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Existential Concerns

This 21st century epoch is coming to be one of 'existential crises', meaning that various large-scale dangers are increasingly coming to be seen to threaten 'our' existence, where 'our' most commonly relates to people, but may also relate to multicellular life on Earth. An existential catastrophe might fall short of human extinction; a loss of civilisation would also qualify.

The greatest threats to humanity?

In May on RNZ (Radio New Zealand), Toby Ord discussed a whole range of threats, but emphasised 'man-made' threats of human origin over geological and celestial risks such as volcanoes, earthquakes, and asteroids. In his discussion, pandemics were treated as essentially 'man-made'.

The main existential threats of human origin mentioned were – in no particular order – pandemics, artificial intelligence, climate change, world war, and global poverty. The latter – global poverty – was particularly noted as a problem of 'moral paralysis'. He believes that "if global poverty was to no longer exist [in the future] at the current levels it was it now, then people would look back and be dumbfounded by the moral paralysis of people".

While he said, "it was crucial to devote resources to ensure we do not fail the future or past generations", it is not clear that the form of 'effective altruism' that he subscribes to is the answer to the conundrum posed. In our cynical world, we are much better at identifying problems than at actually addressing them.

The Social Dilemma

I watched this Netflix feature documentary about social media and artificial intelligence – The Social Dilemma – a few days ago. The trailer finishes: "If technology creates mass chaos, loneliness, more polarisation, more election hacking, less ability to focus on the real issues, [then] we're toast. This is checkmate on humanity."

The existential issue here is the way that, in commercial societies, the mass of people are manipulated ('influenced', 'nudged') to behave in ways that enable a small elite to successfully pursue the petty yet destructive end of 'making money'. (In market economies, money works as a 'means', not as an 'end'.) While advertising and other forms of persuasion and guided misinformation have been around for as long as people have existed – and there's also plenty of deception practiced in nature by other species – the nature of 21st century social media technology makes the processes of manipulation and deception so much faster and more overwhelming. The manipulators now have the means to 'win' by creating something akin to a monetary black hole, an outcome that represents the destruction of manipulated and manipulators alike.

This is the 'artificial intelligence' variant of the 'moral paralysis' problem identified by Ord.


Of course, to properly understand existence, we have to have some sense of non-existence. Human extinction is no more non-existence than is the death – or non-birth – of an individual person. To appreciate the boundaries of the universe – boundaries in time and space – many of us turn to cosmologists and their astrophysicist colleagues.

On Sunday, RNZ listeners heard astrophysicist Katie Mack discussing cosmic endings, including the eventual fate of the universe. (Interestingly, although the scenarios posited related to billions of years in the future, listeners were engaging from a human-centric viewpoint, pretty much in denial that humans may well be practically extinct by the year 2525, as the famous song goes, long before any cosmic event could possibly affect us.)

The problem with this scientific approach is that it is unable to give any meaning to the concept of 'non-existence'. We are left to, sort of, imagine a universe that is infinite in both space and time, and also completely empty of mass and energy. But that's not non-existence.

For non-existence we have to go outside the realm of physical science, and to imagine a 'being' that does not exist; an 'entity' that does not exist, except, that is, in the imagination of those with a capacity for abstract thought. Such a 'being' is of course 'God', Who exists only in the non-physical realms of human experience, and Who therefore is not subject to the laws of physical existence. 'God' is a very neat and universal solution to the problem of non-existence, and can be applied through literature or mathematics to all aspects of non-existence; not only to the non-existence of the physical universe.

I learned maths before the era of Google. And I was fortunate to have had the same very very good maths teacher from the third form to the fifth form. (I remember him carefully erasing the blackboard of modular arithmetic calculations, so that the next class to use the classroom would not think that he was mad; in one useful version of modular arithmetic, 7+7=2. I also remember learning about Group Theory, and the reaction of one classmate who cried out "What is the use of this?"; and the story told about how the foundations of Group Theory were rapidly scribbled in 1831 by a 20 year old youth – Évariste Galois – who knew he would die in a duel the following morning. That's a personal existential crisis, if ever there was one.)

As a young man, there were two numbers that particularly fascinated me. One was googol. In those days, 'googol' was unambiguously a number, a very big number. The name was coined by a nine-year old, in 1920, so we should actually be celebrating the centenary of googol this year. A googol is 10^100; that is, 1 followed by 100 zeros. Googol took hold of my youthful imagination. (Actually, since then, the number that fascinates me more, today, is 1 googol minus 1. That's 100 nines; or IG in post-modern Roman Numerals. Quite easy to write, but I challenge anyone to name that number.)

The other number that truly fascinated (and fascinates) me is the number that, for me, best describes God. It is the solution to the simple equation:

  • x²+1 = 0 (alternatively, this means that x is the square root of minus one)

There is no solution. The solution for x does not exist. But, just as the physical universe (universes?) may be best described mathematically as an 11-dimensional multiverse, this little problem of non-existence is not going to get in the way of a creative mathematician. It turns out that, while non-existent, this particular entity is mathematically useful. Just as God is useful enough to have been imagined. The solution to this little algebraic problem is 'i', which stands for 'imaginary number'; it could also stand for 'abstract intelligence'. Or for God. God is the intelligent construct of the imagination, that enables us to conceive non-existence in a practical and useful way. Practical abstract intelligence, through mathematics and through faith, was the precursor to civilisation.

Our Maker as an Accountant

This brings me to Judith Collins, putative Prime Minister of a National Party led government.

Two weeks ago, she invoked our Maker in an ambiguous political speech, and proceeded over the next few day to reiterate her belief in God – and to pray in view of the television cameras after she voted.

Collins said that a prominent critic of hers "still needs to meet his Maker". She subsequently explained that we all die one day, and that we all meet our Maker. This idea is an excellent example of the practical utility of God. The idea is that we should live our lives as if – at our 'end of life' – we will have to account for our actions and choices. It's an idea that no doubt helps many of us to lead better – more moral – lives than we otherwise would.

Accountancy is the world's oldest profession; no other occupation could be called a profession in the absence of an accounting mindframe. So, it is appropriate that our most practical image of God is as an Accountant Creator, deft in the art of existential double-entry bookkeeping. The cosmic Big Bang is most practically thought of as the Creation of the universe from which nothing (literally nothing) became a universe of matter and energy, and a parallel universe of anti-matter and anti-energy. The end of the universe will be when God's ledger once again balances at zero on both sides.

The universe is a miracle. Indeed, it is good to have political leaders who believe in miracles. And so, each individual life is also a miracle. It is a matter of practical convenience to think of our Maker as also our Accountant (as distinct from our accountant). We are in our Maker's debt. Should we pay the debt back? Is that what we do when we meet our maker? Or, could we think as a good life as 'servicing' our existential debt?

Should we pay the debt forward instead of paying it back? Paying the debt forward would seem to me to be the central concept that underpins the effective altruism which Toby Ord understands as necessary to get us past the year 2525.

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