The Meta-Human Condition

Consider these points:

  1. Our entire life stories are fixed by our genetics and our childhood environment (nature and nurture, more broadly), both of which we did not choose;
  2. Our bodies are slowly growing more frail and debilitated until we die of something such as heart disease, cancer or stroke (or accident before then);
  3. Even if someone develops a cure for aging, most of the experts who have studied the issue estimate about a 50/50 chance that our species will survive this century;
  4. We live on a giant rotating planet, in an unimaginably large universe that is almost all empty space, and appears to be lifeless;
  5. The fact that we were designed by evolution to value or desire certain things doesn’t seem to justify actually valuing or desiring them;
  6. While most people believe in some sort of religion that provides cosmic context, the thousands of religions contradict each other, and all appear to be fictions created by men;
  7. While most people believe in an “afterlife,” people don’t believe that parts of a crazy person’s mind go to Heaven when he loses them; by extrapolation, all of a person’s mind doesn’t go to Heaven when you lose all of it.

My point is not to push these beliefs onto anyone who resists them.  I suspect, though, that most OB readers already think they are facts.  And I suspect that many otherwise religious people, in their heart of hearts, already believe the above too.

My point, instead, is to make an observation about the above set of facts, which I’ll call “the human condition,” in the pessimistic sense.  My observation is this: while all of the above facts can be considered an insult or injury, there is one more that goes largely unnoticed.  The final insult is that we are not supposed to talk about the human condition.  Indeed, we are not even supposed to acknowledge its existence.  I call this last insult the “Meta-Human Condition”—the salt in the wound.

Many would question whether the Meta-Human Condition is salt in the wound.  They regard the silence as good instead of bad.

I think it’s bad.  My inclination is not based on a Kantian duty to tell the truth.  I’m a consequentialist.  I would gladly lie, or torture, if necessary, to bring about a greater good.  Putting aside Cypher’s betrayal of his friends in the Matrix, he seems right to say that “ignorance is bliss.”  If the human condition is really as dire as I say it is, is it a good idea to rub people’s noses in it?  You might say: let us at least enjoy the food, movies, sex, books, travel and people here, while we are briefly alive, without spoiling our fun.

While the main reason for the Meta-Human Condition may be wishful thinking, another main reason is concern about law and order.  Some ask: if God does not exist, then is everything permitted?  Steven Pinker rightly notes that, contrary to liberal fantasies about noble savages, banks will be robbed hours after the police go on strike.

Still, I think we should point out the human condition.

Some of my motivation for doing so is selfish.  First, I think I’m better-than-average at identifying wishful thinking.  So whenever I see it, I point it out.  I’m just showing off.  People see me do it, and think (I hope) “wow, he’s right, those people just believe X because they want X to be true, and not because X is true.”  Of course, this only impresses the people who already agree with me.  Nobody likes the guy who bursts their bubble.

Second, I want empathy, sympathy, solidarity, even pity.  The human condition is pitiful and deserves pity.  But, because of the Meta-Human Condition, I don’t get it.  I’m not alone in this regard.  Anyone brave or honest enough to acknowledge the terror of the Human Condition does not get pity, or empathy, or sympathy, or solidarity.  Instead, most everyone acts as if life is just peachy.  They wonder what is so weird, and wrong, about those of us who beg to differ.

But there are also non-selfish reasons for pointing out the human condition.  I believe that we will be more likely to help the one in dire straits, if we acknowledge that we, ourselves, are in dire straits.  There will be less in-group versus out-group fighting, if we acknowledge that we are all in the same boat.  It is harder to lay a hand on someone who has already received such devastating blows.

My last reason is partly selfish and partly unselfish: the Meta-Human Condition thwarts attempts to fix the Human Condition.  That’s the lesson of learned helplessness studies: dogs won’t press a button to stop electric shocks if they’ve previously come to believe the button is worthless.  Aubrey refers to a similar idea himself: the “catatonia” that afflicts modern biogerontologists, preventing them from recognizing the urgency of the situation.  As Eliezer wrote, in one of my favorite quotes, “if people got hit on the head by a baseball bat every week, pretty soon they would invent reasons why getting hit on the head with a baseball bat was a good thing.”

Today, there are people trying to eliminate parts of the Human Condition.  Eliezer wants to build a Friendly AI, which could fix a surprisingly large chunk of the Human Condition.  Aubrey is working on the more modest, but still Herculean, task of curing aging.  Both of these guys don’t get enough funding because of the Meta-Human Condition.  Most people won’t pay for a solution if they don’t want to believe that there is a problem.

I’ll end with an analogy for the Meta-Human Condition and the Human Condition: the Titanic.  If we are all in the same boat, it is sinking.  The story of the Titanic squeezes the entirety of a human life into a single night.

That, perhaps, is part of the story’s appeal.  Everyone can relate to the poor souls trapped that boat.  Those people were alone in the ocean, destined to die, just as we appear alone in our universe, destined to die.

Suppose you're on the Titanic.  Suppose you know that we’ve hit the iceberg.

If you believe that there is any chance to save yourselves, you know what to do: hurry and find a life raft or emergency boat.  That’s what Eliezer and Aubrey are doing.  They’re the guys on the boat, reminding us that we’ve hit an iceberg.  If we think there’s a chance that we can save ourselves, then we should try.  That’s the easy question.

Now consider the hard question.  Suppose you know that, in this alternative world, everyone dies.  There are no life rafts.  When you tell people about the iceberg, they don’t believe you.  “Hit an iceberg?  You have quite an imagination, young man.  Please.  Have a cigar and sip some cognac.  This ship has a fine captain.  He is in perfect control and will keep us safe.”

Do you persist in trying to convince them of the horror of the situation?  Or do you take the cigar and cognac, dance with a beautiful woman, and sing a grand old song, at least for another hour or two?

I would still want to tell them.  But maybe I’m just mean.

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  • Carl Shulman

    “I suspect, though, that most OB readers already think they are facts.”
    Unless the ‘childhood environment’ in #1 is interpreted to include everything in our past light cone and the past light cones of our future selves, #1 is clearly false.

  • Manon de Gaillande

    I’m extremely curious as to where point 3 comes from.

  • billswift

    I think the 50/50 estimates in #3 seriously overstate the risks. And if the human race does die off, it is more likely to be the end result of a series of decisions leading first to a hellish future like the world of Sheffield’s “Brother to Dragons” than most “existential threat” scenarios I’ve seen. In fact, the sorts of fear-mongering I’ve seen in books like Martin Rees’s “Our Final Hour” and on this blog about “existential threats” is more likely to lead to a grossly repressive and anti-scientific future like that than they are to do any good.

  • infotropism

    “is it a good idea to rub people’s noses in it?”

    People can bend up to a certain point. Should you ask too much of them, they might break down in an variety of interesting ways. Also, it would appear as a good idea to rub people’s nose in it only if you can hereafter propose a way to solve that problem you’ve just introduced them to. Otherwise you just made their lives more miserable, to no use.

    Nitpickers :

    “5. The fact that we were designed by evolution to value or desire certain things doesn’t seem to justify actually valuing or desiring them;”

    The fact that we were designed by evolution to seek justification doesn’t seem to justify that human need towards justification.

    “1. Our entire life stories are fixed by our genetics and our -childhood- environment (nature and nurture, more broadly), both of which we did not choose;”

    More like our entire life stories (and who you are) up to childhood then. Future environment influences will still have a bearing upon your life story.

    Manon, the 3rd point stems from the fact that even if aging is cured, there are still existential risks to be tackled in the coming century, each of which could wipe the human species clean off Earth’s. Not sure how anyone could estimate the probabilities of such an event with any certainty though.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    I agree 50/50 is not at all an accurate summary of the estimate of “most of the experts who have studied the issue”. And most people claim that they aren’t interested in the projects you mention because they don’t think they will work, not because they accept the human condition – what is the evidence that they are mistaken about their reasons?

  • Kip Werking

    Carl and infotropism: I wrote “nature and nurture, more broadly” to anticipate your point.

    Bill and Robin: I see now that 30% might have been a more accurate ratio. This is how Bostrom put it in one of his papers:

    “John Leslie, a Canadian philosopher, puts the probability of humanity failing to survive the next five centuries to 30% in his book End of the World.19 His estimate is partly based on the controversial “Doomsday argument” and on his own views about the limitations of this argument.20 Sir Martin Rees, Britain’s Astronomer Royal, is even more pessimistic, putting the odds that humanity will survive the 21st century to no better than 50% in Our Final Hour.21 Richard Posner, an eminent American legal scholar, offers no numerical estimate but rates the risk of extinction “significant” in Catastrophe.22 And I published a paper in 2002 in which I suggested that assigning a probability of less than 25% to existential disaster (no time limit) would be misguided.23 The concept of existential risk is distinct from that of extinction risk. As I introduced the term, an existential disaster is one that causes either the annihilation of Earth-originating intelligent life or the permanent and drastic curtailment of its potential for future desirable development.24”

    I don’t think the difference between 30% and 50% should diminish much the rhetorical force of what I wrote. I wasn’t trying to rely on the precise percentage number.

  • steve

    I like to think that all people, to varying degrees, are aware of being in this condition. If they don’t confront the problem directly it will gnaw at them in other ways. So putting it to them directly is a mercy. Like you say, “It is harder to lay a hand on someone who has already received such devastating blows.” What better source of confidence than sincerely doing battle with your own existential angst and surviving? What worse way to live than in perpetual deference to momentary concerns?

    But all that can wait as long as there are beautiful girls to be danced with.

  • Kip Werking

    Robin,

    You ask:

    “And most people claim that they aren’t interested in the projects you mention because they don’t think they will work, not because they accept the human condition – what is the evidence that they are mistaken about their reasons?”

    The vast majority of people (in the U.S. and in the world) are religious. Thus they do not accept the Human Condition as I’ve painted it.

    I am not sure what hard evidence I could show you. But, just in terms of common sense, how motivated would you be to cure aging, if you already accepted that it was part of God’s plan for us to slow decay, die, and live forever with him in a paradise-like afterlife? I don’t think you would be very motivated at all.

  • Aaron

    I second Robin’s statement. Furthermore, even for people that do think there’s tremendous possibilities for AI, life-extension, etc., there are few ways to really invest in them with a noticeable payoff. So if you’d like to sound the alarm, I’d emulate the OB push to get people signed up for cryonics, as it broadens the market for this type of research – both biological and computational.

    In the alternative world, I don’t know that it does much good to debate what you would do – enjoy a drink or play spoiler. Going by number one, that choice was decided long ago anyhow; you’ll follow the programming you had in place that got you there. You might surprise yourself and decide to ask that nice young heiress if you could do a sketch of her.

  • tim

    It seems to me that you overestimate the number of people who agree with your diagnosis of the human condition and underestimate how much it is discussed. As someone with a strong affinity for the OB worldview I think many of your points are either incorrect (good comments have been made by others already on some of the details) or not so bad, and many of them are associated with voluminous literatures. Religious people will disagree with you even more. A moment’s thought should remind you that the central idea in Christianity is the sinful nature of the fallen world, that the central idea in Buddhism is that life is suffering, and that other religions are very similar. Of course they disagree with each other about what exactly the problems are and how to fix them, just as they disagree with you and you disagree with them. This is the real human meta-condition – not that we do not discuss the nature of our highly imperfect lives, but that we have so many different perspectives on it. Of course people won’t fund you if they don’t agree with you – that’s what it means to live in a democracy, and it’s a good thing, not a bad thing.

    The bias on display here is the very simple and common one of expecting that others share more of one’s worldview than they actually do. The cure is to get out more. Cultivate some genuine curiosity for the non-transhumanist Cro-Magnons, even if it is driven by evolutionary programing, because that’s the only way you’re ever going to change anything.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    On reflection, Alcor/CI should be listed alongside myself and Aubrey as opponents of the Human Condition opposed by the Meta-Human Condition.

    “The first rule of being human is: you do not talk about being human.” — Michael Vassar

  • PK

    Nitpicks.

    “3. Even if someone develops a cure for aging, most of the experts who have studied the issue estimate about a 50/50 chance that our species will survive this century;”

    Huh?

    “5. The fact that we were designed by evolution to value or desire certain things doesn’t seem to justify actually valuing or desiring them;”

    Yes it does. If you don’t get your values from your evolution designed brain, where do you get them from? There is no other place where values come from. If there is anything in the universe worth valuing then our only point of reference is our evolution designed brain. That doesn’t mean we accept every impulse. We can reject weak and counterproductive impulses but only because stronger values compel us to do so. We can rebel against nature but we still remain within it. We don’t rebel ourselves out of nature. BTW, the quest for meaningfulness and justifications is also a product of our evolution designed brain.

    Other than that, the theme of this post makes me think of Existential Angst Factory. I will respond in Eliezer’s words.

    “[There is a] widespread belief that it is “rational” to believe life is meaningless, and thus suffer existential angst.”

    “I suspect that most existential angst is not really existential.”

    “If someone who weighs 560 pounds suffers from “existential angst”, allegedly because the universe is a mere dance of particles, then stomach reduction surgery might drastically change their views of the metaphysics of morality.”

    “I suspect that when people complain about the empty meaningless void, it is because they have at least one problem that they aren’t thinking about solving – perhaps because they never identified it.”

    “if you’re constantly unhappy, it’s not because the universe is empty of meaning.”

    Substitute “empty meaningless void” and so forth with “The Human Condition” as necessary.

    The Human Condition does not automatically imply that we should live a sad life. The Human Condition has existed since humans have (and has greatly improved recently). To say that it should make us sad is to argue that humans should be sad creatures by default. Your standards are too high! In the sense that if not immediately met we should be permanently sad.

    Other than the existential self-pity, I think it is admirable to discuss The Human Condition and to seek to improve it. It all depends on whether you use it to set goal to overcome or for depression.

  • Matt

    Where you are right, you’re merely pointing out features of the human condition that have been recognized by untold millions before you. You’re simply made more depressed and disspirited than most of those untold millions. And at bottom, your post implies that you wish not to be human. Rather, you want to be an unmoved first mover–how else to describe a creature undetermined by either genetics or environment? What stable, uncontingent standpoint do you propose for evaluating the desirable? Does it even make sense to speak of goals or desires ungoverned by contingency? Finally, existential despair as thoroughgoing as you espouse is simply, deeply uninteresting. (So have the cognac and dance with the pretty girl.) But immortality, too, would soon enough prove simply, deeply uninteresting. But not to worry. This universe, in time, must end.

  • Carl Shulman

    “Carl and infotropism: I wrote “nature and nurture, more broadly” to anticipate your point.”

    The term ‘nurture’ conveys connotations of child-rearing, education, and the like, i.e. family environment. Both the clearly false statement outside the parentheses, and the more defensible It doesn’t bring to mind a zig rather than a zag in neuron cell division or other chaotic internal processes. It doesn’t intuitively apply to actions determined by quantum processes (even with the relative-state interpretation, there are still indexical issues). If you had said ‘physics is deterministic, and if it weren’t it would be random insofar as that was the case’ your point would have been clear and accurate, but (especially in light of the obviously false statement outside the parentheses) the line suggests that a limited subset of causes (causes affecting our brain and bodily structure earlier in our lives) has more influence than it actually does.

    “The fact that we were designed by evolution to value or desire certain things doesn’t seem to justify actually valuing or desiring them”

    If the desires are terminal and self-protective (i.e. we want to continue having them) then they are self-justifying in a certain sense that can satisfy many OB readers who possess them. Also, why would religious people or moral realists be so discomfited by this seeming? They think that they have a direct line to justified moral values and beliefs, so they don’t need such an automatic justification for evolved desires. Now, moral irrealism would be disturbing to many of them, but this item is compatible with moral realism.

  • Unknown

    “I suspect, though, that most OB readers already think they are facts. And I suspect that many otherwise religious people, in their heart of hearts, already believe the above too.”

    This expresses the usual bias to think that one holds a standard position, both regarding the OB readers and regarding religious people.

    The comments above, if anything, seem to indicate that most OB readers think that one or more of the statements are not quite accurate.

    Regarding the religious people, surely there are many who in their “heart of hearts” suspect that their religion is false, and that many of these statements are true (but probably not all.) But on the other hand, there are also many religious people who are completely, utterly convinced that their religions are true, with no doubt at any level. These people are precisely those who suspect atheists, in their “heart of hearts” of suspecting that God exists. In other words, the bias goes both ways: each side wants to assert that the other side secretly agrees with it, and this because they cannot imagine a real person thinking anything else. In reality, however, it is possible for human beings to believe (at every level) things opposed as far as these, and other things even more opposed.

  • James Andrix

    infotropism
    Also, it would appear as a good idea to rub people’s nose in it only if you can hereafter propose a way to solve that problem you’ve just introduced them to.

    What if the problem isn’t likely to be solved unless more people are working on it?

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Kip, 30% over 500 years is very different from 30% over 100 years, and it turns out Rees was misquoted; he only said there was a 50% chance of great disaster, not of extinction. Also, the vast majority of non-religious folks also reject the projects your favor, so you can’t say religion is the major reason for that rejection.

  • Vladimir Slepnev

    Kip, your post is very similar to Celia Green’s “The Human Evasion”: http://deoxy.org/evasion/1.htm

    Too bad all such efforts to date have been fruitless.

  • Jeffrey Soreff

    One comment about point 2, aging and related illnesses:

    Part of the problem with motivating funding towards curing aging is that the history of the
    problem contains many false starts, e.g. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serge_Voronoff.
    Perhaps this time round, Aubrey de Grey is right – perhaps his SENS proposal is within reach.
    Still, from my viewpoint as a layman, the previous failures in the field are a strong demotivator.
    Eat, drink, and be merry, because we wasted time and effort on this before…

  • Patri Friedman

    I strongly agree with your point about people dooming the human condition to continue because they refuse to recognize its flaws. I feel the same way about democratic government.

    On the other hand, as an optimist in favor of optimism and happiness, I am sympathetic to those who see shouting about how life sucks as counterproductive. It is valuable to find ways to be happy and see meaning in life as it is, instead of just complaining and dreaming about life as it could be. It may suck, but the human condition is what we have. If talking about it depresses most people, maybe they shouldn’t talk about it much.

    I prefer to combine both – to glory in the luxurious awesomeness of life as it is, to cultivate deep gratitude at my existence, while striving to better the human condition by honest appraisal of its flaws. I think that is the right balance, and I find your post to be overly nihilistic and depressing in its perspective. I agree with your points, but I don’t think they imply misery or depression. Perhaps this is just my lucky biochemistry – but if so, perhaps more people should be given my neurotransmitter balance :). I believe that I demonstrate that is possible to be happy and see the world clearly. (Now, whether it is possible to be happy and see *yourself* clearly, I dunno…)

    One can strive for both truth and happiness.

  • mjgeddes

    The human condition is like a crushing boulder trying to roll over us on a down-hill slope. We push and strain our arses off but that darn boulder ain’t budging.

    The capacity of individuals to change the course of events is far less than they fondly imagine. In reality, as Robin says, people don’t think they can make much of a difference, so the attitude is why bother?

    The only chance of beating the universe is to play dirty. Only a real bad-arse hacker can get us out of this mess.

  • dzot

    “I suspect, though, that most OB readers already think they are facts. And I suspect that many otherwise religious people, in their heart of hearts, already believe the above too.”

    Really? OB readers think these are FACTS?

    Just taking one as an example, “most of the experts who have studied the issue estimate about a 50/50 chance that our species will survive this century”. Claiming most OB readers think 50% of experts say this is plausible, but beliefs about what other people might or might not be saying is seems tenuous. But claiming that most OB readers beleive what supposed experts say to be statistical probabilities based on god only knows what assumptions are somehow limiting the scope of our conversation is, frankly, rather insulting.

    I would argue that most people are open to the possibilites that some or all of those things are true, but to jump from that to saying with any sort of confidence that we have “hit an iceberg” displays tremendous bias.

  • dzot

    Although clearly my editing has hit an iceberg. Let me try this again:

    Just taking one as an example, “most of the experts who have studied the issue estimate about a 50/50 chance that our species will survive this century”. Claiming most OB readers think 50% of experts say this is plausible, but beliefs about what other people might or might not be saying seems rather non-sequitor. But claiming that most OB readers beleive that what the supposed experts say to be statistical probabilities, based on god only knows what assumptions, is somehow limiting the scope of our conversation is, frankly, rather insulting.

    Also, I am certainly not against a frank discussion about what to do if we’ve hit an iceberg. But I still find it to be a big if.

  • Kip

    Robin,

    You stick by your original two points. I’ll address them in turn.

    1. I grant that the 50% statistic is off. I’d be happy to remove that entire sentence from the post.

    2. In hindsight, I recognize that non-religious people also reject the projects I mention. So, obviously, religious beliefs wouldn’t be the major cause of their rejecting the projects.

    Still, religious beliefs might remain the major reason why religious people reject the projects. Religious and non-religious persons need not reject the projects for the same reason.

    Why do non-religious people reject the projects? I think much of their scoffing is related to learned helplessness, which I discuss in the post. But I grant that I’m engaging in armchair psychology here.

  • David Jinkins

    “My point is not to push these beliefs onto anyone who resists them. I suspect, though, that most OB readers already think they are facts. And I suspect that many otherwise religious people, in their heart of hearts, already believe the above too.”

    I am going to follow “unknown” here in pointing out that you are displaying one of your own biases here. Members of group A often believe that members of group B who publicly disagree with group A secretly agree with group A’s tenets. Group A then assigns a multitude of reasons why group B members would be hiding their true beliefs.

    The classic example here is American Democrats. In my experience, staunch Democrats almost universally believe that the leaders of the Republican party are secretly agree with Democrats on nearly everything, but hide their beliefs so as to fleece the poor and line their pocketbooks.

    In your post, you posit that the religious secretly accept your viewpoint about the human condition. I assume that you think they cover this up so as to protect their status in religious society, or to shelter their families from this kind of thinking, etc. One should be very careful with this kind of logic.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Kip, if you asked people on the other side they would deny that they reject your favored projects due to “learned helplessness”, and if asked to offer armchair psych reasons why you disagree with them, they would most likely point to wishful thinking. Are you aware that folks selling “fantastic” investments often say others reject their investments because of a fear of success, and a shame in making money?

  • http://m3m3m3.com Steve

    As it’s been said many times, many ways: the only way out of the apparent paper bag called “the human condition” (which you’re agonizing over becoming free of) is to see it was never there as such to begin with. Stop insisting that so much nothing is something, and the apparent something will no longer pack apparent punch.

    And, of course, as always, language can’t really go there, because language presupposes the elements of the apparent problem to be objective realities.

    It’s all in the seeing.

    Also, be still (of mind, aka conceptual noise) and know.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/nickbostrom/ Nick Bostrom

    Reg Rees’ estimate: He has often been said (including by me, alas) to estimate the risk of human extinction before the end of the 21st century to 50%. In fact, the dust cover of his own book says as much: “Rees forecasts that the odds are no better than fifty-fifty that humankind will survive to the end of the twenty-first century”. However, he has clarified to me in person that what he actually holds is that there’s a 50/50 risk that modern civilization will be destroyed by then; he rates the risk of human extinction as much lower. And inside his book, he does in fact (p.8 in the US edition) refer to “our present civilization” rather than to humankind when expressing his estimate – although the immediate context is one in which he contrasts the possibility of jeopardizing life’s potential “foreclosing its human and posthuman future” and “a near eternity” filled “with nothing but base matter”; so it is easy to see how the misinterpretation has arisen.

  • Kip

    Robin,

    It seems to me that you are challenging the plausibly of “fixing” the Human Condition (or much of it). Recall that I cite the Meta-Human Condition’s obstructing efforts to fix the Human Condition as being a reason against the Meta-Human Condition.

    I’m very sympathetic to your point. Perhaps there is little we can do to fix the Human Condition. This is why I repeatedly focus, in the post, on the possibility that we can’t fix the Human Condition and/or that it may be better to maintain the Meta-Human Condition.

    For example, near the very end of the post, I write:

    “now consider the hard question. Suppose you know that, in this alternative world, everyone dies. There are no life rafts. When you tell people about the iceberg, they don’t believe you. ‘Hit an iceberg? You have quite an imagination, young man. Please. Have a cigar and sip some cognac. This ship has a fine captain. He is in perfect control and will keep us safe.’

    Do you persist in trying to convince them of the horror of the situation? Or do you take the cigar and cognac, dance with a beautiful woman, and sing a grand old song, at least for another hour or two?”

    Those paragraphs are meant to contemplate precisely the sort of helpless situation your comment suggests.

    Between the two positions (optimistic vs. pessimistic), where do I stand, if I had to choose? I have yet to give money to either the SIAI or the Mprize, so if I keep criticizing others for not doing so, I’m being a little hypocritical. Still, I wish everyone would donate much of their money to these organizations, on even the slight chance that either Aubrey or Eliezer will succeed. It’s a selfish reason, and it’s easy to spend other people’s money.

    If you are defending the folk/ordinary position with respect to the Human Condition, we can distinguish between several possibilities:

    1. That it is more rational, given X’s preferences/values, to spend hir money on things other than the SIAI and the mprize.
    2. That X’s beliefs about the reality of the human condition and likelihood of fixing it are perfectly rational.

    1 is much easier to defend than 2. 2 will also depend on X’s particular beliefs about the human condition and fixing it. Believing that aging is inherently incurable is much less reasonable than believing that the chances of curing aging in the next decade are less than 20%. I tend to think that most people do have a learned helplessness mindset, to some degree, about the human condition. But the degree to which I disagree with them, if at all, will vary with the particular details of their beliefs about the human condition and our power to fix it.

  • talisman

    It strikes me as potentially unhealthy for overcomingbias to have not-fully-identified bloggers.

    (I, a mere commenter, though…)

  • Christopher M

    I wonder to what extent you’ve dealt with the implications of #5. Sometimes I get very depressed about what you call the “human condition,” too. But then, some other times, I recall that values are contingent, and this, rightly or wrongly but inevitably, puts a little emotional distance between me and my worries. I wonder whether a brief flourishing of intelligence amid the vast interstellar coldness, wherein the interplay of evolution and human intelligence produced or invented the calculus, love, corporations, general relativity, the concept of the wave function of the universe, culture — whether maybe that isn’t pretty great, whether or not we all die of old age or are turned into paperclips.

    Now of course I see that this is a view I hold, in part, as a coping mechanism. The nice thing is that, since the whole worldview is based on a certain ironic distance from values, the realization that it’s emotionally motivated doesn’t actually create any significant epistemic problems.

    I imagine, if I were Eliezer, I would find this perspective despicable. It admits his premises but declines his nobility and austerity. But I’m not sure it’s not the best thing going.

  • http://hooverhog.typepad.com/ Chip Smith

    Given the pessimistic outline of Kip’s post, I can’t help being slightly amused by the quibbling over point 3. As individuals, it seems fair to say that each of us has at best a 50/50 chance of surviving the next century. And for every subjective intent and purpose, an individual’s death entails an end to the “species,” to the world, to everything. Consciousness is all; when it is extinguished, there’s your apocalypse. The only one that counts.

    At the very least, unfettered contemplation of the meta-human condition should prompt people to question whether it is decent to have children.

  • http://michaelgr.com/ Michael G.R.

    This post reminded me that I should donate to the Methuselah Foundation again, so I just sent them a little money and will keep doing that periodically. I encourage others to do the same.

    http://www.methuselahfoundation.org/index.php?pagename=mj_donations_donate

  • http://timtyler.org/ Tim Tyler

    This just seems like a depressing post to me.

    Call me Carl Sagan, but I think complaining about the state of things should be balanced by a healthy dose of awe and wonder at the amazing and glorious heights which our species has already reached. We are the pinnacle of the animal kingdom. Flawed, yes, but less so than any of our ancestors – and just look at our incredible potential.

  • http://greentheo.scroggles.com Theodore Van Rooy

    In your “hard question” about the sinking titanic and no lifeboats…

    Telling them or not telling them is inconsequential it’s going to sink and they’re going to die… the real question is who designed the damn ship without lifeboats?

    But… here’s a tough question in return for you… if the ship does have lifeboats and enough lifeboats for everyone to get on how hard do you try to get them off the sinking ship before saving yourself? What if they don’t listen… how do you persuade them… do you have a responsibility to make them hear?

    I know my answer… but then again I’m one of those .001% of people who doesn’t accept the worldview offered by OB

  • mjgeddes

    Well Tim,

    Despite terrible flaws, we do have one thing in our favor..we *are* the original hackers. Even transhumans would have to admit it. For people this dumb, we’ve shown *tremendous* ingenuity and deviousness… always optimistic, always trying to move forward, always twisting and turning out of even the most miserable conditions, always looking for the next hack. It’s amazing what’s been achieved with so little brain-power and under such adverse conditions.

    The hacker spirit is the human leitmotif. Hacking lives forever!

  • http://theviewfromhell.blogspot.com Sister Y

    There seem to be two classes of problem included in Kip’s human condition: food-is-terrible problems, and portions-too-small problems. They seem quite distinct to me in terms of how we should approach them and the reasons they are tabooed.

    Leslie seems to be concerned only with the portions-too-small problems – with the novel horror of the prospect of human extinction, rather than the mundane, predictable horrors of human existence. (He actually does consider whether human extinction is a bad thing or a good thing, but concludes that human extinction is bad even though human persistence certainly means unbearable suffering for billions of people – and I can’t detect anything resembling an argument there – he just reports his intuition.) People interested exclusively in preventing extinction and death are also working on portions-too-small problems.

    I think it’s somewhat cruel to prioritize portions-too-small problems over food-is-terrible problems. If we solve the portions-too-small problems, we have actually made things worse if we have done nothing about the food-is-terrible problems (misery, lack of meaning, not being adapted to be happy in our environments): piles of maggot-infested food for everyone, whether they want it or not. Food-is-terrible problems are where the focus should be.

    Also, portions-too-small problems are much more likely to function as mortality salience inductions than are food-is-terrible problems, suggesting that the taboo against discussion of portions-too-small problems is based on terror management, whereas we would have to look elsewhere to learn the reason for the taboo against discussing food-is-terrible problems.

  • Squishy Thing

    Why does this lump of matter even think it is “human”? Why don’t we just naturally consider ourselves as general optimization processes, minds, sentiences, that just happen to be instantiated in a funny, squishy form?

  • http://antinatalism.net jim

    What are the terrible aspects of life we’re talking about here? Disease. Mental illness. Starvation. Maiming. Plus any other kinds of suffering one can think of. Pretty much everyone is affected by some of these, either directly or indirectly. Furthermore, since this stuff isn’t dealt out evenly, we find ourselves in the position of feeling ‘lucky’ that we’re better off than some of our fellow humans who’ve gotten the short end of the stick. And of course, everybody dies, which isn’t generally regarded as a good thing.

    So, there seems to be this transhumanist vision of an approaching utopia somewhere out there on the horizon. I’ll admit, it’s pretty easy for someone like me to write that off as a wishthinking fantasy; but as far as evidence for such a thing goes, I think history is on my side so far. And I’m talking about the entire history of life on this planet.

    But let’s accept that in, say, a thousand years, we’ve eliminated suffering. First of all, is there any guarantee things will stay that way? Doubtful. But there’s something more serious to contemplate, and that’s that we’re willing to waste generations of people-and here, I’m talking about the percentage that’s doomed to misery simply by the luck of the draw- for a vision of a possible paradise inhabited by people who don’t even exist yet, a paradise that none of the visionaries will ever see. What are we talking here? Imaginary immortality by proxy? Moreover, if these future denizens were never born, we wouldn’t have to worry about providing them a paradise in the first place! The tragi-comic irony is apparent, I think.

    On the other hand, if we stopped breeding tomorrow, all of us would exist until we ceased existing, just like it always is anyway. But the upshot is that the source of our worries, i.e. the quality of the future for imaginary generations which don’t actually exist, would vanish. Human suffering would vanish in a generation, and untold billions would be spared. A negative utopia, if you will, signed, sealed and delivered, if we could just rid ourselves of these notions of vicarious immortality.

  • http://antinatalism.net jim

    What are the terrible aspects of life we’re talking about here? Disease. Mental illness. Starvation. Maiming. Plus any other kinds of suffering one can think of. Pretty much everyone is affected by some of these, either directly or indirectly. Furthermore, since this stuff isn’t dealt out evenly, we find ourselves in the position of feeling ‘lucky’ that we’re better off than some of our fellow humans who’ve gotten the short end of the stick. And of course, everybody dies, which isn’t generally regarded as a good thing.

    So, there seems to be this transhumanist vision of an approaching utopia somewhere out there on the horizon. I’ll admit, it’s pretty easy for someone like me to write that off as a wishthinking fantasy; but as far as evidence for such a thing goes, I think history is on my side so far. And I’m talking about the entire history of life on this planet.

    But let’s accept that in, say, a thousand years, we’ve eliminated suffering. First of all, is there any guarantee things will stay that way? Doubtful. But there’s something more serious to contemplate, and that’s that we’re willing to waste generations of people-and here, I’m talking about the percentage that’s doomed to misery simply by the luck of the draw- for a vision of a possible paradise inhabited by people who don’t even exist yet, a paradise that none of the visionaries will ever see. What are we talking here? Imaginary immortality by proxy? Moreover, if these future denizens were never born, we wouldn’t have to worry about providing them a paradise in the first place! The tragi-comic irony is apparent, I think.

    On the other hand, if we stopped breeding tomorrow, all of us would exist until we ceased existing, just like it always is anyway. But the upshot is that the source of our worries, i.e. the quality of the future for imaginary generations which don’t actually exist, would vanish. Human suffering would vanish in a generation, and untold billions would be spared. A negative utopia, if you will, signed, sealed and delivered, if we could just rid ourselves of these notions of vicarious immortality.

  • http://antinatalism.net jim

    Oops! Apologies for the duplicate posting.

  • cow_2001

    I met a traveller from an antique land
    Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
    Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
    Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown
    And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
    Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
    Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
    The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed.
    And on the pedestal these words appear:
    “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
    Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
    Nothing beside remains: round the decay
    Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
    The lone and level sands stretch far away.

    OZYMANDIAS
    by Percy B. Shelley.

  • Beverley Eyre

    Actually, #5 reveals a deep misunderstanding of the nature of evolving systems, especially living systems.

  • Lightwave

    Beverley, what misunderstanding is that? What’s your objection to #5?

  • http://francoistremblay.wordpress.com/ Francois Tremblay

    i find it interesting that you’ve arrived at all these (entirely true) conclusions about the human condition, but you don’t mention antinatalism. Is that a deliberate omission, or are you against antinatalism? If the latter, what possible justification could you muster for bringing about new human lives?

  • Pingback: What is the human condition? | The Prime Directive

  • Anthony

    #1 This point seems to imply that freewill hasn’t existed, doesn’t exist, and never will exist. I mean, we do have a choice of whether or not we want to suffer, here on Earth, for the rest of our lives. Nevertheless, our “life stories” can be greatly affected by our childhood experiences, without a doubt. In some cases, our life stories can be totally predetermined by our childhood experiences. However, that’s not to say we can’t begin the recovery process of it all. We do have a choice; we can blame one another, and even blame ourselves, or we can take responsibility by owning up to our own shit. Frankly, it all depends on the individual. Any real change usually begins on an individual level. Nobody, except you, can solve your problems…

    #3 This point seems like an exaggeration, as somebody here in the comments has already mentioned.

    #4 It really doesn’t matter, but I thought I’d point out that the mythology of many major religions is, in fact, eerily similar.