nickmatt's Shortform

by nickmatt14th Nov 20206 comments
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Reading science fiction to build intuition about longtermism:

Throughout my involvement over the past 2 years leading and participating in EA fellowships, I've heard numerous fellows say something like "longtermism seems interesting and somewhat convincing, but I find it hard to think about and at times intractable". This difficulty in thinking about how our current actions can have massive long-term impacts on timelines longer than say, a century, isn't something most people coming into an intro to EA fellowship have thought about. 

From my experience these students then, on average, are more likely to work on other EA cause areas like animal welfare/global poverty/etc.

I have never had difficulty thinking about longtermism. I suspect this is partly because I read a large amount of science fiction. In books like Foundation, The Three-Body Problem, and The Mote in God's Eye, the stories unfold over hundreds or thousands of years, and the actions of characters at the beginning of the books dramatically affect entire civilizations generations later.

I encourage others in the EA community to think about whether there is a correlation between people who find longtermism not just academically persuasive but intuitive and people with exposure to this kind of science fiction. It may be useful for us to encourage others in the community to consume this type of science fiction to motivate the pursuit of working on long-term causes (though of course we don't want people to then think of longtermism as "science fiction"  in the worst sense of the word).

This is an interesting idea; thanks for writing it up!

I consider myself a "longtermist" and have read a lot of science fiction, but most examples I've seen in sci-fi of people affecting the future don't feel convincing to me. To comment on some of your examples:

  • "Psychohistory" (Foundation) is fine as "the premise you have to accept to read the book", but is very silly as an actual concept.
  • The Dark Forest trilogy (Three-Body Problem, etc.) has a few sections where we skip ahead into the future and see how things have developed, but the explanations for that development typically take up roughly a page and use a style of historical narrative that doesn't really match what longtermist work feels like (rather than  a few people or groups achieving influence, IIRC the explanation tends to be "humans became more like X, ergo thing Y happened"). 

I feel like I've read a couple of books that really capture the process of changing the world over centuries, and the kinds of work that go into those changes, but no titles are coming to mind. 

What I've found more helpful: Books that capture what it's like to be at the mercy of some overwhelming, civilization-shattering force. These include On the Beach and Alas, Babylon (nuclear war) and books with realistically superintelligent or super-advanced aliens (the Dark Forest trilogy does pretty well here). I think people often struggle to understand how it would feel to contend with something fundamentally smarter than humans, and sci-fi gets that scary feeling across quite well.

Semi-aside: Have you read Canticle for Leibowitz? I barely remember exact details from the book, but I read  it when I was very young, and plausibly it affected my priors on nuclear war somewhat, in a subtle/sneaky way.

For everyone who is also looking up the books right now. Here are the links:

You nailed it - Aasimov's and Cixin Liu's classics should be almost compulsory reading. However, it caught my eye you call Cixin Liu's trilogy the Dark Forest Trilogy, instead of referring to it as something likeThe 3-body problem books or Trisolarian Trilogy or Remembrances of Earth's Past.
What I enjoy most in these books is the challenge of maintaining something like long-term cooperation. To such a list I'd add something like The Ministry for the Future (someone should add a good review to this forum); but though it has wonderful passages, sometimes it's irrealistic optimistic (or even simplistic, along the lines "capitalism is evil") and takes a lot for granted.

I just misremembered the official name of the trilogy -- Remembrance of Earth's Past is correct.