How to think about the future (Conclusion)

Trying to predict the future is a good way to put your foot in your mouth. It's hard enough to just think about the future, let alone predict it. Even in this series of posts, all I have done is provide some rules of thumb: the future is impossible to predict. The future will be like the past. The future will have both good and bad in it, in ever increasing measure.

Some of these rules are vague, and may even seem contradictory. How could the future be unpredictable yet still be like the past? But the possibilities concerning the future are rich enough that such superficial paradoxes can be easily resolved. And when we harmonize these rules, a coherent pattern does seem to emerge: the future cannot be predicted in detail, and ever larger events are considered "details" as we consider times further into the future. However, there are real patterns that repeat themselves in time. The details get averaged out if you consider them in aggregate. So in these ways, at a sufficiently broad level, the future can be predicted from the past. As far as humans are concerned, this means that our history will grow in both glory and tragedy in ever larger degree. We will continue to grow, yet the inevitable, unpredictable, fluctuating "details" will cause disasters in correspondingly larger degrees.

So what should we do? What can we predict or plan for? I really don't know. I don't know how right I am in my thoughts about the future. So, in the end, as it often happens, all I can say is what has already been said in the Bible:
Now listen, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money." Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, "If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that."
I am indeed only a mist - a "detail" that's here by accident and whose affect will be averaged out by other similarly fluctuating detail. That is why I can only say, "If it is the Lord's will, I will live and do this or that." But in that Divine will, I believe that I am a positive part of the pattern that's woven throughout time, a pattern that continues into eternity.

You may next want to read:
How to think about the future (Consolidation post for this series)
Sherlock Bayes, logical detective: a murder mystery game
The biblical timeline of the universe
Another post, from the table of contents

How to think about the future (Part 4)

What I am about to say in this post is less certain than what I have said in the previous posts; it's a half-formed thought, which I only post because I think it may be more important than my other thoughts, especially regarding the future of human society. In short, this post will more nebulous compared to the others in the series.

The thought here is simple:

I wonder if humans only learn through experiments.

That doesn't seem important? Let me rephrase that:

I wonder if humans only learn through experiences. Or, to put in a little bit more detail: I wonder if humans only learn through experiencing mistakes.

Note that I intend for this to apply to human societies as a whole rather than to just individuals. You see, when we start talking about the future, we sometimes have this idea that we'll reach some kind utopia, where all our social problems will be solved. We just have to learn to treat each other as fellow humans, right? Surely with the right education and policies, and with our ever increasing powers of science and technology, we'll eventually reach that eternally perfect society?

If there were some cap to the amount of beauty in the universe, or a limit to human potential, perhaps. Then we will eventually reach that maximum and stay there. Then we could maybe be like those space-faring aliens whom I mentioned before, who are fated merely to rule the stars then perish with the universe.  But I don't think that this is the case. I don't think that we are bounded in that way.

So, if we have infinite potential, and we can only learn though experiencing mistakes, what will the future be like? Well, here is one possible future history:

One thing that it's popular to wonder about nowadays is whether we should make a computer that's smarter than a human (whatever that means). Now, this is a question of immense importance, but if we can only learn through experiencing mistakes, the only way to settle the question would be to try it, then see the results: there is no historically analogous previous situation to draw on. And getting the question wrong may be disastrous.

So then, after the disastrous Skynet wars of 2050, humanity might finally agree on what kind of artificial intelligence to build. This will allow us to colonize the other planets in the solar system - and we'll then ask questions like "how should we share the resources between the different planets?" This type of question has never been asked on a planetary scale, so there will be no historically analogous previous situation to draw on. Even a super-intelligent AI might not be able to reason with no data. So again, we'll just have to try out different models of planetary economics, and learn by trial and error. So, Mars and Jupiter may prosper, but then the citizens of Mercury and Earth may suffer for generations under an oppressive system of planetary trade.

But eventually, that will get sorted out, after a great deal of human suffering. But at this point, the differences between the haves and the have-nots, at the planetary scale, subject to different planetary conditions, combined with the genetic tinkering that's been going on, may threaten to tear apart our conception of "the human race". What should we do about this? Should we allow a portion of humanity to evolve separately from the rest? Again, this will be the first time in history where we can meaningfully ask this question, and the only recourse may be to try different policies and make our mistakes. And given the momentous nature of the question, the consequences for getting them wrong will be correspondingly tragic.

Of course, these scenarios are only projected from the mind of an early 21st century human. More likely, the kinds of issues faced by these future people will be completely incomprehensible to us; just as, say, the 20th century's nuclear ideology of Mutually Assured Destruction would be unimaginable to a prehistoric human. And each time, because of this unimaginable newness and lack of historical precedence, it may be that mistakes may have to be made in order to learn from them. And each time, because of humanity's increased power and the larger scale and scope of the problem, the mistakes will be more costly, even as the benefits of getting it right propels us further into the future.

What kind of future is this? It's actually a strangely hopeful but tragic one. Our powers and glory will perpetually increase - but with many steps being paid for with ever more costly mistakes. You think that slavery or the killing fields were bad? The instances of such tragedies will only increase in enormity. On the other hand, you think that modern democracies and smartphones are good? The overall trajectory for history as a whole will continue to be upwards, as all these things will perpetually be superseded by something better.

As I said, I'm unsure about all this; but it seems likely, as it's been the case thus far in history.

You may next want to read:
How to think about the future (Conclusion) (Next post of this series)
The biblical timeline of the universe
The lifetime of evil (part 2)
Another post, from the table of contents

On becoming a good person

I don't care much about the recent terrorist attacks in Paris.

I mean, it's hard to care, given some perspective. It happened half a world away. The death count at the moment stands at 136, according to Wikipedia. That's nothing. The world's mortality rate is about 0.8% per year - or about 100 persons per minute. That's six thousand people in the last hour. About a hundred of those are due to malaria - a cheaply preventable disease.

If I started to care about the Paris attacks, I'd have to start caring about all these other deaths too. And who can actually care about a hundred people every minute? Who can handle a death toll of a 9/11 happening every half-hour? And if I actually cared about all those people, I might have to start donating money to prevent malaria, where it's estimated that it only costs $3,300 per life saved. You say you value human life? Well, there's your value, right there.

So I think that I value human lives at less than $3,300 a pop. Otherwise, I would actually spend that $3,300 and actually save a life. My value may be higher for a Frenchmen than for a sub-Saharan malaria victim, because of my shared Western culture with the French. It would be higher still for an American, and even higher for the people I actually know. But at the end of the day, the death of these 136 people in Paris upsets me less than the loss of a couple of thousand dollars.

And that's not even the end of it. If I started to care about all these things - if I got worked up about this Paris attacks - I'd not only have to care about all the other deaths in the world, but also smaller things that are closer to me. I'd have to deeply care about my co-workers kids' Halloween costumes and the break-up an acquaintance is going through and the health of my server at a restaurant. And I can't do that. I don't have the emotional bandwidth. Some people seem to care about all these things and genuinely empathize with everyone. I am not one of these people. I'm bad enough at caring for the people that I'm actually close to. It's not possible for me to care about everyone. For someone to actually care about literally everything, they'd have to be God-like.

But I want to care.

I don't like the fact that I don't care. I want to change, to be different. I want to be more like those people who somehow manage to always genuinely care. In becoming more like these people, I would become more like God.

And that is the ultimate meaning of what it means to become a good person. You see, we, in our society, have many measures of worth we assign to individuals: wealth, fame, status, intellect, political power, physical strength or beauty, etc. These are all somewhat useful metrics, but we're all somehow agreed that these are not the ultimate measure of a person. We've all heard aphorisms like "beauty is only skin deep" or "money can't buy happiness". But if these are not the ultimate measure, then what is?

The answer is Love. Our worth is precisely that degree to which we channel the God who is love though our lives. All other measures of worth are merely substitutes or enablers for this ultimate measure. You want to become rich and famous? You think that'll make you a better person? Well, it might: what will you do with that money and fame?

In caring for one another, we channel God's love for us through our lives. We improve the other person's lives and draw them closer to God, while improving ourselves by becoming more loving, more worthy, and more godly. I want all these things. That is why I want to care. I want to care more than I do now.

How do I go about this? How do I care more in the future, when I actually don't care now? As with everything, through practice. I start by pretending, by imitating those who are better than me. As I have already confessed, I haven't gotten very far on this path of Love. So I look at the others on the path, and imitate those who are further along. Like a baby learning to walk and talk, or like a student learning to solve problems, that is how we start. We watch and imitate those who do it better - these may be our parents, our pastors, saints from long ago like apostle Paul, and ultimately, Christ himself.

Meanwhile, as I'm getting better, God can even use cold, calculating, heartless people. He can even change and improve someone like me. My peculiarities may even serve a purpose in his kingdom.

I talked with a French co-worker about the attacks on the day that it happened. It's something that I had to fight with myself to do. I offered my condolences, but being relatively unpracticed in the way of Love, I'm not sure how much good I did. But I think I care a little bit more now, than before I had that conversation.

You may next want to read:
I am a sinner.
The lifetime of evil (part 2)
Another post, from the table of contents

How to think about the future (Part 3)

It's easy to predict the future. It'll be basically like the past.

How could that be? Isn't everything changing all the time? Are we not living in an era of unprecedented growth and technological advancement? Isn't the world not only changing, but changing faster and faster? I mean, just look at the graph of the world population: look at that absolute explosion in recent years. And similar graphs can be made for technological progress as well. Isn't it absolutely clear that the present is completely different than the past, that we are on the cusp of something disastrous or transcendent, and that the future will be far more different still?

Well, in a sense, I guess that's true. But that's pretty much always been true. That's what I mean by saying the future will be like the past. All those hyperbolic things said about the future could have been said at most other times in the past - A hundred, two hundred, or perhaps even thousands of years ago. And they would have been about as right then as we are now in saying these things. That is simply the nature of exponential growth.

Here's what I mean: if we assume that humanity's growth - whether it's measured in population or in technological development - follows an exponential curve, then the future can always be exactly mapped onto the present, or the past, through some simple transformations. Let me demonstrate: consider the following graph:

That exponential graph may represent world population or technological growth or whatever. Isn't it clear that there are two distinct regions in that graph, the flat region and the rapid rise before the end? Let's zoom in to the transition between the two regions:

Isn't that where we are in history? At that unique and crucial point where we leave off being "flat" to where everything blows up and goes off the scale?

Well, let's not do anything hasty based on that line of thinking. After all, I can make any other region of the graph look exactly like that "unique and crucial point" by simply focusing on that new point and re-normalizing the y-axis. The following is a graph of the exact same function as before at a different x-value, viewed according to the treatment I just prescribed:

Note that the view window is now focused around -400 instead of +200, and the y-axis has been re-scaled. But the shape of the function is exactly the same as it was before. You can try this for yourself  - desmos is a good online graphing calculator - and see that it's true, starting with any exponential growth function. Algebraically, this is because if you
1. take any exponential function (e^kx),
2. and translate it horizontally by any amount (e^k(x+x0)),
3. and vertically scale it to re-normalize things so that the new y-value becomes the new normal ( 1/e^kx0 * e^k(x+x0))
4. then you get back your original function. (e^kx)
This means that if you transport yourself to any time in history, and get used to your environment so that this new time period becomes your new "normal", then the pace of the changes around you will look the same as it does now. In fact, it'll look the same at any other time in history. There is therefore nothing new under the sun, and the future will be like the past.

You can even test this with events within living memory. Consider that archetypal example of modern progress: the advancements in computers. Back when I first started to really look at computers, a "gigabyte" was an unheard amount of storage for a computer to have. If you had told me then of a future of such rapid progress where a computer's storage increased by many gigabytes in a couple of years, I might have marveled at this hyper-technological future where such wonders were possible. I might have thought that everything I knew would be thrown out and be completely changed in this new world. But of course, this is the future we live in now, and the increase from 64 to 128 GB between iPhone 5 and 6 is not some world-shattering news.

Now, one may argue that the pace of growth has actually been even faster than merely exponential growth - there may be something to be said for that. Certainly, this graph of the world's population has distinct regions, and the growth is not only exponential, but there are period where the exponential growth rate itself increases. But I think it's too much to conclude that this is the definitive, continuous pattern in human progress. I think that the graph can be best interpreted by saying that human growth rate is usually exponential, but that at the rate of growth jumps to a new value at certain moments in history (the beginning of civilization, the industrial revolution, etc). We may be in such a moment in history, but even so, the rate of change would not be fundamentally different than they were during the industrial revolution. It's exciting, to be sure, but it's not the end of the world, and the future will continue to be more or less like the past.

You may next want to read:
How to think about the future (Part 4) (Next post of this series)
How to think about the future (Part 2) (Previous post of this series)
How to make a fractal
Another post, from the table of contents

How to think about the future (Part 2)

In the last post, I demonstrated that even if Marty McFly went back in time for just one second, just his gravitational influence would irrevocably change the future. I then claimed that this is actually overkill: that even small changes at interstellar distances will affect things on Earth. Let's see about that.

(Most of this post is a walk-through of a calculation. Jump to the end if you just want to see the conclusion. The conventions in this post are the same as in the last post. All numbers and equations are in mks units. The powers of 10 for scientific notation is indicated following 'e'.)

The distance to the Andromeda Galaxy is 2.5 million light-years. That's 2.4e22 meters.

Consider a single water molecule somewhere in that galaxy. Water is a polar molecule - that is, it has positive and negative parts, separated by some distance. This creates an electric dipole moment. For a single water molecule, this dipole moment has a magnitude of 6.2e-30 coulomb-meters.

Now, dipole moments exert an electric field that depends on their spatial orientation. The full equation for that electric field can be found at any number of places, but we're really only interested in how much this field can change depending on the orientation. It turns out that it can change by about 1/(4 π ε0) * p/r^3. "p" is the magnitude of the dipole moment, "r" is the distance from that dipole, and ε0 is the permittivity of free space; it's a physical constant with a value of 8.85e-12. Plugging in all these numbers, we get a value of 4.0e-87 newtons/coulomb as the electric field.

So, depending on the orientation of a single water molecule in the Andromeda Galaxy, the electric field on Earth can change by about as much as 4.0e-87 newtons/coulomb. That electric field will exert a force of 6.4e-106 newtons on an elementary electric charge here on Earth.

Now, let's take a moment to appreciate how minuscule this number is. Some mathematical tools will simply not compute a number this small, and just display it as "0". It is on the order of a millionth of a googolth of a newton. After all, what can we expect from changing the orientation of a single water molecule in the Andromeda Galaxy? How can that possibly affect us on Earth?

If this force acts on an ionized air molecule - say, a singly ionized nitrogen molecule - that would cause an acceleration of F/m = 1.4e-80 m/s^2. If this acceleration acts for 1.4e-10 seconds (0.14 nanoseconds), it will move this ion by 1.4e-100 meters. This, then, will affect the future collisions of this ion with other air molecules.

So, to review: we are changing the orientation of a single water molecule, somewhere in the Andromeda Galaxy, for 0.14 nanoseconds. We are considering how this would affect the Earth. So far, we've determined that it would move an ionized nitrogen molecule by 1.4e-100 meters (1.4 googolth of a meter), which would then influence the future collisions of that molecule.

We'll model the collisions as if they were classical collisions with hard spheres - basically, as if the molecules were billiard balls. In such collisions, changing the position of the incoming billiard ball by x causes it to bounce off at a different angle. That difference, under some simplifying assumptions, is given by 2 x/d, where d is the diameter of the "billiard balls". In our case these are air molecules, which have a diameter of about 4e-10 meters. So, after bouncing off, our original ionized molecule is now moving at a different angle - one that's 2 x/d = 6.9e-91 radians away from the direction it would have otherwise bounced to. This difference in angle will then cause it to run into the next air molecule from a different position, which will then cause another difference in bouncing angle, and so on and so forth, in an iterative fashion. Eventually, after enough bounces, the deflection will be large enough that our ionized molecule will entirely miss another molecule that it would have otherwise hit. How many collisions does this take? I wrote a small bit of code in Python to find out, using typical values for the relevant conditions for air (such as the time between collisions, or the path length that a molecule travels between collisions):
acceleration = 1.4e-80
path_length = 7e-8
time = 1.4e-10
diameter = 4e-10

n = 0
impact_parameter = 0.5*acceleration*time**2

def one_collision(incoming_d_impact_parameter):
    new_deflection = 2*incoming_d_impact_parameter/diameter
    new_d_impact_parameter = new_deflection*path_length
    return {

collision = True
while collision:
    result = one_collision(impact_parameter)
    impact_parameter = result["impact_parameter"]
    n += 1
    out_string = \
        "collisions:" + "{:2d}".format(n) + \
        "  impact_parameter:" + "{:.2e}".format(result["impact_parameter"]) + \
        "  deflection:" + "{:.2e}".format(result["deflection"])
    print out_string
    if result["impact_parameter"] > diameter:
        collision = False
        print "done in " + "{:2d}".format(n) + " collisions"
Running this code gives the following output:
collisions: 1  impact_parameter:4.80e-98  deflection:6.86e-91
collisions: 2  impact_parameter:1.68e-95  deflection:2.40e-88
collisions: 3  impact_parameter:5.88e-93  deflection:8.40e-86
collisions: 4  impact_parameter:2.06e-90  deflection:2.94e-83
collisions: 5  impact_parameter:7.21e-88  deflection:1.03e-80
collisions: 6  impact_parameter:2.52e-85  deflection:3.60e-78
collisions: 7  impact_parameter:8.83e-83  deflection:1.26e-75
collisions: 8  impact_parameter:3.09e-80  deflection:4.41e-73
collisions: 9  impact_parameter:1.08e-77  deflection:1.54e-70
collisions:10  impact_parameter:3.78e-75  deflection:5.41e-68
collisions:11  impact_parameter:1.32e-72  deflection:1.89e-65
collisions:12  impact_parameter:4.64e-70  deflection:6.62e-63
collisions:13  impact_parameter:1.62e-67  deflection:2.32e-60
collisions:14  impact_parameter:5.68e-65  deflection:8.11e-58
collisions:15  impact_parameter:1.99e-62  deflection:2.84e-55
collisions:16  impact_parameter:6.96e-60  deflection:9.94e-53
collisions:17  impact_parameter:2.44e-57  deflection:3.48e-50
collisions:18  impact_parameter:8.52e-55  deflection:1.22e-47
collisions:19  impact_parameter:2.98e-52  deflection:4.26e-45
collisions:20  impact_parameter:1.04e-49  deflection:1.49e-42
collisions:21  impact_parameter:3.65e-47  deflection:5.22e-40
collisions:22  impact_parameter:1.28e-44  deflection:1.83e-37
collisions:23  impact_parameter:4.48e-42  deflection:6.39e-35
collisions:24  impact_parameter:1.57e-39  deflection:2.24e-32
collisions:25  impact_parameter:5.48e-37  deflection:7.83e-30
collisions:26  impact_parameter:1.92e-34  deflection:2.74e-27
collisions:27  impact_parameter:6.72e-32  deflection:9.60e-25
collisions:28  impact_parameter:2.35e-29  deflection:3.36e-22
collisions:29  impact_parameter:8.23e-27  deflection:1.18e-19
collisions:30  impact_parameter:2.88e-24  deflection:4.11e-17
collisions:31  impact_parameter:1.01e-21  deflection:1.44e-14
collisions:32  impact_parameter:3.53e-19  deflection:5.04e-12
collisions:33  impact_parameter:1.23e-16  deflection:1.76e-09
collisions:34  impact_parameter:4.32e-14  deflection:6.17e-07
collisions:35  impact_parameter:1.51e-11  deflection:2.16e-04
collisions:36  impact_parameter:5.29e-09  deflection:7.56e-02
done in 36 collisions
"impact_parameter" is the difference in position as our ion approaches the next molecule. You see that, after the 36th collision, this value exceeds the diameter of a molecule, causing our ion to miss a collision that would have otherwise taken place. Since air molecules make a collision about every 1.4e-10 seconds, these 36 collisions only take 5.0e-9 seconds - that is, 5 nanoseconds.

The rest of the story is similar to how they occurred in the last post. A missed collision means that the states of the two molecules that would have been involved are now completely different, completely changed from what they would otherwise be. Then each of their future collisions also completely changes the states of these new molecules they run into. This means that with each round of collisions, the number of affected air molecules doubles. In far less than a second, all of the molecules around the original ion are affected. Furthermore, this is happening starting from every single ionized molecule in Earth's atmosphere - so in no time at all, the microstate of Earth's entire atmosphere is completely changed. This then leads to macroscopic changes (like Marty McFly never being born) soon enough.

So, that is the magnitude of the future's unpredictability. That is the degree of the universe's inter-connectivity and complexity. A SINGLE WATER MOLECULE, located in ANOTHER GALAXY, changing its orientation for a FRACTION OF A SECOND, will completely alter the microstate of the Earth's atmosphere nearly instantly (after accounting for the speed-of-light delay), and change our macroscopic future in short order. Your life, brain, and very existence is the result of all these effects combining to create you in your current state. "Subtle is the LORD" indeed.

Next week, we'll discuss a different way of thinking about the future.

You may next want to read:
How to think about the future (Part 3) (Next post of this series)
The dialogue between two aliens who found a book on Earth
How physics fits within Christianity (part 1)
Another post, from the table of contents