By Robert Bernstein   |   January 17, 2023

Men Like Gods is a 1923 Utopian novel by H. G. Wells, which I was delighted to come across by accident in the library as a teen. An ordinary Englishman is swept up by scientific accident, along with a cleric and other countrymen, to a parallel world where all of our Earthly problems have been eliminated.

The cleric is horrified that people in Utopia are OK with nudity and have long since abandoned religion. In Wells’ Utopia, the greatest joy comes from scientific learning, exploration, and education. I had never heard of this concept of Utopia before and was filled with wonder at the possibility of creating such an ideal world. I was sorry that this novel never received the fame of Wells’ more dystopian writings. But my joy was revived later upon discovering the positive vision of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek.

It saddens me when people claim that the pursuit of Utopia inevitably leads to hellish consequences. Those on the political right point to Communism as proof that such idealism leads to poverty, gulags, and loss of freedom. Religious fanatics make a similar claim: Heaven can only be created by their sky god. They say that human attempts to create heaven on Earth will end in disaster. It is hubris to think that humans can compete with their god.

Really? If their god exists, then “he” created a world filled with violence and disease. It is only through the work of caring and scientific-minded humans that there has been progress. And many of the ideals of Communism have been working very well in the form of socialized medicine in France and social security in the U.S.

Yes, we must acknowledge that the wrong kinds of regulations can lead to hell. Iran is in revolution now to escape their religious “morality police.” But who wants to give up “socialist” national parks, fire departments, schools, or libraries?

Some claim that “one man’s heaven is another man’s hell.” True. But this does not mean that there is no overall agreement on what makes life better. Neuroscientist Sam Harris has proposed that there is even a scientific approach to making life better. He starts with the extreme proposal: Imagine a world of “the worst possible misery for everyone.” He notes that any deviation from this state is objectively an improvement.

Some claim that our perception of pleasure is always relative to some pain or discomfort. This is a misunderstanding of the evolutionary function of pain and pleasure. We survive because we seek things that give pleasure and avoid things that cause pain. Evolution has provided us with a sensory and reward system that makes this all work, most of the time.

Once the reward is given, it necessarily must fade or else we would never seek the next reward of food, shelter, or sex. But this does not imply we need pain to feel pleasure. As my MIT biology mentor Jerry Lettvin explained, most senses are actually absolute, not relative. For good reason. Put your hand in an ice bucket or above a fire and you will continue to receive a pain signal until this harm is removed.

Humans also have the ability consciously to be grateful for the good things in our lives. This can elevate unnoticed background positives to conscious pleasures.

The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights is an enumeration of internationally agreed upon harms to avoid and ideals to achieve for all humans, everywhere. This includes rights enumerated in the U.S. Constitution such as freedom of expression, freedom of belief, freedom from torture, participatory democracy, and legal due process. It also includes rights not yet guaranteed in the U.S.: Health care, education, employment, vacation time, food, clothing, and housing.

See? It is not that difficult to come up with a list of universally agreed upon improvements.

Are there limits to Utopia? Probably. Individual tastes vary. Some people are masochists and get pleasure from pain. Hard work and overcoming challenges can be fulfilling. But a proper Utopia can accommodate this.

For most of human history, little changed over many generations. But technology offers ways to make a future that is more enjoyable, rewarding, and meaningful. I plan to write more about a variety of technology and society issues.

Utopia is about providing an infrastructure and opportunities for each person to have the widest range of choices to find their personal fulfillment. Even if we cannot get to perfection, we can aim for it and get
ever closer.  


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