David Keith Maslen


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Small inconveniences have consequences, and a googolplex is a very large number. A speck of dust in a googolplex people’s eye is a inconceivable bad thing., and I think most people would understand that if they thought what that entailed. What’s the chance that a momentary distraction will cause an accident? One in a billion? One in a quadrillion? Anyway you can be sure that a googolplex specks of dust will lead to large numbers of deaths and years of pain (much bigger than a googol). I suppose there is some minute way in which a speck of dust is more likely to cause a negative outcome than a positive - if that’s so then using a  “realistic” probability (say > 1e-100) the specks of dust seem by far the worse option. Shut up and multiply indeed!

I think the more interesting moral conclusion is that when you think about a probabilistic and uncertain world these minor inconveniences are not qualitatively different from major things like torture and death. The issue is that people don’t think about the variability in outcomes. I don’t think it’s a matter of “cold heartedly calculating”, but rather realizing that large numbers of small things have large consequences.

A more common example would be a traffic delay. Suppose you cause a 10 minutes delay to all traffic world-wide. What do you get? First it’s cost of some billions of dollars of lost work. Secondly some ambulances arrive to hospitals too late for the patients to survive. Maybe some police and firemen are delayed. 

But back to the original example. When you are talking about numbers like a googolplex I’m not sure there is any negative thing that is noticeable or could be described that wouldn’t multiply out to an obvious disaster which most people would consider far outweighs the torture (i.e. torture of far greater numbers for longer).

So maybe the problem is not that people view some things as sacred, but rather that they haven’t been explained the stakes? 

The use of torture in the example also muddies the issue I think. There are complicated reasons why people are against torture other than the pain inflicted. There is a (very imperfect) taboo against torture (and murder) and breaking this taboo is considered to possibly leading to more people tortured. So the taboo nature of torture interferes with the ability or desire to calculate.