# The frightening infinite spaces: apeirophobia

Bobby Azarian writes in The Atlantic about Apeirophobia: The Fear of Eternity. This is the existential vertigo experienced by some when considering everlasting life (typically in a religious context), or just the infinite. Pascal’s Pensées famously touches on the same feeling: “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.” For some this is upsetting enough that it actually count as a specific phobia, although in most cases it seems to be more a general unease.

# Fearing immortality

I found the concept relevant since yesterday I had a conversation with a philosopher arguing against life extension. Many of her arguments were familiar: they come up again and again if you express a positive view of longevity. It is interesting to notice that many other views do not elicit the same critical response. Suggest a future in space and some think it might be wasteful or impossible, but rarely with the same tenaciousness as life extension. As soon as one rational argument is disproven another one takes its place.

In the past I have usually attributed this to ego defence and maybe terror management. We learn about our mortality when we are young and have to come up with a way of handling it: ignoring it, denying it by assuming eternal hereafters, that we can live on through works or children, various philosophical solutions, concepts of the appropriate shape of our lives, etc. When life extension comes up, this terror management or self image is threatened and people try to defend it – their emotional equilibrium is risked by challenges to the coping strategy (and yes, this is also true for transhumanists who resolve mortality by hoping for radical life extension: there is a lot of motivated thinking going on in defending the imminent breakthroughs against death, too). While “longevity is disturbing to me” is not a good argument it is the motivator for finding arguments that can work in the social context. This is also why no amount of knocking down these arguments actually leads anywhere: the source is a coping strategy, not a rationally consistent position.

However, the apeirophobia essay suggests a different reason some people argue against life extension. They are actually unsettled by indefinite or infinite lives. I do not think everybody who argues has apeirophobia, it is probably a minority fear (and might even be a different take on the fear of death). But it is a somewhat more respectable origin than ego defence.

When I encounter arguments for the greatness of finite and perhaps short spans of life, I often rhetorically ask – especially if the interlocutor is from a religious worldview – if they think people will die in Heaven. It is basically Sappho’s argument (“to die is an evil; for the gods have thus decided. For otherwise they would be dying.”) Of course, this rarely succeeds in convincing anybody but it tends to throw a spanner in the works. However, the apeirophobia essay actually shows that some religious people may have a somewhat consistent fear that eternal life in Heaven isn’t a good thing. I respect that. Of course, I might still ask why God in their worldview insists on being eternal, but even I can see a few easy ways out of that issue (e.g. it is a non-human being not affected by eternity in the same way).

# Arbitrariness

As I often have to point out, I do not believe immortality is a thing. We are finite beings in a random universe, and sooner or later our luck runs out. What to aim for is indefinitely long lives, lives that go on (with high probability) until we no longer find them meaningful. But even this tends to trigger apeirophobia. Maybe one reason is the indeterminacy: there is nothing pre-set at all.

Pascal’s worry seem to be not just the infinity of the spaces but also their arbitrariness and how insignificant we are relative to them. The full section of the Pensées:

205: When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space which I fill, and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant, and which know me not, I am frightened, and am astonished at being here rather than there; for there is no reason why here rather than there, why now rather than then. Who has put me here? By whose order and direction have this place and time been allotted to me? Memoria hospitis unius diei prætereuntis.

206: The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.

207: How many kingdoms know us not!

208: Why is my knowledge limited? Why my stature? Why my life to one hundred years rather than to a thousand? What reason has nature had for giving me such, and for choosing this number rather than another in the infinity of those from which there is no more reason to choose one than another, trying nothing else?

Pascal is clearly unsettled by infinity and eternity, but in the Pensées he tries to resolve this psychologically: since he trusts God, then eternity must be a good thing even if it is hard to bear. This is a very different position from my interlocutor yesterday, who insisted that it was the warm finitude of a human life that gave life meaning (a view somewhat echoed in Mark O’Connell’s To Be a Machine). To Pascal apeirophobia was just another challenge to become a good Christian, to the mortalist it is actually a correct, value-tracking intuition.

# Apeirophobia as a moral intuition

I have always been sceptical of psychologizing why people hold views. It is sometimes useful for emphatizing with them and for recognising the futility of knocking down arguments that are actually secondary to a core worldview (which it may or may not be appropriate to challenge). But it is easy to make mistaken guesses. Plus, one often ends up in the “sociological fallacy”: thinking that since one can see non-rational reasons people hold a belief then that belief is unjustified or even untrue. As Yudkowsky pointed out, forecasting empirical facts by psychoanalyzing people never works. I also think this applies to values, insofar they are not only about internal mental states: that people with certain characteristics are more likely to think something has a certain value than people without the characteristic only gives us information about the value if that characteristic somehow correlates with being right about that kind of values.

Feeling apeirophobia does not tell us that infinity is bad, just as feeling xenophobia does not tell us that foreigners are bad. Feeling suffering on the other hand does give us direct knowledge that it is intrinsically aversive (it takes a lot of philosophical footwork to construct an argument that suffering is actually OK). Moral or emotional intuitions certainly can motivate us to investigate a topic with better intellectual tools than the vague unease, conservatism or blind hope that started the process. The validity of the results should not depend on the trigger since there is no necessary relation between the feeling and the ethical state of the thing triggering it: much of the debate about “the wisdom of repugnance” is clarifying when we should expect the intuition to overwhelm the actual thinking and when they are actually reliable. I always get very sceptical when somebody claims their intuition comes from a innate sense of what the good is – at least when it differs from mine.

Would people with apeirophobia have a better understanding of the value of infinity than somebody else? I suspect apeirophobes are on average smarter and/or have a higher need for cognition, but this does not imply that they get things right, just that they think more and more deeply about concepts many people are happy to gloss over. There are many smart nonapeirophobes too.

A strong reason to be sceptical of apeirophobic intuitions is that intuitions tend to work well when we have plenty of experience to build them from, either evolutionarily or individually. Human practical physics intuitions are great for everyday objects and speeds, and progressively worsens as we reach relativistic or quantum scales. We do not encounter eternal life at all, and hence we should be very suspicious about the validity of aperirophobia as a truth-tracking innate signal. Rather, it is triggered when we become overwhelmed by the lack of references to infinity in our lived experience or we discover the arbitrarily extreme nature of “infinite issues” (anybody who has not experienced vertigo when they understood uncountable sets?) It is a correct signal that our minds are swimming above an abyss we do not know but it does not tell us what is in this abyss. Maybe it is nice down there? Given our human tendency to look more strongly for downsides and losses than positives we will tend to respond to this uncertainty by imagining diffuse worst case scenario monsters anyway.

I do not think I have apeirophobia, but I can still see how chilling belief in eternal lives can be. Unsong’s disutility-maximizing Hell is very nasty, but I do not think it exists. I am not worried about Eternal Returns: if you chronologically live forever but actually just experience a finite length loop of experiences again and again then it makes sense to say that your life just that long.

My real worry is quantum immortality: from a subjective point of view one should expect to survive whatever happen in a multiverse situation, since one cannot be aware in those branches where one died. The problem is that the set of nice states to be in is far smaller than the set of possible states, so over time we should expect to end up horribly crippled and damaged yet unable to die. But here the main problem is the suffering and reduction of circumstances, not the endlessness.

There is a problem with endlessness here though: since random events play a decisive role in our experienced life paths it seems that we have little control over where we end up and that whatever we experience in the long run is going to be wholly determined by chance (after all, beyond 10100 years or more we will all have to be a succession of Boltzmann brains). But the problem seems to be more  the pointlessness that emerges from this chance than that it goes on forever: a finite randomised life seems to hold little value, and as Tolstoy put it, maybe we need infinite subjective lives where past acts matter to actually have meaning. I wonder what apeirophobes make of Tolstoy?

# Embracing the abyss

My recommendation to apeirophobes is not to take Azarian’s advice and put eternity out of mind, but instead to embrace it in a controllable way. Learn set theory and the paradoxes of infinity. And then look at the time interval $t=[0, \infty)$ and realise it can be mapped into the interval $[0,1)$ (e.g. by $f(t)=1/(t+1)$). From the infinite perspective any finite length of life is equal. But infinite spans can be manipulated too: in a sense they are also all the same. The infinities hide within what we normally think of as finite.

I suspect Pascal would have been delighted if he knew this math. However, to him the essential part was how we turn intellectual meditation into emotional or existential equilibrium:

Let us therefore not look for certainty and stability. Our reason is always deceived by fickle shadows; nothing can fix the finite between the two Infinites, which both enclose and fly from it.

If this be well understood, I think that we shall remain at rest, each in the state wherein nature has placed him. As this sphere which has fallen to us as our lot is always distant from either extreme, what matters it that man should have a little more knowledge of the universe? If he has it, he but gets a little higher. Is he not always infinitely removed from the end, and is not the duration of our life equally removed from eternity, even if it lasts ten years longer?

In comparison with these Infinites all finites are equal, and I see no reason for fixing our imagination on one more than on another. The only
comparison which we make of ourselves to the finite is painful to us.

In the end it is we who make the infinite frightening or the finite painful. We can train ourselves to stop it. We may need very long lives in order to grow to do it well, though.

# Desperately Seeking Eternity

Overall, I am pretty happy with it (hard to get everything I want into a short essay and without using my academic caveats, footnotes and digressions). Except maybe for the title, since “desperate” literally means “without hope”. You do not seek eternity if you do not hope for anything.

# Living forever

Benjamin Zand has made a neat little documentary about transhumanism, attempts to live forever and the posthuman challenge. I show up of course as soon as ethics is being mentioned.

Benjamin and me had a much, much longer (and very fun) conversation about ethics than could even be squeezed into a TV documentary. Everything from personal identity to overpopulation to the meaning of life. Plus the practicalities of cryonics, transhuman compassion and how to test if brain emulation actually works.

I think the inequality and control issues are interesting to develop further.

# Would human enhancement boost inequality?

There is a trivial sense in which just inventing an enhancement produces profound inequality since one person has it, and the rest of mankind lacks it. But this is clearly ethically uninteresting: what we actually care about is whether everybody gets to share something good eventually.

However, the trivial example shows an interesting aspect of inequality: it has a timescale. An enhancement that will eventually benefit everyone but is unequally distributed may be entirely OK if it is spreading fast enough. In fact, by being expensive at the start it might even act as a kind of early adopter/rich tax, since they first versions will pay for R&D of consumer versions – compare computers and smartphones. While one could argue that it is bad to get temporary inequality, long-term benefits would outweigh this for most enhancements and most value theories: we should not sacrifice the poor of tomorrow for the poor of today by delaying the launch of beneficial technologies (especially since it is unlikely that R&D to make them truly cheap will happen just due to technocrats keeping technology in their labs – making tech cheap and useful is actually one area where we know empirically the free market is really good).

If the spread of some great enhancement could be faster though, then we may have a problem.

I often encounter people who think that the rich will want to keep enhancements to themselves. I have never encountered any evidence for this being actually true except for status goods or elites in authoritarian societies.

There are enhancements like height that are merely positional: it is good to be taller than others (if male, at least), but if everybody gets taller nobody benefits and everybody loses a bit (more banged heads and heart problems). Other enhancements are absolute: living healthy longer or being smarter is good for nearly all people regardless of how long other people live or how smart they are (yes, there might be some coordination benefits if you live just as long as your spouse or have a society where you can participate intellectually, but these hardly negate the benefit of joint enhancement – in fact, they support it). Most of the interesting enhancements are in this category: while they might be great status goods at first, I doubt they will remain that for long since there are other reasons than status to get them. In fact, there are likely network effects from some enhanchements like intelligence: the more smart people working together in a society, the greater the benefits.

In the video, I point out that limiting enhancement to the elite means the society as a whole will not gain the benefit. Since elites actually reap rents from their society, this means that from their perspective it is actually in their best interest to have a society growing richer and more powerful (as long as they are in charge). This will mean they lose out in the long run to other societies that have broader spreads of enhancement. We know that widespread schooling, free information access and freedom to innovate tend to produce way wealthier and more powerful societies than those where only elites have access to these goods. I have strong faith in the power of diverse societies, despite their messiness.

My real worry is that enhancements may be like services rather than gadgets or pills (which come down exponentially in price). That would keep them harder to reach, and might hold back adoption (especially since we have not been as good at automating services as manufacturing). Still, we do subsidize education at great cost, and if an enhancement is desirable democratic societies are likely to scramble for a way of supplying it widely, even if it is only through an enhancement lottery.

However, even a world with unequal distribution is not necessarily unjust. Beside the standard Nozickian argument that a distribution is just if it was arrived at through just means there is the Rawlsian argument that if the unequal distribution actually produces benefits for the weakest it is OK. This is likely very true for intelligence amplification and maybe brain emulation since they are likely to cause strong economic growth an innovations that produce spillover effects – especially if there is any form of taxation or even mild redistribution.

# Who controls what we become? Nobody, we/ourselves/us

The second issue is who gets a say in this.

As I respond in the interview, in a way nobody gets a say. Things just happen.

People innovate, adopt technologies and change, and attempts to control that means controlling creativity, business and autonomy – you better have a very powerful ethical case to argue for limitations in these, and an even better political case to implement any. A moral limitation of life extension needs to explain how it averts consequences worse than 100,000 dead people per day. Even if we all become jaded immortals that seems less horrible than a daily pile of corpses 12.3 meters high and 68 meters across (assuming an angle of repose of 20 degrees – this was the most gruesome geometry calculation I have done so far). Saying we should control technology is a bit like saying society should control art: it might be more practically useful, but it springs from the same well of creativity and limiting it is as suffocating as limiting what may be written or painted.

Technological determinism is often used as an easy out for transhumanists: the future will arrive no matter what you do, so the choice is just between accepting or resisting it. But this is not the argument I am making. That nobody is in charge doesn’t mean the future is not changeable.

The very creativity, economics and autonomy that creates the future is by its nature something individual and unpredictable. While we can relatively safely assume that if something can be done it will be done, what actually matters is whether it will be done early or late, or seldom or often. We can try to hurry beneficial or protective technologies so they arrive before the more problematic ones. We can try to aim at beneficial directions in favour over more problematic ones. We can create incentives that make fewer want to use the bad ones. And so on. The “we” in this paragraph is not so much a collective coordinated “us” as the sum of individuals, companies and institutions, “ourselves”: there is no requirement to get UN permission before you set out to make safe AI or develop life extension. It just helps if a lot of people support your aims.

John Stuart Mill’s harm principle allows society to step in an limit freedom when it causes harms to others, but most enhancements look unlikely to produce easily recognizable harms. This is not a ringing endorsement: as Nick Bostrom has pointed out, there are some bad directions of evolution we might not want to go down, yet it is individually rational for each of us to go slightly in that direction. And existential risk is so dreadful that it actually does provide a valid reason to stop certain human activities if we cannot find alternative solutions. So while I think we should not try to stop people from enhancing themselves we should want to improve our collective coordination ability to restrain ourselves. This is the “us” part. Restraint does not just have to happen in the form of rules: we restrain ourselves already using socialization, reputations, and incentive structures. Moral and cognitive enhancement could add restraints we currently do not have: if you can clearly see the consequences of your actions it becomes much harder to do bad things. The long-term outlook fostered by radical life extension may also make people more risk aversive and willing to plan for long-term sustainability.

One could dream of some enlightened despot or technocrat deciding. A world government filled with wise, disinterested and skilled members planning our species future. But this suffers from essentially the economic calculation problem: while a central body might have a unified goal, it will lack information about the preferences and local states among the myriad agents in the world. Worse, the cognitive abilities of the technocrat will be far smaller than the total cognitive abilities of the other agents. This is why rules and laws tend to get gamed – there are many diverse entities thinking about ways around them. But there are also fundamental uncertainties and emergent phenomena that will bubble up from the surrounding agents and mess up the technocratic plans. As Virginia Postrel noted, the typical solution is to try to browbeat society into a simpler form that can be managed more easily… which might be acceptable if the stakes are the very survival of the species, but otherwise just removes what makes a society worth living in. So we better maintain our coordination ourselves, all of us, in our diverse ways.