Utopian hope versus reality

I’ve seen an interesting variety of utopian hopes expressed recently. Raemon’s “Ritual” sequence of posts is working to affirm the viability of LW’s rationalist-immortalist utopianism, not just in the midst of an indifferent universe, but in the midst of an indifferent society. Leverage Research turn out to be social-psychology utopians, who plan to achieve their world of optimality by unleashing the best in human nature. And Russian life-extension activist Maria Konovalenko just blogged about the difficulty of getting people to adopt anti-aging research as the top priority in life, even though it’s so obvious to her that it should be.

This phenomenon of utopian hope—its nature, its causes, its consequences, whether it’s ever realistic, whether it ever does any good—certainly deserves attention and analysis, because it affects, and even afflicts, a lot of people, on this site and far beyond. It’s a vast topic, with many dimensions. All my examples above have a futurist tinge to them—an AI singularity, and a biotech society where rejuvenation is possible, are clearly futurist concepts; and even the idea of human culture being transformed for the better by new ideas about the mind, belongs within the same broad scientific-technological current of Utopia Achieved Through Progress. But if we look at all the manifestations of utopian hope in history, and not just at those which resemble our favorites, other major categories of utopia can be observed—utopia achieved by reaching back to the conditions of a Golden Age; utopia achieved in some other reality, like an afterlife.

The most familiar form of utopia these days is the ideological social utopia, to be achieved once the world is run properly, according to the principles of some political “-ism”. This type of utopia can cut across the categories I have mentioned so far; utopian communism, for example, has both futurist and golden-age elements to its thinking. The new society is to be created via new political forms and new philosophies, but the result is a restoration of human solidarity and community that existed before hierarchy and property… The student of utopian thought must also take note of religion, which until technology has been the main avenue through which humans have pursued their most transcendental hopes, like not having to die.

But I’m not setting out to study utopian thought and utopian psychology out of a neutral scholarly interest. I have been a utopian myself and I still am, if utopianism includes belief in the possibility (though not the inevitability) of something much better. And of course, the utopias that I have taken seriously are futurist utopias, like the utopia where we do away with death, and thereby also do away with a lot of other social and psychological pathologies, which are presumed to arise from the crippling futility of the universal death sentence.

However, by now, I have also lived long enough to know that my own hopes were mistaken many times over; long enough to know that sometimes the mistake was in the ideas themselves, and not just the expectation that everyone else would adopt them; and long enough to understand something of the ordinary non-utopian psychology, whose main features I would nominate as reconciliation with work and with death. Everyone experiences the frustration of having to work for a living and the quiet horror of physiological decline, but hardly anyone imagines that there might be an alternative, or rejects such a lifecycle as overall more bad than it is good.

What is the relationship between ordinary psychology and utopian psychology? First, the serious utopians should recognize that they are an extreme minority. Not only has the whole of human history gone by without utopia ever managing to happen, but the majority of people who ever lived were not utopians in the existentially revolutionary sense of thinking that the intolerable yet perennial features of the human condition might be overthrown. The confrontation with the evil aspects of life must usually have proceeded more at an emotional level—for example, terror that something might be true, and horror at the realization that it is true; a growing sense that it is impossible to escape; resignation and defeat; and thereafter a permanently diminished vitality, often compensated by achievement in the spheres of work and family.

The utopian response is typically made possible only because one imagines that there is a specific alternative to this process; and so, as ideas about alternatives are invented and circulated, it becomes easier for people to end up on the track of utopian struggle with life, rather than the track of resignation, which is why we can have enough people to form social movements and fundamentalist religions, and not just isolated weirdos. There is a continuum between full radical utopianism and very watered-down psychological phenomena which hardly deserve that name, but still have something in common—for example, a person who lives an ordinary life but draws some sustenance from the possibility of an afterlife of unspecified nature, where things might be different, and where old wrongs might be righted—but nonetheless, I would claim that the historically dominant temperament in adult human experience has been resignation to hopelessness and helplessness in ultimate matters, and an absorption in affairs where some limited achievement is possible, but which in themselves can never satisfy the utopian impulse.

The new factor in our current situation is science and technology. Our modern history offers evidence that the world really can change fundamentally, and such further explosive possibilities as artificial intelligence and rejuvenation biotechnology are considered possible for good, tough-minded, empirical reasons, not just because they offer a convenient vehicle for our hopes.

Technological utopians often exhibit frustration that their pet technologies and their favorite dreams of existential emancipation aren’t being massively prioritized by society, and they don’t understand why other people don’t just immediately embrace the dream when they first hear about it. (Or they develop painful psychological theories of why the human race is ignoring the great hope.) So let’s ask, what are the attitudes towards alleged technological emancipation that a person might adopt?

One is the utopian attitude: the belief that here, finally, one of the perennial dreams of the human race can come true. Another is denial: which is sometimes founded on bitter experience of disappointment, which teaches that the wise thing to do is not to fool yourself when another new hope comes up to you and cheerfully asserts that this time really is different. Another is to accept the possibility but deny the utopian hope. I think this is the most important interpretation to understand.

It is the one that precedent supports. History is full of new things coming to pass, but they have never yet led to utopia. So we might want to scrutinize our technological projections more closely, and see whether the utopian expectation is based on overlooking the downside. For example, let us contrast the idea of rejuvenation and the idea of immortality—not dying, ever. Just because we can take someone who is 80 and make them biologically 20, is not the same thing as making them immortal. It just means that won’t die of aging, and that when they do die, it will be in a way befitting someone 20 years old. They’ll die in an accident, or a suicide, or a crime. Incidentally, we should also note an element of psychological unrealism in the idea of never wanting to die. Forever is a long time; the whole history of the human race is about 10,000 years long. Just 10,000 years is enough to encompass all the difficulties and disappointments and permutations of outlook that have ever happened. Imagine taking the whole history of the human race into yourself; living through it personally. It’s a lot to have endured.

It would be unfair to say that transhumanists as a rule are dominated by utopian thinking. Perhaps just as common is a sort of futurological bipolar disorder, in which the future looks like it will bring “utopia or oblivion”, something really good or something really bad. The conservative wisdom of historical experience says that both these expectations are wrong; bad things can happen, even catastrophes, but life keeps going for someone—that is the precedent—and the expectation of total devastating extinction is just a plunge into depression as unrealistic as the utopian hope for a personal eternity; both extremes exhibiting an inflated sense of historical or cosmic self-importance. The end of you is not the end of the world, says this historical wisdom; imagining the end of the whole world is your overdramatic response to imagining the end of you—or the end of your particular civilization.

However, I think we do have some reason to suppose that this time around, the extremes are really possible. I won’t go so far as to endorse the idea that (for example) intelligent life in the universe typically turns its home galaxy into one giant mass of computers; that really does look like a case of taking the concept and technology with which our current society is obsessed, and projecting it onto the cosmic unknown. But just the humbler ideas of transhumanity, posthumanity, and a genuine end to the human-dominated era on Earth, whether in extinction or in transformation. The real and verifiable developments of science and technology, and the further scientific and technological developments which they portend, are enough to justify such a radical, if somewhat nebulous, concept of the possible future. And again, while I won’t simply endorse the view that of course we shall get to be as gods, and shall get to feel as good as gods might feel, it seems reasonable to suppose that there are possible futures which are genuinely and comprehensively better than anything that history has to offer—as well as futures that are just bizarrely altered, and futures which are empty and dead.

So that is my limited endorsement of utopianism: In principle, there might be a utopianism which is justified. But in practice, what we have are people getting high on hope, emerging fanaticisms, personal dysfunctionality in the present, all the things that come as no surprise to a cynical student of history. The one outcome that would be most surprising to a cynic is for a genuine utopia to arrive. I’m willing to say that this is possible, but I’ll also say that almost any existing reference to a better world to come, and any psychological state or social movement which draws sublime happiness from the contemplation of an expected future, has something unrealistic about it.

In this regard, utopian hope is almost always an indicator of something wrong. It can just be naivete, especially in a young person. As I have mentioned, even non-utopian psychology inevitably has those terrible moments when it learns for the first time about the limits of life as we know it. If in your own life you start to enter that territory for the first time, without having been told from an early age that real life is fundamentally limited and frustrating, and perhaps with a few vague promises of hope, absorbed from diverse sources, to sustain you, then it’s easy to see your hopes as, not utopian hopes, but simply a hope that life can be worth living. I think this is the experience of many young idealists in “environmental” and “social justice” movements; their culture has always implied to them that life should be a certain way, without also conveying to them that it has never once been that way in reality. The suffering of transhumanist idealists and other radical-futurist idealists, when they begin to run aground on the disjunction between their private subcultural expectations and those of the culture at large, has a lot in common with the suffering of young people whose ideals are more conventionally recognizable; and it is entirely conceivable that for some generation now coming up, rebellion against biological human limitations will be what rebellion against social limitations has been for preceding generations.

I should also mention, in passing, the option of a non-utopian transhumanism, something that is far more common than my discussion so far would mention. This is the choice of people who expect, not utopia, but simply an open future. Many cryonicists would be like this. Sure, they expect the world of tomorrow to be a great place, good enough that they want to get there; but they don’t think of it as an eternal paradise of wish-fulfilment that may or may not be achieved, depending on heroic actions in the present. This is simply the familiar non-utopian view that life is overall worth living, combined with the belief that life can now be lived for much longer periods; the future not as utopia, but as more history, history that hasn’t happened yet, and which one might get to personally experience. If I was wanting to start a movement in favor of rejuvenation and longevity, this is the outlook I would be promoting, not the idea that abolishing death will cure all evils (and not even the idea that death as such can be abolished; rejuvenation is not immortality, it’s just more good life). In the spectrum of future possibilities, it’s only the issue of artificial intelligence which lends some plausibility to extreme bipolar futurism, the idea that the future can be very good (by human standards) or very bad (by human standards), depending on what sort of utility functions govern the decision-making of transhuman intelligence.

That’s all I have to say for now. It would be unrealistic to think we can completely avoid the pathologies associated with utopian hope, but perhaps we can moderate them, if we pay attention to the psychology involved.