Like it or not, the philosophical preoccupations of the elite affect us all. In this brief video Sabine Hossenfelder lays out the essential elements of longtermism, a philosophy she claims is popular among some famous rich people today.
This philosophy sounds to me like a variation on the theme of collectivism, or an attempt to use the language of risk assessment to justify collectivist ideologies.
11 thoughts on “Longtermism”
This is what turned me off to Isaac Asimov(FOUNDATION TRILOGY) and led me to Nivens and Pournelle. (THE STRATEGY OF TECHNOLOGY)
A collectivist, long term philosophy might work for ants, but people aren’t like that. People make progress because it benefits them, and maybe their children, but they don’t sacrifice for people who might be alive in a thousand years.
I liked her style.
It seems to me that the premise of longtermism assumes that we have more control over the natural world than we really do.
Extinctions have happened on a regular basis. We are not immune just because we can make calculated predictions. Even today we are seeing real time extinctions for many species. The common denominator is a change in the environment required for life with a minimal chance for adaptation due to either time constraints or a cataclysmic event.
Humans can and do adapt better than most living fauna and flora. Part of the reason, I believe, is that we have created a wall between us and the natural world. We create artificial temperatures for both comfort and survival. Medicine has given us the means to survive pandemics, bodily trauma, and other natural selectors such as serious birth defects and poor body or mental strengths.
Natural selection cares only that DNA is passed on, not necessarily that it is effective for anymore than resulting progeny with sexual maturity and chance to pass on the DNA before dying. And the cycle repeats.
We have barely passed thousands of years of some kind of civilization after maybe a million of human attributes such as bipedal locomotion. When we reach a few hundred million, we may pat ourselves on the back as if passing a test for survival.
An anthropologist once suggested that a knitted thigh bone found on a human skeleton was an indicator of civilization. Reason: it showed that someone cared for, protected and fed the injured person. Without that, the chance for survival was nil, and knitting bone not possible.
The longtermists seem to disregard the importance of altruism since present lives’ value is small compared billions of lives millions of years from now. Yet, disregard of the present can wipe us out as well as an asteroid.
The premise is wealthy men who think we, or more likely, they are so exceptional, that lives today are an expendable commodity for their legacy building. Yet, their brilliance is really nothing more extraordinary than really gifted athletes who have the body and mind for exceptional feats that we pay to see and enjoy.
Plus, we can’t predict weather with any certainty, just probability, so a million years from now is just idle fraternity bull session talk.
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I’m not optimistic about us spreading out into the galaxy.
First, no one else has. Many stars are much older than ours so life there should already be as advanced as we hope to be in a thousand years. But they haven’t pulled up to visit, and worse, we haven’t detected their reality TV shows. It’s too quiet.
But also, there is a resource hurdle. Our current civilization is based on fossil fuels, and we will move on to nuclear power. Fusion is a maybe.
So, if we use up the fossil fuels and readily minable fissionable ores before we reach the next life supporting planet(which could have fossil fuels) then we are faced with a population collapse and starting over.
But starting over with no fossil fuels or nuclear energy. The next civilization will have to make the jump from wood fired steam to fusion in one step.
That’s a pretty good leap.
So, the environmentalists will get their wish, a low population, low energy sustainable population of less than a billion worldwide living as subsistence farmers.
And no reality TV for the neighbors to detect.
“ So, if we use up the fossil fuels and readily minable fissionable ores before we reach the next life supporting planet(which could have fossil fuels) then we are faced with a population collapse and starting over.”
Electricity is the key to industrial civilization. How to create it is the problem.
There is the argument for finding energy sources that are not so limited. Sunlight, wind, tide, flowing water, geothermal are all very natural, sustainable, repetitive sources that have been going on for billions of years and won’t run out so long as the sun is alive.
Here is a thought. As weather patterns change, food supplies shift, habitable land fluctuates, most living things either adapt or die. Are we the only creatures that adapt by changing the environment rather than adapting physiologically as a species to the environment? That is, if we got colder, do we grow more hair or build better homes. Do we move to arable lands or irrigate the deserts? The answers so far have been to alter the environment to suit us. The question, then, is how long can we do this? And are we in fact creating the inhospitable changes by trying to alter the environment rather than working with it?
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RE: “The answers so far have been to alter the environment to suit us. The question, then, is how long can we do this?”
I’d say there are four possible answers (or categories of answer). We can do this for:
(a) One human life cycle, defined as the longest single life among humans now living.
(b) Some fraction of one human life cycle.
(c) Some multiple of one human life cycle.
(d) An infinite number of human life cycles.
We can rule out (a), (b) and (d) as highly improbable or at least unthinkable. That leaves us with (c), in which we must determine how many human life cycles we can continue altering the environment to suit us.
We quickly discover there are many possible answers, depending on how we tweak the predictive model. It might even seem that we can choose one outcome over another for ourselves. Suppose, for example, that option X gives us 1,000 human life cycles, whereas option Y gives us 1,001 human life cycles.
It might even be possible to trade human lives today for human lives tomorrow such that we extend the total period of existence of humanity.
Faced with such a prospect one might well ask, “Are future human lives worth more than current ones?”
One of the premises among humans is the value of human life in the present. Our abortion controversy is a good example. Ascribing the right to life as a tenet of universal natural rights is another. And the incredible costs and efforts to stay alive even under the most dire circumstances or advanced age is one more.
So we would have to temper those to legitimize the longtermist assertion that future humans are more valuable. Why? Because whatever political and economic capital we spend in the present would diminish what we can exert years, decades and millennia down the road.
I think we should concentrate on the present…kind of like mindfulness. The past is gone, the future uncertain. Not to say we can’t learn from the past (we still don’t, but that’s another story), and plan for the future, but unless individuals can live forever, the value of human life is rooted in the present and within our limited lifespan.
Put another way, at best people will live to see great-grandchildren. And when a person dies, the value of generations beyond that is kind of moot for that individual. So spending time and money to better the present generation in terms of living standards, justice and peaceful coexistence is the most rewarding in all senses of the word. Sacrificing present peoples for humans a million years from now might wipe us out today. That is, a massive conflict brought on by privation of billions resulting in worldwide destruction might leave the world with only cockroaches.
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RE: “I think we should concentrate on the present.”
That’s my solution to the puzzle, as well. Longtermism is simply fallacious.
“Are future human lives worth more than current ones?”
Interesting. That is the same argument used by anti-choice folks.
Let me know how that geothermal space ship works put.
If we save the non-renewable energy sources, we will have plenty of supplies for the projects that we haven’t been able to replace.
If we need to find another planet to survive we will have a trip of approximately 20,000 years at 450,000mph, the fastest space traveler, Parker Probe, we have.
The monarch butterfly takes several generations to reach Mexico. We need 2000. And then, we have no idea how habitable or welcoming the planet really is.
I suggest we keep our only island as clean and nurturing as we possibly can. Live for the present with Earth years for the near future.
A corollary to this discussion regarding planetary travel in the distant future and finding aliens is this:
If two, independently well made mechanical clocks that would run for a year were started at the exact same time, at the end, they would most certainly be a few seconds, more likely minutes or hours, different from each other.
The universe being billions of years old, a comparison in percentages of variation between it and the clocks would be in the millions of years. But even if only 100,000 years, the chances of two civilizations with enough technology to communicate would be infinitesimal. Think of what we were capable of even a few hundred years ago, never mind thousands or millions.
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