Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Duplicating the Universe

I've been thinking about two forms of duplication. One is duplication of the entire universe from beginning to end, as envisioned in Nietzsche's eternal return (cf. Poincare's recurrence theorem on a grand scale). The other is duplication within an eternal (or very long) individual life (goldfish-pool immortality). In both cases, I find myself torn among four different evaluative perspectives.

For color, imagine a god watching our universe from Big Bang to heat death. At the end, this god says, "In total, that was good. Replay!" Or imagine an immortal life in which you loop repeatedly (without remembering) through the same pleasures over and over.

Consider four ways of thinking about the value of duplication:

1. The summative view: Duplicating a good thing doubles the world's goodness, all else being equal; and in particular duplicating the universe doubles the total sum of goodness. There's twice as much total happiness overall, for example. Although Nietzsche rejected the ethics of happiness-summing, something in the general direction of the summative view seems to be implicit in his suggestion that if we knew that the universe repeats infinitely, that would add infinite weight to every decision.

2. The indifference view: Repetition adds no value or disvalue, if it is a true repetition (no memory, no development, no audience-god watching saying "oh, I remember this... here comes the good part!"). You might even think, if the duplication is perfect enough, that there aren't even two metaphysically distinct things (Leibniz's identity of indiscernibles).

3. The diminishing returns view: A second run-through is good, but it doesn't double the goodness of the first run-through. For example, the total subjectively experienced happiness might be double, but there's something special about being the first person on the (or "a"?) moon, which is something that never happens in the second run -- and likewise something special about being the last episode of Seinfeld (or "Seinfeld"?) and about being the only copy of a Van Gogh painting (or a "Van Gogh" painting?), which the first run loses if a second run is added.

4. The precious uniqueness view: Expanding the last thought from the diminishing returns view, one might think that duplication somehow cheapens both runs, and that it's better to do things exactly once and be done.

Which of these four views is the best way of thinking about cosmic value (or the value of an extended life)?

You might think that this kind of question isn't amenable to rational argumentation -- that there is no discoverable fact of the matter about whether doubling is better. And maybe that's right. But consider this: Universe A is just like our universe. Universe B is just like our universe, but life on Earth never advances past microbial levels of complexity. If you think Universe A is overall better, or more creation-worthy (or, if you're enough of a pessimist, overall worse) than Universe B, then you think there are facts about the relative value of universes -- in which case, plausibly, there should also be some fact about whether a duplicative universe is a lot better, a little better, the same, or worse than a single-run universe. Yes?

There is, I think, at least a chance that this question, or a relative of it, will become a question of practical ethics in the future -- if we ever become "gods" who create universes of genuinely conscious people running inside of simulated environments (as I discuss here and here), or if we ever have the chance to "upload" into paradises of repetitive bliss.

[image source]


chinaphil said...

"amenable to rational argumentation" - yep, but I think in order to begin the rational argumentation we'd have to sketch in some of our assumptions first. In 3 you refer to something other than "subjectively experienced happiness", so there's a rejection of pure utilitarianism here, but it's not clear what other factors you'd allow. In general, I don't think this thought experiment is a good place to start, because I can't imagine that anyone has any good intuitions about it.

(Don't agree with the microbe/human Earth comparison - two Earths the same is not like two Earths different.)

But most importantly: "will become a question of practical ethics in the future" - no, it's a question of practical ethics right now. This is pretty much precisely what we do to cows. The experience of one farmed cow is most likely almost indistinguishable from the experience of another. We create them over and over again. And in fact, the answer seems to be that we find the total number of these creatures to be of no moral import whatsoever. Even me - I'm a veggie, and if everyone else was, too, the numbers of domestic cows would fall a million-fold, and I find that that doesn't bother me much.

For me, using this empirical evidence is really vital. I think you lose an awful lot by posing these questions as hypotheticals, when in fact they are very real.

D said...

I'm inclined to the indifference view-- considering quantum mechanics it seems right to say I am all the identical instances of myself.

If you change the scenario slightly, so that instead of *exactly* the same thing, you have *approximately* the same thing (where the individual people's actions are not the same, but viewed from an airplane you couldn't tell much of a difference between the two worlds), in that case I feel like the summative view is correct. But this causes a kind of discontinuity somewhere between exactly the same and approximately the same. So I don't know how that can be fixed.

Anonymous said...

On (1), you're thinking that some form of the summative view is backing Nietzsche's idea about the infinite weight of decisions given eternal recurrence. I think you're right, though, that he would not want to think in terms of summative reasoning about the values at play in the weighting. He's no fan of maximizing happiness or goodness. Could there be another interpretation of that remark that avoids saddling Nietzsche with inconsistency?

On your suggested interpretation, I'm assuming the remark is treated this way: every decision I make contributes in some way or other some value to the world. So, given that the world (and my decision) will be repeated infinitely, that value will be multiplied infinitely given the summative view. The weight of a decision is a function of the goodness it results in, so infinite weight is added to every decision. Here, summation helps make sense of the appeal to infinite weight in characterizing our decisions.

The account so far leaves it open how we should understand the contribution of value my decisions make. One way of understanding this is to see decisions not as contributing value quantitatively but rather as inherently value-producing. On this view, one way my decisions contribute value to the world is by their introducing and imposing values on the world. The idea that each decision is inherently value-producing in this way is I believe a Nietzschean doctrine. This kind of contribution of value, value production, is difficult to understand on the summative view. If the value is imposed on the world once, thereby attaining its status as a value, what difference will it make if this happens many times? I think an alternative way to take his remark, then, is to understand "infinite" not in the sense of an infinite sum, a kind of limitless addition or positive infinity, but rather in the sense of being absolute, as being the final arbiters of what values there are to be. Part of what we get out of meditating on the idea of eternal recurrence is the sudden realization that there would be no after world, no transcendent source of value beyond this world whereby the values introduced in this world could be limited in their import. In each of our decisions we impose the values that are to stand eternally; no heaven is required. The recurrence of our fleeting world makes it possible to bring the notion of eternity down from the transcendent to the immanent. We introduce the eternal values, the boundless values. Each decision is a decision that has the potential to make a difference to what values are to stand as the absolute values. There is no further measure. On this picture, there is no more weight a decision could possibly have! No finite, limited decision making is to be found here, bound by always being assessable relative to some set of true transcendent absolute values. The absolute values are the immanent values we introduce in each of our decisions.

Our decisions possess infinite weight, then, because of the lack of a transcendent standard by which to measure them. If there were such a standard, each decision would only make a finite contribution in this world towards the promotion of a given value, each act assessable as to how well it measures up to the ultimate standards. Our decisions would only carry finite weight, but, of course, this picture just is to ignore that man is the creator of all values...

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the interesting comments, folks! (Also for your patients with the new comments approval system.)

chinaphil: I agree that in far-out thought experiments our intuitions start to break down -- but it's possible that that means they are already unsystematic or inconsistent in the first place and we haven't been able to see that fact as clearly, looking at nearby case. Your idea about cows is a nice one. (I even have a version of that thought in a sci-fi story in draft, in which a giant artificial mind divides himself into a billion cows and then is disappointed with the result!) Here, I think D's comment is relevant: There's an interesting question about how similar is similar enough to lead us away from indifference.

D: Yes, that's a tricky one! I'm inclined to think that this sharp line between exactly similar and approximately similar puts some pressure on the view. How could one minor difference be so important? Thus, there's pressure to either go summative even with exact duplication or to go indifferent even with approximate duplication (as chinaphil suggests), although "how approximate" then becomes a challenge.

Anon: That's an interesting interpretation, but I'd resist interpreting "infinite" here as meaning only "absolute" unless one is willing to entirely let go of the thought experiment and say that even if it's only once it's still "absolute". It becomes, to me, unclear what power the hypothetical repetition has, on your interpretation. Maybe that's fine, though. It has always seemed to me that Nietzsche doesn't really need the recurrence for his value-making view to work.

Anonymous said...

I hypothesize that the cosmos is in every way not a copy of God, but rather a negative of and a complement to God. Analogous to holding up a color picture next to a flipped mirror image of it. It is not a reflection, nor is it the same. This is seen from the atomic level where light itself is a wave, tension or pulse between a "particle" and a "non-particle", matter and anti-matter. Heat is expansive and the absence of heat is contractive. At the human level, female is the complement to male, but both are equally human; the same and not the same. Life (pulse, energy) is the interplay of two complementary equals. And where else do you see (in the highest forms of life that have sexual reproduction) that one plus one makes one? And not just a copy, but one that is unique in itself, yet contains both parent's biology? (It's all TRINITY) God is whatever the cosmos is not. The cosmos is whatever God is not. We are not God and God is not us. God is not created, the cosmos is created. God is infinite, the cosmos is finite.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I guess I'll invest a non-zero credence in that, Anon!

Anonymous said...

I love that! As a non-zero credence is credence! I take it as a complement!

Anonymous said...

if the universe would be/is duplicated, what do you think you would be like?
better than the way you are now, or worser?
how do you envisage a duplicated universe and another copy of you there?

why would it be the same?
why would a duplicated universe even exist?
if this universe would not exist, would the duplicated universe exist?
does this universe play any important role for the existence of the duplicated universe?
it is a copy of this one, after all.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting questions, Anon! The answers will depend on the details, which I haven't specified, as well as on one's other philosophical commitments -- also not specified. One possible specification: a consequentialist creator God who sees our universe, judges it good, and then creates a duplicate to double total expected utility in the cosmos.

Anonymous said...

you assume that God exist and not only that, but also that he wanted to create a duplicated universe.
anything else could make another universe, as a natural phenomenon that derives from something?
it has to be a consequence of something, I assume.
of our existing universe, or I dont know.

what ever happens in this universe without a reason?

Anonymous said...

I think I was trying to draw a lesson from eternal recurrence that did not start just from numerical repetition. I've always felt that the mere concept of repetition isn't enough given what lesson I took we were supposed to glean from eternal recurrence. It has to be eternal repetition. I think the explanation of why this is need not be summative, however. The question I tried to answer was thus this: how should we understand the infinite weight of decisions revealed to us by reflecting on eternal recurrence given a non-summative understanding of value?

This is going to sound overly metaphorical, but I think the point of the thought experiment is to bring eternity down from a transcendental domain to our immanent domain here on earth. It's to introduce a different conception of value that's not based on a comparison to a sort of Platonic heaven of more perfect (the most perfect? the highest?) enduring values. The highest values are to be found here on Earth. How does eternal recurrence help with this?

I was imagining that reflecting on eternal recurrence can solve this problem by giving us a way of understanding this fluid world of flux to be an absolute world, one with as much eternity in it as the perfect forms or values or God or whatever else you put into the transcendent Platonic heaven. "Absolute" here would have the sense of "... and there's nothing more real" or something like that. Isn't this world just meaningless motion and change, each thing wiped out after it occurs? I think eternal recurrence gives us a way of seeing a world of change and a world of eternity as not mutually exclusive, and so of avoiding despair once the transcendent world has been taken away from us. The eternal aspect gives the proper weight and grounding to our values. They will not just be washed away with time. It's showing us something like: it's true that change is all there is, but don't forget that it is what is enduringly, too, that it has no less status as something real just because it's not something like a Platonic form or a thing in itself or some other sort of absolute thing outside the realm of appearances. Eternal recurrence brings this out and lets us love and value the phenomenal world no less given there is no longer a more perfect beyond. It gives a way out of despairing this fact.

Anonymous said...

Contrast a world of flux and change that does not recur eternally but rather goes on to infinity in a sort of straight line of infinite variation. It's probably incoherent to imagine this fully (if it's really an infinity of variations, there should be some recurrence in there too), but I think we can focus on it as a starting point for reflection different from starting from eternal recurrence. What is gained from the explicit repetition of the same in eternal recurrence? Both involve a flux of appearances going on forever, after all, and both deny that there is a transcendent domain of any sort beyond it. I'm thinking it's gotta be that it's just hard to make sense of anything mattering on the line to infinity conception, however. No choice you make will ever contribute anything enduring. Each one will be washed away until something else comes along. It's much harder to see how anything you did matters. On the picture of eternal recurrence, by contrast, you have made a contribution in your decisions to how things absolutely are, to the grand and final story of what there is, a story repeated to infinity. It's an eternal choice in this sense and dictates a value in this world for all time. Your choices couldn't matter any more than that. There is an infinite weight for each choice given that it will contribute a value that's to stand at that moment for eternity in the story of the world, giving it a status comparable to that of a transcendent value or a Platonic form dwelling in the heavens eternally.

So, eternity and recurrence (or repetition) combine to give the kind of significance previously reserved only for transcendent values and perfect forms to the events and decisions that occur in our world of change and flux. They will be what ultimately matter and thus what carry infinite weight. They are not measurable by a further standard and make eternally standing contributions of values to the story of the world. This flux is all there is - it is absolute in that sense - it is the only reality there will ever be, but this does not mean it must be any less significant, and eternal recurrence brings this out. I think it's a natural thought to have that our decisions need to serve something enduring for them to matter. My decisions introduce values - but how much value do they possess? How much do they matter? Eternal repetition is another way of getting the requisite endurance for values, another option besides eternal perfection outside this world.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Anon! That's an interesting perspective and it resonates with a lot in Nietzsche!

I agree that there are value problems in the infinite-flux universe. One way of making those problems especially vivid is to consider future versions of "me" who act out every possibility, as in my post:

(I've also got a short story in draft on this: "Penelope's Guide to Defeating Time, Space, and Causation".)