Thoughts from Planet Earth

Sometimes I look at the sky and I think, how high can I jump? Like, half a foot or so. And then I think, how high can I get in an airplane? That’s the kind of delta that human ingenuity gives us. And it’s not even the limit: how high can you get in a rocket ship?

But even so, the stars that I’m looking at are so much further away. If Earth was a word, the nearest star is ten times every word you’ll ever say in your life. And yet, we humans went from the half a foot we can jump to the upper stratosphere, where the tallest mountains are vague outlines of purple and white.

It took a lot of work. Not with our muscles, which can only get us about five feet up if we train relentlessly for years, but with our brains. Thousands of ordinary human brains, no smarter or greater than you or I, made the airplanes and the rocket ships. In fact, human brains did a whole lot more than that. They created the entire modern world.

I wake up in the morning to an alarm app that comes installed on my smartphone, which gets its data from a clock which runs on humanity’s collective knowledge of quantum physics and syncs with all the other phones via a network which runs on humanity’s collective knowledge of binary logic. I get dressed in clothes that came directly from somebody I’ve never met who donated them to a Goodwill on the opposite side of a continent from my current residence, and that person got them from a store which got them from a country I’ve never been to. I take a train to work which moves through a huge tunnel under the ocean at upwards of ten times the speed I can run. Humans made all of this! Some of it is pretty suboptimal—the fact that I have to get up at 6am certainly comes to mind—but you can’t deny that it’s incredibly cool.

If thousands of ordinary human minds were able to make all these things, I think that with a few thousand more, we’ll be able to make it all the way to those stars and to the planets that might orbit them.

What might we find there, on those distant worlds? Maybe nothing more than we minimally expect. Some interesting places, both habitable and hostile, to which we can add the beauty that comes with perception by intelligent life. And this isn’t a loss! Improving the diversity and span of human experience across the galaxy is one of the best futures I can imagine for us.

But maybe, just maybe, we might find someone else out there. Not humans in funny suits, like in sci-fi movies, but things which are more different from us than we are from petunias—because we and petunias both evolved on Earth, though our evolutionary branches separated aeons ago. Sentient things made of complex configurations of silicon, crystal, liquid, metal, or things even stranger. Sentient things which are further from humans than anything we know, but that we can still call people, because though they may not have human thoughts, emotions, or biases, they have goals and they don’t want to die and this is all we really need.

Think how similar we are to each other, compared to the others we might find out there. All humans look the same—bipedal ape-like things made of flesh and built from DNA. We think the same—simple animals which evolved higher thought, planning, and consciousness by a constant competition with one another which produced predictable patterns and errors in reasoning. We act the same—pack animals inclined to organize into social groups and gatherings who are practically mandated by our development process to use syntactic combinatorial language along with specific nonverbal gestures and facial expressions to communicate. We feel the same—emotional creatures motivated primarily by fear and secondarily by joy, sadness, anger, and love. We’re as alike as peas from the same pod.

And maybe this is the part of my mind that grew up on Star Trek talking, but it doesn’t make any sense, if we could find and cooperate with these others—and I think we would, judging from how badly we want to not be alone in the universe—that we would still have such silly things as the various -isms and -phobias which are manifestations of inter-human hate and insecurity. How could we hate a fellow language-using, emotion-feeling, hairless ape built by DNA, when we could get along with electrically-charged systems of fractal crystals and gaseous blobs of pulsating color?

If our distant ancestors could gradually build our modern world and our distant descendants could get along with these impossibly different aliens, how could it make sense for me—operating in a flawed modern world but made of the same stuff that made up the humans before me and will make up those after—to hate another human?

These are the things I think of, looking up into the sky at night.

Places, Past and Future

We met in Baltimore
when the hot lights of the dance floor drove us out to the gardens
before the pouring of the rain drove us back in.

We got engaged in Pittsburgh
under the warm yellow glow of artificial lamplight
and I handed him the ring I’d bought with less ceremony than I’d like
though he seemed to love it anyway.

We’ll get married in San Francisco
surrounded by the warm California sun
by new and old friends
and by possibilities for our future spent together forever.

We’ll grow old among the stars
with the distant descendants of humanity at our side
accomplishing feats and forging friendships we can’t even dream of today.

And we’ll die
if in fact we must die
after impossible problems have been solved
after incomprehensible battles have been fought
after amazing spoils have been wrought:
we’ll die knowing that whatever else has come to pass
humanity has won.

Book Review: The Humans

Matt Haig’s “The Humans” gains the dubious title of “most frustrating book I’ve ever read all the way through”.

Before reading this review, please read the book yourself and come up with your own ideas about it. I very much don’t want this review to spoil it for you, and I’m about to lay out and thoroughly dissect the plot. Despite the fact that some of its meta-elements frustrate me in particular, the book is immensely well-written and beautiful, and I don’t want to diminish anyone’s enjoyment of it before they’ve even gotten the chance to read the original.

That being said…

I’ve found a number of books frustrating. The overwhelming majority, I didn’t bother to finish. Some of these books were badly-written, some espoused ideologies I strongly disagree with, some were internally inconsistent. I won’t name the specific books on this so-frustrating-I-didn’t-finish-them list, because you’ll probably think I’m making a value judgement against those books, or that I want to make you feel bad if you enjoy them. I’m not, and I don’t: my frustration with these books is an attribute of me, not of the books. Likewise, my frustration with “The Humans”.

Here’s a quick plot synopsis – as a refresher for the bits I’ll be talking about; if you haven’t read the book, read it.

There is a highly advanced alien species who finds out that a particular human has found out a thing they don’t want him to find out. As such, they kill him and send one of their own to impersonate him, to delete the evidence, including that which happens to be represented within human brains. The aliens are not concerned with the fact that humans tend to call this “murder”. The one they send has a difficult time adjusting to life as a human for a number of reasons, but gets out of some tough scrapes using magi- I mean alien technology. In the process, he gets attached to the family of the man he’s impersonating, who he was sent to kill, and also somewhat to humanity in general. He has an existential crisis over it all, and ends up relinquishing his life in his hyper-advanced home civilization to spend the rest of his life as a human mortal.

Here are my two specific points of frustration with that.

#1: The author is so focused on the main character’s journey to the end state which he understands (poetic sympathy with the modern human condition) that he doesn’t adequately demonstrate the beginning state, and the whole journey is cheapened as a result. Essentially, he writes a story from the perspective of someone who comes from an entire society whose entire purpose in existence is math, and yet there isn’t much actual math in it. Not even for the purpose of making decisions. I know from experience that when you really care about the math, you sort of become the math. It isn’t just a tool you use, it takes over your thoughts. Part of the beauty of stories like HPMOR is that they’re really, honestly about science – you couldn’t remove the science without removing the story.

There is a fundamental disconnect when you try to write a book from the perspective of someone in love with math, without yourself actually being in love with math. Really being in love with math doesn’t look like having a favorite prime number. It doesn’t even look like recognizing the importance of math to the structure of the universe, though this is in fact a piece of insight more people could do to have. Really being in love with math looks like having the thoroughly amazing realization that the question “what should I believe?” has an empirically proven correct answer. It looks like finding beauty in a proof like an artist finds beauty in a flower. It looks like loving the universe more because of its mathematical roots; finding more joy, not less, in a rainbow once it has been explained.

In short, I’d like to see this book’s premise rewritten by a mathematician.

#2: The ending of this book generally makes the transhumanist in me want to scream.

I don’t think it’s terribly hard to see why death is a bad thing. A decent portion of humans have already decided on it. It would be even easier to decide that death is bad if you came from a society which didn’t have any such thing: the only reason that many humans think it’s okay is rationalization, anyway. You could make people rationalize reasons why getting hit on the head with a truncheon every week was actually a good thing, if they thought it was inevitable. (It makes your head stronger! And makes you happier on the days you’re not getting hit on the head! No, really!) But if I asked you, dear reader, who are presumably not subject to such a weekly annoyance, if you’d like to start, for all the amazing benefits, I think you’d say no.

And yet this alien, who comes from a society which has no such thing as death, and furthermore no such thing as permanent physical injury, accepts mortality in exchange for becoming one of The Humans.

I mean, I get it, humans are cool. That’s the whole “humanist” bit. I love humans too. I think we’re capable of greatness. But exchanging immortality for us? Without so much as putting up a fight?

I think I’d at least try to apply my superior intelligence to figure out exactly how the relevant bits of alien technology worked, and find out how to apply them in humans. Yet he fails to take a trip down that line of discovery. Further, the alien is small-scale altruistic without ever considering the concept of large-scale altruism. He spends a lot of time agonizing over the fact that he can’t help the humans since they’d realize he wasn’t one of them, and yet he spends a non-negligible portion of the book helping the family of the man he’s impersonating. I think if I had a magic left hand that I didn’t want anyone to know about, I would still go around using it to cure people. Just, when I got asked how it worked, I’d say “Science!” – it’s a curiosity-stopper for a lot of people. On the whole, if I was really intent on abandoning my home planet for Earth, I would at least try to steal as much useful stuff as possible before I left, and use it to the best of my ability.

So why didn’t the alien do this? Simply, because he was written by a human who had not thought of it. The writer must encompass his characters, and so no character can go beyond the knowledge of the writer. If you consider what an immortal alien would do, that doesn’t let you magically climb outside your own brain to generalize from knowledge that isn’t yours. If you accept death as the natural order, who says that an immortal alien wouldn’t accept it too?

I do. It doesn’t make any sense. I wouldn’t do that, and I grew up with death. Within the past year, two of my relatives have died, along with hundreds of thousands of strangers, and I find that completely unacceptable. I have reason to believe that an immortal alien would probably think a bit more like me than like Matt Haig – assuming the alien were capable of thinking like a human at all.

So, I suppose, this book is frustrating because it accepts what, to me, is unacceptable, without putting up a fight at all. It’s one long exercise in the Mind Projection Fallacy, and a demonstration of the fact that to write true science fiction you need to actually know science. I read it all the way through anyways because it’s beautifully written and incredibly interesting.

I Want To Cure Mortality.

Do you want to live forever?

No? Okay, let me phrase it another way. Do you want to live tomorrow?

Most people answer yes to this second question, even if they said no to the first. (If you didn’t say yes to the second, that’s typically called suicidal ideation, and there are hotlines for that.)

This doesn’t quite make sense to me. If I came to you tomorrow, and I asked the same question, “Do you want to live tomorrow?”, you’d probably still say yes; likewise with the day after that, and the day after that, and the day after that. Under normal circumstances, you’ll probably keep saying yes to that question forever. So why don’t you want to live forever?

Maybe, you think that the question “do you want to live forever” implies “do you want to be completely incapable of dying, and also, do you want to be the only immortal person around”. Not being able to die, ever, could be kind of sucky, especially if you continued to age. (There was a Greek myth about that.) Further, being the only person among those you care about who can’t die would also suck, since you’d witness the inevitable end of every meaningful relationship you had.

But these sorts of arbitrary constraints are the realm of fiction. First, if a scientist invented immortality, there would be no justifiable reason that it wouldn’t be as available to those you care about as it would be to you. Second, it’s a heck of a lot easier to just stop people from aging than it is to altogether make a human completely impervious to anything which might be lethal. When I say “yes” to “do you want to live forever”, it’s induction on the positive integers, not a specific vision whose desire spans infinity.

Even after I’ve made sure we’re on the same page as to what exactly real immortality might look like, some people still aren’t convinced it would be a good idea. A decent amount of the arguments are some variant on “death gives meaning to life”.

To this, I’ll borrow Eliezer Yudkowsky’s allegory: if everybody got hit on the head with a truncheon once a week, soon enough people would start coming up with all sorts of benefits associated with it, like, it makes your head stronger, or it makes you appreciate the days you’re not getting hit with a truncheon. But if I took a given person who was not being hit on the head with a truncheon every week, and asked them if they’d like to start, for all these amazing benefits, I think they’d say no. Wouldn’t you?

People make a virtue of necessity. They’d accept getting hit on the head with a truncheon once a week, just as they now accept the gradual process of becoming more and more unable to do things they enjoy, being in pain more often than not, and eventually ceasing to exist entirely. That doesn’t make it a good thing, it just demonstrates peoples’ capacity for cognitive dissonance.

These are the reasons I’ve made it my goal to cure mortality. The motivation is extremely similar to anyone’s motivation to cure any deadly disease. Senescence is a terminal illness, which I would like to cure.

It disrupts the natural order, but so does curing any other disease. Cholera was the natural order for thousands of years, but we’ve since decided it’s bad, and nowadays nobody is considering the idea of mixing sewage with drinking water to bring it back. There were tons of diseases that were part of the natural order right up until we eradicated them. We don’t seem to have any trouble, as a society, deciding that cancer is bad. But death itself—the very thing we’re trying to prevent by curing all these diseases—is somehow not okay to attack directly.

Here’s the bottom line. I know for a fact I’m not the only one with this goal. Some of the people at MIRI come to mind, as well as João Pedro de Magalhães. I’d personally love to contribute to any of these causes. If you know someone, or are someone, who’s working towards this goal, I’d love to join you.