Reading Robin Hanson

Tyler Cowen characterises Robin Hanson and Thomas Malthus as thinkers of constraints”. I read them both while wondering: what constraints apply to moral philosophy?

In This is the Dream Time, Robin Hanson claims that we are living through an unusual period of abundance. Usually, in the natural world, when the available resources grow, population grows too, so after a brief period of abundance, most members of the species revert to subsistence level. Since the industrial revolution, the resources available to humanity have been growing much faster than population, and so, Hanson suggests, we should think of ourselves as living through one of these unusual periods of abundance. In such periods, competitive pressures are eased, and we can sustain all sorts of belief-behaviour packages that do not maximise our rate of reproduction.

How’s this for a prediction:

Our descendants will remember our era as the one where the human capacity to sincerely believe crazy non-adaptive things, and act on those beliefs, was dialed to the max.

In the future, we should expect population and wealth growth rates to converge again, and for most people to once again live at subsistence levels—unless we co-ordinate to constrain the reproduction rate.

Hanson predicts that our descendents will eventually explictly endorse maximising their reproduction rate as a value. The basic thought:

Biological evolution selects roughly for creatures that do whatever it takes to have more descendants in the long run. When such creatures have brains, those brains are selected for having supporting habits. And to the extent that such brains can be described as having beliefs and values that combine into actions via expected utility theory, then these beliefs and values should be ones which are roughly behaviorally-equivalent to the package of having accurate beliefs, and having values to produce many descendants (relative to rivals). […] with sufficient further evolution, our descendants are likely to directly and abstractly know that they simply value more descendants.

During a conversation with Agnes Callard, Hanson says:

I do tend to think natural selection, or selection, will just be a continuing force for a long time. And the main alternative is governance. I actually think one of the main choices that we will have, and the future will have, is the choice between allowing competition or replacing it with governance.

The question of where and how to push back against the logic of competition and selection will be central over the long-term. Co-ordinating humans on earth to make such decisions will be hard, but perhaps not impossible. Co-ordinating with other civilisations from other galaxies… seems very hard, but perhaps not impossible.

On this perspective, there’s a direct tradeoff between sustaining non-adaptive values we care about over the short-term and sustaining our existence over the long-term. Invest too much in non-adaptive values, and the long-term viability of your group will be threatened by another group that is less invested in these values.

Attitudes towards this evolutionary perspective vary. Hanson does not consider this model of things that dark”, though he concedes it is not as bright as the unicorns and fairies that fill dream-time visions”. In fact, Hanson is concerned about a future where our descendents restrain competitive dynamics too much:

When I try to do future analysis one of the biggest contrary assumptions or scenarios that I focus on is: what if we end up creating a strong world government that strongly regulates investments, reproduction and other sorts of things, and thereby prevents the evolutionary environment in which the evolutionary analysis applies. And I’m very concerned about that scenario. That is my best judgement of our biggest long term risk […] the creation of a strong civilisation-wide government that is going to be wary of competition and wary of allowing independent choices and probably wary of allowing interstellar colonisation. That is, this vast expansion into the universe could well be prevented by that.

Eliezer Yudkowksy and Carl Schulman, by contrast, are more keen on the idea of replacing competition with governance, and I think Nick Bostrom is too.

Reading Hanson, and reading more about Pragmatism, has left me with a greater awareness that, over the long run, value systems need to promote survival, reproduction and resource accumulation, or else reliably prevent competition in these domains. If they don’t, they will be replaced with those that do.

If you’re in the business of reflecting on how we should change our values, you probably want to bear this in mind.

One option is to relax the longevity demand. We could settle for pursuing things we care about over the short run, and accept that in the long run, things will come to seem weird and bad by our current lights (but hopefully fine to our (very different) descendents).

writing robin hanson evolution futurism moral philosophy pragmatism parenting