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Rick Searle: on 7/6/14 at 3:06am UTC, wrote Hello Benjamin, I posted an article giving some publicity to your piece: ...

Benjamin Pope: on 6/9/14 at 14:59pm UTC, wrote I think you're right in both important respects - that inequality is a huge...

Benjamin Pope: on 6/9/14 at 14:52pm UTC, wrote George, I hoped I had been clearer - I am quite in favour of liberal...

Don Limuti: on 6/5/14 at 21:18pm UTC, wrote Hi Benjamin, A very wide ranging essay, that emphasises the importance of...

George Gantz: on 5/15/14 at 14:29pm UTC, wrote Benjamin - Thanks for the well-written essay. I very much enjoyed the...

Robert de Neufville: on 5/14/14 at 3:29am UTC, wrote I really enjoyed your essay, Benjamin. I touch on many of the same themes...

Benjamin Pope: on 5/11/14 at 19:49pm UTC, wrote You are very kind Joe! Thanks. Ben

Benjamin Pope: on 5/11/14 at 19:48pm UTC, wrote Hi Daniel, Climate change as present mid-range risks have it might not be,...


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Objective reality, and the laws of physics themselves, emerge from our observations, according to a new framework that turns what we think of as fundamental on its head.

July 18, 2019

CATEGORY: How Should Humanity Steer the Future? Essay Contest (2014) [back]
TOPIC: Ends of History and Future Histories in the Longue Duree by Benjamin Pope [refresh]
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Author Benjamin James Spinks Pope wrote on Apr. 24, 2014 @ 16:22 GMT
Essay Abstract

In considering the long future ahead of humanity, it is difficult to anticipate except on a very coarse scale the sorts of technologies and societies that will develop even in the next several centuries, let alone the far future. In view of major revolutions in the human past, however, it is possible to consider in general terms the institutions and practices that might help shepherd us through the challenges that lie before us, and also those that might serve to lock us out of the best futures we might otherwise have. Even the very far future will have a history, and this future history may have strong, path-dependent consequences. Once we are at the threshold of a posthuman society the pace of change is expected to slow down only in the event of collapse, and there is a danger that any locked-in system not able to adapt appropriately will prevent a full spectrum of human flourishing that might otherwise occur. We should therefore consider in detail the properties of institutions that are likely to be consistent with human flourishing, with special examples: universities, states, religions and languages.

Author Bio

Benjamin Pope is a graduate student in the Astrophysics department at the University of Oxford, and researches extrasolar planets, stellar physics, Bayesian statistics and astronomical optics. He grew up in Sydney and studied physics and classics at the University of Sydney and the University of California, Berkeley.

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Member Rick Searle wrote on Apr. 25, 2014 @ 01:51 GMT

I have no idea how this excellent essay of yours could have remained at the "bottom of the pile". You voiced many of the thoughts I have been wrestling with for some time and above all how our future relates to our past. Long lasting institutions and commitments through "ancient" instruments such as laws are one of the best ways for us to chart a course through an uncertain future.

I would love for you to share your thoughts and evaluation of my own essay. "The Cartography of the Future".

Best of luck!

Rick Searle

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Michael Allan wrote on Apr. 25, 2014 @ 03:52 GMT
Hello Benjamin, May I offer a short, but sincere critique of your essay? I would ask you to return the favour. Here's my policy on that. - Mike

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Jeffrey Michael Schmitz wrote on Apr. 25, 2014 @ 15:17 GMT

Thank you for your essay. I teach at a few small colleges, most of the places I have taught (and the school I graduated) are open admission, the other end of the spectrum from Oxford. The mass of humanity moves mostly due to where they can find work, sometimes freedom of religion or freedom from some law or custom. I would like to think that colonization of space would be based on high principles from thinkers at Oxford. Sadly, if we can us the past as a guide, colonization of space will be done by people like my students who need a job and cannot find it here.

No one knows what extra-terrisial life is like. If the closest star to an intelligent life form has a planet they can "farm" (to put it in human terms) that might take all their focus and time. How long did it take us to explore the Earth? How long will it take us to explore a second earth? There could be many planets with intelligent like in our galaxy, but with the large volume of space between us and them, it is little surprise we have not found each other.

I have seen a few essays worry about robots or AI taking over, which I feel will not happen because a robot has no "needs". The idea of a "post-human" augmented humans taking over is possible. A car augments humans more than anything else in history, we might call the present "post-human".

Hope your essay does well,

Jeff Schmitz

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Lawrence B Crowell wrote on Apr. 25, 2014 @ 15:55 GMT
Your paper is interesting, and you draw out some interesting points. I weigh in on some related concerns with my paper with respect to the limits any intelligent life form might face in the universe.

I am very guarded on the idea of our species moving out into space. I question whether any of those scenarios can happen. It appears that...

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Author Benjamin James Spinks Pope replied on Apr. 27, 2014 @ 09:59 GMT
I think you're right, in one sense, in that if by some disaster of circumstance or physics not yet known to us we can't colonise space, the future we have to look forward to has a very different character. We will indeed have to build toward a future of sustainable development to a degree not even envisioned by most environmentalists, in which million-year timescales are important.

In this context, it is probably also true that avoiding conflict and capitalist growth is a priority, but this is sort of trivial and of a different character to what I discuss in my essay above. I was focused on if we do enter space, that features of our civilization might be permanently locked in to our great detriment, whereas there's no simple phase transition here. It's also not clear that, provided we don't use our resources up, there are any particular practices that can't be changed in the long term, as the Earth is a small place and ideas and social entities can spread quickly on human timescales. History as we have experienced it so far can more or less continue, with the proviso that if we use resources recklessly, we are in a great deal of trouble.

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Mark Avrum Gubrud wrote on Apr. 26, 2014 @ 15:58 GMT
The essay fails to distinguish between human survival and a "posthuman" future featuring "a transition to simulated humans or artificial intelligences".

The author is not agnostic about this; he condemns "the simple, knee-jerk reaction saying that all human augmentation and all artificial intelligence, or all such technologies deemed to ‘go too far’,should be banned." He explains that "it seems unreasonable to prevent the great deal of good that can also be envisaged in a posthuman world...." Ummm, good for whom? What makes it good?

The author bemoans the endurance of the Catholic Church, not one of my personal favorite institutions, but one of great importance to a large number of people. He fears a posthuman future in which robots have been programmed to be religious. To paraphrase Feynman, what do you care what robots think? Particularly if there aren't any people left who might be affected by it.

Although polished and erudite, this essay is basically an uncritical rehash of familiar transhumanist ideas. It's a good example of what humanity must avoid.

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Author Benjamin James Spinks Pope replied on Apr. 27, 2014 @ 09:49 GMT
Really, in an essay of this length it is not at all possible to address every single one of the issues involved in a topic as large as the future of humanity. I did hope to make this clear that considerations such as 'is posthumanism good?' were beyond the scope of the essay, and have made these assumptions explicit.

I am well aware that there are arguments put forward against...

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Robin Hanson wrote on Apr. 27, 2014 @ 00:28 GMT
When you only have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

You mention these possible problems: using up finite resources, competition over resources provoking long-lasting conflict, uncontrolled climate change, Darwinian economic competition, wasteful competition, unsustainable resource harvesting, splintering of humanity into competing factions, and unequal price-based availability of human augmentations, the formation of biological elites, and rogue artificial intelligences.

Amazingly, for *all* of these problems, your preferred solution is to “establish a firm regulatory framework imposed by a very powerful international organization or unilaterally by a military superpower.” That is, you want strong global government regulation to prevent actions that might risk such outcomes. If you can’t have that, you want very strong very-stably-entrenched social norms that severely punish actions that might risk such outcomes.

You don’t seem to consider any other possible solutions to these problems, nor do you consider whether in some cases these cures might be worse than the diseases. That is, you don’t consider possible costs and risks of attempting these sorts of solutions to these problems, costs and risks that if big enough should make one reluctant to go these routes. If you have reasons for thinking that these solutions are always better solutions than all alternatives to all of these problems, you do not mention them.

This suggests to me either that you are not aware of other options, that you are not aware of substantial costs and risks in invoking your favored solutions, that you think the answer is so obvious as to not be worth bothering to explain, or that you do not respect your audience enough to discuss your reasoning here. Have I missed something?

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Author Benjamin James Spinks Pope replied on Apr. 27, 2014 @ 10:33 GMT
When you only have 25000 characters, I thought my best bet was to write about a hammer and discuss a few nails it was worth hitting.

You make a fair point that I don't address the costs of implementing such a framework. Here is a possible answer:

The common character that all the problems entail is that a unilateral action by relatively few people puts them at a considerable...

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Robin Hanson replied on Apr. 27, 2014 @ 18:36 GMT
Here are some costs and risks of regulation. Regulation usually imposes costs of monitoring, enforcement, and administration. These costs tend to be larger for activities that are harder to observe, and when there are not clear bright lines separating desired from undesirable behavior. When regulation intends to discourage or encourage some activities, it usually accidentally discourages and...

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Author Benjamin James Spinks Pope replied on Apr. 28, 2014 @ 15:21 GMT
Fairly standard points, and I have tried to avoid broadly speaking making any particular arguments about economic socialism for these reasons, namely to avoid being bogged down.

Rent-seeking is a real issue in general, but I hope it's clear that there is relatively little scope for this for institutions designed predominantly to avoid international war. Institutions such as the UN and EU...

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John Brodix Merryman wrote on Apr. 27, 2014 @ 15:32 GMT

To echo some of the previous comments, this essay is broad in scope, but lacking in significant depth. As the old saying goes, the devil is in the details.

What drew me to physics in the first place was the understanding that underneath all the words, history, hopes, rules, beliefs, feelings, thoughts, ideals, etc. of humanity, were some basic physical realities that...

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Joe Fisher wrote on May. 1, 2014 @ 18:43 GMT
Dear Mr. Pope,

You have written a terrific essay and the fact that so few of your fellow essayists have failed to rate it is criminal negligence at its most loathsome level.

With the highest of regards,

Joe Fisher

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Author Benjamin James Spinks Pope replied on May. 11, 2014 @ 19:49 GMT
You are very kind Joe! Thanks.


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Member Daniel Dewey wrote on May. 11, 2014 @ 14:56 GMT
Hi Benjamin,

I enjoyed your essay! I think the basic framing and focus is a good one, and would read in-depth analyses about any of the things you touch on. A couple comments:

First, do you have any information about how likely climate change is to be permanently civilization-hampering? It hadn't seemed to me to be a very serious concern, so I'm curious if you have any more information about it.

Second, on the "expanding colonization front": have you read Armstrong and Sandberg's "Eternity in Six Hours" paper? It seems to me that their analysis means that Darwinian frontier dynamics are less likely than was previously thought. In any case, I think it's a useful paper if you're interested in that topic.



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Author Benjamin James Spinks Pope replied on May. 11, 2014 @ 19:48 GMT
Hi Daniel,

Climate change as present mid-range risks have it might not be, but very rapid climate change, widespread loss of ecosystem complexity, and simultaneous depletion of fossil fuels might leave a civilization both vulnerable to collapse, and lacking crucial resources on ~ million year timescales to resume its development after such a collapse. I refer in particular to Ian Morris' arguments that there is a logistic limit on the size and complexity of a non-industrial society, and that fossil fuels were the resource that helped Britain and then the world escape this. Without this puppy fat, and with a significantly degraded environment, it may be the case that the best we can do is achieve the Roman/Song Dynasty/Elizabethan scale of complexity and technology.

Notwithstanding Hanson's evident dislike of my arguments, I am quite convinced by at least one of his - that expansion is likely to favour a Darwinian frontier. I find it a bit hard to see why the high-fanout scenario posed by Stuart and Anders would get past internal factional disagreement in the launch phase - it really is an awful lot of effort to get going! - and I struggle to see such scenarios happening at least for humans. I do like the Fermi explanation it gives, though, so maybe there's more to it - perhaps there is some feature of economies in the space-exploration phase that does stabilize it against the perturbations that would derail such a venture; I just can't think of it at the moment.



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Robert de Neufville wrote on May. 14, 2014 @ 03:29 GMT
I really enjoyed your essay, Benjamin. I touch on many of the same themes in my own essay and am in broad agreement with your view of the major issues. I think you are right to worry that what we do and decide now may have far-reaching implications for our future.

I'm personally not much worried that we are coming to a liberal capitalist end of history. Fukuyama is problematic for a host of empirical and philosophic reasons. Among other things Fukuyama's view—after Hegel—was that meaningful conflict was disappearing because inequality was on the verge of being eliminated. That's hard to square with Piketty's data.

I am also not as convinced as many people that the rapid technology development of the last few hundred years represents the bottom of an indefinitely increasing exponential curve rather than a the product of a temporary phase transition (I have written about this some here if you are interested).

The issues you expertly discuss here are precisely the kinds of issues we need to think about before it becomes too late. Good luck in the contest, Benjamin—I hope your essay does well.


Robert de Neufville

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Author Benjamin James Spinks Pope replied on Jun. 9, 2014 @ 14:59 GMT
I think you're right in both important respects - that inequality is a huge problem and rising (I am convinced by Piketty's arguments). The 'end of history' may not be a liberal capitalist one - but an illiberal capitalist one, in which no states or institutions ever become powerful enough to challenge capital oligarchy. This is wild speculation, however!

The prospect of secular stagnation is a real blow to the idea of permanent exponential growth - if you do look at what has happened over the last few hundred years, the expansion of energy resources and the violent conquest of frontiers by industrial-capitalist states has driven a lot of this explosive growth. When we do reach a point of saturation of energy availability, it may be the case that however advanced new technologies become, they do not nevertheless drive the kind of economic rates of change that the last two centuries have seen.

I do nevertheless think it will be plausible that we will attain enough control of energy and mineral resources and attendant technologies that space colonization and posthumanism for a great many people are realistic possibilities, and it is very important that we safeguard these and make sure they happen in the way we want them to!

I do enjoy your blog and I thank you for your kind comments.



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George Gantz wrote on May. 15, 2014 @ 14:29 GMT
Benjamin - Thanks for the well-written essay. I very much enjoyed the framing of the issues, but was disappointed with the final direction. If I understand your conclusion, you are arguing for some form of "regulatory framework imposed by a very powerful international organization or unilaterally by a military superpower", but with an eye towards "self-policed norms… imposed not merely as law but as custom." This seems like a frightening direction given the power already inherent in our institutions. Does this not risk the very stagnation / entrenchment of institutions that your essay eloquently describes?

I think we need to look harder at the evolutionary process for social norms as the means by which we frame a "fitness landscape" for our institutions. That is the jist of my essay - The Tip of the Spear, which I invite you to read.

Thanks for your attention - George

and I would appreciate any commentsThere may be a different answer in the concept of "self-regulation

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Author Benjamin James Spinks Pope replied on Jun. 9, 2014 @ 14:52 GMT

I hoped I had been clearer - I am quite in favour of liberal institutions! I do feel that institutions which prevent violent conflict or economic developments leading to irreversible damage, however, are not inconsistent with this. A world free from all regulation is a world where freedoms for most people are dependent on a few powerful lobbies, of course. When stakes are so high - where conflict could literally destroy humanity - then the internationalization and rigid imposition of deterrents against war are the only things that can preserve a liberal society in other respects, let alone an open future.

Is that convincing?

Kind regards,


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Don Limuti wrote on Jun. 5, 2014 @ 21:18 GMT
Hi Benjamin,

A very wide ranging essay, that emphasises the importance of institutions, universities, states, religions and languages... the many rudders for steering to the future.

The core concept of my essay on education, was stimulated by the history of Scotland and the enlightenment, which you touched upon.

Nice work, high marks,

Don Limuti

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Member Rick Searle wrote on Jul. 6, 2014 @ 03:06 GMT
Hello Benjamin,

I posted an article giving some publicity to your piece:

All the best!

Rick Searle

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