We are failing to see how much better off humanity could be (transparent monsters part 2)

by Writer5 min read2nd Sep 2021No comments

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This is a linkpost for https://youtu.be/aAQR-_GKaR8

This is the script of the video linked above, by Rational Animations

Cross-post to LessWrong

In the previous video, we introduced the concept of “transparent monsters”. They are large moral problems hidden to the sight of most of humanity, which are at first visible to only a small group of people. 

But now, let’s consider a completely different approach to finding monsters, which looks at missed potential rather than tragedies. The two approaches are complementary, and the distinction between them is not that strong under some ethical views.

Some of the biggest tragedies of today are transparent to our sight because we fail to grasp the full potential of our future. Early humans, tens of thousands of years ago, lived in a state that today we consider absolute poverty. On average, they died in their twenties, mainly due to the high infant mortality. Did that state of affairs feel like a tragedy to them? Probably not nearly as much as how it feels to us. In any case, for them, it was just how things were. They couldn’t imagine things like medicine, houses, hygiene, consistent good nutrition, transportation, and basic comforts that today we take for granted. What if one of the biggest tragedies of our time is that we are still relatively primitive? One day we might eliminate disease, aging, psychological suffering, and reach levels of wellbeing that we can’t imagine today. Looking back from that time, humanity will look at us with compassion and horror, in the same way we today look at the way humanity lived tens of thousands of years ago.

Consider death itself. Usually, people are not fond of dying, but death is everyone’s problem and unsolvable with current technology. It’s just how things are. These features make it transparent. We go on with our lives without giving it much thought. But every second that a solution is delayed, means that almost two lives are lost. Plus, in the same way as past monsters, such as slavery, people often rationalize death as good. It gives meaning to life, they say. But imagine a more advanced humanity that somehow eliminated all the major causes of death. Would this future humanity consider us lucky because we still die so easily? One day, when we will mostly get rid of death, it will probably be recognized among the monsters. 

Now consider this even more radical way of reasoning:

The easiest way to see a monster is to think about your own experience. You can look at slaves and realize you don't want to live as they do. You can think about death and realize how horrible it is. You can imagine a future humanity and feel a sense of awe.

But there could be other monsters that your experience wouldn't help you see. We might be missing out on things we don't realize are even possible and that we cannot even imagine.

We can consider such monsters in the abstract: They could be about entirely different categories of value that we don’t have today, such as entirely new human experiences. Music that we lack the ears to hear.

You can take this literally. A more advanced humanity could invent new sensory organs that would provide new and different kinds of subjective experience. What does echolocation feel like? If you don’t see value in adding new senses to the human experience, consider this: would it be valuable to give sight to a blind person? Of course it would! Not only because blindness constitutes a practical disadvantage but also because sight is valuable in itself. Sight also unlocks enjoyment for many forms of art. In the same way, new senses might unlock new kinds of arts and enjoyment.

Consider also that subjective experience currently might differ a lot from human to human. For example, some people can’t construct pictures in their heads. This is called aphantasia, and the underlying ability might reside on a spectrum. In the future, everyone might be able to integrate such ability in their own conscious experience. In general, we might take the best parts of everyone’s conscious experience and integrate them into the minds of everyone. It’s not yet clear what kind of future technology would enable this, but perhaps we are already on our way, with brain-computer interfaces being in their infancy.

Similar technologies might be used for enhancing humanity’s mental capabilities, such as intelligence, memory and imagination. This alone might be sufficient to enable new forms of experience. Most animals don’t know of art, music or humor. In the same way we might be severely limited in what we can experience if compared to an enhanced future humanity.

New experiences don’t necessarily need to be enabled directly, though. Future humanity may also have technology that enables them indirectly. For example, consider how, for the better or worse, today’s technology is enabling humanity to experience things that were hardly experienced before. Did our ancestors experience what we feel while watching a movie, playing a video game, reading a book, or listening to recent genres of music? 

There are people whose happiest moments came when they danced at a rave. Imagine someone born before the synthesizer, who never falls in love with music. 

There are also less recent examples we might consider. Just look at mathematics:

Today’s mathematics is a large corpus of ideas that beautifully relate to each other and the physical world, in a way that is valuable to witness in itself. Before the invention of writing, if someone glimpsed the intrinsic value in what we today call “mathematics”, that must have been only a faint glimpse. Perhaps something related to counting and comparing quantities. Then, writing enabled a much better way to pass and store knowledge, which made advanced mathematics possible. And so, a new kind of beauty was born. 

All of these examples give us some clues on how we might identify new categories of value today.

There are at least two insights:

First: New categories of value might be enabled by new technology.

Second: All the examples are of new subjective experiences. This tells us that new kinds of values can arise from new patterns of thinking. And in fact, many things we value today are just neurons firing in particular ways, creating particular experiences such as beauty, love, and happiness.

And now we ask: What creates new valuable patterns in our brains? What are brain patterns that very few humans have but that they consider very valuable?

It could be that some of humanity’s future subjective experiences are already being glimpsed by a minority of humanity. Just like someone might have glimpsed the beauty of what today we call mathematics. Or just like a small minority of people might have glimpsed the badness of slavery when it was considered normal. Such things are not necessarily invisible to us, just... transparent.

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