Thursday, March 30, 2017

On Living in the Real World

Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.                Carl Sagan
The dot in question
As usual, I’ve skipped past the obvious. I’ll be honest, I got some responses to my post about Virtual Reality that I did not anticipate, and I think they’re worth addressing in their own post.

Responses like “If billions retreat into virtual reality and stop reproducing, what does it matter?”, “Why is wireheading a bad thing?”, “Why do you care if people prefer not to live in the real world?”... And oh man, does that open a can of worms. I’ll do my best to answer, but be forewarned, I am not a trained philosopher, just a guy with a blog.

I’ll be the first to admit that I might have an unhealthy obsession with epistemic truths. I think it is fundamentally a mark of poor character to prefer a comforting lie to a hard truth, and I am (clearly) the kind of person who goes looking for these truths.

There’s a fuzzy concept I want to talk about, and that is meaning. Importance, emotional weight, and so on. I don’t tend to focus on abstractions very much, but examples abound. A dog is just an animal, until it’s your dog. It matters to you.

I worry that I’m doing a wretched job of explaining it. Words are just sounds, but a story has meaning. Here is my argument, shaky as it is: Humanity makes things have meaning. Mars is just a rock, but it means something to us, so it’s important. But Mars isn’t important by itself. If every human on earth was dead, Mars would no longer matter. Its existence, or non-existence, would have no meaning. There must be an observer to notice, or care.

I’m aware that I’m arguing in circles, trying to prove a tautology. I wonder if this is what faith feels like. I’m defining a concept based on the existence of humanity that is tied to the existence of humanity. Still, I can’t help but feel it. A brand-new city matters less than an old city, and even if it’s just in our heads, people have cared about old places for longer. The history matters.

In the end, it comes down to stories. A piece of metal becomes a crown, slab of rock becomes a gravestone, grain becomes a birthday cake. I have no way to satisfactorily prove this, except for my insistence. Cogito ergo sum.

This is somewhat related to the issue of consciousness. It is easy to imagine a frightfully intelligent machine, capable of performing complex tasks far above human cognition, and yet entirely lack a self. Arguing for anything even close to dualism makes me feel dirty, but there seems to be something to the human experience that is not mindless reaction, cold cognition, etc. The meat is alive, and aware. It knows itself.

The argument is wildly anthropocentric, but the universe means more with humans in it. If humans go to mars, live on mars, then mars will matter. And so on for the rest of the universe.

But if, instead, humanity retreats into a virtual world of its own creation, then that world will matter, but the real universe will never be able to. The Great Filter will get us, and humanity might live very happily in our virtual world on our one planet, until the sun swallows us up.

We’ve got all our eggs in one basket. If humanity is important, then it’s imperative that we avoid disaster and figure out a way to get ourselves in a position where one awful event won’t spell the end for us. (The precise natures of the possible disasters are varied, my Cassandra series, I hope, will eventually comprise a comprehensive list)

So that’s why I care. Because humanity matters. Going into a virtual world means never seeing the real one... which inevitably means the end of humanity, and the end of everything in the universe that matters.

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