Temporal allies and spatial rivals

(This post co-authored by Robin Hanson and Katja Grace.)

In the Battlestar Galactica TV series, religious rituals often repeated the phrase, “All this has happened before, and all this will happen again.” It was apparently comforting to imagine being part of a grand cycle of time. It seems less comforting to say “Similar conflicts happen out there now in distant galaxies.” Why?

Consider two possible civilizations, stretched either across time or space:

  • Time: A mere hundred thousand people live sustainably for a billion generations before finally going extinct.
  • Space: A trillion people spread across a thousand planets live for only a hundred generations, then go extinct.

Even though both civilizations support the same total number of lives, most observers probably find the time-stretched civilization more admirable and morally worthy. It is “sustainable,” and in “harmony” with its environment. The space-stretched civilization, in contrast, seems “aggressively” expanding and risks being an obese “repugnant conclusion” scenario. Why?

Finally, consider that people who think they are smart are often jealous to hear a contemporary described as “very smart,” but are much happier to praise the genius of a Newton, Einstein, etc. We are far less jealous of richer descendants than of richer contemporaries. And there is far more sibling rivalry than rivalry with grandparents or grandkids. Why?

There seems an obvious evolutionary reason – sibling rivalry makes a lot more evolutionary sense. We compete genetically with siblings and contemporaries far more than with grandparents or grandkids. It seems that humans naturally evolved to see their distant descendants and ancestors as allies, while seeing their contemporaries more as competitors. So a time-stretched world seems choc-full of allies, while a space-stretched one seems instead full of potential rivals, making the first world seem far more comforting.

Having identified a common human instinct about what to admire, and a plausible evolutionary origin for it, we now face the hard question: do we embrace this instinct as revealing a deep moral truth, or do we reject it as a morally irrelevant accident of our origins? The two of us (Robin and Katja) are inclined more to reject it, but your mileage may vary.

(This is cross-posted at Overcoming Bias.)

12 responses to “Temporal allies and spatial rivals

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  2. Mitchell Porter

    “There seems an obvious evolutionary reason – sibling rivalry makes a lot more evolutionary sense.”

    It doesn’t just make more “evolutionary sense”, it makes more sense, period. The only people I am competing with materially are my contemporaries. People who are dead and people who are not yet born are not competing with me for anything.

    • The idea behind an “evolutionary sense” is that our intuitions concerning this are not conscious and not introspectively accessible. Hence we could not have consciously/reflectively decided that our contemporaries are our competitors to therefore prefer the time-stretched universe.

      Your “period” sense is definitely true, but it wasn’t what went into our intuition for why we prefer the time-stretch one, hence cannot illuminate a deeper reason for which universe we should prefer. You also don’t want it to simply be a rationalization.

      Notice for example how in the space-stretched one, the time-stretch-universe-equivalent populations could be in different light cones so that the issue of competition goes away.

  3. 1. Positive: Subjective experience

    We perceive ourselves as continuous with prior and future intelligences that we call “us”…I think of Buck yesterday as continuous with Buck tomorrow. I am niggled by the time-slice theory of identity, but not shaken by it.

    I do not generally perceive myself as continuous with my contemporaneous spatially-adjacent intelligences (although, David Brooks might). In fact I am highly supicious of these sorts of ‘oceanic feelings’ that romantic collectivism might bring.

    By naive extension temporal allies and spatial rivals.

    2. Normative:

    Rather have one person live for 100 years or a 100 people live in isolation for one year? I think the one person is more likely to learn, develop new thoughts, experiences, etc. vs. the throng who’s thoughts and concerns are likely to be very similar and dictated by the same problems the one encounters in his first year.

    However, if the 100 can interact, then we’ve got a potentially rich and complex environment in which they can externalize some of their thinking in institutions and culture.

    In your example above, I’m not sure which scenario would produce the greatest complexity…I guess the 100k people for a billion generations, since most of the culture / institutions needed to allow a trillion people to interact wouldn’t develop in 100 generations, and those trillion people are likely to struggle with relatively similar problems in isolated local groups.

    I guess I’m biased towards believing that human society creates more variation than natural environments.

  4. Specific re: the phrase in ritual. It could be comforting in a way that a special phrase would not by reminding or implying that others have come through similar troubles.

  5. It appears that survival is not of the fittest but the luckiest. Once again, randomness rules. So what is left is (mere) attribution errors and pattern projection when none exists. Apparently variation comes mainly from recombination based on two sexes — and is also random.

  6. i’m sorry but there might be a non-sequitur at the end of paragraph 3. i think we feel jealous of our contemporaries no matter if they are 10 thousand or 10 million. you could have started the text in paragraph 4 and have a stronger impact.

    anyway, it is better to reject this innate moral. despite the admiration of ancestors, it is smarter to colaborate, make bussinness or alliances for profit with your contemporaries instead of worrying about the distant past/future.

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  9. I seem to value a story-like life. Extension in space feels less like telling a bigger story, because a lot of people will be doing pretty much the same thing, independently, so after a point (probably about 500 people, if you ignore economies of scale) my utility scales much less than linearly with number of persons alive concurrently.

    It is also easier to affect and be affected by a lot of future and past people than a lot of present people.

    On the other hand, if concurrent lives allow for parallel, qualitatively different types of civilization or personality, that would also make the universe more interesting in a similar way, especially if there are still few enough to interact meaningfully. ( I can only be in 1 city at a time, but life is more interesting with more than 1 city available.)

  10. Pingback: Mediocre masses are not what’s repugnant | Meteuphoric

  11. jonathan colvin

    Always happy to see a BSG reference. But uur preference for time duration could have a more prosaic explanation, and may be simply a side-effect of our own desire for a long life; thus we see longevity as innately desirable.

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