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]