Are you bored of the trolley problem? Is it too simple to be of any use in determining what it means to be good? Why not explore some of my nightmares, instead? Each of these scenarios comes from dreams or other hallucinations I have experienced. Many of these nightmares would reoccur until I found a “solution”, at which point a new nightmare would show up.
Dilemma #1: Conservation of Fairness
You are given the opportunity to make the world fair! A genie has given you the gift of eloquent speech, as well as the ability to take whatever “fairness” means to you, and codify this meaning into a set of laws, beliefs, and cultural values that would make your desired fairness real for the people of the world.
Do you think it should be the case that everyone who works hard and follows the rules should have a comfortable standard of living — by no means luxurious, but free from violence, or fear about the where their next meal will come from?
Do you think children everywhere should be free to learn without being distracted by violence, hatred, or hunger?
Do you think the law should apply equally to everyone, regardless of their status or station in life?
Do you think women should be paid the same as men for the same work?
Well, now’s your chance to make that happen. There’s only one catch:
Your desired fairness will only apply to five hundred million people.
You see, the genie explains, the rules of physics actually enforce something called “conservation of fairness.” Don’t worry about how that works, the genie says, your mind isn’t capable of understanding anyhow.
It has something to do with entropy, she says — or, rather, the phenomenon in the multiverse of which entropy is but a shadow. Fairness is like the opposite of entropy — it’s order and structure instead of randomness — which can’t be created without adding more disorder somewhere else.
Bottom line, says the genie, if I want to make the world fair, she can make that happen, but only for groups of up to 500,000,000 or so — after that point, the complexity starts to eat itself, like a grinning Gödel snake eating its own tail, or the two hands of an Escher taking drawing, taking a break to write new rules about how you can’t make those hands draw forever without letting them doodle a few terrors in the margins.
The genie claims that a person is a physical structure not unlike an atom, and if you get enough of them treated fairly in a confined space, it’s sort of like having a bunch of uranium atoms together — once you get past critical mass, it just won’t hold.
So, the genie says — you can definitely make your world fair. Five hundred million people is so many, you’ll never meet them all — but in doing that, you’re going to be making the world decidedly less fair for anyone outside of that fairness bubble you’re being given the ability to create.
The first time I had this dream, I protested to the genie.
“How horrible is that! There’s already way more than five hundred million people living in horrible conditions, and you want me to make life worse for those people? You mean to tell me I’m going to provide my loved ones with fairness at a horrible cost to people who are already suffering?”
The genie rolled her eyes at me, all ~6.02×10²³ of them.
“How do you think your way of life even came about? Humans treat animals in horrible ways. Their lives are much less fair than yours. The whole idea of ‘human rights’, even if it’s just lip service at times, is something the chimpanzees would kill to experience, and the cats would murder just to understand. It made the lives of humans much more fair, but at a cost to making it impossible for other animals to live like they used to. More fairness for humans meant less fairness for animals.
By the same pattern, you grew up in 20th century America, which means your standard of living was much higher because you could subside on what was actually slave labor at a distance of 120 years, and what is effectively slave labor at a distance of just a fraction of a second away.”
The genie could be confusing because she described everything in terms of spacetime, which meant, for her, the past was just a place that was much further way than China.
The gifts our ancestors gave us, she said, were like foreign aid from a barbaric country to a more civilized one. “ What else do you think was causing that,” she asked, “besides a fairness bubble of the sort I’m offering you now? The dreams of your ancestors were their glimpses of this bubble, and they hurried towards it to put you here.”
I told her I wanted no part of this horrible deal, and she just laughed.
“Temporal beings amuse me,” she said, and I woke up in a cold sweat.
Dilemma #2: Accepting Historical Truth
You are given a position of great importance: it is your job to review proposed entries in The Great Hall of Historical Truth, and to accept or reject individual entries.
Each proposed entry consists of the entire lived experience of a fully-mapped causal domain. You are shown this experience, and asked whether or not you wish this experience to be remembered, permanently, accessible to all other superrational beings in this, the place outside of time.
You see, you live in a world where entire universes can be created at a whim. When a new universe is created, its network of possible moments (which is characterized by its laws of cause and effect) is navigated by brave souls who want to see what that universe is like.
Some universes give nothing but pain. Others are full of wonderful pleasures. Most are entirely empty.
A few memorable universes are a mix, like going to the store and buying a jar of nuts, which almost always has a razor blade or two . Why do superrational beings bother entering these worlds? The alternative is to eat nothing but pure love, which gets old after a while.
If you reject a history, the causal domain can still be explored, but nobody going in will have any idea what it contains before going in.
If you accept a history, all of that history’s memories will be stored permanently and can never be forgotten. That’s just how the hall of memory works.
This means that when you accept a history, you’re permanently storing all of the pain and suffering and embarrassment and indignity in that history.
You are given the history of the world you live in now. Do you accept it?
If you say “yes,” you are effectively removing any chance of respite, for any beings in this world who have suffered and wish to forget their pain. In a sense, you are putting your ‘stamp of approval’ on top of all the suffering that the world has ever seen, and saying, “we should always remember all of this.”
If you say “no”, you are taking a gamble. Maybe this world contains far more suffering than most universes, and because it has been marked in ‘The Great Hall of Historical Truth’ as a rejected history, people will stay away from it.
If the world contains fair less suffering than a typical universe, you’ve now made it very unlikely that any but the most masochistic being of pure love and light would ever explore it again.
“Are there any histories which don’t terminate? Are there causal domains which one can enter but not exit?” I asked my manager.
“We have insufficient data to answer this question,” he said, and sighed.
The choice is simple:
a) defend everything that has ever happened from being forgotten, and remove any chance at letting go, for people who have suffered horribly.
b) destroy all memory of anything that has ever happened in your world, and start all over again. Maybe the same mistakes would be made. Maybe next time would be better, and maybe it would be worse.
I’ve learned to always go with option a) when I have this dream, but then I haven’t suffered as much as some.
Dilemma #3: Creating a World
“I lied to you,” explained the genie, after I’d marked my stamp of approval on the causal sequence from which I’d just emerged.
“There isn’t quite conservation of fairness as an ironclad rule — it’s just one of the properties we’ve noticed recurring in universes that people eventually accepted. There are some causal domains that have never produced a signature of universal acceptance — from even the most coddled prince shielded from the terrors of his reality. Other parameter sets for causal domains almost uniformly produce an acceptance signature.”
“One pattern we’ve noticed is that acceptance frequency seems to reach that a sweet spot with universes that have a fairness-conservation limit of 500 million people. Where does that number come from? We’ve no idea, but it appears roughly stable, just like the critical mass limit of uranium, or the mass threshold at which a blob of gas will turn into a star. All the planets with acceptance ratios above 0.5 had a Jupiter-like planet deflecting meteors, rather than the much more common binary star system.”
“Being God,” the Genie continued — “creating your own world — is not an act limited to the divine. Every author creates their own world — and the better stories draw more readers, which activate more empathic tracing on the storylines for those worlds, which causes the readers to broadcast the world’s existence and desirability.
“You mean, people share stories they like?” I asked, “That’s what drives all this?”
“Basically. It’s stories about turtles all the way down.”
So if you could create any kind of world at all — and you knew it would hurt some people and help others, and you know that it might be remembered forever, and it might be permanently forgotten –
what kind of story would you tell?
I’ll let you know when I wake up from this one.