Scientific World View II: Looking Back
We will surely leave a disproportionately large number of artifacts in the crust of the earth. Our photos and memories, those threads to the past that we so carefully curate, will be some of the first things to go. Other more material repositories of tradition—the watches, religious symbols, necklaces, rings, furniture and books we have passed down through the generations—will have a somewhat longer life. Most of the plastic and styrofoam will be gone within two to three centuries—no more than a millenium for the most determined ones. The carcasses of our airplanes and cars and skyscrapers will last a few thousand years more. Of course, in proper conditions in places where they become entombed with no oxygen and light, some of these artifacts may last for millions of years, petrified, with totally transformed chemical compositions, yet still recognizable. Other traces of our roads, sewers, wiring networks, building foundations, garbage dumps and other infrastructure and waste may also be recognizable for those who know how to look.
And what might the beings of the distant future think when they come across these artifacts? Perhaps we will work hard to understand us and decipher our way of life, depicting this work as a noble effort of curiosity and long-term knowledge building. Struggle to understand the cultural context that made us so recklessly dependent on the stability of ephemeral things like the stock market, banks, laws and families. They will chuckle patronizingly at our belief that we could ‘save the earth.’ The will wonder at how we projected our peculiar and localized beliefs about science and religion into statements about eternity and how things really are. Perhaps the researchers will struggle to convince their fellows that these odd superstitions are worth understanding, and that can only be understood properly if they can stop projecting own knowledge about what is really true.
Perhaps those beings will look at the foundations, look at the objects laid out in steel boxes, look at the piles of automobile carcasses and endless lines of railroads and think that they were put there for a purpose. It would be disrespectful to dig them up, analyze and display them. The wishes of the people who put them there so carefully should be respected, and not disrupted for the sake of satisfying an ephemeral curiosity. Perhaps they will say that those beings of the past understood the long cycles of growth and decay and digestion, and that is why they left things there as they did, and that it would be absolutely silly to dig them up, polish them and claim to ‘preserve’ them. The past must be honored properly as the foundation of the present.
Perhaps those beings will have a consciousness that can not even recognize our artifacts as the products of sentient beings (and nor could they recognize us as sentient if they met us). They could only recognize those artifacts as the products of natural processes, a product of interacting physical and biological forces—much as we now understand termite nests, mouse turds and mosquito bites. Our artifacts would be nothing more than a small part of constant transformation of energies that make the universe what it is.
Perhaps they won’t care at all.