Longterm Future: Why Can’t Humans Plan?

I have been reading Justin Gregg’s If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal: What Animal Intelligence Reveals About Human Stupidity. Gregg is an expert on animal intelligence, especially dolphins, and he has a two-part thesis. First, animals are intelligent, particularly if you define intelligence as the ability to survive and prosper as a species. Second, human beings are intelligent too—in fact we excel at invention, deductive reasoning, and altering our environment—but, partly because of this inventiveness, we make drastic changes in our world without a focus on long-term consequences. This, Gregg explains, is called “prognostic myopia,” and it is a serious flaw; it could result in the extinction of our species; it already has caused the extinction of many other species.
Why do we have this flaw? Gregg’s exposition is complex, but simply put, thinking about the long-term future doesn’t engage us emotionally. If our daughter’s life is threatened, he says, we jump in and do everything possible to save her. But if our as yet unborn great-great-granddaughter’s life is threatened—as it very well may be, by climate change or other manmade threats—it is very hard for us to put much energy into even thinking about it, much less doing something about it. Animals don’t think far ahead either, but they don’t have the kind of intelligence we do. Their efforts toward day-to-day survival have a relatively small impact compared to ours.
Prognostic myopia: I have thought about and written about this quality for years, but never knew there was a name for it. I also learned from Gregg’s book that Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager who made such a splash recently with her impassioned pleas for grownups to take climate change seriously, is by her own admission afflicted with Asperger’s syndrome, a mild kind of autistic disorder. Greta explains that probably because of her condition, she is able to focus on this existential threat and stay focused on it in a way that so-called “normal” people cannot. She says, “I’m panicked. I think about this day and night. I want you all to panic too. It’s definitely something to panic about.” She is like the seers or soothsayers of old; she has a kind of second sight.
I think we are all learning that people on the so-called “autistic spectrum” can be gifted in unusual ways. The movie Rain Man was one popular rendition of this, but highly successful entrepreneurs, founders of large companies and inventors of new technologies often have the kind of second sight that Greta Thunberg speaks of. I think of leaders of ancient civilizations who consulted oracles before launching any major enterprise; the Delphic oracle of ancient Greece is one such example. In those old days it was thought that the great changes that people experienced—the change in the season, bolts of thunder and lightning, floods and famine–were the work of the gods, beings more powerful than any mere human to which we must supplicate and propitiate.
Perhaps that is why Gregg used Nietzsche’s writings as examples of prophesy; maybe Nietzsche was “on the spectrum” too. We no longer fear sky or earth gods. Perhaps that is what Nietzsche meant by his famous dictum “God is dead.” We think we have become more powerful than the gods now, and can wreak our will with impunity. I notice that Greta Thunberg has faded from the headlines now. She gave a big speech at the United Nations, and for a prescient moment she was heard. But her voice is now just one of many millions competing for their social media moment. Greta, incidentally, abjures social media, as well as fame and trendiness. She keeps her focus on the problem. In contrast, there are over a billion people posting on Tiktok every day, each of them with an opinion. Talk about myopia! I have tried scrolling through TikTok or its competitor YouTube shorts. It’s hypnotic, addictive, and, in my humble opinion, completely useless except as a window into the infinite distractions that are put forward by those who want to keep our prognostic myopia front and center. After one of these scrolling sessions I have to lie down and rest, my brain is so full of stimulating nonsense.
What can we do about our prognostic myopia? Can we do anything? Gregg says we can, we can force ourselves to care deeply about the fate of our great-great-granddaughter. But it takes enormous effort, it doesn’t come naturally. I suppose the first step, as with any disorder, is to acknowledge that we have it, and give it a name, which Gregg has done.


3 thoughts on “Longterm Future: Why Can’t Humans Plan?

  1. Prognostic myopia, which is a first timer for me (and quite a funny one to read about).

    I could write a whole thesis on this topic, but I won’t, as it is quite similar to what I call ‘microscopic’ view/viewpoint. As those are ‘perspectives, viewpoint/view, but what is not a perspective/point of view/angle by which to view? What then is a view with no nebulosity, no blur zone?

    When I was around 30 years old, and that is a very long time ago, I read a book (a very complicated book) in which it is said that what human beings needs to cultivate, is a ‘right’ sense of proportion. It took me many years to understand why and what it means. ‘Right’ sense of proportion means this capacity of nuancing things, sense of ‘right’ measure, ability to weight things. The yes and the no(s). And this is simply an impossible task to achieve within our actual hysterical ‘social medias’ context.

    Most of those who know me often tell me (especially my own wife, as it became her main mantra) that I exhibit strong ‘autism’ behavior/general attitude. I too can be very obsessive, stubborn, ‘distant’, but what I think saved me, was this constant background reminder; that I must be able to nuance things, bring different perspectives, the yes and the no(s), try to avoid concluding at all cost, after all the universe is not a conclusion, as it is ongoingness. And that what sometimes, something appears as such and such, may appear quite differently (and contradictory/antagonistically) when view within a different angle. Not that the ‘previous’ view was wrong, simply that it was not ‘complete’, lacking this ‘right’ sense of proportion. And yes for me, two mutually exclusive ‘ideas’ or contradictory perspectives can easily co-exist within my mind. In such a way for example, that yes climate change/global warming is an existential threat, and no it isn’t, at least not for now. And so, in some way I do and don’t suffer from this prognostic myopia.

    And ‘now’, a few words in regard to this intelligence, it is not in fact an easy word to define, as there seems to be as many definitions as there are people defining (at least implicitly) this intelligence. Each kind of is pulling the rug on its own side so to speak. For me, intelligence means ‘awareness’, the undeniable fact of awareness. This awareness/intelligence isn’t exclusive to me, being all pervasive. Humans tend to think that this awareness is dependent on them, their own presence, as if an causal emergent phenomenon of their own mind/brain/I/me. But it is not, I am dependent on this awareness/intelligence, but ‘it’ does not depend on me, for it is free, free of any particular/specific ‘me/me(s)’. The fact that we all ‘possess’ this awareness/intelligence is a good pointer to the fact that it isn’t exclusively mine, that it does not depends solely on me, that it is beyond me. It does not depend on me, but I on it. And that it quite possibly could be better off without me.

    Nature, the universe is/has intelligence into it, the whole of it. A human being is the most complex ‘machine’ ever built, and contrary to the dominant view/viewpoint, I do believe that it has require tremendous amount of intelligence in order to build this human being. I am not a believer in the ‘blind watchmaker’ at all. Intelligence or awareness is immanent, and this to the whole universe. When one sees that it is not exclusively yours, that it is all, then everything is ‘it’, all is aware, alive, intelligence, and all is just fine right now. It did not need ‘me’ in order to build this human being or universe; it did not need me on the way in order to fix things up.

    I am not saying that at any given time, everything is absolutely ‘ok’, but here too we are short view and quite biased by our absolutes and the if not then its polar opposite, which we have inherited form ‘Aristotle’ logical framework. The universe is on the move, not static, it is dynamic, intelligent, fully aware and is at any given moment simultaneously asking and answering how to ‘succeed’ in achieving a maximum relative optimum within this for ever changing universe, which is after all its own self. And so even the universe has a nuance way of doing things in relation to its own self.

    When this divisive/separated, well bounded ‘me/I’ loses all credibility, then something else shows up, and that something is exactly the same for all, always has been this way. For me, ‘I/me’ has 0 credibility identity wise (although there are punctual, non enduring context related identifications). The Buddha very first saying was ‘all beings are Buddha’, he did not say ‘ I am awake’, he said all are already fully awake, right now. It does not point towards ‘himself/me/I’ but towards all. And this ‘all’ has no-one else besides ‘it’, as if a ‘it’ and a me. Not an ‘all’ as if we would/could add up ‘all’ those separated beings, but an all that knows no separation, no distinction identity wise. Humans don’t do (that is only an appearance) he/all does all, he and only he.

  2. Lew,

    Interesting article, as usual. I’m glad we’re getting some attention focused on the problem of long-term willingness to save our children, grandchildren, and future generations before too many will have to die needlessly because we couldn’t sustain the emotional engagement to stay with solutions and engage others to constructive action.

    Any thoughts on how we might organize and engage some constructive solution-making?

  3. A fresh look (and possibly quite different look) at this prognostic myopia.

    As one look at this aging (and accelerating deteriorating body) one does so from the outside, most of us did not expect or anticipate this degradation, I certainly did not expect/anticipate that it would be that bad, or that it would even come one day. Why is that? Because of this prognostic myopia? What my brain remembered of ‘me’ was this strong man in good health, a very active man, as if it would remain that way for eternity. I got this ‘view’ from the outside-in so to speak, as I was looking at myself from the outside and it registered that way in my brain/mind, and continued to do so for a long time, until… a sick man, an old man, and more or less soon to be dead man. But from within, I did not experience any change at all, as there always have been some kind of a joyful innocence within. Our ‘natural’ state has/is this joyful innocence, it is free, and it is always now.

    Now is when and where everything happens. Even as you contemplate the total mess we are in, it is done so now. And one can only act now, not yesterday or tomorrow.

    Do you ‘see’ the ‘problem’? Our true nature has this prognostic myopia bias, for it is always now for this true nature, in fact it cannot even imagine anything else then this now, for there is nothing outside this now. Now has ‘qualia’ such as joy, bliss, innocence, but also ‘effervescence’, kind of a permanent ‘bubbling up’, freshness to it. Now is always fresh and new. As it knows no past nor future, and thus the prognostic myopia bias, it cannot anticipate tomorrow, for there is no tomorrow. And there is something else, for we are simultaneously of this world and not of this world. Simultaneously separated and inseparable (in fact that is what this duality means).

    If one think about this a little, isn’t the prognostic bias a ‘short sighted’ view, in regard to what may happens to us as individuals and as a collectivity in the long run? As this body, I am born, as this body I had fun, as this body I ache, as this body I will die and thus inseparable as this body and of/as this world. As ‘true’ nature, I was never born, even less in a world, and consequently can never die, nothing can ever happen to me, in fact nothing has ever happened to me and thus separated from this world. Being entirely unaffected by all that happens in this world. Of this world, not of this world. In total panic in regard to the mess we made of this world, while being entirely free of it.

    Not quite one, not quite two.

    Maybe this prognostic myopia is a pointer to ‘true’ nature after all?

    That is quite a paradox, isn’t it.

    One more thing, I think that we tend to forget two more things in this ‘equation’; intelligence and love.

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