Assuming people are still around and that the world has not been annihilated through human activity, either green-house gases, robot overlords or all-out nuclear “climate change”; and that I actually have a descendent to address these words to, and that you are actually literate in all ancient languages including early 21st century American English, I greet you.
I felt compelled to write you this letter after reading a paper by Nick Bostrom, a prominent Oxford philosopher of my times and founding director of the Future of Humanity Institute. The paper, entitled “Embryo Selection for Cognitive Enhancement” describes a process by which ordinary people like me can rapidly evolve into a super intelligent master race (perhaps like you) through selective breeding, genetic sequencing and the algorithmic deletion of inferior life. Early in the 20th century this would have been called eugenics and was summarily denounced as genocidal racism but calling it transhumanism, which has not changed the essential ingredients and purpose, sounds cozier. Ironically, if Bostrom’s process has been fully implemented by society and you somehow made the cut, it’s likely you are no one’s descendent but that of a polynucleotide printer ejaculating base pairs onto a glass substrate. But for the sake of this letter and its message, assume I am your flesh and blood ancestor nonetheless. Perhaps, as you read on, you may find you need one.
Let me start off by relating to you the philosophical and moral climate of the early 21st century from which I and Bostrom write. In a phrase, man now does what he wants—period. There is no judgement, temporal or eternal. There is no moral compass or guide other than one’s own conscience and the possible reprisals of society should they disagree with you. Odd, though, no one seems to think that their own conscience is formed by any exterior agent or that it might be warped or wrong or misshapen. Is it any surprise then that people conduct themselves—not from law, reason, morals, nature or logic—but from their own conscience and wonder why there is not more chaos? A man may commit genocide and think it perfectly fine since, after all, he was obedient to his own conscience. So then, in the name of freedom, personal choice, greater good, utilitarianism or one’s oblate conscience, we essentially do what we want without weighing the consequences in eternity or to the future, that is, to you. And this is why I write. With some mental extrapolation, I may comprehend where you are in your future moment and perhaps this letter may provide antiquated notions of hope, encouragement and wisdom if those properties still have value.
If Bostrom’s society has come to full fruition, let me conjecture what your utopia world might look like. There is no disease as society’s most cultivated minds and machines have discovered cures for every ailment assuming transhumans even get ill (I suspect they would not “advance” to the next round of elimination if they were so prone). Medicine is a hard mathematical science like physics and engineering where any human can be modeled in software and given a drug or substance simulation to determine metabolic outcomes in silico. Life expectancies are infinite as one’s being can be transferred from host to host, be it biological or artificial. Individuals keep their conscience, however misshapen, neatly preserved in the “cloud” just in case one is accidently ground into scrapple by a bad teleportation product.
All of societal ills have been remedied. There is no crime because the criminal mind has been selectively discarded. Crimes of passion and want have been eradicated since there is no material need or want that can’t be provided or simulated. What remains is the most affluent, able and intelligent people ready to contribute meaningfully to society. But there is no need to contribute to society for there is no problem that has not been solved or might be easily solved by machine. Society’s tedious and manual labor has been relegated to the automaton class and transhumans are free to think, study, create and enjoy their long and perpetual lives. Your brave new world does not require you to have the outmoded ideas of marriage, mother, father and family since nurturing, provision, education and belief are provided by Bostrom’s utopia. You are mentally ready-made, with an IQ ten times that of Michelangelo, Bach and Durer combined.
And what will you do with all that intelligence, beauty, time and ease?
I am guessing that you are doing nothing remarkable. What was predicted upon the invention of broadcast television—ennobling plays and classical works for the masses—did not happen, instead broadcasting insipid situational comedies and artless reality shows. The same thing for the internet—knowledge, information with a rise in virtue and intellect—did not happen either, serving up slanderous news, narcissism, celebrity gossip and graphic pornography.
With all that intelligence and technology you are probably indulging yourself in artificial worlds where you can experience any fantasy and commit any atrocity. And without need, want, pain, desperation or condemnation, the purpose of humanity becomes negligible and life is nothing worth clarifying. The cry of longings unfulfilled or the lamentations of loss are nowhere to be found in your utopia and so, consequently, there is no artistic expression that warrants preservation. Since man does not die, he need not struggle with his own mortality and the pursuit of human philosophy must have ended with the common cold. Visions and words of hope requires a deficiency that your world has eradicated. The struggle for achievement and discovery has been removed along with the satisfaction of work, the flash of understanding and the need for invention. With the only preoccupation being parties, flings, mockery, derision and the superficial pursuits of eternal youth, your world must be full of fools (in the moral sense) and your mechanized music must be auto-tuned to death and unbearably bad.
Is it true that one always remembers the first time? For you, it was probably a virtual experience in which you went on a campaign. Synthetic friends put you up to it. Even though it was an artificial event electronically planted into your memory, it seemed real—that was the point. It was you who chose the weapon you would use for your initiation, partial to the close contact of a long steel blade, perhaps a recommendation from the wealth of knowledge at your disposal. You stalked up to someone weaker than you—a boy, a small helpless man or was it a girl? Perhaps you violated her first as some were inclined to do. Simulated or not, the shock and terror on her face was real enough as you planted the knife into her body again and again and again. She choked on her frothing blood and fell still, the expression on her dying face pleading into digital eternity.
And there you were, laughing and panting nervously, pretending it was a rush, a high, all for fun and for the applause of other “brights” as dead and as empty as you. But something else died that day, something not as artificial as you would want to believe. You, like many before you, have discerned good and evil for oneself, being like gods according to the first lie. And likewise, on that day, did you surely die?
But what’s the harm? The implanted memories are not real and no one really got hurt? So why does it matter? Surely one can rationalize it so why should the peace of one’s sleep be disturbed?
I apologize for the full measure of death such thinking promotes—a line of thinking that started in the latter half of the twentieth century in which I was born and where such thinking was given tenure. I wish you could go back to the purity of thought you once had before this horrible rite of passage but that’s not possible unless science has figured out how to redact your memories and heal your soul. How do you un-ring a bell?
Indeed I wish humanity could go back to a time when virtue and truth mattered and was the basis for governance and education; a time when a woman was a sacred thing and men were more than just loaves of bread; a time where sex was the seal of a marriage and not the purpose of it. A time when marriage was special and since it was special and specific, meant something; a time when traditions were actually passed on, not destroyed; a time when images and sounds were things of beauty, not shock value for despair and insensitivity. A time when we weren’t so eager to push children out of childhood while claiming to love children all at once. A time where people were not exploited –for the vote, their labor, their influence, their sexuality, their DNA, or their misfortunate for the sake of lurid entertainment– but loved and depended upon. A time where people were actually created in the image of God and not edited and airbrushed into a fantasy for human consumption and commerce.
I doubt that you have the freedom you might think you possess. For if you did, you’d be able to reclaim that once virtuous life and unplug from the pursuits of your eternal youth. I assert for you that the so-called ignorant past was not so ignorant and the bright future, well, isn’t so bright. If the candle of pure conscience still burns in you enough to realize the truth of your condition—that you are not free, rich and alive, but in bondage, destitute and dead—I encourage you to look to the past, the past even before my times.
A contemporary of mine, Peter Hitchens, aptly described what real men once were. This is about Thomas More during a time in England when it seemed the world was falling apart:
In their utter reverence for oaths, men of More’s era were … as superior to us as the builder of Chartres Cathedral were to the builders of shopping malls. Our ancestors’ undisturbed faith gave them a far closer, healthier relation to the truth – and so to beauty – than we have. Without a belief in God and the soul, where is the oath? Without the oath, where is the obligation or the pressure to fulfill it? Where is the law that even kings must obey? Where is Magna Carte, Habeas Corpus or the Bill of Rights, all of which arose out of attempts to rule by lawless tyranny? Where is the lifelong fidelity of husband and wife? Where is the safety of the innocent child growing in the womb? Where, in the end, is the safety of any of us from those currently bigger and stronger than we are?
My son, in order to find yourself, you first must know that you are indeed lost and, thereafter, seek the narrow path home. Somewhere in the maelstrom of your world of illusion is truth and the thirst for it—so find it and cultivate it. I pray that there is more than the words of this letter that I pass on to you and hope to see you in eternity.