Monthly Archives: October 2014

Orders of Doom

The Ant and the Grasshopper

The Ant knew that food would be hard to come by in the winter, so one hot summer day, as the Grasshopper frittered away the day leaping and dancing and making merry, the ant thought of nothing but gathering food for the hive. It even hoped to save enough food for the Grasshopper, who was not responsible for an upbringing and genetic makeup that gave it insufficient Conscientiousness.

The Ant focused so completely on gathering food, making its route more efficient, carrying the most efficient load possible, that it missed the shadow that fell over it mid-afternoon. The Anteater's tongue sprung out to carry the Ant to a waiting, hungry mouth. The Ant was delicious.

Meanwhile, a Black Swan ate the Grasshopper. The Grasshopper was even more delicious, having feasted on a variety of treats during its short but pleasant life.

-Not Aesop's Fables

I'm trying to figure out what the important problems are in the world so that I can figure out what I should do about it. But there are a few very different ways the world could be. Depending on which is the case, I might want to do very different things to save the world. This is an enumeration of the cases I've thought of so far.

I'll start with existential risks, because they have the potential to affect the largest number of people.

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An Appointment With Death

A few months ago, I had an appointment on my calendar marked "Death". A friend had asked me earlier for help figuring out why she was afraid of death. At first I thought that surely philosophers must have addressed this question, so with my education I ought to be able to provide something relevant and illuminating. But all I could think of was attempts to cure the fear of death, not attempts to explain it.

When I asked my former classmates, they had the same problem. Unless our memories are defective, or unless we simply aren't as widely read as we think, this is an embarrassment for philosophy, a failure to be curious about a fundamental question. I asked a librarian friend for help, and she turned up some resources, but these were mostly empirical in nature - descriptions of how fear of death is expressed in our and others' cultures, not a causal explanation of why we fear it.

So I used the last tool in my box. I offered to ask her some clarifying questions and engage in dialogue for an hour. By the end, my thinking on death was clearer too, and I realized that a true understanding of how to think about one's own death ought to involve answers to these questions:

  • Should I expect to die?
  • How should I compare being dead with being alive?

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The Meaning of Kol Nidre

Today is Yom Kippur, the last of the ten Days of Awe. The Days of Awe begin with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, the day on which judgments are inscribed in to the Book of Life. Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement and the Day of Judgment, the last chance to repent for the sins of the prior year before the Book of Life is sealed and your judgment is finalized.

In Jewish law there's something called a Neder, which is a vow any Jew can swear, promising to do anything, that thereby becomes a divine law. This is important because it allows you to take a voluntary act of dedication and consecrate it into a commanded act. (In Judaism, fulfilling obligations gives you more points than doing superfluous stuff.)

In practice this can be disastrous. There's a carefully worked out legal framework to make sure the received commandments are not onerous, but you can say anything and make it a Neder. This is dramatized in the Book of Judges, with the story of Jephthah:

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