Chronicle of the Future The Ends of the Earth
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William Wordsworth

"The world is too much with us; late and soon...

Why not? Well, in modern terms, the realm of means is the realm of science and technology. These are the forces driving us into the future. They bring us obvious material benefits and they always promise more. But they do little for our present selves. V?clav Havel, playwright and politician, said that without something beyond this world, beyond ourselves, we will not be able to create the social structures in which a person can truly be a person.

Technology currently fills that gap. It is certainly beyond ourselves; it gives us an apparent purpose. But, unfortunately, it is not beyond the world. Indeed, it is the world. With the prescience of genius, William Wordsworth, confronted by the first onslaught of the industrial revolution, wrote:

The world is too much with us;
late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in nature that is ours.

Captured here with breathtaking lucidity, this is the great dilemma of our time. Science and technology reward us with gifts we cannot refuse, but the price is, as Wordsworth saw, that we must live in an alien world. It is a world that crowds in on us and yet does not speak to our inner selves. This world, we know, is not us, and yet nothing else is. Somehow we cannot defend what we are against the intrusions of this world, because science has told us we are nothing special. Or, more accurately, that we are nothing. The soul as refuge from and definer of the world is dead.

I am working at a wooden table with iron legs. Wood and iron - what could be more solid? This is the stuff of reality. And yet, in the eyes of modern science, this is almost empty space, an insignificant aspect of the quantum flux, seething particles in an ocean of seething particles. I happen to see this table as solid, and so would you, but that is only my little truth or yours. The truth of the cosmos is that it is not.

This shimmer of particles is, we say, "the truth" of my table, by which we mean it is the scientific truth. It seems to deny everything we know and yet it is the only ultimate truth we accept. Against that, my private truth of the solidity of this table seems a small, feeble, local affair, a mere contingency, hardly worth the effort. That is what Wordsworth, almost a century before the formulation of quantum theory, saw - "Little we see in nature that is ours." Our private worlds are in fundamental conflict with the new reality. In seizing nature we have lost ourselves.

What we seem to need is something larger than the narrow scientific conception of truth. We need a truth that will encompass the human truth of our experience of things and, if we are to survive as recognisably human, that truth must be elevated above all others. But how can we possibly have such a thing when our private truths are relativised, atomised by our awareness of millions, billions of other private truths, many of them conflicting? How can we write "true" with a capital letter?

"Felt truth, however," writes the Oxford historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, "can only dominate people's understanding of what truth is, and truth feeling can only function as a prevalent means of truth recognition, in a society where a coherent world picture is generally or widely shared. We no longer live in such a society."

In other words: we can place no value on any truth we feel, because we cannot place it in anything larger than ourselves. In the larger world, truth changes moment by moment as the old airport is destroyed to make way for the new. So, although the drive into the future might provide us with a version of Havel's "something beyond ourselves", it cannot provide us with personhood, only its denial.

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