The West is in crisis and with crisis comes opportunity. But what’s going on is so vast and complex that to seize this opportunity daunts whoever tries. Political, physical, emotional, moral and communal, the divisions are deep. Or are they? Whatever the answer, there’s hard work ahead for all of us.

In this essay, that I’ll gradually post in the coming weeks, I want to delineate the problems, dilemmas and opportunities we might face in the decades to come. I am going to try to place today’s new age in its historical context. By looking at where we’re coming from and what’s desirable, I’m going to estimate where we might be going. How meaningful is the change ahead, what can we expect now, and what will be needed of us to carry on? Which new ethical dilemmas are we facing? Can we survive the threats without sacrificing our freedom?

Part I, the first chapters, will be a brief assessment of the current geopolitical, environmental and societal situation and the technological developments. Part II is an exploration of the moral crisis we are facing in the West. In part III, I explore what our options are and part IV will address some of the future ethical, pragmatic and philosophical choices we’re going to have to face.

Drifting along in an ever-intensifying societal turbulence is not an option if we want to remain free, develop ourselves, improve our standard of living and avoid the tailspin of the global ecosystem. This is not the time to pawn our societal values for quick gains. It’s not the time to succumb to the pressure of the planetary machine we have built. We need to remember what fabric society was woven from and we need to finally create democracy to make it last. Little of this is my expertise, yet I’ve tried, in past years to acquire a bit of a complete picture of what is going on in the West. The East is a different world I know very little of, but its influence is here, which makes it relevant to this essay as well.

Tomorrow: Part I. Mayor developments of our time,

And: Climate change and ecological collapse reflect limits to the global carrying capacity.

What’s behind us, what lies ahead?

(This is the final chapter in a longer essay, starting with Limits)

The West is changing, and the change could soon become big. This change asks for a reconsideration of our joint values, ethics and ways of life. I have gathered just a small set of ideas on how to understand and approach the decades ahead from a Western perspective. Did a number of thought experiments. They were based on what I find important in life, on the values my society promotes and on what I consider to be the big developments of our time. But the change ahead concerns all people around the world.

Now that the spell of consumption is wearing off, sooner or later, all people will have to look for a meaning to their life different than the race of life itself. Sooner or later, we all will. We need to strengthen the societal debate to facilitate morally sound choices by and for the people. New values need to be translated into policies and backed by legislation that benefits all.

The clashes we see in politics world-wide give us a hint of the existing global oppositions, but they also show a willingness of the people to fight for what they believe in. Even if most are not able to word their anxieties or political disagreements well, the feeling is real and it’s gathering strength. People are readying themselves for change.

Technology might disfigure us, climate change might outpace us, scarcity might starve us and wealth gaps and geopolitics could create even deeper divisions. But we’re all here to let that happen, or stop it. Some of our most fundamental Western values are at stake if we let this slip through our fingers. Re-emphasizing the values of the Enlightenment could be a guide to the future, but they have to be reviewed. The fraternity-part has to become more prominent and more inclusive. And next to praising reason, we need to relearn to embrace its limits. By definition, we can’t know everything. Let’s welcome the unknown as a respected member of society. A gift to our kids.

Change isn’t good or bad, change is change. And it’s up to people, governments and all institutions, to make the change ahead into something that benefits everyone. Can we be sure it can be done? No. But it’s worth the try. In many instances in the past, us humans have created beautiful, morally sound societies, big or small. We could easily continue on that path. Honestly, why wouldn’t we? We may have never fully integrated the values of the Enlightenment yet, but there still is so much time.

How to look at increasing longevity? How to look at death?

(This is a chapter in a 22-part essay, starting with Limits)

We have made enormous progress in healthy living and medical science. Far more is to come in the next one hundred years. Our lives have been greatly prolonged, and it isn’t unthinkable that we’ll reach a certain state of android immortality during my lifetime or the next. We could be replacing organs here and there, adding some crazy titanium bones, making some organs rejuvenate themselves and keeping the heart afloat with some badass little shock device. Say it all works out and we manage to become immortal, should humans have the right to it? And if one person does, should we all? Or should there be a limit to the time a person is allowed to live?

We have already domesticized ourselves to such a degree, that we live on average 50 years longer than our ancestors did in the prehistoric age. What we call a natural lifestyle, is far from it in the original sense of the word. On the other hand, you could say that our inventive minds and our blind drive for survival are innate to our being. You could argue that it’s in our nature to try to live forever, and against our nature to wilfully die. But you can also argue the opposite. So the nature argument is not going to get us far.

There are pragmatic reasons not want to live forever. One of the main reasons the global population is growing, is that individuals are getting older. We’d quickly run out of space and resources if everyone would suddenly become a thousand years old. Would it be ethical if just a few get to become that old due to technological advancement, for example because they’re rich, while others die an early death? That would mean class division all over again.

Cruel as it may seem, we may have to agree to a limit one day, just for the sake of the collective. Some countries are already legalizing euthanasia under specific circumstances, others now accept corona deaths as collateral damage to opening society, showing that we are institutionally able to put quality of life before length of life. But to collectively impose a maximum length of life would be a different decision. Perhaps it would make more sense to stop reconstructing the person once a certain age has passed. That, too, would be a death sentence and it would go against the Hippocratic oath. And also, where would the limit be? 150? 200? It implies a regime that carries out such decisions. The gift of immortality could quickly become a curse.

If we do create a matrix-like world, however, and manage to detach a person’s identity from their body, or copy them into the digital world, then the space and resource arguments would be weaker. There would still be the energy, needed to keep the online world running, so there is a limit there. How many resources do we assign to a single mind? Not infinite. Will it be free market reign all over again? Can inequalities grow even larger? There is a strong case to be made for actively limiting ourselves and to allow new beings their existence. But not everyone would wilfully do that.

Besides resources, there are other pragmatic reasons not to let individuals keep going forever. If your parents, grandparents and great-grandparents would all still be alive, would that give you the same autonomy, the same liberty as you have now? The elderly would become a much more powerful group. That situation would reduce the speed of societal progress. It would become more difficult to get rid of old-fashioned ideas, and the pressure of family tradition would grow immense. Then again, we’re not in a rush, and it might also be nice to be able to talk with some ancestor of many generations ago, I think it’s something we need to start thinking about.

Choosing mortality, even if we could keep prolonging our lives, is a big decision that would drastically change our relationship with life. I’d be curious to learn which way we decide to go if we get the chance.

Tomorrow the last part of this essay: What’s behind us, what lies ahead?

On allowing Surveillance infrastructure to change our humanity

(This is a chapter in a 22-part essay, starting with Limits)

Let’s not be naive and fall into the trap of believing that 5G will make it easier for governments to spy on us. Or that China’s governmental surveillance is an exception. It already is very, very, very easy for anyone, not just governments or multinationals, to spy on us. Cameras are everywhere, face recognition algorithms can be deployed by anyone who tries and we are voluntarily making it worse every day. I have no illusions here, the internet is about as private as the street, yet we trust to it information that we wouldn’t share with our closest friends. We’re sometimes not even aware of it ourselves! While I guess it is technically possible to wipe such data out, or protect yourself from being exposed in the first place, I expect that backdoors into the memory of the internet will exist for a long time. Whatever we put online risks to outlive us.

Has there been a shift in the degree of surveillance we accept into our lives? Yes, there has. Just recently, for example, cameras were installed in the basement of my own housing block. Even in our Facebook group, people threatened with studying the images to find out who caused the littering. That’s absurd and illegal, but it illustrates the degree to which surveillance has normalised in my society here in the Netherlands. Most people are in favour of vaccination passports these days. That would have been unthinkable in Europe in the ‘70s, due to the recent bitter memories of the mass registration of our Jewish brothers and sisters. But we have collectively allowed Big Brother’s eye to open itself amongst us and track our actions, good and dubious. Many people remain in favour of it, arguing they are good citizens and have nothing to hide. See and be seen. But it’s obvious that there should be limits to this for a society to function normally. Will these limits define themselves? Partially, yes. But there are choices to be made.

Some things are already illegal. We can’t just hack each other and peek through each other’s webcams. Nonetheless, almost no one gets punished for that. Few people ever find out because people can’t be bothered to secure themselves. It’s quite likely that you’re reading this with a camera pointing at you. Are you sure nobody’s looking? Same with the mic. It gives most people the creeps, but who really does something about it? We’re distracted, and we shouldn’t be.

Humans, being naturally interested in other humans are tempted every day not to peek into the private, intimate lives of others. But it’s totally possible. Not just by easy hacks, also because some people have access to data through their profession. This is what Snowden taught us when discussing the NSA, who are laughing about our dick pics. A fairly innocent crime compared to identity theft, blackmailing of high-profile politicians, plundering bank accounts or attempting to influence voting or even day-to-day behaviour. Today, we can still wonder if manipulation of our behaviour is really possible, but as soon as we plug into the matrix and our minds literally take the shape of computers, such influence could quickly become very strong. There’s an uncertainty, because if it turns out we have an indivisible and non-physical soul, plugging in would not suddenly make it possible to divide or take over that soul. Imprison or incapacitate it, maybe. But if we have no soul, or a soul that can somehow be divided, eroded or disfigured, our individuality would be very threatened.

Our human rights system is built around the position of the individual, which is a good thing. But the more we merge ourselves with the internet, the more of our individuality we hand over. Take identity theft. What if there suddenly are two Gilles Haviks? Which one has the rights to my possessions? I, not the one who stole my identity, should remain the owner of my legacy. In such a situation, it is possible to imagine that an authority who ultimately decides who owns my life, finds it hard to figure out which one is the real Gilles. And the more we blur the lines of our individuality, the harder this will become. What if I manage to copy my mind? Who owns the rights? I can think of two ways out of this problem: stronger documentation of individual property on the one hand, and a move away from ownership, on the other. Am I missing options here?

History gives testimony of a wide range of people who have been persecuted for swimming against the current. Some have succeeded and changed society for the better, while many others were executed or imprisoned for life. It’s a world-wide thing of all times. But in a situation where our every move is registered, it becomes harder and harder to rise up against an established authority as an individual or a small group. How are we going to value people who rise up against the state, when the state goes too far with its power?

There’s the option that we all accept full transparency about everything and everyone. I can spy on you, you can spy on me. No questions asked. We are no criminals, and have nothing to hide. This has historically been a leading sentiment in the Netherlands, where people are assumed to keep their living room curtains open. Expand this to the bathroom, the bedroom, the mind, political power and presto! Transparent society. We all stimulate each other to become perfect beings, or accept each other’s flaws and finally stop judging. If you look at all the revelations that are being done about authority figures, this idea can seem attractive. It creates a proof of purity for those among us who have not been unmasked. But that purity is an illusion.

We are all being selective in where we aim our attention. And that selectiveness is a prejudice. Let me phrase this differently: if eight billion people would look at eight billion people, each person would be seen once on average. For society to be fully transparent, each of the eight billion would have to look into the thoughts, actions and drives of all eight billion others. This will not happen in the near future, meaning society will not be fully transparent. We are biased and we need rules or education to help us choose where to look, and where we not to look.

Humanity isn’t purity, and full transparency would lead to deception and a disappearance of most of the fun bits of life. The mystery around other people is what keeps them interesting. Our illusions are what keeps life fun and exciting. Not knowing what is happening the next moment, creates room for surprise. Could we cherish the unknown not just in ourselves, but also in the other? Could we allow each other some crimes?

In law, certain crimes can become outdated. This shows that our system is built to forgive in the long run. That’s a good thing. Perhaps we could equally establish a right for dubious events to be forgotten after some time. Forgotten by the prison of public judgement, but certainly also by governments. Though I have no idea how that would work in the digital infrastructure practice, it’s something to work on. The right to be forgotten. Allowing each other our secrets, simply because we trust each other.

The emergence of surveillance technology, be it as entertainment in the form of our phones, or for the actual use of surveillance, confronts the West with its own issues of trust. Can we trust our citizens, our neighbours to participate in society because they agree with it, or do we need to check each other to become model citizens? Can we have our webcams and microphones on and trust no one will abuse them? Can we trust people to do the reasonable thing? History has proven that we can, otherwise we wouldn’t be here. But the trend in the past decades has not been on trust’s side. Which has to make us wonder. What is it we so dearly want to protect? Is it worth isolating ourselves for? Is it worth putting our societal values at stake? Can we ever obliterate risk? Or are we creating new risks by putting everything out in the open?

Tomorrow: How to look at increasing longevity? How to look at death?

Considering plugin ethics

(This is a chapter in a multiple part essay, starting with Limits )

Photo by Ali Pazani

Plugging into the matrix seems creepy to some and utopian to others. It’s probably good to start working on a somewhat more realistic view. Life will still be life, and our psychological struggles would probably be replaced by different ones. Our new outlook could look infinite and divine for a while, but we will sooner or later come to realise that even in an unlimited digital universe, we are limited beings who have to make choices based on limited information. Or at least, I think so.

If some people deem it unethical to plug brains into the hyperweb they should not be forced to do it. But should that withhold others from trying it out? And what if the risk is that the few who do, become orders of magnitude more powerful than those who don’t? There is an ethical dilemma here.

One thing we should learn from our mistakes after the Enlightenment, is the concept of the limit to growth, particularly when it comes to the power of one individual over another. You could imagine a regulated form of plugging in, where individuals can only reach a certain level of cognitive amplification, but not more. It would make sense, in my view, to create a kind of system where the bandwidth connection between the brain and the internet is limited so that nobody’s thoughts would gain massive calculating power over someone elses. You could create some pretty bleak black-mirror-like scenarios if people would start trapping each other in online eternity or something.

There possibly are technical issues here. We should wonder if there are enough walls in the internet to prevent individuals from growing indefinitely, particularly in cases where minds detach from their bodies, become imperialistic or find ways to increase their speed. In case of overwhelming power, the internet itself would be on the line, risking to set society back decades if we turn it off. We should start by plugging into limited, disconnected intranet or restricted blockchain systems, and not to systems that are open to the entire web. Just to see how minds behave online.

If we get this to work, I would expect a kind of mind-hunger, such as expressed by Neo when he downloads new skills in the film The Matrix. Those who manage to deal with the plugged-in lifestyle, might want more. Should those who don’t allow them to have it?

Perhaps there will be biological or mental barriers that we are unable to overcome. Like now: if we eat too much, we become unhealthy. If we have too much sex, we’ll get an std or skin burns. There might be some fundamental barrier in our minds or brains as well. This would take us towards a golden middle, where we give our minds what they can handle without overdoing it. Let’s hope there is such a limit. But what if there isn’t? What if we’re actually able to pass through the door and leave our bodies behind? What if the potential for growth is limited only by the amount of power in the internet? In such a case, a monopoly would mean total mental control over the internet, and reversing it would be a form of murder. We should be aware of this risk when we deal with such new liberties.

All of this may sound strange to you, it does to me too. Sure, perhaps Neuralink and Elon Musk are just trying to sell their investors some bullshit. But we know nothing of the nature of life, other than that it is able to procreate under the weirdest conditions. We know even less of the nature of consciousness, information or the universe itself. Just that they exist. As far as we can tell, no one has ever tried to hop over to the digital world, so we don’t know if it can work, what conditions would have to be met or how one would experience such a journey. But if we manage to create something relatively comfortable, we’ll have a vast new universe to explore.

Tomorrow: On allowing surveillance infrastructure to change our humanity

Let Live

(This is a chapter in a 22-part essay, starting with Limits )

Photo by Kendall Hoopes

So far, the fruits of the Enlightenment have fallen mostly in the laps of white men and white women. Capitalism has failed our black-skinned brothers and sisters, our yellow-skinned brothers and sisters, our red-skinned brothers and sisters, most radical free thinkers and artists, people who don’t identify with any of these categories, and also a lot of non-human people. But this was not the intention, I don’t believe it, when the 17th century thinkers emphasized liberty, tolerance and fraternity.  

What fraternity essentially means, I believe, is that despite having the power to crush another to death, imprisonment or oblivion, you just don’t do it. Instead, you treat each other nicely. From an individualist, success-driven point of view, this holds a tiny emotional injustice in it. If you spare others, you end up with a smaller piece of the pie than what you were able to get through your talent and hard work. It also leads to you being perceived as weaker than you really are. You might even not use a certain talent fully. But sharing power does increase the potential of the group. The problem is that when we see other people use their full strength and resources to grow in stature, we are inclined to get jealous and do the same. This effect would arguably be reduced in a society where people’s basic needs are guaranteed. Fear is an important motivator and in such a society, the anxiety over one’s own existence would be reduced.  

We should reconsider the degree to which the attention is currently deliberately concentrated towards a select few. We currently perceive attracted attention as merited. Someone speaks eloquently, looks beautiful or has brilliant ideas. Or someone seeks conflict where there was none. We all want to shine and we enjoy it when others do. But when there’s money and algorithms involved, overshadowing can rapidly run out of hand. I suppose most people agree that the best football players or rock stars should not get the exorbitant salaries connected to their publicity worth. It’s not very fraternal of Ronaldo to accept millions of dollars for his entertainment value, while the kids who almost die building his stadium get a few dollars per hour. That much is clear. Same with YouTube stars versus the operators who enable them. We could consider actively dispersing the algorithms to limit the amount of views for single people. Spread the love.

To let live means to be attentive to the unknown other even if that person clearly isn’t perfect or unpolished. It means actively seeking the balance between the individual and the group, allowing everyone their turn to be seen. It shouldn’t be forced, or anything. In the best case, this would be a shared understanding, embedded in the fabric of society, but it also is something we can program our machine for. More options to follow the underdog. We all deserve our voice, don’t we?

Tomorrow: Considering plugin ethics

PART IV – What societal dilemmas are we facing?

(This is a chapter in a longer essay, starting with Limits )

Photo by Aleksandar Pasaric

Even if not perfectly executed, Western values have been among the best ever implemented on such a big scale. I’m talking about peace, equal rights for everyone, life according to the rule of reason, fraternity, liberty, education, literacy, the search for objective answers and the separation of church and state. These are values that, if followed, should lead to a fairly calm and nice-to-live-in society that is well-prepared for potential downturns and is resilient in dealing with disasters. At the dawn of the Enlightenment, slavery was still a thing and so were discrimination and the belief that women are irrational beings. The roots of the Enlightenment are not entirely clean. But the previous centuries have been the start of the end of such nonsense.

If we believe that all people deserve a life without suffering, then we are morally obligated to do what’s in our power to create a society that realizes such equal rights. In the final section of this essay, I’d like to look into some of the values we have to develop as a globalizing human society that deals with scarcity and uncertainties while striving to transcend its own limitations to levels we haven’t seen before.

A broader need for self-limitation

It is a basic ecological law that resources limit the growth of a population. For example, if there’s little water in a savanna, then animals have to compete for it and some will die of thirst. The population doesn’t grow. Humans have transcended this law to a certain degree in the past, by a process called eco-economic decoupling. An example: an increasing chunk of our current economy is based on internet applications. While the internet does require an increasing amount of power, the growth of the economy that is built upon it, far transcends the increasing power demand. With the shift towards green energy, this effect is expected to become even stronger. By our increased efficiency, we manage to decrease our resource demand. Despite the decoupling, we are entering a phase of scarcity of several resources that are vital in our current global economic infrastructure.

There are many technical ways to and decrease the impact of scarcity. All will be necessary, but they merely broaden the bottlenecks; they won’t remove them alltoghether. We will inevitably have to reduce our consumption of certain goods. This means rationing. We roughly have three options here. First, we can keep postponing this up till the moment where some strong authority has to implement a ration because a certain substance has disappeared. Second, we can leave it to the market, meaning the poor will no longer be able to afford certain resources. And third, we can bring this into the public debate and make informed decisions about who gets what. We have seen during the pandemic that this last approach is far from ideal and will lead to new inequalities, but in my view it still is preferable to the other two.

We are no longer used to limit ourselves. It’s something our grandparents were forced to do, but more recent generations have forgotten about. Yet we simply don’t have the capacity to all eat meat every day, fly around the world a few times per year and become obese simply because we enjoy the taste or because it temporarily relieves us from stress. It is a painful insight, but it’s a necessary one, and it applies to the rich more than to the poor. And if you’re reading this, you’re probably among the richest 5% of the world. Voluntary reduction of your consumption is what is needed of you, and it’s time you realised that, if you didn’t already.

Self-limitation goes against our instinct. People want to thrive and procreate. We all have a deep animal urge to eat as much sugary, fatty food as we can find. This desire helped us evolutionary, because these foods contain the energy we need to survive in the long run. We also have the need to stand out, to be recognized in the group and to shine with our colourful new clothes, our big house and our glittery car. It has taken us eras of evolution to reach this amount of societal wealth and celebration. Why stop now? Why not live it while it lasts? Why not create and indulge to the max? Why settle for a liveable life in the many generations after us, if we can have it all here and now?

The cliché, but I think true answer, is that happiness and quality of life do not depend on excess and are in fact reduced by it. You can create lovely art with a few leaves and branches. Or with a paper and a pen. You can make delicious foods for people you admire with three ingredients. You can lead a healthy life with just some friendship and the strength of your body and mind. It’s simple. But the problem is, forcing simplicity upon another, requires a fundamental review of our libertarian values. We can do this reactively, because of scarcity, or proactively out of …, let’s call it wisdom and solidarity. All we need to do, is learn to find joy and creativity in simple things.

Checks and balances would help to reduce our impacts, but what we really want, is that people reduce their impacts out of compassion. Could compassion naturally arise, once our own life is secured? Or will jealousy and vanity keep blinding us to the impact of our deeds? Could what’s happening to the Western birth rate also happen to the consumption rate? Will we see, at some point, that we have everything?

On Saturday: Let live

Could we mix socialism with capitalism?

(This is a chapter in a 23-part essay, starting with Limits )

Photo by Karolina Grabowska

We have already acquired enough food and material to have the entire world lead a prosperous life. What we haven’t done yet, is create a global economic infrastructure that ensures that everyone gets what he or she needs. Many people still fear for their survival and security on a daily basis. But we have the resources to solve this.

In a world that is guided by ideals of liberty and brotherhood, it would make sense to carry the risks of life as a collective. This would mean that if a disaster strikes on place x, the world would automatically help the people there to get back on their feet. And if someone gets sick, everyone automatically pays the doctor. This is partially already happening. What wouldn’t make sense, is if all people would have to pay if somebody has their Lamborghini burned to the ground. In my view, there should be an insurance for all basic necessities, that comes with citizenship. Global citizenship. And I do consider free and open internet to be a basic necessity.

Let me propose the following, three-layered system, just as a thought experiment of something we could roll out globally, or with an alliance of participating countries. It’s a mixture of socialism and capitalism, and a little bit like this concept of the Doughnut economy, which I find an abominable term.

We create a socialist base of minimum resource rights and allocation to all people. A base layer where people get housing, food, internet, some educational tools and so on. No questions asked. Then, there is a layer in which people are encouraged to compete with each other for more wealth and ownership, learning and innovating as long as they aren’t harming the environment. A capitalist middle layer, to stimulate development. People are encouraged to try new things, and if they fail, they never fall deeper than the socialist baseline. But then, once a certain degree of wealth is acquired, there is a cut-off, where all further income and ownership go to taxes. Destination reached. Mission accomplished. End of the rat race. Further struggles of the individual who has reached this point, will concern truth, love and virtue only. The cut-off should be high enough for a single person to be able to live comfortably for the rest of his or her life, but not so high that he or she can afford to overtake public decision-making without losing a significant part of their power. Would something like that be a start?

I am not concerned by the question how to organise this, nor by the calculation where such cut-off points should lie exactly. It would be a system that challenges everyone. It would look at humans as beings with potential, rather than with duty. With such a system, the workplace would be a playground rather than a battle arena. Very successful companies would be stimulated to invest rather than cashing out and CEOs would naturally be more willing to pay their employees a good wage or pay in shares of the company, since they will never be able to use all the company money for themselves. It would definitely lead to more fraternity than we have now, and it would create a more diverse economy with lots of different, smaller enterprises, carried by the employees.

The idea to combine socialism with capitalism may seem radical, but you could argue that all systems are a mix to a certain degree. Workers’ rights are in their way a socialist idea, as are guaranteed pensions and healthcare, all part of the European welfare state. I believe that taxation of high incomes and property will play a role there, as well as will a certain baseline security.

The way we organise our system says much about how we look at our brothers and sisters. A system that envisions a more even distribution of its benefits while still providing opportunities to flourish matches the idea that humans are both individual and interdependent. I think such an approach would benefit a mature democracy because it expresses both trust in the people, as well as care for them. I think it would be beautiful if we could implement such ideas globally.

On Saturday, Part IV: What societal dilemmas are we facing? And: A broader need for self-limitation

What if we just plug in?

(This is a chapter in a 23-part essay, starting with Limits )

Picure by Sergey Katyshkin

Let’s take a leap and assume that Musk or somebody else will succeed in attaching the human brain to a quantum computer and create a generation of digital Ubermenschen. Let’s assume that it is possible to raise the human awareness and self-perception to a level of quantum computing calculation power. Should we do it?

In such a case, individual words would no longer be able to contain our thoughts. Our existing language structure would rapidly become obsolete, and it would need to radically change. We would instantly be in need of a completely new world view and thought structure, far transcending that of the Enlightenment. Then what would happen to the people who get left behind?

The risk here, is that we create a drastic new schism between people. Some people would not be able to afford to plug in, others would believe it takes their humanity or freedom away and not do it out of principle. Many will consider it unethical, because of religious concerns. But you could argue that plugging in would be the ultimate act of Enlightenment, an imperative to those who seek to increase the value of our knowledge. It would allow us to transcend many of our current disagreements, simply because of new shared understanding. But we would also stumble upon new disagreements. And would it be for a select few, or should everyone be able to participate?

The question of the free robot mind was first asked back in 1920, in the capitalist critique Rossum’s Universal Robots by Karel Čapek. Today, our thinking on mechanisms to create an actual virtual mind has made enormous progress with Neuralink as a prime example. Popular media culture explores the possibilities in new ways, featuring parallel digital universes. The dystopian game Cyberpunk 2077 explores the concept of enhancing both body and mind for warfare purposes, raising questions about soul, identity and hacking each-others’ minds. Westworld, the HBO-series gets extremely sci-fi on our capabilities, illustrating how a new, digital world order could look. It creates a highly predictable and controllable world where everything is connected through a tight web of causes and consequences. Her does a very good job in creating a tangible computer mind that emotionally empathizes with humans, then gracefully transcends it. Most of us never believed this was a possibility. But technology today is awfully close. There’s a scenario in which the future internet is swarming with raving minds, each taking their stake of control. We should take it seriously, because this might come faster than we expect.

We have the option to make it illegal. That might not stop some underground organisations from developing the technology further and using it to their advantage, for example by populating the internet with minds. It could become like a drug that more and more people want to try to experience entirely new levels of freedom. It may sound serious now, but the younger generations would see it as an amazing game. Doing it the illegal way will, in my view, be more harmful than good.

Thus, I think it’s wiser to open the conversation and think about how to regulate this in an ethical way. I’ll give some thoughts about this in Considering plugin ethics, in part IV of this article. Because I really think this could become an option we’ll have to face pretty soon and ignoring it because of other important contemporary developments would be a monumental mistake.

Tomorrow: Could we mix socialism with capitalism?

How shall we treat free will?

(This is a chapter in a longer essay, starting with Limits )

Photo by Engin Akyurt

Philosophers have long broken their heads over the topic if free will exists or not. Liberty was one of the central ideals of the Age of Enlightenment and is still a guiding principle of our society. Kant’s ideas, for one, layed the foundations of liberalism and the way we look at ourselves. The notion of the free will is also at the heart of the free-market economy and the capitalist system as a whole. It defines who we punish and who we reward and it determines how we judge each other.

But science, or at least the deterministic branch of science, has popularized the notion that the universe could be a clockwork with ultimate causes that, together, define our next action. It suggests that free will does not exist. We can hear this echo in societal debates: what if Facebook manipulates us so deeply, that it starts altering our behaviour? How many data do you need to fully control somebody’s mind?

The funny thing here is, that fundamental physicists don’t really debate the matter of determinism because they have deemed it false already for decades. They say that even if you know the state and the motion of the entire universe, you can still not predict what happens next, because some particles are unpredictable by nature. You can calculate probabilities, but not be certain. According to that theory, free will could potentially exist.

Imagine a society that fully rejects the concept of free will. Judgment would be irrational. A murderer would be as much victim as culprit. Responsibility for your choices would be completely out of your hands. Little rascals would be seen as an unfortunate force of nature. In that society morality itself would have no meaning. We’d lock people up for pragmatic reasons only, to avoid them from damaging society further. We need to believe in some degree of individual free will, because it confronts us with our agency and responsibility. Free will gives us accountability of our actions and it gives us meaning in life.

On the other end of that spectrum, there is the equally dubious idea that free will is absolute and everything happening to you is your own responsibility. My generation was raised with that idea: you can become anything you like. But we’re learning the hard way that that is not the case. The full-free-will-idea ignores the fact that people aren’t born under the same conditions, with the same talents or with the same capacities. It classifies all achievements as merits, perceiving rich people as those who made the right choices, while poor people did things wrong. The sick should blame themselves for not making healthy choices. The voices of Black Lives Matter and the increased call for nationalist protectionism are reminding us once again that this vision is incomplete. There are plenty of people who, for whatever reason, are not able to reach the same degree of success in society as others. Not everything can be made, and such people also deserve a decent piece of the pie.

The concept of free will is not black and white, and you will always keep finding deeper and deeper nuances to this problem. By definition, society should always look for a balance between individual choice on the one hand and regulation on the other. Personally, I think the idea of free will, human rights and liberty remain a great guidance for our societal structure because it values the individual. But I also think we can’t be naive here. We should be more understanding of the limitations of free will than we have publically admitted for decades. Most of our personal achievements in the West, we achieve because the system hands them to us over the backs of others. We can be humbler and distribute the benefits of our collective achievements more evenly. That starts with understanding.

Tomorrow: What if we just plug in?

Can the unknown be our common ground?

(This is a chapter in a 22-part essay, called Limits )

If we take an honest look at our beliefs, whether we are a scientist, an atheïst a Buddhist, a Jew, a Muslim, a Christian a new ager or of any other belief or spirituality, we must all admit one thing. Ultimately, we have no clue where we come from or where we are going. This is in the very nature of the way we experience life. We seem to go from the past, through the now, towards the future, but we can’t be sure of that. We can’t be sure that time ever started, we can’t be sure there is a Christian god, Allah, Dao or unspeakable god, we can’t be sure how such an entity would look or what its properties would be. All ontologies and stories of creation are riddled with paradoxes.

If our soul has chosen to inhabit our bodies, who has chosen to inhabit our soul? If god created us, who created god? If the big bang is the ultimate cause of everything, what has caused the big bang? These are questions children of 4 years old ask, but older people forget, while ignoring that no one ever satisfactorily answered them.

The argument “it’s written in the sacred text” is not honest. Sacred text is still text, thus still somehow a translation from something divine into something physical. A language, with a limited structure. If you’d read a sacred text, assuming that you’re a human being, you’d still not be able to interpret it in the same way an unlimited god would. This is, I believe, where the friction with religions starts. To be able to understand the word of god that is unique to your religion, you have to assume that you are somehow special. That you are able to hear whispers that others can’t. You have to somehow assume that you have a divine side which can speak to your non-divine side and be fully understood. This puts you above those who do not. That is a great feeling, but it doesn’t fit with the ideal of loving your brothers and sisters. It’s the ultimate paradox that any spiritual, or religious person has to face within him- or her- or xerself.

This false sense of certainty is not limited to religious people, it applies to atheists as well. After all: how can you be sure that god, the soul or a higher meaning don’t exist, if your mind cannot even figure out the basic questions of life? How can we be sure that the notion of a “nature of existence” or an “origin” even exists at all? Surely, we can agree that many of the mechanics of life have been figured out in a very solid way, but the substance these mechanics are built on, remains a complete enigma.

If philosophers like Heraclitus and the Enlightenment philosophers assumed that the world can be known through the use of reason, we can today reason, and empirically demonstrate that the are probably wrong. We have shown, using reason, that reality itself sometimes defies basic cause-consequence reasoning. But that doesn’t mean we haven’t learned a great deal of things while trying to figure out our day-to-day reality. Indeed, we have constructed a highly technical society and acquired a great deal of power. The Enlightenment has brought us that. But it has also brought a new kind of arrogance and self-satisfaction which is not fundamentally based on knowledge, but on the illusion of understanding. This illusion has to be known and accepted just like spiritual and religious illusions have to be accepted. The truth is: we are really very small, we know extremely little and with our current thought structure, it is very unlikely that we will ever fully understand anything.

Modern science started with Decartes’ “I doubt, therefore I think, I think, therefore I am”. In my view, it’s time that we all went back to that insight. Could we build society on the notion that in fact, we just don’t know? Could we acknowledge that our image of history has been shaped by limited human minds, overlooking tons and tons of essential information, remembering just what stood out to us? Could we, as a collective, global people, accept that we haven’t even been here for very long and missed a far too much of history to be able to really say anything wise at all? Could we see that everything we think we know, is both built up of unknowns and embedded in bigger unknowns? And most of all, could we teach our children not feel ashamed about that? Can we teach kids to embrace the unknown and be liberated by it? Can we wear our ignorance with pride?

Our language itself is barrier here. This video on weird languages gives you a sense of what I mean. Language is a continuous, active attempt at organizing reality and getting a grasp on it. Our languages have been carved into our beings. Language gives us control, both as an individual, trying to deal with life, and as a societal leader, giving out orders and deciding on directions. Languages have evolved to suit our intelligence and serve our needs. But the structure of our languages, the words that exist and those that do not, colour the way we see and experience everything. What we see, through our language, is a world of knowns. What we don’t see, is the equally present world of unknowns.

It’s not new for societies to have to face the unknown. We’ve lived at the mercy of the gods for ages. But who has ever prayed to the god of doubt? To many, gods and society have functioned as a remedy to doubt. Beautiful stories about what happens after death, kept us calm for thousands of years. You could almost say that culture itself is a way to deal with uncertainty. To take control. And it should remain so. But instead of being forced to face the unknown as our fate, we can gracefully choose to give it a presence in our lives.

Uncertainty is not a reason for politicians to do whatever they want, it’s a reason to open up and show which dilemmas they face. Uncertainty is not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength. It shouldn’t be a reason to stop moving, merely a reason to be attentive to your movements. Because despite all things we’ve been taught, things will never go the way we think they will. Uncertainty is just that. Uncertainty. It’s deeply rooted in society, so let’s acknowledge it. Let’s share and celebrate our uncertainty. It’ll help us face the centuries ahead as a united planetary species.

Tomorrow: How shall we treat free will?

Playing mind games with Soul