Limits To Art

Bryan Caplan:

Robin Hanson has repeatedly told me that during the next million years, we’ll discover all useful science/technology; there’s only so much to know, and by then, we’ll have it all figured out. But would Robin see art the same way? By his logic, it seems like you could also say say: During the next million years, will we discover all interesting art; there’s only so much art to create, and by then we’ll have created it.

You might object, “Science is about truth, art is about creativity, so science but not art has finite limits.” But is “useful” more like “true” or “interesting”? So even given constant science, we might endlessly create novel applications. Once you go down this route, though, it’s hard to see why scientific questions – as opposed to answers – would be any less open-ended than artistic visions.

My claim is that within a million years economic growth due to innovation will have essentially ceased, at least relative to our innovation rates, in terms of giving value to creatures like us. I do not say our descendants will never discover anything new and valuable; the space of possible combinations is far too vast for that. Instead, I say new discoveries will have very close value substitutes in billions of previous discoveries. At least for creature like us, and setting aside the value of novelty itself, which cannot contribute much to economic growth.

So yes, our descendants will discover new stories, art, and even math theorems, rare items of high value in a vast mostly-unexplored space of low value items. But creatures like us will not gain substantially more value from these new items, compared to the last million such items. They may perceive a value of novelty in finding something new, and having been the one to find it. But they won’t get substantially more value from this than did their ancestors in finding the last million such novelties.

Yes it might be possible to create creatures who gain unboundedly increasing value from ever more rare yet actually found combinations. But we are not such creatures, nor do we have unbounded sympathy with such creatures. So the value obtained by creatures like us is bounded.

It is also hard to see why such unbounded-value creatures would naturally evolve in a competitive world; we evolved to value rare hard-to-find combinations because this signaled useful abilities. But when abilities are bounded, then so should be the value gained from signaling such abilities. And much of the value of such signals is relative; when some gain, others lose by comparison.

Of course in a million years we may not have expanded more than a million light-years from home, and so our economy will at least grow with our slowly expanding sphere of resources. But this growth rate is far below familiar growth rates, and far below feasible population growth rates.

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  • Here is a great short-SF concerned with this question:

    The future of art & copyright in a short sci-fi story- Melancholy Elephants – by Spider Robinson

    “Not as fast as artists breed. Do you know about the great split in literature at the beginning of the twentieth century? The mainstream essentially abandoned the Novel of Ideas after Henry James, and turned its collective attention to the Novel of Character. They had sucked that dry by mid-century, and they’re still chewing on the pulp today. Meanwhile a small group of writers, desperate for something new to write about, for a new story to tell, invented a new genre called science fiction. They mined the future for ideas. The infinite future—like the infinite coal and oil and copper they had then too. In less than a century they had mined it out; there hasn’t been a genuinely original idea in science fiction in over fifty years. Fantasy has always been touted as the `literature of infinite possibility’—but there is even a theoretical upper limit to the `meaningfully impossible,’ and we are fast reaching it.”

    • Isn’t this the problem the Q Continuum in Star Trek faced? I think Q said that most of its kind committed suicide for that they’ve learnt all there was to learn, done all there was to do. All games played, all dreams dreamed, nothing new under the sky was to be found anymore.

      And don’t we all experience this problem already these days? Have you people never thought and felt that you’ve already seen that movie, read that book or heard that song before for that they all featured the same plot, the same rhythm? On Amazon you can read many reviews where people claim that the author stole something from someone else. Well, hard to come up with something unique already, even in SF?

  • Bock

    What makes you think creatures like us will last so long? We haven’t been here nearly as long as the dinosaurs were and they didn’t last. Or, rather, I suppose they evolved into birds, smaller animals with smaller brains. Why aren’t we as likely to evolve into smaller animals with smaller brains?

  • “My claim is that within a million years economic growth due to innovation will have essentially ceased, at least relative to our innovation rates, in terms of giving value to creatures like us.”

    What’s with the “creatures like us”? Surely you don’t think many “creatures like us” will be around in a million years? Why can’t we just measure the economy in terms of gold atoms?

    “our economy will at least grow with our slowly expanding sphere of resources. But this growth rate is far below familiar growth rates”

    Right – that is essentially Malthus’s observation.

  • Is another way to say this that all new innovations are valuable to us because the increase our safety, our convenience, or our status (the last one always being zero sum). I see convenience problems being essentially solved for folks like us within a million years (that’s just logistics and IT). Status doesn’t really require new stuff, though it seems to me to drive heroic economic activity. Safety is trickier as far as I can tell. Even staying creatures like us, it’s not clear to me all safety problems will be essentially solved or proved unsolvable within 1 million years.

    • I should add convenience and novelty problems should also be solvable pharmaceutically, in much fewer than 1 million years (not wanting convenience or novelty is also a solution). Although the desire for safety could also be solved that way, I prefer to keep living the Woody Allen way.

  • Jess Riedel

    Is there a link to Robin Hanson’s previous arguments on this?

    • Steven Schreiber

      There aren’t really any.

      The reality is that he has no means of guaging just how much scientific or technological knowledge there is to be had or what its value actually is. He has speculations and arguments given premises no one should grant or ask, but nothing that you could call a well-formed argument.

      This, like a couple of running themes here, is Hanson’s debate about dancing angels. I leave it to you to figure out where the pinhead is.

      • Steven,
        That seems wrong to me, but hopefully someone else will jump in with a better refutation.

      • That’s not true. Robin has given actual metrics before (as again, he does here briefly noting the speed of light limit). Indeed, even in the post above, Robin linked to precisely one of his estimates. In case you missed it it was this essay.

      • Steven Schreiber

        @Joshua Zelinsky

        That would be a non-sequitur from your end; recall that the issue is a limit to knowledge and originality. An upper limit to material harnessed implies nothing about our ability to know every useful arrangement of that material.

        Nor is it clear that, were Hanson correct on science and technology, we would come to a wall for economic growth rates. We simply have no idea what it would be like to know every interesting true proposition. That is a rather unimaginable state and we can’t adequately speculate about what possibilities lie within it.

        Caplan’s argument is fundamentally different in kind from Hanson’s argument. Hanson is arguing that the limits to propagation create limits to economic growth. Caplan is arguing, in essence, that the limit to propagation doesn’t clearly limit economic growth because all parties concede that economic growth is about subjective value, i.e. brain states, and not about actual accumulation.

        That would be an interesting debate, but I don’t think anyone here is actually knowledgeable enough across physics, economics, philosophy and computational neuroscience to create an argument which is impressive under scrutiny.

  • There is already so much great art that it is hard to take it all in even if you do nothing except consume art. The poet Louise Bogan wrote, “There were so many things to love. I could not love them all.”

  • nazgulnarsil

    truth is relative to values. finite values means finite truths.

  • EEEE

    Aren’t most things of value a novelty at first? Doesn’t novelty have huge value? Why else would we demand such novelties? I think how you qualify a novelty needs further clarification.

    Please explain how the current system all of the sudden breaks down in a million years.

    Seems like Hanson is sounding a little too Malthusian today (only relatively). Is Caplan – speaking as Julian Simon perhaps would – wrong? I don’t think so.


    Robin says:

    “We’ll eventually learn everything worth knowing about how to arrange atoms, and growth in available atoms will be limited by the speed of light.”

    That seems misleading or wrong – there are *very* many ways to “arrange atoms” – and we will probably never find them all – and we may well continue to improve our abilities in that area *well* past the million year timescale.

    However – the idea that there are limits to growth rates seems obviously right – though relatively uncontroversial – to me. I rather doubt that aspect is what others are complaining about.

    • Those *very* many ways to “arrange atoms” are largely entropic, i.e. of no value. Growth rates are only critical if complexity is infinitely valuable. Otherwise it won’t be of any use to add more rules to games, i.e. make things more complicated. Then it is just about endless repetition.

      • This is not about “infinity” – it is about whether science and technology will continue to improve – over large timescales. I think the case that some limit will be reached is pretty weak. As for the hypothetical limit being reached in the “ten thousand more years” of the “Nature is Doomed” article – that sounds *very* unlikely to me. That is not enough time to conquer this galaxy – let alone mastering the art of moving on to fresh ones.

        Sure, we will be resource-limited long before then. Indeed, we are highly resource-limited *now*.

  • Re: “Seems like Hanson is sounding a little too Malthusian today”

    How can someone be “too Malthusian”?!? Malthus – after all – was right on the money with his key insight – that population growth typically outstrips resource growth – and so ecologies are typically resource-limited.

  • Nithya

    It may be possible to manufacture novelty for its own sake in some instances: Perhaps those ‘canon’ artworks and books that already exist (far greater in number than any person could properly consume in today’s average lifetime) could be catalogued and only re-released for consumption once every hundred years for a limited time, say, five years. Thus, the novelty of art that already exists could be reused and perhaps the volume of poor quality, derivative works would have a limited shelf life and disappear thereafter. Truly unique works would be more valuable and added to the re-release cycle. This wouldn’t, of course, be an option for those areas (science, technology, medicine etc) where even incremental added value is important.

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