Saturday, 26 January 2019

Topics on my mind: December 2018

I recently went on holiday to Italy and Egypt. Visiting such ancient countries has made me wonder whether historians will engage with our own civilisation in the same way in the future. From that perspective, it feels like we don’t spend much effort creating monuments intended to last indefinitely. Skyscrapers are objectively pretty impressive, but I have no idea if any would stay up if left unattended for 500 or 1000 years. To be clear, I’m perfectly happy with us building few or no big vanity projects, and indeed think we’re spending far too much effort preserving historical buildings, especially those from the past two centuries. But the more seriously we take the long-term future, the better - and so it’d be nice to normalise planning on the timeframe of centuries.

On the other hand, we shouldn’t necessarily take the presence of durable historical monuments as evidence that our ancestors were more focused on the long term than we are. Firstly, there’s a selection effect whereby we primarily remember the civilisations that left lasting evidence of their presence. Secondly, history is long, and so even very infrequent construction could leave us with a cornucopia of riches. Thirdly, ancient civilisations may have traded off against longevity if they’d had the options we do - we build less of our infrastructure out of concrete than the Romans did, because we now have access to materials which are better overall, albeit less durable. And fourthly, even when they intended to leave a lasting legacy, it was often more focused on the next world than this one.

Speaking of that, another question on my mind is whether our society pays less attention to death than previous ones. The pyramids - the most memorable monuments in existence - were tombs after all. And while the Epic of Gilgamesh is just one data point, I find it very interesting that the very first great work of literature is about a quest for immortality. Then there’s Renaissance art, with its memento mori and danses macabre. And of course Christianity in general has always been a little bit obsessed with death. This was probably spurred by the atrociously high mortality rates of almost every era in human history, which made death a part of everyday life. So now that Western societies have become more secular, lifespans have increased dramatically, and religions are less fire-and-brimstone, discussions of death have dwindled. Some humanists encourage an acceptance of death as a normal part of life, although usually only in passing (I am reminded of Pullman’s afterlife in His Dark Materials, where shades of the dead joyously “loosen and float apart”).* To me, this is a prime example of the naturalistic fallacy. Transhumanists strongly reject the inevitability of death, but make up only a tiny proportion of the population. And yes, there are outcries about lives cut short by disease or violence, and medical spending is through the roof - but when it comes to the overall concept of death, all I see is a sort of blank numbness, some trite aphorisms, and a sweeping under the rug. I think we would all benefit from better discussions on this - I particularly like Bostrom’s Fable of the Dragon Tyrant as a way of making events on a vast scale emotionally comprehensible.


* This passage from Pullman is strikingly beautiful, and equally misguided:

"All the atoms that were them, they’ve gone into the air and the wind and the trees and the earth and all the living things. They’ll never vanish. They’re just part of everything...

Even if it means oblivion, friends, I’ll welcome it, because it won’t be nothing. We’ll be alive again in a thousand blades of grass, and a million leaves; we’ll be falling in the raindrops and blowing in the fresh breeze; we’ll be glittering in the dew under the stars and the moon out there in the physical world, which is our true home and always was."

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