Eschatologist #9: Randomness
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Over the last couple of newsletters we’ve been talking about how to deal with an unpredictable and dangerous future. To put a more general label on things, we’ve been talking about how to deal with randomness. We started things off by looking at the most extreme random outcome imaginable: humanity’s extinction. Then I took a brief detour into a discussion of why I believe that religion is a great way to manage randomness and uncertainty. Having laid the foundation for why you should prepare yourself for randomness, in this newsletter I want to take a step back and examine it in a more abstract form.
The first thing to understand about randomness is that it frequently doesn’t look random. Our brain wants to find patterns, and it will find them even in random noise. An example:
The famous biologist Stephen Jay Gould was touring the Waitomo glowworm caves in New Zealand. When he looked up he realized that the glowworms made the ceiling look like the night sky, except... there were no constellations. Gould realized that this was because the patterns required for constellations only happened in a random distribution (which is how the stars are distributed) but that the glowworms actually weren’t randomly distributed. For reasons of biology (glowworms will eat other glowworms) each worm had a similar spacing. This leads to a distribution that looks random but actually isn’t. And yet, counterintuitively we’re able to find patterns in the randomness of the stars, but not in the less random spacing of the glowworms.
One of the ways this pattern matching manifests is in something called the Narrative Fallacy. The term was coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, one of my favorite authors, who described it thusly:
The narrative fallacy addresses our limited ability to look at sequences of facts without weaving an explanation into them, or, equivalently, forcing a logical link, an arrow of relationship upon them. Explanations bind facts together. They make them all the more easily remembered; they help them make more sense. Where this propensity can go wrong is when it increases our impression of understanding.
That last bit is particularly important when it comes to understanding the future. We think we understand how the future is going to play out because we’ve detected a narrative. To put it more simply: We’ve identified the story and because of this we think we know how it ends.
People look back on the abundance and economic growth we’ve been experiencing since the end of World War II and see a story of material progress, which ends in plenty for all. Or they may look back on the recent expansion of rights for people who’ve previously been marginalized and think they see an arc to history, an arc which “bends towards justice”. Or they may look at a graph which shows the exponential increase in processor power and see a story where massively beneficial AI is right around the corner. All of these things might happen, but nothing says they have to. If the pandemic taught us no other lesson, it should at least have taught us that the future is sometimes random and catastrophic.
Plus, even if all of the aforementioned trends are accurate the outcome doesn’t have to be beneficial. Instead of plenty for all, growth could end up creating increasing inequality, which breeds envy and even violence. Instead of justice we could end up fighting about what constitutes justice, leading to a fractured and divided country. Instead of artificial intelligence being miraculous and beneficial it could be malevolent and harmful, or just put a lot of people out of work.
But this isn’t just a post about what might happen, it’s also a post about what we should do about it. In all of the examples I just gave, if we end up with the good outcome, it doesn't matter what we do, things will be great. We’ll either have money, justice or a benevolent AI overlord, and possibly all three. However, if we’re going to prevent the bad outcome, our actions may matter a great deal. This is why we can’t allow ourselves to be lured into an impression of understanding. This is why we can’t blindly accept the narrative. This is why we have to realize how truly random things are. This is why, in a newsletter focused on studying how things end, we’re going to spend most of our time focusing on how things might end very badly.
I see a narrative where my combination of religion, rationality, and reading like a renaissance man leads me to fame and adulation. Which is a good example of why you can’t blindly accept the narrative. However if you’d like to cautiously investigate the narrative a good first step would be donating.