Rob’s intro [00:00:00]
Hi listeners, this is the 80,000 Hours Podcast, where we have unusually in-depth conversations about the world’s most pressing problems, what you can do to solve them, and whether the people living in the centre of the Earth share our values.
I’m Rob Wiblin, Head of Research at 80,000 Hours.
I knew I had to interview today’s guest, Tom Moynihan, as soon as I heard his appearance on the podcast ‘Hear This Idea’.
As you may have noticed, the result is one of our longer episodes. I found the things Tom was saying so weird and surprising that I couldn’t resist asking him back for a second recording session.
Tom works on ‘intellectual history’, which is a discipline I have barely ever engaged with — and as is often the case when you encounter an area of knowledge that’s full of ideas that are new to you, the temptation is to just gorge on it.
Tom wrote the book X-Risk: How Humanity Discovered Its Own Extinction, which exposed to me just how differently people in the past thought about the universe and their place in it.
That’s the focus of today’s episode, and to give a flavour of what’s to come, here are some pretty common beliefs from generations past:
- That if humanity ever disappeared, it would have to reappear
- That we couldn’t safely say whether we were living before or after the Trojan War
- That all regions that can be populated will be populated, whether that’s on other planets, or deep underneath Earth’s surface — and that all extraterrestrials would have to be human-like
- That fossils were rocks that had gotten a bit too big for their britches and were trying to act like animals
- That all future generations were contained in miniature form, Russian-doll style, in the sperm of the first man
If your interests overlap with mine all that should definitely whet your appetite.
Alright, without further ado, here’s Tom Moynihan.
The interview begins [00:01:45]
Rob Wiblin: Today, I’m speaking with Tom Moynihan. Tom is an intellectual historian and research associate at Oxford University, affiliated with both St Benet’s Hall and the Future of Humanity Institute. He completed his PhD at Oxford in 2018, focusing on how humanity had conceived of the possibility of its own extinction ranging all the way from the ancient Greeks through to the latest scientific research on that topic today. That research was published in 2020 in the book X-Risk: How Humanity Discovered Its Own Extinction, which will be the focus of today’s conversation. For me, it was an amazing book which really exposed just how different people in the past thought about the universe and their role in it, and how their preconceptions made it really impossible for them to imagine intelligent life disappearing for as trivial a reason as the trajectory taken by an asteroid. But we’ll get to all of that in a moment. Thanks for coming on the podcast, Tom.
Tom Moynihan: Thanks for having me. It’s a real pleasure.
Rob Wiblin: So I hope we’re going to get to talk about how one actually does intellectual history and the function that it serves. But first, what are you working on at the moment and why do you think it’s important?
Tom Moynihan: Yeah. So at the moment I’m working on creating a flow chart of crisp historical insights that have gone into the discovery of existential risk. The aim of this is to provide a high-level condensed picture of these insights for EAs and other people working on existential risk. I think it’d be useful to have that kind of decomposed dissected view of the idea and what went into discovering it. I’m also laying the ground plans for my next large book project, which I’m giving the working title of The Genesis of the High-Stakes Worldview. This is a work on longtermism and I’m attempting to answer the big question of why longtermism now, why not earlier in world history? So why were there not longtermists in the 1500s.
Tom Moynihan: And why is this important? Well I think most immediately as a simple answer, if you want to shape the far future and value within it, then you should have some basic idea of how ideas of the far future and ideas about value have changed in the past. This can add valuably to one’s background beliefs and background assumptions when they are creating predictions regarding the long-range future, and how to shape it. Put differently, if you care about global priorities, then you might also care about the story of why almost all prior generations missed some of the biggest priorities of all.
Principle of Plenitude [00:04:02]
Rob Wiblin: Speaking of that, let’s launch straight into the book, and the thing that I found most remarkable about it, which was that according to you, until the 18th century basically, almost everyone was precluded from imagining that humanity or life could simply disappear because of an act of nature, because of the preconceptions that they had about the nature of the world, preconceptions that at least I’d never heard about and maybe seem to have been largely forgotten about today. What were those assumptions about the natural world?
Tom Moynihan: Yeah. So there are some very obvious and very high-level ones, namely animism and religiosity. So animism is the tendency to think about the world in a super naturalistic or spiritualistic sense. However, I thought that the story of the rise of secularism and the genesis of atheism has already been told in plenty of places, and been told very well. And also it’s, in a sense, more trivial than you might suspect when it comes to the story of thinking about extinction. You can go back and find atheistic or materialistic people in prior epochs of history. So think of the Roman philosopher Lucretius, the Arab poet Al Ma’arri. These people did think in these terms, but they didn’t grasp human extinction and its severity in the way that we now recognize. So in a sense, religiosity is not the key. Atheism and materialism, physicalism might be necessary, but they’re not sufficient for the modern view of existential risk.
Rob Wiblin: What’s the additional barrier? Because I think people might guess that those have been initial barriers, but it seems like there was more than that.
Tom Moynihan: Yeah, definitely. So there was a deeper and I think more prevalent and compelling obstructive idea. And that’s the idea called the principle of plenitude.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. And what’s that?
Tom Moynihan: So the principle of plenitude directly stated says that whatever can happen will happen. In its stronger form it says whatever can happen will happen reliably and recurrently. And in its strongest form it says that all that can happen is happening right now. And that’s the way things will be forever.
Rob Wiblin: So this principle of plenitude as you’re laying it out would have the implication that if humanity ever disappeared for some reason, then it would have to reappear, because the universe should be full of valuable things, like not wasting an opportunity to create something valuable. Is that basically right?
Tom Moynihan: Yeah. So I think that the way the principle is most commonly articulated, particularly within the Christian tradition, comes with a load of value claims, lots of axiology. So the idea is often that the world is as maximumly full of valuable things as it can be. But you don’t even need those value claims to arrive at a idea of the imperishability or indestructibility of species, but lots of pre-Christian people, the pagan worldview, a lot of them talk about humanity and its role within creation quite indifferently, but they still believed in plenitude invariably. And that led them to this idea that humanity would return, regardless of how valuable you might think it is, how central its role is in the universe. Because again, if you’re yielding the definition of possibility based on frequency within time, that means that your only definition of possibility is something is possible if it sometimes happens. Now that sometimes goes forwards in time and backwards in time. So if humanity is something happening currently right here, right now, we can reliably say that it will be happening again at some arbitrarily far future date, regardless of if there’s some arbitrarily long interval in time where humanity isn’t happening. So it creates this sense of eternal return.
Rob Wiblin: Okay. So this kind of principle is pretty bizarre and foreign to me as a person in the modern world. Why would people believe and be so deeply committed to a principle that seems so extreme and unintuitive to us?
Tom Moynihan: Yeah. I think it’s hard to say whether it is unintuitive to us now. We’ve become used to lots of ideas that require it to be false. So things like path dependence, contingency in the strong sense of the term… But I think it is actually still a very intuitive idea, because it’s a more intuitive definition of possibility to say possibility is what sometimes happens, as opposed to defining possibility based on logical coherence, compatibility, incompatibility… those require quite complex philosophical insights. It would be really interesting for psychologists to actually do tests on this, but I do think it’s quite an intuitive thing to think.
Tom Moynihan: And the reason why I think largely everyone invariably thought in these terms, is again, because to not think in terms of plenitude, to not think in terms of possibility being what sometimes happens, to not yield modal definitions based on temporal frequencies, to put it in a technical sense, you need to have a definition of possibility that is based on logical coherence. Historians of logic have looked into this, and within the Western tradition those emerged first in the late medieval era, pending on discussions of God’s omnipotence. Because these Christian theologians were rather upset with the Aristotelian world picture, which said that everything was the way it had to be, because they thought that limited God’s freedom to make the world otherwise.
Tom Moynihan: So that forced them to actually develop this new logic, which talked about possibilities completely unrelated to their realization within time. So this is all very abstract, but the basic upshot is that it actually requires some complex logical thinking to thereafter think that something could be possible yet never happen within the real history, the real, actual, genuine history of our world or our timeline.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Okay. So in normal speech, people all the time have to refer to something that didn’t happen or that you didn’t see could have happened, in some sense. And I guess the modern philosophical understanding of that is that it could have happened in that it would have been coherent for the world to have been such that happened, even though it never in fact did. But you’re saying that, to the ancients, or I guess up until like surprisingly recently, people didn’t have this idea that what is possible but doesn’t happen is just about internal coherence and consistency. And so whenever they found themselves talking about hypothetical worlds, they then had to make this leap of thinking that must happen somewhere.
Rob Wiblin: Okay. So I thought that you were going to give a different answer. And I guess the rationalization that I tried to come up with as I was reading the book is that, you know, for the ancients looking at the world, they just saw life springing up everywhere, or they saw all of these animated things that were so hard to explain. And it seems like in general, they therefore read into this idea that the world has a purpose and that things move… In philosophy it’s called teleology. That things change, and things move because there’s a purpose that they’re driven towards. And because they saw life springing up all the time for reasons that they couldn’t explain, they therefore thought that the world must have some drive to create complexity and create life in all of its different ways. And that was an underlying law of physics almost.
Tom Moynihan: I think also a good answer is that teleological thinking was incredibly strong until the scientific revolution. And it wasn’t basically until Darwin that it took for… There’s actually a rather significant delay after Darwin articulated his theories for them to sink in. So yeah, teleological thinking was very prevalent. And that’s the idea that, as you say, everything that exists must have some kind of purpose or end in the same way that we think of life as—
Rob Wiblin: …being driven by goals.
Tom Moynihan: —having an end. Exactly. Yes. But the important thing is that we now realize that’s a heuristic that can be useful to interpret certain things in the world, such as behaviors or biological, morphological features.We now realize that’s a heuristic that we can apply. Before a certain point in time, be it Darwin or scientific revolution, that wasn’t even seen as a heuristic, that was just seen as the basic way of seeing the world. So again, I think that’s definitely a factor for plenitude, but as I said, you don’t need that kind of value-laden teleology-laden explanation.
Tom Moynihan: You can have this just quite basic explanation that prior to the invention of certain ways of thinking about logical possibility, everyone was in a sense committed to plenitude implicitly and tacitly. So that’s why you don’t have to go back and find all of these thinkers talking about it quite explicitly. Aristotle does actually talk about it rather explicitly. He doesn’t explicitly talk about possibility being reducible to temporal terms, but he shows that he thinks in those ways, quite explicitly. Plato, for example, doesn’t actually ever explicitly commit himself to plenitude, but you can see it throughout his writing. He says that the demiurge, so that’s the creator, didn’t want to be jealous of his creation. So he put everything that he could be, or it could be, into the creation. That’s a clear sense of plenitude. There’s also a sense in which — and it’s an open question amongst people who are Plato scholars — but there’s a sense in which there aren’t empty forms in Plato. So there’s no form which has never manifested at some point in the world.
How do we know they really believed this? [00:13:20]
Rob Wiblin: Interesting. So how do we know that they really believed this? Is there any way in which it could perhaps have been like a metaphor, or a joke, or a simplification? It can just be so hard to even understand exactly what people are communicating today, let alone people in such a different culture so long ago. Is it possible that we’re misunderstanding? Or I guess you’re saying that usually people didn’t state the principle of plenitude directly, but sometimes they did make it explicit.
Tom Moynihan: Yeah. So people do say it quite explicitly. So Aristotle for example, in De Caelo, he says, “Anything then which always exists is absolutely imperishable.” I find it really interesting that he says, what the train of thought is, to unpack that, is that he’s saying that if it was possible for species to go extinct and never return, that would have already happened, because what is possible is what sometimes has been known to happen. But we find ourselves in a world filled with species, and filled with all kinds of things. So therefore these things must be imperishable. So he’s there yielding the definition of omnitemporal, or always known to exist, in terms of necessity. So it’s necessitous that species are the way they are and that they continue existing. People continue to make this claim throughout the whole tradition up until some point in the 1800s.
Rob Wiblin: Do you have any other quotes from people… We’ve talked most about the ancient Greeks here, but I guess it seems as though you’re saying even natural scientists were appealing to this principle as late as the 1800s, although I guess it started to wane around then.
Tom Moynihan: Yeah. So I’d love to read out some good examples. Fast forwarding to the Romans, but returning to Lucretius who I mentioned earlier, he’s an interesting case because there were some points in his poem De rerum natura where he puts forward his Epicurean worldview, and it’s quite atheistic. It’s very materialistic. And there are also points in it where he says that the world itself is aging. And one day the world will perish. It will fall apart. He also talks about species that seem to not exist anymore. He talks about them in the sense that they are abominations, or monstrous creations that had to be weeded out of creation rather than irreversibly disappeared, viable species.
Tom Moynihan: So he says these things that seem very modern. And people have read into this, that Lucretius was an early proponent of extinctions and irreversibility within nature. But then he also says this, and I quote, he says, “It is impossible for anything to return to nothing. And so no visible object ever suffers total destruction. Since nature renews one thing from another, there is the further consideration that, in the totality of created things, there is nothing solitary, nothing that is born unique and grows unique and singular. Therefore, you can have no final instance of a dying kind.” And then he also says, and this will become relevant later on I think, he says, “You are bound to admit that in other parts of the universe, there must be other worlds inhabited by many different peoples…” (note peoples) “…and species of wild beasts.” So those are all plenitude-derived assumptions, and I think that’s a very good example. Because Lucretius elsewhere says these things that can lead you into thinking that he is thinking in a way that we’d recognize as modern about extinction.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I’m slightly asking for these quotes because I can imagine people in the audience being skeptical about this, as I was initially skeptical when I heard this claim. It just sounds so fabulous and such a strange view for people to have almost, I didn’t quite… And it’s so convenient for me to think oh, past generations had this wacky view and that’s why they didn’t share my concern about the risk of extinction. But yeah, it does seem like the accumulation of quotes that you have in the book did eventually convince me that, at least as far as I can tell, you’re on the right track. What about a quote from someone more recently, in Europe?
Tom Moynihan: I have a couple that I think might be useful. So a quick one from Descartes… Actually this one’s rather interesting. He says, “Due to the laws of nature, matter takes on successively all the forms of which it is capable. Therefore, if we consider these forms in order, we could eventually arrive at the one which is our present world. So that in this respect, no false hypothesis can lead us into error.”
Rob Wiblin: Can you translate that?
Tom Moynihan: Yeah, we’ll begin to talk about this later on, unpack it later, this idea that plenitude or infinities, eternities, can create interesting practical consequences. But here’s also theoretical consequences of thinking in terms of plenitudes. Not to do with morality, but to do with the epistemology. Descartes is saying that if plenitude is true and everything that can happen will happen, then no false hypothesis, no idea that we can say about the world is wrong in some strong sense, because at some point in the future or the past, it has been true. It’s a really interesting claim. And yeah, again, hopefully later on, we can unpack how that converts from doxastic to normative ideas, but yeah, I think that’s quite a nice and strong example.
Rob Wiblin: Okay. So we’ll come back to some issues about the methodology of how you do this history of ideas and really understand how past people thought. But can you spell out whether there’s any other implications of the principle of plenitude that we haven’t covered yet? I guess we’ve talked about how like, history seems to be cyclical. So if something disappears and it has to come back later and that there’s nothing new under the sun, anything that arises must have existed in the past. And if something disappears it’ll come back. Are there any other implications that it’s worth keeping in mind?
Tom Moynihan: Yeah. If something is possible, then it is known to be natural. You can derive all kinds of interesting consequences from this. And I’m not saying that everyone thought all of these things, but you can find them in different varying bundles quite reliably. So one is the thing of if something is achievable now it will always be achievable, and if it is unachievable, it will always be unachievable. If something is lost now, it will be recovered later. If something is knowable, it has previously been known. If something is achievable, it has previously been achieved. So you put this all together and you get this idea that we cannot lose potential. We cannot lose the potential to do something.
Tom Moynihan: You can see why that’s obviously relevant for thinking about existential risk and longtermism. To put some flesh on those bones, Aristotle, again, to go back to him, he’s quite clear about this. He says that every piece of knowledge has been discovered in the past. Not just once, not just twice, but infinitely many times. Plato says a very similar thing in The Laws. He says that every possible permutation of betterment and decay has been passed through by civilization or civilizations in the past. He actually says there’ve been uncountably many civilizations before us. So therefore, per plenitude, everything achievable has already been achieved and all kinds of disvaluable states of civilization have already been passed through. Aristotle says that we cannot — and this shows how extreme this thinking can sometimes go — he says that we cannot safely say that we exist after Troy, because of how narrow the set of possibilities is, and also the period of their recurrence. We might actually be living before Troy, because it will repeat at some future date. And again, he says that actually, the set of possibilities might be so narrow — and therefore so too the recurrence — that it might be safer to say that we actually live before Troy. Really interesting.
Rob Wiblin: And that’s because we don’t know how long ago that happened. So it could be that we’re before the next one, rather than after… That’s an easy way to think about it. We’re talking a lot about Aristotle, but it’s hard to overstate just how influential Aristotle was on the natural sciences. For the next 2,000 years, people were referring back to him, very seriously. I think up until almost the modern period.
Tom Moynihan: Yeah. And that justifies, in a sense, his sheer influentialness justifies my recurrence to him as an important touchstone here. But yeah, I think that a nice way of summing all this up is the achievability is bounded above by what has happened before. And you see this again and again. Lucretius himself makes similar claims, but you find it permeating into the early modern era. People like Machiavelli talk about the fact that it seems strange if time is eternal, because we’re currently discovering new things and achieving new things. You could point at that period to the compass, or to all these kinds of early modern breakthroughs. So you might then think that he’s saying that time isn’t eternal or plenitude isn’t true, but he actually goes, no, there must be something that truncates progress so that we’re in this recurrent collapse and return cycle, which was a very popular opinion during the early modern period and the beginnings of the scientific revolution.
Rob Wiblin: Is there any kind of dispute that this is how people saw the world in the past? Are there people out there who go Tom, you’re overstating this principle of plenitude thing. Sure, some people talked about this, but you’re taking it too far.
Tom Moynihan: So amongst the people that have looked into this, there isn’t any dispute as to the fact that it was the major way of interpreting the world until at least the late medieval invention of different ways of thinking about possibility that I referred to. So there are historians of logic, Jaakko Hintikka, he initiated the research into the history of modal logic. And people following him, there’s not too much dispute on the fact that it was the major way of thinking about possibility for this period of time.
Tom Moynihan: The interesting dispute is on how variant the uses of it are. So there are very many different uses of plenitude. Like Descartes for example there, saying, basically, “to dissolve the possibility of falsity.” That’s a nice epistemological use. Liebniz, who also subscribed to it in his own way, but in a different way, was really upset at Descartes for saying that, but nonetheless… This would become far too technical, but he also subscribed to it in his own way. So all of these early modern philosophers, from Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant, they all subscribed to it in various different ways. Kant’s interesting because he changed his mind on it. But yeah, nonetheless, the dispute is less about this being a framework for thinking, and more about the varying different uses of this framework. So I very much do highlight one particular one, which leads to all these ways of ignoring extinction, basically.
Religious conceptions of time [00:24:01]
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. So we’ve talked about how this fits very neatly into a cyclical view of history, that everything has happened already and will happen again, but I guess Christianity and some other traditions that came along later had a more ‘arrow of time’ view, where it’s like the world was created and started, and then it’s going to reach some end point. So presumably people had to slightly rearrange this idea to fit that into the Abrahamic traditions.
Tom Moynihan: Yeah. That’s a really great question. So it fits obviously very nicely into the pagan Greek Hellenistic worldview that has this very cyclical idea of history. But yeah, of course, Abrahamic religions, beginning with Zoroastrianism, culminating with Christianity and Islam, they have this far more linear idea of time. So how does plenitude fit into that? If you think about the way I was just describing this idea of there being an upper bound on achievability based on what’s been achieved, at least this idea that value from the point of view of the universe is in a sense utterly invariant… If I lose something now it will be returned to elsewhere and elsewhen, and if I gain something here and now, it will be counterbalanced by an equitable loss elsewhere and elsewhen… And people were explicit about this. Aquinas said that God couldn’t have made the world better; if he did, he would have been making an entirely different world. And Nicholas of Autrecourt, a Scholastic medieval philosopher, said that the world is invariably perfect over time, because if it varied, that would introduce imperfection into God’s creation.
So the way in which the Christians inherited this bundle of ideas about possibility and potential is that they spoke about what’s called theodicy. They spoke about the way that the world was as good as it possibly could be. Augustine‘s quite illustrative on this. He says that mutable or variable value is basically an artifact of perspective.
So nature as a whole is invariantly good. And we can’t change that, we can only affect local changes. So yeah, the way that I like to sum it all up is that this worldview of invariable value means that the good as a whole is globally conserved through all local generations and dimunitions. We can be more virtuous people, but only in a really local sense. We can be more virtuous, we can strive to be…but we’ll just be repeating previous people, mind you. We’ll just be reaching prior peaks of goodness.
Rob Wiblin: So something that I maybe haven’t emphasized enough or early enough with this conversation is that this view not only makes it hard to imagine humans just disappearing for no particular reason forever, it also makes silly or makes it seem silly or futile to imagine that humanity could progress to a much better world at the macro scale than what already exists. I think it’s very natural for modern people to imagine that humanity could have this great story where the world gets better. People are skeptical of this, that this will actually happen, but it’s totally imaginable within our framework that humanity could try to make the world better and succeed, and make a world in which things are, for a very long time, far better than they’ve ever been before. But within this worldview where value is conserved, like the total amount of value in the world can’t be changed by your actions because of issues like God has made the world as good as it could be… All of that discussion about trying to make history go in a positive direction just doesn’t fit.
Tom Moynihan: Definitely. Yeah. So I originally called this — everything’s a work in progress — I originally called this worldview ‘the worldview of indestructible value.’ But upon speaking to Toby Ord, he recommended that I change that name, because the indestructible idea only captures that we can’t lose it. It doesn’t capture that we can rise above, in a significant sense. So that’s why I’ve since been playing around with ‘invariable value’ as a different way of describing it.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. It somewhat helps to explain why there isn’t more discussion about what is the great world that we want to create in future. One obvious reason why the ancients didn’t think about that so much is that the world was just far more stable in general. The rate of technological progress was much slower. And so it was natural for people looking over their lifetime to think it’s very hard to change things. Things are just going to cycle through or be roughly constant. But I guess another reason is that because of their spiritual or religious or I guess metaphysical views about the world, the idea of permanent progress, persistent progress was such an odd fit.
Tom Moynihan: Yeah. I think that’s a really good ground-level explanation. People just didn’t actually observe progress as material change in their lifetimes until a certain point in time, because it was so slow. Same with extinction. No one’s actually witnessed or observed an extinction, for the same reason that you can’t prove an absence. But doing the history of ideas — and hopefully we can talk about method methodology later on — you’re looking not just for the fact that something is unthought, you’re often trying to look for the stronger claim that something was unthinkable prior to a certain point of time. So that’s where all this stuff about possibility comes in.
Tom Moynihan: But yes, definitely. It’s all to do with observed life experience as well. No one actually witnessed, until, when I was talking earlier about Machiavelli, for example, in the early modern period, no one actually witnessed material progress.
How to react to wacky old ideas [00:29:18]
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I just want to take a quick excursion here. So in general, when you’re studying the way that people very far in the past conceived of the world, what they thought about the natural sciences, you just constantly encounter ideas that seem very misguided, kind of batty from our modern point of view. And I think people go in different directions in their aesthetic about how to react to this. Like one strain of thought is that this just shows how hard it is for humans to reason at all. It shows the fallibility of our ability to make sense of the world. And so it should make us extremely humble, and we shouldn’t dismiss the way that they thought about things because we will probably be just as mistaken as they were by the lights of people in the future.
Rob Wiblin: I think another take you might have — which is, I think, less fashionable, but it’s my instinct perhaps because of my personality — is to say, wow, they just thought really stupid stuff. I can’t believe how misguided they were. And I understand how they got there. And if you send me back in time, I would be just as misguided. Absolutely. But nonetheless, this just shows how much progress we’ve made, and how much better we are at figuring things out today. Even though no doubt we’re still making mistakes, but it shows that there has been big intellectual progress in the big picture. And we should maybe be frank and say people in the past were really wrong about stuff, and I’m sure we will be wrong as well in some ways, but hopefully less. What do you make of that?
Tom Moynihan: I really hope that there will be future people to look at how stupid we are, for a start. But my policy when it comes to reading this is always to have a kind of attitude of magnanimity to these incredibly wrong— by our lights — worldviews. I think that something almost similar to scope neglect can happen, where we see the sheer extent of ignorance in the past and therefore think that is boundless. And this could lead you to a position where you think therefore our progress is also made insignificant within this boundless sea, but no, I think it’s structured. There are bounds to ignorance and we’re making progress, but within a space that’s potentially far bigger than we can currently think of.
Tom Moynihan: I also think another point I’d want to make is that we all take for granted these ideas that are incredibly important to our thinking about the world. I think lots of ideas are crucial considerations, and we take them for granted. The way that I like to think of it is we often take for granted our skeleton, or our functional breathing. We don’t have to think about those kinds of somatic realities, but nonetheless, they underwrite every single thing that we’re capable of doing. Obviously if we sat there in awe all the time of all the contributions of scientists, naturalists, and philosophers, we wouldn’t be able to get anything done. But nonetheless, I think that they do deserve that, because these people in the past might’ve been as intelligent as us in the same way that some counterfactual human that has no skeleton but the same muscle mass as one of us does, but in the same way that counterfactual boneless person can’t do anything, you require the backbone of all these previous thoughts to actually enable us… Yeah, I guess what I’m saying is that we all do stand on the shoulders of giants.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. It’s difficult to draw a distinction… People in the past were not dumber in terms of raw intelligence from a biological point of view, probably they were our equals, roughly, but nonetheless, they got completely wrong answers a lot of the time because they didn’t have the right framework. And it just shows that intelligence isn’t enough. That someone could be incredibly smart today and get very wrong answers. Because it actually just takes many generations, it seems, to weed out all of the incorrect assumptions that underlie how we even think that we can learn about the world. And I think that is legitimately humbling. At the same time, I think there is a real chance that we have just actually discovered a meaningful fraction of all of the ways that there are to learn accurately about the world.
Rob Wiblin: The scientific revolution, improvements in logic and mathematics, and so on. They’re not drops in an enormous bucket. In fact, we’re like a decent fraction of the way there to figuring out the methodology by which one can know things. And so we could be like a decent fraction of the way to actually understanding how the entire universe works. And to some extent we just can’t know whether that’s the case until we’re much further down the line and see whether further research completely upturns our worldview.
Tom Moynihan: I think that science has particularly these kinds of fundamental discoveries. I wouldn’t subscribe to the very strong idea of paradigm shifts, that everything could be thrown out the window. I think there’s so much structure and consilience and dependence between different theories that, yeah, we are… I would agree with you. I think particularly in the past, It’s going to be arbitrary to say, but 100, 200 years, we’ve really started to learn enough to actually make a practical difference based on those background assumptions. So I think that’s what’s important. But yeah, a wider point is I think these people weren’t less intelligent than us, not at all, but I guess one of the fundamental lessons from all this is that background assumptions really matter. Not just on what might seem like an atomistic claim about the way the world is, but also what we should do in it.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Do you know if there were any cultures far away from the Greco-Roman tradition and its descendants — maybe in China or Japan or South America or something like that — where they rejected this principle of plenitude and had quite a different view of things?
Tom Moynihan: That’s a great question. So I’m trying to look into this now. For the purposes of the book, I was like, I’m going to focus very much on the Western tradition because there’s just a lot of difficulty in trying to… The primary texts are there in terms of translations, but the secondary scholarship that you have to rest on is…it’s getting there in terms of stuff in English, but there definitely is a dearth of it compared to writing on the Greco-Roman tradition in the languages that I can handle. But I have looked into this and there are aspects of the Indian tradition that do seem plenitude derived.
Tom Moynihan: There’s a passage in the Bhagavad Gita that I found the other day that basically says that non-being and not being is always the same, which does seem like you could make comparisons with Greco-Roman. But in terms of… There are definitely, if we’re going to then add that layer of yes, you have plenitude and that’s a possibility, then you derive these value claims from it and think that the whole world is necessarily filled with value, or it’s meaningful or teleological, purpose driven. There are definitely worldviews that seem way less enamored with that than the Western tradition. Mesoamerican, particularly Aztec mythologies seem quite nihilistic in the sense that they felt that the world was entirely fragile, the whole universe could end. So their eschatology was called ‘the five suns,’ and they believe they lived in the final and fifth sun. I’ve seen people claim that after that, there’s just this belief that there isn’t any further universe. However, the perpetuation of the whole cosmos matters and rests and is dependent upon them offering sacrifices to the gods, which is an incredibly anthropocentric worldview.
Tom Moynihan: So it’s the bundle of the idea that there can be significant losses in value or acuities of value, and also the idea that the world can continue. The physical cosmos could continue purposely, aimlessly, however, you’d want to put it, without humanity. And also the idea that in some sense, the human end can be meaningless. I think that that bundle of insights — and you could add a couple more if you wanted — I’ve yet to find any of them all put together in any prior eschatology or mythology or religious tradition that I know of.
The Copernican revolution [00:36:55]
Rob Wiblin: Alright. We’ve been talking about the principle of plenitude and what it implies for quite a while. I hope listeners find this as fascinating as I do, but let’s start talking about the end of the principle of plenitude. I guess it had a progressively harder time between the 16th century and the 19th century, and people eventually gave up on it, but it took a surprisingly long time because people found all these ways to make it consistent with observations that were in ever greater tension with the idea. And these reconciliations made them not worry about the risk of extinction or the loss of value, even when they were finding all of these ways in which it could seemingly definitely happen. So for example, how did people adapt plenitude to the idea — or the discovery, I suppose — that stars were in fact other suns, and that the earth wasn’t the center of things?
Tom Moynihan: Yeah, you might initially think that the beginning of the scientific revolution — what we now refer to as the Copernican turn, this discovery that the universe is vast and we aren’t the center of it — you might think that would have initially started to dismantle this worldview. And previous historians have tended to make this claim. The Copernican revolution was this massive knock to human self-esteem.
Tom Moynihan: Freud claimed that there were three huge knocks to human self-esteem: Copernicus, Kepler, and then Darwin. And then Freud himself. So he had a plenitude-esque ego. But so yeah, you might initially see this new model of the cosmos doesn’t lend itself to that. The old model did, because there’s this hierarchy of nested spheres. That was the Ptolemaic cosmos. And within each of those spheres, it was populated by a part of the angelic hierarchy. So there were angels everywhere. And even in the center, which was considered the worst place, there was disvalue in the sense of devils and demons.
Tom Moynihan: So the whole of the cosmos is just… The way I put it is, physics was indistinguishable from ethics. But also the whole cosmos is populated by something spiritual, sentient, and morally significant. So again, to get back to the point, Copernicus comes around, and that might seem to start to fall apart. But it doesn’t, because plenitude, it turns out, fits very nicely with certain interpretations of Copernicanism. So people would look at what people are now arguing were these stars and say they were in fact suns, just like our own. The assumption follows quite naturally that they therefore have planets around them. So far so good, in terms of things that we’ve since found evidence for. But they continued that process of the presumption of untypicality. So because there are life forms around us here on Earth, those other earths in those other solar systems, presumably all have life. That’s the kind of value-neutral version, but it was more often articulated in a very value-laden sense. So I’ve got a quote here from the French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, who was otherwise very forward-thinking, but he said, and this is in the mid 1700s, he said, “Is it not more worthy to suppose that there everywhere exist rational beings than to suppose the whole universe depopulated apart from the earth to despoil us of all beings and reduce it to a profound solitude in which we should only find a desert of empty space and frightful masses of inanimate matter?”
Rob Wiblin: Yeah, I hadn’t really thought that much about what people in the 15th century or 16th century thought about aliens, or what they thought about other planets. And it turns out they had strong views. They thought that aliens were all over the place, not only on other planets, around other stars, but you point out that many people suggested that under the earth, there must be other layers of the… Because on a plenitude view, it would be so wasteful just to have all this soil, this rock going down for such a long distance within the center of the earth. So there has to be… At some point that has to end, and then there’ll be another layer with other people, other beings living inside the earth so that it’s not wasted. Which is just, it’s just amazing. I had no idea.
Tom Moynihan: Yeah. Another quote that is illustrative is from a popular science writer Robert Chambers. And this is from quite late, this is the 1840s. He said that the purpose of biological existence, the purpose of everything, is to diffuse existence as widely as possible. To fill up every vacant piece of space with some sentient being to be a vehicle of enjoyment.
Tom Moynihan: So this idea that all regions of matter that can be populated will be populated, was very prevalent. And yes, it applied to these other planets that would presume to be in space. It would be a massive waste of real estate if all of them were just inorganic masses, where nothing interesting was going on. And the further assumption was also often made, up until basically around 1900, that these other beings were human-like and shared the same values as us. So you can find people saying this explicitly. That they would have the same moral beliefs. They would have the same aesthetic beliefs. So the idea that aliens might be very different from us only comes in the 20th century.
Tom Moynihan: But yeah, also this idea that, if you dug down deep into the earth, there would be life potentially… that’s something that Edmond Halley — again, otherwise, a very forward-thinking brilliant scientist — he thought that the earth was hollow, filled with populated regions, or if not filled with populated regions, that everything going on in there was in some sense purposed teleologically to the eternal upkeep of life on the surface.
Rob Wiblin: Okay. So they handled the discovery of the stars just fine. I guess another thing that started to do damage and started to make things harder was as we started digging down more into the soil and investigating more under our feet, we started finding all of these fossils of animals that apparently were not around anymore.
I guess initially mollusks, shells of animals that lived in the oceans. And initially people were able to say we don’t exactly see this kind of shell in animals living now, but maybe it’s deep under the ocean somewhere else that we haven’t explored yet. So maybe the species hasn’t actually gone extinct, or maybe it’s gone extinct for now, but it’ll be back soon.
Rob Wiblin: Actually I should back up and say that initially, people suggested that fossils were not actually the imprints of animals from the past. They said they were rocks that had gotten a bit too big for their britches and were trying to act like animals, trying to act like a higher material. And so they were pretending to be animals, but of course they couldn’t move around. So all they could do is become an imprint of an animal. Which is… It’s just amazing how differently people thought in the past. I don’t think that was universally believed or anything, but it was a serious suggestion. But then they started finding big fossils of really big animals that you couldn’t really say were somewhere that they hadn’t looked yet. Now we’re talking about massive dinosaurs. And that did start to create issues. Can you go into that?
Tom Moynihan: Yeah. So as you say, it was originally mollusks. So people would find bivalve shells in mineral form and yes, the previous idea was that these were upstart minerals that had decided that they wanted to evacuate their echelon in the natural order and move up that moral hierarchy of physics that I was talking about. People like DaVinci were amongst the first to suggest the biogenic hypothesis, that fossils are actually imprints of previously existing animals. And so when it came to these small shells, naturalists at the beginning of the 1700s, such as John Ray — from whom we inherit the modern definition of what a species is — he found this sneaky way of getting around it, which is that oh no, these shells exist underwater somewhere that no current observer is looking at.
Tom Moynihan: Throughout the century, so the 1700s, people began unearthing — in Siberia, in the Americas — they start unearthing these very large bones. It wasn’t dinosaurs at this point, it was megafaunal mammals, mastodon, mammoths…and this just didn’t fit. However, some very stubborn people, such as Thomas Jefferson, claimed that nonetheless, they were still extant somewhere in the kind of terra incognita of the Americas, stomping around in the jungle. He was claiming that in the unexplored regions there were still going to be mammoths, and he was very confident about this up until the 1790s. That just happened to be the decade when George Cuvier, a French paleontologist — in a sense, really the first paleontologist, and also the first proper comparative anatomist — used his comparative anatomy skills to basically evidence that these fossils are fossils of animals that don’t exist today. And at that point, scientific consensus around the reality of previous species extinction emerges. Throughout the whole century, so I’m talking 1700 to 1800, the whole previous century, scientists had played around with the idea. But there wasn’t enough evidence to get consensus. After this point, there is consensus and the reality of prehistoric extinctions falls into place.
Rob Wiblin: Just an observation I want to make is that it’s so interesting that we thought about the nature of the world for a very long time and basically got it mostly wrong. And what was it that saved us? It was the natural sciences. I think this is score one for the natural sciences, just going out and exploring things and taking observations. And finding that it not only affects your view of what rocks are there, but it also changes your entire view about the nature of the world. So I think it’s interesting to see empirical information affect metaphysics in that way.
Rob Wiblin: Okay. So one other thing, a gem from the book that I just can’t miss, is that there were some people who suggested that life preceded the existence of rocks, or what we think of as organic matter. But initially it was living things. And that it was the living things like the clams and mollusks and so on that over time extruded the earth. That they had created the soil as a kind of defecation or something. And that the earth had accreted as the excreta of animals. Which is just, yeah, just amazing. It just impresses upon me how differently people thought about everything. I could never come up with a theory like that.
Tom Moynihan: Yeah they didn’t have all of the data, they didn’t have the evidence. And again, the lesson from all this is the fragility of all kinds of claims, basically all claims downstream of some background assumptions. So it’s the wholism of worldviews and you get to appreciate that by picking through all these, this vast library of eras and failure modes for arriving at conclusions that seem right to us now.
Tom Moynihan: But yeah, so, it was actually Erasmus Darwin, the famous Darwin, Charles Darwin’s grandfather, who made this claim. It was somewhat popular amongst British geologists for a period of time around the 1800s to claim that yes, the earth had been composted out of microorganisms. So that life, in a sense, predates non-life. And this idea, the reason it was fashionable, is at this point in time… It would probably be useful to mention uniformitarianism, which is a presumption in the earth sciences and cosmology that the present is the key to the past. So this became very popular around this point in time. Again, we’re talking 1800. In the nascent earth sciences. So the earth sciences were a new science at this period of time. Physics, chemistry… Chemistry was emerging around this period of time as well. But the sciences we recognize, some of them predate this for a very long way, but earth science is importantly a new science at this period of time. And one of the things they argued is what makes it a science rather than just speculating on God’s creating Noachian deluges and deciding to pockmark the earth with mountains just to punish us for biting the apple — which were genuine speculations about why the world was the way it was prior to this time — they made this claim about uniformitarianism, which says that we should only conscript in our explanations about the past presently observable causes.
Tom Moynihan: That’s actually, in a sense, a form of plenitude. Because you’re saying that possibility is truncated to what is currently observably actual. But yeah, it means that in a sense, it expunged from science… If you overdo it, which people did during this period of time, if you overdo it, it means you’ve expunged from science origins or terminations. Because those are singular events that can’t be observed if they happened in the past and aren’t currently happening now.
Tom Moynihan: So perhaps some of the audience might be able to see some similarities with the scientific worldview, with the Aristotelian pitch that I was talking about. But one thing is that if you think you’re typical within time, and we live in this world where, as you mentioned earlier, life is popping up everywhere, you probably just think that it’s a regular occurrence for life to pop up. So spontaneous generation was the theory of the origin of life, which is that basically life is an ongoing process all the time, just emerging. And for a similar reason, you might want to claim from uniformitarian presuppositions that life is cotemporal or coterminous with inorganic matter.
Tom Moynihan: I say all that basically to defend Erasmus Darwin. He was using scientific principles that we still use today, and were actually historically very useful. But he was using these principles in the wrong way to arrive at this kind of nuts conclusion. But a similar one, just quickly to finish this, a similar kind of idea persisted well into the 1900s regarding panspermia. So instead of spontaneous generation, people wanted to say that life doesn’t just emerge constantly out of nonliving matter. Louis Pasteur demonstrated that with some experiments in the 1860s. So people wanted to say where does life come from. But since origins are bad and unscientific — Aristotle himself said you can’t have a science of a singular event — because they’re bad and unscientific, let’s just presume that life is just everywhere in the universe and is cotemporal, co-eternal within organic matter. And it’s just floating around from planet to planet on asteroids.
Rob Wiblin: Which we still take seriously.
Tom Moynihan: The thing is that all the people that made this claim originally — so Lord Kelvin, Helmholtz, they were people that have subscribed to it — they explicitly said that an entailment of this theory is that life is eternal and is basically a constitutive element of the universe in the same way that inorganic matter is.
How we got past these theories [00:51:19]
Rob Wiblin: Okay, let’s push on it. So there was a series of ever more difficult, empirical observations to reconcile with the idea of plenitude and the idea that value couldn’t change. So we talked about big fossils of animals that we don’t see anymore. I think people observed the asteroid belt, and they were like, oh, this seems to be a planet that’s been destroyed and just turned into a bunch of lifeless rocks. So that doesn’t seem super plenitudinous. I think telescopes got better. People had been imagining that the moon might be covered in life, but then they were like, huh, It looks awfully barren. It doesn’t look like there’s much going on on the moon. Then people also observed over history various comets, and then thanks to improvements in probability theory and physics, they were able to think well couldn’t comments hit the earth? Couldn’t they destroy everything? And then they were even able to come up with probabilities for how probable that might be for any given one. And then maybe an even more difficult one was that they started digging down further into layers of the earth and found that there seemed to be a time before there was any life whatsoever.
Rob Wiblin: You’ve got lots of different animals and they keep changing. That’s hard to explain, why would there be so much change, but then there’s just nothing? And they’re like, oh, maybe the earth preceded life completely. And there was just this long time when it was completely barren. And that really is hard to reconcile with plenitude. And then I guess you have Charles Darwin and evolution. And I guess in my mind that might really be the death knell. This totally different vision of how life originated. It just becomes almost impossible to reconcile with the principle of plenitude. Is that kind of the right story?
Tom Moynihan: Yeah, definitely. So the gap in the solar system, the Mars-Jupiter asteroid belt, turns out that it’s not a ruined planet, but that was a hypothesis for a long period of time. And yes, it created the sense of there being this huge vacuity in our kind of cosmic neighborhood. So William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft‘s husband, Mary Shelley‘s dad, was really disturbed by this. He said God does not suffer any region of matter to be unpopulated, but here we have this planetary ruin on our doorstep. All of these insights build up and build up. And it took a very long time to trickle into the consciousness of the scientific community. But this idea that the earth was unliving for a long period of time, obviously now we’ve actually updated that and we know that life has been around on Earth pretty much since the beginning, but it’s just been very unicellular uncomplex life. But this idea that there was nothing interesting, nothing complex going on on the planet for a long period of time, you find that in the very beginning of geology with Nicholas Steno, but it begins to trickle very slowly into consciousness around kind of the 1800s.
Tom Moynihan: It begins to pick up and you get this beginning of the forcing of the acknowledgement of there being genuine historicity in the planet. Why that’s important to what we’re talking about — the long-term future and what can be achieved within it — is that this puts a very important end stop on previous eternities wherein everything achievable has already been achieved. So in the 1800s, people began to think that intelligence is in a sense, a recent potential phenomenon on the planet. Therefore, all its potentials haven’t already been exhausted. So I think it’s really important, that backstop on previous eternity. Now, obviously it’s indexical because it’s on this planet. So you still have all those other planets in which everything achievable has been achieved and people continue to think that off until well, into the late 1800s, potentially even later. But yeah, that’s a very important discovery.
Tom Moynihan: To talk about the evolution point again, as I mentioned earlier, there’s this very significant delay between Darwin making his claims and them actually really sinking in. And you could also say in a sense, maybe they haven’t even fully sunken in yet. So there’s a period after Darwin that some historians called ‘the eclipse of Darwinism’ where there’s this attempt to fit evolution with other explanations of speciation that aren’t natural selection. So the major one was orthogenesis. This was a theory that basically claimed that species have this inbuilt trajectory that’s written, encoded, deep into their being. And they go through this period of youth, middle age, and…
Rob Wiblin: As a species. So this is like bringing back the sense of purpose and direction, but now channeled through the evolution of a species at a time?
Tom Moynihan: Exactly. So this was a really obstructive insight, because it basically created this fatalism about humanity. So around a couple of decades on either side of 1900, you find people often talking about the age of the race. They mean species when they say that. They talk about the age of humanity and say that we’re still in our youth, or that we’re near senility, but this creates this kind of fatalism and precludes the idea that humanity might be a species that is able to persist in a meaningful sense far beyond the average for a mammalian species. But yeah, Darwin himself, actually — I think it’s important to talk about this — Darwin himself did also retain some of these obstructive ideas.
Tom Moynihan: Darwin was very inspired by the uniformitarian geologist Charles Lyell. And that meant that he inherited some of these uniformitarian presuppositions. One of them was the idea of uniformity of rates. So that’s also called gradualism, the idea that basically there’s an equilibrium across time between speciations and extinctions. So Darwin actually denied the reality of mass extinctions, because he thought that these were again artifacts of our limited perspective on the fossil record, because he was committed to this idea that, sure, species go extinct, but they go extinct at the same rate that new species emerge. So there’s this balance, this equilibrium. Related to that, he was very confident with this very continuous view where species die out more because of their more adapted descendants, rather than any kind of random contingent, unlucky environmental factor. So he does make this claim.
Tom Moynihan: So for the Victorian mindset, it actually meant that people were far more worried about humanity degenerating into something less dignified than they were worried about humanity going extinct entirely and having no lineage. And also for the same reasons I just pointed to, it also meant that people were confident that a species as adaptive and as eminently successful as ours couldn’t go extinct by anything other than its more progressive, more intelligent, more adapted descendants. And there was this very strong, progressivist view that all descendants — unless we become decadent and do the wrong things and degenerate — they will clearly be better than us. Not in this adaptionist view that we now have, but in this very progressivist view that they will be more morally valuable.
Rob Wiblin: They’ll be better.
Tom Moynihan: Exactly. Yeah.
Rob Wiblin: So despite the fact that there were those intellectual moves, we did start seeing in the 19th century I think the first works of fiction and art that portrayed the possibility of humanity simply making a mistake and disappearing, and all value being extinguished, without there being any cosmic significance to it. Or that we manage to destroy ourselves through our own stupidity — which as I understand it did make quite an impression on people. And maybe that kind of artwork did start to affect people’s worldview.
Tom Moynihan: So it makes me think of a question earlier, which is, were these kinds of crazy plenitude-derived worldviews just things that the scientists thought, or did the wider public think them? You can find in poets and literary writers with all of these ideas. So I think Percy Shelley is a good example, the romantic poet. He often talks about there being countless civilizations before us on this eternal planet that doesn’t really have a history in any meaningful sense, or at least hints to those kinds of ideas. But what’s interesting is his wife, Mary Shelley, writes The Last Man in the 1820s. Which is the first English language novel-length treatment of human extinction. And what’s really interesting about it is that as opposed to some of the other people around this time…
So around the time of the second generation romantics, so the 1820s, 1830s, this idea of human extinction in a meaningless sense entered into popular culture via these poets and literary writers. But where say, Lord Byron writes this poem about the whole world freezing and the biosphere dying out, Mary Shelley is interesting because her novel has humanity die at the hands of a pandemic, and it really stresses the survival of the biosphere after us. So it stresses the sense that the ecosystems of the world continue without us. And it really stresses the kind of, in a sense, the lack of cosmic pomp and circumstance to humanity dying out. Which is a very, for the time, a very mature insight into human extinction.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I’ve only read your summary of that book, but it does seem incredibly modern from what you’ve written of it. A pandemic appears, the governments of the world try to combat it. They try to stop it, but, gradually those plans fail and people die out. And then I guess the last few people die out, but then the world carries on. It carries on in our absence. It does feel like the kind of movie that you would have today.
Tom Moynihan: Yeah. And interestingly, there’s three volumes. The first two volumes are just about personal lives and in a sense they’re quite boring, because it’s all this kind of inter-social triviality. And then it’s the third volume when everything just ends. Which is, again, quite interesting in terms of that lack of cosmic pomp and circumstance.
Rob Wiblin: I would actually say that is more modern than what we have today, because I think today you don’t really see portrayals of everything disappearing. In a story people usually decide that there’s an opportunity for heroism or learning or redemption, but here it’s just everyone dies. And that’s the end of it. And I guess, I’m sure there is some artwork like that, but I think we’ve turned it against that because maybe people don’t like it as a story. But I suppose at this stage perhaps, she hadn’t realized that as an arc. This is a somewhat challenging thing to make work. And so she just went ahead and did it.
Tom Moynihan: Yeah, no, I absolutely agree with that as a hypothesis for explaining it. I think we’ve become so used to the ideas in fiction that we’ve almost settled back into these entrenched cognitive grooves of aesthetic and narrative structures that we just find intuitively pleasing. So yeah, a lot of the presentations of the end of the world now in cinema and film, I find pretty uninteresting.
Intellectual history [01:01:45]
Rob Wiblin: Let’s take a diversion from this. We’ll get back to a bunch of other concepts from the book, but I want to talk a bit about the question of how does one do reliable intellectual history? And I guess, how did you do this work of intellectual history? It seems like it’s gotta be very challenging; I find it hard to even tell what people around me believe about things today. You read the newspaper, you go on Twitter and see what people are saying about current events. And it could just be completely non-representative and you can get completely the wrong impression. And then you see a public opinion poll and you’re like wow. I had no idea what people actually believed.
And I guess when you’re doing this kind of work in principle, you’ve got all the work by all of the writers and all of the thinkers through all of history that you could go through and try to like, understand how did they think about extinction, but you don’t actually have the ability to go and read all of them and get a holistic picture. So you use a sample from that, but then that creates this serious risk that I suppose you could misunderstand them, because it’s so hard to understand what someone meant 2,000 years ago, but also just how do we even choose where to begin reading? It’s a long way of saying how did you go about doing this? Why do you think it’s reliable?
Tom Moynihan: So on the first point I would actually venture that people actually do have more different opinions now as opposed to a while ago because of the decentralization of media. So there were, in the past, not too long ago, some very strong monopolized centers of opinion making. So the church obviously, but also, yeah even in the 19th century, there were very few media conglomerates. So I do think that people actually potentially do have more fragmented and atomized opinions now. Anyway, to actually answer the actual question, so again, we’ve just been talking about uniformitarianism, geology, fossils. I would use a comparison with paleontology. Paleontologists do not have access to the whole fossil record, because plenty of animals — probably the vast majority of animals — aren’t recorded. It’s the same way. The vast majority of human thoughts aren’t recorded. Some of them are, and some of them are passed down to us.
Tom Moynihan: But nonetheless, even though you have very incomplete records, you still get a sense of the major shape of life, if we’re talking paleontology, but also in terms of the record of ideas, I think you do get that. You know the overall shape and you can pinpoint novelties and emergences within it. So there’s this thing in paleontology, the Signor-Lipps effect, which is a biasing effect where, well it’s an attempt to account for a bias, where it’s argued that you should never consider any actual fossil the first or the last instance in the actual record, because of the incompleteness of the record.
Tom Moynihan:I try to think about and apply a similar principle when I’m thinking about how all of this fits together. Sure, I’m not going to ever probably get the first instance of a new idea. I think actually in some cases you can, The Last Man is the first instance of a novel about human extinction in a modern sense. But with these more substructure logical background assumptions, yeah. I think it’s hard. And you do have to take that into account. But nonetheless, yeah. The biologist J.B.S. Haldane was once asked what would knock his confidence in the theory of evolution, and he answered “a Precambrian rabbit.” I would answer the same question about the very basic rudimental shape of what I’ve tried to tell when it comes to the Western tradition. The equivalent would be if someone could point me to someone writing in 300 BC that had anything as insightful or detailed to say about the future of humanity as, say, Toby Ord. That’s the Precambrian rabbit. I know that’s setting the goalposts very wide, but I do think that even though the record is very incomplete and my reading of it is very incomplete you still can see the basic structure, particularly when it comes to important ideas.
Rob Wiblin: So when you’re trying to understand what people in a particular era thought about extinction, or whether they spoke about it at all, presumably there’s corpuses online that you can search, all of these classic ancient Greek texts. And do you like, search for the word ‘extinction’ and then search for related terms, and then just see what comes up to see if there’s anything that’s perhaps surprising and unexpected in what they thought?
Tom Moynihan: For older stuff you actually have to pick through. With newer stuff, you can do a search function on ‘extinction’ or related words. And I think over time and over just perseverance, you build a nose for what successful kind of searches might be. In the same way that scientists build up this tacit know-how of what to look for, say, if they’re looking for particles in a cloud chamber. I’m not saying what I do is in any way as complicated as that, but nonetheless, I think you do build up this tacit know-how for what searches are good throughout the corpus. But to answer the question of how not to be misled by the fact that these people in the past have very different background assumptions to us, well, you just have to have a sensitivity to that.
Tom Moynihan: And again, I think you build that up over time as well in the wholeism of these background assumptions and where they emerge and how they all fit together in sequence. I also think that a thing that stumbled me a lot very early on in this research was what I now call ‘false friends.’ So I mentioned this in the book, when you have a claim that on the surface looks very much like an extinction event in the modern sense of the term, and you might be misled and think that this person is talking about that. So a good example is the Lucretius stuff we were talking about earlier on, where he makes these claims that if you look at them again, atomistically, or you look at them divorced from context and these wider background assumptions, it can seem like an extinction claim, but then you just read, 10, 20, 50 pages later on, and you find him saying men exist on other planets, or people exist on other planets. So I think it’s just a willingness to think about the sheer amount of background assumptions, again, making a similar point, but the sheer amount of background assumptions that go into any important practical or theoretical claim.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I guess on the understanding the context point, at a nuts and bolts level, it seems like if you’re someone studying a theme like extinction and you go back and look at sample works from these different cultures, it would be pretty wise to come up with your interpretation and then go and check with people whose expertise is familiarity with the views of the Scholastic philosophers, or the views of the ancient Greeks or Romans, because they’re gonna have a lot more context and they might pick up that you’ve made a mistake in the interpretation somewhere. Is that a process that one needs to go through?
Tom Moynihan: Yeah, definitely. So that’s similar to the point I was making earlier with regard to getting to grips with other traditions, is you can’t just read the primary texts. You need to really get to grips with secondary texts as well. So I really tried to do that with stuff like the ancient Greeks, because I can’t read ancient Greek, so I have to read it in translation. That brings in—
Robert Wiblin: …a lot of challenges.
Tom Moynihan: —lots of potential errors. So I think, yeah, you have to get to grips with the secondary text.
Robert Wiblin: Earlier it sounded like you were saying in the modern era people just have all kinds of different views. But I suppose looking back at 300 BC, society was just smaller, and there were fewer people, is one thing. Most of them were subsistence farmers, or, I mean, I guess even in a society that was relatively settled, I guess, like ancient Greece, where there were significant cities, probably they weren’t spending a ton of time thinking about these things. Or, or if they did, perhaps they were just doing it as part of religious tradition, which we would categorize differently.
Robert Wiblin: I listened to a lecture series a while back about what life was like for ordinary people, what it was like for women in ancient Greece or in ancient Rome, or for slaves, and things like that. And the lecturer had to say there’s a lot that we don’t know, because almost none of the works that survived to this day were written by women or slaves. By and large, they didn’t think that that was an interesting thing to represent, even in plays or other work. So we only have the most minimal fragments. So I suppose that there are big gaps potentially in what you can access. But at the same time, it sounds like you think in these societies maybe the range of worldviews was much narrower because there weren’t as many thinkers, and there were potentially really dominant forces, like a government, that controlled what people thought. So perhaps we might guess that despite the fact that we’re missing a lot of pieces, it would mostly resemble the parts that we do have.
Tom Moynihan: Yeah. So I think… I wouldn’t want to make a strong claim about the narrowness of the range of worldviews in the past being much less, but I think you could make a plausible case for it. But I think that thinking through these things, and the fact that it took millennia to reach ideas that we now take for granted, that we now think of as very basic… A really great example that I always point to is understanding of perspective in illustration and painting. That was a Renaissance development. These days, I don’t know what age children begin, but they in a sense just like through osmosis, just pick it up. I was able to do perspective without being taught it, without spending millennia of time thinking about it. That’s not because I’m a genius, it’s because I rest on all of that previous thinking. But yeah, the fact that it took so much effort I think shows that thinking, and thinking beyond immediate self-interested ends, was the privilege of a very, very select few in the past. They tend to be the ones that we retain records of, for obvious reasons, as you state. So I think that the vast majority of other people simply were living in such a, comparatively to us, simply living in such a day-to-day subsistence level basis that they probably really weren’t thinking about these very abstract questions about logic, metaphysics, do species exist on other planets, those kinds of things.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, it makes sense. If I went out and read some books from the field of intellectual history, how much should I believe them in general? I suppose I have a kind of hierarchy in my head, where if I read a book about chemistry, I think it’s probably going to be right about chemistry. But then if I read a book about psychology, ehhh, I don’t know. Where does intellectual history fall on that spectrum?
Tom Moynihan: Yeah. So there’s really not the principled, rigorous and established and collectively consensus-shared error-correction methods that you find in science, 100%. So I would say come with a level of suspicion. There’s also very many different ways and methodologies, even within the field of history of philosophy, history of science, history of ideas. Lots of people come at it with what’s called the hermeneutics of suspicion. So this is this method where you take the history of ideas and use it to undermine our current normative beliefs by showing how they arise from contingent and irrational factors.
Tom Moynihan: Freud, Nietzsche, Marx as well, they’re these ‘masters of suspicion,’ they’re called. This often leads to a kind of global suspicion about normative claims and therefore relativism. And then on the other hand, you have other people who practiced the history of ideas in the sense that they, you know, will try and point out where clear gains in insight have been made, and then explain why they couldn’t have been possible beforehand if that stronger claim of unthinkability, rather than just unthought, is a claim that can be made. I practice the latter, but you can see from there that in a sense, there isn’t just a history of ideas. It’s always philosophical in the sense of… Or at least, I would argue that it is in the same way that moral philosophy is. So basically I’m leading to saying that you should distrust it as much as you do when you’re reading moral philosophy I think.
Future historians looking back to today [01:13:11]
Robert Wiblin: Oh, wow. Interesting. Alright, let’s come back to the book. I guess we’ve gradually moved forward in time. Last we were talking about the change in views about plenitude and extinction in the 19th century.
Let’s skip forward to the present day. If you were an intellectual historian in a couple hundred years writing about how we think about extinction, mutability of value, and the trajectory of humanity today, as a species, what do you think you might end up writing?
Tom Moynihan: That’s a great question. You’re probably better off asking a science fiction author than me. I hope that there’s more future history than the history of the idea of extinction, for a start. So in terms of ways in which we could currently be going wrong, It’s almost impossible I think, to make specific claims. However, I was making this flow chart map of progressive insights and also obstructive scientific ideas. So not just these metaphysical, logical, ancient ideas, but particularly ideas in the scientific epoch that have proved obstructive. And I was trying to map them all out and see how they all relate to each other and draw them back to one, if possible, to one idea. And well, I wasn’t able to do that, but one thing that did come up as creating a whole lot of obstructions was parsimony and simplicity as some kind of epistemic standard. So you can see why that hampered development, delayed development in the geosciences and the earth sciences, because it led to this very strong uniformitarian idea, which we kind of glanced upon earlier.
Tom Moynihan: It was so strongly held by Charles Lyell — the scientist who I mentioned who was a great inspiration on Darwin — it was so strongly held by him that all losses and all gains in the earth system must be compensated at some other time, because otherwise it has a history in a meaningful sense and that sounds unscientific. He believed that so strongly that he was led to this claim that he basically said that there will be a future point of time in the earth system when iguanodons and ichthyosaurus reappear, the conditions will be right. So they will reappear. And if you think about it, he was led to that claim by putting a lot of weight in parsimony as a principle of scientific explanation.
Robert Wiblin: And I guess parsimony is trying to make as few assumptions as possible, or trying to make your model have as few factors as possible?
Tom Moynihan: Yeah. And history in the meaningful sense is having emergences of genuine novelty, but also the potential for irreversible loss or terminations, or eternally frustrated possibilities and wasted opportunities. History in that very meaningful sense isn’t parsimonious. So in the arena of uniformitarianism, it’s obstructed thinking about genuine history in the past, but also a changeable future. Also in cosmology. So these great cosmologists, think of Fred Hoyle, they subscribed to this steady state theory, which claimed that the world was basically eternal, well was eternal, I should say. And this remained a very viable competitor to other cosmologies up until the 1940s, 1950s, and then in the mid 1960s when they found the cosmic microwave background, that kind of denuded that as a theory. But Hoyle himself was drawn to it I think because of a care for parsimony. He also really liked the idea of panspermia, because again, it means that you don’t have to worry about creating an explanation for the origin of life.
Tom Moynihan: Life has always been there, that’s way more parsimonious. He also had these very strange views that intelligence was in some sense co-creating of the rest of the universe, because intelligence has been around forever. It also has, in a sense, therefore designed the universe to reliably create intelligences in the future, this very weird metaphysical thing. But he was a brilliant scientist. And so, yeah, I think the view of panspermia, the view of these uniformitarian dinosaurs resurrecting, they all came from a concern for scientific parsimony.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I think it’s very interesting that you’re bringing this up. I thought about mentioning this earlier that, because, so the uniformitarian idea is that when you’re doing science, when you’re trying to explain how the world has ended up the way that it is, you shouldn’t make reference, when discussing the past, history, to things that don’t happen now, or which you can’t directly observe. Is that kinda right? And also when you’re forecasting the future, you shouldn’t forecast that the world will be hugely different than it is today, because that’s kind of unempirical, it’s too complex, your theories are now getting too big and including things that you can’t experimentally test or confirm, is that kind of the aesthetic here?
Tom Moynihan: Yeah. And it also comes from another historical contingency, which is the prestige of Newtonian science. So in Newtonian science all physical processes are reversible. Time reversible. And that was… Because of its sheer success in being able to predict the world, that was thereafter seen as the model of all sciences. So the social prestige, which is in a sense, independent of the actual theoretical inner workings of Newtonianism, this social prestige that was put on it, distracted scientists for ages.
Robert Wiblin: It shaped people’s worldview.
Tom Moynihan: Exactly, exactly.
Robert Wiblin: So I absolutely do think that we see that playing out in odd things that people will say today. Like, you know, sometimes I’ll say we need to study scientifically the probability of us having a nuclear war, the probability of another great power war, and many people are willing to go along with that. But I think some people, especially maybe people who have been trained in the natural sciences, tend to say, “That’s never happened before. There is no scientific way of studying that, that’s all just mere speculation.” And they kind of dismiss it on that basis. And I guess they’re coming from this aesthetic where you can’t study scientifically or think rigorously about unprecedented events. And I think that’s just a huge philosophical mistake.
Robert Wiblin: It doesn’t actually even really describe how we do science, because even when you’re talking about the natural world, every event is in some sense unique and unprecedented, because that exact thing hasn’t happened before. So we always have to be making extrapolations based on things being similar to other things. When we talk about nuclear war, that’s just a more extreme case where we’re going to have to extrapolate from other experiences that are somewhat similar. Yes, it’s more speculative, but that’s not a reason not to do it, or why it’s a completely different pursuit.
Tom Moynihan: Yeah, I definitely agree with that. And like you said, there are quite a lot of essentially aesthetic predilections going into this. So another historical contingency is that Newtonianism fit nicely with the worldview of deism, which is midway between atheism and theism. This idea that there’s not a personal God who intervenes in the world, He or it kind of set the world running. It’s this perfect, nicely balanced system that’s time reversible in some nice sense. And it just continues forever. Ironically, Newton himself actually thought that the world was running down because of friction, and God had to intervene in it every now and again to keep it running. But the people coming after him who put this massive social prestige in Newtonian science, it was I think an essentially aesthetic predilection. And yeah, there’s a really interesting story about how this uniformitarian — to use a strong word, dogma — basically delayed understanding about mass extinctions for about a century, and was only overturned in 1980.
Tom Moynihan: The Alvarez father and son team, I think Walter and Luis Alvarez, basically put together this really nice watertight case for the dinosaurs, the Cretaceous mass extinction being caused by an impact event. They found this evidence that at the KT boundary there’s this layer of Iridium, and a good explanation for that is coming from an extraterrestrial cause. And that dates very nicely with this KT boundary where the dinosaurs died. And they also later on found a crater that also dated very perfectly. So there’s this watertight case. This created a kind of a revolution in the earth sciences, where people began to actually entertain these in a sense unpredictable and catastrophic events, which previously had been considered completely unscientific.
Tom Moynihan: And I was reading a book by David Raup the other day. He’s one of the scientists involved in this revolution in the 1980s and 1990s. And it was really interesting how strongly he was talking about how you go into a science department and you talk about catastrophe or, you know, an unprecedented event and you’d get laughed out as being…
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. A crank.
Tom Moynihan: Exactly. I mean, it doesn’t help that catastrophism has attracted some rather cranky people.
Robert Wiblin: Quirky characters.
Tom Moynihan: Yeah. So during the mid 20th century, there was this character Immanuel Velikovsky who tried to explain the whole of human history based on massive cosmic disasters. And there was this whole controversy about how the scientific community should either completely ignore him or actually meticulously try and refuse all his absurd claims. And it dragged in Harlow Shapley and Carl Sagan into it. So there are all these historical contingencies that created this real delay in actually understanding mass extinctions. And moreover, linking back to the points I was making about Darwin, moreover, this idea that extinctions can happen because of bad luck, rather than bad genes. So the Darwinian survival of the fittest explanation, that was very set in stone in the Victorian era was, again, this idea that species don’t go extinct by accident. They kind of deserve it. And you can see people saying this well into the 1900s. There’s often this very derogatory way that people talk about the dinosaurs, even scientists, paleontologists, who study them for a living, you know, people saying that…
Robert Wiblin: “I would have survived an enormous asteroid impact.” Well, I suppose they didn’t know it was an asteroid then, did they? So they were thinking they were just degenerate and they got too lazy and went extinct.
Tom Moynihan: Yeah. It’s a really nice lesson of how the retention of teleological residue can remain via this kind of process of inertia within frameworks that seem to have superseded it. This idea that extinctions are always in a sense justified, because a more adapted animal or more progressive, more morally valuable animal comes on afterwards, that fits very nicely into this view that the dinosaurs were just a bit degenerate, decadent maybe even, with their sheer size and lumbering nature. And then they died out, and then the mammals had their righteous shot at it.
Robert Wiblin: Day in the sun. Yeah.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Just sticking with how we think about these issues today, I suppose this is going to be pretty familiar with how we, in our secular tradition on the show, think about this. So just, things are contingent, history could be different, depends on what we do, value could be much higher, value could be much lower, extinction could happen, so that’s kind of the mental framework that we’re operating in. But I guess many people don’t have a completely secular view of the world, or they might have a mostly non-secular view of the world. How has the idea of contingency of extinction and mutability of value been integrated into religious views that I guess the majority of people in the world have today?
Tom Moynihan: Yeah. So I think that it’s hard. I think you’d want to actually get some data on this before I’d say anything. Also, unsurprisingly, I don’t tend to talk to too many religious people — in the more fundamental sense of the term — so it’s hard to say. But I do think that the whole notion of existential risk and the mutability of value from some cosmic perspective is still absolutely incompatible with the wider claims that religion still holds. So yeah, the way I see it is that there are plenty of conceptual acrobatics they can do to ignore it, even if you have to entertain human extinction as a possibility. I also think that there are the remnants of quite Augustinian ideas in the idea that humanity can’t do anything to improve the natural world. Also in a sense that anthropogenic extinctions…that we somehow deserve it because we’re a fallen species.
Tom Moynihan: I think you can see the residue of Augustinian original sin ideas in that, but again, this is mere speculation because you’d want to actually at least go out and talk to a whole bunch of people. But I do think that the residual religiosity is something that we should take into account, because it’s a vast amount of people.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. So I guess both of us are very much out of our area of expertise here, but I definitely do know people who are religious, who believe in God, who believe that there’s purpose in the universe, who are concerned about x-risk in a way that’s very similar to me. And I think what’s going on there is that they have a view that God has endowed humans with free will, the ability to determine things for whatever reasons. And just as God isn’t solving poverty, God isn’t solving all of these other problems in the world, God might not solve the possibility of an asteroid hitting the earth. And just as we have to solve poverty, we also have to solve these other bigger picture issues.
Rob Wiblin: And again, I think often there’s a view that there’d be something wrong with God kind of forcing us to do particular things. We have to have some level of free will, which then entails that we have to be able to mess up. And that then means that we have to take responsibility for potentially protecting ourselves and solving our problems. So I guess there is that reconciliation, potentially.
Tom Moynihan: Yeah, actually upon hearing that… I have spoken to people that have views very similar to that. And I mean, it’s kind of Miltonian. So John Milton who in a sense provided this image of Christianity that could persist into a more modern Protestant and ‘enlightened world,’ he has this line where he says, “Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.” I think that’s a really important and persistent idea. So yeah, this idea that if, because the God of the gaps can recede to the ultimate cosmic catchments, and we can just be a part of the creation. And I mean, I myself have actually used that Milton quote in a secular context to talk about our responsibility for the future. But I definitely agree with you, you can have this claim that if we’re a fallen species, if it’s meaningful in any sense that we could have stood and done what God wanted, we also should be able to fail. And that includes this vast natural world wiping us out.
Could plenitude actually be true? [01:27:38]
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Okay. Let’s push on to an interesting section which was suggested by a listener. Could plenitude, in some sense, actually be true? Is it maybe consistent with some actually very modern ideas that have come out of philosophy and physics? So basically, the idea that all things happen or that the universe is teeming with all kinds of different sorts of life has, as far as I could tell, kind of gotten a new burst of life over the last 70 years. And I guess one is from the multiverse interpretation of quantum mechanics, which has this idea that the world is constantly splitting into many vast, different timelines where even very improbable, alternative worlds also occur and are actual.
Rob Wiblin: And presumably many of those include all manner of living things that we will never see. And the other is this idea of modal realism, which is this explanation of existence where all things that can exist actually do exist. And there’s kind of a version in physics where some people have suggested that all possible mathematical objects exist, and that the universe is just one of these such mathematical objects that exist out of kind of uncountable, infinitely many such worlds that are out there. And this kind of rhymes with the idea of plenitude in some ways. What do you make of the idea that to some degree plenitude might be right after all?
Tom Moynihan: So I’m definitely open to the idea. I would also say that it’s never really gone away. So physicists, particularly in thermodynamics, they’ve continued talking about it. People can Google Poincaré recurrence theorem. There are these ideas that look very similar to plenitude. So yeah, I don’t think they’ve gone away, and I’m open to the idea that it is true in some sense. I guess a couple of things to point out is, well, to just take the examples that you mentioned. It’s interesting that people in each of these traditions have made similar noises recently about the effect on morality.
Tom Moynihan: So I’m sure a lot of the audience might be familiar with Nick Bostrom’s paper Infinite Ethics, where he talks about infinitarian paralysis. So this is based on this very open question in cosmology as to whether the universe, in some meaningful sense, is infinite or not. And then he makes this further claim that if the universe is infinite, all possibilities happen. Therefore, all of the moral payload of our actions in terms of consequences is meaningless in an infinite universe where everything happens concurrently. What’s the point of stopping a very atrocious act, because it will be happening on all the other worlds and also being stopped on all these other possible worlds infinitely many times?
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. That’d be infinite positive value and infinite negative value and there’s nothing that any individual can do that would change that. Which then brings us back to this idea of fixed value. That there’s nothing you can do to change the big picture of things.
Tom Moynihan: Exactly. So I would say, the term I use in the book is ‘cosmic nonchalance’ when we’re talking about plenitude applied to aliens and the fact that if Earth is destroyed, there are plenty of other earths out there. But Bostrom’s term ‘infinitarian paralysis,’ I think it applies just as much to cosmic nonchalance. So you have that there, you also have a modal realism. People would be making the claims that modal realism means that similar conclusions… There’s a paper by an M. Heller from 2003, and the title is The Immorality of Realism, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let the Children Drown.
Tom Moynihan: So I think you could probably extrapolate the argument of that paper. There’s another interesting one by Quentin Smith from the same year, called Moral Realism and Infinite Spacetime Imply Moral Nihilism. He makes all kinds of interesting arguments in that paper, one being that if you assume that one’s dead body has non-zero value in some sense — maybe the complexity of the atoms, the energy, whatever — then your being dead is infinitely more valuable than your finite lifetime, because your dead body and the atoms that make it up will continue for infinitely many time-accruing… So you can extract all these nice arguments without it. And we’ve known this since, it’s been explicit since Pascal’s Wager, is the infinities mess around with our intuitions. But to go on to the point of what I think about whether this is true…
Tom Moynihan: I’m open to it. I would say that, historically speaking, again, a similar point I made with teleology earlier is that, well, it used to be the only game in town, thinking in these terms. Now we have some ways of saying that these aren’t…that its potential…that it’s not true. And that’s new. The fact that there are other options on the table, apart from infinitarian nonchalance, cosmic resignation… There are other options on the table now. Also, one argument that I find persuasive is that, sure, the universe might be infinite in some meaningful cosmological sense, but the effectable and also observable universe almost definitely isn’t.
Tom Moynihan: Obviously, that’s based on relativistic physics that could be proven wrong. However, the area in which we can inflict consequences is probably finite, and finite enough that a system with as many degrees of freedom and contingent factors as human civilization and human history is almost definitely not going to recur. So that’s my response to the cosmological side, the modal realism side as well. If other possible worlds are real in some metaphysical sense, does that really affect our behavior? You know, logical possibility is incredibly capacious, and we’ve known that for a very long time, if we define it as just something that is non-contradictory. So again, I don’t think if you care about consequences, the possible universes being in some sense metaphysically real matters.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I mean, one other crucial difference is that I think people in the past who had this attitude, that the university had a lot of plenitude, that we think that implied that the universe was as abundant with life and meaning and purpose as it could be… Even on all of these views, the vast majority of things are not valueful from our point of view. And they’re not full of life. Like most of it is going to be barren or even unpicturable from our point of view. So it wouldn’t be quite the same notion of plenitude. Even if there’s a lot of stuff, the fraction of stuff that is life would still be quite small.
Tom Moynihan: I think that’s a really good response to it as well. It makes me think of the fact that, as I was talking about earlier, the dispute as it comes to the historical purposes, intellectual purposes of plenitude, is the way it’s used. And I think across history, again, it hasn’t gone away. It’s just changed in the way that it’s used in philosophy. So nature’s idea of the eternal return clearly relies on a sense of plenitude. So prior periods of time used plenitude in this really optimistic sense. I think when it comes to philosophy around the time of Nietzsche, so Victorian, late 19th century, it starts to get used in this very pessimistic or at least value-neutral sense. Nietzsche’s argument is really interesting. I mean, he uses it as this kind of benchmark of, would I like this current act to be… Is it the most virtuous act, in a sense, because I’m going to have to be doing it again and again, forever and ever.
Tom Moynihan: So he uses it as this benchmark for action, but other people around this time used it in the sense to say that progress isn’t real in some, again, meaningfully historical sense. So there’s a French writer, Louis Auguste Blanqui, who inspired Nietzsche. In this book Eternity by the Stars, he says progress is actually just a spatial relation across co-contemporaries and therefore isn’t this temporal relation between generations. So in a sense, he says we could love this because this means I’m going to be, in some sense, immortal. Not just me, but me and this individual moment lasts forever. Or we could be terrified by it because nothing is meaningful, I can’t change anything, et cetera, et cetera. So the way I try and pithily put this is that, whereas the optimists, the theorists said that plenitude means that whatever is, is maximally just because the universe is as legitimate as it can possibly be because all legitimacies are eventually realized, the later more pessimistic, more secular, more dubious view of the world says that, “Whatever is just, is just whatever is.”
Tom Moynihan: And the realization of no possibility can be legitimate, because legitimation just rests in the realization of possibilities, so this is what leads to Nietzsche’s idea of the ‘will to power,’ is that if legitimation is just the realization of possibilities, then to be just is, in a sense, just to realize yourself as maximally and prolifically and multiplicitously as possible. So you get this idea that justice, being great, isn’t about doing normative or rule-based things, it’s about just being prolific. So yeah, I mean, plentitude is being used in tons of different ways. So I’m sure going forwards we’re going to see way more.
What is vs. what ought to be [01:36:43]
Rob Wiblin: Let’s push on and talk about another part of the worldview that people had in the past, which I think was a big barrier to seeing clearly how things were. And I knew that this was an issue, but I didn’t realize how severe it was. And that’s the fact that I think that before 1600 or 1700 people didn’t really draw a distinction between ‘normative’ thinking, about how the world ought to be, and studying in some neutral, ‘positive’ way about how the world actually is. Can you talk about how that distinction between studying what is, and what ought to be, which we now take for granted, was much, much more blurred in the past?
Tom Moynihan: Yeah. So I think just realizing that distinction requires a certain level of epistemological, philosophical work, and self-reflection, and that begins, I would say, in the Enlightenment with this idea of critique. Immanuel Kant is a very important figure here, and so is David Hume. They both, from different traditions, different outlooks, take on this idea of critiquing our biases, where we allow ideas of what should be to contaminate our ideas of what positively is. I think this is why Kant is important in the philosophical tradition. You can think what you like about his morality, but his epistemology is important because he pointed out that there are certain terms that are presupposed or requisite to describing the world that do not in fact actually describe anything within the world. But are therefore not just purposeless because of that. They’re actually entirely required, but that’s because they actually kind of adjudicate and regulate our idea of the world.
Rob Wiblin: Can you give an example or be concrete? I wasn’t quite following.
Tom Moynihan: It’s the idea that not every concept has to have a descriptive function to be legitimate. Some of them are required to describe because they actually assess descriptions. Now that’s like a really abstract, technical, philosophical thing to say, but that’s almost the first time, as far as I’m aware, that really clearly a philosopher said that things about the way we think the world should be ideally aren’t necessarily the way the world actually is. Again, you find inklings of that way before, but I think it reaches a level of clarity and explicitness there, Kant called them regulative ideals. An example of that is something like parsimony. Our explanations should be parsimonious because that’s a way in which a methodological heuristic is valuable. But that doesn’t mean that we can think of parsimony or simplicity as an ontological fact of the universe. If you mix up that distinction because you’re not being critical enough, then you end up in these rather strange places where you think that dinosaurs might resurrect because that’s a more simple way of explaining the world.
Rob Wiblin: You’re saying Kant pointed out that we should have the disposition of wanting to come up with explanations that are simpler, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the universe is as simple as it possibly can be. Which would be a possible confusion that one could form?
Tom Moynihan: Yes, definitely. And I think that Hume also, from the empiricist tradition, had a good sense of this as well. So he, in his dialogues concerning natural religion, he takes to town teleological thinking and dismantles that quite nicely. So you find theologians around the time saying these things that I was mentioning earlier, that all pieces of matter must be populated by sentient existence, as vehicles for enjoyment. Hume was like, that’s nonsense. If we do live in a world that was made by a God, that’s probably some kind of infant idiot God that doesn’t make worlds very well, because we clearly live in this suboptimal cosmos.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah, interesting. I wonder, is there a separation, I guess, between the kind of teleological reasoning and the principle of plenitude and this blurring of normative and positive thinking? Is it possible that it’s kind of all just the same thing? That if you believe that the world was created by that being that has intention or maximally benevolent or maximally something, then it kind of necessarily follows that what is, is what ought to be. And so you can figure out what is by figuring out what ought to be. And it would actually be sensible in that worldview to not view these as distinct questions.
Tom Moynihan: I think definitely when you come to theologians, theistic thinkers, that’s truest. From the theism follows the plenitude and the teleology. But like I said earlier, that kind of idea that atheism is necessary, but not sufficient… You can go and find atheistic pre-modern thinkers who also tend to fall into these habits of thinking. And that’s because, again, I think they’re just very ingrained biases. The bias of wishful thinking is that we tend to think the best outcome is true because we want it to be so. I think that’s a really important bias within the history of thinking. And we’ve only very recently just begun to become quite good at dismantling it.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Can you give any other examples that we haven’t already covered of this kind of blurring of normative and positive thinking?
Tom Moynihan: So a really visible significant one in the history of ideas is the ontological argument for the existence of God. You’re saying that I can think of a perfect being and perfection includes existence, therefore it must exist. I’m not sure about you, but when I first learned about the ontological argument as a teenager, I thought this is ridiculous. How could anyone have thought this? And it’s because I think just wishful thinking was a much stronger attractor in our thinking back when Anselm came up with that. So I think that’s a good example, yeah.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah, I guess the modern reaction, or at least my reaction, was, I can’t see what is the floor in this logic, but clearly some trick has been played here cause this doesn’t make any sense. I mean, to begin with, the ontological argument also implies that you have to have the perfect hot tub somewhere, and the perfect soccer pitch, because for those things also existence would be perfection.
Rob Wiblin: So you’ve talked repeatedly about how we can formally give up on these ideas, recognize that there is this normative/positive distinction, but still we have this enduring hangover where we find it really hard to extricate ourselves from these presuppositions that are baked into the stories that we read and the things that people say all the time. A prejudice of mine is to think that people might be making this normative/positive mistake when they judge how good nature is.
Rob Wiblin: And so if you say maybe the wilderness is bad, I think sometimes people find that kind of hard to even imagine. And they’ll give replies that wouldn’t make sense in any other context, they say, “Well, that is what always has been.” They’ll just make an appeal to the fact that nature is, and think that is a good way of arguing that nature ought to be. Occasionally you also see when people talk about going and settling space, like going to Mars, going to other planets, people respond with, “Is it our place to go and disturb these planets, to go and change the nature of Mars?”
Rob Wiblin: And I think maybe that’s also bringing in an idea that Mars doesn’t have people on it now and it hasn’t before, so why should it in the future? Maybe we should just leave things alone. It’s so easy for me to tell these stories, very convenient for me to say, “Oh, people who I disagree with are just making this mistake because of this hangover from an old discredited idea.” It’s a little bit slippery. How does one actually try to figure out whether that is going on?
Tom Moynihan: I mean, it is very slippery. I would agree with you though, that those ideas are an example of this thing I mentioned, conceptual inertia. As we know, when I say we, I guess the educated public, we haven’t yet found the existence of life, intelligent life elsewhere. I think maybe the people that you mentioned who say, “Oh, we shouldn’t go and settle other planets,” they probably have that as a background assumption, but yet they’re still, in a sense of inertia, making this claim that settling is bad. And you see this as the argument that settling other planets is going to be just as bad as how settling other continents was in recent human history. I see that argument quite a lot. And it’s strange because there’s a very significant difference: Those planets are uninhabited. So that’s a vast difference.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I think it’s not only strange, I think it’s deeply offensive. Because what was wrong with colonialism was the enslavement and torture and displacement and oppression of people. And then suggesting that that is the same as going to the moon, which is like a bunch of rocks… It’s very funny because it is something that people say and I think they feel they’re being kind of progressive in some way, or like seeing a harm that other people aren’t recognizing, but in fact it seems highly dehumanizing to equate enslaving people with going to Mars.
Tom Moynihan: Yeah. I 100% agree. I find it exasperating. I mean in exactly that sense, these are just not morally equitable things at all. Yeah, the vast crime of colonialism was that they didn’t even recognize these other humans as morally significant beings. That was the vast crime of it. There aren’t beings to recognize, say, on Mars.
Rob Wiblin: People could come back and say, “No, I think that Mars is like a moral agent and that it would be bad to interfere with Mars.” But I suppose it seems like then the burden of proof is on them to suggest that rocks, which we otherwise… On Earth, we don’t think about rocks as moral patients, typically.
Tom Moynihan: Yeah. No, I definitely agree. Yeah.
Apocalypse vs. extinction [01:45:56]
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Another point that you make in the book, which I think is really interesting and that many people don’t agree with, is that past ideas of the apocalypse or a grand change in the nature of the world are fundamentally different from a modern idea of extinction. Do you want to make that case?
Tom Moynihan: Yeah. So this is one of the things that I think originally motivated me to this project, was that I noticed that something different was happening around the Enlightenment, around 1800, when it came to talking about what we colloquially call the end of the world. And I thought, “Okay, well obviously there’s a history of this. Can I go and track it down?” And I couldn’t. There’s libraries and libraries of histories of the idea of apocalypse at the end of the world of millennium. And there are some that are very good, that do notice this kind of change happens. They’re often science fiction authors who switch into the history of ideas that notice this, funnily enough. But I couldn’t find one that really told this story. And I think it’s just because of some factors of the way the field is.
Tom Moynihan: Some people approach the history of ideas from a perennial point of view. So they want to say that there’s nothing new under the sun. There’s a kind of perennialism, which is just to say that everything we think now has a precursor at some point in previous time. Again, that achievability is bounded.
Rob Wiblin: Sounds familiar.
Tom Moynihan: Yeah, exactly. So that is a major outlook when it comes to the history of ideas, or just history more generally. People like to say that XYZ ancient Greek author came up with evolution before Darwin, or was an anatomist before Rutherford, all of these ideas. So I think that’s why people have not noticed this distinction, or not as many people as I would have hoped. So yeah, the basic payload of the argument is that I think that in religious and mythological traditions, the idea of the apocalypse is imbued with a lot of significance.
Tom Moynihan: So what I mean by that is that it’s often seen as the culmination of the moral order, particularly within the Christian, the Abrahamic religions. It’s seen as this vast culmination, conclusion of what is moral. So in rapture, God sorts the good souls from the bad souls. Even though it’s probably inscrutable to us mortal souls, nonetheless, the ultimate good is still consummated. And that means that nothing’s at stake in our individual actions, because we might be a bad person, that might be bad in some very local sense, but nonetheless, in the end that big sorting is going to happen, so nothing’s really at stake. Whereas, in extinction, in the modern idea of extinction, if we’re believing that in some meaningful sense, there aren’t any other intelligent agents in our cosmic vicinity, it’s this sense of this irreversible terminal frustration of what we think of as the moral order.
Tom Moynihan: So be that the impartial demand to make the world a better place, not just from moral agents, but also from moral patients: animals, other sentiences… It’s the frustration of that upward force, that escalator to betterness, which you just don’t find in the apocalypse. And there are a couple of other things I mentioned earlier: the idea of the physical world continuing without that agency around. In apocalypses, it’s the afterlife. Everything just switches into this land beyond. So even though there are some exceptions, like I mentioned earlier, these other traditions outside of the Christian one that have some of these factors in them, they don’t have all of them. And so the way I sum it up is apocalypse secures a sense of an ending, whereas extinction anticipates the ending of sense.
Tom Moynihan: So it’s a very different outlook. Whereas in the apocalypse, nothing’s at stake. Potentially in the possibility of extinction, in a sense, everything is at stake. I’ve changed the way I talk about this in the book. I think I imbued too much unique significance on humanity. But again, everything is at stake in that sense of there being a kind of direction and that morally meaningful universe.
Rob Wiblin: So I’ve encountered this idea, that people have always thought about this idea of extinction, it’s not a new idea, and it’s interesting that people kind of dismiss it on that basis. I think you might say people have thought about extinction for a very long time and that just shows how fundamental and important the idea is. I’m not quite sure why, if this was a very old idea, that it would necessarily be one that doesn’t matter. I suppose, even though there is a pretty core difference, which is that a religious apocalypse in a sense would be the most meaningful moment of all time, the most significant and purposeful moment of all time. Whereas extinction, where we just accidentally destroy ourselves by mistake, is more like spilling a glass of milk. It has a very different feel to it. They have some similar ideas, like that there’s a big change in our lifetimes, or that our actions are of great significance, perhaps because they would not, at least, as you were saying in the Aztec tradition, maybe that would cause the Gods to decide to end the world or not.
Rob Wiblin: So I suppose if I was trying to defend this view, I might say we might notice some regularities in perhaps the ways that people thought about the apocalypse and the ways that we today, people who are worried about extinction and want to prevent it, might think about the risk of a catastrophe today. Do you think there’s anything to that?
Tom Moynihan: Yeah. I think another prevalent biasing factor is the tendency to think that we live in the most important time. Although now we actually have some evidence-based and quite rational arguments for the fact that if history continues for a very long time, we live in what might have been considered one of the most important times. If history doesn’t continue very far, then in a sense, we do live in the most important time. But again, that’s contingent and up for grabs.
Tom Moynihan: Whereas in the apocalyptic tradition, it’s written, it’s determined, it’s predetermined. Also a thing I was doing recently was charting upper bounds of ideas of the future. So upper bounds of how long the future might be, across history. So I was trying to create a chart showing how that’s actually just exponentially exploded across the past millennium. And when you go back to the Christian Middle-Ages worldview, a lot of them thought that the Parousia, the return of Jesus, was going to happen not just in their lifetimes, but in the next decade. As the church consolidated and became very wealthy and stable as an entity, obviously having loads of millenarian cults running around wanting to end the world became a bit of a problem.
Tom Moynihan: So they got some of the big figures of the patristic tradition, Augustine, to make these arguments that the eschaton wasn’t coming imminently. However, the belief was still incredibly popular amongst lay traditions, not necessarily the Ecclesiastes, but nonetheless it was, it was incredibly popular. Most people thought that the end of the world was happening very soon. And that was a good thing. A really nice example I found recently was a chronicle from the 1400s. And it’s meant to be this chronicle of the whole of world history from the beginning, so Adam and Eve, all the way to the present and also including the future. And the chronicle left some pages blank at the end of the book for the readers of the book to actually fill in what happens so that we’ll have a complete chronicle by the end of time. How many pages were in it? There were four pages.
Tom Moynihan: So the future is only four pages long. So yes, this tradition has some similarities, ones that I always like to note are seemingly an aesthetic attraction for fire and ice as factors in the end of the world. Those continue into thermodynamics; this obsession with the sun calling, which turned out to be wrong. This earth is actually going to be destroyed by the sun becoming a red giant. It’s not going to cool off in this H.G. Wells kind of future frozen state. But yeah, there are definitely aesthetic factors that probably are still very much at play. Also, I do find it interesting that the major, in a really high abstracted sense, a lot of the major kinds of kill mechanisms appear very early on. So volcanoes, floods, big geological processes. I find that kind of interesting, but it’s only interesting in a quite trivial sense that you can find people having intuitions about thermodynamics millennia ago, because we just kind of exist in that world where entropy is happening. We don’t need the mathematics behind it to have some of those basic intuitions.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I think that’s the path that you can rescue from this argument. People have always thought that they might be living in the most important times, and so the fact that you think you have strong arguments doesn’t necessarily show you that you’re right. You should be a bit skeptical of that intuition, because we all have a degree of egotism inside ourselves that makes us think that the world revolves around us and our time.
Rob Wiblin: Well I wonder what we should make of it, when we notice that there are particular ideas that have persisted throughout history, that an idea really is as old as the hills? Another rebuttal that I’ve sometimes heard when I’ve talked about how I’m very worried that humanity might create some new invention that would be very dangerous and would take us off track and cause a lot of damage is that people say, people have always worried about it, look at Frankenstein and look at all of these old stories where humanity uses…where our own technology turns against us. I think even before Frankenstein, we’ve got ideas of us creating automatons that then turn on us. And I actually think this is one where they’re kind of right. People might be familiar with The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
Rob Wiblin: I was rewatching Fantasia recently and it’s got that wonderful piece where Mickey Mouse animates this broom to go and fetch water, but he doesn’t understand the magic properly. So the broom is unstoppable. And even when he chops it up, it just turns into more brooms that fill the room with more water. And apparently this story, some variant of it, goes back to a satire written by a Greek poet in 150 AD whereas there’s like an apprentice of a better magician who uses the magic and then they don’t fully understand what they’ve done. And then things go off the rails.
Rob Wiblin: But I think, is that a reason why we should be unconcerned? I think we can flip it around and say this shows that there’s a deep lesson here, which is that you shouldn’t play with forces that you don’t properly understand. And that even the ancients understood this. That if you’re doing something new for the first time and you don’t have a lot of experience, then potentially you can mess it up and your own actions can end up harming you. Do you have any comments on that?
Tom Moynihan: I didn’t actually know about that as a precursor to The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. That’s really interesting. So yeah, I think it’s similar to the kind of entropy example I just used. People knew about feedback loops way before cybernetics. They just didn’t have the formalization of it, and therefore, a sense of how it fits into other ideas in the vicinity well. I think from formalization comes a lot of clarity with ideas. So I think a lot of basic insights about the world are there. And yeah, people have always, in a sense, I think had quite a strong idea about the strength of positive feedback. And also as you say, this fear of meddling, I think that can be, that’s almost such a basic moral insight that it’s almost trivial, but it’s also this kind of fear of automation already there. But I mean, that goes back a long way.
Rob Wiblin: I suppose it is just kind of ambiguous whether a very old story might reflect a kind of cognitive bias that we have that just keeps popping up and keeps infecting our thought or whether it reflects the wisdom of the ages. Where we kind of just have to assess the object-level arguments for the case. There’s a certain move that people want to make where they don’t want to consider the object-level case for is artificial intelligence dangerous, is synthetic biology dangerous. They want to say, look at the sweep of history and how people have thought, and using these tools of critical analysis, I’m going to demonstrate that synthetic biology won’t be dangerous. Which I think it’s a very dangerous move to make.
Tom Moynihan: Yeah, I think… Moving from my field to a more empirical scientific idea, in psychology there’s this idea I think it was coined by Pascal Boyer, of minimal and maximal counterintuitiveness. And it’s this really brilliant theory where the claim is that a minimally counterintuitive idea — so one that obviates one kind of common sense, an ontological principle about the world, say a talking tree — that is way more likely to spread than an idea that is a lot more counterintuitive than that. But it’s also more likely to spread than just a boring, plain, old intuitive idea. So he uses this as an explanation for religiosity, I believe. But I find it really interesting from the perspective of the history of ideas. A lot of these ideas that violate one kind of principle, they spread very quickly. So a golem, in the sense of some automaton that is breathed with life and then rises against its creator, that’s a nice myth in that sense.
Tom Moynihan: But then all of that maximally counterintuitive stuff that you put on top of it to link it forwards into what we now talk about as super intelligence, AGI… Those are the important ideas, and they’re maximally counterintuitive and therefore they’ve required a lot more hard work to create, in the sense that I think that there are these default basin places in the space of ideas that we all revert to quite a lot, and it takes a lot of energy to kick out of them. And so, yeah, I think that this counterintuitiveness idea is a very good one. And I think that’s one of the places where the history of ideas can be useful in terms of epistemology. I would argue we’re not very good at telling how intuitive our ideas are. And I think the sequential progression of the discovery of ideas is actually good criteria for judging how intuitive they actually are. Also how often they emerge independently in different cultures. I think maximally counterintuitive ideas spread. They appear once and then spread across all cultures because they work.
Tom Moynihan: I mean, this is also an answer to the wishful thinking question that you asked earlier, why was this mixing up of normative and positive descriptive statements so common? I think a simpler explanation than the very philosophical one I gave is that it’s, actually from a kind of egoistic prudential level, probably just way nicer and easier to live in a minimally counterintuitive world, to live in the manifest image, believe folk psychology. And there was a certain point in time, the scientific revolution, and then actually a delay a little bit afterwards, wherein that critical mass had to be kicked in, where living in a maximally counterintuitive world actually started to pay dividends at the individual level. Where we started to have massively rising living standards, et cetera, et cetera. But before that point in time, it was just nicer to live in a world where wishful thinking and all kinds of other uncritical forms of thought are just the modus operandi.
The history of probability [02:00:52]
Rob Wiblin: Let’s push on to talk about some other conceptual advances, which you name in the book as potentially being necessary for having a modern understanding of existential risk and the possibilities of the future. I guess one is just the idea of probability, that things would have a 10% chance of happening or a 20% chance of happening, which I think initially people started figuring this out through gambling and games of chance. But yeah, before that people wouldn’t say that something was 10% likely. That would kind of be a confusing concept that didn’t fit into their worldview, which is just fascinating to me.
Tom Moynihan: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I would really recommend a book by Ian Hacking, the philosopher of science, called The Emergence of Probability. I would say in terms of method, it’s inspired me more than any other, because he really makes the claim that here’s a point in time where a new idea emerged — and not just a new idea, but a very important idea as well, and here’s why it was unavailable beforehand. And that idea is, as the title states, probability. And he puts forward this really interesting case for why that is. A lot of people have argued about this. So prior to this Hacking book, they noticed that probability is an absent field of mathematics prior to some point in the early modern period, and there are lots of different arguments.
Tom Moynihan: One of them is that before the introduction of modern arithmetic, by Fibonacci, you just kind of couldn’t really compute these things well. One of them is that there are economic factors that make probability very…
Rob Wiblin: Lucrative.
Tom Moynihan: Lucrative. Exactly. So the beginning of underwriting and insurance business in the late medieval economic boom. So these are all good explanations. Me being a historian of ideas, I would like to propose another one on top of Hacking’s already great story. And that’s if you don’t have a conception of possibility that is divorced from a realization within time, you’re not going to be able to conceive of each individual dice throw as the realization of a wider space of what they used to call ‘equipossibles’ or ‘equiprobables.’ You’re just going to see it as this inscrutable line of events. You’re not going to see it as in a sense an expression of the technical term being a synchronic space of possibility. So again, I think that late medieval invention of new ways of possibility is really important here. There’s actually some new writing on this that shows that these late medieval thinkers in this commercial boom, in say the 1300s give or take, were actually already thinking about probability. So Hacking’s data is sometime around 1600 and it’s actually been updated backwards to say 1300 where you get these merchants talking about probability and in quite a recognizably modern sense, which fits well with my idea about possibility. So that’s nice.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. And I guess, so if you didn’t have the ability to kind of analyze and calculate probabilities for things, I suppose that would have made it very difficult to talk about something that’s say improbable, but might happen. I guess one of the early times that people tried calculating the probability of a disaster was with these comets that they saw coming around and they’re like, hmm. So if a comet intersects with the earth’s orbit, what’s the probability that it would hit the earth? And people calculated, well, how large is the earth relative to its orbit, and were like, well, I guess it’d be one in whatever, how many million chances it is. But without the idea of probability and possibility that many different things could happen, but they don’t, you wouldn’t have been able to take that step.
Robert Wiblin: And actually, I think another concept that was necessary for that was the idea of mathematical modeling. Where it’s so intuitive to us now that you might put time on the X axis of a graph and then project forward the motion of an object or like a tendency in society. But that was a step forward in itself. Like making time a variable and then using math to make a forecast about the future.
Tom Moynihan: Yeah. So I see those developments as, in a large-scale sense, incredibly intertwined. So the invention of calculus and the invention of probability theory. But yeah, as you say, absolutely required. So to talk meaningfully about incredibly improbable events prior to that, bringing into clarity the ratios, putting numbers on it, people when in the vicinity of very large numbers, very extreme ratios, we kind of just think, oh, it’s impossible, cause that’s easier to think. You could actually start to talk about these very unlikely, but very catastrophic events.
Tom Moynihan: And yeah, the first time I found someone putting a probability to a humanity-ending disaster is, as you mentioned, Joseph Lalande in the 1770s. He decided that he was going to put, I think it was a one in 73,000 chance of a comet, if it did intersect with our orbits, hitting us based on timings. Later on you get the brilliant German astronomer Wilhelm Olbers. He actually kind of computes that into a timeframe of recurrence. He said 4,000 years between every close encounter. And I think it was 220 million years between head-on impacts. The interesting thing is the way that people interpreted this at the time; people didn’t really understand probability theory.
Rob Wiblin: So they thought it would happen with that exact frequency.
Tom Moynihan: Exactly. Yeah. So you then get people, there’s a story by the Russian romantic author Vladimir Odoyevsky and he actually has this future utopia set in the year, I think it’s 4,438 or something. But that’s just him putting the numbers on one of these forecasts and thinking it’s the year this comet is going to come close to Earth again. So yeah. People thought that these were exact forecasts of recurrences, rather than these probabilistic windows.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I mean, you still see that tendency today in news reports about disasters. I’ve seen it with volcanoes. We’re like, this volcano tends to explode every 200 years, and they’ll say well it’s been 200 years… Which could make sense because some things are recurrent in that way, the pressure needs to build up over time. And it’s more likely to happen after 200 years than after 100 years. But many of the things are just completely random, but people still have this sense that if it happens every… This idea that we’re due for things that actually happen just independently.
Tom Moynihan: Yeah. Definitely. I mean, it also shows that there’s still that disjunct between the lofty scientists and the actual public. But yeah, these forecasts caused genuine panic. In the streets of Paris, there were people rioting almost I think. So yeah, an interesting episode.
Rob Wiblin: I guess there’s been further advances in how we conceptualize probability, going from the kind of frequentist notion, which is saying probability is what fraction of an amount of times something happens, to thinking that it’s instead a reflection of our subjective beliefs, which then opens up the possibility of attaching probabilities to events that only ever happen once. So say I’ve applied for a job and I’m trying to figure out, will I get this job tomorrow, that event might only happen once, where I apply for it for this particular job. But we still want to say that it’s meaningful to say, I have a 30% chance of getting the job or a 90% chance. But until we flipped over to talking about probability as a reflection of our subjective beliefs about the future and the credences that we attach to different outcomes, people couldn’t really talk about the probability of things that were so infrequent that you’d never be able to take enough measurements to assess how often they happen.
Tom Moynihan: Yeah. So it’s illustrative that the first instance of putting probabilities on global disasters was with comets, because it’s very much an objective probability in the sense that these astronomers were making observations about the number of comets in the vicinity and also their pathways. And they were making observations, so therefore they were reasoning from what they could see to how likely, how frequent something was. The others, the subjective probability as it’s called often, that actually has…
Tom Moynihan: So Hacking points out that that has existed basically from the beginning of probability. This split has been there between thinking about probability in terms of objective frequency versus probability in terms of degrees of belief. But it was always this underdog that was considered unscientific. It was considered almost this unscientific contamination of subjectivism into this objective domain for a very long time. And there’s a very good book called The Theory That Would Not Die, that tells the story of how Bayes’ theorem was ignored for centuries and considered this subjectivist nonsense until sometime after World War II, when there was just this accumulating evidence of just how effective it is at prediction.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. It’s too useful.
Tom Moynihan: Yeah, exactly. Yeah.
Rob Wiblin: I mean, I still do encounter this issue today. Sometimes they talk about people estimating that the probability of a nuclear war in any given year is 1%, and you do get this sometimes from people who are quite educated, I would say maybe miseducated, where they will say “That’s a meaningless thing to say, because a nuclear war has never happened before.” And they’ll either say that there’s no probability that one can attach to this because it’s a unique event, or the probability is either 0% or 100% and we don’t know… And it’s weird, just this conceptual blinker, it closes down the range of things that you can analyze or even think about. It shuts off the discussion entirely. And I think it is something of an aesthetic of not wanting to allow subjectivity to come into science, or thinking that if something is bringing in someone’s subjective beliefs, that makes it extremely suspicious and worthy of disdain.
Tom Moynihan: Yeah. I’ve encountered that as well. It’s this sense that when you’re talking about future probabilities of unprecedented events, that people balk at the sheer idea of doing that. But the point is to give some sense of the magnitude and comparative magnitudes of what people judge the risk to be. And again, I think this is a theme emerging from a lot of what we’ve been talking about, is that, it’s much easier to think in absolutes. Be it something being eternal versus never happening… It’s also easier to think of something just being infinite rather than enormously finite.
Tom Moynihan: It’s a similar inability to think about very, very large magnitudes, things like that. An unrelated but I think enlightening point regarding future time and past time is that it was realizing that they were in some sense based on our best scientific picture, meaningfully finite, the future is potentially gigantic, titanic. But finiteness is what actually in a sense removes that intoxicating aspect of eternity, where it forces you to resign because if human civilization doesn’t achieve its best thing here and now it will achieve it at some other later date.
Tom Moynihan: It’s after that sense of large finitude of the future that people actually begin talking meaningfully about maximizing value within it, in some grand sense, rather than some kind of localized sense. So it’s after thermodynamics that you get people like Nikola Tesla saying that the greatest problem of science is to increase the amount of solar energy flowing through civilization, and things like that. So I think an important point that I’d want to make about all of what we’re talking about is that the discovery of enormous finitudes, and also the ability to work with them is, I think, a very progressive insight. And in the vicinity of enormous finitudes not to just go, oh, that’s eternal or that’s infinite. To be able to think meaningfully about orders of magnitude and those kinds of things. I think that’s very important.
Utopias and dystopias [02:12:11]
Rob Wiblin: Let’s talk for a moment about utopias and dystopias and different visions that people have had about the future over the years. Something that comes up in the book is just that people’s various hopes and dreams and fears about the future have changed a lot over time. Maybe could you give us a sampler platter of a couple of different examples of the visions that people have had for a very different world in the future?
Tom Moynihan: Yeah. So I think an interesting place to enter into that is by looking at the word itself. So people have always thought about utopias, in some sense. Going back to Plato, his Republic, probably before. But utopia means nowhere, in a sense, it’s a kind of place, it’s a spatial idea. So you might have this idea of there being a utopia, this much better place, but it’s kind of happening concurrently. So again, this idea of plenitude, that what’s possible is what’s happening, so you have this sense that there are these peaks of achievability or peaks of goodness. But they’re currently happening just elsewhere. And that’s important.
Tom Moynihan: So Plato actually says in The Laws, or maybe the Republic, he’s talking about his ideal state and he says it’s kind of already happened in the past, it will reliably happen again in the future, which is an interesting thing to consider. It’s only around the 1700s when the idea of history as having a future materially and consequentially different from the past emerges that you get this idea of uchronia. So uchronia is an ideal society based in time, so invariably in the future. And you get the first ideas of these. The first time travel narratives emerged around 1770. But what’s more interesting is, around this time, you also get the idea that these much better states of possible future civilization aren’t just based on the perfection of statesmanship or interactions between humans. They’re also based on materially renovating the material world. And that’s a really important development.
Rob Wiblin: So just to clarify what you were saying there, utopia, as I understand it, comes from Greek. So I think it’s the prefix u which means good, something positive. And then I guess topia refers to space in some way. And you’re saying so in the past, they conceived of utopia as a place that must exist somewhere, where these really good things were happening. Whereas over time, we started thinking no, utopia doesn’t exist anywhere in the present, but it could exist at a future time. Which I guess people want to call uchronia. So it’s like a good era.
Tom Moynihan: Yeah. So the word uchronia was first used in a French, as far as I’m aware, it was first used in a French novel in the early 19th century. So that word itself emerges around this time. But the important thing is that it’s not that these peaks of achievement are already realized, and it’s just a local thing if we manage to realize it here and now. It’s that it’s actually the space of possibility and its potential. That’s the important distinction. So yeah, you begin to get this idea that it’s not just concurrent, it’s also potential, but also that it’s based on changing material conditions.
Rob Wiblin: So I guess before The 17th, 18th, and 19th century, people were thinking about it mostly as just say, we would reach a good time through the improvement of moral values, or the way that people lived, or their ability to manage a state or something like that. But then I guess as the industrial revolution was taking off and people could see advances in technology in their own lifetime, they start thinking, oh no, the way we could reach it is potentially through technological advancement and completely changing the nature of our lives.
Tom Moynihan: Yeah, exactly. It takes a while after the scientific revolution for the idea of changing the material conditions of humankind to take hold. I think Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels, there’s this section where he really satirizes scientists, and what he calls ‘projects’ or ‘projectors’ — the people who create these projects to better the material conditions. Because it took a while, there was a delay after the scientific revolution, it took a while for the dividends of this research and unlocking the mechanics of the material world to actually kick in and become visible to people. So there is this interesting delay. But yeah, it’s around sometime in the 1700s, you see people start to really kind of speculate about what the limits or the furthest reaches of these processes must be.
Tom Moynihan: And one to point out is Marquis de Condorcet. And he wrote this brilliant essay on the far future of humankind. And it’s one of the first ones that talks about it in a very materialistic register. But it is also very old, in the kind of upper reaches that it’s talking about. He talks about some very interesting things. He says the material conditions of humanity will continue improving indefinitely until the earth is knocked out of its orbit or some catastrophe happens to stop it. You can find people talking about this beforehand. There are some proto-utilitarian French thinkers, there’s one, Saint-Pierre, who says similar things, but there’s no idea of the fact that this upward surge of civilization is based on material conditions of nature that could be foreclosed by some natural event. So Condorcet has that. He also has this interesting thing where he talks about the fact that learning or increases in knowledge and intelligence create more increases in knowledge and intelligence.
Tom Moynihan: So he has some basic idea of this like ratchet feedback loop…
Rob Wiblin: …positive feedback loop.
Tom Moynihan: Exactly. Yeah. And he says that this is a really powerful force. So there are some really interesting parts there. So it’s around this time, this is like the 1770s, the latter end of this century that you get these bold visions of humanity actually affecting the earth at a planetary scale. And it’s these French proto-utilitarians and then later French proto-socialist utopian thinkers who have these really bold visions of the earth renovated. And so what that means is removing all of the wasteful, barren, currently underutilized or unpopulated aspects of the planet. And they talk about it in these nice quaint terms of beautifying the earth. And it’s often quite, I enjoy these visions, but they often have these rather troubling aspects as well. Where they celebrate how humanity is extinguishing wild species or species that predate humans.
Tom Moynihan: So, tigers, sharks, whatnot. So I think of French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon. He talks about humanity beautifying the earth, says that this is kind of bringing the earth to the age of perfection. He also provides some ways that we could prolong its habitability by creating more livestock, because he thinks that that will heat up the cooling planet, which is an interesting insight. But he celebrates the fact that humanity is killing all of these wild species.
Tom Moynihan: Now there’s one final French utopian that I point to, Charles Fourier. He was this very absurd in a lot of ways, but very speculative proto-socialist thinker. No relation to Joseph Fourier. He had this idea that in the future, part of this beautifying of the planet Earth would be to create what he called ‘anti-lions’ or ’anti-sharks’ or anti-predatory species, wherein basically humanity would use technology to domesticate these species and kind of reroute them into useful things. So he talks about killer whales dragging ships through the doldrums. Which is obviously nonsensical and speculative craziness. But what’s interesting is he is saying — instead of these other people, who are saying we should just kill these wild animal species — he was saying we should repurpose them for rational ends. So yeah, these are all again very quaint, very silly versions, but it’s early ideas of humanity actually creating consequential material changes to its environment.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. It’s interesting that the issue of concern about problems with wilderness, problems with the natural world… I guess there was a flourishing of discussion about that when people first realized that possibly the world could completely change. And it seems like that probably disappeared for a while, and now it’s maybe being reconsidered again — at least among some people that I know, the wild animal suffering folks. How did the visions change over the course of the 19th century? Is there a clear trend in the different kinds of pictures that people paint of the future?
Tom Moynihan: Yeah. So the trend towards thinking boldly and grandly about changes to the planet continues. So it’s throughout the 19th century that you actually get a bunch of geologists beginning to announce, to baptize a new epoch of geological history, which they call the ‘anthropogene,’ or the ‘psychozoic’ age. And they saw this as the age in which intelligence was now the major driving force in Earth’s history. Obviously we can see parallels with talk of the anthropocene now. So there was this widely optimistic vision that intelligence was now the driving factor on the planet. We’d now entered this psychozoic age in which rational ordering was what was going on. Obviously as the consequences of the industrial revolution unfold across the next century, people discovered the negative effects of that. That vision has been complicated. But it’s interesting to see quite early on people having this view of this psychozoic age, then what’s interesting is around the turn of the 1900s, particularly the 1920s, which is kind of a miraculous decade for thinking boldly grandly about the future, these visions begin to spill beyond the earth.
Tom Moynihan: So the first place that I’ve managed to find someone talking about interplanetary diaspora is Henry David Thoreau, the American writer. And he’s actually trying to satirize a utopian called John Adolphus Etzler, a German immigrant to America who had this crazy vision, probably the first vision of green energy. He said that we can break Malthusian limits by just rerouting the abundance of natural energy that’s being bathed on us all the time. Whether it’s the wind, the ocean, sunlight. He said if we just reroute all of these things we will burst through the Malthusian limits and be able to increase the population on the planet happily by a huge amount. And he was writing this in the 1830s.
Rob Wiblin: A man ahead of his time.
Tom Moynihan: Well, yeah, he was very ahead of his time. I mean, if you actually go and read it, it’s completely nuts and bonkers and there’s barely any science in it. But the basic insight though is very ahead of its time. Thoreau, obviously a fan of nature as it is, rather than how it could be, was very upset by this and satirized him in this pamphlet called Paradise Regained. And in it he kind of takes this reductio ad absurdum approach to Etzler’s idea of reengineering nature to basically extract more value from it. And he says as well, what if our super-intelligent projectors and scientists are unhappy with the fact that this world will have its own senescence and decide to just leave and go and find a more clement planet elsewhere. This was in the 1840s.
Rob Wiblin: What indeed.
Tom Moynihan: Well, yeah, exactly. And then, going back to what I was saying before about the turn of the 1900s, you begin to find more and more people talking about this idea of interplanetary migration to increase the longevity of life, civilization. Some really important figures in this, J.B.S. Haldane, a British Indian geneticist. J.D. Bernal, an Irish crystallographer. Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, a Russian rocket engineer… These people all begin to start talking about spreading beyond. Tsiolkovsky’s progenitor, Nikolai Fyodorov, the Russian philosopher, spoke about ushering not just the planet, but the solar system into its psychozoic age. So an age where it’s ruled by intelligence and morality rather than the blind random forces of nature.
Tom Moynihan: And I think the important context here is that in the 1920s, it was an era of a new generation of telescopic technology. So think of Edwin Hubble, this Mount Wilson observatory, this idea that there’s an extra galactic universe out there. This really begins to take hold at this time. So this idea of the capaciousness of space and I think it, well, it just vastly increased the kind of canvas of consequences to do good within this natural world that is potentially now at this kind of suboptimal state.
Rob Wiblin: I can’t remember whether this was in your book, but I think I recall from some lectures about the history of the Soviet Union that in the 1920s, well I guess Russia had just been in a series of famines and wars and problems for many, many years, but in the 1920s, they had this brief respite where things were going kind of well and people could potentially recuperate their lives. And there was this flourishing of Soviet art and thinking about how the future could be much, much better. Are there any interesting examples from that?
Tom Moynihan: Yeah, so Cosmism is the name for the movement created by Fyodorov, the philosopher I mentioned earlier, and continued by Tsiolkovsky, this scientist. And they were both real visionaries. Tsiolkovsky is incredibly interesting. For example, he’s one of the first people that I’ve seen talk about the fact that, well he says that intelligence creates positive experiences. The more developed the nervous system is, we can think about how much more enjoyment is capable of there. People have said that before, you get second-generation utilitarians talking about the fact that, well I mean, even going back to Mill, the idea that humans are probably capable of more pleasure than a pig. But Tsiolkovsky, who has this very science-fictional bent, says, “Well, who’s to say that humanity is the limit? Humanity’s definitely just the beginning of this upward bound of ability to have positive experiences.” And he really goes on and actually talks about the creation of brains at solar system levels. And these really, really speculative grand futures, but very early and very visionary.
Rob Wiblin: On some level I feel quite a lot of affinity with these crazy dreamers from the early Soviet Union. And in a sense, I feel like they’re having ideas that I hope will one day have a Renaissance, or people will think bigger, they’ll dream bigger about how the world could be so much better. But it is interesting that these strains of thought also seem to be associated with terrible atrocities and attempts to remake the world that go incredibly awry. And I think it’s interesting that at least as far as I can tell, the people who dream biggest about changing the world and making it far, far better in the future these days focus much more on how to prevent things from going wrong, and seem much more scared of the downsides.
Rob Wiblin: And I wonder whether that is in part a reaction to the fact that previous people who have dreamed of a much better world have mostly ended up making it a lot worse, and haven’t managed to achieve the dreams that they had. And so now maybe people like me, who are utopian to some degree, mostly have more humble goals of simply preventing things from… Like, we’ve seen how things can go wrong, and we’re just trying to stop that from happening again.
Tom Moynihan: I think it’s to do with further complexification of our model of history, and also ideas about possibility and realizing potential. So the model of history invariably — or at least very commonly during the 19th century and a lot of the 20th century until the atrocities that happened towards the middle of it — was very based in this quite confident progress-based teleological idea of progress, wherein the idea was that it would kind of happen regardless. So this is almost like a latter-day form of plenitude, plenitude being this idea that the good in the universe is invariant, regardless of what I do here and now.
Tom Moynihan: The idea of progress kind of just temporalizes that. Hegel called it ‘the ruse of reason.’ So even when someone does bad things or missteps, does irrational things, that’s still part of the wider process. So there’s this idea of inevitability that, yeah it took some dismantling. What’s interesting now is that we have a far more complicated sense, where you have a sense of the capaciousness of future possibility and value and goodness within it, but also a real keen sense of how fragile that is. And those two insights have taken a very long time to converge, and I think are only really converging in the current moment. I mean, particularly the longtermist insight that there are things that we could do now that might foreclose some future valuable event from happening at some arbitrarily far distant time. There’s lots of different orders of complexity about thinking about modality, temporality, history going into that. And I think yeah, they’ve only just kind of bundled together quite recently.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah, I guess it does make some sense to me that that one has taken perhaps a while for people to really buy into it, because it is a somewhat surprising notion that there’s things that we could do now that would close off options to people 10,000 years in the future. And again, many people remain skeptical of that today. It takes potentially some theorizing and some kind of empirical information to convince people that that actually is the case.
Tom Moynihan: Yeah.
How Tom has changed his mind since writing the book [02:28:58]
Rob Wiblin: Alright. Maybe one last question about the book before we move on. Are there any big claims in the book that you worry might be wrong in some important way? That you’re going to regret having written in five or 10 years?
Tom Moynihan: Well, there’s plenty that I already regret, in a sense. So I think just from continuing research, having published it around six months ago now, it seems arbitrary, a lot of the focuses, because I’ve realized I fleshed out places that I didn’t previously know, but I guess that’s just an aspect that you’ll have in any ongoing research project. One thing I’m worried about is there is probably a lot of Eurocentrism in it based on what I was talking about before, in terms of the lack of good secondary sources on the history of ideas in English about other cultures, non-European cultures. For example, I recently found out that there’s some very early utilitarian insights in the Chinese tradition.
Rob Wiblin: Mohism, right?
Tom Moynihan: Mohism, yeah. So that’s really interesting, and I was looking into that recently. I do think that just at a cursory glance, the worldview still has this idea of heaven or tian, which is this kind of ultimate arbiter of the impartial good. And regardless of what we do as humanity, that will still always win in the end. So it doesn’t have that kind of cosmic variability of value. But still, the fact that a very impartial sense of value had appeared so much earlier in the Chinese tradition is really interesting. So I think there’s definitely some Eurocentrism that probably goes into it and I’m going to try and correct that going forward. Other things, I think I mentioned this earlier, the axiology, the kind of wide, high-level axiology, I did stress or seem to stress this idea of humanity bestowing value on the world or creating human-made value. I think I stressed that too much. Since writing the book, I’ve become a lot more, well, I’ve read some more Henry Sidgwick and I’ve become a lot more interested in that way of looking at things.
Rob Wiblin: Okay. Let’s just back up and explain this one for the audience. It’s a tension that I noticed in the book, and I think some other people did as well, that sometimes you describe value as this kind of objective, natural thing that could exist apart from humans or any other intelligent species apprehending that that value exists. And then there’s other times where you talk about it as though if there were no humans or intelligent beings around to value something and to see that there was value there, then the universe would be without value. Am I understanding right the kind of tension between two different philosophical stances that have come through in the book?
Tom Moynihan: Yeah and I think I have since realized that that’s a tension, and I think that comes from a view of the Enlightenment more based in the Germanic tradition than in the Anglophone utilitarian one, which stresses the Enlightenment as, well in Kant’s definition, it’s the emergence of humanity from self-imposed knowledge. To translate that it just means kind of submitting all our claims to the authority of reason rather than any arbitrary seat of power.
Tom Moynihan: So those arbitrary seats of power might be nature’s precedent, or the precedent of tradition, or might is right. This idea that in a sense we define what is right for ourselves is the basis of the enlightenment of modernity itself. This idea that we can legitimate our own moral claims rather than just inherit them from nature or tradition. And I think this comes from taking this historical outlook because shaking off the yoke of tradition and arbitrary power can look a lot, in the historical process, and it did to these individuals, as if humanity was in a sense defining and making its own values, bestowing them on the world.
Tom Moynihan: And I think this is what channels people like Kant into this kind of era where they think that humans are the only thing that matters. The only reason why we shouldn’t harm animals in Kant’s argument is because it might degrade humans. Which is kind of a ridiculous view, but taking that historical look, it looks like humanity is making value rather than finding it.
Tom Moynihan: I have now become far more invested in that more impartial Sidgwickian kind of view after having engaged with it more deeply. And I think it’s the far more coherent view. So I think that moral agents discover what is valuable in the sense that the first humans didn’t know what was impartially valuable. So we’ve had to kind of discover it through using reason and evidence and correcting errors about value. So that can look like a making, but I think ultimately it’s a finding, because it seems to be converging and arriving upon this very impartial sense.
Tom Moynihan: So again, I go back to the distinction I made earlier, and this is one that from talking to Toby Ord, he stressed how important this distinction between moral patients and moral agents is. So I think ultimately that if there were no humans, there’d still be value in the world if there are moral patients like animals, sentient beings, but it would just kind of be lurching around randomly and aimlessly without this upward force towards making the world more valuable or containing more value. And I think it was just not really being aware of that distinction and how it would create a lot of nice equilibrium between a lot of my other commitments that led me to this strange tension.
Tom Moynihan: So yeah, I think that nature happens to create value, but only does so haphazardly and blindly.
Rob Wiblin: Whereas humans can do it deliberately.
Tom Moynihan: Exactly. So once you have a species or a being that can apply right reason rather than arbitrary precedent or instinct, whatever, to isolate sources of value and then try and maximize them, you have in the same sense that life tends to create more life for the first time, you have this moral agency that can then tend to create more value. So yeah, I think that ties it all together in a more coherent way than I did at all in the book where there were lots of commitments in tension.
Are we making progress? [02:35:00]
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Alright. Let’s push on and talk about a different theme, which is kind of in light of intellectual history more broadly. And I guess this piece of intellectual history specifically. What might we be getting wrong now? It seems like people who’ve worked in history, who’ve worked in intellectual history, tend to go in different directions where they think about what did we learn from all this? There’s one stream of thought which is kind of deconstructionist, post-modernist, very skeptical and cynical about things, which says look at how mistaken people have been all through history and how they all disagreed about all of these different things, and it seems like none of them was really tethered to any reality. So given that, shouldn’t we assume basically the same thing of us, that it’s just a series of different conflicting narratives and who knows what’s true? Like maybe nobody is right.
Rob Wiblin: I guess a different take might be, if we look at the track record, it seems like we’re getting better, that however wrong we are about things today, it seems like we were much more wrong in the past. And actually maybe we should resuscitate the idea of the forward march of history a little bit. Yeah. Where do you come down on this one?
Tom Moynihan: Yeah. So that’s a fantastic question. So I began, this is around a decade ago, I began having that prior worldview, the kind of post-modernist, deconstructionist one, post-humanist is the current vogue in lots of continental theory. And that’s just because of the corner of the humanities that I emerged from. Instead of being taught Quine, I was taught Derrida. So I started off with that kind of worldview. And then it was from trying to look at the Enlightenment, trying to dismantle it, that requires actually reading the Enlightenment and I was actually very convinced by a lot of its texts. And also just through reading through… I was just convinced that there are these vast gains in insight and also moral insight, more importantly, that have happened. And I think it’s just undeniable that humanity has gained a lot more insight when it comes to the big picture.
Tom Moynihan: So things like the fact that you go back a certain amount of time and everyone thinks that the universe is in its most optimal, valuable state. William Paley, the famous argument from design theologian, this was around 1800, he said we might not like mosquitoes and mice, but they’re actually really good because when an area is unpopulated by humans, it will be filled by these lower creatures that are kind of placeholder vehicles of sentience that mean that value in the world can never dip below some certain level.
Tom Moynihan: No one would say that anymore, or at least not many people would say that. Or for example, Alexander Pope in his brilliant long poem, The Essay on Man, he says that everything that happens in the universe happens for a good end, including the destruction of Earth. And it’s good that we just don’t know when that will happen, because otherwise we’d worry about it. And he compares this to the lamb that licks the hand of the slaughterer. That’s barbaric, right? So the fact that we now wouldn’t say those things, I think is just in my view, undeniably a gain in insight. So I think actually picking through the history of ideas, and this is me talking from my own personal experience, so take it with a pinch of salt, but it actually converted me away from a pessimistic worldview towards one that’s more convinced in progress or at least the possibility of progress.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I guess someone who was more skeptical might respond that people in the past probably would have taken a similar view. They would have said, “Oh look at all these people in the past who had different views from us, and look at how horribly mistaken they were by the lights that we have now. And so we can see that we’re progressing.” But then of course we look from our perspective, it looks like they were wrong as well, so they would have been mistaken. And I think that’s part of where this comes from, is if all you know is that you think that you’ve made progress, then what fraction of people who think that they’ve made progress really have? I mean, it’s an argument that definitely has some bite and should give us some pause.
Rob Wiblin: I kind of want to respond by saying well, we have planes now and we can go to Mars. So I feel within at least some domains of inquiry, there’s just really strong, concrete evidence that we can do things that they would be very impressed by and would regard as progress by any measure of engineering and science and technology. Now it is possible that we’ve made lots of progress in engineering and some areas of science and technology, and perhaps in philosophy or ethics or social sciences where it’s a lot harder to test whether you’re right or not, maybe we’ve made little progress or no progress. That’s possible, but I would guess that these kinds of progress go together, because there’s common reasons why they would all be expected to advance simultaneously, like you have more education, people are healthier, they have more time to think about these things. So that’s a different outside view perspective that makes me somewhat more optimistic that we’re not just kidding ourselves when we think that we do know more, we have some better ideas than we used to.
Tom Moynihan: Yeah. I think that you can always point to the fact that people 1,000 years ago didn’t know about subatomic processes or stellar nucleosynthesis, or even talking about Hubble earlier about the fact that there are extra galactic galaxies. These are things that we know now rather than earlier.
Rob Wiblin: I guess another thing that’s really assuring about those kinds of examples is that it seems like if we could transport someone from the past to the present and show them the information that we have now, that they would be persuaded that we’re right and they’re wrong. People in the past didn’t have microscopes, so they didn’t know about bacteria and viruses, but now we have them. We could show them to them if we could transport them through time, and I think that would be persuasive to most. Likewise with telescopes. We shouldn’t expect that people are going to know the nature of the cosmos when they can’t see it the way that we can now.
Tom Moynihan: I definitely agree. In terms of ways that we might be going wrong now, my sense, talking about microscopes, is that one of the principles of science that has proved most obstructive is… So earlier we talked about uniformitarianism stemming from parsimony. I think another one is Copernicanism, which has caused us to go as wrong as it’s caused us to go right.
Rob Wiblin: What’s Copernicanism in this context?
Tom Moynihan: So it’s related to uniformitarianism in the sense that it’s a claim about typicality. So it’s the idea that we are typical within space or within time or some other parameter. So it’s named after Copernicus, who initiated what we call the Copernican Revolution, which was the shift from thinking that we’re the center of the universe to thinking that the earth is potentially just another planet among many. Later on, people discovered that the earth was a planet… We’ve proved it, and since 1995, with the proof of exoplanets, we’ve discovered that the earth is actually very untypical as a terrestrial planet. But there’s been an ongoing argument about whether it is.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Okay. So you think that scientists are probably too misleadingly attached to the idea that what they see is going to be typical of everywhere? Or things that are true about humans or Earth are probably true across the Universe?
Tom Moynihan: Yeah. So Copernicanism in space has proved very useful or very successful within cosmology, astronomy. Copernicanism within time, which passes out basically as uniformitarianism, has proved very obstructive. There are also other ones like Copernicanism of scale. So to explain that, the idea that if we’re untypical in space, if we’re untypical in time, all these parameters, then we’re probably untypical in scale. So people like Leibniz, and this is what links back to the microscope, is around the time of the discovery of the microscope, there was this idea that matter is in a sense infinitely divisible, but also infinitely divisible into organic life. So if the scale that we currently live at is filled with living things, and we have this microscope that’s just discovered living things at a smaller scale, then we can probably think about life just all the way down.
Tom Moynihan: So this was a very popular worldview in the early Enlightenment, and it comes from this misapplication of Copernicanism. It would never be expressed in those explicit terms. Well, actually in some cases it was, it was compared with… People would say that the organic universe revealed down below through the microscope was equatable to this living, thronging, multiplicitous universe revealed by the telescope. So basically how does that cash out into something useful for us now? I think that oftentimes in the past, things have gone wrong by over-applying a principle that’s useful in one domain and using that as a justification for using it in a different one. So I would say maybe be dubious about arguments that say you should believe X in A domain, because some principle has been used to establish why in B domain.
Tom Moynihan: I also think that as a second point, just from reading through all of these earlier failure modes of arriving at some sense of the potential preciousness of life and moral agency, I am dubious when I hear people talk about these ideas of the re-evolution of intelligence on Earth or even the re-emergence of civilization after a sufficiently destructive event. So I think at some point in one of Robin Hanson‘s essays in the original volume on global catastrophic risk, I think he makes the prediction that after civilizational collapse, it would take about 20,000 years for humanity to re-arrive at its current state.
Tom Moynihan: And that’s in many ways, it’s a safe inference. It’s based on history. We know that the course of history that we’ve taken is possible, because in a sense we’ve witnessed and observed it, but is it probable? There are potentially loads of selection effects that mean that maybe we did it way, way quicker than could have been. There’s this question in the history of science, the Needham question, which points to the fact that China as a civilization was in many ways far more technologically advanced than Europe was, but just didn’t manage to have a scientific revolution in terms of instituting science as a method of inquiry and a way of making knowledge ratchet itself.
Tom Moynihan: It didn’t happen in China, even though it was way more advanced in many ways, in many measures. So that kind of tells you something about potentially—
Rob Wiblin: …it’s possible to get stuck.
Tom Moynihan: Exactly. And I think that that also applies to the evolution of intelligence. Paleoanthropologists point to this point in the human revolution, which is the emergence of behavioral modernity sometime from 50,000 to 75,000 years ago when humans developed culture, language, in the sense that we’d recognize it. I think that a similar thing applies there. So there was a post on the EA Forum that I saw by, I think it was Robert Harling. It was a really, really fantastic post on how we could rank order how bad certain existential catastrophes are based on how much of the vertebrate lineage they wipe out, because that then adjusts how much we should expect an interval of time for the re-evolution of intelligence. Now what I would stress from just bathing myself in all these people in the past highly confident about the tendency for intelligence to appear everywhere, to appear currently, to re-evolve on Earth…I would just be dubious about that.
Rob Wiblin: That it would happen at all, or that we can estimate exactly which filters are going to take the longest? Because we’re at N=1.
Tom Moynihan: Yeah. I think the latter, because with a sufficient amount of time, evolution will probably explore the whole morphospace or possibility of space, but that amount of time, and this is only something that as far as I’m aware is beginning to be explored by biologists now, that interval could be far wider than the life cycle of a star. So yeah, I think these are all things to take into account.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I guess on questions like if humanity was wiped out, would another similarly intelligent species arise again and how long would it take? And also, if we had a collapse of technologically advanced civilization or the kind of advanced civilization that we have now back to something much more basic, would we get back to the same position we are in today? We have so little data that it seems unlikely that you would want to put your estimate close to 0% likely, or to 100% likely. It’s going to probably be somewhere in the middle. I feel like it’s just going to be pretty radically uncertain, especially on the evolution one. If you’re like, “Well, what if we got rid of all of the primates and apes, then what would happen?” I feel like we’re pretty in the dark about that one.
Rob Wiblin: On the one of what happens if we had a nuclear war and things kind of fell apart and people weren’t using computers and advanced technology anymore, but there was still hundreds of millions of people, I feel on that one I have a bit more of an idea that I have an inside view about how people will behave. And I guess we understand how we got to where we are today with some level of understanding. So I feel maybe 90% confident that we would be able to eventually get back to where we are today, if we weren’t hit by some other catastrophe. But I suppose maybe I’m a bit reluctant to go above 90% because there’s still a lot of X factors, like maybe we misunderstand the process by which we got here.
Tom Moynihan: I’m on the same page as you with that. I’m not saying that it’s radically unlikely that after some collapse humanity would regain science as an important institution. And I say that because having a grand future is clearly gated on science in some sense. So yeah, no, I think we’re on the same page there. I think that there’s sometimes a sense of overconfidence coming from, I think a lack of—
Rob Wiblin: …people bank on “the future will look like the past,” so whatever happened last time, they may be pinning a little bit too closely to that when we just don’t have enough data to do it?
Tom Moynihan: Exactly. Yeah, in the same way that in evolutionary science, it went from this quite teleological confidence of there being this one kind of escalator going upwards towards civilization, bigger brains, intelligence, the progress since the modern synthesis in biology has been to, well in many quarters, has been to reassess that and actually stress the sheer contingency. The fact that there’s a lot of biases that go into us thinking that there’s that upwards elevator. And that comes from a big, wider appreciation of the degrees of freedom within that system. And I think that it’s the same with culture, civilization. Obviously it’s materially different, significantly different in lots of ways, because you’d hope that we converge on certain things like truth. I do think that an appreciation that there are more degrees of freedom within this system… But yeah, we’re on the same page. I don’t think that if there’s some collapse that leaves a significant portion of humanity behind, then we’d just live as subsistence farmers.
Rob Wiblin: I was reading this piece a couple of years ago by a physicist who was saying in the field of physics, we spent decades trying to come up with a better theory of everything that would be neater and simpler than the standard model while still explaining everything, and we haven’t had a whole lot of success. And he was saying maybe the problem is that we spend all of our time trying to come up with theories that are beautiful in our mind, that are the thing that we think should be right, and that means simple, so it’s parsimonious, and that often it has symmetry… So it’s a theory that’s simple and everything lines up and there’s matter and antimatter and so on and so on… But what if it’s just not like that?
Rob Wiblin: What if in fact the theory of everything is just a real mess, from our aesthetic point of view? It’s kind of related to the point that you were having about how in science, they come up with particular preconceptions about the methodology that has worked in the past, is it necessarily going to work in the future in making future discoveries. But I suppose if you only ever apply this one methodology, then you only ever will make discoveries that are consistent with that methodology, and you might miss out on stuff that you could have gotten if you’d applied a very different lens to it.
Tom Moynihan: Yeah, exactly. So I think, talking about simplicity and complexity, it’s very knotty, it’s very complex. We’re not talking here about these earlier metaphysical presuppositions, like the principle of plenitude, et cetera. Within science, the ideas and principles that have mislaid have often just worked very well in other places. So yeah, I was looking the other day at how the discovery of radioactivity changed ideas of the age of the earth, et cetera, because it meant that these earlier views of thermodynamics and this kind of short lifetime of the sun were radically expanded, and therefore the past could be as well. And yeah, you’d think that that creates what I was talking about earlier, this idea of enormous finitude that time is deep, but meaningfully deep in the sense that there’s actual bounds to it.
Tom Moynihan: But I was reading one of the geologists, John Joly, and he said that well, the earth has all this radioactive material and potentially it’s actually heating up rather than cooling down so that at some future point in time, it will become this molten mass again, but then it will cool down again. And then there’s just this cycle of things recurring and recurring and recurring. So you can see this kind of allergy towards origins or enormous finitudes or upper bounds, this idea that the eternal, time-reversible, cyclical system is just more aesthetically beautiful. And he actually says that in this passage that I’m referring to, he says it just agrees more with science, the idea of cyclicity and eternity. He’s just like, “It’s just because it’s more parsimonious.” So yeah, I think this is an idea that has historically waylaid people. Whether making meta-inductions about the history of science is very—
Rob Wiblin: …is warranted?
Tom Moynihan: Very risky territory. But yeah, I think that’s at least an important lesson to be imparted.
Big ideas that haven’t flowed through to all relevant fields yet [02:52:07]
Rob Wiblin: An obvious question would be, what do you think people are going to realize in hundreds of years’ time that we’re fundamentally getting wrong today? It seems like a very heavy lift to manage to step outside of our worldview so much that we can anticipate what people very far in the future will see that we got really wrong, but something that I think is maybe more practical for philosophers or people doing intellectual history is to think, what ideas do we already have that haven’t fully flowed through intellectually into all of the relevant fields? You talked about Darwinism, with evolution it seems like it took a long time for the full lessons of that to seep into all of the relevant disciplines. And to some extent, arguably, it still hasn’t done that today. Are there any other big ideas that you think someone could get mileage out of by saying, “What if I take this idea and apply it to this field where people haven’t yet taken it properly seriously yet?”
Tom Moynihan: That’s a really fantastic question. Really, really interesting, it never occurred to me. I think there are two answers to it — in terms of communication to wider audiences, but then also actually at the furnace doing novel conceptual work. In terms of communication, I think that the intuition of the sheer size of the observable accessible universe hasn’t quite sunk in. So I think that communicating that, because again, going back to the 1920s, Edwin Hubble, that’s about 100 years old now. I also think the current ideas of how much of it is just inorganic void radiation, I think that hasn’t sunk in either. I think a lot of people have this a priori assumption — a bit like earlier generations — that there’s probably interesting stuff going on in the vast majority of it, because it would be a waste of space otherwise.
Tom Moynihan: I think there’s a definite opportunity to be had in communicating these quite old insights, but linking them up to practical, or just big-picture, “What is to be done?” type questions. That’s where the work could be usefully done. So for example, this idea of the accessible universe, the effectable universe, Ord has just articulated that. The basic materials of that have been around for a very long time, in terms of cosmologists knowing about the observable universe and talking about it in those terms. So I think those are the places where, to go to the second point, novel conceptual work can be done. So for example, what I think Nick Bostrom did, almost single-handedly, making these questions about existential risk into a field of study, what he did was apply concepts from analytical philosophy, from economics, from evolutionary science, and applied them to domains that were previously considered science fiction, so talking about the far future. So I think that basic method—
Rob Wiblin: …that recipe…
Tom Moynihan: —Yeah, that basic recipe hasn’t been exhausted yet, so I think that there’s still plenty of things to be gained from that. As a final thing, I think a lot of concepts — and this is based on me seeing what’s going on now, what places I think interesting stuff is going on — concepts from dynamical systems theory are being applied to wider domains. So the talk about path dependence, for example, talk about ergodic systems, I think those things — and this is a very speculative claim — but I think those insights from chaos theory, systems theory, can usefully be applied to wider domains. Obviously we’re getting into the really speculative domain now, but applying them to sociology, or the study of civilizations, to what’s possible… It’s already being applied to evolution, so I think that there’s potential gains there as well.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I only thought about this question for a minute or two when I was writing it, but I think that the best one I could come up with was that maybe the idea of path dependence or just total contingency and the idea that things don’t always necessarily converge on the same outcome hasn’t been applied as much as it could in many different fields. It’s not a foreign idea, but I guess I think that the future is super contingent, and it could potentially hinge on things that a single person could plausibly do. Admittedly it probably would be the leader of a country or something like that. But I think people have a kind of aesthetic where they like to think of things as being somewhat more deterministic, like what is going to happen is going to happen. And I reckon that could be blinding us sometimes to important lessons.
Tom Moynihan: Yeah, I think — this is actually another failure of my book — my book doesn’t sufficiently make the distinction between thinking about human extinction as a possibility, plausibility, even probability, and the novel way of looking at that in terms of existential risk being expected value, future generations, how huge that is compared to even just the whole past of civilization. But also really stressing just how, sure, people have thought about human extinction for a couple of centuries now, but it’s only in the past couple of decades that people have started really thinking about it in this quite serious, error-responsive, scientific, rational way. Obviously you can find precursors, but I think that the sheer novelty of that is an important thing to stress, and it does come from the fact that I think the idea of historical contingency being applied to sciences and scientific-derived fields is in a sense quite novel.
Tom Moynihan: So to go back to what I was talking about earlier with the earth sciences and the revolution that happened in the 1980s with the impact hypothesis…but also yeah, the idea of path dependence. I’ve read economists who had interest in that idea, complaining about how there’s this allergy to it because the idea that history matters isn’t scientific, and we need these timeless principles. So yeah, I definitely agree, I think that the idea of contingence and the sheer scope of contingence and applying it beyond the places that we normally like to apply it — like counterfactual history, thinking what would have happened if Hitler did XYZ — applying it to these big picture questions, there’s definite scope for big gains there I think.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Actually another one, you had a talk about earlier, is optimization. Some fields like economics and engineering, perhaps applied engineering, are seeped in this idea of optimization and constrained optimization. But then there’s other fields where it seems to be largely absent, and isn’t part of the culture. Astonishingly, it seems like to some extent, this was true in moral philosophy, that the idea of maximizing moral value is not a fundamental thing within the field of moral philosophy. Obviously some people think about it, but it’s somewhat surprising that people haven’t gotten more mileage out of that.
Tom Moynihan: Yeah, and this is something that I’m going to be looking at for my next project hopefully, is the history of this type of thinking, where it came from. But just in terms of anecdotally, I still come across that, that’s one of the major pushbacks when I talk about this with people outside of the communities that I know will be responsive to it, is, why care about maximizing value? Why would you care about having a universe with more value in it? Just be happy with what’s here already. So yeah, it’ll be interesting doing the lineage of that type of thinking to see where the inertial force behind that intuition still derives from.
Failed predictions [02:59:01]
Rob Wiblin: Sticking with bigger picture lessons that we might be able to learn from intellectual history, what do you think we can learn from historical failures about x-risk predictions? When we think about how good is our thinking today… I can’t remember all of the specific examples, but in the early days in the 18th, 19th centuries, there were people who were worried about the earth cooling off really quickly because it would run out of energy. Or that it would overheat because all of this energy coming out from radiation inside the earth once they found out about that, and they were worried that would happen quite quickly.
Rob Wiblin: I think some people overestimated the risk of being hit by comets and things like that. Possibly our science and technology has advanced a lot and now we have a much better grasp of the probabilities of these different outcomes. But I guess those examples where, whenever people discovered a new phenomenon, a new area of science or geology or whatever, they would leap to making probabilistic estimates of future trajectories of things and often get it quite wrong… Maybe we should be similarly cautious about new phenomena that we have discovered that aren’t properly fully mature sciences yet.
Tom Moynihan: Yeah, so going back to what I was saying before, I think these earlier predictions are all kind of wildly wrong, or at least very often are, because they were throwaway speculations in an otherwise sober scientific paper. There are good reasons why scientists have often tried to stay away from talking about the end of the world. Again, this is something instilled by Newtonian science. Thinking that asteroids could actually affect terrestrial history? Leave that for the astrologists, that’s not for astronomers.
Tom Moynihan: So the history is interesting because you have to go and pick out these… It’s fun, you have to go and pick out these throwaway asides. They’re quite interesting, seeing an otherwise sensible scientist engaging in this quite speculative thinking. But because of that, because they were just the throwaway asides, there wasn’t a communal sense of trying to correct those errors, course correct, change, it was just these footnotes, these nice little probabilistic estimates that wouldn’t… The rest of the paper was what got attention and critique. What’s changed is that that’s now… There is just—
Rob Wiblin: …proper discipline.
Tom Moynihan: Exactly.
Rob Wiblin: It’s not a throwaway line, it’s the core topic of the paper: What is the probability of this terrible outcome?
Tom Moynihan: Yeah exactly, so therefore that’s the thing that other people will critique, they’ll course correct, or hopefully the things that have caused science to be so successful in the past will now kick in, in a way that they wouldn’t when it was just a footnote in a wider book. In terms of how the predictions have gone wrong in the past, I think the big one is AI and AI timelines. And Yudkowsky and Ord, referred to these brilliant instances of very knowledgeable people saying that flight, heavier-than-air flight, or unlocking nuclear energy are impossible years, months, sometimes even the day before they were, in a sense, unlocked. But there are a couple more interesting ones that I could add to that. They come from Haldane, that British Indian geneticist that I mentioned earlier. And I focus on him because he was an incredibly knowledgeable scientist, but also incredibly forward thinking. He was writing in the 1920s and 1930s about the long-range future of humanity.
Tom Moynihan: He’s one of the first people, along with Bernal, to really put it all together, the idea of just the sheer capaciousness of the future, the amount of goodness that could be in it, how long it could be. He’s great on all of that stuff. He’s this godfather of longtermism in a sense. But he gets these two really important things wrong. So the one is the nuclear energy one. He’s actually talking about the difference between natural risks and anthropogenic risks, this is an essay from 1927, and he says natural risks, background risks are probably very unlikely because we’ve existed thus far, therefore, we should worry about risks from human aggression, from technology. And he says civilization was probably invented once about 10,000 years ago, maybe in Egypt, it’s probably a really fragile thing, so if we mess it up, then maybe it won’t reemerge in the same way. But we should count ourselves lucky because the only way of actually destroying civilization across the whole world is by unlocking atomic energy, which in his words he says is “wildly unlikely.”
Tom Moynihan: And this essay was written in 1932, the year before Leo Szilard actually conceptualized the nuclear chain reaction. The other interesting one is in this fantastic text called The Last Judgment, where he’s, apart from H. G. Wells, he’s in a sense, the first person to really think about the long-range future of humanity. He talks about humanity becoming interplanetary, evolving into post-human states, and then at the end, so in the final page of this really brilliant piece of long-range prediction — and this is the first time I’ve ever found anyone say this — he says humanity could spread across the whole galaxy.
Tom Moynihan: And he gives an estimate of 80 trillion years lifetime for the whole galaxy, so therefore, if it spreads beyond that, it’s not anchored to the life cycle of a star, it’s anchored to the life cycle of the galaxy. And that’s 80 trillion years, lots of good things could happen. Then he laconically says, and there are other galaxies as well. This was in 1927. Brilliant long-range thinking, particularly for the time. But in this essay, he says, and because he’s helping himself to vast swaths of future time, and he’s talking about how humanity became interplanetary. And he gives an estimate of how long it takes for rocket flight to become feasible to the Moon, and then to Mars. And he gives an estimate of humanity first achieving interplanetary flight, or in the case of the Moon, flight to the Moon, he gives an estimate of 8 million years. So he thinks that in the year 8 million, humanity will achieve space flight. Now this was 42 years before humanity actually did land on the moon.
Rob Wiblin: That’s such a juxtaposition isn’t it? Between the optimism, or the big-picture thinking on the one side, and then the bizarre pessimism in some way that it would take us 8 million years.
Tom Moynihan: Yeah, he lists micrometeorites in the void of space, and the difficulty of decelerating on the other side. And also in the case of Mars, he thinks that there are current aliens living there that are aggressive. There are some rather strange things going on, but otherwise he’s got this really sober and forward-thinking worldview. The wider point is that these people who have otherwise created brilliant predictions that have in many ways stood the test of time, can just be wildly off. The difference between 42 years and 8 million years, in terms of achieving space flight, that’s the significant one. So I think that in terms of AI timelines, the track record is so bad that it’s good to err on the side of caution.
Rob Wiblin: Or to err on the side of very broad credences, like it could happen this decade, it could happen the decade after that, it could happen in 100 years. We should be pretty unsure, because we don’t have such a great track record of forecasts… I guess some people come with this presumption that we’ve always thought that things will happen sooner, but I think that’s not the case, people have erred in both directions pretty often.
Tom Moynihan: Yeah, so going back to the idea of future habitability, I was recently trying to track and chart how that’s changed across time, and it’s changed so drastically. Lord Kelvin said 6 million years future habitability based on the cooling of the sun. Then when Eddington suggested nuclear fusion as this potential power source that could create far more longevity, people updated their estimate of future habitability to 1 trillion years, so it’s all over the place. Yeah, it’s interesting in terms of the orders of magnitude of incorrectness.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. It seems like almost all of the people who’ve thought a lot about the future, some of them had some big hits, and even those people have had some big misses. That’s what I expect for myself as well, if I get some big hits then I’ll be happy, and it seems like it’s hard to do that without also getting some stuff wrong when you’re thinking about something that’s so hard to picture.
Intellectual history as high-impact career [03:06:56]
Rob Wiblin: Let’s push on and talk about intellectual history as a high-impact career. So yeah, as far as I know, we’ve never had a historian on the show before, which obviously means we haven’t had an intellectual historian either. And I think you’re reasonably familiar with 80,000 Hours’ goal of trying to help people have a bigger social impact with their career. Do you think some listeners should consider intellectual history as a potentially valuable career path to go on? And if so, why?
Tom Moynihan: Yeah, so I think that insofar as longtermism, EA-aligned with longtermism is about affecting the far future, trying to shape it positively, I think that there is actually a good case for history — not necessarily intellectual history, but history broadly — to play a bigger role in this new way of approaching priorities based on long arcs of history. So I do think that it can be impactful in the sense that it can actually derive lots of information value, so you can gain these nice insights and these things that we’ve been talking about a lot of, you almost get a sense of the heuristics of background assumptions or ‘crucial considerations.’ So that’s the term that Bostrom uses to basically describe a piece of information or knowledge that changes your whole priorities. So I think the example he uses is, if you’re lost in the woods and you’re using a compass, then you realize your compass is broken, that’s a crucial consideration.
Rob Wiblin: I guess the idea being that it doesn’t just mean that you should go one degree to the right, it means that everything is thrown into doubt.
Tom Moynihan: Exactly. So I think that it can be high-impact in the sense that there is a lot of information value to be derived here. I’ve noticed, there’s a post on the EA Forum of potentially valuable research areas in history, I think those are all brilliant. I think there was also an 80,000 Hours post talking about non-standard careers outside of the major priority areas, and one of them was a historian with a long-term arc of history specialization. Yeah, and so I think that there’s definitely a scope for this. I think that historians tend to not be EA-aligned, so there’s value for EAs to go and become historians and figure out the useful stuff. However, it is a non-standard career, and it’s also highly competitive and risky. If you want to reliably have an impact, it’s definitely not one to be advised. But if you want to take a big risk, maybe yeah.
Rob Wiblin: I think that’s probably the case with almost all academic or research careers — that, again, it’s hits based. Most researchers don’t have a massive social impact, but some of them really make important discoveries. I guess I would encourage people to make peace with that, rather than just try to play it super safe, because that limits your options so severely.
Tom Moynihan: Yeah, so I think that that’s the basic message that I want to give, is that, I think there’s scope for a lot of valuable information to be mined here, but the problem with that is that you don’t know what information… Particularly when you’re trying to find these long-term arcs or these stories about intellectual, moral, material, economic progress, you don’t know what you’re looking for ahead of time. I know that applies to almost all search functions in a sense, but you don’t know if it’s going to pay out in the end. So yeah, I do think because of that non-standardness and riskiness, I think that’s definitely something to consider. But I do think that, to put it simply, in EA and longtermism there’s so much history, there’s so much talk of history. The hinge of history, moral circle expansion, these are all historical ideas, progress itself is a historical idea. So there’s definite scope to do valuable work here.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah, I guess maybe to make things more concrete in people’s minds, do you have a rolodex in your mind of examples where history or intellectual history has proven really useful and made people’s lives better in some identifiable way?
Tom Moynihan: Yeah. So, probably because I’ve been reading about this recently, but I would point back to breaking the spell on uniformitarianism within earth sciences and also cosmology in a wider sense. A lot of the geologists and paleontologists involved in breaking that spell were also very interested in the intellectual history of why that dogmatic belief in the stability of the earth system had actually become so ingrained. Because that required intellectual history to unveil, that wasn’t for scientific, evidence-based reasons, it was for contingent social prestige reasons. And so it actually, I think, proved very useful there. Retelling the story of the field and retelling how Charles Lyell, this brilliant lawyer, had managed to make the case very persuasively for this particular worldview of the earth system, and it’s basically a closed system. Any kind of conscripting extraterrestrial causes in your explanations is as good as being some kind of theistic catastrophist crack. So, it was retelling this, the genesis of the field there, that actually in a sense I think definitely helped break the spell. So, I think that’s a good example of it proving useful.
Rob Wiblin: Are there any particularly valuable questions within intellectual history that you’d like to see people investigate that haven’t already come up? We’ve talked about quite a few.
Tom Moynihan: So, I think the question of the history of moral circle expansion and what are the causes that shift people’s intuitions outside of the kind of baseline of prejudice. Because you can go back and find people arguing for various very forward-thinking moral positions earlier than that actually spilled out and became a wider movement or a wider cause. So, something must’ve happened to create that critical mass. I think that that could be interesting. The Needham question that I spoke about earlier, this question of why one civilization you have over here, it’s actually far more technologically advanced…how they have something like a steam engine to open doors in the palaces, but just decide not to use it elsewhere. And then you have another civilization where something happens there that means that science locks in as an institution that perpetuates itself, perpetuates knowledge in a unique way.
Tom Moynihan: What are the institutions behind that? I think that there’s interesting research to be done there. Of course, and this is one that I’ve seen in various places, is researching the dynamics of lock-in. So, instances in the past where we can see clear path dependence in culture, values, et cetera. Also, again, another obvious one is studying the rise and fall of civilizations. What creates civilizational resilience? I think that making inductions from the past is dangerous because when civilizations have risen and fallen in the past, often it wasn’t a globalized technological civilization in the same way we have today, but people who have worked in this field have already kind of made that point. Tech trees, I think, are a really important and interesting place to try and look at. In a sense recreating the evolutionary tree of life, trying to do that for technology. And then that leads me to the final one that I find really interesting.
Tom Moynihan: And this comes from an idea that I got from a researcher Karim Jebari. He has, I think it’s a preprint paper currently, but it’s called Replaying history’s tape. And he’s taking those ideas of contingency and convergence from the biological sciences and seeing if they can be meaningfully applied to civilization and cultural progress and technological progress. So, as I was saying earlier, I think we do tend to overestimate the convergence or the recurrence or repeatability of a lot of insights, ideas, technologies. And the line is of course blurred. I would really love a map of cultural progress across different cultures, civilizations, and trying to map how convergent some might be.
Tom Moynihan: And obviously the way of measuring this, and Jebari kind of puts this forward in the paper, is that if you can see a cultural practice appearing independently in lots of places, you can kind of presume that it’s convergent in the same way as evolution. It becomes interesting because then when you get a more globalized society, it can appear in one place and then spread. So, there’s lots of interesting questions there I think to be had. And then, again, that can affect our judgments of how severe certain collapse events or very destructive global catastrophic risks are. So, I think there’s lots to be done there.
Communicating progress [03:15:07]
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I guess one kind of very practical history that some people have been doing, I guess I’ve seen more of it over the last 10 years than before, is just try to create graphs that show people how life expectancy or income or education have changed over the last two centuries. I mean, people dispute whether these time series are quite right, like maybe things have been mis-measured in the past and things haven’t improved as much as they appear to. But I guess because so much of the improvement is gradual in these various measures, like how many people are dying of disease, how healthy are they, how long are they living, how much are they earning? It’s very easy to kind of memory hole the fact that the past was just really awful and in so many ways.
Rob Wiblin: And it means that people don’t realize that, at least in my opinion, I think things are getting gradually better, and by most dimensions, not every one, but by most of them. And it is kind of really important to know that as a historical point, because if things are getting better, then we don’t want to throw out the system necessarily. We want to kind of preserve what is good in allowing progress to occur now, and to have occurred over the last 100 years. On the other hand, if things are stagnant or going backwards, then maybe we do really want to change things in a really big way, because the current system isn’t working. So, I think that has been really important work that people have been doing, trying to correct the misperception that people have that the world is going to the dogs, and that people are more unhealthy now than in the past, or that crime is much higher than it was in the past. So many of these things are just empirically incorrect.
Tom Moynihan: Yeah. I think that, again, in terms of what I was mentioning earlier in terms of communication to wider audiences, I think that’s something that would be incredibly useful. I do get that and it’s obviously very hard to measure these things and quantify them, but I do often get the sense that there is a wide sense of malaise about future human potential, whether humanity itself is even a good thing, within wider culture. And again, this is purely anecdotal. It’s not based on any kind of data, but responses to articles that I write online where there’s a comment section, it’s often people saying, “Oh, extinction would be good.” And I’m sure lots of people that work in existential risk have had these similar discussions with someone as kind of a well-worn story now, that someone who would hate the murder of a child might speculate about human extinction being a good thing.
Tom Moynihan: So, I mean, I talk a lot in the book about this being a question of maturity, and that’s using this quite lofty Enlightenment language of, again, the Enlightenment being humanity kind of emerging from immaturity. And a lot of people respond to me saying, “So you think that we’re currently mature and everyone before us was immature, how megalomaniacal of you.” But I think I didn’t stress enough that I’m not saying we’ve reached any completion of that. This process of maturity is, well, we’re probably just very, very near the beginning. We’ve only just awoken to the possibility that it could go on for a lot longer. And so-
Rob Wiblin: It’s more like they’re 11 years old or we’re 12 years old.
Tom Moynihan: Exactly. So I’m not saying that we’ve kind of maxed out maturity. I’m saying that we’ve almost become 11 years, 12 years old in the sense of making that analogy. And again, this is something from speaking to Toby Ord, he proposed this idea that humanity is kind of in this almost adolescent phase, where it has for the first time realized that it can wreak consequences on the world. And by necessity, therefore wreak good as well as bad. And I think you can analogize it to this juvenile state of mind I’m sure everyone’s gone through, when you first become aware of the responsibility of your own actions and you do something really awful. And then maybe you feel really dejected and really awful about yourself and you feel that maybe it would be better off if you weren’t around. Again, these analogies are very diffuse, very abstract, in a sense, quite simplistic.
Tom Moynihan: But nonetheless, I do think that there’s a truth there. As a civilization, as a global collective, humanity has created the means to do observable very obvious harm, but also massive amounts of consequential good in the past century or so. And it’s kind of going through that phase after having to deal with that… I think that’s what in a sense can explain some of that malaise. So, the collective trauma of the Holocaust is something that intellectuals often point to as almost a disproof of human potential, or the potential for humans to do good in the world. I think that’s actually just a really massively monumentally important lesson, but it’s almost this kind of very constricted historical view that we’re just doomed to repeat the atrocities of the previous century for the whole of the rest of the time we’re around on the planet.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. It’s almost a little bit embarrassing, I feel it’s embarrassing that like a lot of people who have basically the best lives that people have ever lived, or are pampered in terms of health and income and general quality of life, find themselves able to be so much more negative about their own life and the prospects for the world than people who lived such more difficult lives. Just, I guess, like people in China today, in many cases who nonetheless are positive about things because they see the trends. Or people in the 50s who were still dying of all these preventable diseases, but nonetheless thought that they could make the world a whole much better place.
Rob Wiblin: I don’t know, now I’m just ranting, but it’s a really interesting phenomenon that… I guess you could understand it if it was specific families, say, who had gone backwards economically or who were in harder times now than they were in the 70s. But it doesn’t seem to be connected with personal economic circumstances or how people’s lives are going. Many people have lives that are going perfectly well, and nonetheless buy into this pessimistic worldview, this pessimistic kind of fashionable perspective on things. And yeah, I don’t like it.
Tom Moynihan: Yeah. I mean, what’s always shocking to me is how fashionable it is, like you say, and how often you’ll find people that you wouldn’t otherwise expect to engage in these things doing so. So, I mean, like I said, I used to be far more pessimistic about things, but I think that’s just in a sense the cultural default. And I think there’s also a sense of prestige on it to—
Rob Wiblin: …to be cynical.
Tom Moynihan: Exactly.
Rob Wiblin: To be jaded. That’s the wise position, whereas it’s like fools like me who haven’t thought about it who are optimistic about the future, because we don’t realize how bad things really are.
Tom Moynihan: Yeah. Well, I think there’s this Panglossian optimistic phase in the early Enlightenment then that continues through into the vast investment in inevitable teleological process in the 19th century. And then that gets obliterated by a lot of the events of the 20th century. So now there’s this kind of overriding pessimism, but I think that comes from this narrow view of, well, the fact that yes, progress is possible, but the stress is on possible. William James has this really great quote where he says something like, “Progressivists think that progress is inevitable. Meliorists think it’s possible.” So, it’s this idea of meliorism and also the sheer fragility of all of that potential. That’s a novel view as far as I’m aware in terms of having a wide community cause, movement, however you want to put it, actually articulating that. So, hopefully it seeps in and this cultural malaise will eventually be—
Rob Wiblin: …will at some point break. Yeah. I guess I should qualify that I know people who have thought about this a great deal and have very sophisticated or thought-through views for why they think perhaps things are more likely to go badly than to go well. I think that the thing that’s more strange is among people for whom this isn’t something that they really study or think about very much, it’s something that they might just occasionally bring up at dinner because it’s interesting to say that society is terrible and going to get worse. Why are they so much more inclined to adopt the view that things are going to go badly than to say that things are likely to go positively? Whereas I guess in the past, we similarly hadn’t thought about it that deeply but were probably more likely to say the reverse. Yeah, that’s an interesting phenomenon.
Tom Moynihan: Yeah.
What careers in history actually look like [03:23:03]
Rob Wiblin: Let’s move on from talking about how these careers might be useful to think about what they might actually look like in practice for someone who was trying to pursue them. I don’t know a whole lot about history careers, but I kind of have this stereotype that it might be really hard to get a job in history, especially in academia because lots of people study history potentially as undergraduates or find it really intellectually stimulating, and then when they graduate, it’s not a huge industry trying to potentially poach them to apply history to very lucrative ends. And so there might be a lot of people applying for these academic history roles that are probably somewhat limited. Is that kind of right, that it’s a difficult and potentially quite demanding path academically?
Tom Moynihan: I think it definitely is, at least in my personal experience. And I think that’s because a lot of historians, again, this is a vast and unfair and perhaps silly generalization, but a lot of historians aren’t focused on impact in the way that we’re talking about. So it’s not seen as an impactful career in that sense. And when I started down the track, I wasn’t sensitive to any of those things. I mean, this was a very long time ago now, but I wasn’t thinking about that. Luckily, I woke up to it later on. But so, I mean, for example, after finishing my PhD a few years ago, I applied for upwards of 30 jobs, only got replies on about five of them, and they were all negative replies. So, there’s a lot of failure and I think, and you just have to become used to it if you’re going to take the path of academia, but particularly humanities academia, and particularly the softer end of the humanities. So, it is difficult.
Rob Wiblin: So, for the kind of work that we’d like to see more people do, is the path to study history as an undergraduate potentially, and then do a postgraduate degree, and then is it basically just academia, or are there kind of other roles that you might be able to go into where you’d be able to do valuable research?
Tom Moynihan: I’m not so sure. I think you mention on the 80K website that specializing in being an economist is probably a safer route, because then you have other options elsewhere. So, I actually took an, again, an even more non-standard route, because I didn’t do history as an undergraduate. I did English. Luckily enough, where I did it, in Oxford, you can kind of just do whatever you want. So, I just decided to specialize in the history of ideas and was lucky enough to get a PhD supervisor who also did that. So, I think at least in my own personal experience, doing academia and doing it right is probably more luck than anything else. I think that’s just an important thing to take into consideration. But in terms of doing this useful historical work, I think that there are opportunities within the EA sphere to get funding for these things. So, whether you classify that as academia or not, I think that there is this emerging space of opportunity to do these things and get supported for it.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. So, who’s funding your work at the moment.? Are you funded specifically, or does the funding just come through Oxford or the Future of Humanity Institute in general?
Tom Moynihan: It’s through the Berkeley Existential Risk Initiative (BERI). So, I do research contracting for the Future of Humanity Institute, but the paycheck comes from BERI. The contract is then supervised by FHI. So, it’s an interesting kind of semi-independent role, but, I mean, I’m very thankful for it, because the opportunity arrived when I was quite close to giving up on the whole academia thing. So I would say that it’s a very… It’s a hard career to get right. And I’m prone to think that there’s a lot of luck that has gone into me getting it right. As long as you have the baseline skill to produce something productive and useful… Again, we’re talking about contingency here.
Rob Wiblin: It does seem like over the last 10 years there has definitely been a trend towards there being more money available to fund this kind of research in somewhat random fields or in random topics, inasmuch as donors think that it’s relevant to effective altruism or I guess longtermism and existential risk specifically. So, I suppose that could change, but it’s something that if you were thinking, oh I might be looking for a job and I’d like to study something that’s relevant to longtermism in five years’ time, maybe one path is just try to go the traditional standard academia route. And maybe you get in, but the odds are somewhat stacked against you, unless you happen to be really unusually brilliant.
Rob Wiblin: But then there is this kind of backup route of getting funding directly from people who care about you doing research on specific topics and trying to learn these answers themselves, which I guess it feels like for many people studying many other things, it’s much harder to find philanthropic funding to pursue their interests in whatever academic field. If they don’t get a job in academia, then that might be it.
Tom Moynihan: I want to stress that a lot of this is colored by personal experience — the people that I knew, the people that I know within academia — but I think lots of academics go into academia with a very individualistic sense of what they’re going to contribute. This one big vision. And so I think that if you want to put your weight behind a movement, like you mentioned, that you’re more likely to then get that funding. So, I think that if you go into it wanting to already participate in some kind of ongoing space with good funding and opportunities within it, then I think you’re more likely to. But at least within the humanities, there is this kind of, oh, I’m going to contribute this, my individual vision, my own philosophy. So, I think that might be one of the reasons why it is in the state that it is in at the moment.
Rob Wiblin: It sounded like you were suggesting earlier that maybe if someone wanted to go into history, it might be better to study in an adjacent field, I guess, especially potentially economics, because it’s not so hard to transfer from doing some sort of economics-related PhD into history. But if you end up deciding not to do that, then you have stronger backup options than you might if you’d just done a narrow history PhD.
Tom Moynihan: Yeah. And I think there’s another reason to put on top of that. It’s just far more likely to give dividends in terms of things that people will find useful, because it’s more quantitative, more evidence-based, it’s harder, in that sense of the word, I think. And it’s also, I think it’s more obvious that if you want to do progress studies, for example, it’s more obvious that you should go into economics. And when I say that, I think there’s a good reason for that. The idea side of things I think is under-appreciated that it’s even useful in the first place. I mean, I hope that I have made some case for its usefulness. But I think that it’s just, it requires a bit more persuasion. It requires a bit more explaining why it’s even something in the first place.
Tom Moynihan: Because I just think that there is an attitude that there’s this kind of transtemporal menu of ideas and people just select different parts from that over time, rather than the vision that I’ve tried to present, which is, and I keep using these evolutionary metaphors, but that there’s these dependencies and one insight is gated on another in the same way that you couldn’t have mammals without vertebrates. The same thing applies to ideas. So I think that takes just a bit more persuasion. In terms of places that in the past have reliably paid dividends, I think economic history and maybe the history of technology have just more reliably been things that have produced impactful results.
Rob Wiblin: This might be a really hard question to answer or sum up, but what is the worldview of history as an academic discipline? What do historians as a group think is their role? What do they think are the priorities for historians as a field?
Tom Moynihan: Yeah, I really don’t think I could answer that.
Rob Wiblin: It’s just all over the place a bit?
Tom Moynihan: Yeah. Well, I think, again, even just the outlook of the history of ideas, you do get departments that do it, and it’s often something you can specialize in, in a master’s course, but even then, it’s kind of on the periphery. Most history in history departments is material history, military history, not all, in any sense, but it’s more based on the history that you’d recognize as what you get taught in school. It’s not necessarily the history of philosophy or the history of science, although those are things that you can specialize in, in lots of courses.
Rob Wiblin: Okay. So you’d say, as a rule, historians do study the things that you might expect them to do, like what happened in World War II, you had this king, then that king, then that king. That’s where a lot of the work is going.
Tom Moynihan: Yeah. I think at least in my experience — and I’m sure if there are any actual historians listening, they’re probably tearing their hair out right now and saying I’m wrong — but again, at least in my experience, that is what a lot of history does focus on. Again, there’s so much range within, we’re talking about a whole discipline here. I appreciate the question, but it’s kind of like asking, “What do scientists do?”
Rob Wiblin: …“What do scientists do?”
Tom Moynihan: Yeah.
Rob Wiblin: Fair enough, yeah. Do you have any visions for how future history of ideas or intellectual history might be able to deliver concrete benefits that you might hope to see in your lifetime?
Tom Moynihan: Yeah, so an important one, I think, is it shows in a structured rather than globally skeptical, relativistic way how wrong our basic intuitions can be about the world, how everything fits together, and how our goals or what we think should be…what doing good means within that world. It shows us how wrong our basic intuitions can be.
Tom Moynihan: And I think that’s really important for talking about things like longtermism, because it does kind of clash with a lot of basic intuitions. And I think that’s often, in a sense, the kick back against it when you get people that are skeptical about it. So in a sense, we’re just showing how vastly misfiring all of our intuitions have been for a very long time. And again, I qualify that by saying we’ve reached a level of maturity where we’re mature enough to realize that we can go wrong. And that in itself is monumental, right? We’ve realized that error is a significant thing in our reasoning. So we’ve still got a long way to go.
Tom Moynihan: But, yeah, in another sense, I think that when we’re talking about movements and building movements, the history of ideas is useful because it makes explicit underlying background assumptions that are required for that worldview. So if it’s true what I’ve been saying about the fact that we take a lot of ideas for granted that are actually doing a ton of the inner workings of a lot of the production, the output, of our ideas at the end, in terms of what should be done or what in fact is, if that is true, then we aren’t actually aware of a lot of what’s going on upstream of our worldview.
Tom Moynihan: And so recapitulating through history actually forces you to make explicit some of those basic insights. So one of the ones that I’ve been talking about a lot is these ideas about possibility, or ideas about habitability, or time, these really basic ones that we all take for granted now. So I think actually making them explicit is very useful because it, in a sense, creates a high-level recipe. It maps out how to retain that worldview and so it can create resilience for it. So I think that’s an important thing to think about.
Tom Moynihan: Also, I think that just in terms of importance… So we wouldn’t know how significant the contributions of Galileo or one of the other classic heroes of modern science, we wouldn’t know how important what they contributed was if we didn’t know how wrong everything was beforehand. And so, I say this in the sense of contributing to the discussion about the hinge of history, is this talk about influence and influence of previous generations… I think that you could make the claim that regardless of whether the current generation is the most influential one across time, you could actually make the claim that it’s the first generation to be influential in the sense of influence based on intentional and informed decision.
Tom Moynihan: So I would point towards classic examples of highly influential people in history, Jesus, or highly influential institutions, the Catholic church. They were vastly influential and continue to be, but not in the sense of informed intentional decisions. Jesus, in particular, his disciples wanted to be influential in the sense of actually ending the universe, right, in the sense of accelerating rapture. So they were, I shouldn’t use the word influential, but they perpetuated or propagated a consistent effect upon the world, but not in the way that they wanted or not even the way that they could even envision because they didn’t have an idea of a secular, open-ended, contingent future that could be influenced by present decisions, et cetera, et cetera.
Tom Moynihan: So they were… I think, again, a biological analogy that’s useful here is that species want to perpetuate themselves, but that “want” comes with big scare quotes because it’s basically instinctual, it’s blind, there’s not an explicit theory of change or a model of how to actually create change. So I would make the claim — this is quite a strong claim, and I want to go and do more research to back it up — but I think that we could be the first generation where all those insights have actually come together. Wherein you can actually make an intentional, informed, error-sensitive, evidence-based, rational decision on shaping the far future.
Tom Moynihan: And so, that piles on further pressure, because we don’t want to create negative founders’ effects, et cetera, et cetera. But I think it’s a useful thing to know, because you can find people, you can point out people talking about whether the first humans were the most influential people, and that’s just missing the point. Again, I’m talking about the history of ideas. It’s like the backbone of all of our thinking, and we take it for granted because it’s just doing its work silently behind us.
Tom Moynihan: So yeah, I think that’s an important thing that can come from the history of ideas, is actually weighing up our influentialness and where we stand, and where we stand within the wider arc of history, because in a sense, that’s what this is all about.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. That just prompted me to think about this aside. I’ve been listening to these lectures on the history of ancient Egypt and how they thought about things. And it talks about this one pharaoh around 1500 BC whose name was Akhenaten, who, I guess some people have described — perhaps just as a thought provoking idea — as the first individual in history. Because it’s maybe the first person where we have lots of written records of them attempting to completely revolutionize their society.
Rob Wiblin: So Akhenaten basically became a cult leader for this new religion that was very different from the existing Egyptian religion, which had been carrying on more or less unchanged for 1500 years. And he basically tried to get what at the time was the most advanced civilization in the world to completely change its whole ideology, to change all of their religious views and to change their practices, and to move the capital. All of that just single-handedly, I think, because he had these particular religious convictions.
Rob Wiblin: And it didn’t work. He died and it was all reversed. But it’s interesting that we can maybe pinpoint… Because written records don’t go back that long… It’s an example of someone really just completely trying to change history individually, seeing that for the first time. I’m not quite sure how that connects to what you’re saying, but I think it’s super fascinating and [we’ll link to some articles about Akhenaten as a pharaoh].
Tom Moynihan: Yeah. I mean, that sounds very interesting. I’ve definitely got to check that out. So it does connect to what I was saying, because obviously, there’s a rich history of thinking about intergenerational justice and these questions, but there’s a distinction to be made. So, of course, creating pyramids, obelisks, sphinxes is, in a sense, you want to affect the future. You want to create a long-term propagating effect on it, but it’s very different, at least in my view. And again, like I said earlier, I want to go and shore this up and make sure that it’s actually based on a lot more evidence.
Tom Moynihan: But when you look at these attitudes in elder times, it’s the dead hand of the past on the future. It’s a sense of lording it over the future, of just showing how influential you were. Or another way of putting that, and this is, I was reading about ideas of generational, intergenerational justice in the Christian tradition and also in ancient Greek and Plato, et cetera. It’s often, I would say, a very partial idea in the sense of the opposite of impartial — you care about future generations because they’re you, in some sense, because they’re just different versions of you, in the sense that the selfish idea of reproduction or creating progeny is you’re just creating more of yourself, right?
Tom Moynihan: So, these elder traditions, when they’re talking about future generations, they’re talking about future generations of the same clan, of the same kin. What’s novel in modern thinking about future generations, and I would say, again, in my cursory beginning research on this topic, it really does begin with people like Sidgwick and also the economist who is very influenced by him, Francis Edgeworth, and this is in the latter 1800s… You actually begin to get this impartial sense of the value of future generations, where it’s not the dead hand of the past on the future, and neither is it you care about the future because it’s you, or it’s a propagated version of you. You care about it impartially, regardless of what they look like, who they are, how different they might be from you.
Tom Moynihan: There’s actually a quote from Edgeworth that I wanted to read if that’s alright.
Rob Wiblin: Go for it.
Tom Moynihan: So this is, yeah, I think this is around the 1870s, and you get this shift in thinking about future generations, I think, around this time. So Edgeworth says, “But can we be certain that this method of total selection, of resource allocation, holds good when we provide not only for the next generation, but for the indefinite future? In the continuous series of generations, wave propagating wave, onward through all time, it is required to determine what wavelet, each section of each wave, shall contribute to the proximate propagated wave, so that the whole sum of light of joy, which glows in the long line of waves shall be the greatest possible.”
Rob Wiblin: You’re going to have to translate that for me.
Tom Moynihan: He’s just saying that we can think of the human lineage in this expanded sense where, again, it’s impartial and we can think about it as this long trajectory, this long wave. You can zoom in and we see that we’re each, in the same way that you zoom in on a wave and you can find smaller waves within it, we’re each these smaller waves. And we have to decide how much we want to sacrifice for the future to create the maximum sum of joy possible across that whole vast wave.
Tom Moynihan: Now, that’s just very different from Plato or early Christian philosophers talking about how the Bible or the ideal state demands that we care about future generations that are, in a sense, just going to be the same as us. So yeah, I think that’s an incredibly important and novel, modern insight. And yeah, to go back to what we were saying about pharaohs versus us, the current generation, people only started talking in that sense sometime in the 1870s. It builds, it builds, it builds. And I think only now, people are just spending their entire lives thinking about the ethics of these things. That’s the way that Parfit puts it.
Tom Moynihan: So, yeah, in a sense, we live in a hinge of history, as I was saying earlier, but potentially the first, in the sense of not just in a fork event — because obviously those have happened before, places where stuff could have gone very badly, irreversibly wrong — but we’re at a point where we have the minimal amounts of insight about how the world hangs together and our ideas and goals within it, wherein we can actually make an informed, intentional decision. I think that you could make that argument. Again, I’m not putting full confidence in it at all, but I think that that’s an argument that could be made. And it’s an insight that you only get from looking at the history of ideas.
Tom’s next major project [03:43:06]
Rob Wiblin: What are some interesting things that you’ve learned from your early research for your next major project?
Tom Moynihan: Yeah, so that’s one of them, this shift in thinking about intergenerational ethics and where that came from, why it was obstructed for so long. There are other ones that I’m looking at in terms of, again, as I was mentioning earlier, how ideas of the upper bounds of habitability, or the upper bounds of the lifespan of humanity, human-descended things has changed.
Tom Moynihan: There’s also, I’m very excited and trying to get really into the technicals of thinking about how history became contingent, in the sense of people recognizing that there are these forks and pathways. How did those models begin? And also, really getting to grips with the idea of path dependence and where that emerges. Because as far as I’m aware, no one’s actually really looked into that history yet.
Tom Moynihan: So yeah, lots of these, and also just the idea of influentialness, and all of these ideas going into the longtermist worldview. It’s just some really exciting stuff. And I think that the previous project of looking at the history of human extinction has been revealed in a sense to be just this subset of this wider thing of, how did people begin really caring about the far future and realizing that the lion’s share of value could potentially exist out—
Rob Wiblin: …be in the future.
Tom Moynihan: Yeah.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. So I was going to ask how you feel about effective altruism and longtermism, but I think it’s somewhat come out through this conversation that you kind of like both of them. You think longtermism and effective altruism are both pretty cool. Is there some risk to studying a community or a perspective that you consider yourself to be involved with, a part of, an advocate for? It seems like that could potentially blind you to some aspects of it that you wouldn’t want to believe.
Tom Moynihan: Yeah. So I think that, of course, that is a risk. And you have to be aware of, particularly when you’re doing the type of history that isn’t the Foucauldian let’s just uncover the global relativism of all of our normative claims. Let’s disappear into the miasma of relativism. Let’s undermine everything. And I’m not saying that that’s a dichotomy and there are only those two mutually exclusive options.
Tom Moynihan: But when you’re trying to do the other type, where you’re trying to put into relief these clear gains and insights or moral progress, it can become a triumphalist narrative. It can become teleological in the bad sense. I mean, again, it’s just a potential biasing factor that I have to be aware of. I mean, one thing is that it took me a long time to actually fully come around to all of the principles of EA and longtermism, more so EA. I think it was actually this more recent phase where longtermism has come to the fore. That’s what just gelled with me more naturally, but it took me a long time.
Tom Moynihan: So like I said, very early on, and I don’t want to talk about an intellectual trajectory or career, because I’m still incredibly young, and it sounds pompous and pretentious. But at the very beginning, I had this post-modern, anti-enlightenment, anti-humanist outlook. I quickly got rid of that and then had this Kantian outlook and was interested in human extinction because of deontological reasons. And yeah, it’s only more recently that I’ve really realized that there’s stronger arguments against it. And also just thinking about it more clearly, and, ironically, more consequentially, comes from taking a more consequentialist attitude. And it’s the idea of impartial value, the perspective of the universe, those are the kickers, I think.
Tom Moynihan: So I think that, in a sense, doesn’t provide much protection, but might provide a tiny bit, is that I wasn’t always a convert. I was working on these questions for different reasons originally and came around to it through—
Rob Wiblin: …you were convinced.
Tom Moynihan: —a delayed process. Yeah. I think it was a process of convincing.
Rob Wiblin: So I suppose maybe that gives you partial protection right now, because you’ve really come around to it recently, a lot of your ideas you were having before you were maybe socially committed to any particular view. I guess in the future, the protection might be external critique. People will tell you when you’re wrong and argue against your views, and you’ll have to see, do your books stand up. Have you received any useful negative reviews maybe, or has there been any feedback from people who are thoughtful, who have given you pause about anything in the book?
Tom Moynihan: It’s often people pointing out or just saying, have you thought about this other tradition? People who know a lot more about those things are like, oh, there are aspects of this tradition that reached these kinds of things a bit earlier than I would have thought. Those are really useful. Again, I’m going to be quite bullish. I don’t think that the idea of human extinction in the physicalistic, scientific sense did appear in, say, XYZ continent in 3000 BC. In the same way that we were talking about the Precambrian rabbit that would disprove evolution, I think that that’s my Precambrian rabbit. I don’t think that’s going to happen. But certain insights that are very important to it, I think were probably reached earlier in different traditions than in the European, Anglophone, Francophone, Germanophone one that I’m kind of entrenched in.
Rob Wiblin: That’s really interesting if there’s been more than one conception. I mean, it’s very understandable that you have much more coverage of European thought, because it’s just so much easier for you to access and so much more familiar. But I guess by the time when you’re starting to really look into lots of details of European thought, just a single example of something from a properly separated culture is so much more useful for getting a sense of what people can believe and in what directions ideology can go, because the cross-contamination just reduces the sample size so massively.
Tom Moynihan: I mean, the one I’m really interested in is looking at philosophy of history and historiography in the Chinese tradition. There’s this old story in history and the history of ideas, that they had this inherently entrenched cyclical view of history. I get the sense that that might be wrong, so I’m going to go out and check that out. And again, that’s from having spoken to people that know a lot more about the history of ideas in China. So yeah, I think it’s things like that.
Tom Moynihan: Also, just through talking to people, pointing out the tension that we spoke about earlier, how I stress this idea of humanity bravely defining values against this indifferent universe. And then you fall into that Epicurean thing of, well, if they’re the only thing defining value, does it matter if they disappear? You have to have that more impartial view. And also, you want to stress the significance of non-sapient, sentient life as well. That’s something that I’ve updated on, having spoken to people after the book came out.
Rob Wiblin: Is there any simple way of summing up how it is that you went from embracing a more critical post-modernist perspective to believing, to some degree, in the positive march of history?
Tom Moynihan: It was from actually reading Enlightenment texts for the first time. So this is a long time ago. For undergraduates, you’re taught to do, or I was taught to do, it’s the Foucault, Derrida, that kind of outlook. Deconstruction was very popular back then. I don’t think it is as much anymore, but it was. And then, the things you’re deconstructing, you’re meant to go out and rebelliously go and deconstruct the great Enlightenment texts. That’s where the low-hanging fruit or the soft underbelly of humanity is, to go and deconstruct.
Tom Moynihan: And I obviously had to read those texts. And I was just very convinced, initially, by Kant. It was Kant that really, I was like, okay, this guy is actually far more coherent than Foucault, for example. It was also reading analytical philosophy, as opposed to continental philosophy, very early on. So again, I’m talking about 10 years ago. Again, this shows how young and early in my career I am, that that seems long ago to me. But, yeah, actually engaging with analytical philosophy and thinking, this is rigorous and the rigor allows you to do more things. So it’s in a sense of constraints.
Tom Moynihan: There’s, I think, funnily enough, quite a libertarian idea of freedom in continental tradition, that it’s just rejecting authority, norms, constraints, because they’re all arbitrary. And that’s how you get freedom. I think I arrived at this more positive sense of freedom, that the constraints of rigor, actually those are enabling constraints and they actually allow you just to think more. And I mean that in terms of scope, not just in terms of sitting down and spending more time thinking. But, yeah, I think it just widens the scope of what you can think, and I found that incredibly interesting. So I think that was the conversion moment, so to speak.
One of the funniest things past generations believed [03:51:50]
Rob Wiblin: Alright. We’ve been going for quite a while and I’ve got to get off to a housemate’s birthday party. Maybe to finish off, I’d be interested to know whether you have an answer to this one. I guess, what are some of the funniest things that the ancients believed, or maybe even took for granted, in your view? Are there any other ones that we haven’t talked about already?
Tom Moynihan: So there’s one that I think is great. So it’s not ancient, actually, it’s early moderns. So the question of embryology was, and I’m sure a lot of your listeners have heard this before, because it’s one of the famous, funny things that ancients thought. But I think not many people will know the sheer extent of how crazy it got. So in the field of embryology, there wasn’t, before microscopes, there wasn’t really a sense of how any of that works. And they had this, well, this was prior to the idea of epigenesis. So epigenesis, not epigenetics in the modern area of evolution, but epigenesis in the sense of an animal being formed from an unformed mass. There wasn’t that sense of how that works. And so they believed in this thing called preformation, which was the idea that within the ovule or the sperm of an animal is contained its offspring in miniature form.
Rob Wiblin: So there’d be a tiny person.
Tom Moynihan: Exactly. So this is the homunculus theory. So I’m sure everyone has seen the brilliant illustration of a sperm with a little man inside it. So this is the homunculus theory based on preformation. And this led a lot of people to actually, when they started to think it through… So it was a French philosopher, Malebranche, who said, well, if one is contained in the other one, then surely that goes on forever. And then said, well, at the beginning of creation, all humanity was contained within Adam’s sperm. So this idea that the whole of the whole of all future generations were there, present at the beginning of creation and just had to be—
Rob Wiblin: …like babushka dolls, the Russian dolls.
Tom Moynihan: Exactly.
Rob Wiblin: Just ever smaller.
Tom Moynihan: Yeah, yeah, exactly. So they had to just be progressively unfurled. And that’s all that time and intergenerational filiation is, is just unfolding these preexisting, preformed people. When people discovered sperm under the microscope, the question became, oh my God, so many of these are going to waste. Again, this idea, this intuition of, this allergy to the idea of waste in the natural world. So Leibniz said oh, no, so these all do contain micro-people down infinitely, in terms of this infinitely divisible matter, but they don’t get wasted they just lie latent until they can find something to inseminate and create life somewhere.
Tom Moynihan: So, yeah, I guess where I’m going with this is if that was still something we thought, I wonder what population ethics would look like.
Rob Wiblin: Was this a common view or was this the purview of strange philosophers?
Tom Moynihan: So again, like we said earlier, I don’t think many normal people were even thinking about embryology—
Rob Wiblin: …thinking about sperm.
Tom Moynihan: Yeah. Most people didn’t have the time in between hard work and a pretty miserable existence a lot of the time to actually think about these things. But yeah, I mean, there was a rife argument when the idea of epigenesis emerged, there was an argument ongoing for a century or so between these learned scientists on whether it was preformation or epigenesis. But yeah, again, it just shows you how wrong our basic intuitions are about the world. We didn’t even realize that animals are created from scratch, so to speak.
Rob Wiblin: I guess the past is full of more incredible beliefs than our historians can even imagine.
Tom Moynihan: Yeah, well, it’s the job of the future historians to uncover our ones.
Rob Wiblin: That should be quite entertaining for them.
Rob Wiblin: My guest today has been Tom Moynihan, and the book is X-Risk: How Humanity Discovered Its Own Extinction. Thanks so much for coming on the show, Tom. This has been super fun.
Tom Moynihan: Yeah, thank you. This has been an absolute joy.
Rob’s outro [03:55:47]
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