Joe Carlsmith on non-naturalist realism vs anti-realism

Utopia, for [the non-naturalist realist], was always the promise of something more than e.g. joy, love, creativity, understanding — it was the promise of those things, with an extra non-natural sauce on top. A Utopia with no sauce is an empty shell, the ethical analog of a phenomenal zombie. It looks right, but the crucial, invisible ingredient is missing.

How one reacts here is ultimately a question of psychology, not metaphysics. Some robots are envelope-ranking-maximizers, and they won’t change their goals just because the envelope probably doesn’t exist. But I think we should be wary of assuming too quickly that we’re like this.


[On the anti-realist picture] it’s clearer to me what I’m doing, in deciding whether to help the deer, create Utopia, etc, given the posited metaphysical clarity. I feel somehow more grounded, more like a creature in the real, raw, beautiful world, with my eyes open, taking full responsibility for my actions, and less like I’m somehow playing pretend, seeking guidance from some further realm or set of facts that I secretly suspect does not exist.


To me, what this currently looks like is a place where the choice about what sort of world to create is in a deep way on us. Just as there is no theistic God to tell us what to do, so there is no further realm of normative facts to tell us, either. We have to choose for ourselves. We have to be, as it were, adults. To stand together, and sometimes alone, amidst the beauty and horror and confusion of the world; to look each other and ourselves in the eye; to try to see as clearly as possible what’s really going on, what our actions really involve and imply and create, what it is we really do, when we do something; and then, to choose.

This isn’t to say we can’t mess up: we can — deeply, terribly, irreparably. But messing up will come down to some failure to understand our actions, ourselves, and each other, and to act on that understanding; some veil between us and the real world we inhabit; not some failure to track, in our decisions, the True Values hidden in some further realm. And when we don’t mess up — when we actually find and build and experience what it is we would seek if we saw with full clarity — what we will get isn’t the world, and therefore something else, the goodness” or value” of that world, according to the True Values beyond the world. It will be just the world, just what we and others chose to do, or to try to do, with this extraordinary and strange and fleeting chance, this glimpse of whatever it is that’s going on.

February 9, 2022