Ian McEwan - 'We know perfectly well how to be good'
1. You spent part of your childhood in Libya – what was it about the culture there that you remember with intrigue and fondness?
I was between the ages of six and eleven, and barely aware that the presence of Italians, British and Americans in Libya comprised a fading colonial presence. I was somewhat cocooned within the various establishments of the British Army, including primary school and certain restricted beaches. But I remember how deeply ingrained Islam was in daily life, so much so that it was barely discussed. Its outward manifestations were immense courtesy to strangers, a reticence and formality that made a great impression on me. Here’s an example.
As a child, I roamed far more freely than children do today. I remember at the age of eight, when our family lived in the country on a peanut farm, and I set out to walk to my friend’s house in a military encampment a couple of miles away. I had to squeeze through a gap in a cactus hedge to get onto a narrow sandy lane. Naturally, when I walked home some hours later, I couldn’t find that gap. I ended up in a eucalyptus wood.
An Arab teenager was about to do me some violence when an old man from the village showed up and rescued me. He walked with me to a roadside shack where he borrowed a bike. I sat on the handlebars as he rode me home. When we got there, I thanked him by emptying my piggy-bank. He refused and made a courtly staying gesture with his hand and gave a slight bow.
2. You have been a vocal critic of extremism in its many guises – is there any element of education or experience that, in your view, seems to act as a brake on developing extremist views?
I maintain great respect for the effects of a liberal education in the humanities and sciences. Partly, a wide-ranging education gives one a proper measure of the depth of one’s own ignorance, of the brilliance of certain other minds, of how hard it is to describe accurately and comprehend the physical and natural world, and of how it is to co-exist within a plurality of views. But that’s not a complete answer. Acts of terror or tyranny have been committed by intellectuals (Lenin is a case in point). Some people find it much harder than others to revise their views in the light of new evidence. This is a matter of innate personality. It’s a spectrum we must all live on. For that reason, I don’t believe extreme ideologies could ever be eradicated by universally available high quality education – but they could be significantly diminished.
3. In your latest novel Machines Like Me you posit an alternative 1980s to make serious points about A.I. and what it means to be human. We all have lots to teach machines no doubt, but do they have anything to teach us?
All our religions, philosophies, literatures and even our idle gossip show us that we know perfectly well how to be good. The problem is always in the enactment. It’s possible that we will one day devise artificial humans and fill them with our best moral precepts, our dreams of our idealised selves. Such machines will not be troubled by our common cognitive defects – self-persuasion, special pleading, confirmation biases etc. So they might, in practice, be our moral superiors. That could infuriate us! Of course, the reverse prospect could be realised when military planners devise artificial soldiers with spectacular capacities for violence and cruelty. This future is in our hands. But we won’t be around to see it.