Bryan Caplan  

Robin's Atoms

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I always defer to Robin's knowledge of the natural sciences.  So what am I do to when he replies thusly to my virtual reality post?
There are roughly 1057 atoms in our solar system, and about 1070 atoms in our galaxy, which holds most of the mass within a million light years.  So even if we had access to all the matter within a million light years, to grow by a factor of 10200, each atom would on average have to support an economy equivalent to 10140 people at today's standard of living, or one person with a standard of living 10140 times higher, or some mix of these.
I'll reply with a hypothetical, naturally.  Here goes:

Suppose the universe contains one person and one really good virtual reality machine.  In this virtual reality, the universe's sole inhabitant is a god.  Whatever he thinks, happens.  Question for Robin: As long as this person regards virtual reality as a good substitute for actual reality, why shouldn't we say that his standard of living is not just 10140 times greater than ours, but infinitely greater than ours?


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COMMENTS (10 to date)
Fenn writes:

I'm a little surprised that you, who has embraced the endowment effect with your kiddos to the point you say you cannot regret any decision prior to their conceptions because different decisions would have led to different kiddos, who seems to draw such sustenance from the earth your squeezing between you r toes in the here and now, would point to living in a computer fantasy and claim it would be infinitely superior.

(on reflection, I guess you could have a harem of octomoms whelping your current youngins and the alternate universe youngins you never got to have)

Robert Wiblin writes:

Is it possible for anyone to experience an infinite level of utility?

Max M writes:

I'm all for abstract theorizing but seriously... Whether or not in X^abc years we'll have Y^def, Z^ghj, or infinite utility... Who is to say that our "brains" (whatever that will mean) will derive any utility whatsoever from the entire universe, let alone one atom? Who is to say whether or not we'll derive utility from simulations or from "reality", or whether we'd even care to make the distinction? This feels a bit like theorizing about what is "outside the universe" not only do I not understand the question very well, but we're nowhere near having what we need to say much of anything meaningful about the end-game stages of existence.

I'd like to get there as much as Robin, but I profess a deep ignorance about what I'll find if and when I get "there".

Jordan Amdahl writes:

Bryan, why should we assume that infinite preference satisfaction results in infinitely higher utility?

Let's say you have your virtual reality machine and you go about using it to satisfy your preferences. Further assume that you have infinite preferences and that you satisfy preferences in order of their utility to you. The amount of utility you get from each satisfied preference would therefore be decreasing. To say that infinite preference satisfaction would result in infinitely higher utility means assuming that the infinite series is divergent. Is it? Hard to say.

As a side note, to those who are confused by the use of infinity, just think of it as the lack of a limit. In other words, for any level of utility, no matter how high, there is a higher level of utility attainable.

ajb writes:

For a man who is always going on about the virtues of children, this is truly an odd statement. It implies that if the utility satisfaction of the existing stock of humans is "high" enough, no increase in people can produce greater total economic wealth.

Isn't this then an argument against having more kids? The gains from more children must be strongly offset against your ability to increase your personal and familial satisfaction with the kids you already have? The difference will purely be an empirical matter subject to strong qualification as technology changes and as social expectations of what a "reasonable" standard of living becomes.

Aren't we back to Nozick? If Bryan can find a drug that gives him infinite pleasure for a millisecond he should give up his life for it. And the planet's existence ceases to matter.

Robin Hanson writes:

I responded by adding to my post.

Norman writes:

I posted this on Robin's blog, but I'll repost it here.

Here is what I’m getting of Robin's argument: 1. Income (subsistence) is the only binding constraint on human population growth. 2. The countably finite material universe is a binding constraint on technology (and thus on income). 3. Therefore, at some point the binding constraint of (2) must trigger the binding constraint of (1): the Cosmic Malthus.

While the logic seems solid (in that 3 does seem to follow from 1 and 2), I see no reason to accept premises 1 and 2. I don’t believe income is the only constraint on population growth; I don’t believe we can say with any confidence that there isn’t some bliss point population size; I don’t believe matter can be characterized as countably finite; I don’t believe material inputs are necessarily a binding constraint on technology. I don’t know of any empirical evidence to support any of Robin's claims, and I don’t hold to them for any philosophical or religious reasons. So, for me anyway, his argument has no force.

SD writes:

The problem is that even "one really good virtual reality machine" will run into increasingly diminishing returns at some point. Eventually you cannot continue to improve at the same rate on your "god of your universe" position. We are limited creatures. Perhaps a better approach in this debate, since we've moved from "physical" growth to the "virtual", is to talk about the limited synapses in a human brain, instead of atoms. Then again I guess synopses are made up of atoms :-)

SydB writes:

"Whatever he thinks, happens."

For someone who said "You don't have to be a sci-fi guy" it seems that Caplan has created a sci-fi world in order to support his arguments.

The essential problem is that Caplan's arguments cannot be supported based upon current knowledge. Hence he must fictionalize.

In the comments, some argue that we don't know now what we might know in the future, so we cannot set future limits based upon current knowledge. But in fact current knowledge defines our grounded understanding of the possible future and everything else is, as I said above, fiction.

Robin argues facts. Caplan responds with fiction.

Kevin Dick writes:

What you don't realize is that the precise scenario you describe has already happened. Our universe is actually a virtual reality machine running in a different universe. All our experiences are pumped into the "person" sitting in the VR machine in that universe. In his universe, there is no limitation on atoms (they don't really exist at all as we know them) :-)

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