More on Sexy Immortal Etc.

By | April 20, 2009

I started writing a comment in the thread on my Better All the Time piece from Friday when I realized that, length-wise, it was growing into a post of its own. So here we go.

Leo wrote:

Until humans know that happiness results from virtuous behavior and that such knowledge informs and directs our own behavior, we will continue to pursue the gratification of our sensory appetites. Such behavior leads to an every increasing level of vice, accelerating one on the downward spiral into the abyss of despair and unhappiness. It is happiness, so understood, that is the basis of the phrase in our Declaration of Independence, “Pursuit of Happiness”.

Sally responded:

[T]he kind of capabilities Singulatarians are projecting for future people and societies allow people to pursue all kinds of fun and take care of their responsibilities and themselves. They want more, more, more, and they get it.

The dissipation of alcohol, sex, drugs noted yesteryear and today are a function of comparatively low level of technological capability as expressed in our amusements rather than punishment for sinners.

I agree. While we do see individuals from time to time falling into the spiral that Leo describes (and that’s a tragedy), humanity as a whole pushes on.

If anything, I believe that material progress has aided humanity in becoming more virtuous. I pointed out in my post that we are less violent than our primitive ancestors. Look at how much progress has been made over the past few centuries in recognizing and realizing the idea of human rights. The abolition of first the slave trade and then the practice of slavery was a by-product of the industrial revolution. History shows that more capable people, with better resources at their disposal, tend to be nicer than less capable people with fewer resources.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t still bad people, nor does it mean that those same resources never get used to do terrible things. But the trend is towards greater empathy with our fellow human beings. Our future selves are highly compassionate beings — that’s one of the things that makes them so darn sexy.

Mark wrote:

If you extrapolate the evolution from single cell to human (more power, knowledge and longevity) into the future, you eventually get to omnipotence, omniscience and immortality which is a common definition of God. So, perhaps God did not create man, but man’s destiny is to evolve into God.

Tracing the progression of humanity towards godhood is something akin to tracing the the progression of our present state of affairs towards “the most wonderful world imaginable.” The closer we get to any one conception of it, the more we have to refine what we mean by the term. Let’s just take one of your characteristics of God, omnipotence, and give it a fairly standard definition: infinitely powerful. (Omnipotent actually means “all-powerful,” not “infinitely powerful,” but I think most of us would agree that God is widely described as having infinite power.)

Eliezer Yudkowsky (no fan of the God meme) does an excellent job of showing the fallacy of glibly tossing the term “infinite” around, when in reality we can barely get our heads around very large numbers. He writes:

Graham’s number is far beyond my ability to grasp. I can describe it, but I cannot properly appreciate it. (Perhaps Graham can appreciate it, having written a mathematical proof that uses it.) This number is far larger than most people’s conception of infinity. I know that it was larger than mine. My sense of awe when I first encountered this number was beyond words. It was the sense of looking upon something so much larger than the world inside my head that my conception of the Universe was shattered and rebuilt to fit. All theologians should face a number like that, so they can properly appreciate what they invoke by talking about the “infinite” intelligence of God.

If human beings are currently at a capability level represented by the number 1, perhaps the powerful beings I described in my piece would be represented by the number 100. If those sexy immortal billionaires with super powers then become a thousand times more powerful than that, and then a million times more powerful than that, and then a billion times more powerful than that, they are still roughly as far from being infinitely powerful as we are right now. Going back to my analogy of a one-celled organism trying to figure out what it needs to do to become human, that woefully simplistic creature is much, much closer to us than we are to an infinite being. (In fact, it is infinitely closer.)

Interestingly, if we were to reach a capability level represented by the vast-beyond-imagining number that Yudkowsky describes above, we would be much more powerful than “God” as conceived in the minds of most believers. In fact, we wouldn’t need to go nearly that far to achieve a level of capability that far transcends what most people picture when they think of “God.” I don’t think this means that we’re moving in on divinity. Rather, I think we need vastly expanded imagination when it comes to contemplating human potential, much less the nature of God.


Some sexy immortals / folks with super-powers.
Unfortunately, the only actual billionaire pictured is not immortal,
but you get the idea. (Bet he would be a big contributor, though.)

Hitnrun wrote:

“I think they would laugh at that question. The answer is so obvious. Likewise, if we had even a rough approximation of what life will be like for people in the future, we would be equally amused at the suggestion that those folks might be less happy than we are.”

That’s quite an amazing fallacy. Just because something seems “obvious” to an outsider with no data doesn’t make it true.

Of course, in the examples I gave there is some data although it’s hardly exhaustive. However, these people aren’t entirely “outsiders.” Human beings of any era will agree that being eaten by bears is negatively correlated with happiness, while having a warm and dry place to sleep is positively correlated with happiness. The net human experience is that over time we have fewer of the former type of factor to contend with and get many more of the latter as given.

In any case, if it’s a fallacy to make assumptions about the level of happiness of people living in other eras, then those who claim that people were happier or just as happy in the past are committing precisely that fallacy.

SparcVark wrote:

Man will make it his purpose to master his own feelings, to raise his instincts to the heights of consciousness, to make them transparent, to extend the wires of his will into hidden recesses, and thereby to raise himself to a new plane, to create a higher social biologic type, or, if you please, a superman.

. . . Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser and subtler; his body will become more harmonized, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.

-Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution

Is the “new transhuman man” just the “new socialist man” with slightly updated wishful thinking?

Sally responded:

Good prognosis from Trotsky, but Marxism was a very bad treatment.

Turns out Trotsky was right for all the wrong reasons.

Marx KNEW technological development was accelerating in the 19th century, but failed miserably by not studying the tech itself and not extrapolating those trends.

Well, that was ONE of his many mistakes.

Marx looked at human history and saw an ancient power struggle between classes. He saw technology as an enabler of conducting and winning a war between classes rather than as an evolutionary catalyst to societal change. In his view, it takes an armed uprising to put the means of production into the hands of the workers. Wrong. It turns out that technological development ultimately puts the means of production into the hands of the workers, and that a capitalist system fully supports the transition. The singularity, particularly the economic variety, promises to bring about much of what 19th century communists and other Utopians envisioned. Are we just touting a new version of their “wishful thinking?” I suppose we are, in much the same way that the Wright brothers carried forward a new version of Leonardo’s “wishful thinking” about heavier-than-air flight.

Donald Fagen wrote:

A just machine to make big decisions
Programmed by fellas with compassion and vision
We’ll be free when their work is done
We’ll be eternaly free, yes, and eternally young

What a beautiful world this will be!
What a glorious time to be free!

You know, Donald, I always assumed that your namesake was being sarcastic with this song. But the idea suggested here is pretty much where I think we’re headed. The basic programming for that machine ought to be something along these lines.

  • Harvey

    Alchohol, sex, drugs: is a strange looking list. One of these things is not like the others. One of these things just doesn’t belong. Can you tell me which thing is not like the others…

  • Phil Bowermaster

    Can you tell me which thing is not like the others…

    I know. Alcohol is wrong. The third item that belongs in a list with Sex and Drugs is Rock and Roll!

  • MikeD

    It used to be sex, drugs and Rock and Roll…

    30 years later…

    It’s sex drugs and “classic” Rock and Roll.

  • Sally Morem

    But Rock and Roll can’t give you STDs or the DTs. :O

    Now, on to what was one of my favorite 80′s songs. IGY. Do you know what those initials referred to? If you do, they’re a dead giveaway to what Steely Dan was up to in that song.

    1959 was the International Geophysical Year. Scientific expeditions, publications, conferences, science on the march around the world, all sorts of stuff was going on that year. I remember reading about it a few years later.

    Also, it was a hot time for very optimistic science fiction and futurism. Virtually everything mentioned in that song was pulled from very famous SF stories and futurist essays.

    The Wheel in Space was Werner von Braun’s vision of a space station.

    The Machines came straight from one of Asimov’s stories in his collection, “I, Robot.”

    You can go through the rest of the lyrics and if you’re a knowledgeable enough fan, you’ll find the reference in the 50s.

    So, partly the song is about the future that never was. Very much like the 1939 World’s Fair.

    But partly…well, I agree with Phil that a number of those things will happen, just not quite the way the visionaries in the 50′s imagined.

    I think I’ll pass on the spandex jacket. :)