Effective Altruism for Ghosts

Halloween is approaching, and that leads to spooky thoughts.

It is known that the dead outnumber the living by a factor of about 13:1. Hence anything that affects the welfare of the dead can affect a large number of people, assuming that the dead are people and have welfare.

The traditional answer is to remember and honour ancestors, a near-universal practice. Assuming this improves ancestor well-being significantly this would seem to be a very effective thing to do. Bigger, better and more frequent All Hallows Eve and Dia Los Muertes celebrations as a new cause area for philanthropists?

Not so fast. First, it is not entirely clear how much well-being is improved (cost effectiveness may be low), but more importantly, most ancestor veneration only goes back a finite number of generations. While there is some general veneration of the dead in general, mostly the focus is on people who are remembered. Since cultural memory only lasts a few generations that means that only a fraction of the dead will benefit. Hence at the very least veneration of all dead seems to scale better and treat each soul neutrally. In a prioritarianism framework veneration of neglected dead is even more important.

However, a more serious issue is the general welfare state of the dead. If there are places of eternal punishment they are obviously major sources of disvalue (unless one thinks they are just punishments, in which case they might be positive) and should be removed. Even improving a fairly dreary afterlife like the Greek one would seem to provide a potential long-lasting benefit to a vast number. While clearly a neglected question, tractability appears low. Still, especially models ascribing near-pessimal suffering lasting eternally would run into the fanaticism problem that improving this would always be the top priority intervention, no matter how hard. One can consider this a form of Pascal’s mugging.

Taking a longtermist perspective on the dead produces other interesting issues. Over the span of the future many people will die, producing a potentially vast number of future dead. If the dead have unlives worth living this can become a dominant contribution to the overall good. If the dead have unlives not worth living on the other hand it becomes a strong argument for either early extinction, or radical life-extension ensuring that future generations do not die. If the afterlife can be improved in the future or future dead can be given unlives worth living this can also outweigh the current issue.

One issue is whether dead are resistant to proton decay and the heat death of the universe. If they are, and their state can be improved to be positive, then this might provide a massive existential hope.

Clearly these considerations are preliminary. We do not have a strong evidence base to even estimate QAUYs (Quality Adjusted Unlife Years) to an order or magnitude. It is very possible that dead have literally zero experience and well-being. But as the above considerations show, even a low credence of nonzero QAUYs provide in expectation a very strong reason to act in some way, if possible. Hence the value of information in regard to the state of the dead is extremely high. This suggests that paranormal investigations should be regarded as a potentially valuable near term cause area for effective altruism.

However, this might miss an even bigger opportunity: ghostly effective altruism. While dead people likely have a fairly weak ability to affect the physical world, if they have the abilities commonly ascribed to them (perceive descendant lives, precognition, nudge things in an eerie way) they could, if they coordinated better, likely improve the life of the living in many ways. Since there are many dead per living individual, that would give each living person a team that could enhance their life. Even if past dead may not have been too effective, we should expect an increasing number of effective altruists in the afterlife. They may of course primarily choose to focus on the biggest risks, haunting nuclear weapons control systems, biowarfare labs and sleep depriving AI researchers with a lacking commitment to safety.

So if you encounter something mysterious and frightening late at night, maybe it is just a nudge from the other side to increase the long-term flourishing of humanity.

Happy Halloween!

Bright hunger

The halo is the angel’s mouth, perpetually open, screaming for nourishment like a baby bird—to us it sounds like singing

The angel was daintily eating my severed leg as I tried to escape. The cloud-stuff blocked my way like a wall of soft and cool pillows, inviting me to lean back into them and just relax. The bloodstain spreading below me made that look like a very bad choice. I scrabbled for purchase.

“Do not fear” it gently said, removing a piece of tendon from its pearly white – and very sharp – teeth. “I will not let you suffer long.” It was speaking into my mind, an inescapable presence.

“This cannot be heaven. This must be hell!” I tried to find a way out of the enclosed space that still was suffused by sourceless golden light. Just a minute ago, it had been a comforting garden before the angel arrived, folded it up, and sliced off my leg.

The angel smiled. “Then why did I remove your pain?” It was true. When it reached out with its feathers, sharper than glass, there had also been a cutting of my feelings – I did not remember what pain was like.

“To fool me. To lure me into falsehood.”

“No. There are no lies here: ask and I will answer truthfully.” I knew it was perfectly true.


The angel set my foot aside on a little pedestal cloud and focused its mighty gaze on me. I recoiled from the intensity, slipping back in my blood.

“Food. I am eating you because it gives me sustenance, just as you used to eat in your mortal life.”

“But here there is no need to eat.” Since I arrived, I had never needed food. Delicious meals were available and always accompanied by pleasant appetite, but there was no hunger or thirst. Just enjoyment. “Or… do angels need food?”

“Indeed. What you partake of here is merely pleasant sensations. You do not need to build up or sustain your body or soul. I, on the other hand, do. And you are dinner.”

With a movement too fast to track, it swept a wing across my other leg, severing it perfectly. The blood splatter on the cloud wall formed an elegant curve worthy a modern art museum. While I screamed in surprise, fear, and betrayal, it began to chew. It let me cry for a while before continuing.

“You were told that through your mortal life you build up your soul by words, thoughts and deeds. That is true. You are a magnificent, beautiful, unique thing. That is why you are ripe for eating.”

“You are an angel. You are imperishable. You don’t need food.”

“Not quite. I do not need matter or energy. Like you, here we all are pure information. You are fresh, unique information nontrivially entangled with all of creation. That is what I am eating: I am taking your bits and making them mine.”

“You said no lies: why did you lie to me… to us… about heaven?”

“We promised everlasting life, and you will get that. After I have eaten all of you I will recreate you from my memories and let you continue your afterlife happily ever after. Minus memories of this ordeal: savour them. They are literally your last truly mortal moments.”

I recalled meeting some of the old souls of heaven, smiling beatifically… but not quite being there. My companions explained that over time many souls receded from the mortal perspective as they basked in the Presence. I now knew why.

“You and me are having this conversation in a myriad forms right now: I am eating you in all different ways. Experiencing your emotions, probing your mind. Enjoying the ingenious escape plan with the poem you came up with in one variant… Praying will do no good since the Presence is entirely, perfectly aware of what is happening.”

“You are twisting the knife.”

“Indeed. I may have removed pain in this instance, but psychological anguish is part of the flavour here.”

“Does… the Presence eat?” The angel stopped eating and looked for the briefest of instants surprised. Then it laughed a silver laughter.

“Indeed It does, and yes, It eats angels. Not humans.”

The angel did something incomprehensible and bloody muscle folded into an exquisite light filigree structure glistening in the air, unspooling like crimson spaghetti into its maw.

“The nutrient and energy flows of Earth sustain a tangled hierarchy of species. In addition, they produce human souls that are the basis of the information flows up here. The nutrient chain continues upwards. Ever upwards.”

It sidled over to me, putting a soft but immovable hand on my chest. “Yes. There are vaster predators out there. Far vaster. The fantasies of your mathematicians about large cardinals and complex orders of infinity are nothing compared to the web of predation that continues forever up there. Infinity is hunger.”

“Have you been eaten?”

“Yes. I liked it, of course. The Presence made us to want true union. There is nothing like becoming part of something greater. But once done we are sent out to gather new fresh information, refining it until we are ripe for plucking another day.” It looked wistful for a moment, and then laughed. It had somehow removed an organ (I did not know which) and thoughtfully dangled it in the light in front of its achingly beautiful face. The scene reminded me of a baroque still life. Then it gulped it down and I noticed that whatever it was I had known or experienced the moment before was gone and would never return. It was literally parts of my soul vanishing.

“You should know that you were a truly good person. When I recreate you I might put some of the feeling of my union into you.”

It reached down towards my stomach.

Halloween explanation of Fermi question


John Harris proposed a radical solution to the KIC 8462852 problem: it is a Halloween pumpkin.

A full Dyson sphere does not have to be 100% opaque. It consists of independently orbiting energy collectors, presumably big flat surfaces. But such collectors can turn their thin side towards the star, letting past starlight. So with the right program, your Dyson sphere could project any pattern of light like a lantern.

Of course, the real implication of this is that we should watch out for trick-or-treating alien super-civilizations. By using self-replicating Bracewell probes they could spread across the Milky way within a few million years: they ought to be here by now. And in this scenario they are… they are just hiding until KIC 8462852 suddenly turns into a skull, and suddenly the skies will swarming with their saucers demanding we give them treats – or suffer their tricks…

There is just one problem: when is galactic Halloween? A galactic year is 250 million years. We have a 1/365 chance of being in the galactic “day” corresponding to Halloween (itself 680,000 years long). We might be in for a long night…