Space vs. Time Genocide

Consider two possible “genocide” scenarios:

  • Space Genocide – We expect the galaxy to have many diverse civilizations, with diverse behaviors and values, though we don’t know much about them. Their expansion tendencies would naturally lead to a stalemate, with different civilizations controlling different parts of the galaxy. Imagine, however, that it turns out we luckily have a chance to suddenly destroy all other civilizations in the galaxy, so that our civilization can expand to take it all over. (Other galaxies remain unchanged.) Let this destruction process be mild, such as sudden unanticipated death or a sterility allowing one last generation to live out its life. There is a modest (~5%) chance we will fail and if we fail all civilizations in the galaxy are destroyed. Should we try this option?
  • Time Genocide – As their tech and environments changed, our distant ancestors evolved differing basic behaviors and values to match. We expect that our distant descendants will also naturally evolve different basic behaviors and values to match their changing tech and environments. Imagine, however, that it turns out we luckily have a chance to suddenly prevent any change in basic behaviors and values of our descendants from this day forward. If we succeed, we prevent the existence of descendants with differing basic behaviors and values, replacing them with creatures much like us. There is a modest (~5%) chance we will fail and if we fail all our descendants will be destroyed or exist in a mostly worthless state. Should we try this option?

Probably, more people can accept or recommend time genocide than space genocide, even if success in both scenarios prevents the existence of a similar number of relatively alien creatures, to be replaced by a similar number of creatures more like us. This seems related to our tending to admire time-stretched civilizations (e.g., Rivendale) more than space-stretched civilizations (e.g., Trantor), even though space-stretched ones seem objectively more prosperous. But what exactly is the relation?

The common thread, I suspect, is that the far future seems more far, in near/far concrete/abstract terms, than situations far away in space, or in the far past. The near/far distinction was first noticed in how people treated the future differently, and our knowing especially little detail about the future makes it especially easy to slip into abstract thought about the future.

As we are less practical, more idealistic, and more uncompromising in far mode, we see civilizations time-stretched into the future as more ideal, and we are more willing to commit genocide to achieve our ideals regarding such a civilization, even at a substantial risk.

Of course the future isn’t actually any less detailed than the past or places far away in space. And there isn’t any good reason to hold the far future to higher ideals now than we’d be inclined to want when the future actually arrives. If so, time-genocide should be no more morally acceptable than space-genocide. Beware the siren song of shiny far future thought.

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  • nazgulnarsil

    I just want to live long. When projecting ourselves as an average citizen of rivendale or trantor we don’t imagine quality of life much different but at rivendale you get it for much longer. or did I miss something?

  • simon

    There is another very important distinction between these scenarios.

    Preventing the existence of an entity is not viewed in the same way as destroying the existence of an entity or even thwarting the future propagation of an actually existing entity.

    For example, sterilizing someone without their consent is viewed as a crime, but refusing to have children of one’s own is not.

  • I don’t see longer-lived civilizations as implying longer individual lives (yes, the former is an obvious bound on the latter).

  • Bo

    Whatever we end up as, we’ll have time-genocided all the other options.

  • Mark


    It seems to me that in your efforts to explore this time-streched bias you have created a scenario that fails to consider what I believe to be the most important consideration in deciding which of these scenarios is more preferable – It also seem as if the ~5% failure is a distraction, at least I can see no real point to considering it when comparing the two scenarios that share the same failure rate, so I will ignore it to simplify the following analysis;

    In the Space Scenario we are asked if we would destroy existent beings or modify existent beings so as to prevent them from reproducing, the former is something that I have much stronger netative feelings towards that the latter, namely because in the former we are entirely thwarting their rights to their lives, bodies and minds and in the latter we are only thwarting their rights to be the sole decider of what intention action has effect on their bodies, in this case their reproduction – Here I would have to consider the two methods seperately, but to save time I will stick with the latter, their reporduction is targeted – Existent beings having the right to be the sole decider of the intentional action that effects their bodies is thwarted, no possible beings are born.

    The Time Scenario asks us to consider that we make a decision about our own bodies that effects the path our decendents take, this is a scenario where no beings have their rights to decide what intentional actions effect their bodies is thwarted, it is also a scenario where possible beings are born but simply take a different path.

    It is for that reason I would prefer the Time Scenario, and as you have noticed it has naught to do with your near/far dilema for which the scnario was deisgned to highlight – In that sense I must say the scenario you constructed to explore this issue is a failure – A scenario where all other cosiderations are equal would be needed to see how we intuitively react to the near/far-time/space dilemma.

    Perhaps however, your constructing a scenario where the Time option was perferable for reasons other than those you wished to explore is in it’s self a demonstration of the bias towards prefering time-spanned civilizations…

  • Why are you so sure that space genocide is not acceptable? We’re not talking about humans with different clothes, we’re talking about scary aliens that eat children.

  • Cryonicsman

    The Space Genocide scenario plays with my parental instincts: Do I want my descendants to be like me, or do I want them to realize their full potential and become alien to me? Do I want to take a 5% chance of leaving no descendants? I am not sure how I would answer, but it’s an emotional question.

    The Space Genocide scenario, does not evoke any emotion. Just plug in the risk factors into the equation, and optimize for survival of the human race or it’s descendants. Take whatever action needed to improve the probability of long term survival.

    There may be too many differences between the scenarios for a comparison to yield useful data.

  • Douglas Knight

    Both this and the last involve a claim about what people’s preferences. I find this claim more plausible than the last. Fictional examples are problematic, but I think the authors of Rivendell and Trantor disagree with you.

  • C. S. Lewis was a critic of time genocide:

    The real picture is that of one dominant age—let us suppose the hundredth century A.D.—which resists all previous ages most successfully and dominates all subsequent ages most irresistibly, and thus is the real master of the human species.

    • Prakash

      On reading the chapter your linked, I ended up admiring “Coherent Extrapolated Volition” as a concept even more than i used to. Robin might consider CEV as time genocide, I don’t.

  • Probability of survival is more important than population size, evolutionary speaking.

  • Buck Farmer

    I disagree with your assertion about our overwhelming preferences here.

    The time-genocide scenario seems far /far/ more horrorific than the space-genocide scenario. That’s just my gut speaking.

    Rationalizing, I would reference the arguments of above commenters about (1) alien civilizations and (2) preventing progeny from realizing their full potential.

    Ultimately though this is a gut reaction.

  • snarles

    We expect time-stretched civilizations to reach a higher level of cultural sophistication than space-stretched civilizations, which may play into our evaluation.

  • Anonymous

    I could imagine a scenario with aliens that I like better than most humans. Can I then opt to join them and kill all (other) humans?

    • Buck Farmer

      “Kill all humans” – A Bender-approved philosophy

      I think that would be a permissible variation, essentially the split is between:

      1. Ensure that your preferred civilization/species dominates all space
      2. Ensure that your preferred civilization/species dominates all time

      Since I don’t have a strongly preferred civilization/species, but instead a few guiding values that point towards change and increasing complexity, I’m not sure how I should think about this question.

  • “Imagine, however, that it turns out we luckily have a chance to suddenly destroy all other civilizations in the galaxy, so that our civilization can expand to take it all over.”

    I wouldn’t call it lucky and I don’t recommend it. We don’t know what we’d lose from not having contact with very different minds. The universe is bigger than any individual or any species can comprehend, but having more angles on the problem can be very helpful.

    And no, we can’t squeeze all the good out of their alternate viewpoints by studying the remnants of their civilizations.

    The unlucky thing is living in a universe where that sort of attack is possible. If we could use it on them, they could use it on us, which leads to some harder problems than “oh, lah-de-dah, how pleasant to have a universe with no competing alien races”. Does this tech include the possibility of sterilizing fractions of the human race?

    It now looks probable that I’m much more idealistic than the typical OV commenter.

    • I find both proposals grotesquely unacceptable but symptomatic of a top-down dictatorial social power hierarchy driven by perverse, selfish, narcissistic egocentric and ignorant one-sidedness. One that sees all other individuals below one in the power hierarchy as objects to be used, used-up, discarded or destroyed at a whim, and similarly sees oneself as an object to be used by those higher in the power hierarchy.

      At a whim, potentially killing or destroying all the intelligent races in the galaxy without even knowing how many are there? With essentially zero gain? This is the result of zero-sum mindset. The idea that if all other intelligent beings lose, then I win.

      This is the mindset of those who should never be allowed to have power because they have such a constricted idea of what is valuable and what should be preserved. These are people who would burn libraries unread because they don’t know how to use the information contained in them so as to deny that information to those who could use it.

  • Guys who talk about our descendant’s potential: What is potential?

    If I have the capability to do A, B, or C, which one represents achieving my full potential?

    It has to be “The best one”. Who says what is best? It can’t be me, since my preferences vary across different futures. So it has to be my ancestor.

    Well then.

  • Michael Vassar

    Robin, no-one but you considers murder and not maximizing rate of reproduction to be equivalent. This is the same thing.

    Also, when we talk about ‘diverse civilization, with diverse behaviors and values’, we automatically bring in an anthropomorphic schema, emphasizing the sorts of diverse values our civilization once failed to value and now values. There are other possible comparisons though, such as to the ‘values’ of slugs, chess programs, or stock markets. Merely using the word ‘value’ confuses the concept being discussed.

    Will seems to be getting to the core points here. Counterfactuals are generally a breeding ground for confusion.

  • It is having values like this and thinking like this and acting like this that represent the greatest existential threat to humans.

    “How so”? you ask. A 5% chance of humanity extinction isn’t that great. But a 5% change of humanity extinction repeated by every human who is disposed to make such a bargain results in virtually certain extinction. Five humans per generation and in a millennia there is a 0.99996 chance that humans are extinct.

    This is the bargain that those playing chicken with AGW are making.

  • Alrenous

    Space genocide involves changing existing agents against their will. They will feel outrage, despair, terror, et cetera.

    Time genocide involves changing only potential agents, who cannot feel anything. The process is, at least potentially, voluntary on the part of the subjects.

    • That is a strange concept of “voluntary”. To me, “voluntary” means with informed consent, that is the person doing the choosing, knows the possible outcomes and then voluntary chooses one of them to happen.

      If individuals don’t yet exist, they can’t give informed consent, but if you could emulate them, then you could figure out what choice they would make if they had the opportunity. But that is not what Robin is proposing. He is proposing substituting your own decision and preempting any decision that future entities might make.

      For it to be “voluntary”, you would have to assume that future individuals that won’t exist would voluntarily choose to not exist.

  • Robin, you have been a proponent of “dealism”. Causality can flow back and forth across space, so we can make deals with spatially distant civilizations to mutually limit genocide. Temporally distant civilizations cannot respond to us or make any deals, nor can they harm us in any way. So we can genocide them to our hearts content without any negative repercussions.

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  • dude

    if we have decendents, they would all be different because we have an infinte amount of futures, thus in the distant future we might have the technology to do that, but then if we did that we would destroy all “smart” aliens, thus not learning about them, their race, and their language, so Robin you’re veiws about the space and time genocide would be exactly good

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