What I Would Do With Immortality

I’ve previously discussed that I didn’t like reading fiction growing up, because I knew that if I thought about it too hard, it would break down. In real life, you can do experiments to answer your questions, instead of needing to rely on authority or source material, but in a story, this isn’t true. The real universe is modeled by quarks; stories are modeled by plots.

The fact that real life is based on universally consistent laws is a nearly endless source of intrigue, entertainment, and general fun, at least for me. Whenever I ask a question about reality, I know that it has an answer, somewhere. If I don’t know it, I can learn about it from someone who does, and if nobody knows it, I can find the answer myself. The existence of a consistent reality that I can do experiments on means that I am not limited in my ability to learn stuff by anything besides my willingness to do so.

The primary reason that I haven’t gone on a quest to rediscover every single insight ever made by the human race – which seems to approximate the Maximum Fun Plan – is because doing so would take orders of magnitude more years than I am presently expected to live, barring major advances in medical science. So, I’ve got to solve the pesky mortality problem first. But once I do… I certainly plan to spend a lot of time rediscovering things.

It might seem a bit odd, that I would want to spend decades and centuries rediscovering things that other people already know. A waste of effort, isn’t it? It would be more efficient to ask somebody who knows about the thing already.

More efficient it may be, indeed – which is why I don’t do it right now – but more fun it is not. I’m certain that Isaac Newton had way more fun inventing calculus than I had learning about it in school, and that isn’t just because our modern school system is a train-wreck. The joy of discovering something for myself is substantially greater than that of hearing the solution from somewhere else before I’ve even tried my hand at the problem. (I do prefer that the solution be printed somewhere, especially if the experiments to confirm my solution are difficult to create. It would be nice to hear somebody else’s solution to the AI-box problem, for example.)

Not only is the joy of the knowledge-acquisition inherently less, but the quality of the knowledge itself is also lower. When you discover something for yourself, you don’t have the problem of storing as “knowledge” what is actually just a referentless pointer (ie. a physicist tells you that “light is waves”, and you store the phrase “light is waves”, but you don’t have the background knowledge to really know what it means, and you couldn’t regenerate the “knowledge” if it were deleted from your brain). You also won’t have the potential pitfall of taking the solution for granted. People often don’t properly contextualize beliefs that they themselves didn’t generate: it feels to them like things which are now understood by Science, like rocks and stars and brains, have always been that way, instead of having been a mystery to the human species for the many millennia until they suddenly weren’t anymore.

There is a more abstract objection to the idea of reinventing old discoveries, coming from a less efficiency-focused mental place. The idea seems to be that, if somebody already knows, the problem is for some reason no longer interesting. It’s the position taken by everyone who is enraptured by the breaking new scientific controversies, but is not the slightest bit interested in the proved-correct equations of General Relativity.

But in my book, it doesn’t much matter what somebody knows, if I don’t. When I was young, I wanted to know how my body worked. Why did my hands move when I willed them to, but a glass of water wouldn’t slide across the table to me with a similar mental effort? Why did eating a whole bunch of candy make me feel ill, but eating a whole bunch of salad didn’t? I didn’t know, and I wanted to know; if you had told young-me that somebody knew, I would have replied “okay, can they tell me, please?”.

So far as I was, and am, concerned, if somebody else happens to know the answer to a question, that doesn’t cheapen the discovery for me. In fact, it wouldn’t make any sense for me to have a term in my utility function for being the first person in the universe to make a discovery, because for all I know, super-advanced aliens on the other side of the galaxy have already discovered everything I could possibly want to learn. If my choices are between never taking joy in a discovery, because somewhere else, someone else might already know the answer, and having fun, I’ll pick the fun.

It might be impossible for me to do anything about this until I (or somebody else) create a feasible solution to the imminent mortality problem, but once it happens, you can bet you’ll find me in a remote field, trying to find the optimal way to rub two sticks together.

Why Science?

I think that, if I hadn’t grown up hearing casually about their existence, I would be utterly floored by a lot of miscellaneous facts about the modern world. Humans have set foot on the moon, for one example. Y’know, that little white dot you see at night, that’s much larger than all the other white dots but otherwise still seems pasted onto that blue-black dome of the sky? That’s a place. Humans have been there. Ascended into the heavens on towers of fire, to go where no man has gone before. If you’d waited to tell me about it until I was sentient enough to understand its magnitude, I would have screamed.

I’m not advocating that we stop teaching young children about the moon landing, but I do find it curious that we grow up jaded to all of this.

What you grow up with feels like the way the world has always been. Unless you make a deliberate effort to remember history, you will not realize the smallness of your exact state of partial knowledge about the universe, wherein people have walked on the moon but you don’t yet know how consciousness works. This is a tiny, tiny, infinitesimal slice of history that you are living in right now.

But people don’t realize this, and so it seems like their tiny slice of history is the way the world has always been, instead of being the product of hundreds and thousands of years of human ingenuity, building and building upon itself, increasing exponentially with the advent of the scientific method.

If walking on the moon is a product of Science, and the last thousand discoveries have been the products of Science, it follows that the next thousand discoveries will be likewise, assuming we haven’t found something better by then. This isn’t anything in particular about Science: if the first people to walk on the moon had been, say, Orthodox Jews, who had arrived at the moon by faith in God, and if the past thousand discoveries had likewise been products of faith, I would be saying the exact same thing about Judaism. (Actually, there’s a book with roughly this premise.) It’s not the process, but the results.

But if these results are based in Science, then it seems that we should go about using that, since it’s the process that works. How, exactly, does Science work? By, in essence, knowing Reality so well that we can manipulate it to do what we want. This manipulation can’t be done the way you might manipulate a human: Reality, unlike humans, is both shockingly stubborn and astonishingly consistent. So, we have to play by Reality’s rules, but once we know those rules, we can play to win.

When manipulating a human, being able to come up with clever arguments is infinitely superior to having empirically correct answers. With Reality, this is not so. If you don’t know Reality’s rules, you can do nothing. You cannot persuade gravity; if you step off a cliff you’ll just fall. You cannot persuade gravity; if you try to build a rocket and you don’t take gravity into account, it will simply not fly. Even when you get to something as uncertain as uncertainty—probability theory, to be specific—Reality’s stringent rules don’t cease to apply. If you judge incorrectly under uncertainty, you will get a wrong answer. Unlike with gravity, you may not know it right away, but that doesn’t change the actual correctness of the answer, only your assessment thereof.

People often don’t realize most of this, because they’ve grown up with the products of Science, and so it doesn’t feel like a big deal that we have cool houses and warm clothes and literate populations. But these things have, for the overwhelming majority of history, not existed. It has only been since the Enlightenment that they have become a possibility, and since even more recently that they have actually come into common use.

The difference between Science and faith is not a question of personal preference. It’s a test, where choosing the right answer gets you to the moon, and choosing the wrong answer gets you poisoned by mercury.