In a worldview that prizes purity above progress, the flawed and erroneous are stains to be expunged. Their remembrance is not only deplorable but damning by association.
Indeed, history is nothing more than a tableau of crimes and misfortunes. History is nothing but a pack of tricks that we play upon the dead.
We are at war with the past. What began as a stand against state-sponsored violence has metastasized; it has spread to every facet of politics and culture and has spiraled to the brink of complete moral frenzy. The anti-racism Leftstill well in the throes of George Floyds deathhas moved away from the police, politicians, and partisan prejudice towards a new (or, rather, not-so-new) nemesis: the pages of history themselves.
In its crusade against racial and social injustice, Black Lives Matter and its ideological peers are making no exceptions for neither the ancient nor the antiquated. They make no distinctions among those who lived 50, 100, or even 1,000 years ago. Indeed, from the indignant throngs of recent weeks, we have stood witness to a second wave of statue removalsranging from democratic campaigns to criminal defenestrationsacross the United States and beyond, in what can only be described as some desperate attempt at historical redaction. In a worldview that prizes purity above progress, the flawed and erroneous are stains to be expunged. Their remembrance is not only deplorable but damning by association.
It is this latter sentiment that should have us most concerned. While it is the nature of cynical traditions to deny progress and its many achievements, it is an entirely new form of pessimism to deplore its very existence. If ones worldview is a mixture of mistrust and misanthropy, it should come as no surprise that ones past appears populated by villains and reprobates. It should come as no surprise in principleas we shall seebut it is a novel and enfeebling mistake to bear such wickedness as ones own. In reaching so deep into the gutters of the past, we are finding ourselves sullied with regard to the present. We find ourselves sickened by the legacies of evil. In merely perceiving the long-since departed, we find ourselves shackledand, in many cases, sentencedby the sins of our fathers.
Such is the nature of our new, historical masochism. It is a fallacy that owes, in large part, to presentism: the tendency to judge the past by todays morality. It is a mistake that centers on days gone by, but it threatens everything that we have achieved and stand for in the future. This is not hyperbole: The war against history is a philosophical mistake bordering on existential threat not because those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat itbut because it was never really about history in the first place. It is about progress. The presentism paradox is all about how we can only perceive past evils from a position of virtue. Its mistake is to conflate the two. The result is a war not against those historical failures we deplorebut against their corrections. We are at war with our achievements.
As a society, we stand at a unique perspective throughout history. We exist at the pinnacle of all scientific, technological, and moral understanding after a long and distinguished career of misery. Fans of Steven Pinkers 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature will be familiar with this position, as well as his trademark brand of quantitative optimism. Those who are not may think it perverse to even suggest. How could a society racked with injustice, plagued with war, and all but enthralled by the specter of power be anything but detestable? How could a civilization poised to destroy itself be anything other than falling apart?
The answers are, in part, factual and, in part, philosophical. The short version is: It is not true. It is not true that we have reached new heights of death and despair. It is not true that our destruction is imminent. Indeed, Pinkers work remains as our greatest rebuke of such despondency. He shows us how the opposite is true; he shows us all the ways in which we are healthier, happier, more wealthy, more peaceful, more compassionate, and more loving than ever before. By every metric, material and meaning-filled, we are leading the way to a better tomorrow. We have known this for some time nowever since the Enlightenment and its exceptional achievements, heretical visionaries have dared to honor an unprecedented success. Pinker is just the latest in a long line of heroic optimists, building upon the sentiments of such Enlightenment figures as William Godwin, Anthony Ashley-Cooper and, some centuries later, the philosopher Karl Popper. In his 1963 book Conjectures and Refutations, it was Popper who wrote:
In spite of our great and serious troubles, and in spite of the fact that ours is surely not the best possible society, I assert that our own free world is by far the best society which has come into existence during the course of human history.
Not quite convinced? That is okay. In any other argument of this type, contemporary optimism would require further defense. There is more to be said about destitution, climate change, existential risk, Our Final Hour, and Superintelligence; there is more to be discussed if one hopes to dispel an adored desperation. But it is the miraculous irony of our newest afflictionstanding in the face of such a robust and wistful gloomthat the fight against history is itself optimistic. In order to admonish with righteous authority, one must first assume some measure of moral advantage. One must first contend some basis by which abolition supplants enslavement.
Concealed within the logic of our new-found presentism is a commitment to moral realism. After all, crimes are only so much if we are correct in our convictions. This stands in stark contrast to the moral and epistemological relativism so treasured by the Left: a relativism from which many derive contempt towards a uniquely Western hubris. However, as we have seen, it is a hubris shared across oceans of time if not water, against those less fortunate in wisdom. I am sure that the relativist-Left, alerted to their spatial and temporal hypocrisy, shall be quick to renounce such bigotry: one they so selectively despise.
But probably notit is foundational to their cherished masochism. They have arrived at a contemporary optimism by accident; they subvert it to pessimistic ends. This is the error I am referring to: a bizarre new form of moral and historical inversion that holds solutions accountable for their problems, progress accountable for its obstacles, and the present accountable for its past. In their view, our superior vantage is merely a window into damnation. In 2020, hindsight is blinding.
But there is another way! Despite its seductive nature, historical pessimism is a surprisingly easy mistake to correct forif you know how. The answer is gratitude. The correct response to fortune is thanks and compassion to those with lessnot guilt and hatred of those with more. And if history is the shadow cast by progress, then we should feel grateful that it is cast behind usnot forward, or downwardsand be careful not to heed its familiar call. As Pinker urges us to recall:
If the past is a foreign country, it is a shockingly violent one. It is easy to forget how dangerous life used to be, how deeply brutality was once woven into the fabric of daily existence. Cultural memory pacifies the past, leaving us with pale souvenirs whose bloody origins have been bleached away.
It is easy to forget just how far we have come. It is easy to forget just how mistaken we can be, and have been, and are; and we should be thankful. We should be thankful that in place of past monsters we have only their monuments, that in place of old slavers we have only their memory. The shadow of progress is an illusion cast by self-doubt. It is a mistake. When we do look towards the past, towards those figures less privileged than ourselves, we should do so with compassion, and forgiveness, for the right to condemn is, itself, a sign of good fortune. We should embrace our privileges as giftsnot sins. And we must understand thatmore than any otherour greatest privilege is the time in which we find ourselves. Our greatest privilege is today. We should be quick to salute it.
Tom Hyde is a graduate of University College London and a freelance writer. He is primarily interested in how science and philosophy influence cultural trends.
- Vue Cambridge: All the films coming to the cinema including Wonder Woman 1984 and Superintelligence - Cambridgeshire Live - December 22nd, 2020
- Nomadland: Why this Frances McDormand-starrer is the perfect film for 2020 - Stuff.co.nz - December 22nd, 2020
- "I should be the main character". The plot twist that led to Melissa McCarthy's new role. - Mamamia - December 22nd, 2020
- Finally! HBO Max comes to Roku (and PS5) - here's how to set it up - Komando - December 22nd, 2020
- Can Apocalypse Be Dealt With? The Diplomat - The Diplomat - October 19th, 2020
- Thirty books to help us understand the world in 2020 - The Guardian - October 19th, 2020
- These Are The 10 Highest-Paid Actresses Of 2020 - Marie Claire - October 19th, 2020
- Forbes 10 highest-paid actresses of 2020 have been revealed - The Independent - October 10th, 2020
- Hulk Just Exploded Into Bits and Pieces in The Immortal Hulk #35 - Screen Rant - August 10th, 2020
- Should You Get Down (And Occasionally Dirty) With Star Trek: Lower Decks? - PRIMETIMER - August 7th, 2020
- The Era Of Autonomous Army Bots is Here - Forbes - August 6th, 2020
- AI Could Overtake Humans in 5 Years, Says Elon Musk, Whose 'Top Concern' is Google-Owned DeepMind - International Business Times, Singapore Edition - August 5th, 2020
- Superintelligence - Wikipedia - July 31st, 2020
- Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies by Nick Bostrom - July 31st, 2020
- Artificial Intelligence - A Way To Superintelligence ... - July 31st, 2020
- AI governance and the future of humanity with the Rockefeller Foundations senior VP of innovation - The Sociable - July 31st, 2020
- neXt Trailer: It's Not Paranoia If The Threat Is Real - Bleeding Cool News - July 27th, 2020
- The Famous AI Turing Test Put In Reverse And Upside-Down, Plus Implications For Self-Driving Cars - Forbes - July 21st, 2020
- Scoop: Coming Up on a Rebroadcast of MATCH GAME on ABC - Sunday, July 26, 2020 - Broadway World - July 17th, 2020
- Consciousness Existing Beyond Matter, Or in the Central Nervous System as an Afterthought of Nature? - The Daily Galaxy --Great Discoveries Channel - July 17th, 2020
- If you can't beat 'em, join 'em Elon Musk tweets out the mission statement for his AI-brain-chip Neuralink - Business Insider India - July 13th, 2020
- Josiah Henson: the forgotten story in the history of slavery - The Guardian - June 21st, 2020
- The world's best virology lab isn't where you think - Spectator.co.uk - April 3rd, 2020
- Is Artificial Intelligence (AI) A Threat To Humans? - Forbes - March 4th, 2020
- Elon Musk dings Bill Gates and says their conversations were underwhelming, after the Microsoft billionaire buys an electric Porsche - Pulse Nigeria - February 18th, 2020
- Thinking Beyond Flesh and Bones with AI - Ghana Latest Football News, Live Scores, Results - Ghanasoccernet.com - February 18th, 2020
- Liquid metal tendons could give robots the ability to heal themselves - Digital Trends - December 21st, 2019
- NIU expert: 4 leaps in technology to expect in the 2020s | NIU - NIU Newsroom - December 21st, 2019
- Playing Tetris Shows That True AI Is Impossible - Walter Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence - December 21st, 2019
- AI R&D is booming, but general intelligence is still out of reach - The Verge - December 18th, 2019
- Doubting The AI Mystics: Dramatic Predictions About AI Obscure Its Concrete Benefits - Forbes - December 5th, 2019
- Melissa McCarthy And Ben Falcone Have Decided To Release 'Superintelligence' Via HBO Max Ins - Science Fiction - October 24th, 2019
- Melissa McCarthy & Director Ben Falcone On Choosing HBO Max Bow Instead Of WB Xmas Release For Superintelligence - Deadline - October 24th, 2019
- AMC Is Still In the Theater Business, But VOD Is a Funny Way of Showing It - IndieWire - October 24th, 2019
- Idiot Box: HBO Max joins the flood of streaming services - Weekly Alibi - October 24th, 2019
- Here's How to Watch Watchmen, HBOs Next Game of Thrones - Cosmopolitan - October 24th, 2019
- The Best Artificial Intelligence Books you Need to Read Today - Edgy Labs - October 22nd, 2019
- Aquinas' Fifth Way: The Proof from Specification - Discovery Institute - October 22nd, 2019
- Elon Musk warns 'advanced A.I.' will soon manipulate social media - Big Think - October 1st, 2019
- Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies - Wikipedia - May 3rd, 2019
- Global Risks Report 2017 - Reports - World Economic Forum - March 6th, 2019
- Superintelligence - Hardcover - Nick Bostrom - Oxford ... - March 6th, 2019
- The Artificial Intelligence Revolution: Part 1 - Wait But Why - November 3rd, 2018
- Superintelligence: From Chapter Eight of Films from the ... - October 11th, 2018
- Amazon.com: Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies ... - August 18th, 2018
- Superintelligence survey - Future of Life Institute - June 23rd, 2018
- Artificial Superintelligence: The Coming Revolution ... - June 3rd, 2018
- Steam Workshop :: Superintelligence - February 15th, 2018
- Steam Workshop :: Superintelligence (BNW) - February 15th, 2018
- The AI Revolution: The Road to Superintelligence | Inverse - August 25th, 2017
- Friendly artificial intelligence - Wikipedia - August 25th, 2017
- Being human in the age of artificial intelligence - Science Weekly podcast - The Guardian - August 25th, 2017
- Why won't everyone listen to Elon Musk about the robot apocalypse? - Ladders - August 25th, 2017
- Infographic: Visualizing the Massive $15.7 Trillion Impact of AI - Visual Capitalist (blog) - August 25th, 2017
- The Musk/Zuckerberg Dustup Represents a Growing Schism in AI - Motherboard - August 4th, 2017
- The end of humanity as we know it is 'coming in 2045' and Google is preparing for it - Metro - July 27th, 2017
- Will we be wiped out by machine overlords? Maybe we need a ... - PBS NewsHour - July 22nd, 2017
- Giving Up the Fags: A Self-Reflexive Speech on Critical Auto-ethnography About the Shame of Growing up Gay/Sexual ... - The Good Men Project (blog) - July 22nd, 2017
- AI researcher: Why should a superintelligence keep us around? - TNW - July 18th, 2017
- What an artificial intelligence researcher fears about AI - Huron Daily ... - Huron Daily Tribune - July 16th, 2017
- Integrating disciplines 'key to dealing with digital revolution' | Times ... - Times Higher Education (THE) - July 4th, 2017
- No need to fear Artificial Intelligence - Livemint - Livemint - June 30th, 2017
- Effective Altruism Says You Can Save the Future by Making Money - Motherboard - June 20th, 2017
- The bots are coming - The New Indian Express - June 20th, 2017
- U.S. Navy reaches out to gamers to troubleshoot post ... - June 18th, 2017
- Facebook Chatbots Spontaneously Invent Their Own Non-Human ... - Interesting Engineering - June 17th, 2017
- Cars 3 gets back to what made the franchise adequate - Vox - June 13th, 2017
- Using AI to unlock human potential - EJ Insight - June 9th, 2017
- Are You Ready for the AI Revolution and the Rise of Superintelligence? - TrendinTech - June 7th, 2017
- A reply to Wait But Why on machine superintelligence - June 6th, 2017
- The AI Revolution: The Road to Superintelligence (PDF) - June 6th, 2017
- How humans will lose control of artificial intelligence - The Week Magazine - April 8th, 2017
- The Nonparametric Intuition: Superintelligence and Design Methodology - Lifeboat Foundation (blog) - April 8th, 2017
- Who is afraid of AI? - The Hindu - April 8th, 2017
- The AI debate must stay grounded in reality - Prospect - March 8th, 2017
- Superintelligence | Guardian Bookshop - March 7th, 2017
- Supersentience - March 7th, 2017
- Horst Simon to Present Supercomputers and Superintelligence at PASC17 in Lugano - insideHPC - March 3rd, 2017
- Softbank CEO: The Singularity Will Happen by 2047 - Futurism - March 2nd, 2017
- Disruptive by Design: Siri, Tell Me a Joke. No, Not That One. - Signal Magazine - March 2nd, 2017