comment by Richard_Hollerith ·
2007-10-23T03:17:00.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
For the sake of brevity, I borrow from Pascal's Mugger.
If a Mugger appears in every respect to be an ordinary human, let us call him a "very unconvincing Mugger". In contrast, an example of a very convincing Pascal's Mugger is one who demonstrates an ability to modify fundamental reality: he can violate physical laws that have always been (up to now) stable, global, and exception-free. And he can do so in exactly the way you specify.
For example, you say, "Please Mr Mugger follow me into my physics laboratory." There you repeat the Millikan oil-drop experiment and demand of the mugger that he increase the electrical charge on the electrons in the apparatus by an amount you specify (stressing that he should leave all other electrons alone).
Then you set up an experiment to measure the gravitational constant G and demand that he increase or decrease G by a factor you specify (again stressing that he should leave G alone outside the experimental apparatus).
You ask him to violate the conservation of momentum in a system you specify by a magnitude and direction you specify.
I find it humorous to use the phrase "signs and wonders" for such violations of physical laws. You demand and verify other signs and wonders.
The Mugger's claim that your universe -- your "spacetime" -- is an elaborate simulation and that he exists outside the simulation is now very convincing.
My reason for introducing the very convincing Mugger is that I believe that under certain conditions, unless and until you acquire a means of modelling the part of reality outside the simulation that does not rely on communicating with the Mugger, the Mugger has Real Moral Authority over you: it is not too much of an exaggeration to say you should regard every communication from the Mugger as the Voice of God.
The Mugger's authority does not derive from the fact that he can at any time crush you like a bug. Many ordinary humans have had that kind of power over other humans. His authority stems from the fact that he is in a better position than you or anyone else you know to tell you how your actions might have a permanent effect on reality. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
Probably the only conditions required on that last proposition are that our spacetime, which is the only "compartment" of reality we know about so far -- will end after a finite amount of time and that we become confident of that fact. In cosmology these days this is usually modelled as the Big Rip.
I believe the utility of directing one's efforts at a compartment of reality that might go on forever completely trumps the utility of directing efforts at a compartment of reality that will surely end even if the end is 100,000,000,000 years away and this remains true regardless the ratio of the probabilities that one's efforts will prove effective in those two compartments.
If scientists determine that the universe is going to end in 12 months or 10 years or 100 years and if during the time remaining to us society and the internet continue to operate normally, I tend to suspect that I could convince many people that the only hope we have for our lives and our efforts to have any ultimate or lasting relevance is for us to contribute to the discovery and investigation of a compartment of reality outside our spacetime because it is an intrinsic property of spacetime -- by which I mean the thing modelled by Einstein's equation -- that a spacetime that ends after a finite amount of time cannot support or host a causal chain that goes on indefinitely, and as we shall see, such chains are central to the search for intrinsic value.
Of course we have no evidence for what exists beyond our spacetime, and no concrete reason to believe we ever will find any evidence, but we have no choice but to conduct the search.
And that puts us in the proper frame for us to meet the very convincing Mugger: "Delighted to meet you, Mr Mugger. Please tell me and my civilization how to make our existence and our efforts meaningful."
The very convincing Mugger is "ontologically privileged": he has a causal model of the part of reality outside or beyond our spacetime. More precisely, the signs and wonders he performed on demand lead us to believe that it is much more probable that he can acquire such a model than that we can do so without his help.
Now we come to the heart of how I propose to derive a normative standard from positive facts: I propose that causal chains that go on forever or indefinitely are important; causal chains that peter out are unimportant. In fact, the most important thing about you is your ability to have a permanent effect on reality. Instead of worrying that the enemy will sap your Precious Bodily Fluids, you should worry that he will sap your Precious Ability to Initiate Indefinitely-Long Causal Chains.
The ontologically privileged observer has not proven to us that he has enough knowledge to tell us how to create causal chains that go on indefinitely. But unless we discover new fundamental physics, communicating with the privileged observer is the most likely means of our acquiring such knowlege. For us to communicate to the Mugger is a link in a causal chain that might go on indefinitely if the Mugger can cause effects that go on indefinitely. In the absence of other concrete hopes to permanently affect reality, helping the Mugger strikes me as the most likely way for my life and efforts to have True Lasting Meaning.
Now some readers are asking, But what do we do if we never stumble on a way to communicate with an ontologically privileged observer? My answer is that my purpose here is not to cover all contingencies but rather to exhibit a single contingency in which I believe it is possible to deduce ought from is.
Saying that only indefinitely-long causal chains are important does not tell us which indefinitely-long causal chains are good and which ones are evil. But consider my contingency again: you find yourself in communication with an ontologically privileged observer. After extensive investigation you have discovered no other way to cause effects that go on indefinitely and have no concrete hope of ever discovering a way. Once he has demonstrated that he exists outside your spacetime, the only information you can obtain about him is what he tells you. Sure, the privileged observer might be evil. But if you really have no way to learn about him and no way to cause effects that go on indefinitely except through communication with him, perhaps you should trust him. After contemplating for ~7 years, I think so.
I know I risk sounding arrogant or careless, but I must say I do not consider the possibility that our spacetime is an elaborate simulation important to think about. I use it here only to take advantage of the fact that the audience is already familiar with it and with the Mugger. There is another possibility I do consider important to think about that also features a communications link with an ontologically privileged observer. I would have used that possibility if it would not have made the comment longer.
In summary, I believe we can derive ought from is in the following situation: our reality "contains a horizon" the other side of which we are very unlikely to be able to model. The physical structure of the horizon allows us to become highly confident of this negative fact. But we have stumbled on a means to communicate with a mind beyond the horizon, who I have been calling the ontologically privileged observer. Finally, our spacetime will come to an end, and reality allows us to become highly confident of that fact.
Although a causal chain can cross a communications link, you cannot use the link to construct a causal model of the reality on the other side of the link. Perhaps your interlocutor will describe the other side to you, but you cannot use the link to verify he is telling the truth unless you already have an causal model of the other side (e.g. you know there is a trusted computer on the other side attached to trusted sensory peripherals and you know the "secrets" of the trusted computer and trusted sensors, which is quite a lot to know).
And there is my very compressed reply to You have been rather vague by saying that just as we discovered many positive facts with science, so we can discover normative ones, even if we have not been able to do so before. You haven't really given any indication as to how anyone could possibly do that.