I have a small intuition pump I am working on, and thought maybe others would find it interesting.
Consider a habitat (say, a Petri dish) that in any given moment has maximum carrying capacity for supporting 100 000 units of life (say, cells), and two alternative scenarios.
Scenario A. Initial population of 2 cells grows exponentially, one cell dying but producing two descendants each generation. After the 16th generation, the habitat overflows, and all cells die in overpopulation. The population experienced a total of 262 142 units of flourishing.
Scenario B. More or less stable population of x cells (x << 100 000 units, say, approximately 20) continues for n generations, for total of x * n units of flourishing until the habitat meets its natural demise after n generations.
For some reason or other, I find the scenario B much more appealing even for relatively small numbers of n. For example, while n=100 000 (2 000 000 units of total flourishing) would be obviously better for utilitarian who cares about total equal sum of flourishing units (utilitons), I personally find already meager n=100 (x*n = 2000) sounding better than A.
Maybe this is just because of me assuming that because n=100 is possible, also larger n sounds possible. Or maybe I am utiliton-blind and just think 100 > 17. Or maybe something else.
Background. In a recent discussion with $people, I tried to argue why I find a long term existence of a limited human population much more important than mere potential size of total experienced human flourishing or something more abstract. I have not tried to "figure in" more details, but somethings I have thought about adding in, is various probabilistic scenarios / uncertainty about total carrying capacity. No, I have not read (/remember reading) previous relevant LW posts, if you can think of something useful / relevant, please link it!
Are you a Malthusian? The thing that elevates humans to the status of people is our immunity to Malthusian Dynamics (but I will admit that most demographics of humans don't actually qualify). If the population went 10x, the extinction risk wouldn't go up 10x. Actually, it wouldn't even go up at all. It would go down, in fact. We're not hunter gatherers who need to maintain a low tribe population to ensure the caribou herd doesn't dwindle from over hunting. Mankind is past the point where we can over-consume resources. By the time we get even close, we already find new resources.
The reason you have a preference for "scenario B" is because your evolutionary past is one filled with scarcity and tribes that didn't manage their number would over-hunt their territory and starve to death. But luckily, evolution is rewarding people who realize this and weeding out the people who don't. The people who can't adapt to the end of scarcity don't have a place in the future.
Is this a closed environment, that supports 100000 cell-generations? In that case, the 15th generation and predecessors will have eaten 65535 units of food, so the 16th generation will only be partial - either 65536 cells that live about half their normal span, or more likely, a bunch will eat each other, to collapse to a much smaller number that lasts a few more generations.
Regardless, it's worth exploring where your intuition flips - would 1 cell that repeats for 100K generations be preferable? 50K for 2 generations? For myself, I'm mostly indifferent in the case of individual cells. For beings with culture, there's a lot of value in existing during a growth phase, which I don't know how to model. And thinking beings (if such a thing existed), when there are sufficient numbers and knowledge about the impending limits, can work to increase the limits, and to decrease the per-unit usage.
Related: https://www.lesswrong.com/tag/shut-up-and-multiply .
>For being with culture, there's a lot of value in existing during a growth phase
For being with culture, there's a lot of **Measure** in existing during a growth phase.
Out of all possible epochs, why else are you born in this unprecedented one?
>Is this a closed environment, that supports 100000 cell-generations?
Good question! No. I was envisioning it as a system where a constant population of 100 000 would be viable. (RA pipettes in a constant amount of nutritional fluid every day or something). Now that you asked the question, it might make more sense to investigate this assumption more.
Notably, in either population regime, a randomly chosen individual will have an expected ~n/2 total descendants. However, this only favors Scenario B by a factor of about 6x as opposed to the 131x more lifetimes in Scenario A.
I'm going to assume we're talking about people here. I think the relevant difference for me is the value of having many generations of accumulated culture vs. the value of having many other people alive along with you.
Eventually, yes, it is related to arguments concerning people. But I was curious about what aesthetics remain after I try to abstract away the messy details.