Optimistic Nihilism

Ryan Dahl

This post is in response to the Optimistic Nihilism video by Kurzgesagt. Optimistic Nihilism perfectly describes my perspective on life and the universe. I want to add my interpretation of the philosophy and spice it up with some science fiction ideas.


It's clear that in our modern era, with our extremely robust theories of physics, backed by extremely precise observations of the universe, that the religious explanations of existence are false. Our best understanding is that we are matter, not unlike like the mountains and oceans and stars, that over long periods of time, through intricate chemistry, became alive and then conscious.

It is also clear that the universe does not care about us. I think it's important to internalize how quickly life can end. (Beware: the links are videos of people dying.) You can simply be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and nothing will save you from a rock slide, flash flood, or fire. The tragedy will not be proceeded by dramatic music and it will not happen in slow motion.

In the horrific nightclub fire video linked above, everything looks normal and fun, and seconds later people are being burned alive. If pyrotechnics cause a fire in a crowded room without sufficient exits, people will die. The universe does not care.

In the past couple decades, we've come to understand how very isolated and rare life is in the universe. Unfortunately, there are no green men on Mars. We search and search for some evidence of any life anywhere—in electromagnetic magnetic radition, in Martian soil—the results are null. The universe is very large and it seems likely that life must have developed elsewhere. But every passing year without signal, clarifies how rare life must be. There is certainly no other civilization in our solar system. And almost certainly none in our neighboring stars. We are very alone.

Space exploration is a laudable endeavor that has increased our understanding of the universe. But in all the talk of a manned mission to Mars, many people miss an important truth: Mars is one of the last places we could ever go.

It's possible to send people to Mars; it might even happen in the next few years. By stretching one's imagination generations into the future, it's maaaaybe possible we could have largish populations of humans on Mars... But the other planets are utterly inhospitable. The surface of Venus is 400 degrees and the atmosphere is so corrosive that it eats metal. The pressure on Jupiter would crush spacecraft, and there's no way to escape once you go in. Its moons bask in extreme radiation. Pluto is a pitch black icy rock in the middle of nowhere. I suppose it's not physically impossible to land someone on Mercury or Ceres or any other number of rocky bodies, but it's doubtful there's much to be gained beyond flag planting.

The fastest speed ever achieved by a human made object was 25 miles per second with the Juno spacecraft. If we somehow pack a ship with humans and supplies and travel at that speed towards the nearest star, it would take more than 30,000 years. 30k years might as well be a billion; when compared to our 100 year lives, both are infinite. Star Trek-like warp drives are not reality; there is no suggestion they ever could be.

Humans will never travel to the next star. It is completely infeasible.

All we have is this planet, and there are so many ways it can go wrong. It's entirely conceivable that some chemical we're pouring into the environment destroys some fragile balance, global temperatures rise and we all die. It's entirely conceivable a human virus spreads through our dense global society and we all die. It's entirely conceivable that a hunk of metal the size of Manhattan falls from the sky and we all die.

The universe is unthinkably infinite, empty, and dead. There is nothing but vacuum and rarely some rocks, forever, except here on this small globe. Life is so utterly precious.

We are just beginning to understand the mechanisms of the brain. The emerging understanding is that many small cells interact with electrical chemical pulses to process sensory information and react with muscle movements. Although we don't understand the mechanics of consciousness (maybe it's some kind of control system for higher level attention), all evidence suggests that it's an entirely physical process created by the interaction of neurons.

Thus when you die, and the cells in your head deteriorate, the animated flicker of your being will cease to exist, forever. I echo Kurzgesagt and answer the ancient question: What happens when you die? You simply cease to exist.

The consequence of this understanding? You are the rarest of rare matter in the universe. You are much more precious than gold. You are the type of matter that can walk and discuss and build.

You have a finite amount of time before the matter that is you ceases to be animated.


"You only get one shot at life, which is scary. But it sets you free... If our life is all we get to experience, then it's the only thing that matters... If the universe has no purpose, then we get to dictate what that purpose is." — Kurzgesagt

Create art, eat all the food, enjoy music, exercise, watch tv, travel the world, have sex, and garden. Take care of yourself and your fellow living creatures. Seek to reduce suffering, injuries, and death. And don't spend your life doing something you don't want to be doing, if you can help it.

There is technology that gives me hope.

The nascent field of Machine Learning has seen a remarkable simplification in theory combined with practical progress in the past couple years. The best ML algorithms are now, definitively, artificial neural networks; which were designed with inspiration from brain biology. These neural networks are still difficult to employ and not well understood, but it seems likely they will enable us to solve all sorts of yet-unsolved problems.

Researchers in the discipline rightly are loath to make technological predictions beyond tasks that are immediately achievable. But I think all are quietly dreaming of true artificial consciousness. I'm more foolish than them, so I will state my opinion publicly:

I see no reason why we would not be able to some day emulate brains and build a machine that understands and thinks, like humans do. Artificial consciousness is many years from reality, but it's more than conceivable. The foundational components might already be emerging in advanced GPUs, back propagation frameworks, and convolutional architectures.

Our bodies are fragile. They must stay within a small range of temperatures, we must have certain chemicals to breath at a certain pressure, we must have food, we must have sleep. We have many constraints on life. These constraints are not circumventable.

However we can build things much stronger than our bodies. Jet engines, for example, are complex machines that operate with remarkable reliability at high temperatures. We have forging presses that can squeeze with enormous amounts of force. We have satellites that operate for decades in hostile vacuum and radiation. We build very tall structures that withstand the strongest winds without the slightest worry of collapse.

Unlike human bodies, an artificial consciousness on a microchip could live in extreme conditions. Artificial consciousnesses could be suspended for hundreds of thousands of years, in a spacecraft without life support. They could be sent in many directions, with all of our knowledge, to wake in another age, orbiting another star. Can we build electronics that can resume operation a million years after being built? It's more likely than building a warp drive.

I hope artificial intelligence can be an avenue to securing our history and keeping consciousness on Earth alive. Robust computers could be built that will not die from viruses, that could survive a large meteor, that wouldn't die if greenhouse conditions take hold and raise temperatures beyond that which natural biology can endure.

Some worry that an artificial consciousnesses could turn against humans. I am not concerned about this. First of all, we are many years away from such technology. The "AI" that I deal with in my research is so laughably far from consciousness, it's like worrying about lawnmowers turning against us. But this meme has gotten enough attention that I want to address it: supposing that somehow we created an artificial consciousness that was able to spontaneously improve itself and escape from our control: are we doomed?

It seems that intelligence and abundance comes hand-in-hand with empathy. Humans, more and more, are peaceful creatures. An increasing number are so empathetic that they avoid eating animals entirely. If a super intelligence could outsmart me, then it would also understand all that I've outlined above about how fragile and rare life is. A super intelligence would, I think, be super empathetic.

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