This is the Dream Time

Aboriginals believe in … [a] “dreamtime”, more real than reality itself. Whatever happens in the dreamtime establishes the values, symbols, and laws of Aboriginal society. … [It] is also often used to refer to an individual’s or group’s set of beliefs or spirituality. … It is a complex network of knowledge, faith, and practices that derive from stories of creation. Wikipedia.

We will soon enter an era where most anyone can at any time talk directly with most anyone else who can talk.  Cheap global talk and travel continue to tie our global economy and culture more closely together.  But in the distant future, our descendants will probably have spread out across space, and redesigned their minds and bodies to explode Cambrian-style into a vast space of possible creatures. If they are free enough to choose where to go and what to become, our distant descendants will fragment into diverse local economies and cultures.

Given a similar freedom of fertility, most of our distant descendants will also live near a subsistence level.  Per-capita wealth has only been rising lately because income has grown faster than population.  But if income only doubled every century, in a million years that would be a factor of 103000, which seems impossible to achieve with only the 1070 atoms of our galaxy available by then.  Yes we have seen a remarkable demographic transition, wherein richer nations have fewer kids, but we already see contrarian subgroups like Hutterites, Hmongs, or Mormons that grow much faster.  So unless strong central controls prevent it, over the long run such groups will easily grow faster than the economy, making per person income drop to near subsistence levels.  Even so, they will be basically happy in such a world.

Our distant descendants will also likely have hit diminishing returns to discovery; by then most everything worth knowing will be known by many; truly new and important discoveries will be quite rare. Complete introspection will be feasible, and immortality will be available to the few who can afford it.  Wild nature will be mostly gone, and universal coordination and destruction will both be far harder than today.

So what will these distant descendants think of their ancestors?  They will find much in common with our distant hunting ancestors, who also continued for ages at near subsistence level in a vast fragmented world with slow growth amid rare slow contact with strange distant cultures.  While those ancestors were quite ignorant about their world, and immersed in a vast wild nature instead of a vast space of people, their behavior was still pretty well adapted to the world they lived in.  While they suffered many misconceptions, those illusions rarely made them much worse off; their behavior was usually adaptive.

When our distant descendants think about our era, however, differences will loom larger.  Yes they will see that we were more like them in knowing more things, and in having less contact with a wild nature.  But our brief period of very rapid growth and discovery and our globally integrated economy and culture will be quite foreign to them.  Yet even these differences will pale relative to one huge difference: our lives are far more dominated by consequential delusions: wildly false beliefs and non-adaptive values that matter.  While our descendants may explore delusion-dominated virtual realities, they will well understand that such things cannot be real, and don’t much influence history.  In contrast, we live in the brief but important “dreamtime” when delusions drove history.  Our descendants will remember our era as the one where the human capacity to sincerely believe crazy non-adaptive things, and act on those beliefs, was dialed to the max.

Why is our era so delusory?

  1. Our knowledge has been growing so fast, and bringing such radical changes, that many of us see anything as possible, so that nothing can really be labeled delusion.
  2. Rich folks like us have larger buffers of wealth to cushion our mistakes; we can live happily and long even while acting on crazy beliefs.
  3. We humans evolved to signal various features of ourselves to one another via delusions; we usually think that the various things we do to signal are done for other reasons.  For example, we think we pay for docs to help our loved ones get well, rather than to show that we care.  We think we do politics because we want to help our nation, rather than to signal our character and loyalty.  We are overconfident in our abilities in order to convince others to have confidence in us, and so on.  But while our ancestors’ delusions were well adapted to their situations, and so didn’t hurt them much, the same delusions are not nearly as adapted to our rapidly changing world; our signaling induced delusions hurt us more.
  4. Humans seem to have evolved to emphasize signaling more in good times than in bad.  Since very few physical investments last very long, the main investments one can make in good times that last until bad times are allies and reputation. So we are built to, in good times, spend more time and energy on leisure, medicine, charity, morals, patriotism, and so on.  Relative to our ancestors’ world, our whole era is one big very good time.
  5. Our minds were built with a near mode designed more for practical concrete reasoning about things up close, and a far mode designed more for presenting a good image to others via our abstract reasoning about things far away.  But our minds must now deal with a much larger world where many relevant things are much further away, and abstract reasoning is more useful.  So we rely more than did our ancestors on that abstract far mode capability.  But since that far mode was tuned more for presenting a good image, it is much more tolerant of good-looking delusions.
  6. Tech now enables more exposure to mood-altering drugs and arts, and specialists make them into especially potent “super-stimuli.” Our ancestors used drugs and went into art appreciation mode rarely, e.g., around the campfire listening to stories or music, or watching dances.  Since such contexts were relatively safe places, our drug and art appreciation modes are relatively tolerant of delusions.  But today drugs are cheap, we can hear music all the time, most surfaces are covered by art, and we spend much of our day with stories from TV, video games, etc.  And all that art is made by organized groups of specialists far better than the typical ancestral artist.
  7. We were built to be influenced by the rhetoric, eloquence, difficulty, drama, and repetition of arguments, not just their logic.  Perhaps this once helped us to ally us with high status folks.  And we were built to show our ideals via the stories we like, and also to like well-crafted stories.  But today we are exposed to arguments and stories by folks far more expert than found in ancestral tribes.  Since we are built to be quite awed and persuaded by such displays, our beliefs and ideals are highly influenced by our writers and story-tellers.  And these folks in turn tell us what we want to hear, or what their patrons want us to hear, neither of which need have much to do with reality.

These factors combine to make our era the most consistently and consequentially deluded and unadaptive of any era ever.  When they remember us, our distant descendants will be shake their heads at the demographic transition, where we each took far less than full advantage of the reproductive opportunities our wealth offered.  They will note how we instead spent our wealth to buy products we saw in ads that talked mostly about the sort of folks who buy them.  They will lament our obsession with super-stimili that highjacked our evolved heuristics to give us taste without nutrition.   They will note we spent vast sums on things that didn’t actually help on the margin, such as on medicine that didn’t make us healthier, or education that didn’t make us more productive.

Our descendants will also remember our adolescent and extreme mating patterns, our extreme gender personalities, and our unprecedentedly fierce warriors.  They will be amazed at the strange religious, political, and social beliefs we acted on, and how we preferred a political system, democracy, designed to emphasize the hardly-considered fleeting delusory thoughts of the median voter rather than the considered opinions of our best experts.

Perhaps most important, our descendants may remember how history hung by a precarious thread on a few crucial coordination choices that our highly integrated rapidly changing world did or might have allowed us to achieve, and the strange delusions that influenced such choices.  These choices might have been about global warming, rampaging robots, nuclear weapons, bioterror, etc.  Our delusions may have led us to do something quite wonderful, or quite horrible, that permanently changed the options available to our descendants.  This would be the most lasting legacy of this, our explosively growing dream time, when what was once adaptive behavior with mostly harmless delusions become strange and dreamy unadaptive behavior, before adaptation again reasserted a clear-headed relation between behavior and reality.

Our dreamtime will be a time of legend, a favorite setting for grand fiction, when low-delusion heroes and the strange rich clowns around them could most plausibly have changed the course of history.  Perhaps most dramatic will be tragedies about dreamtime advocates who could foresee and were horrified by the coming slow stable adaptive eons, and tried passionately, but unsuccessfully, to prevent them.

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  • mycroft65536

    I’ve had a problem with this series of posts. What exactly does sustenance level survival look like when you have 10^2970 people per atom?

  • Ricardo

    Extrapolating from what we’ve observed from humanity so far, it is the groups who manage to curb their fertility and thus rise above subsistence level who dominate. By your logic, soon the whole world should be dominated by Africa. But no, peoples in Malthusian traps are kind of self-containing, since their progress is much slower than that of those who can afford the luxuries of long term investment and future planning. Of course national suicide as seems to be the case in most of Europe won’t be the way of the future, but your assumption that Malthusian peoples will dominate (resource-wise) moderate-fertility peoples seems… delusional.

  • Z. M. Davis

    Robin, thank you for this beautiful, terrifying, beautiful summary.

  • Doug S.

    > Our descendants will also remember our adolescent and extreme mating patterns, our extreme gender personalities, and our unprecedentedly fierce warriors. They will be amazed at the strange religious, political, and social beliefs we acted on, and how we preferred a political system, democracy, designed to emphasize the hardly-considered fleeting delusory thoughts of the median voter rather than the considered opinions of our best experts.

    One problem is that, when experts are allowed to dictate policy directly, expert recommendations tend to converge to whatever gives the greatest benefit to the experts making the recommendations.

    As Archibald Putt put it: “Decisions are justified by considering benefits to the organization; decisions are made by considering benefits to the decision makers.”

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      One of course wants to not just ask them simply, but to ask them via an institution, such as prediction markets, that gets them to tell us their consider judgments.

      • http://www.jamesokeefe.org James O’Keefe

        Experts are still individuals with their own biases and preconceptions. I question their ability to come up with a decision that is truly in the interests of all.

        At least with small-d democracy all biases can be called out and some sort of truth can emerge. Everyone has to consider their interests as well as those of others.

        Policies are not simply decisions made by people, but are also implemented by people. If folks don’t feel they have a stake in how a policy was decided, then they are less likely to follow it or carry it out to their fullest, especially without the threat of violence. The legitimacy of the decision in the minds of people is important.

  • http://acceleratingfuture.com Michael Anissimov

    Posts like this highlight your unique thinking and hold it up next to issues of ultimate importance. It’s no surprise that I am a huge mark for this kind of post.

  • George

    Regarding our delusion about the usefulness of medicine, it’s also bizarre that probably the most effective medicine we have, vaccination, is vocally opposed by the antivax movement. These anti-vaccination groups have even more extreme delusions, and they’re getting bigger and successfully convincing others. WTF, as they say.

  • Neal W.

    Robin,

    Multiple universes may help out with this. Bridge the gap between here and there(s) and you have access to more atoms.

  • q

    Of Mere Being

    The palm at the end of the mind,
    Beyond the last thought, rises
    In the bronze distance.

    A gold-feathered bird
    Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
    Without human feeling, a foreign song.

    You know then that it is not the reason
    That makes us happy or unhappy.
    The bird sings. Its feathers shine.

    The palm stands on the edge of space.
    The wind moves slowly in the branches.
    The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down.

    – Wallace Stevens, 1954

  • Matt C

    I hate to me-too, but wow. That was a hell of a blog post.

    One thing I’d like to hear more about, you have consistently claimed that our poor and numerous descendants will be mostly-happy. I don’t see why you expect this. If your vision is correct, I’m not sure why our post-human descendants will even bother keeping “happiness” as a concept at all.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      Happiness evolved for a reason; I expect that reason to continue to be relevant.

      • Matt C

        Happiness evolved to guide animals toward greater reproductive fitness, but it is substantially broken for this purpose in modern environments.

        If our descendants will live in a world that is much more competitive and much more optimized in use of resources, and they will be much better informed in how to directly pursue (for example) reproductive fitness, why are they going to rely on something crude like happy feelings to guide them in optimizations?

      • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

        No doubt our descendants will do much better at being happy about more useful sorts of things. But it will probably feel similarly in creatures that change incrementally at each step from humans.

      • Matt C

        No doubt our descendants will do much better at being happy about more useful sorts of things

        I assume you mean deliberate repurposing of the happiness instinct (surely continued natural evolution of happiness would lose the race).

        I’d like you to be right, but I still don’t understand why you think tinkering with happiness feelings will outcompete other approaches for making more effective beings. Even if we wanted to harness instincts there are plenty of choices besides happiness, and a very competent and knowledgeable society could presumably design behaviors more efficient and directed than anything we’d understand as a “natural” motivation.

      • http://yudkowsky.net/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

        I agree with Matt for the reasons outlined in Protein Reinforcement and DNA Consequentialism. Happiness is a legacy of a reinforcement architecture that existed before brains were powerful enough to implement general cross-domain consequentialism. A reinforcer is a crude approximation of the abstract knowledge that a particular category of activities is likely to lead to terminal value achievement.

        In short, happiness is a legacy and only creatures with the luxury for legacies will implement it. Memories of the distant irrelevant past are a luxury – even if you have them stored somewhere, you wouldn’t recall them unless necessary. Storytelling is a luxury.

        The Malthusian creatures you’re describing will never be happy or sad, never recall that times were once different, and certainly never bother to tell stories about it.

      • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

        However it is that they compute the best thing to do, they can feel happy when they do that thing. That mere happy feeling seems a trivial expense. History and stories have function and use even for very competitive creatures – just a lot less use than for deluded creatures like us.

      • http://knowinghumans.net Brian Holtz

        My intuition is that in H. sapiens, happiness is more related to 1) the first derivative of your material well-being than to its absolute level, and to 2) your well-being and status relative to the people you interact with daily in person, rather than relative to other populations more distant on any given metric. Does happiness research confirm this, and if so, how should this influence how we model the happiness of far-future persons?

    • Peter Twieg

      Yep, this is my thought as well. It seems that one might be able to create better decision algorithms without any reference to anything that we would consider to be “happiness”, unless we’re using the term “happiness” in a vaguely Hobbesian sense to encompass anything that would motivate action… which is quite detached from the ordinary-sense meaning of the term, which is what (most) people are considered about with regard to the desirability of this future.

  • http://cob.jmu.edu/rosserjb Barkley Rosser

    Of course there is another possibility: we may go nowhere. The problem is radiation in space. That will need to be overcome. And, where will people go? Unless we do find a way to overcome the speed of light barrier, we are pretty much stuck in the solar system (does anybody really want to go off on a generations long haul through interstellar space to some other star system?). Oh yes, we could probably terriform Mars, so that is nice. Then we can do Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles. But is there anywhere else in the solar system we are really going to go to in a serious way? Heck, we barely go to Antarctica. For that matter, the overwhelming majority of the population lives on something like 12% of the earth’s surface. It is not just Antarctica, but lots of mountains, deserts, tundra, and rain forests that have very few humans in them (not to mention the surface of the oceans as well).

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      Yes of course space travel and colonization are hard in the short term. But I’m talking about the very long term.

  • Curt Adams

    I don’t agree at all that we pay for relative’s medicine for signaling rather than to help them get well, and you really should know better than to self-cite from Medical Hypotheses as evidence for a fairly wild claim. I’m glad Medical Hypotheses exists but it’s not where you go for definitive evidence!

  • http://robertwiblin.wordpress.com Robert Wiblin

    Just wanted to say this post is fantastic.

    How confident are you that our descendents won’t have their own beneficial delusions (e.g. I’ll be better off if I have lots of children).

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      Their values will be adaptive, and they’ll be honestly happy when they achieve those values.

  • fenn

    Great post. Confluence of many of the most interesting ideas on here.

  • Grant

    Robin,

    I assume you generally agree with Julian Simon’s ideas on natural resources, at least as they apply in this era? Why not extend those into the future as well? From where I’m sitting it looks like you’re taking atoms for granted as the ultimate finite natural resource. This claim of course seems perfectly reasonable, but it may not be true.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      Humans are a great resource for discovering new things, but that well will eventually run dry.

      • http://www.aleph.se/andart/ Anders Sandberg

        This probably requires the (prima facie pretty plausible) assumption that the universe has a simple basic structure, or perhaps the assumption that there are limits to what can be deduced about it. There could be scale separation going on that makes it impossible to test which theory of the microscale that is correct, and we would be limited to understanding the levels above. The simple basic structure might perhaps be supported by some kind of Kolmogorov measure argument that we should expect to find ourselves in a universe describable with a short program rather than a long one.

        It is at least conceivable that the universe could have infinite complexity: there would be an endless series of new phenomena on ever smaller scales that could be studied and mastered. A bit like an endless zoom onto the border of the Mandelbrot set. However, there seems to be a chance for practical scale separation at any scale, so even if the universe did have this infinite complexity it could again have finite practically discoverable complexity.

        The real issue is of course whether there are serious limits on all levels. The second law of thermodynamics seems pretty hard to avoid if you want to have an arrow of time and probability (the later likely a requirement for rational thinking); the speed of light limitation or something similar might be a generic property of existing on a manifold with a lot of symmetry.

      • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

        Even if there are unlimited levels, the time required to exploit new levels probably won’t be fast enough to support current econ growth rates.

  • Jason

    Something to ponder – would immortal beings feel the same urge to reproduce that mortal beings feel?

    • Cyan

      Try pondering this: whose descendents will dominate the population in the very long term: immortal beings with no urge to reproduce, or immortal beings with an urge to reproduce?

      • http://knowinghumans.net Brian Holtz

        If the “beings” in your question are molecules that reproduce by catalyzing production of copies of themselves, and the time your question is asked is three billion years ago, then I don’t see how the answer you favor constitutes an insightful prediction about the what I see here and now at the Yahoo! campus in Silicon Valley. There’s a lot more to say about what’s going on here than just that there are a lot of consanguineous nucleic acids sloshing around.

      • http://www.aleph.se/andart/ Anders Sandberg

        Brian, the fact that our descendants will will likely have utterly different values will still not impair our ability to make predictions about the low-level constraints on their behaviour. The observer of the nucleic acid ocean would be able to predict that in three billion years time there would still be competition for nucleotide raw material [*], they would just not be able to say what kinds of conglomerates would be doing the competition and how they would be going about it. But they would likely be able to predict with a high confidence that the era of replicators having a large soup of free nucleotides to use would be drawing to a close, never to re-occur.

        Maybe our subsistence level descendants are like our poor nucleic acids, struggling to survive within the ~10^30 cells of the biosphere while pretty oblivious to how the amazing creatures built on top of them enjoy life.

        [*] There would also be a certain finite probability that the competition ending by the destruction of all nucleic acids on the planet due to some external or internal disaster (life becoming intelligent and going postbiological might be lumped in here as a very weird and perhaps unlikely kind of internal disaster for the nucleic acids).

      • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

        Ander is right, as usual.

  • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ g

    Perhaps our distant descendants will also look back in amazement at the overconfidence with which many of us made detailed predictions about the future.

  • http://lesswrong.com/ CannibalSmith

    > was dialed to the max.
    To eleven! Come on! Do it!

  • nazgulnarsil

    Robin: happiness is linked to status, not income. this is why I believe you are incorrect when you say “ruling over your own personal universe would be fun, but not *that* fun.” On the contrary I see it as the only way to have “fun” continue to increase exponentially. When dealing with human to human interaction status is necessarily zero-sum. Put everyone in a holodeck and it is now positive sum.

    • not anon or anonymous

      “happiness is linked to status, not income.”

      Happiness is linked to a whole lot of factors, the most important of which seem to be absolute income (being below the poverty line decreases happiness significantly), leisure time, social affiliation (including marriage) and lack of negative stresses. Status is not a very significant factor.

      • nazgulnarsil

        being below the poverty line really means you don’t have access to the materials that form a baseline of status in our society. the vast vast majority of people use their leisure time to pursue status granting activities. social affiliation is a euphemism for status.

  • nazgulnarsil

    and obviously this whole thread has been hinging on no major change in the psychological makeup of humans. our descendants may very well live at subsistence levels and not care because subsistence includes a weak electrical signal directly into the pleasure center of the brain.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      I can’t imagine where you get the idea that I don’t think our descendants could have varied psychology.

  • Def_Os

    Great post!

    Robin, are you familiar with the works of Ernest Becker on the fear of death being the reason for us believing in delusions? Some of your arguments are inconsistent with his theories in ‘Denial of Death’ and ‘Escape from Evil’, but others nicely tie in with them.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      Yes fear of death is associated with human delusions. It just isn’t obviously a factor that increases delusions in this era relative to others.

      • Def_Os

        Actually, since Becker showed that fear of death is the primary reason for delusions, other eras should be equally prone to them.

  • Jason Malloy

    The idea here is essentially that the demographic transition fun time is probably close to an end, as natural selection reasserts itself and we all get back to breeding ourselves into poverty.

    But once we get top-down control of human nature through genetic engineering, it’s likely that we can retain whatever sociological equilibrium seems attractive at that time on into (relative) perpetuity.

    With genetics as the fastest moving science, it seems like an unwise time to predict that natural selection is increasingly going to control humans, rather than that humans are increasingly going to control natural selection.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      “We” would have to coordinate on an unprecedented scale; local control of our natures is not sufficient.

      • Patri Friedman

        This is true, but not implausible. If the technology required to destroy the world gets easier and easier (Evil AI, nukes, superviruses, whatever) then there will be a lot of pressure to develop global monitoring for the precursors to these doomsday devices, and enforcement of precautions against them. Genetic anti-fertility control (or simply a two child per family policy) would fit into that.

        Of course, that only works if we are the only life in the universe, otherwise the global control is still merely local :).

      • http://timtyler.org/ Tim Tyler

        We are coordinating on an unprecedented scale.

      • http://williambswift.blogspot.com/ billswift

        You mean coercion on a massive scale; cooperation wouldn’t do it.

  • Thomas M. Hermann

    Your post is rubbish.

    You should have stopped this series of posts with the central meme that current growth rates are not indefinitely sustainable, that was an important meme. Your prognostications about the distant future are delusional. We live in a chaotic dynamic system.

    • Peter Twieg

      Even chaotic dynamic systems have attractor regions.

    • http://williambswift.blogspot.com/ billswift

      And in many chaotic systems, the chaos is mostly on the margins and in the details. Fluid mechanics works perfectly well over most of its domain, for example, despite the chaos on its boundaries and details.

  • mitchell porter

    As so many others are saying, this is a post to savor and respect. Right or wrong, it’s not every day you get a coherent new vision of the far future and the present’s relationship to it. I think this joins a few other key propositions of Robin’s in defining a whole cosmology, which I call “Hansonomy” in honor of another American polymath.

    • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ g

      That’s one harsh bit of sarcasm. (Either that, or you have a far more positive view of Lawson than most.)

      • mitchell porter

        I don’t mean it as such a put-down. Originally it was just my private name for the sum of all Robin’s ideas. But I suppose the comparison has grown on me. Lawson was an aviator and an economic reformer; Hanson worked for NASA and became an academic economist. Lawson had his own physics and wrote about Alti-man, the instinctive aviator of 10,000 AD; Hanson has his own take on quantum theory and writes about life in “the coming slow stable adaptive eons”. People today belittle Lawson as a crank; while many of Robin’s opinions are regarded as eccentric. I do like Robin, I read what he writes with interest, but I also like historical analogy, and it’s a sorry fact of life that people this innovative are mostly wrong or mostly rejected or both. Robin has given us his vision of the future and the logic behind it; so perhaps the challenge now is to imagine how the future, the real future, will see him, and why.

      • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

        All us oddballs have to accept the record of their overall low rate of success.

  • Yvain

    Why do you think our descendants will have fiction, tragedies, or a flourishing study of history? All of these are classic examples of things affordable only by people living at waay above subsistence level.

    If our descendants are really subsistence-level and really advanced, they will probably much prefer to directly stimulate the relevant centers of the brain when they need entertainment. It’ll be cheaper, and the descendants you describe don’t seem like the sort of people to raise a lot of philosophical objections to it.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      Our near subsistence ancestor societies had fiction and history.

      • http://yudkowsky.net/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

        Our near subsistence ancestors weren’t competing a millionth as hard as intelligent designers trying to eke out every 0.0001% of performance from a library of designs for sale by programmers competing in a winner-take-all market.

      • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

        I said most creatures would be near subsistence, not all of them. There will be legacy creatures with inherited wealth, and creatures who gain slack by lucking into some local advantage.

  • Larry D’Anna

    this is one of your best posts.

  • http://www.nancybuttons.com Nancy Lebovitz

    Wild nature will still exist– it’s just that the living part will probably be made of people. It seems unlikely to me that even if there is full understanding of individual minds, there will be full understanding of their interactions. Or are you assuming a “all fully rational thinkers agree” model?

    I can remember when a Grand Universal Theory seemed possible, but then it turned out that physics was weirder than anyone thought. Do you expect physics to be completely understood?

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      Sure a wild “nature” of people will exist, but that isn’t how most people use the word “nature.”

      • http://www.nancybuttons.com Nancy Lebovitz

        My point was that there will still be something intractably complex to keep learning about.

      • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

        Sure there will be things to learn about; there just won’t be much useful to gain from such learning.

  • J Storrs Hall

    I think that the reasons you list for this being the age of delusion are mostly contributing factors to the real engine of the phenomenon, which is that our political system has evolved into such a state that it is advantageous for the most powerful in society to promote widespread belief in various falsehoods. The result is an educational system which is incompetent at teaching people to value, and how to seek, the truth; a huge industry selling FUD as its major product; and the growth of fundamentalist earth-worship in the guise of (and displacing) real science.

  • http://knowinghumans.net Brian Holtz

    There have been at least four major transitions in evolution in which individual replicators permanently sacrificed their reproductive interests for the sake of replication happening at a different level of abstraction:

    eukaryotic endosymbiosis
    sex
    multicellularity
    biological colonialism

    A fifth such transition — culture — only got started a few tens of thousands of years ago, and it only got real traction a few centuries ago with the demographic transition. On top of that, two more transitions are stacked up in the pattern and waiting to land: engineering our genes, and engineering our minds.

    With all three of these transitions happening at essentially the same time, we cannot predict with any confidence that our future biological history will be driven entirely by competitive replication at the level of individuals, and not at the level of memes or engineered genomes or engineered minds.

    Hutterites, Hmongs, and Mormons seems like a pretty sparse set of data points on which to hang a prediction here. The meme-complex of modern techno-industrialism has now encountered scores of distinct societies, and is notorious for how completely it assimilates them. At any given time there will always be eddies in the current, but that doesn’t mean the river won’t be emptying into the ocean.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      When “individuals” are at subsistence level, so are all the old parts of them that were subsumed by their level of abstraction.

      • http://knowinghumans.net Brian Holtz

        I don’t understand your point. Let me try to restate mine.

        Applying your logic at the dawn of multicellularity, wouldn’t you have predicted that cancers would inevitably sabotage the project, as individual cells reproduced to the limits of subsistence? Instead, what has happened for hundreds of millions of years is that cells in multicellular organisms have generally foregone runaway replication for the sake of replication efforts at another level of abstraction.

        And wouldn’t you similarly have predicted that when eukaryotes first captured mitochondria or chloroplasts as endosymbionts, the runaway reproductive efforts of the latter would have inevitably broken up the partnership?

        Indeed, wouldn’t you have predicted that when molecules first started to catalyze their own spontaneous assembly, the future would be nothing more than a soup of the most fecund self-replicating molecules?

        I’m of course not disagreeing with the fundamental point that the future will be dominated by the most fecund replicators. I’m just saying that we don’t know what level of abstraction will end up in control of the resource pie. Sure, from the point of view of those first molecules, maybe societies and organisms and cells are just footnotes about how the soup ended up sloshing around, but surely that isn’t the perspective that should mediate how we think about the sloshings we see — and are.

      • Patri Friedman

        Yeah, Brian’s reply is another angle on mine, which is that sometimes groups of organisms at one level (cells, people) can organize themselves at a higher level (multicellular organisms, world society) which enforces anti-runaway growth provisions (anti-cancer, anti-fecundity).

        Hmm, I see a problem w/ this analogy. Cancer is self-limiting b/c it kills its host. An occasional cancer doesn’t take over the world. But an expanding population is not self-limiting. If a single world fails to control itself, the universe gets filled with these “Winners”.

      • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

        I’m not saying that competition breaks all larger units unto uncoordinated smaller units. I’m saying that even when smaller units form larger cooperatives, when those larger units compete down to near subsistence level, then their smaller parts are also near subsistence level. As long as there is enough competition at some level, that and all smaller parts will mostly be near subsistence level.

  • http://www.nancybuttons.com Nancy Lebovitz

    I don’t think the Hutterite/Mormon/Hmong/fringe Chasidic style of having as many children as you can is a winner– the resources generally aren’t there to raise the children to do well, and lifetime costs to the parents (in deprivation, work, and worry) are high.

    However, “enjoy raising children and put all the resources you can afford (without screwing yourself up) into raising them to be effective, happy adults” might grant a huge reproductive advantage. I’m talking about having 3 or 4 children rather than 0, 1, or 2, not aiming for 10+.

    • Douglas Knight

      Mormons (not those in compounds) perfectly fit your second paragraph. They are integrated in modern society and have a positive correlation between wealth and children.

  • luke

    have you ever loved anyone? I mean with a statement like this, “For example, we think we pay for docs to help our loved ones get well, rather than to show that we care” I must assume no.

    The statement may be true is some instances but i hope not generally. if it is generally true then we have truly lost the ability to love beyond ourselves.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      You seem to think that people who feel love cannot be mistaken about why they do things. “Hope” is not enough to make your beliefs accurate.

  • http://www.nancybuttons.com Nancy Lebovitz

    Humanity 1.0 has a surprisingly weak impulse towards truth-seeking. The usual explanation is that you can’t be thinking about epistomology when you’re being chased by a tiger, but this leaves out the high proportion of time when things aren’t fraught.

    In particular, when artificial light is expensive, you have an average of twelve hours/day of darkness, and some of them could be used for thinking.

    Also, see Talent Is Overrated and Effortless Mastery for the kind of attentive work it takes to get good at something, and how rare such work is. Not everyone has 10K hours to put into expertise, but I’m willing to bet that most people haven’t put in 100 hours.

    Also, people are apparently shockingly easy to lie to. I suspect it’s a consequence of making status differentials tolerable– it’s a major defense for low status people and limits the ability of high-status people to overreach— but the general lack of truth-checking presumably contributes to the high level of delusion.

    • http://www.thefaithheuristic.com Justin Martyr

      Great post, but most of the factors will only become more true in the future. (1) We will become wealthier, and thus more insulated from false beliefs. (2) new and more exotic drugs will be developed, (3) new and more exotic foods will be developed, which will decouple the taste heuristics from nutrition. (4) as virtual communities and more rapid transportation become common, signaling will become more necessary.

      OTOH, your first point seems very salient. Presumably the growth of knowledge will slow down and correct views will stabilize. You do not mention cultural competition. That will help too. Either the US will decline or Europe will decline. Trial and error will weed out a lot of false beliefs.

  • luke

    “10^70 atoms in our galaxy”

    why stop at our galaxy? are there not billions of galaxies.

    matter is neither created or destroyed so are we not just transforming the existing atoms into people?

    • Nick Tarleton

      why stop at our galaxy? are there not billions of galaxies.

      Available in the next million years.

      • http://cob.jmu.edu/rosserjb Barkley Rosser

        Nick,

        As I noted earlier, this and most of the rest of this discussion really does depend on being able to overcome the speed of light limit. Although we have all been brainwashed in this dreamtime by watching ever so many sci fi movies and TV shows that have characters in spaceships whooping off into warp drive and so on, that does not mean that such a thing will ever be achieved. If it is, then indeed, our galaxy may not be any limit at all.

        If the limit cannot be breached, well, maybe we can get close to the speed of light, but I have not heard of any earth-like planets being discovered near any of the stars all that near us. That means that any colonization would have to involve probably the sorts of groups Robin mentions, ones willing to set off on a multi-generation expedition with no expectation of maintaining serious links with the existing centers of humanity and with very uncertain chances of success. Again, bottom line here is that it will be unlikely that we will be populating huge areas of space, or will do so only very gradually, with most of us pretty much stuck in this solar system, and probably mostly on earth, for a very long time.

      • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

        Barkley, I have been explicitly assuming the speed of light limit is absolute.

      • Nick Tarleton

        If the limit cannot be breached, well, maybe we can get close to the speed of light, but I have not heard of any earth-like planets being discovered near any of the stars all that near us.

        In my model, and I assume Robin’s as well, interstellar travel comes after abandoning biology and the need for Earthlike planets.

        multi-generation expedition

        In objective time, which is important (interest rates), but not necessarily subjective time (as in pressing PAUSE, not time dilation).

        very uncertain chances of success

        Better rationalists with much better computers should be able to do sufficiently good engineering to drive the chance of success very high.

      • Nick Tarleton

        much better computers

        Scratch that, actually; brute-force simulation is a simple (and incomplete) argument for the possibility of ultra-reliable engineering, but it shouldn’t actually be necessary.

    • http://cob.jmu.edu/rosserjb Barkley Rosser

      Robin and Nick,

      OK, if you want to go on about post-human computers or some other sort of machine life, fine. But why would such forms bother with oddball religions or have any desire to reproduce at rates that would absolutely necessitate going to other star systems, and if there were not overpopulation, why would they bother? If they are to be so smart, won’t they just figure out how to control their own population to stay within solar limits, because if the speed of light limit holds, it is still a long time to get to another system, even for a bunch of smart, self-reproducing machines?

      • http://williambswift.blogspot.com/ billswift

        The point is that even in post-human machines, those that reproduce more out-compete those that don’t. And it was obvious from Robin’s original essay that he wasn’t relying on human biology or psychology to make his point. Any system subject to selection pressures between reproducing and competitive members will eventually grow to meet the limits of its environmental niche.

  • FeedPhilosophers

    Robin,
    This is a first rate post. However, your argument assumes that we will run out of resources before we can evolve (at gene or meme level) efficient means of coordination. Different endgames may playout differently. Also, there is a circularity the argument. If we collapse we will seem delusional resource wasters who did not have as many children as we ought to have had given our resources. If we do not collapse, what seems delusional at the gene level may prove to be a stable equilibria at the meme level. My hunch is that you have not taken seriously enough whatever it is that is causing certain population growth rates to stagnate, and people to opt to have fewer children than their resources allow.

  • http://rhollerith.com/ Richard Hollerith

    Bravo! You should write more summaries of your blog posts, Robin.

  • tom

    You must have great bedtimes stories for the kids!

    I don’t understand why you believe so strongly in the idea that the future will have many entities that do no coordinate on reproduction and consumption rather than one conscious entity that chooses to maximize something other than consumption. I think of the Borg as a more likely future than a galaxy of cockroaches and rats (or computer viruses).

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      Coordination is very hard and expensive. Consider the common scale diseconomies in most firms.

      • http://timtyler.org/ Tim Tyler

        Consider also the enormous organizations that exist today. They are the largest cooperative entities ever seen on the planet.

        Cooperation doesn’t cost that much, and the benefits apparently more than compensate for its costs. Check out how successful ants have been – or multicellular organisms before them. Cooperation with your fellows often pays off big time in biology. Human society is not the first time it has happened. We already know how well the paradigm works because of its previous manifestations.

      • http://williambswift.blogspot.com/ billswift

        Defecting within a cooperative species also pays off. Which is why there can be no limits on reproduction short of a universal tyranny.

  • http://yudkowsky.net/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    Perhaps most dramatic will be tragedies about dreamtime advocates who could foresee and were horrified by the coming slow stable adaptive eons, and tried passionately, but unsuccessfully, to prevent them.

    Yeah. I guess I don’t ultimately understand the psychology that can write that and not fight fanatically to the last breath to prevent the dark vision from coming to pass.

    How awful would things have to be before you would fight to stop it? Before you would do more than sigh in resignation? If no one were ever happy or sad, if no one ever again told a story or bothered to imagine that things could have been different, would that be awful enough?

    Are the people who try and change the future, people who you are not comfortable affiliating yourself with? Is it not the “role” that you play in your vision of your life? Or is it really that the will to protect is so rare in a human being?

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      This vision really isn’t that dark for me. It may not be as bright as the unicorns and fairies that fill dream-time visions, but within the range of what seems actually feasible, I’d call it at least 90% of the way from immediate extinction to the very best possible.

      • http://lesswrong.com/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

        Okay, so if no one were ever again happy or sad, or ever told a story again, or ever bothered to remember anything that wasn’t relevant to some immediate problem, would that be awful enough to stir you? How far is it on the utility scale, percentagewise, between extinction and maxutil?

        What if consciousness is an expensive luxury and the Malthusians dispense with it? How does that rank percentagewise?

      • Carl Shulman

        I see a worrying pattern here. Robin thinks the hyper-Malthusian scenario is amazingly great and that efforts to globally coordinate to prevent it (and the huge deadweight losses of burning the commons, as well as vast lost opportunities for existing beings) will very probably fail. Others, such as James Hughes and Eliezer and myself, see the Malthusian competitive scenario as disastrous and also think that humans or posthumans will invest extensive efforts (including the social control tech enabled by AI/brain emulations) to avoid the associated losses in favor of a cooperative/singleton scenario, with highish likelihood of success.

        It almost seems as though we are modeling the motives of future beings with the option of working to produce global coordination simply by generalizing from our own valuations of the Malthusian scenario.

      • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

        Eliezer, I don’t want to commit to judging the future using some list of our habits, as if a future that didn’t preserve enough of our such specific habits could not be valuable. They may stop our habits, and replace them with equally valuable habits that I would now have trouble imagining.

        Carl, I agree we should avoid relying too heavily on our own personal values when estimates the chance of strong global coordination. We should imagine future proposals to coordinate, and then estimate typical eagerness then for its supposed benefits, typical fears of its downside risks, typical levels of success and corruption of implemented coordinations, and typical reactions to such track records.

      • http://yudkowsky.net/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

        How about turning it around? If this is 90%, then what does 100% look like?

      • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

        The most common complaint here is that I seem overconfident to even make any forecasts about this distant time. And you want me to make even more? Guessing and weighing other plausible outcomes seems pretty hard to me. I expect I’ll do so eventually though.

  • http://www.nancybuttons.com Nancy Lebovitz

    Robin Hanson
    September 29, 2009 at 1:35 pm

    Sure there will be things to learn about; there just won’t be much useful to gain from such learning.

    That isn’t obvious– if life is that intensely competitive, then even a small gain in the ability to predict what people will do could be worthwhile.

    *****

    Does the site limit how long a reply chain can be?

    • http://cob.jmu.edu/rosserjb Barkley Rosser

      It can go the next galaxy cluster or two… :-).

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      To fit within a fixed column width, the designer recommended limiting nesting to three levels.

      • http://williambswift.blogspot.com/ billswift

        Maybe we could move this discussion to http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=849918 . Someone linked to this page from Hacker News, but nobody there commented. I like their nesting, it makes sub-threads easier to follow.

      • http://shagbark.livejournal.com Phil Goetz

        Never listen to web designers! They recommend silly things, like limiting nesting to 3 levels, for the sake of prettiness.

  • jim

    How is this different from a “grey-goo” sort of scenario? Who says these minimal user maximal reproducers are sentient? They sound more like viruses.

    I find many levels of structure more likely. Some sort of solar or planetary sized intelligence made up of smaller intelligence that compete for computational resources according to what the larger sentience is doing along with semi-sentient computational scavengers and viruses. Sure there will be many viruses but why are we thinking about them?

    Certainly a thought provoking post. Turn it into an article in one of those essay collections about the future.

  • http://timtyler.org/ Tim Tyler

    The maladaptiveness of modern humans seems mainly due to their memetic infections. This means that human actions are not just for the benefit of their DNA.

    However, infections are not a particularly new phenomenon. They are ubiquitous in nature. Every animal that sneezes or gets diarrhea is acting in a manner that benefits not its genes, but the genes of its pathogens. So, I think it would be challenging to support the thesis that this era is more maladaptive than normal with facts. Maladaptiveness via infections is not a modern phenomena – nor has it ever been a rare one – and the medium of inheritance used by the pathogens seems to be neither here nor there.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      Even if these infections do not hurt us more than other animal’s infections hurt them, these are still especially large delusional harms.

  • DaveL

    The far future summarizes our era: “After the invention of agriculture, there was a long period of adjustment.”

    (I wish I could remember the SF story that came from.)

  • http://timtyler.org/ Tim Tyler

    Re: our descendants may remember how history hung by a precarious thread on a few crucial coordination choices

    The evidence that we made it the very first time we tried seems likely to be considered to be compelling evidence against this perspective. Our descendants are more likely to see DOOM as just another one of our fantasies.

  • http://www.aleph.se/andart/ Anders Sandberg

    It seems that combining this argument with the doomsday argument produces a few potentially unsettling predictions. Why should we find ourselves here at the unusual dreamtime rather than among the teeming masses of posthumans of the endless future? There are two potential non-extinction answers: one is that the transition also means the end of conscious observers, or that we are living in a simulation.

    It is not that hard to imagine a “mindless outsourcer” scenario a la Nick’s paper on the future of human evolution, or something like the interstellar locusts of Robin’s cosmic common scenario. They could be non-observers, yet fit in well as posthuman successors to us.

    However, it is the simulation argument possibility that seems to get the biggest boost by the dreamtime argument: there are more simulations of the dreamtime than any other era (since it is so unique, flexible and interesting), so we shouldn’t be surprised to find ourselves here. The standard simulation argument doesn’t have an explanation for why our present is likely to be simulated, but the dreamtime scenario seems to provide a nice explanation.

    • http://timtyler.org/ Tim Tyler

      If the future is not full of *human* observers, that would do just as well – according to some takes on the reference class problem.

    • jim

      I like the idea that this is the most interesting time to simulate. To add to that thought; this discussion thread must mean we are in a simulation created by AIs trying to figure out how to avoid a malthusian future. They are trying to get a bunch of simulated humans to work on the problem of avoiding it.

    • http://williambswift.blogspot.com/ billswift

      The simulation argument is less problematic than the doomsday argument, but unless evidence is presented for it, I still see no reason to believe in it any more than gods or elves. The big problem with the doomsday argument is that it is circular; it assumes that humanity will end, then uses that assumption to “show” that we are near the end.

    • http://shagbark.livejournal.com Phil Goetz

      “The standard simulation argument doesn’t have an explanation for why our present is likely to be simulated” – There’s no need for an explanation, as long as you don’t assume that we are re-enacting something that happened before (something that many people talking about world-is-a-simulation seem to assume).

  • Gene Callahan

    One of the great, strange delusions of our time, that will doubtlessly look very odd to our descendants, is the idea that Darwin’s theory of evolution offers the ultimate insight into human nature.

    • A’Grumh

      Have you ever met anyone who believes that? I don’t think I have

      • http://williambswift.blogspot.com/ billswift

        I believe that, if and only if you take “ultimate” to mean over very, very, very long periods of time. On a day to day, or even century to century, timescale other more human motivations are much more important, but over tens of thousands to millions of years, evolution will have the final word.

  • Gene Callahan

    “Living in a simulation”? Another great delusion of our time: people who say this have some notion that understand what they are saying!

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  • Will

    Robin, you once asked the OBNYC meetup group whether you should focus more on your blogging or writing academic papers. I have been leaning towards academic papers since that meetup, but this post completely changed my mind. Bravo.

  • http://causalityrelay.wordpress.com/ Vladimir Nesov

    If people can reproduced at some speed, why can’t goods “reproduce” with them? This intuition is my disagreement.

    • http://williambswift.blogspot.com/ billswift

      Ultimately, it’s not just a competition between people and people, but between people and their “goods” as well. Do you invest your time and energy in getting a new doohickey or in reproducing?

  • http://causalityrelay.wordpress.com/ Vladimir Nesov

    More specifically, I don’t see what’s special about increase in the number of people as opposed to increase in the number of goods. If some folks like producing people, that creates more people in proportion to goods. If other folks like producing goods (allocating resources to goods), that creates more goods in proportion to people. Robin’s argument is that economy growth is limited, but this argument seems to be applied selectively so that it applies to everything but people. If applied to people as well, it doesn’t seem to favor any particular resulting ratio.

  • http://timtyler.org/ Tim Tyler

    If some folks prefer producing offspring, and other folks prefer producing goods, then the second group is quickly eliminated via natural selection.

    • Grant

      Why?

      Robin’s conclusion seems predicated on the assumption that larger numbers of poorer people generally beat smaller numbers of richer people. Historically this hasn’t been the case, although this may be largely due to coordination costs which may be eliminated when information technology matures.

      I’d like to see a formal argument supporting the idea that the people who reproduce more with fewer resources allocated towards each offspring will beat out those who do the opposite.

      • http://www.aleph.se/andart/ Anders Sandberg

        It is not so much about beating the others as simply outbreeding them. If one group is growing exponentially at a rate x, and the other at rate y, then the relative fraction of x-breeders at time t will be p1*exp(xt)/(p1*exp(xt)+p2*exp(yt)) (assuming they start with populations p1 and p2). This fraction will approach 0 or 1 as time increases, depending on whether x is smaller or bigger than y. The goodsmakers will not be destroyed, they will just become a very small fraction of a reproduction-happy population.

        A more plausible model is that people individually decide which group to join, and that there is some random flow between them. But unless people are extremely likely to want to become goodsmakers for some reason, the breeders will dominate. If you solve the growth equations, the total growth rate tends to be dominated by the fast breeders.

    • http://shagbark.livejournal.com Phil Goetz

      No; Vladimir has a point. Consider it “reproducing” vs. “growing”. Evolution isn’t so easy to analyze when people don’t die of old age, and aren’t individuals bounded by a skin, and aren’t distinct from their goods. There is no real distinction between reproducing and acquiring goods in the future we’re talking about.

  • http://timtyler.org/ Tim Tyler

    Most humans are highly resource-limited – i.e. their lives would be transformed by a lottery win.

    Of course it is unlikely to be true (on average) that having more babies and spending less on them would benefit peoples’ genes – I never claimed otherwise. The r/K selection ratio in various environments has already been tuned by natural selection. Humans have a smaller ratio than many other species, though enough of one for there to be 6 billion people already, with many of them on the breadline.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Would the simulation argument count as evidence against this hypothesis? After all, we are far from poor, and if we were far-future simulations, we should be by the arguments presented here.

    • http://williambswift.blogspot.com/ billswift

      You need evidence for the simulation argument first. There is an argument for it, but no more evidence than there is for the existence of god.

  • Glen Tomkins

    “These factors combine to make our era the most consistently and consequentially deluded and unadaptive of any era ever.”

    “…in England it is just the Reverse of all this. Here, you may securely display your utmost Rhetorick against Mankind, in the Face of the World; tell them, ‘That they are all gone astray; That there is none that doth good, no not one; That we live in the very dregs of Time; That Knavery and Atheism are Epidemick as the Pox; That Honesty is fled with Astraea’; with other Common places equally new and eloquent, which are furnished by the Splendida bilis. And when you have done, the whole Audience, far from being offended, shall return you thanks as a Deliverer of precious and useful Truths.”
    J Swift, A Tale of a Tub

    Your claim about our age would seem a bold one, given that such claims are as old as the written record. But perhaps you mean “our era” to encompass the whole era during which people recorded their thoughts for posterity. And literacy, which entered the Greek world about the same time as money, can indeed plausibly share with money the honor of being cast as the root of all evil.

    But, whatever era exactly it is meant ot encompass, this theory that we live in an age, perhaps because literacy, or the other factors you cite, has opened a gap between thought and practice; that is exceptionally prone to delusion; has this recursive feature that Swift deploys irony to deal with; that the idea that we are all deluded is about as old and commonplace as the era of literacy and the proliferation of delusional theories. If the idea that the conventional wisdom is a crock, is itself about the strongest and most consistent conventional wisdom out there…well, you see the difficulties. You could make a pretty good empirical case that contrarianism is indeed the reigning conventional wisdom. Always has been.

    It is interesting that much of A Tale of a Tub, like your post, goes into material causes explaining why systems of thought arise and struggle against each other for dominance. Swift, of course, pours his brand of ironic acid over the proceedings, and reduces his explanations into the same quivering, steaming mass as the phenomenon of folly that they started out to explain. Aren’t the sort of material causes you advance to explain why most people think the way they do, exactly what is most alienating and reality-buffering, what opens the gap between thought and practice?

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      I do mean “our era” to encompass many hundreds of years. I certainly don’t say all conventional wisdom is a crock. I find it surprising that the more people who say much of what we think is deluded, the less likely you think that claim to be.

      • Glen Tomkins

        With all these disillusioned people traipsing about, who’s left to still be under the spell of the delusional thinking that we disillusioned people complain about as the universal condition of mankind in these times? I mean, a gadfly needs a herd of great lumbering self-satisfied beasts to sting, and a comedian needs for the rest of us to be straight men for him to play off of, but all we have these days is great swarms of other gadflies, and everyone’s a comedian. Damn, even the conservatives scream to the rafters the maddening thesis that we need to overthrow the reigning conventional wisdom because the media and academia have poisoned our culture’s tradition with their libruhlism.

        When was it not this way?

  • http://timtyler.org/ Tim Tyler

    Stuart, most people on the planet are pretty poor – with around 20% living in “extreme poverty”.

  • anonymous

    I suspect you are badly mistaken in predicting a slow, stable future where not much changes and there is little or nothing left to be discovered.

    First of all, even if there was truly nothing to be discovered scientifically or technologically, culture and entertainment would still provide endless ferment and change. Unless you alter human nature itself, the human race would retain its seemingly infinite appetite for games, viral fads, memes, ephemeral fashions, and other forms of entertainment. And if there’s nothing new under the sun, just invent a new twist on some retro trend and carry on.

    Even if science itself seemingly reached a temporary dead end, theoreticians would still party on: for instance, “not even wrong” string theory has merrily carried on even in the absence of any genuinely new particle physics discoveries in quite some time.

    There are also any number of problems that are easy to formulate but could never be solved even with every atom in the universe as a computational resource. When endgame tablebases of the future discover a “white to play and win in 10,000 moves” chess problem, will we ever have any hope of understanding the underlying “strategy”? There will always be unsolved mysteries, concepts and properties we have discovered but can’t figure out. Perhaps all physical phenomena will at some point be understood, but it’s hard to imagine that mathematics or game theory could ever be exhausted.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      I can certainly imagine fashion continuing, at least if the conditions that promote such signaling persist. But I don’t consider fashion “discoveries” to be useful on net.

  • http://rantandrave.posterous.com/ Susan James

    This is the most interesting, most diverse, and divergent blog ever posted. Just so you know…

  • http://rantandrave.posterous.com/ Susan James

    ….but then I would expect nothing less from someone with credentials as divergent as Robin’s.

  • http://denisbider.blogspot.com/ denis bider

    Robin’s premise is that, given freedom of fertility, resources will eventually be spread over a near-maximal number of near-subsistence lives, as opposed to a smaller number of richer lives.

    But universal freedom of fertility does not seem a reasonable assumption to make. It seems more likely that reproduction will be free-er where the will to reproduce is not as strong. Conversely, reproduction will be more restricted where it begins to pose problems – especially if it poses problems to whomever is in charge.

    Pockets of the universe may indeed be governed by an anarchy with subsistence-level high fertility, while other parts of the universe will be populated by creatures with no internal will to reproduce, or by creatures whose reproduction is held in check externally.

    In these ways, it is unlikely that the distant universe will be much different than the world we have today.

    • Jesse M.

      I agree, especially when you consider the possibility that our “descendants” may be mind uploads, or other forms of A.I. In that case one form of “reproduction” would be simply making a copy of one’s own simulated brain and letting it run independently–surely such civilizations are going to place some restrictions on self-copying, and not allow a few deranged individuals to copy themselves exponentially and hog most of the computational resources of the entire civilization! And if there are restrictions on self-copying (perhaps involving limited “shares” of the computational resources of the whole civilization, so eventually you’ll no longer own enough memory to make more copies of yourself), then it seems natural there would be restrictions on other forms of “reproduction” like creating new “infant” minds to raise up.

      I wonder to what degree Robin’s argument here is influenced by anthropic reasoning related to the “doomsday argument”, as well as the related “simulation argument”. The doomsday argument does present an interesting puzzle if you assume at least some fraction of civilizations in the multiverse manage to survive long enough to have technological singularities and spread throughout space, as these civilizations should be vastly more populous than those that fail, and thus it seems likely that the vast majority of sentient beings in the multiverse would living in such a mature galactic civilization, yet we don’t seem to be. If you buy this sort of anthropic reasoning (and I do think it’s plausible), one possible answer is that a large proportion of sentient beings in such mature civilizations will be part of “ancestor civilizations” simulating the pre-singularity days, so these beings think they’re living in a much earlier and less populous era than they “really” are, and thus experiences like ours would actually not be so unusual. But in order for this argument to make sense you have to find some explanation as to why such advanced civilizations would want to spend such a disproportionate amount of time simulating early eras of their own history–and Robin’s scenario above is one possible “story” as to why they might find our era particularly fascinating. If you don’t buy into the sort of anthropic reasoning though, there’s no longer any pressing reason to try to come up with an argument for why advanced galactic civilizations would be so interested in this era of history (and even if you do buy into it, one can think of other possible “stories” to rationalize this idea).

  • http://hertzlinger.blogspot.com Joseph Hertzlinger

    I’ve been trying to think of an SF story that matches this scenario of a stable, high-tech subsistence civilization. “The Skinny People of Leptophlebo Street” by R. A. Lafferty (where absolutely everything gets recycled) might be the closest match.

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  • http://disqus.com/ovaut ovaut

    How on earth can you be so confident of all this?

    No qualifications at all.

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  • David Spencer

    Ignore the “so confident” fellow, he’s obsessed with how he’s ever going to get Proof to marry him over the objections of her father, Trivial Formalism.

    What an interesting architecture you’ve constructed, here. Even the badge wearing, dues paying Trekies nitpicking your thesis can’t seem to contradict it without either referencing the fact that they read embarassing SciFi or that they worship sheepskins and an = sign.

    Speaking for myself, I’m combing your socio-retroanthropoligical argument for holes. I will find them, if they’re there. In the meantime, BRAV-O, sir! This is the most interesting thing I’ve read since Heidegger.