“Slow” Growth Is Cosmo-Fast

In my first response to Brin at Cato Unbound (and in one followup),  I agreed with him that we shouldn’t let each group decide if to yell to aliens. In my second response, I criticize Brin’s theory that the universe is silent because most alien civilizations fall into slowly-innovating “feudal” societies like those during the farmer era:

We have so far had three eras of growth: forager, farmer, and industry. … In all three eras, growth was primarily caused by innovation. …

A thousand doublings of the economy seems plenty to create a very advanced civilization. After all, that would give a factor of ten to the power of three hundred increase in economic capacity, and there are only roughly ten to the eighty atoms in the visible universe. Yes, at our current industry rates of growth, we’d produce that much growth in only fifteen thousand years, while at farmer rates of growth it would take a million years.

But a million years is still only a small blip of cosmological time. It is even plausible for a civilization to reach very advanced levels while growing at the much slower forager rate. While a civilization growing at forager rates would take a quarter billion years to grow a thousand factors of two, the universe is thirteen billion years old, and our planet is four billion. So there has been plenty of time for very slow growing aliens to become very advanced. (more)

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  • 5ive

    I think it’s plausible that at some significant but not-to-distant level of technological advancement all or nearly-all civilizations become uninterested in expansion or further investigation of the universe, because all possible questions are answered far, far before they build a Matryoshka brain. It’s possible that in 500 years humans will build AIs that are smart enough to infer answers to most questions about what the universe is like based upon first principles. At that point, maybe getting smarter has significantly diminishing returns and competition for resources has significantly diminishing returns and an equilibrium is reached where expansion only occurs to the point necessary for risk management.

    When I say this, people usually respond, “yes, but it takes *just one* species to behave differently.” I understand that, but it’s possible that the cost/benefits to staying at some advanced-but-not-astonishingly-advanced state of development are *so compelling* that no one does behave differently.

    • Daniel Carrier

      It doesn’t require a whole species to behave differently. Just a culture. They don’t even need to expand. They could just send out a single self-replicating spacecraft on the off-chance that they might later decide to expand.

      • 5ive

        The Fermi Paradox, and related questions are hard to answer. I think the solution I’ve proposed above is probably not the answer. And I understand that it would potentially “just take one” (though probably not in reality). But my point is that I think we make a very large error when we assume that expansion will be attractive. It certainly seems that it would be from my vantage, but I think we should consider more carefully that an advanced super-intelligence might see completely compelling, unforeseeable reasons to not expand continuously.

  • Dave Lindbergh

    “Aliens that are closer, listen intensely, and are lucky already know about us. But aliens that are distant, listen little, and are unlucky do not.”

    Yes, but hyper-paranoid type aliens who kill civilizations for trivial infractions are likely to listen much. By definition, they’re hyper-paranoid, so on the lookout.

    That doesn’t invalidate your argument, but it does change the ratio of expected outcomes.

  • Dave Lindbergh

    BTW, the “many possible gods” response to Pascal’s Wager (that you cite) seems to me absolutely devastating (and obvious).

    So why do people still take Pascal’s Wager seriously? This has puzzled me for decades.

    • 5ive

      Even better, Pascal’s Mugger:


    • Daniel Carrier

      The “many possible gods” response gives no reason to cancel out perfectly. It just means you’ll have to think harder about which god to worship, not that you can get away with ignoring the possibility of gods.

      • HT

        Not just gods. This personalization is a historical distortion. There are simpler non-god hypotheses (cosmological loops, parallel universes retracing your decisions, etc.)

      • Daniel Carrier

        Is there a name for these? Many possible Pascal muggers?

      • HT

        Not that I’m aware of.

      • Dave Lindbergh

        Thinking has a cost. Which needs to be weighed against the possible benefit of guessing right about which god(s) to worship.

        It seems wildly unlikely that the cost is smaller than the likely benefit.

        So I still don’t understand why the wager is taken seriously.

      • Daniel Carrier

        > It seems wildly unlikely that the cost is smaller than the likely benefit.

        The expected benefit is infinite under the original formulation, and mind-bogglingly huge under the Pascal’s mugging version. It’s a tiny number times 3^^^3, which you can basically just round up a few orders of magnitude to 3^^^3. The cost is not that huge.

      • Dave Lindbergh

        So, do you spend lots of time thinking about which of the infinity of possible gods to worship? If not, why not?

      • Daniel Carrier

        I’m not saying that I accept Pascal’s argument. I’m just pointing out that that particular counter-argument is flawed. Since you asked, I’ve noticed the bigger problem that, for all intents and purposes, any utility function that seems to allow for Pascal’s mugging is divergent. You could justify any total utility by changing the order in which you add the expected utility of the infinite possibilities.

      • The “many possible gods” response gives no reason to cancel out perfectly

        Why not: the expectation value of worship is infinite regardless of the probability (provided the probability is greater than 0).

      • Daniel Carrier

        Infinity minus infinity is undefined. If you choose some system where you somehow manage to work with that, it won’t cancel. If you just call infinity minus infinity zero so it always cancels, then you can claim total utility is whatever you want by adding it before you cancel the infinities.

      • Correct, it’s undefined. Which means Pascal can’t sustain his argument. He can’t show worshiping God has more utility than not.

      • IMASBA

        “It just means you’ll have to think harder about which god to worship”

        Except that you have zero clues to go on so thinking won’t help you in the slightest. All we can conclude is that an entity that will punish you for not blindly (you have no evidence of its existence whatsoever) worshipping it is a cosmic asshole.

      • All we can conclude is that an entity that will punish you for not blindly (you have no evidence of its existence whatsoever) worshipping it is a cosmic asshole.

        That counts as a clue, doesn’t it?

      • Daniel Carrier

        You have priors. You have a general idea of how humans act, so you can guess that gods might act kind of like that. And it’s not like you need a huge improvement to be worth it. If there’s a one-in-a-trillion chance of realizing something you didn’t before that decreases the chance of eternal torture by one-in-a-trillion, it would be well worth it.

      • IMASBA

        “You have a general idea of how humans act, so you can guess that gods might act kind of like that.”

        Why can I guess that and how does that bring it down to less than an infinite number of possibilities (remember that pantheons of any number of gods shoud also be possibilities). Heck, it could even be that the ony path to universal ascension/enlightenment is through cleansing yourself of believing any god(s).

      • Daniel Carrier

        It doesn’t reduce the number of possibilities. It just refines your understanding of the probabilities. Claiming you have no idea isn’t helpful when there’s that much on the line. Imagine you’re fighting a war with the fate of the world at stake. Do you figure that you have no way of knowing what your opponent will do and decide to give up and use some really simple strategy so you can go back to playing on the computer, or do you use everything at your disposal to figure out how to slightly increase your chances of victory? Sure the probability of there being any god is tiny, but the increased stakes more than make up for it.

      • IMASBA

        Not sure you’re getting it: any which way you think of it, the number of possible gods remains infinite so you haven’t gained anything, and that was even assuming your suggestions even helped deduce something (I do not agree that you can just assume gods will probably behave something like humans, we have absolutely no reason to think that imo). You can’t compare it to a war where you always know at least some basic things about your opponent and he doesn’t have an infinite amount of resources or number of tactics.

      • Daniel Carrier

        There are priors, no matter how small. There is evidence, no matter how weak. While it is mathematically possible to add two numbers together and get zero, this is not going to happen in real life.

        I admit that adding together all the expected values probably won’t result in a convergent sum. This does not solve the problem. It makes it worse. Instead of getting something counterintuitive, you don’t get anything at all. It’s not like you can look at Pascal’s wager, get undefined, and look at everything else on top of that and get what you’d get without Pascal’s wager. Adding something to undefined gives you undefined.

      • To cut to the chase, the problem with Pascal’s Wager lies with infinite utilities. The contradictions that appear are due to the incoherence of actually existing infinite quantities.

        See “Another argument against actual infinite sets” — http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/2013/01/192-infinitesimals-another-argument.html

      • Daniel Carrier

        Pascal’s Wager uses infinities, which is extra bad, but you can get a similar problem with 3^^^3. The reasoning used for that implies expected infinities, which are still problematic, but I don’t think I’d call them actual infinities.

      • How do you get the same problem without infinities? (You’re not alluding to “Pascal’s Mugging, are you, which founders on for a different reason.)

      • Daniel Carrier

        The St. Petersburg paradox. If there’s a 50% chance of one util, 25% chance of two, 12.5% chance of four, 6.25% chance of eight, etc. the expected utility is infinite, but whatever actually happens is finite. You just aren’t sure how finite.

  • wag

    I think your point is confused by talking about slow growth rates possibly leading to advanced aliens. It seems possible that eventually some combination of resource limits, dysgenics, and coordination failure turns the rates negative.

    Basically you are saying that inequality does not hurt growth. I am not sure about this but isn’t info from past centuries sketchy? Why not use cleaner modern data like the recent IMF report?

    • Of your three concerns “resource limits, dysgenics, and coordination failure”, only resource limits is plausibly something that would be worse later than earlier.

  • Daniel Carrier

    If a civilization stays foragers, their growth-rates will stall. You need to continuously improve your infrastructure in order to grow, and there’s only so much foragers can support. That being said, I find it difficult to believe they’d never manage to create a culture that can stop falling back to being forgers or farmers or whatever. There’s plenty of time for new cultures to form.

    • I talked about forager-like growth rates, not about staying foragers.

      • Daniel Carrier

        You were responding to the idea of them staying in feudal societies. If they did, they wouldn’t be able to sustain forager-like growth rates.

  • Cambias

    The trouble with all the “solutions” to the Fermi Paradox is that each of them might well apply to one, or even many, possible alien civilizations — but in order to actually explain the silence we observe, they must apply to ALL civilizations at all points in their history as technological societies. And that’s a lot harder to believe.

    As to Brin’s notion that societies “get stuck” at a feudal level, there’s little evidence in human history to support it. Heck, feudalism was not a long-lived system; it was chiefly a kludge to cope with the disintegration of the Roman economy and defense infrastructure. Once that recovery was complete, feudalism began to change into something else. The invention of gunpowder only accelerated a process already under way.

    • IMASBA

      The “any exisitng alien civilizations are too far away” explanation can easily apply to all of them. The “active prime directive” explanation doesn’t have to apply to all of them, just one of the strong ones.

      “Heck, feudalism was not a long-lived system; it was chiefly a kludge to cope with the disintegration of the Roman economy and defense infrastructure.”

      Brin used the word feudal in quotation marks, you’re taking it too literal (and proper feudalism also existed in China, India and Japan, among others, not just Europe).

  • We need to note that the ability to detect our civilization at a distance has only been possible for less than half a century and the radiated RF power is going down as communications are shifting to lower power transmitters closer to the source. A million cell phone signals starts to look a lot like natural noise at a 100 light years.

    That may mean that a more advanced civilization, still limited by general relativity and thermodynamics, may evolve into not wasting any significant amount radiation at any frequencies to space and be less detectable that we are with our old TV transmissions.

    Even a civilization radiated to many star systems may communicate via very narrow beams at very high frequencies where all the energy just goes from one to another planet with none wasted in open space, again being undetectable.

    Other scenarios require faster than light travel, handling energy densities way beyond material limits and/or lifeforms not limited by ordinary chemistry, all of which violate our existing understanding of the laws of physics and chemistry. Life is a very low entropy state and not real compatible with high energy densities postulated by super advanced civilizations.