I Don't Understand Time

Our subjective experience would have it that time "moves forward": the past is no longer, and the future is indeterminate and "hasn't happened yet." But it can't actually work that way: special relativity tells us that there's no absolute space of simultaneity; given two spacelike separated events, whether one happened "before" or "after" the other depends on where you are and how fast you're going. This leads us to a "block universe" view: our 3+1 dimensional universe, past, present, and future, simply exists, and the subjective arrow of time somehow arises from our perspective embedded within it.

Without knowing much in the way of physics or cognitive science myself, I can only wonder if there aren't still more confusions to dissolved, intuitions to be unlearned in the service of a more accurate understanding. We know things about the past from our memories and by observing documents; we might then say that memories and documents are forms of probabilistic evidence about another point in spacetime. But predictions about the future are also a form of probabilistic evidence about another point in spacetime. There's a sort of symmetry there, isn't there? Could we perhaps imagine that minds constructed differently from our own wouldn't perceive the same kind of arrow of time that we do?

Second-Order Rationality for the Chronically Anxious

In your conscious verbal thoughts, take it as an axiom that "I am Safe and Innocent with Probability One," not because that's actually true, but because the Maslow Physiological/Safety levels require it. Of course, actually assigning Probability One would be a very dangerous thing to do, because it means never changing your mind, ever: P(H|E) = P(E|H)P(H)/(P(E|H)P(H) + P(E|¬H)P(¬H)), but if P(H) is unity, then P(H|E) = P(E|H)(1)/(P(E|H)(1) + P(E|¬H)(0)) = P(E|H)/P(E|H) = 1. If you were really Safe and Innocent with Probability One, there would be no harm in dropping an anvil on yourself or someone else's head. So meanwhile, have other parts of your brain secretly, nonverbally select actions to secure your innocence and safety using some other procedure.

The Horror of Naturalism

There's this deeply uncomfortable tension between being an animal physiologically incapable of caring about anything other than what happens to me in the near future, and the knowledge of the terrifying symmetry that cannot be unseen: that my own suffering can't literally be more important, just because it's mine. You do some philosophy and decide that your sphere of moral concern should properly extend to all sentient life—whatever sentient turns out to mean—but life is built to survive at the expense of other life.

I want to say, "Why can't everyone just get along and be nice?"—but those are just English words that only make sense to other humans from my native culture, who share the cognitive machinery that generated them. The real world is made out of physics and game theory; my entire concept of "getting along and being nice" is the extremely specific, contingent result of the pattern of cooperation and conflict in my causal past: the billions of corpses on the way to Homo sapiens, the thousands of years of culture on the way to the early twenty-first century United States, the nonshared environmental noise on the way to me. Even if another animal would agree that pleasure is better than pain and peace is better than war, the real world has implementation details that we won't agree on, and the implementation details have to be settled somehow.

I console myself with the concept of decision-theoretic irrelevance: insofar as we construe the function of thought as to select actions, being upset about things that you can't affect is a waste of cognition. It doesn't help anyone for me to be upset about all the suffering in the world when I don't know how to alleviate it. Even in the face of moral and ontological uncertainty, there are still plenty of things-worth-doing. I will play positive-sum games, acquire skills, acquire resources, and use the resources to protect some of the things I care about, making the world slightly less terrible with me than without me. And if I'm left with the lingering intuition that there was supposed to be something else, some grand ideal more important than friendship and Pareto improvements ... I don't remember it anymore.

Continuum Utilitarianism

You hear people talk about positive (maximize pleasure) versus negative (minimize pain) utilitarianism, or average versus total utilitarianism, none of which seem very satisfactory. For example, average utilitarianism taken literally would suggest killing everyone but the happiest person, and total utilitarianism implies what Derek Parfit called the repugnant conclusion: that for any possible world with lots of happy people, the total utilitarian must prefer another possible world with many more people whose lives are just barely worth living.

But really, it shouldn't be that surprising that there's no simple, intuitively satisfying population ethics, because any actual preference ordering over possible worlds is going to have to make tradeoffs: how much pleasure and how much pain distributed across how many people's lives in what manner, what counts as a "person," &c.


"I'm okay—I've been through this—it's just the sort of prodrome that could develop into paranoid schizophrenia, but won't, because I've been trained not to believe my own thoughts!

"But the relationship between psychology and philosophy is funny. I've been having pretty drastic mood swings on the timescale of hours or minutes, and I've also been paying a lot of attention to modal realism, mathematical universe, "existence as an ensemble of disconnected observer-moments"-type ideas. I think the causality actually goes in that direction: from psychoticism to Tegmark IV. But the nature of reality can't actually depend on the minutia of my particular form of mental illness ...

"I don't want to do philosophy or social science or futurism anymore; I've lost the ability to do it sanely, if I ever had it. My brain just keeps generating cosmic horror stories to be terrified of, when really it's not my business and can't be my business. Most of what happens in the future is outside of my current conceptspace. Most of what happens in the present is outside of my current conceptspace. It all adds up to normality locally: that is, that which we consider normal is an artifact of how the world has unfolded up to now.

"Better to take up an engineering mindset. Focus on solving practical problems in the only world that I can actually touch, rather than continuing to execute self-injury behaviors dwelling on the horror that must exist in the vastness of space and time.

"I'll be fine—for the near future. Only I miss how consciousness used to feel. I used to feel like I knew things, but now all I can do is make predictions."