While I was on vacation I read Singularity by Steven James. I don’t read much fiction. As a matter of fact Steven James is the only fiction writer I follow with regularity. He not only writes a great story but he often weaves several thought provoking elements into the story. In this most recent book he engages with the topic of artificial intelligence in a very compelling manner. But one passage in particular caught my interest and reminded me of Blaise Pascal’s classic Pensées. In Singularity we find that Emilio, a friend of the main character Jevin Banks, has been killed. After a futile race after the killer; Jevin returns and looks down on Emilio’s corpse. We pick up the story here. I’ve put in bold the part I want to focus on.
“I arrive at the corpse and stand for a moment looking down at the sheet covering his body. It strikes me that we cover the dead, we treat them with respect, not for their sake but for ours. We extend reverence to corpses in an attempt to affirm the value of our own lives and to mask the stark truth of our own mortality.
After all, if we just treated our dead like the skin-encased sacks of blood and bones and soon-to-be-rotten meat that they are, we would feel that—apart from the breath that separates us—we’re as finite and susceptible to the grim reaper as they were. And that’s just too terrifying a thought.
So we distract ourselves, divert our attention from all that, cover up the truth beneath the frantic, stifling busyness of our brief and worried days. If I were a devil trying to tempt people to squander their lives, I would simply keep them buried in urgency and obsessed with trivialities; otherwise they might just take the time to reflect on life and death and eternity and wake up to the things that matter most.” (43)
Now consider these words from Pascal written some 350 years ago.
“The only thing that consoles us for our miseries is diversion. And yet it is the greatest of our miseries. For it is that above all which prevents us from thinking about ourselves and leads us imperceptibly to destruction. But for what we should be bored, and boredom would drive us to seek some more solid means of escape, but diversion passes our time and brings us imperceptibly to death.” (Page references are to the 1966 Penguin edition. 148)
“Man is so unhappy that he would be bored even if he had no cause for boredom, by the very nature of his temperament, and he is so vain that, though he has a thousand and one basic reasons for being bored, the slightest thing, like pushing a ball with a billiard cue, will be enough to divert him.” (70)
Pascal says that this kind of lifestyle reflects the desire “to annihilate eternity by keeping [our] minds off it, concerned solely with attaining instant happiness.” (161)
It’s something to think about.