive power of weapons has grown immensely, with nuclear arsenals now capable of ruining the biosphere. Reducing and eliminating nuclear stockpiles is critical to avoid catastrophe.

  • Rising inequality within and between nations continues to drive migration, conflict, and instability. Climate impacts will hit the poorest countries hardest. However, inequality declined within many nations in the 20th century. Addressing inequality is key to social cohesion and stability.

Here are 4 general scenarios for the near future, adapted from Jim Dator’s taxonomy:

  1. Collapse: Environmental, economic or political crises lead to the breakdown of global order and significant declines in population, living standards and technological capabilities. This scenario represents a failure to transition successfully to a sustainable planetary civilization. It is the least desirable scenario.

  2. Discipline: Governments and elites impose harsh top-down controls to avoid collapse, limiting freedoms and consumption. While avoiding utter catastrophe, this scenario falls well short of an optimal future.

  3. Transformation: A global grassroots sustainability transition remakes economics, politics and culture to create a more equitable, post-growth ecological civilization. This represents the most hopeful scenario of profound yet peaceful change.

  4. Business-as-Usual: The world continues on its current trajectory of technological advancement but limited policy change, risking severe climate disruptions, conflicts and crises later this century. Less catastrophic than collapse but lacking the systemic reforms needed for long-term sustainability.

While collapse is possible, the most likely scenario under current trends appears to be continued unsustainable growth leading eventually to crises, conflict and significant challenges later this century. However, the scenario of a sustainability transition, while requiring major changes, remains within our capabilities if collective political will can be mobilized within the coming decade. Visions of a positive future are critical to motivate action today.

  • The author describes four possible future scenarios: collapse, downsizing, sustainability, and growth.

  • Whatever scenario unfolds, the path will likely be turbulent due to the complex shifts required to move away from fossil fuels and conflicts between global and local interests. Dangerous conflicts may emerge but global cooperation on sustainability is also possible.

  • Under collapse scenarios, human societies fail as managers of the planet and experience catastrophes like war, famine, and pandemics. Human extinction is possible in the worst cases.

  • In downsizing scenarios, growth is limited through regulation and taxation. Living standards decline but authoritarian methods allow sustainability goals to be met.

  • Sustainability scenarios combine optimism about human progress with realism about ecological limits. A global consensus emerges on the importance of sustainability and equality. Innovation continues but ideas of progress change.

  • Growth scenarios downplay limits to growth. A high-tech future is envisaged with continued economic and consumption growth enabled by technological advances.

Here are a few key points about the middle future (timescales of thousands to millions of years) for humanity:

  • If humanity survives the next few centuries, our descendants will face futures shaped by unpredictable beings like ourselves. Long-term predictions are highly speculative.

  • The middle future is less personal than the near future, though we may feel loyalty to future generations of humanlike creatures. Our influence diminishes over time.

  • The crucial thing we can do for the middle future is survive the next few centuries and learn to manage a planet sustainably. This opens up pathways for post-humans over longer timescales.

  • In the next thousand years or so, humanity may function as “planetary managers”, solving global coordination and sustainability issues. This could involve planetary planning, advanced technology, new education systems, and ethical motivations.

  • Human societies may diverge evolutionarily over the middle future as some groups opt for cybernetic or genetic enhancements. A minority may eventually transition to post-human states.

  • Space settlement over thousands of years may allow human lineages to spread through the solar system and beyond. This provides insurance against planetary disasters.

  • Over millions of years, human descendants may speciate into multiple new species optimised for different environments. Or a single lineage could endure, protected by technology.

  • The middle future is highly speculative, but managing the planet sustainably now opens up grand possibilities for human lineages over the long term.

  • New energy technologies like solar, wind, hydro, and nuclear fusion have great potential to provide abundant sustainable energy in the future. Improvements in efficiency and new technologies like room-temperature superconductors could revolutionize how energy is generated and used.

  • Kardashev’s scale proposes hypothetical civilizational rankings based on energy utilization, from Type I (harnessing a planet’s energy) to Type II (harnessing a star’s energy) to Type III (harnessing a galaxy’s energy). Our descendants may reach Type I within a few centuries.

  • Nanotechnology involves building tiny molecular-scale machines and is advancing rapidly. Potential applications include quantum computing, advanced materials, improved batteries and fusion, genetic manipulation, and medical nanobots.

  • AI and robotics will continue advancing rapidly, perhaps reaching human-level intelligence this century. Issues around ensuring aligned goals and values will be critical.

  • Biological technologies like genetic engineering, synthetic biology, and blending humans with machines may give our descendants radically extended lifespans. This raises complex ethical issues.

  • Improved global coordination, governance, education and ethics will be needed to deal with the complex challenges of managing a planet and emerging technologies over the long-term future.

  • AI and robots will likely become much more advanced, with some worrying about the implications of superintelligent machines that could potentially get out of human control.

  • Nanotechnology and 3D printing will allow extremely small, cheap, and ubiquitous manufacturing, possibly eliminating most factories. Nanomachines may become commonplace.

  • New medical and genetic technologies could significantly enhance and modify human bodies and minds. Life spans may be greatly extended and aging reversed. This fits with the transhumanist vision of overcoming human limitations through technology.

  • Many humans will likely migrate off Earth, seeding new planetary bodies and diversifying the human species. This continues the ancient human trends of exploration, migration, and adaptation to new environments through technology.

  • By the year 3000, technologies may exist that we currently cannot even imagine. There will likely be a diversity of enhanced humans, cyborgs, AI, and settlements off Earth that would seem very foreign to us today.

  • Polynesian migrations into the Pacific offer analogies for future human migration into space, using planets, moons, and asteroids as stepping stones. We have already sent robotic scouts like satellites ahead of us.

  • In the coming centuries, humans may establish colonies on the Moon, Mars, and asteroids. This will be difficult but not impossible. Colonists will terraform and transform these environments.

  • Migrating into space allows humanity to spread out from the single vulnerable planet of Earth. It increases our chance of surviving for hundreds of thousands or millions of years.

  • In the distant future, humans may migrate to other star systems, spreading throughout the galaxy over millions of years.

  • We may encounter alien life, but chances are low of finding intelligent life at a similar technological level. More advanced civilizations could threaten us.

  • Over the next millennium, humanity could collapse, downsize, achieve sustainability, or continue growing, depending on how we handle existential threats like climate change and nuclear war in the bottleneck era of the next few centuries.

Here is a summary of the key points about remote futures and the rest of time:

  • If humanity survives the challenges of the next few centuries, our descendants could spread through the galaxy over millions of years, evolving into a diversity of species and civilizations. This would end the brief era where all humans belonged to a single species.

  • Advanced civilizations may harness huge amounts of energy and develop technologies beyond our comprehension, as imagined in concepts like Kardashev’s scale of civilizations harnessing the energy of stars.

  • Life and mind may find ways to persist for billions of years, perhaps escaping flesh and blood forms and surviving in deep space or in simulated universes. This leads to highly speculative ideas about almost eternal life and civilizations exceeding the normal bounds of physics.

  • Over scales of billions of years, the increase of entropy will make the universe increasingly homogeneous, cold and dark. Debates continue about the ultimate fate and possible cycles of the universe.

  • For humanity, the emergence of collective learning remains momentous, whether our descendants perish or populate the galaxy. Our future trajectory depends on whether we develop capacities to manage the planet wisely.

In summary, if humanity survives this bottleneck period, our descendants may populate the stars and evolve into a diversity of species and civilizations over scales of millions of years that we cannot imagine today. But our future depends first on making it through the challenges of the next few centuries by developing a capacity for wise planetary management.

Here is a summary of the key points in the passage:

  • This chapter looks at very long-term futures, including the fate of Earth, the sun, the galaxy, and the universe. Though speculative, these remote futures may seem easier to predict than nearer futures because they are shaped by large, orderly processes.

  • In hundreds of millions of years, plate tectonics will reshape continents and oceans. In 2-3 billion years, Earth’s geography will freeze as plate tectonics slows.

  • The sun’s evolution over billions of years will determine the fate of Earth and the solar system. In 1 billion years, increasing solar emissions may make Earth inhospitable to life. In 3-4 billion years, a hotter sun will boil away Earth’s oceans.

  • Astronomers can predict the sun’s lifespan based on observations of different star types. Medium stars like our sun live for approximately 10 billion years.

  • The solar system orbits the Milky Way galaxy every ~250 million years. It is unlikely to be impacted by other stars due to the vast distances between stars.

  • The chapter ends by noting that the remote future seems shaped by orderly, mechanical processes that may be easier to predict than the unpredictable behaviors of purposeful beings like ourselves.

Here is a summary of the key points about the future of the universe:

  • Our sun will die in about 5 billion years, first expanding into a red giant that may engulf Earth, then collapsing into a white dwarf.

  • Stars are born from clouds of gas and dust in galaxies, but over time galaxies run out of material for new stars. In a few billion years, star formation in the Milky Way will cease.

  • Galaxies collide and merge over billions of years. In a few billion years, the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies will merge into one supergalaxy.

  • Most cosmologists believe the universe had a beginning in the Big Bang about 13.8 billion years ago and will have some kind of ending.

  • Two main possibilities for the end of the universe are that it continues expanding forever or it stops expanding and collapses back on itself in a “Big Crunch.”

  • An accelerating expansion, driven by dark energy, makes the Big Crunch less likely. The accelerating expansion may lead to a cold, empty universe in trillions of years.

  • While the end of the universe may not reveal a purpose, contemplating cosmological endings tells us our place in the story of the universe so far. We live near the beginning of a universe with a long future ahead.

  • Big bang cosmology revolutionized modern astronomy by suggesting the universe has a history of change. This led to debates about whether cosmic expansion would continue forever or eventually reverse.

  • To resolve this, astronomers measured the rate of expansion and estimated the mass of the universe. For decades the evidence was inconclusive, suggesting the universe was poised between eternal expansion and eventual collapse.

  • In 1998, improved measurements found the expansion rate was accelerating, implying the universe will expand forever. This was explained by proposing ‘dark energy’.

  • An eternally expanding universe will become increasingly empty, cold and fragmented. Eventually even black holes may evaporate, leaving just empty space and stray particles.

  • However, we only understand 5% of the universe’s mass-energy content. ‘Dark matter’ and ‘dark energy’ account for most of the rest. A better understanding could rewrite this story.

  • Ideas like the ‘multiverse’ suggest different universes may have different properties or lifespans. Our universe may be finely tuned to allow complexity to emerge. But we have no evidence for other universes.

  • The future remains uncertain. Our knowledge of cosmology changes significantly each decade. But this is currently our best model for the remote future, based on limited evidence.

  • The author expresses gratitude to many people who helped with the writing of this book, including family, friends, scholars, students, professional contacts, and his publishers.

  • He thanks his family for their love and support, including his wife Sophia and children, as well as extended family in England, the US, and elsewhere.

  • He is grateful to colleagues and institutions that supported his work on big history over the years, including Macquarie University, San Diego State University, the International Big History Association, and the Big History Project.

  • The author asked many scholarly friends across different disciplines for advice, feedback, and fact-checking, which improved the book significantly. He lists some by name, including Joe Voros, Charlie Lineweaver, Merry Wiesner-Hanks, and others.

  • He alone takes responsibility for any remaining errors or issues with the book.

  • The author also includes a glossary defining some key terms used in the book, covering concepts from various disciplines like physics, biology, philosophy, and more.

  • The era being described spans from the evolution of early humans hundreds of thousands of years ago until the end of the last ice age around 10,000 years ago.

  • This era laid the foundations for all later eras of human history and is often referred to as the Paleolithic era.

  • Early humans evolved and developed tools, language, and social structures during this long period.

  • They spread out of Africa across much of the Old World, adapting to new environments.

  • The end of the last ice age brought about changes in climate and landscapes that enabled the development of agriculture, laying the groundwork for the next major phase of human history.

  • Overall, this era saw the emergence and spread of anatomically modern humans, the development of foundational technologies and social structures, and increasing adaptation to diverse environments, setting the stage for the rise of more complex civilizations.

Here are brief summaries of the key points from each of those books:

Bostrom, Superintelligence: Discusses the possibility of machines surpassing human intelligence and the potential risks and benefits of superintelligent AI. Recommends strategies for ensuring such AI is safe and beneficial.

Boyer, Religion Explained: Proposes that religious beliefs emerge as a byproduct of normal cognitive functioning, serving an evolutionary purpose even if the specific beliefs are factually incorrect.

Bray, Wetware: Explores the potential for creating biological computers by harnessing the information processing capabilities of living cells through synthetic biology.

Caldarelli & Catanzaro, Networks: A concise introduction to the mathematics behind real-world networks like the internet, social networks, and biological networks.

Callender, The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Time: A comprehensive collection of essays by prominent philosophers on topics related to the philosophy of time.

Campion, Astrology and Cosmology: Examines astrology’s conceptual foundations across different cultures and its relationship to religious cosmologies.

Carr, What Is History?: A classic text that examines the practice of history, issues of historical objectivity, and the relationship between facts and values.

Chalmers, What Is This Thing Called Science?: An accessible overview of science’s methods, strengths, limitations, and relationship with technology and society.

Chamovitz, What a Plant Knows: Explores scientific discoveries about plant senses, learning, memory, and intelligence.

Cheney & Seyfarth, Baboon Metaphysics: Presents evidence that baboons have complex social knowledge, analogous to human cultural norms and beliefs.

Christian, “Silk Roads or Steppe Roads?”: Discusses whether trans-Eurasian trade networks depended more on steppe nomads or agricultural societies in China, India, Persia. Shows importance of both.

Churchland, Conscience: Argues that moral intuitions emerge from complex brain processes shaped by evolution, rather than divine guidance.

Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods: Cicero’s critique of Stoic, Epicurean, and skeptical ideas about the gods in Ancient Rome.

Collingwood, The Idea of History: Influential examination of history as a discipline, including the logic and philosophy of historical knowledge.

Condorcet, Sketch for a Historical Picture: Predicts social progress through technological advance, spread of knowledge and human rights.

Cossins, “The Time Delusion”: Discusses psychological research revealing flaws in human intuition about time, with implications for theories of consciousness.

Curd & Cover, Philosophy of Science: Clear introduction to major issues in philosophy of science, including scientific reasoning, revolutions, realism vs. antirealism, values, and more.

Does this help summarize the key points? Let me know if you need any clarification or would like me to summarize additional books.

Here is a summary of the key points from the listed sources:

  • Ancient Greek literature provides insights into popular culture and beliefs in antiquity. Works like the Anthology of Ancient Greek Popular Literature shed light on folk tales, songs, rituals, and other traditions.

  • Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time explores cosmology and the origins and eventual fate of the universe from the Big Bang to black holes. It explains complex scientific theories like general relativity and quantum mechanics for a general audience.

  • Indigenous Australians developed a rich astronomical knowledge system encoded in oral tradition, as described in Haynes’ “Astronomy and the Dreaming.” Their sky maps and traditions reveal deep understandings of celestial motions, eclipses, variable stars, and more.

  • Headrick’s Humans versus Nature examines the interplay between human societies and their environments throughout history, highlighting humanity’s mixed record of both damaging and conserving nature.

  • H.G. Wells advocated for human rights and international cooperation in works like his draft for a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, aiming to advance moral progress.

  • The Limits to Growth modeled exponential economic and population growth in 1972, forecasting overshoot and collapse of global systems. Later studies found its business-as-usual scenario aligning with empirical data on population, economics, pollution, etc.

  • Strategic foresight methods like scenario planning, as outlined in Hines & Bishop’s Thinking about the Future, are essential for anticipating and shaping long-term futures.

  • Holt’s When Einstein Walked with Gödel explores the friendship and conversations between the physicists, illuminating their brilliant but eccentric minds and thoughts on science, philosophy, and the nature of reality.

Here is a summary of the key points from the selected passages:

  • Ancient cultures like the Babylonians, Chinese, and Greeks practiced various forms of divination and prophecy to try to predict the future. Methods included reading omens in nature, consulting oracles, and using astrology.

  • In medieval and early modern Europe, astrology and prophecy remained important for predicting the future. Newton and other early scientists retained an interest in alchemy and prophecy alongside their scientific work.

  • During the Enlightenment, new rational and empirical methods challenged older approaches to prediction. Thinkers increasingly saw the future as open rather than predetermined.

  • In the 19th and 20th centuries, new statistical and computational methods emerged for modeling and forecasting. Thinkers like Toffler popularized the idea of “future shock” - the struggle to cope with accelerating technological and social change.

  • Contemporary sciences like cosmology and climate modeling aim to understand long-term futures. Other fields like predictive analytics, future studies, and foresight use diverse methods to analyze possible futures.

  • Thinkers disagree on whether the future is fundamentally predictable or not. Most agree that multiple futures are possible and prediction involves both science and judgment. Developing wisdom about the future remains an ongoing human challenge.

Here are concise summaries of the key points from each of the works listed:

Stewart: Examines the Sortes Barberinianae, a compilation of prophetic pagan oracles in Late Antiquity, as an example of the blending of divination and written texts in the ancient Mediterranean. Sees it as drawing on earlier divinatory practices while shaping later Christian oracular texts.

Strathern: Surveys social, economic, and technological trends to anticipate how society may evolve in the coming decades. Foresees major impacts from globalization, climate change, shifting demographics, and new technologies like artificial intelligence.

Swain: Explores how Indigenous Australian cultures conceptualized time and being before the arrival of Europeans. Argues their cyclical timeframes and experiential notions of reality differed profoundly from Western linear time.

Swirski: Collection of writings showcasing the futuristic visions of Polish science fiction author Stanislaw Lem. Lem foresaw many technological developments and explored philosophical questions about humanity’s future.

Szostak: Presents techniques for thinking rigorously about potential futures. Discusses methods like scenario planning, causal analysis, and modeling to anticipate possibilities and guide strategy.

Taleb: Examines highly improbable events that have massive impacts, so-called Black Swans. Argues they are unavoidable and society should build resilience rather than focusing on prediction.

Tedlock: Proposes an anthropological theory of divination, seeing it as a creative cultural practice for managing uncertainty and constructing meaning. Contrasts with Western notions of prophecy.

“Temporalities” forum: Scholars discuss new perspectives on time emerging from anthropology and science studies. Emphasize temporality as plural, contested, and politically charged rather than singular and absolute.

Thomas and Humphrey: Anthology examining shamanism as a global phenomenon for engaging with alternative realities and states of consciousness. Discusses political and cultural impacts of revivals today.

Tomasello: Presents research on human cooperation and collective intentionality. Traces origins of human culture, morality, social institutions back to cognitive capacities that evolved in early humans.

Toner: Surveys popular entertainments and leisure activities in ancient Rome. Highlights public fascination with exotic animals, gladiatorial combat, chariot racing, theater, and proto-novels.

Toulmin and Goodfield: Classic intellectual history of discoveries and debates that shaped modern Western concepts of time. Covers cosmology, geology, evolution, thermodynamics, relativity, quantum physics.

Turner: Compares projections from the seminal 1972 Limits to Growth study against subsequent historical data. Argues the modeling was prescient about risks of overshoot from resource use and pollution.

United Nations: Calls for transformative changes to economies, politics, and lifestyles to avoid catastrophic environmental breakdown. Stresses immediate action to curb greenhouse gases, protect ecosystems, and pursue sustainability.

Urry: Examines competing visions of the future emerging from shifts to digital networks, automation, globalization, and climate change. Sees future as open and subject to human agency despite risks.

Vitebsky: Anthropological study of shamanism as a set of traditional practices for mediating with spirits found in many Indigenous cultures. Looks at cosmological understandings, rituals, social roles of shamans.

Vollset et al.: Forecasting study predicting global population trends to 2100 based on modeling fertility, mortality, and migration. Expects population to peak around 2064 then decline, with major regional variations.

Voros: Discusses value of big history framework for long-term futures thinking. Its expansive timescale contextualizes present crises and illuminates humanity’s potential trajectories.

Wagar: Traces influence of H.G. Wells in pioneering future studies. Highlights Wells’ drive to make futures thinking rigorous, scientific, and a means of advancing human welfare.

Walls: Reference work surveying major eschatological themes and movements throughout Christian history, from early apocalypticism to modern belief in prophecies and the end times.

Watts: Reviews research on structure and dynamics of complex networks. Argues networked self-organization underpins emergent phenomena in both nature and society.

Weart: Examines the historical genesis of scientific concern about human-caused climate change. Charts growing realization of anthropogenic global warming from the 19th century onward.

Weaver: Mathematician and pioneer of information theory who helped develop radar technology. Proposed “Lady Luck” hypothesis that unpredictability is an inherent property of nature.

Wells: Influential early 20th century British futurist who argued systematic forecasting could guide progress. Envisioned world government, atomic energy, and mechanisms for international cooperation.

Westfall: Definitive biography of Isaac Newton. Covers intellectual context that shaped his theories of time, motion, and universal gravitation along with his extensive theological and alchemical studies.

Whitehead: Philosopher who conceived reality as a process of perpetual emergence. He saw time as cyclical oscillations between epochs of order and disorder.

Wilczek: Presents core scientific concepts like symmetry, complementarity, emergence in accessible terms. Aims to illuminate profound ideas about nature that underlie modern physics.

Wohlleben: Bestselling work of popular science explaining latest discoveries about how trees communicate, cooperate, and adapt through sophisticated chemical and biological processes.

Wolchover: Discusses renewed efforts to resolve the philosophical debate over whether time objectively flows or is an illusion arising from human consciousness.

Wolpert: Concise overview of key mechanisms guiding embryological development, such as genetic control networks, epigenetic processes, and cell differentiation.

Wood: Argues big history’s expansive timescale reveals the contingent, problematic nature of modernity’s linear time construct. Calls for pluralistic notions of time.

Wootton: Revisionist account of the scientific revolution, tracing its origins to empirical thinking and mathematical modeling in the late 16th century rather than Copernicus. Sees Galileo as the pivotal founder.

Zimmer: Lucid scientific account of research on E. coli bacteria uncovering core principles of genetics, molecular biology, and evolutionary adaptation.

Zinkina et al.: Applies a big history framework to analyze the emergence, phases, and future trajectories of globalization from early human exchanges to the present.

Here is a summary of the key points about what is new about human future thinking:

  • Humans have much larger brains and more complex cognition than other animals, enabling more sophisticated future planning.

  • Humans evolved language, allowing sharing of plans and knowledge across generations. Cumulative cultural evolution emerged.

  • Humans developed new forms of social organization that required more complex coordination and future planning, like agriculture, cities, and states.

  • New cultural concepts of time emerged, like linear time and divisions into past/present/future. Time became “colonized” and regulated.

  • New methods for thinking about the future appeared, like writing, calendars, clocks, timelines, statistics, and predictive models.

  • Humans developed capacities for complex scenario building and contingency planning to deal with uncertainty.

  • Abstract ideas like progress and utopias oriented human planning and motivation toward the future rather than just immediate survival needs.

  • Humans became motivated by imagined futures of reward and punishment, as in afterlives, and engaged in long-term future-oriented projects.

In summary, human future thinking diverged from other animals’ due to increased capacity for abstraction, complex coordination, sharing knowledge over generations, and cultural evolution of new future-oriented concepts, technologies, and motivations. This enabled unprecedented degrees of foresight and planning.

Here is a summary of the key points from the excerpt:

  • The excerpt discusses modern thinking about the future, starting in the 17th century.

  • In the 17th century, new scientific ideas challenged traditional views of the future based on religion, magic, and divination. Thinkers like Galileo, Newton, and Descartes promoted a mechanistic worldview governed by mathematical laws.

  • Probability theory emerged in the 17th century as scholars like Cardano, Pascal, and Fermat explored gambling problems mathematically. This allowed more systematic thinking about uncertain futures.

  • By the 18th century, probability theory was being applied more broadly, as in actuarial tables predicting life expectancy. Thinkers like Hume argued that inductive reasoning, not just deductive logic, was important for thinking about the uncertain future.

  • In the 19th and 20th centuries, statistics advanced further with data from censuses, surveys, and experiments. This allowed probabilistic predictions about populations and social trends.

  • In the 20th century, computer modeling enabled more complex systems analysis and forecasting, though uncertainties remain. Debate continues between optimism and pessimism about modernity’s impacts on the future.

Here is a summary of the key points about the long-term future timeline:

  • In the near term (next few hundred years), climate change, inequality, and existential risks like nuclear war or pandemics pose major challenges. With foresight and collective action, humanity may transition to a more sustainable, equitable, and peaceful civilization.

  • In the medium term (next few thousand years), continued technological progress could allow space colonization, radical life extension, cyborgization, superintelligent AI, and mastery of nanotechnology and biotechnology. Humanity may transition to a posthuman civilization.

  • In the long term (millions to billions of years), humanity’s descendants may spread throughout the galaxy and beyond, harnessing the energy of stars and black holes, manipulating spacetime and matter at fundamental scales.

  • On cosmic timescales (trillions+ years), stellar and planetary evolution dictates the limits of biology. Proton decay, black hole evaporation, and heat death impose ultimate physical limits, though intelligent life may find ways to persist indefinitely by harnessing negentropy.

The timeline illustrates the potential for continued advancement through technology while highlighting persistent challenges like sustainability and existential risks. It imagines hypothetical long-term scenarios like posthuman civilizations and mastery over matter and energy, emphasizing humanity’s potential while acknowledging cosmic limits.

  • The object ‘Oumuamua that passed through our solar system in 2017 exhibited some unusual properties, leading some to speculate it may have been created by intelligent aliens. However, most experts do not take this idea seriously.

  • There are various theories about the long-term fate of the universe, from continued expansion to collapsing back in on itself in a “Big Crunch.” The most widely accepted view is that the universe will continue expanding and gradually run down through heat death.

  • Some thinkers propose cyclical models where the universe is periodically renewed, or that new universes can bud off the existing one. However, these remain speculative ideas without strong scientific evidence behind them.

  • Overall, the long-term future of the universe and whether intelligence can find ways to survive indefinitely remain open questions subject to much debate and theorizing. The idea that ‘Oumuamua was made by aliens is considered fringe speculation by most experts.

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