Is Time Us, Space Them?

(This post co-authored by Robin Hanson and Katja Grace.)

In the Battlestar Galactica TV series, religious rituals often repeated the phrase, “All this has happened before, and all this will happen again.” It was apparently comforting to imagine being part of a grand cycle of time. It seems less comforting to say “Similar conflicts happen out there now in distant galaxies.” Why?

Consider two possible civilizations, stretched either across time or space:

  • Time: A mere hundred thousand people live sustainably for a billion generations before finally going extinct.
  • Space: A trillion people spread across a thousand planets live for only a hundred generations, then go extinct.

Even though both civilizations support the same total number of lives, most observers probably find the time-stretched civilization more admirable and morally worthy. It is “sustainable,” and in “harmony” with its environment. The space-stretched civilization, in contrast, seems “aggressively” expanding and risks being an obese “repugnant conclusion” scenario. Why?

Finally, consider that people who think they are smart are often jealous to hear a contemporary described as “very smart,” but are much happier to praise the genius of a Newton, Einstein, etc. We are far less jealous of richer descendants than of richer contemporaries. And there is far more sibling rivalry than rivalry with grandparents or grandkids. Why?

There seems an obvious evolutionary reason – sibling rivalry makes a lot more evolutionary sense. We compete genetically with siblings and contemporaries far more than with grandparents or grandkids. It seems that humans naturally evolved to see their distant descendants and ancestors as allies, while seeing their contemporaries more as competitors. So a time-stretched world seems choc-full of allies, while a space-stretched one seems instead full of potential rivals, making the first world seem far more comforting.

Having identified a common human instinct about what to admire, and a plausible evolutionary origin for it, we now face the hard question: do we embrace this instinct as revealing a deep moral truth, or do we reject it as a morally irrelevant accident of our origins? The two of us (Robin and Katja) are inclined more to reject it, but your mileage may vary.

(This is cross-posted at Meteuphoric.)

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  • is it possible we’re looking at a societies existence as metaphors for our own personal existences–for example, a short-lived, aggressively expanding society would be like the live-fast-die-young types. the long-lived societies would be like the prudent long-lived, mild people who make maybe are preferred as good hires and good citizens. maybe there’s a bias towards the latter due to those people making better hires and citizens, and the wild types are trouble makers. foragers versus farmers even, to borrow Robin’s dichotomy.

  • Dániel Varga

    I need more detail to decide whether I prefer the time-stretched or the space-stretched civilization. Why did they go extinct? If this was a poll, you could easily guide preferences with carefully chosen priming keywords:
    1. sustainable, “in harmony with nature” VS hubris, overreach, squander
    2. regressive, limiting, eventless VS glorious, lively, “worth living”

  • Marc G.

    Given that the extinction of a civilization is almost never a peaceful process, the Time civilization has “purchased” 100 trillion peaceful lives with 100 thousand lives ending in pain, terror and confusion, whereas the Space civilization has paid a trillion lives for the same benefit. Another way to look at it: If you were offered a random lifetime in either of the two civilizations, you only have a .0000001% chance of living through the extinction of Time, but a 1% chance of living through the extinction of Space. This seems a clear reason to prefer Time over Space.

    In response to your first paragraph, the reason that seeing oneself as part of a cycle of events is comforting is that it provides “evidence” that one’s present difficulties are surmountable, as they have (presumably) been surmounted in the past. Telling someone that many others are undergoing the same difficulties provides no additional information as to one’s own chances of success, and therefore provides no comfort.

    • the Time civilization has “purchased” 100 trillion peaceful lives with 100 thousand lives ending in pain, terror and confusion, whereas the Space civilization has paid a trillion lives for the same benefit.

      I would guess that preference for the Time civilization would exist even if we postulated an instantaneous extinction event (say, a transition to a more stable vacuum). For Robin’s purpose, it’s probably sensible to assume such an event in order to focus the intuition pump.

      I strongly agree with your second paragraph. The comfort provided by being part of a grand cycle seems separate from the Robin’s plausible claim that we feel less competitive with other generations for the reasons given.

      • Scott P.

        “For Robin’s purpose, it’s probably sensible to assume such an event in order to focus the intuition pump.”

        It’s not sensible to assume something that cannot happen. The only way for a trillion-strong civilization over a hundred planets to go extinct is via either a massive interstellar war or via a galaxy-destroying event. The former is plausible, the latter cannot occur on the time-scale needed. So war it must be.

  • Michael

    Does this say anything about how societal norms will differ on marriage outside of the cultural/ethnic group, verses marriage outside of one’s age group? Is cross-generational marriage frowned upon because it forces us to consider our ancestors and descendants as possible competitors – an unusual role for them which we find discomforting?

  • Speculating about evolutionary roots in this context seems highly questionable. In our ancestral environment it seems likely that very little thinking about largescale space and time issues was going on. Moreover, in many historical societies one would have been unlikely to encounter one’s grandparents or grandchildren. (Rachel Caspari has done work showing that the existence of grandparents in substantial quantities has only been around for at most around 30,000-40,000 years.)

    • michael vassar

      Agreed. Still, the point is interesting without the evolutionary psychology. I’m inclined, I think, to agree with Robin’s conclusions.

      • Entropical

        Is this the conclusion that you’re inclined to agree with?:

        So a time-stretched world seems choc-full of allies, while a space-stretched one seems instead full of potential rivals, making the first world seem far more comforting.

        If so I am surprised. I would not be very confident in that explanation compared to many other plausible ones that seem as if they would better explain (e.g. my very tentative) preferences for one impossible-to-imagine-as-proposed scenario over the other. Some people like small towns, others big cities. I doubt either real-world preference has too much bearing on their valuations of time- vs. space-stretched civilizations (which I think might be based more on aesthetics than morality or hedonism).

        It also bothers me there are no strong arguments in the post supporting the conclusion that perception and dislike of greater rivalry and perception and liking of greater alliedness are a significant source of preferences for time-stretching; instead one finds poorly supported analogies, privileged hypotheses, and an impossible thought experiment.

    • Douglas Knight

      I think you are overstating Caspari’s work. She finds Neanderthals to have 0.4 grandparent-aged adult for each younger adult. That’s very different from the upper paleolithic ratio of 2, but it’s not trivial.

      • You’re right. The Caspari thing isn’t that strong an argument.

  • B

    I’m not fond of the idea of dying. I want whatever I create (children or ideas) to have as much longevity as possible. I can’t leave a mark on distant civilizations living concurrently with us at this time. But I can leave a mark on this civilization. I’d like that mark to last a long long time.

    • My reaction is similar (I left a similar comment on Katya’s blog):

      I seem to value a story-like life. Extension in space feels less like telling a bigger story, because a lot of people will be doing pretty much the same thing, independently, so after a point (probably about 500 people, if you ignore economies of scale) my utility scales much less than linearly with number of persons alive concurrently.

      It is also easier to affect and be affected by a lot of future and past people than a lot of present people.

      On the other hand, if concurrent lives allow for parallel, qualitatively different types of civilization or personality, that would also make the universe more interesting in a similar way, especially if there are still few enough to interact meaningfully. ( I can only be in 1 city at a time, but life is more interesting with more than 1 city available.)

  • Scott

    I would expect it’s because in our lives we are far more limited by time than by space (old age vs overpopulation, which has killed more? frailty vs crowds, which ruins more of a person’s life?) and so we desire gains on the time axis rather than the space axis. I mean, shrink the examples, and you can see we are already much closer to the second civilisation than the first:

    A mere hundred thousand homo sapiens live sustainably in Africa for a million generations before going extinct


    Six billion homo sapiens live across the entire planet, draining it of resources and melting the ice caps and greenhousing the atmosphere, driving themselves to extinction in a mere one hundred generations.

  • Entropical

    As a reader it is hard to be sure that one’s evaluation is keeping all else equal between the Time and Space options. (This isn’t helped by the inclusion of the affective (and politicized?) descriptor “sustainably” for the Time option which is subsequently implicitly disdained, and the inclusion of the affective descriptor “only” for the Space option. Might you consider stating the options with less adornment?) There are a thousand confounding factors. Too much effort must be made simply to ignore them. For example, imagining an impermeable stasis without history or (memetic/genetic) evolution or anything that could change the quality of life or the overall desirability of the world is too difficult to pull off, and without doing that I can’t really engage with the thought experiment beyond perhaps an affective twinge at the unnecessary adornments.

    most observers

    I’m not sure what group this is referring to. The words you imagine might be used by “most observers” are “harmony”, “sustainable”, “aggressively”, and “repugnant conclusion”, which doesn’t narrow it down enough for me. Anecdotally, focusing on “harmony” and “sustainable” I asked a UC Berkeley student which of Time or Space sounded more appealing to her, and she saw no reason to prefer either. You ask why most observers have a certain preference, but I am loth to explain a preference of a vaguely identified people, especially if they in fact largely do not have that preference.

    I don’t consider it all that unlikely, but I do not yet buy that features of social psychology like rivalry/jealousy of contemporaries (the domain of near mode), ancestor reverence, ancestor non-jealousy, or descendant non-jealousy are particularly related to an alleged preference for Time-like scenarios over Space-like ones (the domain of far mode). Children perceive taller glasses as containing more water than shorter but larger glasses. This isn’t absurd, seeing as ‘taller=more’ is generally true. However, unlike with volume, human intuitions about time might go uncorrected. Scope insensitivity is a potential issue, but our imperfect intuitions about space and time on the scales you suggest might be the bigger biasing factor. And yet the question of causal origin might be moot, for even if I knew that either was the truth I’d still lack the introspection and meta-ethical knowledge needed to be very certain that some clearer variation on Space vs. Time was truly equal as judged by any part or coalition of parts of myself, and I’d be suspicious of anyone who claimed much greater confidence.

  • Anonymous

    2 points:

    1) The eternal recurrence meme from Battlestar Galactica is closer related to memes of personal immortality than expansion memes. “All of this will happen again” is associated with “I will be here again” or “I will be reborn again” or at least “The greater consciousness principle of which I am a part will be here again”. Most people are really aversive to ending in oblivion. Probably irrationally so.

    2) From a practical self-centered view, given potential longevity interventions, a long-lived sustainable civilization seems to give me far better chances at personal long-term survival than a rapidly expanding, short-lived colonization process.

  • Buck Farmer

    I relate to past and future versions of myself. Yesterday and today are considered the same person.

    I do not relate (to nearly the same degree) with contemporaneous intelligences. My neighbor and I are not considered the same person.

    This is probably driven via evolutionary pressure by the arrow of time.

    • Buck Farmer

      From a selfish gene perspective:

      “Me” today and “me” tomorrow are 100% genetically related.

      “Me” here and “me” next-door are considerably less so.

      However, “me” in the indefinite future and “me” today are not 100% genetically related because “me” future might be dead in which case we’d be 0% genetically related.

      What lifespan is our present-future biases optimized for?

  • J Storrs Hall

    A billion *generations*??? Say, 20 billion years, longer than the life of the universe? I would claim that the numbers in your example are literally inconceivable.

    But I think that the spirit of it also misses a point. Most people judge a civilization by the content of its character, rather than the counting of its heads.

    A civilization the size of Green Bay, WI that lasted the life of the universe would have to be pretty agile — living thru the death of suns and so forth. In the EAA human societies didn’t grow fast, so this doesn’t bother us. So we instinctively think that Civ. I is doing something right.

    Civ. II is the size of Asimov’s Galactic Empire and lasts … 2000 years. Which is shorter than human history, so we have the instinctive sense that if they kick the bucket it couldn’t have been a natural occurance but they must have done something really stupid.

    If, on the other hand, you tell us that Civ. II died in the explosion of the galactic core, and that Civ. I was a band of immortal disembodied energy creature vampires who went from world to world sucking the life force of the inhabitants, our instincts reverse. Has nothing to do with the number of people in either case.

    And frankly, if forced to make a choice on the basis of just the information you give above, I’d rather live in Civ. II. 2000 years is longer than any human civilization has lasted so far…

  • JL

    The ‘problem’ is that we do not and can not make decisions in “God mode” with perfect foresight.

    The bias that favors sustainability is a rational heuristic bias. We try to make choices that increase our odds of long-term survival in an unknown future.

    Consider a similar decision problem of a subsistence farmer faced with the following choice:

    [b]minimize utility[/b] Work hard, plant your seed corn and then die of hunger because of drought.

    [b]maximize utility[/b] Throw a big party, eat all the seed corn and emigrate to a region that does not have drought.

    Obviously, the second choice is better.
    But the decision must be made before it is known whether a drought will occur.

    It is well known that humans are risk-averse, even to an irrational degree.
    But at a meta level, this risk-averse bias is itself not irrational.
    Faced with incomplete knowledge it is better to be risk-averse.

    A second issue is that Hanson prefers to measure utility in terms of individual sentient beings.

    But many people, including myself, have a more collectivist orientation. We favor the survival of civilization and culture rather than people per se.

    And if you take that perspective, then the choice is between having civilization for 20 billion years vs. having civilization for 100 years.
    Assuming that, in both cases, a generation lasts 20 years.

    If the second option has much longer lived generations, I’d prefer that if the total time would become larger than the first option.

  • Peter Twieg

    I’d say this is simply attributable to ignore the quantity of people in a world when evaluating it unless explicitly forced to do so (which is why something like the repugnant conclusion is only reached via induction, rather than just placing the “repugnant” world side-by-side with the status quo.) We see one world whose inhabitants will live for a billion generations and that invokes all sorts of positive associations, as mentioned. We don’t really think about how a 100-generation world with many more people could be comparably desirable unless subjected to Parfit-style arguments.

  • It appears that survival is not of the fittest but the luckiest. Once again, randomness rules. So what is left is (mere) attribution errors and pattern projection when none exists. Apparently variation comes mainly from recombination based on two sexes — and is also random.

    • billswift

      You might want to think things through a little more before commenting – you just wrote that you don’t believe in evolution.

  • Olomana

    We value time more than space because, as individuals, we run out of time before we run out of space.

    The example of the two civilizations has been constructed so that all one can do with the information given is multiply out the lives lived and get the same number either way. We transfer our individual bias to the problem and rationalize accordingly.

    It would be interesting to present this question to people who are more constrained by space than time, for example prison inmates and the wheelchair-bound.

  • Ryan

    I think you’ve seriously misinterpreted the Battlestar Galactica quote. Not to geek out over it, but I think it’s really relevant to your conclusions.

    The phrase “All this has happened before, and all this will happen again” is not used as a comforting mantra. It’s a lament that the errors of the past are doomed to be repeated, that mankind doesn’t learn from its mistakes, that we’ll always be essentially the same as we are now, and we’ll always make each other suffer out of ignorance or pettiness. (I’d relate it to the cycle of rebirth which Buddhists seek to break). A major theme of this show is to ask whether it’s really true that we can’t change, as a species or as individuals. And the only answer given in the often-misunderstood series finale is that at least we’re always given another chance to try, with every new day or every new generation.

    For us, the point is that neither of these civilizations is perfect, but the longer-lived one has a better chance of improving itself, the quality of life of its citizens, or whatever other metric of “quality” you care about. And maybe it would improve, passing its lessons along to future generations. One can’t say for sure, but we can only hope so.

  • Some possible answers (interrelated). In most of these I say ‘intuit’ to denote that although not enough info is given to ‘prove’ my reactions correct, I think this is how most would react to the info given:

    1. Since moments in time are actually other universes, it seems intuitive that (esp. given that the Space population doesn’t have to spread out linearly with N, & probably doesn’t) the Time civilization literally occupies more of the multiverse than does the Space civilization, giving an objective metric on which to prefer the the former.

    2. The function and nature of life, therefore of civilizations, is to embed knowledge into the structure of the universe (cf. Deutsche). It is intuitive that the Time civilization will have done so more successfully than the Space civilization, which peters out too soon to have had much of an impact. We intuit that Time therefore had more knowledge, and was more worthy.

    3. Simple evolutionary reasoning: The ultimate test of ‘fitness’ is survival. The Space civilization didn’t survive nearly as long. We therefore discount our estimate of its fitness; empirically, it must have embodied/discovered fewer ‘truths’ (=adaptations to its environment), so is less worthy of our study, respect, interest, etc., except in the cautionary sense.

    4. Learning/progression: the Time civilization, being longer, ‘learned’ a lot more and thus probably made more ‘progress’. Probabilistically, being a person in the Time civilization would have a higher probability of giving you a lot of ancestors that learned a lot, made mistakes, discovered things, invented things, etc., and passed that knowledge on (this gets closest to the literal interpretation of ‘all this has happened before’ you’re using). As such, you generically expect to have a better life in the Time civilization. Relatedly, your odds of being in the generation that experiences Armageddon in the Space civilization are far higher.

    5. What we all want/value is immortality (for our genes), or at least surviving till the end of the universe (same thing?). Even though neither civilization did so, our Bayesian estimate of how ‘close’ they got is clearly going to be higher than that for Space.

    I understated things saying that these answers are interrelated; in a way, I think they are all actually the same answer.

  • This question also has a nice investing analogy — would you rather have a smaller amount of money that exists and sustains for a long period of time, or would you rather have a huge amount for a short time before it all goes extinct?

  • I would like to point out that these numbers are tiny compared to the number of descendants that God Promised to Abraham in the founding Covenant of the Abrahamic Religions. God Promised Abraham that he would have as many descendants as there are stars in the sky and grains of sand on the sea shore. The number of stars is the visible universe is a little larger, estimated at ~10^22. The number of grains of sand on the sea shore is about 10^21.

    This number is actually quite important in trying to figure out when the Apocalypse will happen. Presumably God will keep His Promise to Abraham and grant him the 10^22 descendants that God Promised.

    God keeping His Promise to Abraham of 10^22 descendants (a finite number) is trivial compared to ensuring an infinite duration afterlife (an infinite degree of difficulty) to even a single person.

    Self-proclaimed religious people who say that the Apocalypse will happen before God has kept His Promise are saying that God lied to Abraham and will break His Promise. I think we know where such people will end up.

  • georgi

    Robin likes to play a game of saying that truth favors whatever evolutionary or psycho or biological theory he sees to upend existing moral intuitions. But then, whenever he feels like it (as in this case) he wants to override evolutionary instincts for some “deeper” moral code. Perhaps he would enlighten us as to what constitutes a “truthful” basis for a moral code beyond his opinions? And why should I take the moral preferences of someone seriously who devalues the moral importance of signaling and always writes as if social intuitions are both hypocritical and reprehensible rather than indicative of the importance of social reasoning?

  • Addendum: This example can be used to demonstrate that people do not naturally value ‘diversity’ in their moral calculus.

    There is an easy answer to this question if both civilizations are viewed in standard evolution terms, as gene pools (and individuals as merely vehicles for carrying/passing on genes): the Time gene pool survives longer than the Space gene pool, hence is more successful. QED.

    A counterargument to that would have to involve placing independent value on a gene pool being ‘big’ in the sense of having numerous carriers. But since ‘bigness’ would be worthless in this sense if the Space carriers had no more genes than the Time carriers, it would really have to rest on the ‘bigger’ (Space) gene pool being presumably more ‘diverse’ at any given point of its existence. And calling that ‘diversity’ valuable in its own right. And saying that this ‘diversity’ in and of itself balances out or even outweighs the longer survival of Time.

    I doubt many people would actually buy this argument as making sense, deep down. i.e., I doubt many people actually value ‘diversity’ that much, even the ones who claim to.

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  • Dranorter

    I thought the title was brilliant, was disappointed with the post, and then maybe sorta agreed at the end.

    The thing I like about the concept is how often in fiction the good guys are the (spatially) few who take the *time* to think things through and beat the enemy by intelligence. And in video games, the player character has apparently a lot of time to battle through a large space of puzzles or enemies.

    But like many other commenters I disagree with the supposed intuition in even the first paragraph. I think Battlestar Galactica is a bit rare in it’s presentation of things, and many fictional characters take strength in there being “others like us” spatially distant. Consider the many masked heroes at the end of V for Vendetta. Being numerous didn’t make them bad guys.

    I don’t know how accurate the statements about smart people are either.

    Yet I do in the end think there’s something clearly better about the temporally spread civilization: they have a chance to learn more about the Universe and develop a deeper culture.

  • Jake

    The larger number of generations presumably leads to more overall progress, with each generation building on the last. That can’t happen in the “spatial” civilization, because they’re all working at the same time. David Hume said that “A man acquainted with history may, in some respect, be said to have lived from the beginning of the world, and to have been making continual additions to his stock of knowledge in every century.”

    The “temporal” civilization would build on their achievements and systematically become more advanced than we can currently imagine, whereas the spatial one would simply explode and peter out, like a firecracker.

  • Joseph Erbal Konrad

    A fascinating thesis to ponder, but the premises of the comparison between the two putative civilizations are biased in how they are characterized. The time-stretched civilization is described as living “sustainably”, which in current jargon is always a compliment, while the space-stretched civilization last “only” a hundred generations, with the implication that is a bad thing. Also, the second scenario is less plausible in an evolutionary sense simply because it omits all the build-up necessary to the moment the civilization is officially ‘launched’ — the development of language, fire, the wheel and the lever, writing, buildings, law, agriculture, whatever you wish — and then starts the generational countdown with no explanation of why Gen 100 should be the last. The first scenario is more plausible in its conclusion simply because it’s more likely that during billions of years there could be an extinction event such as a comet strike, but by comparison the second scenario doesn’t explain how that civilization spread across a thousand worlds when faster-than-light travel is considered scientifically implausible, nor what factor could simultaneously annihilate the species on all thousand planets. Interesting, but too many distracting holes to weigh in on the moral superiority of one over the other.

  • Look beyond your own species for an answer.

    The “spread in space” species has massive acute impact on the evolutionary cycle of other species that might develop their own civilizations. It could displace so many as to cause multiple extinction events across the galaxy. How many hundreds of millions of years of evolution will it cut short in its own explosive, short timespan of existence?

    The “spread in time” species has smaller but chronic effects. But if it manages to become self-regulating and contained, it may find that it allows itself to be replaced. Or it may not.

  • billswift

    The scenario:

    Time: A mere hundred thousand people live sustainably for a billion generations before finally going extinct.
    Space: A trillion people spread across a thousand planets live for only a hundred generations, then go extinct.

    Is itself contra-reality. While such a situation could conceivably happen as the result of chance occurrences, the more numerous and spread out species would have a much greater likelihood of surviving for any given time span than a smaller more localized one.

  • paradoctor

    A civilization of a trillion doesn’t go ‘extinct’, any more than the Roman Empire did; it ‘falls’, which means that some of the people survive, but the way of life goes away, and there are successor civilizations, which inherit some of the founding civilization’s ideas and values.

    Whereas that billion-generation backwater sounds deadly dull; and it _will_ go extinct, all the way, its people and its ideas too. Why even bother living there? It was never alive in the first place!

    I think the Space civilization will have a bigger positive cultural impact on the galaxy than the Time civilization… even after a billion generations!

    So I personally prefer the Space civilization over the Time. Trantor rocks, Rivendell flops.

  • manymanyhaha

    This isn’t that complicated.

    The time-stretched population: Obviously they recognize the value of their present lives is the gift from the past that can only be repaid by doing the same for the future.

    The space-stretched population: Are about fulfilling their own needs without a care as to how the future will fulfill theirs.

  • Am I the only one who instantly felt that “Space” was a far more admirable civilisation than “Time”? One appears to have challenged i fate, and faced great adversity and spread through the stars, the other seems to have sat still and done nothing. The achievements of one are far greater than the achievements of the other.

  • paradoctor

    FOARP: I second your motion. The Space civilization is an achiever; the Time civilization is a slacker.

    I nickname the Time civilization “Rivendell”, after the elf town in Tolkien’s “Ring” trilogy. How slackful is Rivendell? Well, what’s a billion generations? Twenty, thirty billion years? Do they plan to relocate when the sun leaves the main sequence? On the gigayear time scale, suns flicker, continents roil, mountains rise and fall like waves. If Rivendell doesn’t change during that time, then it is literally dumber than the rocks.

    I nickname the Space civilization “Trantor”, after the galactic capital world-city in Asimov’s “Foundation” trilogy. Trantor will last only a hundred generations; or in other worlds, two or three millennia. That’s a typical run for a civilization; not bad at all, especially with a trillion citizens. And during those hundred generations, Trantor will make more technical, scientific, cultural and spiritual progress than backwater Rivendell will make in a billion generations.

    So I vote Space civilization.

  • Buck Farmer

    I am highly suspicious of my preferences here.

    I started out prefering the time-stretched civilization, rationalizing from a preference for complexity, progress, and a belief in the importance of encoding complexity (intelligence) in the universe.

    But the Rivendell / Trantor analogy, as well as the point that the space stretched civilization would have two thousand years has moved me to believe my reasons would be better served by the space stretched civilization.

    Overall, it all feels too much like an aesthetic judgement.

  • paradoctor

    I think the numbers used in this question are a bit too big. As is, it reads: Time civilization: 100,000 people, a billion generations; and Space civilization: a trillion people, 1000 generations. But a trillion people would need to colonize distant worlds, so in what sense would it be ‘a’ civilization? As for the Time civilization, a billion generations exceeds geological time; also, 100000 people is a small town, a hick backwater with a tiny college, two theaters, and a business district, and it all shuts down at 11 p.m.

    I say we scale it back to:
    Time civilization: a million people, a million generations. That is, a respectable sized city, lasting for tens of megayears; a longish species lifetime.
    Space civilization: a billion people, a thousand generations. That is, a world, lasting for tens of kiloyears; about the length of history.

    So here’s the choice. A city lasting species lifetime, or a world civilization lasting historical time. It’s an even tradeoff; the city is to the world as history is to species lifetime.

    • billswift

      While a trillion people would be more comfortable (at least I think so) spread out over the solar system, it would be quite possible for that population to survive on Earth alone. It is less than 170 times the current population – with better management of resources, especially agricultural and energy, and reasonable advances, it shouldn’t even be too difficult.

  • Personally, I’d need to know a bit more about the mechanisms of:

    a) Cultural replication

    b) The extinction event.

    With regard to the time-extension civilization–I think that a lot of people need to pay more attention to what goes into making such civilizations “sustainable.” On earth, as Jared Diamond notes, the island nation of Tikopia was sustainably run for like a thousand years with virtually the same population. However, this sustainability wasn’t just all hippy rainbows and unicorns. In reality, it practiced very strict population control that involved serious instances of infanticide on a regular basis–as well as instances when any accumulation of “excess population” was told to build some boats and row off into the ocean with the hope that they might find some land to settle on.

    In other words–it was sustainable because it accepted the orderly elimination of what was an “unsustainable” population.

    Now.. if you add that into the mix–which seems rather necessary given our biology and cultural habits–then I’m not sure the time extension civilization seems quite so appealing as before. Yes, it lasts a long time–but it does so in a rather brutal manner.

    Of course–you can argue that this 100k civilization is not like that at all and it has perfect technology and social habits and the like–and it is just living in eden for a billion years–but then it seems like the deck is being stacked…


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