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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


 

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I think the main obstacle is tractability: there doesn't seem to be any known methodology that could be applied to resolve this question in a definitive way. And it's not clear how we could even attempt to find such a method. Whereas projects related to areas such as preventing pandemics and making sure AI isn't misused or poorly designed seem 1) incredibly important, 2) tractable - it looks like we're making some progress and have and can find directions to make further progress (better PPE, pathogen screening, new vaccines, interpretability, agent foundations, chip regulation) and neglected right now and will matter for the next few decades at least unless the world changes dramatically. 

Also, it could be possible that there are "heaven" worlds and "hell" worlds that last an extremely long time, but not forever. Buddhist traditions are one group that tend to emphasize that all worldly places and experiences are impermanent, even extremely pleasant and unpleasant ones. 

"The kingdom of heaven is within you" comes to mind. I've always thought that was a very important verse. I imagine it may be talking about some kind of distinct and significant transformation that other religions might refer to by other names, such as awakening or enlightenment, that makes us durably and noticeably more peaceful and loving/kind toward others. 

These experiences are often described in a way that indicates the subjective experience of having a distinct, separate self diminishes or even disappears. It may not even make sense to think of heaven using our concepts of a 'place,' let alone one where what we perceive as a separate self would exist in. 

Speaking broadly, I think people underestimate the tractability of this class of work, since we’re already doing this sort of inquiry under different labels. E.g.,

  1. Nick Bostrom coined, and Roman Yampolskiy has followed up on, the Simulation Hypothesis, which is ultimately a Deist frame;
  2. I and others have written various inquiries about the neuroscience of Buddhist states (“neuroscience of enlightenment” type work);
  3. Robin Hanson has coined and offered various arguments around the Great Filter.

In large part, I don’t think these have been supported as longtermist projects, but it seems likely to me that there‘s value in pulling these strings, and each is at least directly adjacent to theological inquiry.

I agree with @MikeJohnson on thought experiments falling within a deist frame (such as Nick Bostrom's Simulation Hypothesis), however I'd hardly say these make TI tractable. I'd rather say that research into quantum consciousness or string theory etc. have very strong scientific bases and I personally think they have set good precedents for concluding TI. I.e., they make a good case for just how tractable TI can be. A good book that sums this up pretty well is Jeffrey M. Schwartz M.D.'s "The Mind and the Brain". He goes into the implications of quantum consciousness and the potential for there to be Creator's that we could possibly be influenced by via String Theory related physics, and that this could be tested for. I think people would be surprised by just how tractable this could be, but honestly it's contingent on the nature of a Creator if that Creator does exist. Like I said in the last clause of my post, if the Creator's don't want to be found or are impossible to observe, then we are wasting our time no matter how theoretically tractable TI might be, so ultimately I have to say I sort of agree with your point, Peter!
 

As for your point on impermanence, I'm pretty sure every religion believes that everything continues forever; although some do get nuanced regarding whether or not that "forever" is divided up into infinite separate lives like the aforementioned Buddhists, but even they believe that once you've obtained complete enlightenment and have shed your Karma you exit the cycle of 轮回 (lun hui) and enter an eternal state of peace. The only group of people I can think of who don't believe something along the lines of an eternal afterlife in a heaven or hell world are die-hard heat-death atheists, which is a pretty small subset of the atheist population if I'm correct. Ultimately, its still a part of TI that deserves answering I think.

As for your last point, I definitely see the merit of your point there! Thanks a bunch for sharing that! It's an awesome new perspective I hadn't thought of. :)

Yeah, I do sometimes wonder if perhaps there's a reason we find it difficult to resolve this kind of inquiry. 

Yes, I think they're generally pretty wary of saying much exactly since it's sort of beyond conceptual comprehension. Something probably beyond our ideas of existence and nonexistence. 

Glad to hear that! You're welcome :)

Thanks for the post (as well the content of the post itself, I am glad when people make their first post and the forum grows :) ).

I agree with Peter that the key issue seems to be traceability. You point to the history of religion, which I think should make us relatively pessimistic about making progress on TI. Perhaps having researchers dedicated more to truth than tribal identity would make a big difference though. What would your rough research agenda be for TI?

(The SPC framework roughly fits into the importance term of the ITN framework, see https://globalprioritiesinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/William-MacAskill-Teruji-Thomas-and-Aron-Vallinder-The-Significance-Persistence-Contingency-Framework.pdf  )

Regarding infinities and how to deal with them in ethics, I liked https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/CeeeLu9PoDzcaSfsC/on-infinite-ethics 

Regarding the persistence term in the SPC framework, I think our interpretations are different: I think in your cure for cancer example, the persistence is not from now until the end of biological humans, but rather from the time I invent a cure to the expected time someone else finds one, which presumably is on the order of decades as it is rare for one researcher/research group to be way far in front of everyone else.

In all honesty, I haven't put too much thought into a research agenda so forgive me if this response isn't very thought provoking haha. This post was a sort of spur of the moment idea that I just had to get down on paper (as signified by my many typos), but in a sort of knee-jerk response to your comment on a rough research agenda for TI, I guess the first step would be spending resources (be it time or money) convincing people (particularly EAs at first) that TI should be taken seriously, especially considering WM's SPC framework.

Honestly, conceding to the existence of the uncertainty gap is the first major obstacle that everybody faces and it needs to be addressed. I think separating EA for Christian's out from EA itself was didactic felo de se because it ruined potential meaningful exposure to opposing viewpoints by presuming incompatibility or at least irreconcilable rationale bases, thus making it more difficult for ideas like TI to gain traction as priorities; so I'd address this first. This could be done by maybe creating a compilation of works meant to create uncertainty in either side (a page of a website for atheists and a page of a website for theists)... although this comes dangerously close to faith-bashing so I'm not entirely sure how to do this. 

Secondly, I think prioritizing quantum physics research (specifically exploring quantum consciousness - QC - theory) would be a savvy move.  It has multilateral applications. A breakthrough would not only likely bring us closer to concluding TI but would also be likely to further the human species (getting us into space travel, for example) and at the very least would improve quality of life. As far as I'm aware, encouragement towards research in these fields is nonexistent in not just EA, but in the world in general. Exploring things like the observer effect, collapse of wave functions as a result of observation, etc. are all very real research options with solid scientific foundations and yet are hardly talked about (certainly never talked about in EA). Encouraging donations to orgs similar to the Accelerating Research on Consciousness initiative (although I know this one is a bit big haha) could be a good move, promoting QC research within EA as a viable impactful career option would be another good move, etc. 

A quick google search shows there is virtually no work being done on quantum consciousness, and the work being done on consciousness alone is certainly neglected compared to other higher priority cause areas like Nuclear Threats or AI research. so this fits pretty solidly in the ITN framework as well. 

Thoughts?

Nice, I don't really have object level thoughts as I don't know anything about QC. Yes I think there is an interesting general tension between having smaller groups with more shared assumption to facilitate easy collaboration and dialogue, versus larger groups where more assumptions are questioned and everything is slower and more laborious but perhaps more rigorous. I'm unsure what was best in that specific case.

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