Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Does the Future Matter?

Most of my life I’ve had a “future orientation.” As a kid I always saved things for later. When I got prizes of candy in school I would bring it home instead of eating it right away. I once lost out when I tried to bring home an ices, and it melted in my knapsack. I would carefully ration out the goodies I got on Purim, always worried that if I finished it now, I wouldn’t have any later – never mind that my mother kept a cabinet stocked with cookies and candies. I felt that it was important that I have my own nosh available if I wanted it. I would sometimes put things away for when I got married or had kids. Most of that stuff is still in my parents’ attic.

As I got older planning for the future became more realistic and more important. I had to do well in school so I would get into high school and college. I went to bais medrash because I was told that if I didn’t, I would never find a shidduch. (As it turned out, that wasn’t true.) I went to grad school so I could find a job.

I realized recently that the future I’ve been planning for my whole life is right now. I’m married, I have kids, I’m finished with school and have a job (sort of). And… that’s it.

Sure, I still have plans for the future. Like, I’d like to buy a house someday. But I’m not pushing towards those goals the way I used to. My attitude has changed from sacrificing the present for the sake of the future to enjoying the present and letting the future come when it may.

On a somewhat related note: I was thinking this morning about the conservation movement that’s grown up in the last couple of decades. Save the planet for our children and all that. And I was wondering, why bother?

It seems to be driven by our instinct to preserve our species and based on the premise that it is worthwhile for us to make sacrifices in the present so that future generations will survive and progress. But this presupposes that humanity will be able to survive and progress indefinitely. That’s simply not true. In a few billion years the sun will burn out. Even if we colonize other solar systems, all the stars will eventually burn out, and ultimately humanity will die out. What is the difference, ultimately, if that happens in a hundred years or a trillion? Emotionally, we can’t really process a trillion years, and so tend to dismiss this distant inevitability as unimportant. On the other hand, a hundred years from now is within our grandchildren’s lifetime, maybe even our children’s. Still, emotion aside, humanity is doomed. Does it really matter when?

I’ll leave you now to more cheerful thoughts.


  1. I would take it a step further. If you're an evolutionist, global warming is a good thing.


  2. I've never really thought of nihilism as a mood, rather than philosophy....

    Kind of reminds me of a famous psychology experiment at Stanford involving marshmellows, which looked at the delayed gratification abilities in children. I think that its part of our executive function in the frontal lobes--it makes us survive better if we plan.

    Seriously, striking a balance between thinking ahead and living in the present is the subject of many religious ideas. On one extreme you have the buddhist meditation in which you live only in the present and nothing else. Then you have Islam and Christianity which emphasize the future, at the expense of the present. Then you have Judaism, which glorifies the past. I know these are gross oversimplifications, but the point is that your question is really an existential one that philisophers and theologians struggle with.

    I'll send you an Rx for prozac if you want :)

  3. Thanks, but I'm actually less depressed now than I've been in the past, worrying about whether the future would work out. A little bothered by the pointlessness of it all, but not depressed.

  4. Humans are pretty clever. Who's to say that our greatest grandchildren a trillion years hence won't have figured out a way to escape the end of the universe - either literally or virtually?

    All I'm saying is that it's a little premature to be writing the final chapters on humanity based on how little we know about what is possible.

  5. Sometimes what gets to me is the suffering I see in old age and illness. I see alot of it in my profession. And I know it is inevitable, and I see it happening in my ageing parents. A very few of us are lucky do die in old age in our sleep without suffering through a painful and debilitating illness. This bothers me alot more than the fate of humanity as a whole...

  6. But having said that, I don't feel that the life we live before getting to that stage is pointless, but I can definitely understand why some people would think like that. It could lead them to depression, or, on the contrary, to living life to its fullest each day, understanding that it won't last forever.

    Enjoy the ride while it lasts!

    Sometimes I can't decide wether religion helps deal with this problem or makes it worse. On one hand, it gives bigger meaning to things. OTOH, in religion everything is about the past and the future, and this can interfere with enjoying life now.

    Ultimately I think that religion is a societal adaptation that helps people coelesce into communities in which individuals support each other. Unfortunately, secularism, humanism, or government do not fill this void very well.

  7. Dr. J: I don't think religion is needed for people to coalesce into communities. People formed communities because they are social animals like other pack animals since it usually takes a group to survive. You need several people to successfully hunt a bison with spears or defend the group against marauding animals, to engage in agriculture or later, in other activities so one can specialize in blacksmithing, another in carpentry, another in fishing, etc. Family and culture often provide the glue.

  8. Religion isn't needed but it helps, because it gives an added layer of stories and customs that bond people and constrain behavior.

  9. Since I believe there is a point to evolution and a progression greater consciousnness, even though we can't tell yet what it is, I believe the future is important. But that's a matter of faith, nothing I can prove to myself, let alone to you.

  10. > Since I believe there is a point to evolution and a progression greater consciousnness, even though we can't tell yet what it is, I believe the future is important.

    No offense, but huh? Evolution just says that stuff that happens to survive because its better suited to its environment will reproduce – obviously the stuff that doesn’t survive can’t reproduce. Evolution is not a ladder, advancing organisms towards ever-greater complexity. It just happens that often greater complexity is more adaptive. But there are examples of lost abilities, like flightless birds, where losing some ability was more adaptive.

    Also, what is greater consciousness? For that matter, what is consciousness?

  11. Hi, I am from Australia.

    Please find some related references as to why the future really does matter. And that we (humans altogether) always "create" it.