Yuval Noah Harari ends his book Sapiens by asking his readers to consider the following, “the only thing we can try to do is to influence the direction scientists are taking. … the real question facing us is not what do we want to become?, but what do we want to want?“
For all of human existence, up to this point, human lives have been defined by scarcity and physical limitations. The vast majority of humans who have ever lived were only able to do a limited amount with the objects available to them in their environment. But modern humans may be on the cusp of effectively becoming gods. We are at a point where we can build both real and imagined (virtual) worlds where we are no longer limited in meaningful ways by resources. We are harnessing huge amounts of energy, figuring out how to do so in a more environmentally friendly and sustainable way, and we may be able to soon engineer human beings to be whatever we want them to be. Harari describes our current path as guiding us to become “self-made gods with only the laws of physics to keep us company, we are accountable to no one.”
And so Harari’s initial question becomes ever more important. What do we want to want? Suppose that we can geo-engineer the planet to always have the weather conditions and hospitable planetary needs for human survival. Suppose we can get a surplus of cheap energy from renewable sources without damaging the planet. Suppose we can conquer biology and even death. What will it mean to be human? What will we want, and what should we want when the only limits are the limits of the extremes of space?
Harari continues, “is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?” This is a question that I cannot answer on my own in a single blog post. I can hardly decide what I want to want in my own personal life. I certainly cannot think about what other people should want in their own lives. It is easy to say we should all want happiness, peace, and flourishing for all humans on the planet, but that is so broad that it means nothing. A scientist engineering the human mind could say that is what they work toward while creating something that makes humans something other than human. An engineer moving mountains could believe they are doing it for all the reasons I laid out, but who is to say that moving mountains is really what we want or should want? Humans are on the cusp of merging with machine, controlling our biology, and becoming gods, but we don’t even have a way to think about whether we should want to be doing these things. We certainly can’t accurately judge whether the outcomes will be in the best interest of humans. It is also possible that none of this will matter if the future of humanity is to become something other than humans. However, it is dangerous for humans to amass essentially unlimited power and to not know what to want to do with it.
I’m not sure what it is about American culture today, but we seem to be really good at worrying about almost everything. We fear lots of uncertainties and spend a lot of time uptight about things that might go wrong. While a certain level of worry is ok, being what encourages us to use calendars, set reminders, and buy life insurance, we often slip into continual dread and fear that everything is going to crash.
“How often has the unexpected happened!” Writes Seneca in Letters from a Stoic, “How often has the expected never come to pass! And even though it is ordained to be, what does it avail to run out to meet your suffering?”
The first line of the quote above is where many of us seem to live our lives, at least when we are dealing with fear and anxiety. We worry about the wrongs that could happen and about the misfortune that could strike at any moment. Ruminating in this state has the power to push us into depression, ruin our health, and deteriorate our relationships, potentially even bringing about the terrible outcomes we originally feared.
But that is not all of Seneca’s quote. What we believe is certain to happen often isn’t. What we predict won’t always come to pass, and while sometimes that may be a huge negative, there is no reason to live within that negativity before it has reached us. We shouldn’t run forward and live with what we fear will happen, or live with the fear the something we terrible will unexpectedly happen before it has. Don’t run out to meet your suffering.
Seneca continues, “Even bad fortune is fickle. Perhaps it will come, perhaps not; in the meantime it is not. So look forward to better things.”
All we have in life is the current moment. We can generally anticipate the range of things that will happen in the next moment of our lives and we can build smart plans for the future, but we live in the here and now, not in the past and not in the future our minds are planning. The good that we hope for may play out, but things may also go poorly. If we constantly live ahead of our current moment, we will be distraught by the possible bad things that could happen. Seneca encourages us to remember that the good and the bad might not come, and that as a response we should lean toward being hopeful and use the current moment to try to shape a positive future. Don’t be stuck ruminating over the negative what-ifs of the future and ultimately ruin where you are right now.
In human societies, it is quite OK to be biased toward local rather than foreign or distant concerns. We care a lot about our own family, care a little less about our neighborhood, care less about the people on the other side of town, care less about people across our state, less about people in other states, and much much less about people in other countries or on other continents. Our minds really only seem to have the capacity to fully care about those things in our immediate vicinity, pushing the worries and troubles of others out of our thoughts. When we consider charity, we like to put ourselves first, thinking of things we can do in our community before we consider things we can do outside of our community (not always but in general). The highest impact use of our resources (such as charitable donations) can often come from people who live far away, where our money can have greater purchasing power and make a greater marginal benefit for the recipient.
Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson look at this phenomenon in their book The Elephant in the Brain. They specifically consider how this plays out for our leadership, “We want leaders who look out for their immediate communities, rather than people who need help in far-off places. In a sense, we want them to be parochial. In some situations, it borders on antisocial to be overly concerned with the welfare of distant strangers.”
In a sense, it is easy to understand why we are concerned with the people in our community. If we make a big effort to help the homeless in our own city, then we might not have to see any homeless or deal with any panhandlers. But in another sense, it can be harmful to only focus on the people in our own communities. If we can make relatively small investments to help reduce famine in a distant country, then it may prevent a major crisis that leads to refugee flows back into our own country.
My concern is that as we move forward on this planet, we will need to find ways to think of ourselves beyond our local communities. We will face challenges that require human responses on a global scale, and if we are limited by tribal thinking, then we will not be able to successfully cope with these problems of enormous magnitude. Somehow we have to recognize that our brains are biased toward local present needs, threats, and dangers, and think beyond ourselves, our communities, and our current moment.
Something that is very common to science fiction movies involving future civilizations is a common wardrobe shared by most of the characters. Future cities, alien civilizations, and advanced people in the minds of our science fiction writers seem to give up on a world of distinct fashion in favor of some type of sleek outerwear that has minimal variation from one person to another. Everyone is in the same sleek silver jump suit. Everyone just wears the same indistinguishable plain clothing. The future is not fashionable, its practical and efficient.
I find future clothing interesting because it seems to be saying something different than what we say with our clothing choices today. In a movie, the unimportant background characters all wear the same clothes because they are not supposed to be the standout focus of the film (also a set designer and costume manager would go crazy coming up with 500 different costumes for different people). A lot of our future societies are also either utopian or dystopian, and a sense of individuality is either erased by a tyrant or given up by the society in favor of the collective. Clothes become a way to say, “I’m one of us,” rather than a way to say, “I’m me.”
In The Elephant in the Brain Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson talk about the hidden messages that our clothes send to other people. They write, “Today there’s a stigma to wearing uniforms, in part because it suppresses our individuality. But the very concept of individuality is just signaling by another name. The main reason we like wearing unique clothes is to differentiate and distinguish ourselves from our peers. In this way, […] the most basic message sent by our clothing choices [is] – I’m my own person in charge of my own outfit.”
We choose clothes that say something about us. They signal the groups we belong to, how much we adhere to social norms, and what kind of person we think of ourselves as. We are not just trying to look good, we are trying to give people extra information about ourselves so that they know a little bit about who we are without having to interact with us directly. In movies they tell us who are background characters we can forget about, and in science fiction they tell us that society has congealed together in an efficient and unified manner. Today, however, they tell the world how special and unique we want to be.
Our brains and the way we think about the world are basically our real world super power. We are able to predict what is going to happen five minutes from now, five hours from now, and five days from now. We can remember loads of information from our past and synthesize that information in new situations to draw new conclusions. We are able to intuitively recognize what other people are thinking and to deduce how they felt in past situations or how they will feel in future situations. Our brains do incredible work to help us move through the universe and our species would not be here today without our brains’ super powers.
But as great as these super powers are, they can also lead us astray and cause real problems in our lives. Ruminating on things we do not like from our past or on our fears for the future can be life ruining. We can become embarrassed, scarred, and find ourselves in so much pain from our past that we cannot enjoy our present. Similarly, we can become paralyzed with fear, disillusioned with possibilities, and stuck thinking about negative things may happen in the future, causing us to forget our present moment. In Letters from a Stoic Seneca writes, “But the chief cause of both of these ills is that we do not adapt ourselves to the present, but send our thoughts a long way ahead. And so foresight, the noblest blessings of the human race, becomes perverted. Beasts avoid the dangers which they see, and when they have escaped them are free from care; but we men torment ourselves of that which is to come as well as over that which is past.”
To a much greater extent than many of us do, we should probably seek out psychological services to help us better order our thoughts. Stoicism has helped me with remembering the present and has given me tools to use to avoid ruminating on the future or past. Combining psychological services with a stoic toolkit can be very helpful in a world where happiness is presented in a way that doesn’t actually reflect the things that will make us happy. We want to plan ahead and strive for a healthy life where our needs are provided for, but if we become so focused on needing out life to have a particular type of car, or so focused on what might happen if we are not able to pay certain bills, then we can ruin our health and our current lives. And if we cannot let go of the past, if we cannot look at what has happened in our life and say, “that sucked, but here is what I can learn moving forward,” then we will constantly be haunted by ghosts. Learning to be present is not just about breathing exercises and comfortable pillows. Being present is about recognizing when our minds have jumped ahead or when our minds are stuck in the past and learning to refocus the mind on the current moment, the only time where we can take any action to improve things.