The subgroup of the human species referred to as “Western Civilization” has experienced three utterly disorienting events since the early part of the 19th century – the first involving Time, the second Space, and the third Man’s Inhumanity to Man.
Beginning with Lyell and the geologists and continuing through Charles Darwin, what “time” meant to persons who were readers changed in a way that was, simply, incomprehensible. Not incomprehensible mathematically or even scientifically but morally; and morally was the profoundest way the demonstration of deep time could have affected persons in the19th century.
What Charles Lyell and Darwin rendered unto Time, Edwin Hubble and Albert Einstein did for Space; and space’s immensity for those two giants of astronomy and physics was of infinitely many orders of magnitude greater than time’s. Hubble and Einstein conceived of space, like many of the other greatest physicists and astronomers did as literally infinite. While still, now, in 2008, only mathematicians really have a clue as to how infinity can be comfortably thought about.
Then goose-stepped in the little Hitler with his trainloads and ovens. Already before the coming of the visual age, the subgroup of the species that reads had had its concept of the limits of man’s inhumanity – or rather its belief that there were limits to man’s inhumanity - changed utterly. If the first great discombobulating disorientation was moral, and the second was infinite, the third was real. Literally unthinkable, again, but this…horror…was, further, so real it was literally unthinkable.
Is it any wonder that our entire species now absolutely insists on only one thing, one thing to maintain its slimmest shred of belief in human dignity, wisdom, compassion, and belief? And the one thing is that: it is not all luck.
Has anyone ever heard a Nobel Prize recipient say anything remotely like, “I was just lucky?” And don’t all of us expect the least among us to say, “I was just unlucky”? I won’t belabor the obvious: our age is one of everyone’s scrambling for some distinguishing ability or characteristic that didn’t just result from the draw. And yet? God does play dice with the universe; quantum physics tell us so. Biology and genes are destiny. I won’t belabor this obvious point either: the question of free will versus determinism is coming down more and more evidently on the side of determinism.
Let it be said, there is a silver lining. It may be the egalitarianism of robots, but it is hard to be an elitist if you understand that really, truly, all the way down…it’s luck.