Impossible Problems

(Epistemic Status: Uncritical Brain Dump. Read at your own risk. May contain raw cancer)

The world is so very large and the future may be so big. Often we focus on the little things, the problems of the present. I’ve always been interested in the bigger problems. Whether they’re worth tackling so early or even thinking about a lot I don’t know. Here are two of these problems. Both of these seem intrinsic to our universe  and things technology or power alone won’t necessarily tackle.

Evolution as a hostile process

Evolution optimises for reproductive success. Not for morality. Not for less suffering. Not for knowledge. Just for reproductive fitness. This is horrific because at best it leads to a world with so much less value than is possible and at worst, and in what I think is the more likely scenario, it leads to a hell which is worse than non-existence where life is a death tournament of predators and parasites an disease and death and suffering is omnipresent. Where all sentient things are hardcoded to like the strong and defect when it pays to do so and believe what it helps them to believe. It’s a hell that technological advancement or having more power or resources general is unlikely to help us solve. Evolution always occurs. If not at the biological level than at the individual level through other means, like which future cyborg like group can/will most quickly produce clones. If not at the individual level than at the group level. In fact, the only solution seems to be to do one of two things:

  • Stop change
  • Ensure there is only one individual/system

Both of these stop evolution because things cannot change in the first instance and because there is no competition in the second, but both have serious costs. The cost of the first path is more than stagnation, it’s death. It’s a civilisation stuck in a crystallised present not just in terms of tech but in terms of culture  and people and everything else. Either that or a short, continuously recurring cycle. Say goodbye to dreams of immortality and godhood or exploring the full space of possible minds. The cost of the second path is two fold. One downside of having only a single entity is that if that entity should cease to exist, life probably ends. Of course there are arguments against this. Maybe a multi-polar world actually has a higher risk of extinction because, say, in the far future any agent can easily acquire reality destroying weapons. Maybe a single entity/civ could have catastrophic survival strategies which re-seed the galaxy following it’s demise. A system of dead-man switches or the like. Still, it’s impossible to assess how persuasive these objections are in the context of a far future that is beyond our understanding. The second downside of a singular future is that again it shuts off so many reals of possibility, so many possible universes teeming with different and valuable life exploring all the desirable parts of the mind space. Evolution is scary. It’s omnipresent. It seems to be a core feature of any iterated multi-agent system just as much as the laws of gravitation are embedded in any system containing matter. It’s difficult to even imagine a conceptually possible solution. This does not bode well.

(Warning: high probability of cancer from this point forward)

Causality denies free will and thus personhood.

The universe is fundamentally a machine. That machine runs on cause on effect. Whether everything is deterministic or certain interactions are probabilistic is besides the point. The point is that the physical world is the physical world and it is governed by physical laws. Intelligent agents human or otherwise do not hover somewhere above the material plane, reaching in to change events when they will it so. Rather we are parts of the machine, cogs and nothing more. We are entirely reducible to simple processes explainable by these laws and the only difference between our “conscious” minds and rocks or waterfalls or any other naturally occurring pattern is that our minds are complex enough that the abstractions we build to understand them can seem to take on a life of their own. That and we’re programmed to believe in these abstractions. This is a problem. If we are nothing more than cogs then our personhood is an illusion. All our hopes and dreams and desires are no different from the stars at night or the growing blade of grass. This is something we need to fight and I have no idea how to do so. My only thoughts on the matter are childhood scribblings which talk about temporal transcendence and other sweet nothings.

If you don’t buy my argument above because you think a mechanistic universe and physicalism are compatible with free will or because you think that personhood does not require free will, here’s a weaker but more broadly appealing case for the same conclusion. We are who we are because of many things. Because of our genes. Because of where we grew up and who shaped us as we did so. Because of what we chose. Given that the lines between these things are somewhat arbitrary, if my parents raise me to be violent and abusive and then I act in that way have I chosen it or are my parents to blame, but where they are isn’t relevant for this argument. Today most people have more choice than a hundred years ago when we were bound be caste and clan and sex and faith. We still have so little though. When I grew up, all around me I saw others in school who could have been successful but weren’t because the toxic culture consigned them to the trash heap. (Or in my eyes because they were weak). So few are show the many different ways to live, the different ethos and paths. The path of the warrior with it’s discipline. The path of the prophet with its rage at the injustice of the world and its madness. The path of the lover, of giving yourself to another and living with and for them. There are so many ways to be and to live and yet most normal people have so little choice in who they grow up to be. That is a shame.

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