Suffering, Infinity, and Universe Anti-Natalism

Questions that concern infinite amounts of value seem worth spending some time contemplating, even if those questions are of a highly speculative nature. For instance, if we assume a general expected value framework of a kind where we evaluate the expected value of a given outcome based on its probability multiplied by its value, then any more than an infinitesimal probability of an outcome that has infinite value would imply that this outcome has infinite expected value. And hence that the expected value of such an outcome would trump that of any outcome with a “mere” finite amount of value.

Therefore, on this framework, even strongly convinced finitists are not exempt from taking seriously the possibility that infinities, of one ethically relevant kind or another, may be real. For however strong a conviction one may hold, maintaining only an infinitesimal probability that infinite value outcomes of some sort could be real seems difficult to defend.

Bounding the Influence of Expected Value Thinking

It is worth making clear, as a preliminary note, that we may reasonably put a bound on how much weight we give such an expected value framework in our ethical deliberations, so as to avoid crazy conclusions and actions; or simply to preserve our sanity, which may also be a priority for some.

In fact, it is easy to point to good reasons for why we should constrain the influence of such a framework on our decisions. For although it seems implausible to entirely reject such an expected value framework in one’s moral reasoning, it would seem equally implausible to consider such a framework complete and exhaustive in itself. One reason being that thinking in terms of expected value is just one way to theorize about the world among many others, and it seems difficult to justify granting it a particularly privileged status among these, especially given a tool-like conception of our thinking: if all our thinking about the world is best thought of as a tool that helps us navigate in the world rather than a set of Platonic ideals that perfectly track truths in a transcendent way, it seems difficult to elevate a single class of these tools, such as thinking in terms of expected value, to a higher status than all others. But also given that we cannot readily put numbers on most things in practice, both due to a lack of time in most real-world situations and because, even when we do have time, the numbers we assign are often bound to be entirely speculative, if at all meaningful in the first place.

Just as we need more than theoretical physics to navigate in the physical world, it seems likely that we will do well to not only rely on an expected value framework to navigate the moral landscape, and this holds true even if all we care about is to maximize or minimize the realization of a certain class of states. Using only a single style of thinking makes us inherently vulnerable to mistakes in our judgments, and hence resting everything on one style of thinking without limits seems risky and unwise.

It therefore seems reasonable to limit the influence of this framework, and indeed any single framework, and one proposed way of doing so is by giving it only a limited number of the seats of one’s notional moral parliament; say, 40 percent of them. In this way, we should be better able to avoid the vulnerabilities of relying on a single framework, while remaining open to be guided by its inputs.

What Can Be the Case?

To get an overview, let us begin by briefly surveying (at least some of) the landscape of the conceivable possibilities concerning the size of the universe. Or, more precisely, the conceivable possibilities concerning the axiological size of the universe. For it is indeed possible, at least abstractly, for the universe to be physically finite, yet axiologically infinite; for instance, if some states of suffering are infinitely disvaluable, then a universe containing one or more of such states would be axiologically infinite, even if physically finite.

In fact, a finite universe containing such states could be worse, indeed infinitely worse, than even a physically infinite universe containing an infinite amount of suffering, if the states of suffering realized in the finite universe are more disvaluable than the infinitely many states of suffering found in the physically infinite universe. (I myself find the underlying axiological claim here more than plausible: that a single instance of certain states of suffering — torture, say — are more disvaluable than infinitely many instances of milder states of suffering, such as pinpricks.)

It is also conceivable that the universe is physically infinite, yet axiologically finite; if, for instance, our axiology is non-additive, if the universe contains only infinitesimal value throughout, or if only a freak bubble of it contains entities of value. This last option may seem impossibly unlikely, yet it is conceivable. Infinity does not imply infinite repetition; the infinite sequence ( 1, 0, 0, 0, … ) does not logically have to contain 1 again, and indeed doesn’t.

In terms of physical size, there are various ways in which infinity can be realized. For instance, the universe may be both temporally and spatially infinite in terms of its extension. Or it may be temporally bounded while spatially infinite in extension, or vice versa: be spatially finite, yet eternal. It should be noted, though, that these two may be considered equivalent, if we view only points in space and time as having value-bearing potential (arguably the only view consistent with physicalism, ultimately), and view space and time as a four-dimensional structure. Then one of these two universes will have infinite “length” and finite “breadth”, while the opposite is true of the other one, and a similar shape can thus be obtained via “90 degree” rotation.

Similarly, it is also conceivable (and apparently plausible) that the universe has a finite past and an infinite future, in which case it will always have a finite age, or it could have an infinite past and a finite future. Or, equivalently in spatial terms, be bounded in one spatial direction, yet have infinite extension in another.

Yet infinite extension is not the only conceivable way in which physical infinity may conceivably be realized. Indeed, a bounded space can, at least in one sense, contain more elements than an unbounded one, as exemplified by the cardinality of the real numbers in the interval (0, 1) compared to all the natural numbers. So not only might the universe be infinite in terms of extension, but also in terms of its divisibility — i.e. in terms of notional sub-worlds we may encounter as we “zoom down” at smaller scales — which could have far greater significance than infinite extension, at least if we believe we can use cardinality as a meaningful measure of size in concrete reality.

Taking this possibility into consideration as well, we get even more possible combinations — infinitely many, in fact. For example, we can conceive of a universe that is bounded both spatially and temporally, yet which is infinitely divisible. And it can then be infinitely divisible in infinitely many different ways. For instance, it may be divisible in such a way that it has the same cardinality as the natural numbers, i.e. its set of “sub-worlds” is countably infinite, or it could be divisible with the same cardinality as the real numbers, meaning that it consists of uncountably many “sub-worlds”. And given that there is no largest cardinality, we could continue like this ad infinitum.

One way we could try to imagine the notional place of such small worlds in our physical world is by conceiving of them as in some sense existing “below” the Planck scale, each with their own Planck scale below which even more worlds exist, ad infinitum. Many more interesting examples of different kinds of combinations of the possibilities reviewed so far could be mentioned.

Another conceivable, yet supremely speculative, possibility worth contemplating is that the size of the universe is not set in stone, and that it may be up to us/the universe itself to determine whether it will be infinite, and what “kind” of infinity.

Lastly, it is also conceivable that the size of the universe, both in physical and axiological terms, cannot faithfully be conceived of with any concept available to us. So although the conceivable possibilities are infinite, it remains conceivable that none of them are “right” in any meaningful sense.

What Is the Case? — Infinite Uncertainty?

Unfortunately, we do not know whether the universe is infinite or not; or, more generally, which of the possibilities mentioned above that are true of our condition. And there are reasons to think that we will never know with great confidence. For even if we were to somehow encounter a boundary encapsulating our universe, or otherwise find strong reasons for believing in one, how could we possibly exclude that there might not be something beyond that boundary? (Not to mention that the universe might still be infinitely divisible even if bounded.) Or, alternatively, even if we thought we had good reasons to believe that our universe is infinite, how can we be sure that the limited data we base that conclusion on can be generalized to locations arbitrarily far away from us? (This is essentially the problem of induction.)

Yet even if we thought we did know whether the universe is infinite with great confidence, the situation would arguably not be much different. For if we accept the proposition that we should have more than infinitesimal credence in any empirical claim about the world, what is known as Cromwell’s rule (I have argued that this applies to all claims, not just [stereotypically] “empirical” claims), then, on our general expected value framework, it would seem that any claim about the reality of infinite value outcomes should always be taken seriously, regardless of our specific credences in specific physical and axiological models of the universe.

In fact, not only should the conceivable realizations of infinity reviewed above be taken seriously (at least to the extent that they imply outcomes with infinite (dis)value), but so should a seemingly even more outrageous notion, namely that infinite (dis)value may rest on any particular action we do. However small a non-zero real-valued probability we assign such a claim — e.g. that the way you prepare your coffee tomorrow morning is going to impact an infinite amount of value — the expected value of getting the, indeed any, given action right remains infinite.

How should we act in light of this outrageous possibility?

Pascallian and Counter-Pascallian Claims

The problem, or perhaps our good fortune, is that, in most cases arguably, we do not seem to have reason to believe that one course of action is more likely to have an infinitely better outcome than another. For example, in the case of the morning coffee, we appear to have no more reason to believe that, say, making a strong cup of coffee will lead to infinitely more disvalue than making a mild one will, rather than it being the other way around. For such hypotheses, we seem able to construct an equal and oppositely directed counter-hypothesis.

Yet even if we concede that this is the case most of the time, what about situations where this is not the case? What about choices where we do have slightly better reasons to believe that one outcome will be infinitely better than another one?

This is difficult to address in the absence of any concrete hypotheses or scenarios, so I shall here consider the two specific cases, or classes of scenarios, where a plausible reason may be given in favor of thinking that one course of action will influence infinitely more value than another. One is the case of an eternal civilization: our actions may impact infinite (dis)value by impacting whether, and in what form, an eternal civilization will exist in our universe.

In relation to the (extremely unlikely) prospect of the existence of such a civilization, it seems that we could well find reasons to believe that we can impact an infinite amount of value. But the crucial question is: how? From the perspective of negative utilitarianism, it is far from clear what outcomes are most likely to be infinitely better than others. This is especially true in light of the other class of ways in which we may plausibly impact infinite value that I shall consider here, namely by impacting the creation of, or the unfolding of events in, parallel universes, which may eventually be infinitely numerous.

For not only could an eternal civilization that is the descendant of ours be better in “our universe” than another eternal civilization that may emerge in our place if we go extinct; it could also be better with respect to its effects on the creation of parallel universes, in which case it may be normative for negative utilitarians to work to preserve our civilization, contrary to what is commonly considered the ultimate corollary of negative utilitarianism (and this could also hold true if the temporal extension of our civilization is bound to be finite). Indeed, this could be the case even if no other civilization were to emerge instead of ours: if the impact our civilization will have on other universes results in less suffering than what would otherwise be created naturally. It is, of course, also likely that the opposite is the case: that the continuation of our civilization would be worse than another civilization or no civilization. And I must admit that I have no idea what is more likely to be the case.

So in these cases where reasons pointing more in one way than another plausibly could be found, it is not clear which direction that would be. Except perhaps in the direction that we should do more research on this question: which actions are more likely to reduce infinitely more suffering than others? Indeed, from the point of view of a suffering-focused expected value framework, it would seem that this should be our highest priority.

Ignoring Small Credences?

One may be skeptical of my claim above: can it really be true that the considerations, or at least my considerations, in the case of the continuation of civilization cancel out exactly? Is there not even the smallest difference? Not even a hunch?

In his paper on infinite ethics, Nick Bostrom argues that such an exact cancellation seems extraordinarily unlikely, and that small tips in balance seem to have counter-intuitive, if not catastrophic, consequences:

This cancellation of probabilities would have to be perfectly accurate, down to the nineteenth decimal place and beyond. […]

It would seem almost miraculous if these motley factors, which could be subjectively correlated with infinite outcomes, always managed to conspire to cancel each other out without remainder. Yet if there is a remainder—if the balance of epistemic probability happens to tip ever so slightly in one direction—then the problem of fanaticism remains with undiminished force. Worse, its force might even be increased in this situation, for if what tilts the balance in favor of a seemingly fanatical course of action is the merest hunch rather than any solid conviction, then it is so much more counterintuitive to claim that we ought to pursue it in spite of any finite sacrifice doing so may entail. The “exact-cancellation” argument threatens to backfire catastrophically.

I do not happen to share Bostrom view, however. Apart from the aforementioned bounding of the influence of expected value thinking, there are also ways to avoid such apparent craziness of letting our actions rest on the slightest hunch from within the expected value framework: disregarding sufficiently low credences.

Bostrom is skeptical of this approach:

As a piece of pragmatic advice, the notion that we should ignore small probabilities is often sensible. Being creatures of limited cognitive capacities, we do well by focusing our attention on the most likely outcomes. Yet even common sense recognizes that whether a possible outcome can be ignored for the sake of simplifying our deliberations depends not only on its probability but also on the magnitude of the values at stake. The ignorable contingencies are those for which the product of likelihood and value is small. If the value in question is infinite, even improbable contingencies become significant according to common sense criteria. The postulation of an exception from these criteria for very low-likelihood events is, at the very least, theoretically ugly.

Yet Bostrom here seems to ignore that “the value in question” is infinite for every action, cf. the point that we should maintain some small credence in every claim, including the claim that any given action may effect an infinite amount of (dis)value.

So in this way, no action we can point toward is fundamentally different from any other. The only difference is just what our credence is that a particular action may make “an infinite difference”, or that it makes “the greatest infinite difference”, compared to any other action. And when it comes to such credences, I would argue that it is utmost reasonable to ignore sufficiently small ones. In my view, to not do that would be the ugly thing, for the following reasons:

First, one could argue that, just as most models of physics break down beyond a certain range, it is reasonable to expect our ability to discriminate between different credence levels to break down when we reach a sufficiently fine scale. This is also well in line with the fact that it is generally difficult to put precise numbers on our credence levels with respect to specific claims. Thus, one could argue that we are way past the range of error of our intuitive credences when we reach the nineteenth decimal place.

This conclusion can also be reached via a rather different consideration: one can argue that our entire ontological and epistemological framework itself cannot be assumed credible with absolute certainty. Therefore, it would seem that our entire worldview, including this framework of assigning numerical values, or indeed any order at all, to our credences, should itself be assigned some credence of being wrong. And one can then argue, quite reasonably, that once we reach a level of credence in any claim that is lower than our level of credence in, say, the meaningfulness of ascribing credences in this way in the first place, this specific credence should be ignored, as it lies beyond what we consider the range of reliability of this framework in the first place.

In sum, I think it is fair to say that, when we only have a tiny credence that some action may be infinitely better than another, we should do more research and look for better reasons to act on rather than to act on these hunches. We can reasonably ignore exceptionally small credences in practice, as we indeed already do every time we make a decision based on calculations of finite expected values; we then ignore the tiny credence we should have that the value of the outcomes in question is infinite.

Infinitarian Paralyses?

Another thing Bostrom treats in his paper, actually the main subject of it, is whether the existence of infinite value implies, on aggregative consequentialist views, that it makes no difference what we do. As he puts it:

Aggregative consequentialist theories are threatened by infinitarian paralysis: they seem to imply that if the world is canonically infinite then it is always ethically indifferent what we do. In particular, they would imply that it is ethically indifferent whether we cause another holocaust or prevent one from occurring. If any non-contradictory normative implication is a reductio ad absurdum, this one is.

To elaborate a bit: the reason it is supposed to be indifferent whether we cause another holocaust is that the net sum of value in the universe supposedly is the same either way: infinite.

It should be noted, though, that whether this really is a problem depends on how we define and calculate the “sum of value”. And the question is then whether we can define this in a meaningful way that avoids absurdities and provides us with a useful ethical framework we can act on.

In my view, the solution to this conundrum is to give up our attachment to cardinal arithmetic. In a way, this is obvious: if you have an infinite set and add finitely many elements to it, you still have “the same as before”, in terms of the cardinality of the set. Yet, in another sense, we of course do not get “the same as before”, in that the new infinite set is not identical to the one we had before. Therefore, if we insist that adding another holocaust to a universe that already contains infinitely many holocausts should make a difference, we are simply forced to abandon standard cardinal arithmetic. In its stead, we should arguably just take our requirement as an axiom: that adding any amount of value to an infinity of value does make a difference — that it does change the “sum of value”.

This may seem simplistic, and one may reasonably ask how this “sum of value” could be defined. A simple answer is that we could add up whatever (presumably) finite difference we make within the larger (hypothetically) infinite world, and to then consider that the relevant sum of value that should determine our actions, what has been referred to as “the causal approach” to this problem.

This approach has been met with various criticisms, one of them being that it leaves “the total sum of value” unchanged. As Bostrom puts it:

One consequence of the causal approach is that there are cases in which you ought to do something, and ought to not do something else, even though you are certain that neither action would have any effect at all on the total value of the world.

I fail to see the appeal of this criticism, however, not least because it is deceptively phrased. For how is the “total value of the world” defined here? It is not the case that “the total value of the world” is left unchanged on every possible definition of these terms; it just is on one particular definition, indeed one we have good reason to consider implausible and irrelevant. And the reason was that it implies that adding another holocaust makes no difference to the “total value of the world”. It then seems a strange move to say that it counts against a theory that it holds the prevention of finitely many holocaust to be normative because this has no “effect at all on the total value of the world” — by this very implausible definition. If forced to choose between these two mutually exclusive starting points — adding a holocaust makes a difference to the total value of the world or it does not — I think it is an easy choice. If we can help alleviate the extreme suffering of just a single being, while keeping all else equal, this being will hardly agree that “the total value of the world” was left unchanged by our actions. Not in any sensible sense.

More than that, I also think that for an ethical theory to say that we should ignore whatever lies outside our sphere of influence should not be considered a weakness, but rather a strength. Imagine by analogy a hypothetical Earth identical to ours, with the two exceptions that 1) it has been inhabited by humans for an eternal and unalterable past, over which infinitely many holocausts have taken place, and 2) it has a finite future; the universe it inhabits will end peacefully in a hundred years. Now, if people on this Earth held an ethical theory that does not take this unalterable infinite past into account, and instead focuses on the finite future, including preventing holocausts from happening in that future, would this count against that theory in any way? I fail to see how it could, and yet this is essentially the same as taking the causal approach within an infinite universe, only phrased more “unilaterally”, i.e. more purely in temporal rather than spatio-temporal terms.

Another criticism that has been leveled against the causal approach is that we cannot rule out that our causal impact may in some sense be infinite, and therefore it is problematic to say that we should just measure the world’s value, and take action based on, whatever finite difference we make. Here is Bostrom again:

When a finite positive probability is assigned to scenarios in which it is possible for us to exert a causal effect on an infinite number of value-bearing locations […] then the expectation value of the causal changes that we can make is undefined. Paralysis will thus strike even when the domain of aggregation is restricted to our causal sphere of influence.

Yet these claims actually do not follow. First, it should again be noted that the situation Bostrom refers to here is in fact the situation we are always in: we should always assign a positive probability to the possibility that we may effect infinite (dis)value. Second, we should be clear that the scenario where we can impact an infinite amount of value, and where we aggregate over the realm we can influence, is fundamentally different from the scenario in which we aggregate over an infinite universe that contains an infinite amount of value that we cannot impact. To the extent there are threats of “infinitarian paralysis” in these two scenarios, they are not identical.

For example, Bostrom’s claim that “the expectation value of the causal changes that we can make is undefined” need not be true even on standard cardinal arithmetic, at least in the abstract (i.e. if we ignore Cromwell’s rule), in the scenario where we focus only on our own future light cone. For it could be that the scenarios in which we can “exert a causal effect on an infinite number of value-bearing locations” were all scenarios that nonetheless contained only finite (dis)value, or, on a dipolar axiology, only a finite amount of disvalue and an infinite amount of value. A concrete example of the latter could be a scenario where the abolitionist project outlined by David Pearce is completed in an eternal civilization after a finite amount of time.

Hence, it is not necessarily the case that “paralysis will strike even when the domain of aggregation is restricted to our causal sphere of influence”, apart from in the sense treated earlier, when we factor in Cromwell’s rule: how should we act given that all actions may effect infinite (dis)value? But again, this is a very different kind of “paralysis” than the one that appears to be Bostrom’s primary concern, cf. this excerpt from the abstract of his paper Infinite Ethics:

Modern cosmology teaches that the world might well contain an infinite number of happy and sad people and other candidate value-bearing locations. Aggregative ethics implies that such a world contains an infinite amount of positive value and an infinite amount of negative value. You can affect only a finite amount of good or bad. In standard cardinal arithmetic, an infinite quantity is unchanged by the addition or subtraction of any finite quantity.

Indeed, one can argue that the “Cromwell paralysis” in a sense negates this latter paralysis, as it implies that it may not be true that we can affect only a finite amount of good or bad, and, more generally, that we should assign a non-zero probability to the claim that we can optimize the value of the universe everywhere throughout, including in those corners that seem theoretically inaccessible.

Adding Always Makes a Difference

As for the infinitarian paralysis supposed to threaten the causal approach in the absence of the “Cromwell paralysis” — how to compare the outcomes we can impact that contain infinite amounts of value? — it seems that we can readily identify reasonable consequentialist principles to act by that should at least allow us to compare some actions and outcomes against each other, including, perhaps, the most relevant ones.

One such principle is the one alluded to in the previous section: that adding something of (dis)value always makes a difference, even if the notional set we are adding it to contains infinitely many similar elements already. In terms of an axiology that holds the amount of suffering in the world to be the chief measure of value, this principle would hold that adding/failing to prevent an instance of suffering always makes for a less valuable outcome, provided that other things are equal, which they of course never quite are in the real world, yet they often are in expectation.

The following abstract example makes, I believe, a strong case for favoring such a measure of (dis)value over the cardinal sum of the units of (dis)value. As I formulate this thought experiment, this unit will, in accordance with my own view, be instances of intense suffering in the universe, yet the point applies generally:

Imagine that we have a universe with a countably infinite amount of instances of intense suffering. We may visualize this universe as a unit ball. Now imagine that we perform an act in this universe that leaves the original universe unchanged, yet creates a new universe identical to the first one. The result is a new universe full of suffering. Imagine next that we perform this same act in a world where nothing exists. The result is exactly the same: the creation of a new universe full of suffering, in the exact same amount. In both cases, we have added exactly the same ball of infinite suffering. Yet on standard cardinal arithmetic, the difference the act makes in terms of the sum of instances of suffering is not the same in the two cases. In the first case, the total sum is the same, namely countably infinite, while there is an infinite difference in the second case: from zero to infinity. If we only count the difference added, however— the “delta universe”, so to speak— the acts are equally disvaluable in the two cases. The latter method of evaluating the (dis)value of the act seems far more plausible than does evaluation based on the cardinal sum of the units of (dis)value in the universe. It is, after all, the exact same act.

This is not an idle thought experiment. As noted above, impacting the creation of new universes is one of the ways in which we may plausibly be able to influence an infinite amount of (dis)value. Arguably even the most plausible one. Admittedly, it does rest on certain debatable assumptions about physics, yet these assumptions seem significantly more likely than does the possibility of the existence of an eternal civilization. For even disregarding specific civilization hostile facts about the universe (e.g. the end of stars and a rapid expansion of space that is thought to eventually rip ordinary matter apart), we should, for each year in the future, assign a probability strictly lower than 1 that civilization will go extinct that year, which means that the probability of extinction will be arbitrarily close to 1 within a finite amount of time.

In other words, an eternal civilization seems immensely unlikely, even if the universe were to stay perfectly life-friendly forever. The same does not seem true of the prospect of influencing the generation of new universes. As far as I can tell, the latter is in a ballpark of its own when it comes to plausible ways in which we may be able to effect infinite (dis)value, which is not to say that universe creation is more likely than not to become possible, but merely that it seems significantly more likely than other ways we know of in which we could effect infinite (dis)value (though, again, our knowledge of “such ways” is admittedly limited at this point, and something we should probably do more research on). Not only that, it is also something that could be relevant in the relatively near future, and more disvalue could depend on a single such near-future act of universe creation than what is found, intrinsically at least, in the entire future of our civilization. Infinitely more, in fact. Thus, one could argue that it is not our impact on the quality of life of future generations in our civilization that matters most in expectation, but our impact on the generation of universes by our civilization.

Universe Anti-Natalism: The Most Important Cause?

It is therefore not unthinkable that this should be the main question of concern for consequentialists: how does this impact the creation of new universes? Or, similarly, that trying to impact future universe generation should be the main cause for aspiring effective altruists. And I would argue that the form this cause should take is universe anti-natalism: avoiding, or minimizing, the creation of new universes.

There are countless ways to argue for this. As Brian Tomasik notes, creating a new universe that in turn gives rise to infinitely many universes “would cause infinitely many additional instances of the Holocaust, infinitely many acts of torture, and worse. Creating lab universes would be very bad according to several ethical views.”

Such universe creation would obviously be wrong from the stance of negative utilitarianism, as well as from similar suffering-focused views. It would also be wrong according to what is known as The Asymmetry in population ethics: that creating beings with bad lives is wrong, and something we have an obligation to not do, while failing to create happy lives is not wrong, and we have no obligation to bring such lives into being. A much weaker, and even less controversial, stance on procreative ethics could also be used: do not create lives with infinite amounts of torture.

Indeed, how, we must ask ourselves, could a benevolent being justify bringing so much suffering into being? What could possibly justify the Holocaust, let alone infinitely many of them? What would be our answer to the screams of “why” to the heavens from the torture victims?

Universe anti-natalism should also be taken seriously by classical utilitarians, as a case can be made that the universe is likely to end up being net negative in terms of algo-hedonic tone. For instance, it may well be that most sentient life that will ever exist will find itself in a state of natural carnage, as civilizations may be rare even on planets where sentient life has emerged, and because even where civilizations have emerged, it may be that they are unlikely to be sustainable, perhaps overwhelmingly so, implying that most sentient life might be expected to exist at the stage it has existed on for the entire history of sentient life on Earth. A stage where sentient beings are born in great numbers only for the vast majority of them to die shortly thereafter, for instance due to starvation or by being eaten alive, which is most likely a net negative condition, even by wishful classical utilitarian standards. Simon Knutsson’s essay How Could an Empty World Be Better than a Populated One? is worth reading in this context, and of course applies to “no world” as well.

And if one takes a so-called meta-normative approach, where one decides by averaging over various ethical theories, one could argue that the case against universe creation becomes significantly stronger; if one for instance combines an unclear or negative-leaning verdict from a classical utilitarian stance with The Asymmetry and Kantian ethics.

As for those who hold anti-natalism at the core of their values, one could argue that they should make universe anti-natalism their main focus over human anti-natalism (which may not even reduce suffering in expectation), or at the very least expand their focus to also encompass this, apparently esoteric position. Not only because the scale is potentially unsurpassable in terms of what prevents the most births, but it may also be easier, both because wishful thinking about “those horrors will not befall my creation” could be more difficult to maintain in the face of horrors that we know have occurred in the past, and because we do not seem as attached and adapted, biologically and culturally, to creating new universes as we are to creating new children. And just as anti-natalists argue with respect to human life, being against the creation of new universes need not be incompatible with a responsible sustainment of life in the one that does exist. This might also be a compromise solution that many people would be able to agree on.

Are Other Things Equal?

The discussion above assumes that the generation of a new universe would leave all else equal, or at least leave all else merely “finitely altered”. But how can we be sure that the generation of a new universe would not in fact prevent the emergence of another? Or perhaps even prevent many infinite universes from emerging? We can’t. Yet we do not appear to have any reason for believing that this is the case. As noted above, all else will often be equal in expectation, and that also seems true in this case. We can make counter-Pascallian hypotheses in both directions, and in the absence of evidence for any of them, we appear to have most reason to believe that the creation of a new universe results, in the aggregate, in a net addition of a new universe. But this could of course be wrong.

For instance, artificial universe creation would be dwarfed by the natural universe generation that happens all the time according to inflationary models, so could it not be that the generation of a new universe might prevent some of these natural ones from occurring? I doubt that there are compelling reasons for believing this, but natural universe generation does raise the interesting question of whether we might be able to reduce the rate of this generation. Brian Tomasik has discussed the idea, yet it remains an open, and virtually unexplored, research question. One that could dominate all other considerations.

It may be objected that considerations of identical, or virtually identical, copies of ourselves throughout the universe have been omitted in this discussion, yet as far as I can tell, including such considerations would not change the discussion in a fundamental way. For if universe generation is the main cause and most consequential action to focus on for us, more important even than the intrinsic importance of the entire future of our civilization, then this presumably applies to each copy of ourselves as well. Yet I am curious to hear arguments that suggest otherwise.

A final miscellaneous point I should like to add here is that the points made above may apply even if the universe is, and only ever will be, finite, as the generation of a new finite pocket universe in that case still could bring about far more suffering than what is found in the future light cone of our own universe.

Implications for Artificial Intelligence in Brief

The prospect of universe generation, and the fact that it may dominate everything else, also seems to have significant implications for our focus on the future of artificial intelligence, one of them being, as hinted above, that altruists should perhaps not focus on artificial intelligence as their main cause (and why we should be careful about claiming that it is clear that they should, as we may thereby risk overlooking crucial considerations). For instance, if artificial intelligence is sufficiently unlikely to ever “take over” in the way that is often feared, or if focusing directly on researching or arguing against universe generation has higher expected value.

Moreover, it suggests that, to the extent altruists indeed should focus primarily on artificial intelligence, this would be to the extent that artificial intelligence will determine the rate of universe generation in the universe. This might be the main thing to focus on when implementing “Fail-Safe” measures in artificial intelligence, or in any kind of future civilization, to the extent implementation of such measures is feasible.

 

In conclusion, the subjects of the potential to effect infinite (dis)value in general, and of impacting universe generation in particular, are extremely neglected at this point, and a case can be made that more research into such possibilities should be our top priority. It seems conceivable that a question related to such a prospect — e.g. should we create more universes? — will one day be the main ethical question facing our civilization, perhaps even one we will be forced to decide upon in a not too distant future. Given the potentially enormous stakes, it seems worth being prepared for such scenarios — including knowing more about their nature, how likely they are, and how to best act in them — even if they are unlikely.

Ontological Possibilities and the Meaningfulness of Ethics

Are there different possible outcomes of the future? Or phrased more broadly: do ontological possibilities exist? I think this is a profound question, and much may depend upon our answer to it. For instance, if ‘ought’ truly implies ‘can’, and the only real ‘can’ there is is whatever in fact happens, it would seem to follow that the only thing that could ought happen is what in fact happens. That whatever happens is what ought to happen, if anything.

Ontological possibilities here stand in opposition to what we may call hypothetical possibilities. That is, we are clearly able to think in terms of different outcomes being possible, and to then plan and take action based on such thinking, but that does not imply that those outcomes were ever actual possibilities, as opposed to purely thought up ones that just serve as a thinking tool.

Worth noting is it that there seems to be a contradiction between two widely shared views that pertain to the existence of ontological possibilities. For on the one hand we have what appears a widely accepted distinction between necessary and contingent truths, necessary truths being ones that must be true because negating them would imply a contradiction with reality (commonly cited examples are 2+2=4 and syllogisms), while a contingent truth is one that could have been false, as its negation (supposedly) does not imply a contradiction with reality (e.g. “Life evolved on Earth”, “Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election”).

Yet this does not seem consistent with another prevailing belief, namely that the entire world unfolds according to deterministic mathematical equations. If the latter is true, then any truth about the world would appear a necessary one, as its negation indeed would imply a contradiction with the fundamental equation(s) just as much as 2+2=5 does.

So what are we to make of this? What could possibly be true about ontological possibilities?

Why Ask This Question?

My reason for examining this question here has to do with ethics – more specifically, it has to do with an objection one might be tempted to level against the sensibility and meaningfulness of ethics. For, cf. the ought-implies-can note above, one might claim that ontological possibilities are necessary in order for ethics proper to get off the ground, and indeed for engagement in ethical reasoning, decision-making, and action of any kind to even make sense.1 A combustible and controversial claim for sure, yet I shall entertain no discussion of it here. Instead, my aim here is to argue that if one thinks ontological possibilities are required for “the meaningfulness of ethics” – i.e. required in order for engagement in ethical reasoning, decision-making, and action to make sense – then one cannot reasonably reject such “meaningfulness” with the claim that ontological possibilities are not real. The reason being, in short, that we simply do not know whether such possibilities are real or not, and, as far as I can tell, we all but surely never will.

The Nature of the World: Does Quantum Mechanics Preclude – or Describe – Ontological Possibilities?

In order to say whether ontological possibilities exist, it seems apt to look toward what is arguably our most fundamental and well-tested theory of the world, namely quantum mechanics, and see what it has to say about it.

The answer is that it depends on which interpretation of quantum mechanics is correct, a matter concerning which there is much disagreement among experts. And in light of such disagreement, it only seems reasonable to maintain a substantial degree of uncertainty concerning which interpretation is correct.

As for how one should break this uncertainty down more specifically, there seems plenty of room for reasonable disagreement. For instance, assuming the formalism of quantum mechanics indeed does describe the world in the first place, it seems defensible to place 50 percent probability on the claim that none of the well-known interpretations are correct, and to distribute the remaining 50 percent of one’s credence among the (more or less) mainstream interpretations. This could then be done based on how many subscribers these respective interpretations have among experts, in which case it seems one should assign roughly equal credence to the so-called Many Worlds Interpretation and the Copenhagen Interpretation – perhaps 20 percent to each – while distributing the remaining 10 percent to the remaining ~10 interpretations, resulting in about one percent credence in each of them.

That would be one way one could do it. I don’t necessarily agree with the exact numbers in this distribution; it is just an example that seems within the bounds of defensibility. What does not seem defensible, however, is to maintain complete certainty in the veracity of any one particular interpretation. And this is true for various reasons. For not only are there many competing interpretations that all seem to have at least some strengths and weaknesses, and not only can the possibility that the correct interpretation is a yet unformulated interpretation not be ruled out; the possibility that no interpretation of the formalism is true also seems a very open one.

After all, we have seen it happen before that a prominent physicist considered the, admittedly impressive, canon of physics of his time complete but for a couple of anomalies, only for those anomalies to then revolutionize physics completely within a few years. How can we maintain near-complete confidence that the same could not happen with the physics of our time? Indeed, who is to say that quantum mechanics isn’t still just one of the outer layers of the onion, no less a parochial approximation of the underlying dynamics of reality than classical mechanics ultimately?

Where does all this leave us with respect to ontological possibilities? It leaves us with substantial uncertainty. In particular, it leaves us uncertain about whether the world unfolds according to deterministic mathematical equations or not. Out of the 14 (at the time of writing) established interpretations of quantum mechanics listed on this Wikipedia page, only four are deterministic, seven are indeterministic, while three are agnostic. Consequently, although the deterministic interpretations include the relatively popular Many Worlds Interpretation in which all the mathematically possible outcomes of the formalism are realized, it seems overconfident to have anything near complete certainty that the right interpretation, to the extent there is one, is deterministic.

Indeed, among the 14 interpretation cited above, one of them, the transactional interpretation, is, at least as its proponent Ruth Kastner lays it out and defends it, explicitly realist about ontological possibilities – a “Many Possibilities Interpretation”, if you will.2 Thus, according to this interpretation, the mathematical formalism of quantum mechanics is in fact the mathematics of ontological possibilities (apropos, perhaps also see possibility theory).

Now, my purpose here is not to settle which interpretation that is most plausible, much less which one is correct, but simply to argue that near-total confidence in the truth of deterministic interpretations is not defensible. On the rough sketch of a credence breakdown above, for instance, the transactional interpretation was given about one percent probability, and I don’t think one can defend giving it several orders of magnitude less than that. And even if one could, there are still other indeterministic interpretations that also deserve at least some weight, as well as a big space of “yet unknown interpretations that could be true” – what was assigned a 50 percent probability above – of which a substantial chunk should be expected to consist of indeterministic interpretations.

Combining these considerations, it seems overconfident to maintain a 99 percent credence in the proposition that the right interpretation of quantum mechanics is deterministic, and the same can reasonably be said, I believe, of any such credence above 95 percent as well.3
One could of course argue for uncertainty about this question through other routes as well, such as by invoking the idea that we always should maintain at least some degree of doubt, however minute, about any claim (an idea I have defended here), or the related claim that our entire conception of reality – not merely our physics – might be wrong, or perhaps not even that. Yet, as the argument above should make clear, one need not resort to these claims in order to reach the conclusion that it is reasonable to have some degree of uncertainty regarding the matter of determinism and ontological possibilities, and, what is more, that this uncertainty is in fact relatively substantial, i.e. not near-zero.

[Another case for the existence of ontological possibilities, a case not made at the quantum level, is Helen Steward’s argument for the reality of “agential settling”, which she has presented in the book A Metaphysics for FreedomThus, one can reach this same conclusion, or be forced to increase one’s credence in the existence of ontological possibilities further, by assigning a small credence to this position as well.]

Implications for (Objections Against) the Meaningfulness of Ethics

The conclusion above means that, if ontological possibilities are required for “the meaningfulness of ethics” – the conditional assumption that was our point of departure – the uncertainty we should maintain concerning the reality of such possibilities means that a rejection of ethics on the basis that ontological possibilities do not exist is unwarranted.

To be sure, one may reasonably argue that, if ontological possibilities are required for “the meaningfulness of ethics”, then it seems likely that no such meaningfulness exists. Yet that is a far cry from a refutation of such meaningfulness. For consider by analogy the claim that risks of terrible future outcomes are low, and hence that such outcomes most likely will not be realized. Even if such a claim were true, it by no means follows that such risks can reasonably be dismissed.

When the stakes are sufficiently high, it is not reasonable to dismiss low probabilities. And when we are discussing the meaningfulness of ethics, it seems that the stakes could not possibly be greater, as the subject in question comes down to the difference between whether there indeed are any stakes – and who knows how big they might be – or no stakes at all. In light of such stakes, even extremely low probabilities should be taken seriously; and yet the level of uncertainty we found reasonable to maintain concerning ontological possibilities was not extremely low, much less Pascallian by any stretch.4 Thus, if ontological possibilities are indeed required for the meaningfulness of ethics, the epistemic possibility of the reality of such ontological possibilities should be taken very seriously indeed.

Moreover, when considering the outcomes of the options before us, an emerging asymmetry appears to make the choice clear. For if ontological possibilities are real, and ethical action indeed amounts to trying to realize the best of these possibilities – to create the best ontologically possible world, if you will, or at the very least avoid the worst ones – it would seem that we have good reason to try to act accordingly, and no compelling reason not to. If, on the other hand, ontological possibilities are not real, trying to realize the best possible world appears to have no cost. We thus seem to have a strong reason in favor of trying to create a better world, and no reason against it.

Lastly, if we entertain the negation of the assumption that served as our starting point, namely that ontological possibilities are not required for the meaningfulness of ethics – again without saying whether this claim is true or not – we appear to arrive at the same conclusion: we have no reason to consider ethics meaningless or to not try our best. In conclusion, no matter our starting point, the meaningfulness of ethics seems on firm ground.


1. Alternatively, I could also say “the meaningfulness of trying to improve the world” or of “trying to improve one’s own situation.” These things ultimately all mean the same in my view, cf. You Are Them. Yet even if one considers these statements different, the argument I make here still applies equally to them all. That is, one can readily swap, say, “the meaningfulness of ethics” with “the meaningfulness of trying to improve one’s own situation”, and the argument would run just the same.

2. Although it should be noted that other indeterministic interpretations also hold ontological possibilities to be real, at least implicitly.

3. I have not discussed eternalism here, which is a deterministic view, but suffice it to say that, at the very least, one ought to maintain substantial doubt on this matter as well, one reason being that the mere fact that the physical equations do not appear to require an ontologically real present does not, contrary to what seems widely believed, imply that there is no ontologically real present. Much confusion about this issue seems to emerge from the belief that “ontological present” must mean “all clocks show the same”; presentism in that sense is surely as dead as can be, but presentism in general is not – there is no contradiction whatsoever about an ontological present in which there are (initially synchronized) clocks that show different times.

Beyond that, to turn the tables a bit, one might also ask why someone who holds an eternalist view would act to influence the future rather than the past, given that past and future both already exist on this view. It seems to me that eternatlists are aligned with common sense rather than their own view of time in this respect. Also, to what extent does it make sense to say that all moments exist “always”? After all, doesn’t “always” refer to something occurring over time? The meaning of claims of the sort that “every moment exists always” is, I believe, less obvious than proponents of eternalism appear to think, and seems in need of unpacking.

Yet, once again, the main point I wish to drive home here is not that people should consider presentism most plausible, but merely that we should maintain substantial uncertainty concerning this question as well.

4. What might perhaps be considered Pascallian, or at least more so, is the proposition that we are living in the multiverse described by the Many Worlds Interpretation and that ontological possibilities exist within this multiverse. Yet in this case the stakes appear to become more than great enough to justify even Pascallian probabilities. Hence, this possibility appears worth taking seriously as well.

 

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