Wednesday, May 13, 2009

What if things are going to end very badly?

Now when suffering is marshalled forth as the first among the arguments against existence, as its nastiest question mark, one would do well to remember the times when one made the reverse judgement because one did not wish to do without making-suffer, and saw in it an enchantment of the first rank, an actual seductive lure to life.

Here is something to think about before you consider taking an intellectual holiday. If the world is going to end badly, is this a bad thing now? Normally, I guess we think of something as good or bad without relativising it to time. So what am I getting at?

The chances are that the world is going to end badly, and not just badly, but very badly. My question is: "If it is going to do so in the very distant future, does that matter now?"

Or, to put it another way, "Are distant events morally insulated from us by their distance from us?"

Why do I say the world is likely to end very badly? Well, the most likely scenario, leaving aside humanity's prior self destruction, is that the earth, and any planets we may have inhabited by then, will be burnt up by the sun. If the human population is very large, this will constitute an immense disaster. More people could die in the conflagration than have ever died before then. Pretty bad?

Intuitively, we might think: "Yes - obviously. We can now say categorically that this is a bad thing, 'distance' does not come into it?"

But again, very bad? And, when reflected on now, when it apparently need have no unwelcome practical consquences for us?.

Again we might simply think: "Of course. And, that's the end of it."

But, if it is going to be a disaster on a huge scale, shouldn't it have some causal effect on us now - other than that of getting us to agree that it's a very bad thing when we are asked about it?

What kind of causal effect? Here, I am not thinking about purely psychological effects - though it might be rational to get somewhat depressed by even the thought that the world can only end badly for us.

Here is a tough question: "Could a very bad ending subtract the value from human life now, rather like a bad enough ending to a play can ruin it in its entirety?" Is the issue as to whether each individual human life is worth living undecideable - because it cannot be settled until the final curtain drops on life as a whole?

I am wondering whether we can use such conjectures to test our value systems. Are they insulated from distant events, are they local in that sense? Do they only apply to what happens in our vicinity, so to speak, even when they are veiled in absolutist/universalist terms?

What about a person who has lived a good life, one that we would all agree was a valuable life. Can the value of their life be destroyed by something external like the fact that it is all going to end very badly for everyone else in the distant future?

If we make a mental survey of human life over the fulness of time, we might picture a huge pile of meaningless misery that gets multiplied in size at the very end, with little pockets of light flickering through the mess from the 'valuable' lives lived up to that point. Do those lights mean anything? Can they signal the existence of value in isolation? Or does the total pile of misery overwhelm their significance (we leave animals out of this, but their pain and suffering could also be factored in)?

Looked at this way, the universe can seem like a pretty efficient machine for generating bad outcomes for sentient creatures (with just enough good outcomes over the shorter term to keep the show going).

But, human life is extraordinarily worthwhile despite the suffering it entails - isn't that obvious? Surely, only a morbidly out of touch philosopher with too much thinking time on their hands would doubt it?

But, wait a minute. Does that mean "However much suffering is involved"?

If you were given the option to build another universe just by pressing a button, with the one condition that it would mimic ours in every detail (so it would contain the same amount of bad things happening to people, and the same bad ending), would you press the button? Should you? Or, more to the point, is it obvious that you should?

Note that any optimism on this score needs to be carefully separated out from distortions caused by our own comfortable place in the scheme of things. If you are reading and understanding this, you are very special - privileged, even (nothing to do with me!). To see why, first step back from our universe. Then, imagine taking part in a lottery where each ticket stands for one of the many people who have been born up to this point in history. Take a ticket. Your prize? You are now that person.

What are the chances of you being as well-off (materially and psychologically) as the person you were before you stepped back?

If this line of thinking starts to persuade you not to press the button, then what does that imply about our world? That it would be better if it had never existed (given that it is physically indistinguishable from the rejected possible world)?

The sort of questions we have been posing, questions about our place in the whole scheme of things, are what we can call cosmological questions. Hence, I signal 'Cosmology' as one of my interests in my profile. We seem to be one of the few civilisations that tries to operate without a cosmology, without a sense of how we fit into 'the whole scheme of things'. Instead, we have bogus cosmology, new age versions that tell us the universe owes us a decent living, and so on. Unfortunately, with a few notable exceptions (e.g. Derek Parfit and John Leslie), philosophers are not interested in the interesting questions here.

Perhaps future generations will have to cut down the population. Perhaps, if science can predict when the bad ending is likely, the human race will have stopped breeding before everything burns up, so there is no bad ending for anyone. Is that any consolation?

And, what should we make of the enforced finitude that the best scenario for us implies?

Another thought: are we local? Could the creatures destroyed when the world ends be so different from us, that we would only identify with them weakly - we don't even think of them as 'humans'? Here, we might decide: "Well yes, it's very bad. But for them them, not for us?" However, if we thought they were much better creatures than us morally speaking, we might feel that the envisaged ending will be even worse than if it happened to us. Conversely, if we do not think much of them on that score, we could say "Well, it might not be such a bad thing after all?"

However, there would be another story to tell about what had happened to us in the intervening period. And, presumably that would concern us greatly.

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