Perhaps if hope is a limited resource, so is the feeling of historical momentousness, the sense that one is at a special point in time. In that case, perhaps we should not attach so much importance to arbitrary calendar markers like new years, decades, or centuries. History doesn’t come conveniently split into round-numbered intervals. There is no reason why “the nineteenth century” or “the seventies” should be more natural or useful concepts than “1830-1930″ or “1968-1978″. And by pretending that they are, we may be harming our ability to recognize, understand, and act on real turning points.
Having said that, I wish readers a happy new year anyway.
In an Overcoming Bias post earlier this year, Eliezer Yudkowsky argued lotteries are a waste of hope:
Which makes the lottery another kind of sink: a sink of emotional energy. It encourages people to invest their dreams, their hopes for a better future, into an infinitesimal probability. If not for the lottery, maybe they would fantasize about going to technical school, or opening their own business, or getting a promotion at work – things they might be able to actually do, hopes that would make them want to become stronger. Their dreaming brains might, in the 20th visualization of the pleasant fantasy, notice a way to really do it. Isn’t that what dreams and brains are for?
This probably applies to a lot of seemingly harmless beliefs. As an obvious example, the hope for a positive afterlife in many people displaces the hope for technologically-achieved longevity and happiness in this life.
SETI, which I’ve earlier argued won’t work, encourages us to imagine scientific, technological, and moral progress as well as cultural richness coming from other civilizations than our own. And as far as I can tell, SETI isn’t just a fantasy, it’s a superfluous fantasy. I’ll call this the Law of Earth-Originating Infallibility: There is nothing desirable, no invention or piece of infrastructure or good idea or work of art or tree of life or conscious mind, that could not eventually be created by Earth-originating civilization alone, provided that it successfully navigated this bumpy period of adjusting to promising-but-dangerous technologies.
Overcoming Bias links to a debate at Cato Unbound on radical life extension. What strikes me most about the anti-longevity contributions is how they seem not to have any notion that, in the thousand years it takes to live a thousand-year life, the world might change. Why would the year 3000 look like the year 2000 any more than the year 2000 looks like the year 1000? For example, Diana Schaub writes:
But how would human relations be affected? How would monogamy fare? It’s not doing great as it is, but could one even imagine the vow “till death do us part” when death might be nine centuries away? If monogamy simply disappears as a promise and an expectation, we might be confronted with the human version of the puppy problem: would there be enough psychic energy for ever-renewed love?
This does not take into account that new technologies may allow us to get better at hacking our own motivations.
Schaub further writes:
Civilization depends on the uniqueness of human sexuality—and much of that uniqueness may derive from our awareness of and experience of mortality.
I would argue that any kind of sexuality whose uniqueness derives from your awareness of and experience of mortality is needlessly kinky.
Christmas isn’t just about wasting money or celebrating the spawning of the fish god. It’s also supposed to be about having more Love, Understanding, and Togetherness (LU&T), for no other reason than that it’s Christmas — a brief truce in the war of all against all. That seems like a good thing. So why don’t we do it more often? I think some combination of the following has to be true.
- We are irrational in not arbitrarily increasing the amount of LU&T on other days of the year. We should start sneaking in Christmas-like traditions at appropriate intervals.
- We are irrational in not arbitrarily increasing the amount of LU&T on other days of the year, but unfortunately people are psychologically set up so that they’ll only fall for it once a year.
- The extra LU&T we associate with Christmas is not genuine.
- When we choose to have extra LU&T at Christmas we compromise other important values, or expend resources not worth the diminishing returns of extra Christmases.
Sometimes people talk about how modern physics shattered the old mechanistic, deterministic, reductionistic, observer-independent world view of pre-20th-century scientists like Newton and Laplace. This is rubbish. I’ll tackle the relativity case first, as it’s less controversial than quantum mechanics.
The reason it’s called “relativity” is that space and time are relative to a reference frame. In different reference frames, lengths and durations are different. For events separated far in space, different observers will disagree on which happened first.
But relativity theory is set up so that any disagreement between observers on time and space makes no difference to the causal ordering of what happens. Underlying it all is a perfectly un-relative thing called spacetime. A reference frame is nothing but a coordinate system; a different way of labeling the same structure. That different coordinate systems disagree on what happens first is no more philosophically meaningful than that people standing on different sides disagree on whether the house is to the left of the tree or to the right of the tree.
To talk about “observers” at all is misleading. There is no reason why I (as a cognitive system) have to use the coordinates in which I (as a block of matter) am at rest.
So although relativity theory forces us to rethink our concepts, it does not prove anything hippy or postmodern. It does not break with the program of representing the world as something mathematically precise, objective, and predictable. It is a continuation of that program by other math.
(possibly next up: quantum mechanics, chaos theory)
There’s a new theory that says time is slowing down and will end up stopping altogether, according to this newspaper article. Although the problem is of course in the translation from math to English and not in the theory itself, the idea of “time slowing down” doesn’t mean anything clear.
In a world like ours, processes happen in predictable proportions. Microwave radiation from cesium atoms completes a period about 3*10^17 times for every time the Earth goes around the sun. It’s necessary in practice to think of all these processes as depending on the same parameter called “time”. When we say the “rate of time” speeds up or “time goes faster”, we mean all processes speed up by the same factor. But time can’t go faster with respect to itself. Every second, one second passes. So it has to mean all processes speed up with respect to some other thing we also call “time”.
In everyday life when people say “time stood still” they mean an unusually large number of psychological events happened per physical event, causing (physical) time to slow down in (psychological) time. In special relativity every reference frame has its own time coordinate, and in every system events happen at a normal rate in the time coordinate corresponding to the reference frame in which the system is at rest; but events happen at a lower than normal rate in every time coordinate corresponding to a reference frame in which the system is moving. So here the other-thing-also-called-time is a different coordinate for the same thing.
But the newspaper article doesn’t say what their other-thing-also-called-time is. So all we can tell is that according to the theory, fewer things of one kind are happening compared to things of some other kind.
Real-world stuff and a lack of inspiration have kept me from blogging the last few months. I intend to go back to a volume of a few posts a week some time in the future.