I recently reached an odd conclusion. A sense of history isn’t about knowing a lot of history or trying to learn from the past in order to create a better future. It is about living your mortal life as though you were immortal.
To understand why this is an interesting definition to play with, consider the following allegory. Human life is like walking into a movie halfway through, and having to walk out again two minutes later. You’ll have no idea what’s going on when you walk in. And chances are, just as you begin to get a clue, you’ll be kicked out.
So unless you are lucky enough to walk in during a scene that is satisfying without any longer narrative context (think sex or violence), your ability to derive satisfaction from your two-minute glimpse will depend partly on your ability to construct meaning out of it.
One way to do this is to pretend to be immortal. This game of make-believe also reveals a few interesting things about literal immortality seeking, in the sense of seeking longevity therapies or waiting to upload your brain into Skynet, post-Singularity.
To pretend to be immortal is to approach your limited two-minute glimpse of the movie as though you’ve been watching all along, and as though you might stick around to see how it all ends.
You will have to manufacture unverifiable memories and unfalsifiable foreshadowings. You will have to devote some of your limited time whispering to your neighbors, and perhaps surreptitiously looking up reviews with spoilers on your cellphone.
But at least you’ll walk out with a satisfying story, even if not the story. So long as you walk away feeling like you’ve just enjoyed an entire movie, it doesn’t matter.
To do this at the level of an entire life is to spend much of your time having one-way conversations with the dead and the unborn, through books read and written. You inhabit a world of ghosts while walking among the living.
These choices can lead to the sort of detachment and withdrawal from everyday life that we associate with seers, even if you don’t spend your time chasing profundities. You can seek this sort of pretend-immortality through stamp collecting or escapist fantasies.
These choices can also lead to odd patterns of identification with, and attachment to, dead or unborn cultures and people. It can lead to a sense of connection to larger human realities that is not purely genealogical. They can lead to social identities that make no sense to anyone, but are not exactly individualist either. They can make the contemporary living around you resentful and angry about your withdrawn, ghostly lifestyle.
The small difference between this kind of ghostly, vicarious immortality seeking and the literal kind is that in this kind, pretending is often enough.
The big difference is that sense-of-history seekers not only want to live forever, they want to have lived forever.
The sense of loss they feel about missing the invention of the wheel in 3000 BC is as poignant as the sense of loss they feel about missing the first interstellar human space mission in 2532 AD.
But this is only a symptom, the real difference lies deeper.
Life and Loss
Humans are somewhat unique among living things in their capacity for mourning the loss of things they never had in the first place. Immortality is one of those things (I am using words like “forever” and “immortality” in a loosely realist sense, to talk about really long, but finite time periods, ranging from many human lifetimes to the lifespan of human civilization, to the lifespan of the universe. There are no mathematical infinities here.)
To seek to avoid the pain of death — something all living creatures do — is very different from seeking to live, or have lived, forever. Our immortality instincts arise out of our ability to vicariously experience the lives of others, coupled with our ability to peer into the past and future beyond the limits of our own lifetimes. Into regimes where direct experience is impossible.
Because we can read a historical or science-fiction tale and vicariously experience a low-fidelity version of the distant past or future, we can experience a sense of loss about not being able to experience the real thing more fully and directly. So we are designed for pretend immortality.
But some want the real thing as well.
There is a key distinction between pretend and literal immortality seekers. The former want to experience more in order to extract more meaning, which means vicarious, non-participatory experience is valuable on its own. Direct experience is just a bonus, except where it is necessary for extracting any meaning they decide is essential.
The latter want to experience more because being alive itself is a valuable state to them. They prefer being alive to being dead, and being young to being old. They want to live a full, direct and pleasurable life rather than a ghostly, indirect and meaningful one. Vicarious experience is at best a means to an end for them. Ultimately, they want to personally experience all that life has to offer.
Becoming a pretend-immortal ghost, living a life that is vicarious to any significant degree, is unbearable to them.
Ghosts and Vampires
Meaning-seekers are afraid of misreading the universe; extracting false meanings out of it. They seek immortality primarily to get to more satisfying and meaningful readings of their condition. Seeking direct experience is a secondary, pragmatic objective in specific situations, it is not the raison d’être.
Experience-seekers are afraid of missing out on the rich direct experiences the universe offers. They seek immortality primarily to directly experience more of the universe. Seeking meaning is a secondary, pragmatic objective in specific situations, it is not the raison d’être.
These are different varieties of loss aversion and lead to different patterns of action.
Experience-seekers prefer doing over seeing. Meaning-seekers prefer seeing over doing. Neither requires nor precludes the other, but most people seem to prefer one to the near exclusion of the other.
We need names for these two types of immortality seekers. Let’s call them ghosts and vampires. Ghosts seek meaning. Vampires seek more direct experience of life.
In our stories, ghosts usually cannot do anything, but hang around until unresolved matters are resolved. Their satisfaction is based purely on meaning.
Vampires on the other hand, have a reason to go on living for as long as they enjoy the taste of blood and enjoy a very interventionist sort of immortality.
Pretending is enough for ghosts because there is nothing they particularly want to change; just a lot they want to see, but pretend-drinking blood is not satisfying because it is not an experience valued for the meaning it generates.
It is also obvious why vampires are more interested in living forever than having lived forever.
Since the actual direct experience matters, and pretending is not enough, the future is more interesting to vampires. The past, being inaccessible to direct experience, is only interesting in an instrumental sense, insofar as understanding it can help manipulate the future.
Ghosts seek appreciative knowledge of both past and future. Vampires seek manipulative knowledge from both past and future, but as a means to changing the future.
Which means it is useful to conduct thought experiments involving time machines to get at deeper differences between the two types.
The Time Machine Test
A useful test for telling ghosts and vampires (our human archetypes, not the fictional kind) apart is to consider how they might react to a time machine.
If you had access to a time machine that could put you anywhere in the past or future for five minutes before snapping you back to your own time, what would you do? Here are some specific questions for you to ponder:
- Would you choose to travel to the future or the past?
- If you choose the past, would you attempt to change the course of history to make your present better, or would you use it to participate in an experience that has always fascinated you, like the cowboy era?
- If you went to the future, would you spend your time in the future memorizing stock prices or shopping for things to bring back to your own time, or would simply wander around, trying to see as much as possible?
- Would you find a time-machine that allowed for ghostly, non-participatory observation, but no intervention (with future stock prices and sports results being bleeped from your memory after), almost as interesting, or uninteresting because of its practical uselessness?
- If both kinds of time machine were available, how much more would you be willing to pay for a trip on the first kind? Would you rather take two non-interventionist trips on the second machine, or one interventionist trip on the first kind?
The thought experiment clearly demonstrates that whether you choose to go to the past or the future is mostly irrelevant. What is more important is whether you go where you go in order to improve your situation or just inhabit a different situation to deepen the meaning you are reading into life.
At the other extreme of the thought experiment, imagine you could time travel at will, as much as you wanted to, anywhere, anywhen in the universe.
Would you busily go around rearranging all of history until you had an optimal timeline for the universe, designed entirely for your direct experiential pleasure in some sense?
Or would you jump back to the Big Bang and simply live through the whole thing, occasionally fast-forwarding or sneaking a look ahead when you get impatient?
Do you want to watch the movie or produce it?
I’ll leave you to play with these ideas on your own, but I want to zoom in on one particular feature of life that immortality affords.
Satiation in an Infinite Universe
Both ghosts and vampires seek to satiate appetites.
An appetite for meaning is satiated when patterns start to repeat themselves with no stimulating variations requiring explanation. This is why it is easy to lose interest in a murder mystery (particularly poorly written ones that are nothing more than logic puzzles) if you peek ahead. For a ghost, successful resolution of contradictions kills motivation. Surprise is what drives life.
An appetite for direct experience operates differently. In a simple universe consisting only of ice-cream eating experiences, you’re not done when you’ve sampled all the flavors eternity has to offer. Knowing what flavor is up next does not necessarily kill your appetite for it. You might even want to deliberately rewind and relive an experience.
You might want to try different trajectories of sampling as sensory memories of satiation fade and your appetite is regenerated. So you might get sick of vanilla and travel to 2524 and binge on Martian Apple flavored ice-cream for a week, but you might want vanilla again some day and return to relive vanilla eating.
So this gives us another interesting difference. Regenerative appetites can motivate us to relive the same experience repeatedly. But meaning-seeking is typically not a regenerative appetite. You cannot generally experience the same Aha! twice. But you can (roughly speaking) eat the same ice-cream twice.
This shows up in how we process fiction and non-fiction.
Most of us consume our favorite works of comforting junk-food fiction multiple times. I suspect I’ll do at least one re-read of Lord of the Rings in my 70s, if I live that long.
But we typically re-consume non-fiction only enough times to understand it as deeply as as we care to. When we re-consume, we do so either because we have forgotten something we need, or because we realize we missed something the first time.
It helps to think about a couple of concrete cases. Well, as concrete as a discussion of immortality can get.
Wowbagger versus Connors
My two favorite immortal characters are Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Bill Murray’s character Phil Connors, from Groundhog Day.
Wowbagger is about as pure a ghost as you can find. He is stuck in immortality and has been frustrated in his efforts to extract more meaning from his existence. He is thoroughly pissed off about having to continue hanging around. He has no real interest in more direct experience. So he spends his time insulting every living thing that ever existed. In alphabetical order. It is a thoroughly meaningless and inconsequential way of spending eternity.
Connors on the other hand, is reliving the same day over and over again in order to get it exactly right, and make what follows as perfect as possible. It is a pure vampire do-over fantasy (in an AI class I once took, the professor used Groundhog Day to illustrate backtrack search techniques for optimization).
It is not an accident that Wowbagger’s meaningless residual lifestyle is destructive rather than constructive. Meaning seeking is often destructive. You have to take things apart in order to see them more clearly. In his eternal exhaustion, that basic tendency has been reduced to a tic: insulting people.
A vampire version of Wowbagger would spend his time sampling the blood of every living thing, in alphabetical order. Or eating an endless variety of ice cream flavors, in endless permutations and combinations.
A ghost version of Phil Connors would only change his actions to understand more, not to experience more. He would be less frustrated about having to live the same day over and over.
Crucially, Connors had a girl to win — a direct experience objective rather than a vicarious experience objective. Wowbagger did not. If Connors had been an old man trying to prove a difficult theorem, his story would have been different.
The contrast between the two brings up an important point that we haven’t addressed yet. Both are effectively immortal characters, but they are still finite in their cognitive capabilities. They are immortal but do not have infinite brains.
Infinite Variety and Finite Appetites
Appetites can be finite even if existence is not. To understand how they interact, we need to consider the question of how much variety the universe offers. Variety-seeking is the common factor between ghost and vampire lifestyles. Meaning-seeking and ice-cream-eating (or blood-sucking) lifestyles are both about variety seeking.
We know that appetite for consecutive consumption of the same thing is finite. We might be done with an Aha! triggered by a mathematical proof the first time. We might be temporarily done with vanilla ice cream after 10 consecutive cones. Either way, we hit diminishing returns after a finite number of repetitions. Whether that number is one or one million is unimportant.
The interesting question is whether our appetite for unbounded variety is also naturally bounded.
This is a difficult question in general philosophical terms, but let’s take one geeky shot at it (there are more approaches to this question that I don’t have time to get into).
If we assume a thermodynamically closed universe where the second law holds, and where the assumption that everything is information processing holds (i.e., bits and atoms are two sides of the same coin), we can reach some mildly useful conclusions.
If the satiation of both kinds of appetite – for meaning or ice-cream — are computational processes, satiation depends on the amount of informational variety in the universe.
Now I don’t know how truly varied the universe is, and whether or not it admits of a finite description (a “meaning” that you could grok in finite time), but in a way this is an irrelevant question.
The universe could be one huge string of random numbers that cannot be compressed down to anything smaller than the universe itself, or it could be so fractally compact that you could describe it using a little generative computer program that fits within a few kilobytes.
If you’ve thought and read about these things, you’ll recognize them as the Douglas Adams and Stephen Wolfram/digital physics assumptions about the nature of reality.
But as I said, the question of total variety in the universe is irrelevant. This is because you have to think about beings seeking satiation as finite computers within the same universe, processing it. In a hypothetical universe occupied by a single being whose brain represents one tenth of the mass of that universe, neither meaning extracted, nor pleasure extracted, can exceed the maximum-entropy state of that computer.
Once that’s done, the being is doomed to a state of eternal frustration about meanings it has failed to extract and experiences it has missed out on.
So the size of the eternal being’s brain itself limits how long it would want to live before being satiated. This brings us to another thought experiment. And since we’re already in God-is-a-black-hole territory, we might as well go there.
Keeping God Entertained
An interesting question is this: how big would an immortal being have to be, relative to the size of the universe it is in, such that it achieves satiation in exactly the same amount of time as it takes the universe itself to reach a maximal entropy state?
This being would be interesting because it would be perfectly designed for the universe it inhabits. It would be its own God.
My half-assed conjecture is that the being would have to be exactly half the size of the universe itself. So whatever constitutes the boundary of the brain would have to contain half the universe. If it were smaller, it would have to leave some meaning or direct experience unextracted. If it were bigger, it would be done early and have to spend some time entertaining itself with its own internal thoughts. A God-being, co-extensive with the material reality it inhabits, would be pretty bored, unless it didn’t know it was a God-being, and was able to entertain itself with its own thoughts, figuring that out. I expect there’s a New Age cult out there somewhere, based on a speculative scientified theology of this sort.
I’ll leave it to someone with a better handle on information theory and thermodynamics to work out the details.
When we address the question at this level of abstraction, the distinction between vampire and ghost models of immortality vanish. For a sufficiently massive being, existence would necessarily be highly interventionist and therefore vampire-like.
It would not be able to think a thought without affecting the conditions of its existence in a non-trivial way, because it constitutes a non-trivial fraction of the universe itself. Omniscience implies unavoidable omnipotence. Or something of the sort.
I am out on a very flimsy limb here, so let’s get back to more human-scale ideas.
Play versus Movie
For human-sized beings with 2 lb brains, there is more than enough variety in the universe to keep both ghosts and vampires occupied for any time-scale they can conceive.
For human-sized beings, theories and models are also inevitable, since our minds are much smaller than the realities they seek to understand or experience. So in a way, the contemporary debate about between theory versus practice is moot. The opposite of doing is not theorizing, but seeing. How much you theorize is merely a function of the size (in informational terms) of your mind relative to the world it seeks to inhabit, either meaningfully, or pleasurably, or both. If you want to create a startup, you can do without much theorizing. If you want to write a textbook on cosmology and the Big Bang, you’re going to have to do some theorizing.
But how much you seek to see, versus how much you seek to do, represents a real trade-off. You choose based on your preferred mix of meaning extraction and direct experience.
The distinction between ghosts and vampires is real for sufficiently small beings who can meaningfully choose between non-interventionist meaning-seeking lifestyles and interventionist experience-maximization lifestyles.
This means the vampires among you probably experienced a twinge of dissatisfaction with the movie theater allegory I started with.
When your approach to life is based primarily on doing rather than seeing, on influencing for gain rather than probing for meaning, on ice-cream eating rather than theorem-proving, a default understanding of the human condition as spectator sport is deeply unsatisfying.
If we use a play rather than a movie as the basis for the allegory, we open up the possibility of playing a part during our two minutes in the theater (Shakespeare liked this version). For a sufficiently tiny being, “playing a part” is about conscious agency, not an unavoidable consequence of size. A half-universe sized being cannot choose to be a mere spectator. The other half of the universe will not ignore it (insert Dark Matter and Dark Energy jokes here), even if it wants to withdraw and disengage.
But at smaller scales, choosing to audition for a part is a choice.
Life for a vampire is about viewing life as a play rather than a movie, and making your way to the stage within those two minutes and scoring at least a bit part for 20 seconds. If that means you miss much of the on-stage action during your two minutes, so be it.
Without time machines and other immortality technologies (which incidentally, includes interstellar space travel — living long enough to get to an exoplanet probably means either being near immortal or being born in space), the vampire life is fairly limited in what it can see.
Which is perhaps why I choose to be mostly ghost. My place is out here, in the peanut gallery of the universe.