Thinking Big About the Future

by Charlie Huenemann

I recently listened to a discussion on the topic of longtermism, or the moral view that we need to factor in the welfare of future generations far more seriously than we do, including generations far, far into the future. No one should deny that the people of the future deserve some of our consideration, but most people soften that consideration with fluffy pillows of uncertainty. We take ourselves to have a rough idea of what the next generation will face, but after that everything gets cloudy fast, and most of us aren’t sure what exactly we should do for those possible people in the clouds, so we start dropping them from our moral calculations.

But if you insist on considering them, and treating them as real (but real elsewhen), their numbers and their interests get big fast. How many people might exist in the whole future of the universe? Millions of billions, maybe, if we go full-on Star Trek. If they each deserve only one millionth of our concern, that still ends up being a whopping amount of concern. Look at things that way, and really just about all of our moral thinking should be focused on the future generations of the universe. The Iroquois who asserted that we should “have always in view not only the present but also the coming generations” were severely understating the magnitude of the task before us.

Look, I’m not about to say anything against caring for the people of the future. But when anyone starts talking about the universe, or the rest of time, I feel compelled to remind them that they have no idea what they are talking about. Even saying “it sure is a big place” or “the scale of the thing is mind-boggling” or “there sure are a lot of possibilities” runs the risk of suggesting we have more of a grip on the business than we really do. It’s slightly safer just to say, “we really have no idea.” 

(This, by the way, was the strategy of the advocates of negative or “apophatic” theology: God is just so mind-bogglingly beyond us that we can say no true positive things about God, but only dramatically inadequate negative things: “God’s not finite” or “God’s not ignorant” and the like.)

The longtermers, like the Bostromian simulated realiteers, present arguments by cases. “Either intelligent races destroy themselves, or they decide not to venture beyond their home planets, or they end up creating huge simulations,” say the simulated realiteers. “Either intelligent races destroy themselves, or they multiply without fundamental change across many planetary systems, or they evolve into some future sort of being that still has interests and preferences,” say the longtermers. But these lists of possibilities are of course bound by what little we can see from our perspective now. The universe (ugh! now I’m doing it!) is not similarly bound by what humans can imagine, not by a long shot. 

“Hold my beer,” says the universe. “Let me lay out some further possibilities that may not have occurred to you.”

  1. Dave the Turtle: It turns out that the background radiation of the universe is generated by a multi-dimensional turtle named Dave. Dave will do whatever it takes to manage his thermodynamic preferences, which cannot be expressed accurately in less than a million encyclopedia sets. One minor consequence of his preferences is that Dave will manipulate circumstances across all star systems to ensure equal numbers of happy and suffering sentient beings. No one who is not Dave can do a thing about it.
  2. The Big Rocks: A big rock hits our planet in 2049 and wipes out all but 988 of us. The survivors return to the conditions of most of humanity’s prior existence, and they gradually grow in population until another big rock comes along, and this pattern keeps repeating until the sun burns out.
  3. Hot Tub Time Machine: Donald Trump’s great granddaughter invents a hot tub time machine and starts ferrying people back to Lands That Time Forgot. Now the longtermers need to factor in the people of the past as well, which causes so many schisms among the philosophers that the whole idea is abandoned and even more people travel to the past to try to live in simpler times. Pretty soon everyone lives back then.
  4. Gottfried Was Right: To everyone’s great surprise, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) was pretty much right about everything. This is the best of all possible worlds, made actual by God, and over time perfect justice and maximal deserved happiness is achieved. Humans don’t exactly bring it about, though; or rather they are not the only beings responsible for bringing it about, since all that exist are an infinity of windowless monads coordinated into a pre-established harmony imposed by the Big G himself. (That’s God, not Gottfried. Just making sure.)
  5. Worms: String theory turns out to be kinda right, but the tiny strings that make up everything are in fact sentient worms who have been, are, and will be completely blissed out about absolutely everything. Their happiness sums up to a quantity that far exceeds any suffering experienced by the larger apparent beings composed of the worms, so there’s not really anything that needs fixing. 

As you might imagine, the Universe is only getting started in rehearsing its possibilities. Indeed, the universe’s range of possibilities is not small, let us say. 

The universe is stranger than we can imagine, Albert Einstein is said to have said. Indeed, we should not even be sure there is a universe: we can see stars and nebulae and planets and whatever, but no one has ever seen a universe, and it’s only an unexamined hunch that it makes sense to speak of The One Big Thing That Includes All The Smaller Bits. The same goes for The Rest of Time or All Future Sentient Beings. Our field of vision, and our field of thought, is always bounded, even if we never see the bounds. It’s good to try to keep that fact in mind as we feel the temptation to declare what must be and what could never be.