Touching the Old

I’m in Oxford right now, for the Global Catas­trophic Risks con­fer­ence.

There’s a psy­cholog­i­cal im­pact in walk­ing down a street where where any given build­ing might be older than your whole coun­try.

Toby Ord and An­ders Sand­berg pointed out to me an old church tower in Oxford, that is a thou­sand years old.

At the risk con­fer­ence I heard a talk from some­one talk­ing about what the uni­verse will look like in 10100 years (bar­ring in­tel­li­gent mod­ifi­ca­tion thereof, which he didn’t con­sider).

The psy­cholog­i­cal im­pact of see­ing that old church tower was greater. I’m not defend­ing this re­ac­tion, only ad­mit­ting it.

I haven’t trav­eled as much as I would travel if I were free to fol­low my whims; I’ve never seen the Pyra­mids. I don’t think I’ve ever touched any­thing that has en­dured in the world for longer than that church tower.

A thou­sand years… I’ve lived less than half of 70, and some­times it seems like a long time to me. What would it be like, to be as old as that tower? To have lasted through that much of the world, that much his­tory and that much change?

Tran­shu­man­ism does scare me. I shouldn’t won­der if it scares me more than it scares arch-lud­dites like Leon Kass. Kass doesn’t take it se­ri­ously; he doesn’t ex­pect to live that long.

Yet I know—and I doubt the thought ever oc­curred to Kass—that even if some­thing scares you, you can still have the courage to con­front it. Even time. Even life.

But some­times it’s such a strange thought that our world re­ally is that old.

The in­verse failure of the log­i­cal fal­lacy of gen­er­al­iza­tion from fic­tional ev­i­dence, is failure to gen­er­al­ize from things that ac­tu­ally hap­pened. We see movies, and in the an­ces­tral en­vi­ron­ment, what you saw with your own eyes was real; we have to avoid treat­ing them as available ex­am­ples.

Con­versely, his­tory books seem like writ­ing on pa­per—but those are things that re­ally hap­pened, even if we hear about them se­lec­tively. What hap­pened there was as real to the peo­ple who lived it, as your own life, and equally ev­i­dence.

Some­times it’s such a strange thought that the peo­ple in the his­tory books re­ally lived and ex­pe­rienced and died—that there’s so much more depth to his­tory than any­thing I’ve seen with my own eyes; so much more life than any­thing I’ve lived.