James Hamblin writing in The Atlantic (5.12.14) wonders why few in the media have chosen to focus on Stephen Hawking’s doomsday prediction that intelligent computers will soon take over the world. Hawking was serious and signaled a disturbing trend. Once computers pass a certain threshold of artificial intelligence, it will increase geometrically; and within years computers will far surpass human intelligence that they will no longer be controlled by it.
Now that should certainly wake up a very somnolent and complacent nation; but other than an article in the Independent carried by a few other journals, the dire prediction was ignored.
Hamblin and others cited in his article also wonder about the almost universal indifference to climate change; and why, despite the consensus of environmental scientists at least as brilliant and insightful as Hawking, most of us give a Gallic shrug when we hear the words ‘global warming’ and go back our desks.
There are still enough nuclear weapons around to destroy the Earth in a fiery Armageddon and plenty of zealots and madmen with itchy trigger fingers to set them off, but we are not concerned. Comets and continent-size meteors whiz around our galaxy all the time, and one of them is certain to hit home. New viruses with the potential for wiping out most of the world’s population are discovered every few years, and we yawn.
Not all of us, of course. There are plenty of sky-is-falling doomsday-sayers in the environmental movement; and although less numerous, there are interest groups who monitor Ebola, SARS, MERS, and sick monkeys in the Congo. There are others which track declassified data from the SETI Institute and wait for the first shot across Earth’s bow from an invading alien force.
There are so many potential life-threatening dangers out there that research institutes specially-designed to look at all of them have been created. The Center for the Study of Existential Risk at Cambridge University; and the Future of Life Institute, for example, are both studying ‘existential’ risk – those events which can wipe out humanity
Existential risks, as Max Tegmark [the Future of Life Institute] describes them, are things that are “not just a little bit bad, like a parking ticket, but really bad. Things that could really mess up or wipe out human civilization.”
For most of us these potential catastrophes are too remote for us to consider seriously. They are somebody else’s problem, and while we may bang on about social responsibility and the well-being of future generations, we really only care about ourselves and the here-and-now. This is only normal, and there is certainly enough to worry about without thinking of South America-size meteors or pandemics. Car payments, broken dishwashers, bad report cards, and acid reflux are far higher on everyone’s disaster list than nuclear apocalypse.
The real reason we are not concerned with existential threat is because we are faced with existential certainty. Death will come to all of us, and it is hard enough to imagine that terrifying moment of extinction without having to consider planetary destruction. The older we become and the more imminent the event, the less we worry about anyone’s future but our own. We are the ones facing the great void, not our grandchildren or the Hottentots.
Tolstoy was obsessed with death, and wrote about the ultimate irony of human existence. We are created with intelligence, insight, compassion, will, and enterprise; and yet after a few decades we are unceremoniously dumped into the cold clay of the graveyard and forgotten. Tolstoy wondered not so much about where we were going, but why were we even here?
Tolstoy’s characters like Levin in Anna Karenina and Ivan Ilyich in his short story, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, grapple with these existential questions throughout their lives. Ivan Ilyich as he approaches death is feverishly tormented by them, and suddenly sees that he has wasted his life. All the order, discipline, and moral rectitude with which he constructed family and profession were senseless and meaningless:
“If I am leaving this life with the consciousness that I have lost all that was given me and it is impossible to rectify it—what then?" He lay on his back and began to pass his life in review in quite a new way. In the morning when he saw first his footman, then his wife, then his daughter, and then the doctor, their every word and movement confirmed to him the awful truth that had been revealed to him during the night. In them he saw himself—all that for which he had lived—and saw clearly that it was not real at all, but a terrible and huge deception which had hidden both life and death. This consciousness intensified his physical suffering tenfold. He groaned and tossed about, and pulled at his clothing which choked and stifled him. And he hated them on that account.
Perhaps in the most chilling passage of the story, Tolstoy writes:
Another fortnight passed. Ivan Ilyich now no longer left his sofa. He would not lie in bed but lay on the sofa, facing the wall nearly all the time. He suffered ever the same unceasing agonies and in his loneliness pondered always on the same insoluble question: "What is this? Can it be that it is Death?" And the inner voice answered: "Yes, it is Death."
"Why these sufferings?" And the voice answered, "For no reason—they just are so." Beyond and besides this there was nothing.
Levin is just as convinced as Ivan Ilyich that after death there is nothing; but solves the riddle well before his end. He realizes that only when he is working do thoughts of death leave him, and thus work itself must have an inherent quality:
"Yes, I thought so too till lately; but now I know that I shall soon die."
Levin was saying what of late he had really been thinking. He saw death and the approach of death in everything; but the work he had begun interested him all the more. After all, he had to live his life somehow, til death came. Everything for him was wrapped in darkness; but just because of the darkness, feeling his work to be the only thread to guide him through the darkness, he seized upon it and clung to it with all his might.”
In the final passage of the book, Levin has his most important epiphany:
I shall continue to be vexed with Ivan the coachman, and get into useless discussions, and express my thoughts blunderingly. I shall always be blaming my wife for what annoys me, and repenting at once. I shall always feel a certain barrier between the Holy of Holies of my inmost soul, and the souls of others, even my wife's. I shall continue to pray without being able to explain to myself why. But my whole life, every moment of my life, independently of whatever may happen to me, will be, not meaningless as before, but full of the deep meaning which I shall have the power to impress upon it.
There is another reason to be unconcerned with the fate of the world. Man is part of Nature, not responsible for it. History records nothing but a series of repetitious events – wars, aggression, palace coups, family feuds, and the shifting fortunes of nation-states and empires. Geologic and environmental history record ice ages, volcanic eruptions, devastating meteor strikes, pandemics, earthquakes, and tempests. The earth is 4.5 billion years old and the universe closer to 15 billion; but these calculations are for the known universe, and for all we know there could be multiple universes in infinite time-space continuums we cannot even imagine. The universe seems to get along fine with or without us, and our actions, no matter how heroic, are little more than piddle in the Mississippi.
In other words we know that death will come, but we are not concerned how. More than likely it will be in a hospital bed or in a crumpled wreck on the side of the highway; but it could be in a fiery cataclysm. We could drop stone cold on the sidewalk from an airborne virus that made its way all the way from a Cameroonian forest or from an alien craft parked over Boston. Ice-9 could freeze the world solid. Radio waves could scramble our brains and make us run into the street.
The point is our lives are snuffed out in an instant and we haven’t a clue why. That’s plenty to think about.