100 Year Starship Study Symposium 2011 Day 2
1 October 2011
Today I had my opportunity to speak at the 100 Year Starship Study symposium. Prior to arriving, nothing was said about the length of individual presentations, or about the number of one’s PowerPoint slides. Upon arrival, my first contact with organization staff consisted of being scolded for the number of slides I had prepared (132). Also, the speakers were held to a close 20 minute time limit, with no appreciable time between speakers.
As a consequence, I had far too much material. I had to talk fast in order to give the better part of my presentation, and I had to skip over a good deal of material. So this was dissatisfying. My sister suggested that I gestured too much with the remote control for the slides, that I didn’t look at the audience enough but rather looked at the screen, and that I said “so” too many times. These constructive criticisms were welcome, as they were valid.
The result was that my talk was less than optimal, but I still managed to get my point across in a few areas. Given my near total lack of experience in public speaking, if I judge myself leniently for my inexperience, I could say that I didn’t do too badly. But it could have been much better. A couple of people approached me after I spoke and expressed an interest in what I had to say, which was rewarding.
Beyond my own presentation, which was the very last of the philosophical and religious talks which were held in one room (which was the poor cousin of the room where technical talks were held, in which latter there was standing room only), there were several other speakers. The most intellectually rigorous presentations were given by two German Protestant theologians, C. Weidemann and M. Waltemathe, both from Ruhr-Universität Bochum, who presented, respectfully, “Did Jesus Die for Klingons Too?” and “A Religious Vision for Interstellar Travel?”
In his exposition of the principle of mediocrity, C. Weidemann made an analogy with a lottery ticket, which was both insightful and a fruitful way to think about mediocrity after the Copernican Revolution (which is something I think about often). He suggested that most holders of a lottery ticket realize that they hold the “average” ticket, which is to say that they don’t win the prize. However, with further investigation you may discover that you have in fact won the prize and that the ticket you hold is an exception to the mediocre rule. This incorporates a perspective of increasing knowledge into the formulation of the principle of mediocrity, which corresponds better to our actual epistemic perspective than an unstated assumption of static knowledge.
In another talk, as well as in remarks following the presentations, K. Denning of York University offered another good example of a highly optimistic estimate of the accuracy of futurist predictions, which is something that I discussed previously in Synchronicities of Futurism. Professor Denning in particular cited H. G. Wells’ 1908 work The War in the Air as preternaturally accurate futurism.
I should emphasize that this was not the focus of Professor Dennning’s talk, but only a comment made in passing, but I think that this is revelatory of a particular conception of history, as I also had in mind when I mentioned this in connection with Michio Kaku and the Tofflers. If you hold that history can be accurately predicted (at least reasonably accurately) a very different conception of the scope of human moral action must be accepted as compared to a conception of history that assumes (as I do) what we are mostly blindsided by history.
A conception of history dominated by the idea that things mostly happen to us that we cannot prevent (and mostly can’t change) is what I have previously called the cataclysmic conception of history. The antithetical position is that in which the future can be predicted because agents are able to realize their projects. This is different in a subtle and an important way from either fatalism or determinism since this conception of predictability assumes human agency. This is what I have elsewhere called the political conception of history.
Perhaps it is only when I see this perspective up close that I realize how different it is from my own point of view. When I originally formulated the idea of the political conception of history I saw much of myself in it, but now that I realize that it corresponds to a commitment to the accuracy of futurism, I see in concrete detail why I must reject it except for special cases that are the exception to the rule.
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