A Longtermist Case for Theological Inquiry
I recently read William McAskill's "What We Owe the Future" (WWOTF), and as a person of faith, I found that it made a surprisingly compelling case for theological inquiry (TI) as a potential Longermist top priority. This post, albeit brief, is simply meant to put these thoughts to writing in order to subject them to some intelligent scrutiny. It is not intended to argue that other cause areas should be neglected, but simply that the framework posited in WWOTF can be applied to TI, and the implications of this application are making TI a major (if not top) priority for Longermists. These thoughts were put together rather hastily, so feel free to point out any epistemic gaps etc. Also, before I get started, I would like to set an operational definition for TI. By TI, I mean “the pursuit of information that would confirm the existence of an eternal afterlife state and an eternal ultimate Creator(s) who’s technological capabilities are so far beyond human comprehension they may as well be called magic.” On to my point:
For those of you who haven't read WWOTF, in it Will McAskill (WM) posits three criteria to use for determining Longtermist priorities: significance, persistence, and contingency. Something is significant if it brings about a high average value to people. For example, developing a cure to cancer would have high significance. Persistence means how long a given something will affect human history. Sticking to our example of cancer, it is likely that the disease will persist in people for the duration of human existence; a cure for cancer would similarly affect humankind in the long run. Contingency refers to how contingent upon any number of factors a given priority might be. For example, a cure for cancer is highly contingent upon human scientific advancements. Without dedicated and intelligent people, cancer won’t cure itself.
WM uses these criteria to support the prioritization of certain long-term causes and as the groundwork for Longtermism itself. I agree with the entire framework on principle, although personally it seems rather presumptuous without having perfected superforecasting to prioritize cause areas, since it would mean needing to constantly re-evaluate priorities based on world events (for example, I believe that current rapid advancements in laser technology will soon negate focuses on nuclear warfare, in which case a major overhaul of EA networking and placement would need to occur, but that’s another discussion for another time). Even if we did have a Seldon Plan for cause areas that will have significance now and several hundred years in the future (highly persistent causes), the long-term nature of such a plan would probably make the top priorities seem quite outlandish to even die-hard EA's (just like modern biosecurity would seem far fetched in 1700 AD) and so would make garnering support rather difficult.
Regardless, as I said, I agree with the framework on principle; and by my own logic it appears to indicate that TI should be considered the most salient of potential priorities. Here’s why:
1. TI has extremely high significance. The expected value of a discovery confirming a Creator's existence or an afterlife's reality is huge. It would answer a lot of questions about human existence which might then have a ripple effect on existing priorities. It might also bring about a shift in institutions, governments, and culture. The list goes on. I don’t think anyone would disagree with my assertion that confirming the existence of a creator would have astronomical significance to the human race. Similarly, confirming definitively the nonexistence of a Creator would hold equal significance (perhaps larger, actually, since there are more theists than atheists).
2. TI has massive persistence. If definitive confirmation of a Creator's existence or nonexistence were achieved, this knowledge would likely alter our perception of the past and the future, and would likely not dissolve within a short timeframe. Speaking specifically as if the former were true, I think the epitome of persistence would be the word “eternal”, which is a key characteristic denoted in Creator tropes throughout all religions. Additionally, if an afterlife occurs, this would further add to TI having massive persistence since it would implicate our continuance beyond mortality, which sounds pretty persistent to me. Alternatively, if there is a confirmation of zero chance that there is an afterlife, this knowledge would have significant persistence, affecting humankind for centuries to come.
3. TI has massive contingency. Firstly, figuring out if there is or is not an afterlife seems to be something only people can do, thus it is highly contingent on individuals. Secondly, assuming an afterlife with binary states (a heaven or hell) is real, the assignment of one individual to a specific state is highly contingent upon them and their actions in this life. To put it differently, if the suffering of insects is significant enough to garner attention in the EA-sphere, surely the suffering of individuals for an eternity in an afterlife is of worthy concern to EA's. Only humans are ever going to figure out if there is or is not an afterlife, and if there is one only humans can mitigate the suffering we might feel in that afterlife.
Entire holy wars have been waged, genocides have been committed, and discriminations have occurred which have all in turn perpetuated themselves throughout generations all because theological inquiry has never yielded a definitive answer. Conversely, billions have been spent of both money and time on missionary ventures, ineffective charity, and building places of worship (for example, the LDS church receives over $7 billion USD annually in just donations, is worth well over $100 billion, and is constructing some 72 new temples each of which alone is worth tens of millions of dollars). The amount of good that this is doing to many people may seem uncertain. If a their Creator is real, then they are doing immense good. If their Creator isn't real, then I would argue that this would constitute a HUGE waste.
The application of WM's framework as found in WWOTF bumps theological inquiry into a top tier position!
Playing devil's advocate against TI here (I thought that was clever):
One issue I see with applying MckAskill’s framework to TI is the “uncertainty” principle that he uses as a sort of basis. He states in WWOTF that the more uncertain something is, the more deserving of our attention it is, and that the framework should be applied to that something in order to determine its saliency. Obviously, as a person of faith, I am fairly confident of a Creator’s existence. Opposing viewpoints (atheists, for example), are also likely to be fairly certain of their viewpoints. So, regardless of who you ask, people feel there is a great deal of certainty with respect to the futility of further TI, which means this framework is ill suited for application. I guess this could be resolved by assigning a positive value to one side and a negative to the other–canceling them both out and resulting in a “very uncertain” result–but that feels like a bit of a shortcut.
Another issue with applying this framework to TI is that regardless of whether or not it’s right, the existence of a Creator can seem so ethereal and abstract to the vast majority of people that the framework may lose its convincing power and so ultimately become useless when applied to TI. The framework’s whole point is to lay a convincing groundwork for Longtermism, but if the cause area that the framework is promoting neutralizes any persuasive power of the framework itself in the first place, then what is the point of applying it to the aforementioned cause area? Ultimately this can potentially be refuted by pointing out that climate change receives a great deal of criticism of dubiousness from a great deal of people, and even more people are unaware of it, yet it is still deserving of our attention and so the framework is applied. The same is the case for animal welfare, yet it still is a top EA priority. Just because a priority with high saliency may not gain traction easily does not mean it should be ignored altogether. Moral duty is not correlated with popularity.
Finally, the last point against the application of this framework to TI is the Creator itself. If such a Creator does exist and wants to be found out empirically, they likely would have made themselves unequivocally known at this point (although I know some people, especially Christians at least, would argue the Creator already has made itself known via Christ's birth, the seemingly statistical improbability of complex life evolving in just a few billion years, etc.). But, assuming they haven’t made themselves known at this point, it could mean they (meaning the Creator) are either impossible for us to observe (which doesn’t make them much of a Creator, to be honest), apathetic about being observed, or they don’t want to be found out by scientific means. If the latter is true, then we may as well give up hope of making TI a top cause area because any effort to discover an omnipotent being(s) who doesn't want to be discovered would be futile! I hardly think we can expect to win a game of hide and seek when God is the one hiding. Ultimately, these all point out that application of this framework in a realistic sense as an intended impetus for reprioritization is arguably useless. I don't really see a good counterargument to this last point asides from saying people should find God viscerally, but existing churches already try to help with this and so we end up right back at square one with the uncertainty basis challenging the application of WM's framework to TI.
Any thoughts in favor of or against the application of WM’s framework for Longtermism to TI from anyone of any background are welcome! Critiques or supporting arguments for any of the points listed here are also welcome!
- Garrett Ehinger