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Touching the Old

11 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 20 July 2008 09:19AM

I'm in Oxford right now, for the Global Catastrophic Risks conference.

There's a psychological impact in walking down a street where where any given building might be older than your whole country.

Toby Ord and Anders Sandberg pointed out to me an old church tower in Oxford, that is a thousand years old.

At the risk conference I heard a talk from someone talking about what the universe will look like in 10100 years (barring intelligent modification thereof, which he didn't consider).

The psychological impact of seeing that old church tower was greater.  I'm not defending this reaction, only admitting it.

I haven't traveled as much as I would travel if I were free to follow my whims; I've never seen the Pyramids.  I don't think I've ever touched anything that has endured in the world for longer than that church tower.

A thousand years...  I've lived less than half of 70, and sometimes it seems like a long time to me.  What would it be like, to be as old as that tower?  To have lasted through that much of the world, that much history and that much change?

Transhumanism does scare me.  I shouldn't wonder if it scares me more than it scares arch-luddites like Leon Kass.  Kass doesn't take it seriously; he doesn't expect to live that long.

Yet I know - and I doubt the thought ever occurred to Kass - that even if something scares you, you can still have the courage to confront it.  Even time.  Even life.

But sometimes it's such a strange thought that our world really is that old.

The inverse failure of the logical fallacy of generalization from fictional evidence, is failure to generalize from things that actually happened.  We see movies, and in the ancestral environment, what you saw with your own eyes was real; we have to avoid treating them as available examples.

Conversely, history books seem like writing on paper - but those are things that really happened, even if we hear about them selectively.  What happened there was as real to the people who lived it, as your own life, and equally evidence.

Sometimes it's such a strange thought that the people in the history books really lived and experienced and died - that there's so much more depth to history than anything I've seen with my own eyes; so much more life than anything I've lived.

Comments (32)

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Comment author: Tom_McCabe2 20 July 2008 09:27:59AM 0 points [-]

"I don't think I've ever touched anything that has endured in the world for longer than that church tower."

Nitpick: This probably holds true for things of human construction, but there are obviously rocks, bits of dirt, etc. that have endured for far longer than a thousand years.

Comment author: Ian_C. 20 July 2008 09:36:39AM 1 point [-]

I also find it helpful to think that evolution works on timescales much greater than 1000 years, so the people that built that church tower were just as smart as us. i.e. they weren't stupid savages, they were just low tech versions of us.

Comment author: billswift 20 July 2008 12:35:38PM 0 points [-]

"There is no excuse for anyone who is not illiterate who is less than three thousand years old in mind."

Quote, from memory but should be very close, from B H Liddell-Hart, "Why Don't We Learn from History?"

Comment author: michael_vassar3 20 July 2008 01:31:24PM 2 points [-]

Eliezer: Don't you live in a town called "Redwood". Aren't half the trees around your home older than that church tower? I'm surprised you never went to Israel as a kid.

Still, traveling to Oxford last summer did touch me in that manner as well. Even more so Greece, which I identified with far more strongly than with Israel. Strangely, the movie "Pan's Labyrinth" also produces that effect very nicely.

Comment author: Alan_Crowe 20 July 2008 02:14:18PM 0 points [-]

The interesting question is "What would it be like if we lived for 700 years instead of 70 years?". This is more interesting than contemplating immortality because it pries open the issue of scaling. What changes by a factor of 10? What changes by a factor of 100? What changes by a factor of 3.162?

Presumably acient towers get a straight ten times less impressive.

Speed limits would be set much lower. You lose ten times as much when you die in a car accident so you would be willing to spend more time on your journey to avoid that.

An academic could go into his subject ten times as deeply, or study ten different subjects. A longer life raised interesting questions about the depth versus breadth trade-off.

Proportional scaling suggests that we would study history ten times as long, but would we? We might no longer feel the need, because we would have so much more personal experience. Oppositely we might feel that we will have to live with the consequences of avoidable error for so much longer that we were willing to spend a greater proportion of our time learning the lessons of history.

Comment author: s.e.d. 20 July 2008 02:34:44PM 0 points [-]

Aside from the pretty well established benefits of having accurate historical information, is there anything about an appreciation of deep-time that is useful to us in the present? Is there something about the humbling experience of becoming aware of our temporal smallness that actually makes us better in some way, right now?

More specifically, are we really more apt to appreciate our piece of time if we are made aware of how relatively short it is? Or is "looking at old stuff" one of those events that gives us strange pleasure, but effects no real cognitive change? Humility without change is pride in disguise. I think someone said that once. If not, consider it coined.

Comment author: Daniel_Burfoot 20 July 2008 03:26:00PM 1 point [-]

"You could see the chisel marks in the stone. It was hewed out of solid rock and it was about six foot long and maybe a foot and a half wide and about that deep. Just chiseled out of the rock. And I got to thinkin about the man that done that. That country had not had a time of peace much of any length at all that I knew of. I've read a little of the history of it since and I aint sure it ever had one. But this man had set down with a hammer and chisel and carved out a stone water trough to last ten thousand years. Why was that? What was it that he had faith in? It wasnt that nothin would change. Which is what you might think, I suppose. He had to know bettern that. . . . And I have to say that the only thing I can think is that there was some sort of promise in his heart. And I dont have no intentions of carvin a stone water trough. But I would like to be able to make that kind of promise."

-- Cormac McCarthy, "No Country for Old Men"

Comment author: Lara_Foster 20 July 2008 03:29:43PM 0 points [-]

Mystical experiences- I'm slightly afraid that if I post this, I will never again be taken seriously. I don't think I actually believe in reincarnation or the persistence of a soul outside of a body. I always say I do not, and all evidence suggests this is the case.

But very strange recent experience. Have you ever met someone who you felt you had known your entire life? What if that person told you that you were an ancient soul and they knew you in a past life, and then started recounting pieces of it. What if, somehow, it all seemed to make sense and you thought, in spite of yourself, 'Yes, I did that, yes, that is me...'

This human brain is a very tricky piece of work to deal with. That it can do *that*, or that other people with skill can do *that* to you, is quite remarkable. Living for millions of years? Well, lets see how we handle it... Bring it on.

Comment author: Fly2 20 July 2008 03:56:58PM 2 points [-]

Memories decay exponentially. This occurs both over time and over number of items to remember. Also, remembering requires brain attention. The vast majority of memories in a brain will never be activated sufficiently for conscious awareness. As memories accumulate, the fraction we actively access decreases.

The human mind is a flashlight that dimly illuminates the path behind. Moving forward, we lose sight of where we've been. Living a thousand years wouldn't make that flashlight any brighter.

Comment author: Matthew_C.2 20 July 2008 05:07:33PM -1 points [-]

I always say I do not, and all evidence suggests this is the case.

Actually there is an enormous amount of evidence that consciousness can sometimes temporarily be disassociated from the body, however this evidence is extremely disconcerting for committed reductionist materialists who therefore dismiss, ignore, and minimize it, and impugn those who research it, and associate it all with people like Shirley MacClain and Deepak Chopra.

I don't personally like the term "soul" as it seems to bring too many assumptions to bear. But for those who are willing to entertain questions instead of assuming they already have the right answers, there is some very interesting data out there. . .

Comment author: Matthew_C.2 20 July 2008 05:19:15PM 0 points [-]

Memories decay exponentially. This occurs both over time and over number of items to remember.

That is a popular model, but one I find does not match my own experience of memory at all.

Sometimes just a particular smell is able to bring back a memory from decades ago of a small and insignificant happening that I haven't recalled for many years.

Certainly there are some individuals who absolutely do not fit into your characterization, and there is a lot of reason to suspect that the rest of us also can have access to that kind of remembering.

Comment author: billswift 20 July 2008 05:46:30PM 1 point [-]

As far as the usefulness of history, another quote (or close to it) from Liddell-Hart, " `History is universal experience' - the experience not of another but of many others under manifold conditions."

Comment author: Chris_Hibbert 20 July 2008 05:49:04PM 0 points [-]

I've traveled in Europe, and seen remnants of the roman roads, walls and viaducts. One of the .sigs I use most often is this:

C. J. Cherryh, "Invader", on why we visit very old buildings: "A sense of age, of profound truths. Respect for something hands made, that's stood through storms and wars and time. It persuades us that things we do may last and matter."

Comment author: Unknown 20 July 2008 06:22:49PM 1 point [-]

I've touched things a few thousand years old. But I think I get more psychological effect from just looking at a bird, for example, and thinking of its ancestors flying around in the time of the dinosaurs.

Comment author: Vishal_Lama 20 July 2008 07:17:50PM 0 points [-]

Sometimes it's such a strange thought that the people in the history books really lived and experienced and died - that there's so much more depth to history than anything I've seen with my own eyes; so much more life than anything I've lived.

A few days ago, I watched a program on Discovery Channel (I think) that was about the ancient Egyptian Civilization, its rise and fall over a period of several thousand years. And I experienced exactly the same thing! It is so remarkable and astonishing to "see" and know about people who were not only "different" from us but actually thrived on this planet a long time ago. And, it is amazing to imagine that five thousand years hence, people on Earth will actually look back at our time and be amazed by how we lived! That feeling/emotion is a profound one, to say the least!

Comment author: AndyWood 20 July 2008 07:40:39PM 0 points [-]

I experienced the same thing when I went to the UK. I was also palpably struck by the fact that whole other cultures and societies are evolving in parallel with ours, on the other side of the world.

Comment author: MZ 20 July 2008 07:46:42PM 0 points [-]

The story you describe is called a spiritual experience. Atheists can have them too.

"[O]ur existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness." -- Vladimir Nabokov

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 20 July 2008 07:50:00PM 4 points [-]

I'm surprised you never went to Israel as a kid.

Blink.

You're right! I've touched the Kotel (Wailing Wall) and didn't feel anything, either because it was just some damned Jewish thing, or I was too young at the time to feel history. Completely slipped my mind.

Maybe also because the Kotel is a ruin, and that church tower is intact - which feels like it really does count for something.

Trees don't count at all, they're not human things.

Comment author: Roland2 20 July 2008 08:26:11PM 0 points [-]

I can't believe no one wrote those two quotes yet:

"Those who don't learn from history are damned to repeat it."

"What we learn from history is that people don't learn from history."

Comment author: Tim_Tyler 20 July 2008 08:40:30PM 0 points [-]

Consciousness is disassociated from the body on a nightly basis. Such disassociation can also be produced by drugs. AFAIK, enthusiasts for reductionism and materialism do not regard these phenomena as being particularly problematical.

Comment author: Jeff2 20 July 2008 09:16:05PM 0 points [-]

Fly: "The human mind is a flashlight that dimly illuminates the path behind. Moving forward, we lose sight of where we've been. Living a thousand years wouldn't make that flashlight any brighter."

But technology that lets us live a thousand years should also help us cast a little more light.

--Jeff

Comment author: Hopefully_Anonymous 20 July 2008 10:31:06PM 0 points [-]

Oxford is a little different than the Wailing Wall, it's one of the world's earliest universities, and its been one of the world's great universities for centuries. Eliezer, you would love Florence. In England and in other old countries, I'm most impressed by ancient pubs. One can see how an important church or castle can remain for centuries. But for a little old pub to eek it out for that long, there's something special about that, IMO.

Comment author: Alan4 21 July 2008 02:36:04AM 0 points [-]

"We must welcome the future, remembering that soon it will be the past; and we must respect the past, remembering that it was once all that was humanly possible” ~ George Santayana

Comment author: yes 21 July 2008 02:59:56AM 1 point [-]

good. I was afraid this post was a confession about elder abuse

Comment author: Lara_Foster 21 July 2008 05:10:42AM 0 points [-]

(Sorta a poetry dump- but eh- seemed appropriate. Take it down if not so.)

Keats Quotes, 1821: Oh won't the zombie Keats be surprised to wake up!

"I have but two luxuries to brood over: Your Lovliness, and the hour of my Death."

"...Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness, Thou foster-child of silence and slow time, Sylvan historian, who canst thou express A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme: ... O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede Of marble men and maidens overwrought, With forest branches and the trodden weed; Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral! When old age shall this generation waste, Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st, 'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,' - that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

"...But with a sweet forgetting, They stay their crystal fretting, Never, never petting About the frozen time. Ah! would 'twere so with many A gentle girl and boy! But were there ever any Writhed not of passed joy? The feel of not to feel it, When there is none to heal it, Nor numbed sense to steel it, Was never said in ryme."

"...Though one moment's pleasure In one moment flies, Though the passion's treasure In one moment dies; Yet it has not passed- Think how near, how near! And while it doth last, Think how dear, how dear! Hither, hither, hither, Love this boon has sent- If I die and whither I shall die content."

"...Still so pale? then, dearest, weep- Weep, I'll count the tears, And each one shall be a bliss For thee in after years Brighter has it left thine eyes Than a sunny rill; And thy whispering melodies Are tenderer still. Yet--as all things mourn awhile At fleeting blisses, E'en let us too! but be our dirge A dirge of kisses."

"...And think that I may never live to trace Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance; And when I feel, fair creature of an hour! That I shall never look upon thee more, Never have relish in the power Of unreflecting love!--Then on the shore Of the wide world I stand alone and think Till love an fame to nothingness do sink."

Comment author: Lara_Foster 21 July 2008 04:10:46PM 0 points [-]

Since you didn't take down the last one... A modern poet, Don Mclean, Falling Through Time: I can't answer the questions you ask me, I don't know what to say. The answers are somewhere lost in the stars when the night has turned to day. But I know if the silence of night could be here, It would drift through my soul and calm all my fear And I could reach out and draw you so near to me

Touch me and warm me and I will lie still. And all that you ask me to give you I will One living moment we'll have for our own. A brief flash of time that we spent unalone. But you ask me for nothing and give what you can And we're wrapped in a pillow of sleep once again And my memory drifts through the universe when we are one

Closely we're falling through time

And the earth will turn in the silence of space, always in motion yet always in place And all things will change yet remain what they are. And far will be near and near will be far And the ages will darken and blend into time And all that is poetry will no longer rhyme But our moment together is forever sublime

For the time has arrived when we must understand That we're lost in a void on this sad speck of sand And nobody knows where we are, no one cares And the tears that we shed in the dark no one cares And the madmen who plunder this world for their fame Have forgotten that no one remembers their name But time and the universe are always the same

Closely we're falling through time

Comment author: Q_the_Enchanter 21 July 2008 04:52:53PM 0 points [-]

I lived in Regensburg, Germany for awhile, in which there is a hunk of stone wall that dates back to just after the time of Christ. If I recall, it wasn't far from a McDonald's.

Comment author: steven 21 July 2008 06:24:17PM 0 points [-]

200-year old buildings don't feel philosophically different from 2000-year old buildings to me. I have however sometimes found it thought-provoking to be in places where ~nothing was more than 50 years old; it's odd living in a completely different world than your ancestors.

Comment author: Mark6 21 July 2008 08:42:46PM 0 points [-]

I can't address the interesting philosophical questions raised by this post and the comments. What I can say is go to the Turf Tavern before you leave Oxford. I will say no more. Go.

Comment author: Doug_S. 22 July 2008 02:39:24AM 0 points [-]

Random question:

The Pyramids were once covered with beautiful polished marble. Since then, they have been the victim of vandals and others looking for construction material. Many other ancient monuments have experienced significant damage as a result of both natural events (earthquakes, etc.) and human greed.

In principle, we could repair these monuments. Ignoring, for the moment, the costs of doing so, would it be better to restore them to the state they were in when they were built, or leave them as they are?

Comment author: Lara_Foster 22 July 2008 03:56:16PM 0 points [-]

Thoughts on growing up/older/maturing/changing:

Someone once said to me, "But you are far too young to have ever experienced true love. You need your heart broken a good seven to ten times before you can actually appreciate a real lover. Few people under forty know what I'm talking about... maybe in another two or three decades you'll get the point."

Interestingly, Keats was only two years older than me when he died. Did Keats love?

Comparing my two current favorite poets, Keats and Yeats is quite interesting. Yeats lived into his 80s and loved *many* women, Keats his mere 20s and only claims true love with one (his Fanny). Yeats' early poetry is in many ways similar to Keats's in its abandon, though not it's sheer sorrow (Keats was dying), while his middle-aged poetry is much more mature and reflective. Moving onto his later stuff is just horribly depressing... What a beautiful man to become such a bitter old cynic... Age and The Ages will indeed change us... Lets hope we can figure out how to stay young...

Comment author: [deleted] 30 September 2013 03:08:23PM 0 points [-]

I've lived in Europe my entire life (minus two weeks and a half) and I still get feelings like that once in a while.