Aren’t We in the Dark Ages?

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Macro / philosophy

Conquest is not the victory itself; but the acquisition, by victory, of a right over the persons of men.

He therefore that is slain is overcome, but not conquered: he that is taken and put into prison or chains is not conquered, though overcome; for he is still an enemy”

Thomas Hobbes, The Leviathan

Everyday we’re bombarded by the notion that this is the best time to be alive. Indeed, medieval life was as “nasty, brutish, and short” as Hobbes claimed.

We can expect to live longer, healthier lives without much help from the biotech community and have an abundance of cheap entertainment and technology. On paper, the world is doing well; in reality, the story is more nuanced than it seems.

“Do you know what the leading causes of death in the U.S. are?” Lieberman replied. After heart disease comes cancer. The third is medical error.

As [he points] out, the health care industry heavily markets its own importance and pushes treating illness over preventing it with lifestyle modification. And humans are lazy; it’s easier to take pills than exercise.

Does Medicine Actually Make People Live Longer?


What gets measured gets managed; inversely, we can never optimize what we can’t see. Let’s not pretend that modern life is a utopia: rates of mental illness are at record highs, mass shootings – though rare – are increasing, and we are clueless in our methods of tackling mass extinction events like incoming asteroids or climate change. The chance of a black swan event curtailing and even wiping out all of humanity is greater than ever. Further, our basic systems like infrastructure, healthcare, and education are all degrading annually while we spend more on them as a percentage of GDP annually. Our future is looking deeply like our short and brutish past.

Sure, economic progress has been vast – the last century has seen 2 billion people escape poverty. But our progress in one area of progress has resulted in untold negative externalities in other ways. It is hard to say that we have readily changed morally or philosophically than our early ancestors. Humans are forced to walk the hedonic treadmill – we’re full of divine discontent.

One answer to our paradoxical times is that we’re in a second era of a dark age? To discuss this, it helps to understand the conditions of the first.

In [the middle ages] there was a great wonder and mystery in life. Man walked in fear and solemnity, with Heaven very close above his head, and Hell below his very feet. God’s visible hand was everywhere, in the rainbow and the comet, in the thunder and the wind.

The Devil, too, raged openly upon the earth; he skulked behind the hedgerows in the gloaming; he laughed loudly in the night-time; he clawed the dying sinner, pounced on the ­unbaptized babe, and twisted the limbs of the epileptic.”

Arthur Conan Doyle, Sir Nigel

To those of years past, the devil represented the unknown; wars, plagues, and famine would be called “acts of God.” Today, we look at the dark ages as a period of general ignorance. We might have more knowledge about how the universe works today; but, we lack the means in order to tackle these concepts. The 20th century advanced us scientifically but philosophical progress has come to a halt. This has caused pessimism even in once notably optimistic places like New York and many decades ago, London. If people don’t believe in religion nor increasingly in science, what can they believe in?

Dostoyevsky alluded to the notion in his novel, The Brothers Karamazov, that people must worship something whether it’s money, fame, or religion. Today, the reverberating cry across the West has been nationalism. Like a Phoenix, it returns when people are lost about their futures. Although it was once “put into prison or chains” as Hobbes said, it was never conquered and thus is still an enemy to some degree. People believe that banding together against immigrants will provide some certainty over their futures. That won’t be the case, the 21st century is the story of how humans will deal with technology rather than with people.

“The twentieth century was great and terrible, and the twenty-first century promises to be far greater and more terrible.”

Peter Thiel

The Author

Some musings about tech + philosophy + econ.

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