What We Owe The Future

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They flutter behind you, your possible pasts:
Some bright-eyed and crazy,
Some frightened and lost.
A warning to anyone still in command
Of their possible future
To take care.

—Roger Waters, Your Possible Pasts

On getting out more

William MacAskill is undoubtedly intelligent, widely-read — perhaps too widely-read — and he applies his polymathic range to What We Owe The Future with some panache.

So it took me a while to put my finger on what was so irritating about his book. To be sure, there’s a glibness about it: it is jammed full of the sophomore thought experiments (“imagine you had to live the life of every sentient being on the planet” kind of thing) that give philosophy undergraduates a bad name.

Indeed, MacAskill, a thirty-something ethics lecturer who has divided his adult life between Oxford and Cambridge universities, is barely out of undergraduate philosophy class himself. You sense it would do him a world of good to put the books down and get some education from the school of life: pulling pints, waiting tables or labouring.

Of lived and not-yet-lived experience

William MacAskill’s premise is this: barring near-term cataclysm, there are so many more people in our future than in the present, that our duty of care to this horde of sacred unborn swamps any concern for the here and now. We must do what we can to avoid that cataclysm, and vouchsafe the future’s — well — future.

We are, thus, minding the shop not just for our children and grandchildren, but for generations not yet conceived — in any sense of the word — millennia hence. Thousands of millennia hence.

Perhaps to talk us down from our grandiosity, MacAskill spends some time remarking, rightly, on our contingency — that we happen to be the ones here to talk about the future is basically a fluke — but then neglects to appreciate that this contingency is by no means in our gift, and nor does it now stop.

For, per the second law of thermodynamicspace dear old Roger Waters — there is just one possible past, one possible now, and an infinite array of possible futures. They stretch out into an unknown black void. Some are short, some long, some dystopian, some enlightened. Some will be cut off by apocalypse, some will fade gently into warm entropic soup.

It is as if MacAskill has got this perfectly backward. He talks about the present as if we are at some single crossroads; a one-time determining fork in the history of the planet where by our present course of action we can steer it conclusively this way or that, and that we have the wherewithal (or even the necessary information) to understand all the dynamics, all the second, third, fourth ... nth-order consequences to deliver a future appropriate for the organisms we expect to be.

This is absurd. Literally countless determining forks happen every day, everywhere. Most of them are entirely beyond our control. Some future is assured. What it is, and who will enjoy it, is literally impossible to know. This uncertainty is a profoundly important engine of our non-zero-sum existence.

Expected value theory does not help

MacAskill uses probability theory (again: too many books, not enough common sense) and what financiers might call “linear interpolation” to deduce, from what has already happened in the world, a theory about what will happen, and what we should therefore do to accommodate the forthcoming throng. This is madness.

Probabilities are suitable for closed, bounded systems with a complete set of known outcomes. The probability when rolling dice is ⅙ because a die has six equal sides, is equally likely to land on any side, must land on one, and no other outcome is possible. This is an artificial, tight, closed system. We can only calculate an expected value because of this artificially constrained outcome. Probabilities only work for such finite games.

Almost nothing in everyday life works like that.[1]

The future is infinite: unbounded, ambiguous, incomplete, the range of possible outcomes are not known. You can’t calculate probabilities about it.

It is a situation of doubt, not risk. Here, expectation theory is worthless. This is a good thing.

About that thought experiment

MacAskill came to his thesis courtesy of the thought experiment mentioned above: imagine living the life of every being that has inhabited the planet from Mitochondrial Eve up to the present day. The exercise is meant to illustrate our own personal contingency and microscopic insignificance in the Grand Scheme. There are a paltry eight billion of us; ten times that have gone before, and a thousand times that are — if we don’t bugger everything up — yet to come.

This is the human condition: despite our mortal insignificance we are here, they are not. This is MacAskill’s Big Idea: we, lowly ants though we are, are disproportionately empowered to determine the future.

The idea chimes for a moment and then falls apart. For it is to see our present existence as no more than the task of cranking the right handle on the cosmic machine, to vouchsafe a calculable outcome for someone else. We are but set-builders, moving quietly about a dark theatre. As long as we do as bidden, on time, all will be well and performers will shine. Our role is barely worth a mention in the final credits.

But we are not Sisyphus. We have our own lived experiences to think about. It does not follow, a priori, that we are bound to practise forbearance for the sake of generations unimagined.

Indeed, a priori, it presents a paradox: for every step we take, the future keeps retreating. Who get to be the players to shine upon our set? As each generation rolls around, won’t the dismal calculus that applied to us be just the same for them? Who gets to enjoy all this self-restraint? Isn’t each generation just as relatively unimportant as the last?

This idea of iteration should give a clue. The future is not dependent on a single collective decision a generation makes now, but upon an impossibly complex array of micro-decisions, made by individuals and groups, every moment throughout space-time. This is as misconceived as is Richard Dawkins’ idea that a fielder does, or even could, functionally calculate differential equations to catch a ball.

The thought experiment betrays is an unflinchingly deterministic world-view: the universe is a clockwork machine to be set and configured. Take readings, perform calculations, twiddle dials, progress to the designated place, hold out your hand at the appointed time and the ball will drop into it.

We don’t image Professor Dawkins was much good at cricket.

Here it is, in a nutshell: the great distinction between reductionism and pragmatism.

An infinity of possibilities

We can manufacture plausible stories about whence we came easily enough: that’s what scientists and historians do, though they have a hard time agreeing with each other.

But where we are going is a different matter. We don’t have the first clue. Evolution makes no predictions. Alternative possibilities branch every which way. Over a generation or two we have some dim prospect of anticipating who our progeny might be and what they might want. Darwin’s dangerous algorithm wires us, naturally, to do this.

But over millions of years — “the average lifespan of a mammalian species” we are confidently told — the sheer volume of chaotic interactions between the co-evolving organisms, mechanisms, systems and algorithms that comprise our hypercomplex ecosystem, mean literally anything could happen. There are squillions of possible futures. Each has its own unique set of putative inheritors.

How do we know to whom we owe a duty? What would that duty be? How on earth would we frame it? Don’t we owe them all a duty? Doesn’t action to promote the interests of one branch consign infinitely more to oblivion?

In any case, who are we to play such cosmic dice? With what criteria? By reference to whose morality — ours, or theirs? If they are anything like our children, they will be revolted by our values, but we can’t even begin to guess what their values will be. So, an uncomfortable regression, through storeys of turtles and elephants, beckons. This is just the sort of thing ethics professors like, of course.

For if those whose interests lie along the pathway time’s arrow eventually takes drown out us, then they, in turn, will be drowned out by those whose interests lie along the infinity of pathways time’s arrow doesn’t take. Who are we to judge? How do we arbitrate between our possible futures, if not by reference to our own values? In that case is this really “altruism” or just motivated selfish behaviour?

Causality may or may not be true, but still forward progress is non-linear. There is no “if-this-then-that” over five years, let alone fifty, let alone a million. Each of these gazillion branching pathways is a possible future. Only one can come true. We don’t, and can’t, know which one it will be.

And here is the rub: like Amazonian butterflies causing typhoons in Manila, anything and everything anyone does infinitesimally and ineffably alters the calculus, re-routing evolutionary design forks and making this outcome or that more likely. Decisions that prefer one outcome surely disfavour an infinity of others.

If you take causal regularities for granted, all you need to be wise in hindsight is enough data. In this story, the causal chain behind us is unbroken back to where records begin — the probability of an event happening when it has already happened is one hundred percent; never mind that we’ve had to be quite imaginative in reconstructing it.

Another thing: does this self-sacrifice for the hereafter apply to non-sapient beasts, fish and fowls, too? Bushes and trees? Invaders from Mars? If not, why not?

If present homo sapiens really is such a hopelessly venal case, who is to say it can redeem itself millennia into the future? What makes Macaskill think future us deserves that chance that present us is blowing so badly? Perhaps it would be better off for everyone else — especially said saintly beasts, fish fowls, bushes and trees — if we just winked out of existence now?

Brainboxes to the rescue

But ultimately it is MacAskill’s sub-Harari, wiser-than-thou, top-down moral counselling that grates: humanity needs to solve the problems of the future centrally, and now (no-one in the past felt the need to solve our problems: what changed?). This requires brainy thirty-five year-olds from the academy, like MacAskill, to do it. And though the solution might be at the great expense of all you mouth-breathing oxygen wasters out there, it is for the future’s good. So suck it up.

We should sacrifice you lot — birds in the hand — for our far-distant descendants — birds in a bush who may or may not be there in a million years.

Thanks — but no thanks.

The FTX connection

MacAskill’s loopy Futurism appeals to the silicon valley demi-god types who have a weakness for Wagnerian psychodrama and glib a priori sci fi futurism.

Elon Musk is a fan. So, to MacAskill’s chagrin, is deluded crypto fantasist Sam Bankman-Fried. He seems to have “altruistically” given away a large portion of his investors’ money to the cause. I wonder what the expected value of that outcome was. You shouldn’t judge a book by the company it keeps on bookshelves, but still.

See the Long Now Foundation

If you want sensible and thoughtful writing about the planet and its long term future, try Stewart Brand and Brian Eno and the good folk of the Long Now Foundation. Give this hokum the swerve.

See also


  1. Ironically, not even dice: even a carefully machined die will not have exactly even sides and may fall off the table, or land crookedly, or fracture on landing!