A thought experiment on liberty and the survival of our species

I came up with a thought experiment a few months ago and have been testing it on the smartest people I know.

This thought experiment relies on you agreeing with three premises:

1. Our knowledge of the natural universe will continue to increase.

2. Our ability to share information among each other will continue to increase.

3. Imagine everyone on the planet has a button in front of them that will destroy planet Earth and everyone on it. You can assume that we haven’t colonized space yet. You agree that a few thousand people will rush to press that button.

I agree with these three premises. If you don’t, please post why in the comments.

If you agree with these three points, it would seem we’re heading towards a world where it’s likely that our knowledge of the natural world will increase to a point where we know how to develop something that can kill all humans on planet Earth. It will also become feasible for individuals to implement that knowledge.

If you agree that information sharing will become very efficient and information will be accessible to all, the knowledge of how to create the destructor-thing that kills all people on Earth will be shared among all very quickly and efficiently.

We then have a situation where everyone on Earth has a button in front of them that can kill everything. And you’ve agreed a few thousand will rush to press the button – or implement the destructor-thing in this case.

So it seems our self destruction is inevitable.

As the conclusion to this thought experiment, I pose a question: How do we solve this problem. Specifically the problem of our inevitable self destruction through our increased knowledge of the natural universe, our ability to share information and the minority’s desire to implement self destruction. 

Thinking about this yields some interesting opinions from friends and acquaintances. These are various conclusions from different people, so don’t misunderstand and combine them:

  • Secrets are necessary.
  • A Police State is inevitable.
  • Governments will use the fear of destruction among the populace to sieze vast amounts of power.
  • Individuals will sense the inadequacy of the government to protect us from this threat and will police themselves.
  • This knowledge already exists and is kept secret which is why we haven’t seen breakthroughs of the magnitude of E=mc²

If you run across this article I’d love to hear your thoughts.


6 thoughts on “A thought experiment on liberty and the survival of our species

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  2. Interesting thought. I’ve suffered from depression which subsides mildly and tolerably when life is decent; which, for the most part, it is. However, when even the darkest spells of depression occur and the fuel of anger and hatred are added to the flames, I never see the point in harming anyone. Even when that fuel is another person, I quickly realize that harming someone else is irrational.

    Of course, I don’t believe the majority of persons would dismiss this pain, especially when there is someone they feel in an irrational state would be a rational means of action. Even then, it’s difficult for me to see someone who would desire to eliminate all life, or simply, all human life upon this planet. If they chose to do so, there would be no one to remember them, and that alone might be reason enough not to eliminate all humans.

    While I’d certainly like to believe that a continual growth in knowledge would only lessen reasons for hurting others, I believe strongly that man is selfish and highly irrational. I continue to hope that in the years to come, an increasing set of knowledge and technology will only perpetuate, bettering the lives of those that would rather seek to better the human condition as opposed to destroying it, having found such great beauty and joy in the world around us that to obliterate any of it would be a crime unbearable to conceive.

    It might sound absurd, but I believe that at the rate of population completely unhindered, that resources and the systems we have developed to sustain the strained needs of our planet currently, that much like gridlock, we too shall find our species end in a bitter-sweet irony. One where our love and need to procreate unhindered and without limit shall too be our demise.

  3. James, while I understand and agree with you about the existing methods of destruction, advances in the depth and understanding of physics, and advances in the technologies to further our ability to research and manipulate physics, present new forms of destruction. Let’s just suppose a black hole could be “manufactured” which would consume the Earth. That is the destruction that does not require arrogance to envision mankind’s annihilation.

    Our ability to gather, investigate, and disseminate information is barely just reaching adolescence. Soon, microscopes and telescopes will have something like an IP address, and data will be made available for thousands to process. Actually, that’s already here, too. And as each plateau is reached exponentially, “we” do become more knowledgeable.

    Think of how easy it is for today’s teenager to create a simple pipe bomb. Compare that to how difficult that would have been for the older generations. Certainly, any other method of destruction, at any newly discovered level of “our” ability to manipulate the physical world will eventually become widely available.

    I don’t think it is even a question of will there be someone irrational enough to push that ultimate button, when it inevitably becomes available. Ask the citizens of Columbine or Newtown if they feel comfortable with the rationality or morality of the destructive potential of today’s delinquents. Ask Boston or New York how they feel about the compassion or compulsion for self-preservation of the frustrated and ungoverned factions of people with a much different paradigm than the one which we could very easily be stuck in ourselves.

  4. WOW First let me say wow on the post above – Bravo James Hardiman – I am so happy you wrote here instead of your book! !

    Next – a book comes to mind for Mark:
    Your premise reminds me of Herman Kahn’s
    Escalation Ladder (1965):

    If the links get removed I will simply recommend you look up Herman Kahn on Wikipedia and see the citation for the ladder.

    Essentially Kahn’s book was written as the ashes of the nuclear bomb were settling on future. It was considered at that time to be one of the seminal writings on the end game that had come to be in the “button” being created.

    I agree with James that the internet has become as adept at disseminating misinformation as it is at disseminating valid information. While information may be considered knowledge I think knowledge is only one part of wisdom.
    So my answer to the question of :
    “How do we solve this problem. Specifically the problem of our inevitable self destruction through our increased knowledge of the natural universe, our ability to share information and the minority’s desire to implement self destruction. ”

    At one time I would have been full of optimistic answers – then someone introduced me to Buckminster Fuller’s World Game

    Now I respond – Oh my – the question you ask is so complex! And yet all I can come up with is – we do it in our own sphere of influence and hope it trends outward. I can choose to share the most meaningful elements I have come to find – or I can share puppy videos on Facebook! I can start by recognizing and sharing differences instead of taking offense when they appear. I can try to understand the position of those who think in opposition to me and take responsibility for finding common ground.

    Timothy Leary said in an interview by David Sheff in Rolling Stone Twentieth Anniversary Issue (1987)
    “We are dealing with the best-educated generation in history. They are a hundred times better educated than their grandparents, and ten times more sophisticated. There has never been such an open-minded group. The problem is that no one is giving them anything fresh. They’ve got a brain dressed up with nowhere to go.”

  5. Okay, agreed- but it doesn’t matter. Souls will return until they have no need for form. AKA: this ain’t our first rodeo.

    The real reason I’m here though, is to tell you thank you for Wordfence.

    Thank You!!!!!!!

  6. I got up early today to write a chapter of my book … on philosophy; replying to your question seems like a more pressing philosophical task.

    As Kuhn points out (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) we become bound by our paradigms and these paradigms are an artefact of our culture. As an Englishman living in America, not full time, I find myself on the edge of two paradigms (or two sets of paradigms); each set nudges me to notice the other, because it is in the nature of a paradigm that we don’t see it when we are in it, and anyone from outside our paradigm who makes pronouncements about it seems mad, or a heretic, or downright dangerous, or all three.

    Ask Galileo; I’m sure that he will agree.

    Since coming to America I have become significantly more politicised than I was when I spent the majority of my time in the UK, and I interact with well over 1000 people (from all over the world) on Facebook and from that I pick up a paradigm that seems to me to be reflected in your carefully phrased questions, but which I could less carefully summarise as “we’re all going to hell in a hand basket and the government is out to get us, so we better stock up on guns and ammo and defend ourselves”.

    In all of the history of humankind there have been many oppressive regimes, some lasting a relatively short time (Hitler’s Third Reich was truly awful and killed countless millions of people, but only lasted around 20 years: the blink of an eyelid in terms of the who of human history); Soviet communism lasted longer, and bits of it linger still in places like Korea. But none of these oppressive regimes lasted that long. Shelley put it perfectly:

    I met a traveller from an antique land
    Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
    Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
    Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
    And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
    Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
    Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
    The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
    And on the pedestal these words appear —
    “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
    Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
    Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
    The lone and level sands stretch far away.’

    When the Berlin Wall fell it wasn’t pushed over by tanks, but by a crowd of people with hope in their hearts. The oppressors melted away. It happened in South Africa, too.

    These changes aren’t perfect; there is still a lot of work to be done. And it may be that this progress isn’t linear, but cyclical. When times are good, maybe Plato’s “good men” become complacent allowing evil to be done; when times are oppressive, the oppressed eventually rise up and claim their freedom.

    Do I think that there are some people who will deliberately choose annihilation for all of us? Maybe. Will the technology arrive by which all human-kind might be obliterated? Surely it’s already here: nuclear, biological, chemical. Will an attack using such technology wipe out 100% of humankind? Unlikely; some will survive, and that surviving group will, no doubt, have its share of both potential oppressors and oppressees.

    Now, let’s take your premises one by one.

    1) Our knowledge of the natural world will continue to increase.

    “Our” is the biggest problem in that sentence, I think. However good the internet is at disseminating knowledge some will not make it into the public domain, because it is in the nature of human beings, under certain circumstances, to be secretive. And some, while making it into the public domain, will not be accepted by all; we’re back to paradigms again.

    My current main interest is nutrition. Some bad science, some bad decisions, and commercial imperatives have created a paradigm in the western world that tells us that eating carbohydrates is good and eating animal fats is bad. Despite overwhelming evidence that obesity, CVD, Alzheimer’s has increased exponentially during the time that this has been the prevailing paradigm for nutritional advice, the paradigm holds.

    We have new knowledge: it is freely available. But the majority appear to be totally impervious to it.

    2) That our ability to share knowledge will continue to increase.

    I doubt that. The ability to disseminate knowledge is already close to some maximum, I would guess. Trouble is, the ability to disseminate “non knowledge” is just as great. What is interesting is what happens to that “knowledge” when it arrives at a potential recipient. We can find more and more and more knowledge that supports pronouncements on the age of the universe and the evolution of the various species that inhabit the earth, but when that knowledge arrives before the eyes and ears of a “young earth creationist” it will not find fertile ground. Indeed, it is more likely to re-inforce their exisiting knowledge. One man’s truth is another man’s lie.

    3a) That there is a button that will cause humanity to be eradicated.

    As I have already said; I believe that such buttons already exist. However, life seems to be both incredibly fragile at the individual level and incredibly persistent at the global level. I think it’s arrogant to assume that we could ever destroy all of humanity; that would be a truly enormous task. After all, we haven’t yet cracked the problem of ridding Antartica of rats!

    3b) That thousands of people will rush to press the button.

    No-one has pressed any of the existing buttons yet. Of course, that’s not to say that someone won’t, but I think that it’s interesting that it hasn’t happened. I think we need to spend some time exploring the motivations of these supposed annihilators. We know that it is within the human soul to spend one’s own life to the cause of the “greater good”; but the greater good almost always includes a set of humans that believe as you do. Japanese Samurai were willing to sacrifice their lives for the honour of their family … but the family persisted. Religious fundamentalists of all types are willing to use their own lives to wipe out those who don’t believe as they do; but they are doing it, in effect, for the benefit of those who do believe as they do.

    So I am not convinced that “thousands will rush to press the button”: I don’t understand their motivation. Of course, conspiracy theorists won’t need to know their motivation; they’ll provide one for them.

    The last five points of your proposition seem to me to be the manifesto of the conspiracy theorists; there always have been conspiracy theorists, there always will be consipracy theorists, but human kind has developed more effective and more useful epistemologies than to accept the conspiracies as facts. In fact, it seems to me, that the oppressive regimes are the ones that invented conspiracy theories to bolster their own aims: “it’s all the fault of the _______” (you fill in the blank) has been a useful phrase throughout the last 10,000 years of human history (and maybe beyond).

    Earlier, I made a sideways reference to Plato:

    “The penalty good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men.”

    This is often attributed to Edmund Burke and I spent sometime researching as to when and where he said it; apparently he didn’t. There’s a piece of widely disseminated knowledge (that the quote is from Burke). The knowledge that Burke didn’t say it is also easily available, but doesn’t seem to have taken root. By the way, Burke was an interesting man; I had to tear myself away from the temptation to go read what he had to say, but if you are concerned with such things, his work would be a good place to spend some time.

    I think it’s all down to your paradigms. If yours is a paradigm that we have an evil police state, then you will see evidence of it everywhere. Personally, what I see is greed in major corporations, greed for both power and money, I see a certain level of corruption. I see fools in government; but I don’t rate my own ability to solve complex quesitons any higher than theirs, so the closest I get is to support the ones I believe it. But ’twas ever thus; I don’t see us hurtling towards either a police state or the imminent destruction of humanity, but I guess either is a possibility.

    And when it comes right down to it, we are all going to die; no-one ever got out of here alive yet. In the meantime, let’s experiment to see how many ways we can find to be nice to one another. And let’s see if we can find more useful ways of deriving and disseminating knowledge than the manufacure of conspiracy theories. Science (and I mean “science as an epistemological tool”, not “technology and men in white coats”) may not be the answer to all human problems, but it has proved remarkably useful, when used properly.

    Now I’m away to muse over the problem of finding an epistemology that works as well for an holistic world view as science works for reductionism.

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