Tuesday, May 02, 2023

Optimism, Repetition, and Hopes for the Size of the Cosmos

I have a new draft paper out! "Repetition and Value in an Infinite Cosmos" -- forthcoming in Stephen Hetherington, Extreme Philosophy (Routledge).

For the full paper (and an abstract), see here. As always, comments, criticisms, and corrections welcome, either as comments here or by email to my academic address.

Below are two sections of the paper, slightly revised for standalone readability.

Optimism, Pessimism, and Hopes for the Size of the Cosmos

The Optimist, let’s say, holds that, at large enough spatiotemporal scales, the good outweighs the bad. Put differently, as the size of a spherical spatiotemporal patch grows extremely large it becomes extremely likely that the good outweighs the bad. Optimism would be defensible on hedonic grounds if the following is plausible: At large enough scales, the total amount of pleasure will almost certainly outweigh the total amount of pain, among whatever inhabitants occupy the region. The Pessimist holds the opposite: At large enough spatiotemporal scales, the bad outweighs the good – perhaps, again, on hedonic grounds, if the pain outweighs the pleasure. A Knife’s-Edge theorist expects a balance.

I see no good hedonic defense of Optimism. Suffering is widespread and might easily balance or outweigh pleasure. I prefer to defend Optimism on eudaimonic grounds: Flourishing lives are valuable, and flourishing lives are virtually guaranteed to occur in sufficiently large spatiotemporal regions.

Imagine a distant planet – one on the far side of the galaxy, blocked by the galactic core, a planet we will never interact with. What ought we hope this planet is like, independent of its relationship to us? Ought we hope that it’s a sterile rock? Or would it be better for the planet to host some sort of life? If the planet hosts some sort of life, would it be best if that life is only simple, microbial life, or would complex life be better – plants, animals, and fungi, savannahs and rainforests and teeming reefs? If it hosts complex life, would it be better if nothing rises to the level of human-like intelligence? Or ought we hope for societies, with families and love and disappointment and anger, poetry and philosophy, art and athletics and politics, triumphs and disasters, heroism and cruelty – the whole package of what is sometimes wonderful and sometimes awful about human existence?

A Pessimist might say the sterile rock is best – or rather, least bad – presumably because it has the least suffering and vice. But I suspect the majority of readers will disagree with the Pessimist. Most, I suspect, will believe, as I do, that complex life is better than simple life, which is better than sterility, and that what’s most worth hoping for is the full suite of love, poetry, philosophy, science, art, and so on. The galaxy overall is better – more awesome, wondrous, and valuable – if it contains a distant planet rich with complex life, a bright spot of importance. If something were to wipe it out or prevent it from starting, that would be a shame and a loss. On this way of thinking, Earth too is a bright spot. As a general matter – perhaps with some miserable exceptions – complex life is not so terrible that nonexistence would be better. The Pessimist is missing something. What form, then, should we hope the cosmos takes?

A benevolent Pessimist might hope for a finite cosmos, on the principle that a finite cosmos contains only finitely much badness, and finite badness is better than infinite badness. (A spiteful Pessimist might hope for infinite badness.) Presumably nothingness would have been even better. A less simple Pessimism might hold that the observable portion of the universe is already infinitely bad. This might entail indifference about the existence or nonexistence of additional regions, depending on whether the infinitudes can be compared. Another less simple Pessimism might suspect that the observable portion of the universe is worse than the average spatiotemporal region and so hope for enough additional material to bring the average badness of the cosmos to a more acceptable level. Still other forms of Pessimism are of course conceivable, with some creative thinking.

But we are, I hope, Optimists. Some Optimists might hold that the observable portion of the universe is infinitely good. If so, they might conclude that a larger cosmos would not be better unless they’re ready to weigh the infinitudes differently. More moderately and plausibly, the observable portion of the universe might be only finitely good. Call this view Muted Optimism.

Here’s one argument for Muted Optimism. Suppose you agree that if a human life involves too much suffering, it is typically not worth living. By analogy, it seems plausible that if the observable portion of the universe contained too much suffering, it would be better if it didn’t exist. We needn’t be hedonists to accept this idea. Contra hedonism, flourishing life might be overall good despite containing more suffering than pleasure. It just might not be so good that there isn’t some amount of suffering that would make the combined package worse than nothing. But if flourishing were infinitely good, then no amount of suffering could outweigh it (though infinite suffering might create a ∞ + -∞ situation). Therefore, large finite regions are good but not infinitely good.

Muted Optimism suggests that an infinite cosmos would be better than the Small Cosmos. It seems, after all, that more goodness is better than less goodness, and infinite goodness seems best. As with Pessimism, however, the axiology needn’t be quite so simple. For example, one might hold that too much of a good thing is bad. Or one might suspect that the observable portion of the universe is much better than could reasonably be expected from a typical region and that adding more regions would objectionably dilute average goodness. Or one might simply think it would be stupendously awesome if the cosmos were some particular finite size – shaped like a giant jelly donut, perhaps, with red galaxies in the middle and lots of organic sugars along the edges.

Or one might mount the Repetition Objection, to which I will now turn.

Repetition and Value in an Infinite Cosmos

Consider a particular version of the Erasure Cosmology. There’s a Big Bang, things exist for a while, and then there’s a Big Crunch. Suppose that what happens next is an exact repetition of the first Bang-existence-Crunch. You, or rather a duplicate of you, lives exactly the same life, having exactly the same experiences, seeing exactly the same moonlight between the trees and having exactly the same thoughts about that moonlight, as envisioned by Nietzsche, all over again. And then it happens again and again, infinitely often. Call this Repetitive Erasure.

Now contrast this picture with the same cosmos, except that after the Crunch nothing exists. Call this cosmos Once and Done. Finally, contrast these two possibilities with a third, in which there is exactly one repetition: Twice and Done. (If you’re inclined toward metaphysical quibbles about the identity of indiscernibles, let’s imagine that each Bang and Crunch has some unique tag.) How might we compare the values of Once and Done, Twice and Done, and Repetitive Erasure? Four simple possibilities include:

Equal Value. Once and Done, Twice and Done, and Repetitive Erasure are all equally good. There’s no point in repeating the same events more than once. But neither is anything lost by repetition.

Linear Value. If Once and Done has value x, then Twice and Done has value 2x, and Repetitive Erasure has infinite value. The value of one run-through is not diminished by the existence of another earlier or later run-through, and the values sum.

Diminishing Returns. If Once and Done has value x, then Twice and Done has a value greater than x but less than 2x. Repetitive Erasure might have either finite or infinite value, depending on whether the returns converge toward a limit. A second run-through is good, but two run-throughs are not twice as good as a single run-through: Although it’s not the case that there’s no point in God’s hitting the replay button, so to speak, there’s less value in running things twice.

Loss of Value. If Once and Done has value x, then Twice and Done has a value less than x, and Repetitive Erasure is worse, perhaps even infinitely bad.

If Equal Value or Loss of Value is true, then Muted Optimism shouldn’t lead to preference for the infinitude of Repetitive Erasure over the finitude of Once and Done. If we further assume that in an infinite cosmos, the repetition (within some error tolerance) of any finite region is inevitable, then the argument appears to generalize. This is the Repetition Objection. Some positively-valenced existence is good, but after a point, more of the same is not better (e.g., Bramble 2016).

In ordinary cases, uniqueness or rarity can add to a thing’s value. One copy of the Mona Lisa is extremely valuable. If there were two Mona Lisas, presumably each would be less valuable, and if there were a billion Mona Lisas no one of them would presumably be worth much at all. The question is whether this holds at a cosmic scale. Might this only be market thinking, reflecting our habit of valuing things in terms of how much we would pay in conditions of scarcity? Or is there in fact something truly precious in uniqueness? (For discussion, see Lemos 2010; Chappell 2011; Bradford forthcoming.)

Perhaps there is something beautiful, or right, or fitting, in things happening only once, in a finite universe, and then ceasing. Is it good that you are the only version of you who will ever exist, so to speak – that after you have lived and died there will never again be anyone quite like you? Is it good that the cosmos contains only a single Confucius and only a single Great Barrier Reef, no duplicates of which will ever exist? Things will burn out, never to return. There’s a romantic pull to this idea. Against The Repetition Objection to the simple Muted Optimist’s preference for an infinite universe, I offer the Goldfish Argument (see also Schwitzgebel 2019, ch. 44).

According to popular belief (not in fact true), goldfish have a memory of only thirty seconds. Imagine, then, a goldfish swimming clockwise around a ring-shaped pool, completing each circuit in two minutes. Every two minutes it encounters the same reeds, the same stones, and the same counterclockwise-swimming goldfish it saw in the same place two minutes before, and each time it experiences all of these as new. The goldfish is happy with its existence: “Howdy, stranger, what a pleasure to meet you!” it says to the counterclockwise-swimming fish it meets afresh every minute. To tighten the analogy with the Repetitive Erasure cosmology, let’s stipulate that each time around this goldfish sees and does and thinks and experiences exactly the same things.

Now stop the goldfish mid-swim and explain the situation. The goldfish will not say, “oh, I guess there’s no point in my going around again.” The goldfish will want to continue its happy little existence, and rightly so. It still wants to see and enjoy what’s around the next bend. Moment to moment it is having good experiences. You harm and disappoint the goldfish by stopping its experiences, as long as each experience is, locally, good – even if they have all happened before innumerably many times. This is true whether we catch the goldfish after its first swim around, after its second, or after its googolplex-to-the-googolplexth. It's better to let the fish swim on. If the analogy holds at cosmic scales, then Equal Value and Loss of Value must be false. Maybe, though, there’s still something attractive about uniqueness, some truth in it that isn’t simply inappropriate market-style thinking? I see no need to deny that there really is something special about the first time. Let’s grant that it’s possible that the first go-round is somehow made less valuable by later go-rounds. As long as the harm done by stopping the goldfish (by denying future goods) exceeds the harm done by letting the goldfish continue (by reducing the rarity of past goods), then Diminishing Returns is the correct view. If we further assume that the added value does not continually shrink in a way that approaches zero, then the view we should embrace is one on which Repetitive Erasure would have infinite value.

This thinking appears to extend to the Infinitary Cosmology. Duplicates of you, and me, and all Earth, and the whole Milky Way will repeat over and over, infinitely. Each repetition adds some positive value to the cosmos, and in sum the value is infinite.



Goldfish-Pool Immortality (May 30, 2014)

Duplicating the Universe (Apr 29, 2015)

Everything Is Valuable (May 6, 2022)

How Not to Calculate Utilities in an Infinite Universe (Feb 10, 2023)

Repetition and Value in an Infinite Universe (forthcoming), in S. Hetherington, ed., Extreme Philosophy. Routledge. [image adapted from Midjourney]


  1. Would optimal unity, as a cosmos...
    ...begin with negative positive and in between limiting conditions...

    For the sake of understanding by participants...
    ...at any wave level of this optimal unity...

    Understanding as value for seeing...

  2. Utility or pleasure if actually objective in some way, is not additive in your sense.
    Utility on Planet x in y galaxy makes hardly a splash on earth, and anyway though we can discuss utility meaningfully, it lacks the reality and measurability of other measurements
    I'd have you limit yourself to summating utility or pleasure by locality- either family, block, neighborhood, city so on

  3. I mean employing relativity as opposed to Newtonian physics, there is no absolute space, so the happiness and/or pleasure of aliens in a far off planet possesses a different ontological status for us than in a Newtonian universe.
    Someone more knowledgeable than I am in Modern physics, if he or she agrees with me, could better state my case.
    My point being those we can interact with have more ontological status than otherwise

  4. I'm not that knowledgeable in modern physics either, but from what I've heard of it, I doubt relativity/the lack of absolute space makes faraway utility matter less or not be additive. (Some people might argue utility just isn't additive, but even if it isn't, I don't think relativity would be the cause). It seems it's the possibility of an infinite universe that causes issues about how we should think of utility or morality, more than relativity does.

    Perhaps you mean that relativity means that we have no chance of affecting conditions far away enough from us? This might be true, but at most, it seems to suggest, say, that we shouldn't worry too much about conditions on distant planets because there is nothing we can do. I don't think it means, for example, that a universe with X amount of happiness on Earth is automatically better than a universe with X amount of happiness on an alien planet, nor that faraway planets are "less real" than Earth. (Some might argue that happiness isn't comparable this way, but again, that doesn't seem to be due to relativity). This seems too anthropocentric, given that if there is conscious life on such planets, they would find their home as real as we find ours, and could make the argument that a faraway planet such as Earth is less real!

    Or do you mean that due to the lack of absolute time in relativity, faraway aliens may not exist now? This could also be true, but while not everyone agrees, a common view is that relativity means eternalism is true, and eternalism doesn't seem to create special issues for additive utility (presumably, the combination would mean the value of the universe is equal to, say, the sum of all utility over all of space-time).

  5. Anonymous

    Thank you for teasing out the best in my argument.
    It's been a while since my last modern physics course
    My main point I think is that utility or pleasure to be additive requires some sort of community
    Further, I'm uncertain of the ontological status of utility or pleasure? There seems to be some usefulness to the idea, just like demand and supply- but we can't talk meaningfully about beings halfway across the universe.
    For the reasons we discussed and just psychology and even biology are way different than physics
    I really appreciated your intellectual vigor

  6. Thanks for the compliment! (Yeah, I'm the same Anonymous as before). I do agree that the issue of whether utility comparisons can be meaningful is a big problem (perhaps the biggest problem) for utilitarianism, and I have my doubts about whether such comparisons are possible (although my current subjective probability that this problem can be solved is higher than 0). I just doubt that spacial distance would affect utilities one way or another. It feels that differences in psychology and biology would indeed be more relevant.

    The community thing you mentioned is interesting. I'm still not sure how it could make utility additive, though. Is it about solutions to the infinitarian ethics issue that rely on spatiotemporal patterning? Those are still controversial (I'm personally not inclined to them myself), though, and anyway, that issue seems to be about infinity, not relativity. (I may be wrong, but didn't Newton think of the universe as infinite, for instance?) For instance, some suggest that maybe we shouldn't care about utility outside our "community" to avoid infinitarian paralysis, but that threatens to be too parochial. Especially if it is conflating what we do or should care about with what ontologically exists in the total universe, which seems even less plausible.

    Or is it because being in a community can make minds more similar and perhaps more comparable? This might be true to some extent, but I would suspect that in this case, biology/nature would play a more important role (at least for interspecies comparisons) given that it sets the fundamental framework of a mind, if you will. And for that matter, what does one define as a "community," anyway?

  7. I double-posted by mistake. I got an error and didn't realize the post had already gone through. Sorry.

  8. Give me some time to define community

  9. Hi anonymous:

    Let us define 'utility' as information; but information where? In a nervous system?
    So back to relativity. It is about in a sense how information is transmitted over spacetime. It will affect how we know and observe utility. Also can we define 'utility' outside a community setting? Perhaps a community is necessary to ground 'utility'

  10. I'm having difficulty being optimistic or pessimistic thinking about scales we don't comprehend. Striving for that comprehension does harm by diverting the pleasure and goodness we can seek in the here and now.

    In many branches of science, we perform "scale-bridging" analysis and "cross-scale" reasoning. Examples are the small world hypothesis and chaos theory, among others. There's no correlative term in philosophy or axiology, is there? This post goes there.

    Can we even apply scale-bridging to our philosophical views? It's plausible that we can use cross-scale reasoning to explain proximate concepts by drawing upon both larger and smaller scales. However, when doing so, one could overlook emergent properties that might defy such rationale. We lose perspective as well. What difference does it make to our present-day view to think on cosmic levels like this?

    The utility monster and eudaimonia are two concepts that may not gain much insight from cosmic scales. (Similarly, the concern for scale-bridging philosophical views extends to quantum physics as this reality is likely not a fruitful source for scale bridges or cross-scale reasoning applied to macro problems and perspectives.) While engaging in philosophical discussions and exploring various perspectives is valuable, addressing and prioritizing the challenges we face in our world at our manageable scale of life is crucial, particularly when the impact of such thought experiments may influence our actions without any real benefit and possible harm.

  11. Sorry for the wait, I had some other things I needed to do earlier.

    Howie: This gets into both biology and physics, so I'm really not sure whether this is accurate. But... given that nervous systems are of relatively low mass and small size compared to, say, astronomical objects, and that nerve impulses travel much slower than the speed of light, I doubt that relativity significantly affects them. As for the utility-community thing, are you suggesting that utility is just whatever a community defines it as? To me, that seems to make it too subjective and basically deprives any sort of utility-based ethics of force, as a community can do whatever it wants and say it promotes utility best. In fact, utility would basically not exist as it wouldn't be a useful concept in the first place. If you're suggesting that a community defines utility specifically for its members, that's at least a more useful concept, but I still doubt it's entirely true. After all, it is individuals, not communities, who have experiences (at least unless some very debatable theories of mind are true). Maybe individuals define what counts as "utility" for themselves, but I don't think that can be scaled up to communities.

    Tim Smith: I can get where you're coming from, but I doubt considering this specific issue will be significantly harmful. We do plenty of things that aren't about considering benefits or challenges in the here and now, such as consuming fiction. So unless you believe that consuming fiction is significantly harmful (which some do, although it's not a very popular position), thinking about an infinite universe doesn't seem that bad. In fact, it's arguably more relevant to the here and now than fiction is because as Eric said, modern physics discoveries make it very plausible that the universe is infinite. The issue of making bad choices based on thought experiments is also important, but the article only seems to be talking about what we should hope for, and hope probably isn't going to change much important in the physical world. It doesn't seem very likely to me that we'll ever be in a position to change whether the universe is finite or infinite, after all. Eric has also previously suggested that we should have cutoffs to prevent infinitarian consequences from messing up our moral thinking, in fact.

    The original article (realized I haven't quite responded to that before, and I think I should): Interesting topic! The issues in the first part of what we should value and whether life could be worth living even if it contained more suffering than happiness are a giant topic of their own, so I won't discuss them at the moment (though I sort of did in the previous paragraphs). But I have heard an interesting argument for what might be the Equal Value view, in your term. Basically, it's something like truly, perfectly identical experiences are the same experience, so what seems like multiple such experiences are no different in value than just one experience (but note that any change, no matter how small, including different outside forces affecting the content of each experience would make them different experiences and let them have independent values). It seems a bit Platonic, but is interesting to explore.

    The identity of indiscernibles is mentioned, but it is at least questionable whether the proposed metaphysical "tags" can or do exist. Even if they do, they may not be able to change the identity in terms of value of experiences, because by construction, such tags do not affect anything else and therefore cannot be part of what is consciously perceived. (Note: My post was meant to have even more arguments in it, but that went over the size limit! I saved it elsewhere and I can post the remainder if that's okay with you.)

  12. Anonymous

    I'm less than 100% sure of this point: how do we measure 'utility' in creatures light years away? What is 'utility' and where is it? If we from far away are to learn of it, it must be measured and relayed to us. That's where I came up with the impact of relativity. Would these creatures' utility be intelligible to us just from direct observation, assuming we could arrive there, and if it were subjective, we'd have to decipher alien, not just cross cultural, subjectivity.
    Would it be like NASA measuring the climate of distant planets in far galaxies?
    That's why I bring up community, My guess is that community determines the list of possible items that count as giving utility; and if you say they are biologically given or environmentally given, I'd ask how can we know of these things in planets so far away?

  13. Howard: I think I'm understanding better what you're getting at now? So you're saying that it's difficult, maybe impossible, to measure alien utility over light-years of distance and biological/environmental differences? I'm actually inclined to agree. The thing is, this is just a thought experiment (especially since we don't even know if aliens exist at all!), so we're setting the issues of gaining knowledge aside and thinking about the different possibilities for what could or could not exist. We don't have to assume that humans do, or even could, know about alien utility - we just have to assume that there could be objective facts of some sort about it. Now, some people would argue there are no objective facts about utility, or just nonhuman utility. While I am not entirely convinced of utility as numerically calculable or interpersonally comparable, I'm pretty sure that whether an experience has positive, neutral, or negative valence is at least an objective fact (even if no one other than the experiencer can know for sure due to the problem of other minds), so I would have to disagree with those who claim valence is not objective. That is a bit off-topic for this post, I think, so I won't argue for it more.

    The original article: As I've already made another post, I decided I might as well post the continuation of my arguments (this will be right after my last point about the identity of indiscernibles/metaphysical tags).

    Literally stopping the goldfish midway does change things because it makes the goldfish have a new experience of you, so we could instead consider a scenario where you know about the goldfish-world but only have two options: leave it exactly as it is or entirely erase it. It's unclear whether the latter option is actually worse for the goldfish, even if it could be worse in other ways, such as worsening your character or going against the preferences of other watchers.
    It could also go against the goldfish's preferences if the fish specifically preferred the infinite repetition, perhaps. But even fulfilling the goldfish's preferences may not generate infinite positive value, merely finite positive value, if the experiences are indiscernible. For instance, imagine a situation in which a limit is pulled out of a hat of limits, and I hope the limit is infinite, perhaps due to a bet. I prefer something that is infinite, but fulfilling that preference does not necessarily give me infinite value. Furthermore, perhaps any difference between infinite exact repetition and One and Done only exists if there are outside observers. Preferring everything that exists to repeat exactly but not preferring everything that exists to only happen once may be, in this view, as irrational as preferring the number whose value is 1 to be pulled out of a hat while not wanting the number whose value is 3 - 2 to be pulled out of a hat (this is talking about values, not representations).

    To be clear, I'm not saying this is definitely true, but the view has some attraction to me and I focused on it because I haven't seen it mentioned here before (unless I'm wrong). As an aside, if the "perfectly identical experiences are the same experience" view is true, it could maybe also be a way that there could only be a finite amount of value even in an infinite universe. (It would also require there to be a finite number of possible particle-volumes, and they don't interact with other particle-volumes, and while I vaguely remember that this might be the case, I'm really not sure).

  14. @ Anonymous – Nick Riggles has posited at the top of this blog that Philosophy is akin to art. Now, here you suggest it might be more like fiction. While one of these ideas prompts reflection, the other raises caution. Whether repetition devalues human life significantly depends on one's philosophical perspective. It's a question that triggers profound contemplation about life, existence, and value. That's not fiction; it's a meaningful exploration when we consider the age-old light of the universe and speculate about our place within it. When we assign value to life based on our perspectives, that's significant. However, bridging the gap between value and cosmology is a potentially perilous venture toward corresponding truth and pragmatic falsity.

    Philosophy is driven more by narratives than data and thought experiments provide both. Only some people ponder over concepts like the utility monster or eudaimonia. Since the Mesolithic age, most people have looked up at the stars, as evidenced by ancient art. People weave stories around this art, from Lascaux's terrestrial tales to Stonehenge's celestial chronicles.

    Our cosmic fictions are largely earthbound, utopian, and skewed earthward. Captain Kirk's green women and the metachlorians enabling May the Fourth celebrations are prime examples. While these fictional narratives may present imaginative scenarios aiding philosophical inquiries, philosophers must use sound reasoning, evidence, and logical analysis to anchor their arguments. Cross-scale reasoning is a bridge that connects the grounding of views with the realm of imagination. When Eric invokes reduction and goldfish in a cosmic context, it's philosophy, not fiction. By blurring the line between cross-scale reasoning and appreciating fiction, we risk undermining both the power of Philosophy and the aesthetic possibilities of our view of the cosmos (if I understand Nick Riggles' point, which I am more and more.) There is false beauty in fictional truth.

    I agree with Eric's suggestion about having cutoffs to prevent infinitary consequences from messing up our moral thinking. It's a valuable idea that underscores the need for caution and humility in applying cosmic-scale reasoning to our personal and societal decisions. I wish he had referenced that here, and perhaps he does in the more extensive paper from which this blog post was abstracted.

    @Howard - I like your idea of community. I don't know where it comes from or how it is bounded and expressed, but it is a good twist of thought. I wish I had more to offer, but this has some legs in drawing productive boundaries in building the foundations for our views.

    This blog has been a great read. I appreciate the time and thought people put in to comment, and it has been interesting and well-spoken despite my addition here.

  15. Oops, I forgot to reply earlier. As I did think of a reply, though, I'll post it now.

    Tim Smith: Thanks for your thoughtful reply. About art and fiction - while they are certainly not the same, I would think they overlap in that some art is fiction and some fiction is art. With that said, I am actually very much inclined to agree that A. Much of science fiction is far too anthropocentric and B. Fiction is generally not a good way of revealing truths about the real world, because you can make it whatever you want. The fiction/cosmological philosophy comparison was purely in the sense of things that aren't immediately important to our world, even if for different reasons, not to suggest the two are at all the same. (I will note, though, that there have been some articles previously posted on this blog about fiction, specifically science fiction, and whether it can be philosophically useful).

    However, which thought experiments do you think are good, and which ones are not? Do you think that any thought experiment that is unlikely or impossible in reality is bad? If so, while the goldfish one fits in that category, and I do think it may not be the best (I still used it in previous replies simply to continue with the original post), the thought experiments about alien planets and infinity do not! As has been pointed out, information revealed by modern physics makes it likely that the universe is infinite, and it has been all but proven that extrasolar planets exist. Note that the original post asked what we should hope for, so whether alien life does exist or not, that thought experiment asks nothing that goes beyond the known laws of nature.

    I also suspect that thinking about our ethics in cosmological/extreme scales can be helpful precisely to see if there is a breakdown at some point and, if so, why. Sure, the scale of some thought experiments may be bigger than Earth, but we already have billions of humans and far more nonhuman animals to deal with, so we already need to think about numbers larger than those in common human experience where intuition breaks down and something else may be necessary. And we certainly haven't ruled out the possibility of large-scale space travel and colonization at some point in the future. I do think it is very unlikely that we will be in a position to knowingly affect actual infinities in particular, so perhaps it isn't so useful to think about them (although your posts mentioned "cosmic scales," and I'm not sure if you're only referring to infinities or also very large finite numbers). But given the strong possibility of their existence, we do have to think about them, even if the conclusion ends up being infinitarian cutoffs.

  16. @ Anonymous - We are stepping beyond the Eric Schwitzgebelian Oort cloud by continuing this interlocution beyond his possible patience. If this post finds you - thanks for the Ooops. I oop you had a good week. I just caught your reply. Let me turn on the email notifier for this blog post and annoy Eric more until we peter out.

    Fiction and art can be the same and different simultaneously. My most profound experiences of certainty come from revelations found in reading, thinking, and relating metaphorical fiction. If the world is para-consistent in this way, then fiction may be the best approach to reveal truth and garner understanding. That may be why some of the greatest philosophers choose it; Tim Smith is not one of those.

    I’m also not a frequenter of Eric’s Splintered Mind and am lured by Nick Riggles. I learn when; I read his work, look where his eyes wander, and attempt his extreme manipulations (I am a very bad skateboarder, but I understand the thrill and defer to the longboard.)

    Thought experiments are neither good nor bad. They are crafts, better spelled CRePFS mnemonically; they are best judged for their Clarity, Relevance, Persuasiveness, Fruit, and Scope. Applying this craft can slip into basal emotion, but whether we are attracted to them or averted from them is neither good nor bad. It is a subjective experience. Eric’s thought experiment here fails on several crafty points that give me the wigglies.

    Infinities exist. Certainly. Like fiction, you end up internally conflicted if you don’t handle infinities/fictions well. The care and precision required to avoid unproductive infinities are akin to my concern with Eric’s scale bridging. I understand your distinction between finite and infinite, but I lose interest in values above 8x10^53, which is not to say this is unimportant. Where a number is infinite or finite is not a metaphysical limitation at large scales but an epistemological matter of treatment.

    To use your analogy, infinities are not fiction. To restate my concern, we should carefully apply this fact to our finite lives. Human consciousness will never trip beyond the Oort cloud (not without losing our biological foundation, at least.) That is a finite finality. Mishandling that definitude may define our humanity if done poorly, and I’m reasonably certain of that.