Steve and Corey speak with Ted Chiang about his recent story collection “Exhalation” and his inaugural essay for the New York Times series, Op-Eds from the Future.
What is Manifold?
Steve Hsu is Professor of Theoretical Physics and Computational Mathematics, Science, and Engineering at Michigan State University. Join him for wide-ranging conversations with leading writers, scientists, technologists, academics, entrepreneurs, investors, and more.
Steve: Thanks for joining us. I’m Steve Hsu.
Corey: And I’m Corey Washington, and we’re your hosts for Manifold.
Steve: Our guest today is Ted Chiang. He is one of my favorite science fiction writers, and also one of Corey’s. His work has won — I’m now reading from his Wikipedia entry, which I hope is accurate — four Nebula awards and four Hugo awards, and his short story “Story of Your Life” was the basis for the film “Arrival,” which appeared in 2016. Welcome to our show, Ted.
Ted: Thank you very much.
Steve: Now, in setting up the outline for the show Ted and I corresponded a bit, and I had originally proposed all kinds of standard questions about writing and literary stuff, and Ted responded that he gets these questions all the time. But I think he doesn’t get to talk to a theoretical physicist and a neuroscientist/philosopher, which is what Corey is, that often, so he wanted to perhaps focus the discussion more on topics germane to those areas. So a lot of things we’re going to discuss today actually involve fundamental concepts in physics and science, and also in philosophy.
Ted: Yeah, that’s what I’m hoping for.
Steve: Great. And we’re looking forward to it too, because at least my opinion is you’re one of the best in the business in writing about the deep conceptual side of all these issues and making it into entertaining fiction. Let me start with an observation about something called hard science fiction, which is a kind of sub-genre of science fiction. The way I often describe hard science fiction is that it’s one in which they really get into the technical detail and try to get those details right. But it’s often from more of what I would call an engineering focus, where they really are interested in like how does the actual rocket engine work, or the sensor ray for the spaceship. The way I think about your style is that in your case, what you’re really striving for is a very deep internal scientific consistency of the ideas that are central to the story. Often times this internal scientific consistency is hidden from the casual reader — I think the casual reader who’s not a scientist wouldn’t really even notice that that’s going on — but for an actual scientist like me it’s very striking, because I read your stories and I just sense that you’ve thought through the underlying assumptions and the underlying science very, very carefully and deeply, so I never detect, as far as I know, inconsistencies even in the internal structure of your stories. Maybe you can comment on this perception of your fiction.
Ted: Well, the definition of hard science fiction is something that is subject to endless debate. People will argue ad infinitum about what is the proper definition of hard science fiction. The type of fiction that you’re describing that has a focus on the engineering side of things, on getting the Delta-v right for a vehicle traveling between the earth and the moon, or the earth and Mars, that is a type of hard science fiction, what some people would think of as being true hard science fiction. And I should say, I definitely respect and admire that type of fiction. In my own writing, I’m interested more in the broader theoretical or philosophical side of things. One of the things that I’ve said about hard science fiction and science is that, in the same way that science itself can be understood as maybe not so much as a collection of facts but as a way of looking at the universe, a way of approaching the universe, a way of understanding the universe. The specific collection of facts will change over time, but the underlying approach remains the same. There’s a certain scientific mindset, a world view, which I think is perhaps the true essence of science as a human endeavor. I think that another way of thinking about science fiction and hard science fiction, is [as] fiction which may or may not conform to a specific collection of facts, but it embodies the scientific mindset, the scientific world view. It tries to represent how scientists think about the universe, how they understand the universe to work. And that is something that I’m interested in.
Corey: When you talk about the fact that you’re interested in the philosophical foundation implications, that’s what really came through very strongly in your writing. We can talk about particular examples, such as, when I’m reading “Exhalation,” I’m really thinking about Searle’s Chinese room example, often from the flip side of it, and I’m seeing your engagement with issues of free will. I guess I want to just read a little bit, because your perspective seems very much a kind of merging of philosophy and science, which I think is very positive, but I think has actually been lost in a lot of modern science. I’ve been struck by how non-philosophical science has become, especially things like neuroscience. Whereas I think many great scientists, many traditional scientists before the split came, really saw these issues as deeply intertwined, and they become more separated in the modern era. So I’d like to have your reaction to the combination of science and philosophy. Is that at the heart of your writing? And do you see yourself as someone engaged in a more, I guess I’d say an older tradition, that saw these two things as flip sides of a given coin?
Ted: That’s an interesting perspective, and that may be a reflection of the fact that I am not actually a working scientist. I am not out there in the trenches on a day-to-day basis, so I have not been subject to perhaps the intense specialization and narrow focus [that] working scientists have to deal with. I can take a maybe broader view of science than someone who is actually having to write up grant applications. In that sense, yes, it may be that my view of science is a somewhat older one, where science and scientists are participating in a kind of tradition of, to some extent, philosophical inquiry about the universe. That is definitely the sort of thing that I am most interested in, and I can’t say how much of that is in the forefront of the minds of people who are actually working in science right now.
Steve: Yeah. I think to Corey’s point, there are large parts of science which you might call normal science, where you’re not making a revolutionary discovery, but you’re making some incremental progress like measuring some parameter to more accuracy, or measuring some fact about some organism. But it doesn’t change our overall philosophical world view, or the way that we regard nature, or our location in the universe, our role in nature. But my sense is that the interesting aspects that you choose to illuminate in your stories are often ones which get to the philosophical heart of what science tells us.
Ted: I suppose in some ways, if you’re going to tell a story, if you’re going to write a story about, say journalism, to some extent you could focus on the really nitty-gritty details of journalistic practice. But I think it’s probably true that if you’re going to write a story about journalists, you’re also going to have the story reflect something about the reasons why journalism matters, why people go into journalism, what is the purpose of journalism, which is something that journalists may not be wrestling with on a day-to-day basis. On a day-to-day basis they’re wrestling with much more mundane, nitty-gritty things. But yeah, if you’re telling a story about journalism, about the pursuit of journalism, then you will probably try and bring in the broader themes, the reasons why people go into journalism in the first place. It is perhaps a more idealized version, but still reflects a fundamental truth about journalism. So in the same way that, if you’re writing about scientists, you could write about the day-to-day nitty-gritty work of being a scientist, and trying to get your grant application approved, or dealing with departmental politics, or requisitioning equipment and things like that — all of which are important parts of the lives of scientists. For one thing, I don’t know a lot about that side of things, so I’m not the right person to write about that sort of thing. As someone who is not a working scientist, I am interested in the ideals of science as a pursuit. What does the pursuit of science represent? What is that about? Those are the things that I’m interested in and try to write about.
Steve: Let me mention another aspect of your style and hear what you have to think about it. I sense that you have a fully worked out view of the world in a particular story that you’re writing about, and that you’ve worked out the way things work scientifically, the natural laws and their implications in that world. That is why perhaps a reader like me senses an internal consistency in the world that you’re creating. One of the people that you’re often compared to, Borges, who also wrote short stories which also contain some kind of speculative or imaginative component, often times when I read his stories it’s not clear at all to me that he has fully fleshed out the working rules of the world that he’s sketching in the story. To me, that’s an important difference between you and Borges. Can you comment a little bit about your thoughts about working out the full internal consistency of the worlds in which you set your stories?
Ted: I think that may have to do with the fact that I came out of a science fiction tradition, whereas Borges did not. Borges is undoubtedly a genius, but he did not write for an audience of science fiction readers. He did not come out of a tradition of reading genre science fiction, so his concerns are not exactly those of science fiction writers or readers. The question of, is the universe of the story completely worked out in detail, is it really internally consistent, I think that’s not something which is of enormous interest to Borges. He fleshes things out enough to evoke a universe, and as long as the details are sufficient to convey the ideas that he is trying to convey, then that’s all the story he needs.
Steve: Yeah, I agree with that. And it’s no fault of Borges — I mean he wasn’t, as you say, trying to do exactly the same kind of thing that you’re doing. But sometimes people, even scientists or mathematicians, will point to a Borges short story and say “See, he really illustrates the meaning of infinity” or something, or “recursion in this story.” But I often feel like your stories do a better job of illustrating a specific concept, because of the extra detail and extra consistency that you impose.
Ted: I’m not going to claim that my stories can compare to Borges’s in any way.
Corey: I’m glancing over Steve’s notes here, and he’s preparing to ask you about free will. There are a couple of stories in your new collection that touch on free will, so do you mind if we get a little bit specific? Because I’m really fascinated by the science behind these stories. In “What’s Expected of Us,” you discuss a device called the predictor, which will flash a signal about a second or so before a person makes a decision. And as you flesh it out, you really can’t do anything about this signal: if you try to jump the gun, the predictor will get there a second before you actually make a decision; if you try to trick it by waiting, it doesn’t actually light up. Now, when I’m reading this I’m thinking about Libet’s experiments from 1983, where he showed that there is a, I think it was an fMRI signal, which happens roughly a second before we make decisions. This had an enormous impact on philosophy when this result came out, because I think many people drew the same conclusion you did — and maybe this is also quite obvious from a simple understanding of conventional physics — that our lives are largely determined, and the appearance or impression we have of free will is in fact illusory. Your brain has essentially made a decision before you’ve actually become consciously aware of that. And as you play this out, first of all I’d like to get your reaction to it. Were you moved by Libet’s experiments when you began to think about the story?
Ted: Actually, no. I am not that impressed by Libet’s findings. I mean, they are certainly interesting findings, but I don’t think they say anything substantive about free will. I think all they do is show that there’s a certain type of brain activity that precedes your conscious decision-making, but I don’t think that that materially changes anything about the discussion of free will. All it says is that decision-making is a neural process which doesn’t happen in the very moment, it’s something which is sort of built up to. But I think that all the arguments pro or con free will can still be made irrespective of Libet’s results.
Corey: But isn’t one of the main — at least, you might not call it an argument for free will, but it’s the, in a sense, the argument for the feeling, right? We feel like we are making these decisions at a certain moment. That may not be an actual argument for free will, but it probably explains why many of us think we have it. You don’t think that these results call into question whether this experience is indicative of free will, given that the signal comes before you have any conscious experience of making the decision?
Ted: You know, it’s only like a second that Libet found that this neural activity was happening before you actually made a physical action. I don’t think that is that significant. I think our conscious perception of our decision-making process is not that fine-grained in its temporal resolution. So the fact that you felt it happen at nine seconds past the minute, and it was actually happening eight seconds past the minute, I don’t think that’s a big deal.
Steve: I think the issue Corey’s raising is that the feeling that you made the decision at a particular moment, that your conscious brain has of making the decision, or coming to the conclusion, might itself be an illusion, and that might be illustrated by these experiments, because actually the decision was made maybe a second before but you didn’t know it, your conscious brain didn’t know it. I think that’s about all you can get from Libet’s—
Corey: Yeah, that’s kind of what I’m getting at. I’m thinking about your story because you’re, I think, drawing out the consequence that the predictor effectively gives you this signal in the outside world, in an LED form. And people find this incredibly unsettling, you’ve rightly observed.
Steve: Let me, just for our audience, maybe say something about the story. It’s a very short story — I think it’s beautifully done, it’s actually my favorite story of yours, Ted — and in the story someone is given a bracelet, and when the light flashes, it indicates that you’ll then push the button on the bracelet — what’s the lag, three seconds? — some number of seconds later. There are two ways you could think about it. Your interpretation, Corey, is one that I didn’t really think of, which is that perhaps the bracelet is monitoring your brain and it knows you’ve made a decision, and then it flashes to show the decision has been made, and then since you made a decision then you push the button. I had always interpreted it — I think which is the way that Ted describes it in the story — is that there is what we physicists would call a closed timelike curve which connects the bracelet at one time to the bracelet at an earlier time; so what happens is, when you press the button, it sends a message backwards in time, which causes, in the past, the light to go off. The light having gone off means that the message was sent, which means that you did in fact push the button three seconds later. So it’s to me an amazing illustration, with all the right psychological implications and things like that, of what it would be like for a human to interact with a closed timelike curve. It’s brilliant also because the time difference between the sending of the message and the light going off is short enough that it has a very strong psychological impact.
Ted: Well yes, Steve’s reading of the story is correct, because I think the story makes it clear that it is not monitoring any neural behavior, any neural phenomenon. It’s a circuit with a negative time delay. It is a closed timelike curve on a logic board. So yes, it is sending a signal back in time, and because of that it’s not something that you can trick by, say, removing it from a person. If you try and build a device, like using one of those drinking bird desk toys, if you try and build something like that that will hit the button, you will not be able to trick the device, because it is precisely the fact that the button gets pushed that sends the signal back in time and causes the LED to light up. So it is not a version of Libet’s experiment. It is more a demonstration of something that relativistic physics discusses.
Steve: Yeah. I think one of our topics, the next topic, has to do with varieties of time travel, and a certain variety of time travel is illustrated in the story, so I want to get to that in a second. But before we get to that, I want to continue talking about free will a little bit. The physicist’s view of free will is the following: in classical physics — and this is modified a little bit in quantum mechanics — but in classical physics the idea is if you know the positions and the velocities of all the molecules at time t=0, you can perfectly predict the positions and velocities of those molecules or atoms, whatever they are, particles — at some later time, say t=1 second.
Corey: In conventional physics.
Steve: In conventional physics. That was a dream of the early physicists, that this could be true. And early mechanics, and studies of motion seem to indicate that actually the equations were totally deterministic. The state of the system at t=0 totally determines the state of the system at t=1, t=2. Now if that’s true, then the question arose, what room is there for free will? In other words, if the state of the entire universe were to be known at time t=0, then we know the state at all future times because we can just follow the equations forward. And then the argument would go, the only thing that could be left is the illusion of free will, so you don’t know that the decision you will make about what to have for lunch was already determined by the state of your stomach, and your glands, and the picture of the chicken that you were shown on TV that morning, but it was actually determined. You have only the illusion of making a choice, but the choice was determined.
Corey: I think that’s the common-sense interpretation, but philosophers often argue for things that are not common-sensical. So there’s a huge literature on what’s called compatibilism—
Steve: Right. And I think Ted is a fan perhaps of compatibilism. Am I right about that, Ted?
Ted: Yes, I am.
Steve: I’ve always had trouble understanding what people mean when they say compatibilism. I think you’re saying that compatibilism is not the same thing as observing that we have merely the illusion of free will, is that it?
Corey: Yes. I mean, I’m not an expert in this type of metaphysics, but as far as I know, people really want to say that there can be a robust concept of free will that’s fully consistent with a deterministic universe. Again, I’m very far removed from this literature, but as far as I understand, that’s what robust philosophical compatibilism holds. It’s not just an illusion of free will, it’s not just an epiphenomenon, it’s actually something that’s somehow consistent with a fully deterministic universe. Ted, where in the perspective of compatibilism does your position lie?
Ted: I am a compatibilist. My stance is largely based on Daniel Dennett’s arguments in favor of compatibilism, so the way I would phrase it is, what is it that you want from free will that you are not getting? If you try and nail down what it is that people want from free will when they use that phrase, what do they want from that? And what is it that they are not getting? It seems to me that, naively, people want the future to be completely unknown, in that there is no future. So there’s a future where they choose option A, and there’s a future where they choose option B, and they are both potentialities, and only when they make the decision does one actually obtain, and the other one ceases to be a possibility. The way I think about it is that, they’re imagining that there are these two scenarios. In the scenario where they choose option A, and the scenario where they choose option B, the entire history of the universe, the position and velocity of every atom was exactly the same up until the moment that they made their decision. And in one case they chose option A, and in the other case they chose option B. And if that’s what they want from free will, I don’t think that’s something that is meaningful. That’s not something that they actually want, because that scenario means that their choice of option A or option B depended on absolutely nothing that happened in the entire history of the universe prior to that point. It cannot have depended on it, because they’re exactly the same in both cases. That means choosing option A and option B was essentially kind of a quantum coin flip, and I don’t think that’s what people actually want. That’s no kind of decision at all.
Corey: My deep suspicion is that people who really want free will are kind of dualists. They think there’s a parallel level to the universe which is not physically determined, and their choice comes from this other layer of consciousness mind that can intervene in the physical world and drop down, and that’s what causes the universe to go towards option A or option B. It’s that causation of mind or consciousness that constitutes free will, and is not part of the previous physical structure of the universe.
Ted: Yes, they are looking for a kind of dualism, even if they might not express it that way. They are looking for a kind of immaterial soul, although again, I think most of them would rather not phrase it that way. Then there’s the question of how does this immaterial soul work? And I don’t mean in a detailed physical sense, because it’s obviously non-physical, but when we think about what we want from free will, I think to some extent we want to deserve credit for the good decisions we make, and deserve the blame for the bad decisions we make. And some of that will arise out of our process of deliberation. The factors that go into our process of deliberation are everything that we have experienced in our life. Those are all physical things. Everything that happened to you in your life, those were all physical things. So the process of deliberation, by which you are, roughly speaking, taking all the experiences of your life as inputs, and then one of the outputs is your decision between option A and option B, that is something which I believe is entirely compatible with a materialist, physicalist universe. And I think a materialist, physicalist universe provides you with what you want, because your decision is the result of your life experience being processed through your cognition. That is what you want from free will, and I think that is what compatibilism, what a materialistic universe, actually gives you.
Steve: Based on that definition of compatibilism, I don’t object to it, but I would assert that to me it sounds very similar to the notion that we have the illusion of free will but nevertheless may live in a deterministic universe.
Ted: See, I guess I don’t know why it’s an illusion, versus the reality.
Steve: Yeah. That comes down to defining what one means by free will, of course.
Corey: I just think that deeply embedded in the concept of free will is the fact that I can sit here, and regardless of my past history, regardless of the entire state of every atom in the universe, by willing something I can change the course of my life and thus everything else.
Steve: That is a decent definition of free will, the one that you just gave. And then if that’s your definition, then I say you only have the illusion of that kind of free will. It’s an illusion. You don’t actually have that kind of free will.
Corey: I’m generally sympathetic to determinism, but I’d step back and say “Well, but this feeling is so strong, and it’s so hard to predict.”
Steve: Powerful illusion.
Corey: Okay, but it’s so hard to predict the course of where I’m going to move my hand, given our current physics. Nothing in our current physics is going to be able to allow you, now or for the foreseeable future—
Steve: In practice you’re right. The other way to view it is that your consciousness, your sense of self, is this ephemeral, fragile little bubble floating on the surface of this deep ocean. And of course it doesn’t know where you’re going to move your hand.
Corey: It’s possible, but there’s a strong feeling that it’s there. The question is, do you want to override this feeling? Do you want to allow our current scientific understanding of the world, which we all know is incomplete — there’s a whole bunch of things we don’t understand about nature, we don’t understand dark matter, we don’t understand the origin of the earth — all these things we don’t understand, this incomplete picture of nature, allows us to override this incredibly strong feeling?
Steve: Right. So you have this intuition, which maybe evolution required you to have, of making decisions and free will, and our science is complete, and in fact we may eventually discover a small ethereal tether which goes out the back of your head into this parallel universe where somehow there are not causes for outcomes, and the decision is really made there. That’s what you’re kind of groping for with this dualist—
Corey: I’d say that our current science seems to have two basic [unintelligible]. One is pure determinism, and the other is stochastics of quantum mechanics. Those seem to be the alternatives. It’s either purely determined, or it’s random in some kind of distribution. And I think what free will wants to say is there’s something in between those two poles. We may not quite understand how you get there, but the world’s not purely random, and it’s not purely deterministic. And we don’t quite know how that’s going to become compatible with our current physics.
Steve: Yeah. I think I agree with what you’re saying. Because we don’t have that much time, let’s go on to our next topic, which is varieties of time travel. In the story that we just discussed, we encountered one variety of time travel. For lack of a better word, I’ll call that the consistent one-time version of the structure of time. In other words, what you did when you pushed the button and sent the signal back in time to cause the LED to go off, no matter what transpires subsequent to the light going off, it must be something which is consistent with the fact that you then later push the button. One of my former PhD students is a huge aficionado of this kind of science fiction. He’s always searching for really complex sci-fi stories and movies where they’ve perfectly realized this kind of universe, and all the facts are consistent, but there’s only one timeline, and all of the events that happened were essentially unavoidable — this goes back to free will, a little bit — unavoidable on that timeline. I think he claims “12 Monkeys,” there’s a science fiction movie called “12 Monkeys”?
Corey: Yeah, it’s a Brad Pitt movie.
Steve: Yes. He claims that that’s a very well realized version of this kind of structure of time. Maybe we can ask Ted how he feels about it, and whether he’s ever written stories realizing another version of time travel, maybe time travel between different parallel universes.
Ted: Well, I agree that “12 Monkeys” is a movie that poses a single fixed timeline, and I think “12 Monkeys” does a pretty good job of it. Also, as another example, the first “Terminator” film is an example of this. The second “Terminator” film is not, but the first “Terminator” film does posit a fixed timeline. And this is something that I’m interested in. There’s a sense in which what’s expected of us falls into this category. Also the story “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” falls in this category. There’s even a sense in which, from my first collection, “Story of Your Life” falls in this category. As for a time travel story which posits alternate, or parallel, timelines, I think the closest I come to that is the final story in the new collection, which is called “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom.” It’s basically the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. It’s not exactly the branching timelines created by time travelers, which we sometimes see in time travel stories, but it is similar to it in some ways.
Corey: I really like the story “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate.” In that story you’re dealing with a deterministic past. You know you can’t change things, so you’re highly constrained.
Ted: Yes, it is constraining. My inspiration in large part came from hearing Kip Thorne talk about how one could actually construct a closed timelike curve. Kip Thorne actually set up a thought experiment involving billiard balls, where he tried to imagine could a billiard ball knock itself off course and create the billiard ball version of the grandfather paradox. When he solved those equations, he said no, you can’t, there’s only a consistent timeline possible. I was interested in trying to imagine what that might be like in human dramatic terms. Stories in which there’s a fixed timeline, stories in which it is impossible to change the past, like “12 Monkeys,” are usually downbeat stories. There’s definitely a tradition of this in science fiction, and they’re usually kind of depressing. They end on a note of despair. “12 Monkeys” certainly does, and arguably “Terminator” does as well. What I was trying to do is to see was it possible to write a story about a single fixed timeline which didn’t end on a downbeat note. That was really the animating impulse for “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate.”
Steve: I think in a universe where that kind of time travel is possible, one would be very happy, because historians could actually do their job. They could actually go back and make sure they really understood what happened in the past. Otherwise it’s kind of impossible to do that. Just to comment on the Kip Thorne thought experiment, Kip Thorne for the movie, maybe for the book that Carl Sagan wrote, Contact, wanted to design a realistic mechanism for interstellar travel, so he came up with the idea of building a wormhole and pulling the ends in a certain way so that the two ends ended up at different times. And one of the things that I’ve actually done research on is, it turns out in order to stabilize a wormhole in general relativity — a wormhole’s a very special thing in space time — it turns out you need matter with a very unusual equation of state, with very unusual properties. There’s an open question as to whether such materials could ever exist in the universe, and now there’s very strong evidence from theoretical calculations that such matter cannot be stable, it cannot actually exist, and so it may be that this particular way of making a time machine is not possible. Now when he was looking at this, this was not known. He was interested in questions of whether the laws of physics, given the existence of this kind of closed timelike curve, would the laws of physics otherwise conspire to keep things consistent, so that the billiard ball could not go back in time and knock itself out of the way before it entered the wormhole. That’s the, I guess, the motivation originally for Ted.
Corey: Kip Thorne was the author, with Wheeler, of this very large textbook, Gravitation, which I remember reading as an undergraduate. It was kind of the bible of general relativity for quite a while.
Corey: I had no idea he was behind, involved, in Contact.
Steve: Yeah, it was actually because of science fiction that he kind of got pushed, because Carl Sagan was writing a science fiction novel [and] he asked Kip about this question, and that pushed Kip’s research direction in that way. So it’s quite interesting. In a way it’s a little bit — because I’ve worked on this I know — it’s a little bit disreputable in physics. People are asking you, “Why are you working on this problem?” And in my case — stability of matter that violates the null energy condition was something I worked on for a while — I would just say, “Well, it’s an intrinsically interesting question whether matter like this can exist, and it has these implications for time travel.” But I think most physicists thought, “Steve, you should go and think about the top quark instead.” Or something. [laughs]
Corey: They thought it was just too far out?
Steve: Yeah, just the motivation. I thought it was very strange, because as a physicist, why did we get into physics? We got into physics to actually understand things like this. Do the laws of physics as we currently understand them allow for the construction of a time machine, or a closed timelike curve? It seems like the most important thing that you should be thinking about as a physicist. But you know how things work: in science the NSF doesn’t give the grant for that. The NSF gives a grant for trying to make a slightly better superconductor, or a slightly stiffer electromagnet, or something like that. So it becomes kind of an unusual activity.
Corey: It seems to be there’s a progression throughout the book, and when you get to the last story, you bring these two topics together, the deterministic timeline and also free will, when you get to the story about anxiety.
Ted: “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom.”
Corey: Yeah. And was that the explicit motivation? Because people in this story agonize about their ability to affect the future. Often when they see their paraself has done better than they have, they wonder if they’ve done something wrong, and they’re often reminded that actually it’s nothing they did that resulted in their current lives being good or bad. So there’s an emphasis on the fact that there is determinism that may not be free will, and playing out the consequence of this. One of the central assumptions of the story is that we can be envious of ourselves, which I thought was fascinating because normally we think of it as something involving other people. But of course if there are parallel universes you have all these kinds of psychological reactions, and a lot of the story is built around this really human reaction to seeing yourself as something other, existing in this parallel universe. I’ve never really come across that concept before, and I’m wondering, had you before? Is this something you thought about when you first developed this, what our reaction would be to ourselves?
Ted: It certainly has come up in science fiction before, of meeting your parallel self. Not in the context of written science fiction, but there have been some movies which address this question. There’s a movie, I think it’s called “The Family Man,” starring Nicholas Cage, in which he gets a chance to see what his life would have been like had he made a decision many years ago differently. There was an Australian film called “Me Myself I,” starring Rachel Griffiths, in which she also gets to see what her life would have been like had she made a different choice. I think it’s a very human question about wondering “Did I make the right choice? Would my life had gone better if I had done something differently in the past?” And if you could actually see it, then I think people would be very prone to envy. I think people are prone to envy just because I think that’s a natural human tendency. And so if you could actually see the life that you might have lived, I think people probably would often be envious of that.
Steve: Maybe you know this movie — it used to be the most famous Christmas movie — “It’s a Wonderful Life” with Jimmy Stewart? He regrets his choices in life and then has a near death experience, and he gets to see what the world would have been like if he had died or if he had done something differently. And it’s a much worse world, so he then appreciates all the contributions he had made to the world with the choices that he made. I’m surprised at your reaction to this, Corey, because as somebody who almost left physics, for example, to go work at a hedge fund, I constantly think, “Man, what would my life be like if I had gone off and done that?” Given all the things you’ve done in your life, I’m surprised you don’t wonder constantly.
Corey: I have to say this story created enormous anxiety in me. [both laugh] It was actually combined with another story, your lifelog [story called “The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling”], because the lifelog story shows you can actually look back and see very objectively — in some sense objectively, from a certain perspective — the mistakes you’ve made.
Steve: By the way, this is the story which posits that people could have perfect memory, and then look back at all the events in their lives with perfect clarity. Is that?—
Corey: Yeah, exactly. It’s funny — this is a slight digression — but what struck me about your collection is you explore different kinds of technologies. Some are fairly far out, like the prism, which may never happen or may happen in thousands of years. Some are on the verge of happening right now. I think people are already lifelogging their kids, and I’ve really no doubt that in a decade or two lifelogging will be a very, very common phenomenon, so all the implications that come from that story are things we’ll have to grapple with. You’ll be able to look back and see the things that you did, and often resolve questions [that] actually falsify your view of your previous life, which often is rose colored. But I think that gives you a great opportunity to begin to agonize about things that you did that may have led you on a particular course. And that’s drawn out in the anxiety story, because you can—
Steve: Lucky you, that you’ve reached your age and you didn’t previously agonize. I agonize all the time about this stuff. [laughs]
Corey: No, no, I can’t say this is the first time I’ve agonized about it, but it made me especially uncomfortable because you do then go back and run back [over] the choices you’ve made. Like the decision to spend all the years in philosophy that I spent — I mean, I think about that regularly.
Steve: But think of all the thoughts on compatibilism that you’ve had, thanks to your training in philosophy. [laughs]
Corey: That’s right, it’s been a great benefit to me. This is in a sense why I see the collection as really building, because they’re a bunch of building blocks that go in at various stages in the collection. And I don’t know if this was intentional, but a lot of the stories seem to be building up to the story on anxiety. The idea of lifelogging is, I think, again something that strikes me as… Steve and I talk a lot about technologies that are on the horizon — we hope we’ll get to your New York Times op-ed before we finish — but genomic engineering of children we think is coming very, very soon, and lifelogging strikes me as something that’s here and going to become much more common. My wife recently proposed that we — because you know, all these great events, little moments happen with your kids and you just don’t have a camera ready, or you pull out the camera and the kid reacts differently — she wanted to buy a little drone to basically have hover around our kids to capture things constantly.
Steve: Or just mount it on the wall of your house.
Corey: Yeah, but you also want to get it like so they’re traveling with the kids and you’re there. So if we’re thinking about this now, and it’s feasible and it’s so attractive, it’s going to happen, which means all the implications about [how] you’ll be able to resolve arguments as to what happened before — this of course to some extent exists, as Ted brings out in the story, through simple writing, of writing down what happened — but it’s becoming much more radical. What I like about the story also is that you brought in cognitive science, about the difference between episodic and semantic memory. We actually have to some extent records of facts through writing, and to some extent events, but this will radically change our experience of episodic memory because it will give us a much more objective view of events. But it’s just something that is really going to draw out the ability to regret actions that push you in the wrong direction.
Steve: I feel we should let Ted talk more, but I can’t resist saying that neuroscience studies suggest that we only convert about 1 bit of information per second into long-term memory, so basically almost all of your past is lost to you. So I’ve taken to, just when I’m traveling around, just pulling out my phone and taking 30 seconds of video, because it’s still enormously more information than I otherwise would have about that moment visiting San Francisco, or whatever I was doing. But most of the past is completely lost.
Corey: It’s interesting. It’s easily lost, although it’s often retained in some vague form. So if you see a picture, it will remind you of something you can’t actually consciously recall.
Steve: Yes, which is a good reason to be constantly taking video and photos of your kids and other stuff.
Corey: Or having a drone up above your house.
Steve: Or having a drone, yeah. We need drones.
Corey: Anyway, Ted, sorry we left you out of this discussion. [both laugh]
Ted: I think it’s going to be debatable whether you actually will be better off with the constant drone footage of your kids. People who are recording concerts that they go to, their own recollection of the concert is weaker because they were recording it. It may be that if something similar happens with your daily life: if you’re recording your daily life, then your own experiential memory of your life may become weaker. You will have the digital footage, but some would say that you are going to be poorer for not remembering it in an organic manner. So I think there’s going to be arguments pro and con on this subject.
Corey: And you could spend half your life looking back at this more objective version of your life you actually didn’t remember in the moment, right? I’m very nostalgic, so I spend a lot of time looking back at old videos of my kids.
Steve: Yeah, I do too, but I think the solution is you outsource it. You’re experiencing the concert, but the little drone flying around is recording it, and then the AI selects the parts of it that are most pleasing to you. Or the ones that are most likely to make you stay on your diet. Or nice to your neighbor. Whatever impact you want, the AI filters the memories and shows you the ones that are likely to have the desired outcome. So that’s our future, Corey.
Corey: It’s kind of a kept-person phenomenon, right?
Steve: Hey, as long as I’m happy. [Corey laughs] As long as I have the illusion of free will, everything’s good.
Ted: Actually, I sort of wonder, is that AI going to actually choose the things that will make you happier, or will the AI choose to show you the memories that will make Amazon happier?
Steve: Yes. You have to make sure someone you trust wrote the code.
Ted: Yeah. It’s going to show you things that will increase your purchasing on Amazon.
Corey: Which you clearly can do, right?
Corey: I mean, I don’t know what Google’s motivations are, but I have to say—
Corey: Perhaps. [laughter] You’ve seen the one billion dollar investment Microsoft made in OpenAI?
Steve: I was at OpenAI just a few days ago.
Corey: You know, it’s clear… all I’ll say is, whatever they’re doing, these kind of little herky-jerky animations just pull at your heartstrings. It’s almost [like] their hokiness is something that makes you just, I just have this well of emotion spring up when I see my kids in free frame—
Steve: Oh absolutely, there’s no stronger feeling. I can watch a little clip, 10 second clip on my phone of my kids when they were 10 or something, and it’s like there’s nothing more engaging or stirring for me than to actually see that.
Corey: You guys familiar with the experience machine? The Nozick experiment? The thought experiment? Where you can go into the box and have any possible experience you want, etc., etc.
Steve: You can decide to live in the box
Corey: Exactly, yeah. And it turns out that men have a much greater inclination to live in the box than women do. But I think you’re really getting to a point where you have a chance to relive your past very, very concretely, perhaps even with more sensory experience, and it’s going to be hard to resist the pleasant moments of it, especially as you get older.
Steve: Okay, let’s get back on track, because we might be running low on time. One of the topics we wanted to discuss was varieties of parallel universes. Let me just list two. One is where you go to the parallel universe and the very laws of physics are different, like the mass of the hydrogen atom or the proton could be different in the other universe, or there’s no electromagnetism in the other universe. That’s actually a possibility that string theory suggests, because there are different vacuum states of string theory in which the physical laws are different. So that’s one thing that physicists have looked at recently. The one that you actually referenced in the story that you mentioned where there’s lots of envy is, I think, the many-worlds quantum mechanics version of parallel universes. By the way, I do work on many-worlds quantum mechanics, and I think most people would be surprised to learn that among theoretical physicists — particularly the ones who think about cosmology and string theory and things like that — I think there are more many-worlds believers than there are not, that many-worlds might be close to the majority opinion — at least among certain subsets of physicists — for the right interpretation of quantum mechanics. In many-worlds quantum mechanics, every quantum event that could go either way — for example, I’m doing an experiment and I might observe that the spin of this particle is up, or I might observe that the spin of the particle is down — rather than just one of those outcomes being realized, actually both are realized; but because I see them in my conscious brain and it causes a macroscopic rearrangement of my memories, two different branches of the universe are created and can in a sense no longer talk to each other, or have very minimal interference with each other, in which the different outcomes are realized. So essentially all possible outcomes are realized: there’s a Corey that went to law school instead of business school, instead of philosophy grad school, and these different Coreys can wonder about each other and be envious of each other.
Ted: The story “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom” is based on the many-worlds interpretation. But I think, with regard to the example that you gave, Steve, it’s important to note that it is not so simple [as] observing the spin state of a subatomic particle leading to a person making one decision or another. Some people have argued that there is some kind of quantum amplifier in our brains, where quantum uncertainty gives rise to neural processes which may affect our decision making. I personally am completely unconvinced of that. I mean, it’s not impossible, but I see no reason to think that right now. I think that any causal chain between some quantum event and human decision is going to be much, much longer, and it will not be the result of any quantum event that actually took place within the particles of your brain. It will be the result of some quantum event elsewhere in the earth’s atmosphere, which led to different atmospheric conditions, which led to slightly different events in your life, and then, down the line, that may result in you actually making a different decision.
Ted: But it will be a quite a long causal chain between the two.
Steve: Yes. What you’ve described is the conventional picture of how this all works. There’s a guy called Roger Penrose, and others, who have advocated that perhaps quantum mechanics is directly related to important functioning of your brain. Almost nobody believes that, actually. The functioning of your brain seems to be largely classical physics. The way that this quantum indeterminism would amplify in order to influence your decisions is through these much longer causal chains of events involving lots of different particles and different outcomes, which is why — going back to our discussion of free will — very few people think that quantum mechanics has a particularly large impact on the earlier, purely classical analysis of free will that we discussed.
Corey: With regard to our brains, a huge gaping hole in understanding is consciousness. We virtually understand nothing about consciousness. And so I think, to predetermine that it’s not quantum may be a little bit ahead of schedule, given that we actually don’t understand anything about the phenomenon itself.
Steve: No one’s saying they really fully understand consciousness, [they’re] just saying [that] what appears to be the important actions in your brain, like the firing of a neuron, that involves so many particles and appears to not be coherent — there’s a technical term there, coherent in a quantum mechanical sense — that it’s hard to imagine that it’s more than classical physics, actually, that’s determining the firing of that neuron.
Corey: I actually found the argument that, to put it bluntly, “It’s the weather, dummy, that matters,” to be fairly compelling. Your argument as I take it is that there are these very small quantum changes, but they effectively propagate through effects on the weather. Small changes cause small perturbations in the [unintelligible] of oxygen atoms, nitrogen atoms, other things in the atmosphere, and these propagate outward in predictable ways; and just to take example you give, all that you need is a very, very subtle effect on the human body to have an effect on who’s born in the next generation.
Steve: Yes. First of all, I agree with your observation, but there is weather in your brain too, in the sense that there are random fluctuations of stuff. To me, the most accurate caricature of how this free will argument should take place is that, because of quantum mechanics, there is perhaps some kind of almost true randomness in the universe. But if you’re a mostly classical robot living in a universe where occasionally there is randomness — like there are coin flips happening outside of you, maybe occasionally inside of you — that doesn’t mean that you have free will. It means that you’re still a mostly classical robot living in a universe with some random.
Corey: No, this was an explanation as to how you got these very, very different outcomes occurring by small quantum perturbations.
Steve: Yes. And that is what, in the many-worlds interpretation, does allow for a universe where Corey went to law school, Corey became a professional football player. [laughs] It does allow for those things on some of the branches to be realized.
Ted: Although I’m just going to interject that, just because you are a classical robot, [it] doesn’t mean you don’t have free will, because that’s the old compatibilism argument.
Steve: Right, right. I was just saying that it doesn’t change our earlier discussion. The fact that there is quantum mechanics probably doesn’t change the nature of our earlier discussion on compatibilism.
Ted: Yes, yes. I agree. And it’s also worth pointing out that I think the desire to attribute consciousness in some part to quantum mechanics is maybe a reflection of people’s desire [for] what has sometimes been called the minimization of mystery: that quantum mechanics is mysterious and consciousness is mysterious, so maybe these two mysterious things are actually the same thing, because that would reduce the amount of mystery in the universe. But I don’t actually find that a compelling argument for quantum mechanics playing a significant role in consciousness.
Corey: They’re actually mysterious in different ways.
Steve: Yeah. I think it seems very implausible to me that quantum mechanics plays an important role in consciousness. Now the other direction, the arrow in the other direction has been advocated, because the person observing the spin of the particle as it comes out of the detector is a conscious person, so people have posited that somehow quantum mechanics depends on the interaction between the spin of this little particle and the consciousness observing it. That’s the sort of Bohrian, mysterian view, that consciousness collapses the wave function of the electron, and that view I think fewer and fewer physicists are sympathetic to. But at the time, when quantum mechanics was new, there were a lot of people who thought in that way.
Ted: Yes, yes. But yeah, I am also unpersuaded about that.
Steve: Yeah, I’m not either.
Corey: When you just dig into the phenomenon — I don’t want to go into a huge digression of consciousness — but the phenomenon you have a hard time explaining with consciousness is just a very different phenomenon than a kind of constrained randomness you have in quantum mechanics, right? They may be non-causal, at least appear to be non-causal in the same way, but there’s not a sense of qualia, qualitative experiences you get with consciousness, there’s not a sense of a non-random control under some sort of guidance… None of that appears in quantum mechanics, so you’re reducing one thing to something that looks very unlike it, and that just makes the reduction look impossible.
Steve: I think one of the pieces of information we’ll get in the next, who knows, few decades maybe on this question is whether you could evolve an AI which has a sense of self and maybe self-preservation action, things like this, but which doesn’t have qualia. So maybe qualia are just a side effect of evolving an AI that needs to care for itself and have some internal state or thought about itself, and you just then get qualia as a side effect.
Corey: Of course, how would you know if this thing has qualia or not?
Steve: We could ask it. “Hey, do you feel qualia?” “Yeah, I’m really here. I feel. Don’t turn me off. Don’t touch that switch.”
Corey: Yeah. Though you couldn’t tell, of course, whether you evolved the tendency to say it had qualia, or had qualia itself. You couldn’t tell the difference between.
Steve: Right. It could self-report, or maybe you could measure something. But anyway.
Ted: There’s the argument that we rely on self-report with other people, and we think that’s sufficient. We believe that other human beings had qualia long before we had any fMRI scanning equipment. So I think there’s an argument to be made that if a piece of software’s behavior was as rich and varied as a human being’s, that there’d be no good reason to doubt its self-report any more than we have any reason to doubt other people’s self-reported experiences.
Corey: Well Searle would disagree, as you know.
Ted: Yes, Searle would disagree. I think Searle is completely wrong.
Corey: Maybe, but his argument I think merits consideration, which is whether it’s actually the material that matters, whether it’s the physical realization rather than the behavior — or as people like to say, the functional characterization — that matters to consciousness. I’m a little agonistic here, because I can’t tell you I’ve ever resolved this question. In Searle’s view we attribute consciousness to other people in large part because they’re built of the same stuff that we are. But if you’re built of something — take your story “Exhalation” — if you’re built of a kind of hydraulic system involving gold plates, very, very thin gold plates, and small air canisters, I think there’s an incredible emotional tendency — much like our emotional tendency to think we have free will — to attribute consciousness to such a being. I’d say ultimately I’m agonistic about it, because you can’t prove one way or the other whether this being is conscious. I can’t prove that Steve here is conscious, but you know, he looks a lot like me from the inside as far as I can tell. [laughs]
Steve: Yeah, but you can’t prove that we aren’t living in a simulation and you guys are all game characters, and I’m the only player character in the game, right? We’ll never be able to refute that.
Corey: Again, an emotional tendency, right, which more or less is very similar to free will. So I think these are questions that are, in many ways… It’s hard for me to figure out we’re going to go one way in free will, and go another way in these questions, when they seem ultimately based on the same kind of weak evidential basis.
Ted: There is also the argument that the fact that you are relying on a physical similarity between Steve and you is a kind of prejudice — you have a prejudice against beings which don’t resemble you — and that really you should judge a conscious being by the content of their character, not their physical appearance.[Steve laughs] And if a conscious being, its behavior is as rich and varied as that of another human being, it is perhaps only prejudice which is preventing you from granting it the same benefit of the doubt that you grant other human beings.
Corey: Again, I’m close to being agnostic on this point, but if we go down this road, requiring their behavior [to be] like mine is also a form of prejudice. So you could take a position which is that there’s gradations of consciousness all the way down to quarks, and the more complex behavior you exhibit, the more and more consciousness you have. This takes us to a position that Christof Koch apparently is now advocating, which is consciousness goes all the way down to the bottom, to the smallest particles, and that you simply get higher levels of consciousness as these begin to organize and exhibit more complex behavior. I think that’s also a possible position, and I can’t see how you would rule that out, or rule out any of the others. That I think is the argument for a kind of strong agnosticism on consciousness, because it seems to be driven by biases between positions you actually can’t come to any objective conclusion about, unless we have some radical new physics that allows us essentially to measure consciousness. And maybe that will come at some point. Current physics doesn’t allow it.
Steve: I think at some level you’ll never get past the basic questions like the simulation question. No matter how much our science advances, I still won’t be sure that I’m not in a simulation, that you guys could all be game characters in the simulation.
Corey: So that’s the key question. Will there be a physics fundament at some point in time where you can begin to measure consciousness as a quantity?
Steve: Yeah, I doubt it. [laughs] But let me switch gears because we’re running out of time. We wanted to discuss Ted’s op-ed from the future that appeared in The New York Times. Reading from The New York Times, it says: “This is the first installment in a new series, ‘Op-Eds from the Future,’ in which science fiction authors, futurists, philosophers and scientists write op-eds that they imagine we might read 10, 20, or even 100 years in the future.” And Ted’s op-ed was entitled “It’s 2059, and the Rich Kids Are Still Winning: DNA tweaks won’t fix our problems.” And let me just read the first sentence: “Last week, The Times published an article about the long-term results of the Gene Equality Project, the philanthropic effort to bring genetic cognitive enhancements to low-income communities.” Sorry, I’ll read the second sentence as well: “The results were largely disappointing: While most of the children born of the project have now graduated from a four-year college, few attended elite universities and even fewer have found jobs with good salaries or opportunities for advancement.” So this envisions a future where genetic cognitive enhancement is possible, it actually works, but it doesn’t fully equalize class inequality — I think, Ted, your implication is because there are all kinds of environmental benefits that the children of the rich still have access to, relative to the poor. But I think in your op-ed you were accepting the fact that one could actually tweak cognitive ability for the underclass and improve it. Is that fair?
Ted: Well, I would trace it this way. In the piece I am accepting the idea that it is possible to identify genes that are associated with intelligence, and to engineer children to have more of those genes. But I guess the thesis of the piece is that genetic cognitive enhancements only provide a benefit if you live in a meritocracy, and if you don’t live in a meritocracy then they are not actually providing a benefit. And we don’t live in a meritocracy, not a full meritocracy. The fact that people desire genetic cognitive enhancements for their children is a reflection of their belief that we live in a meritocracy.
Steve: Yes, I understand.
Ted: And the fact that we don’t, I think, is something that may lead to some outcomes that people are not expecting.
Steve: This may be an academic point, but in the story though, the universe of the story, the people who got the cognitive advancements do for example read better, and do arithmetic or algebra better than they would have had they not gotten the genetic enhancements. In other words, they did do something biologically beneficial.
Steve: Yeah, okay. It’s just that society is still highly unfair.
Corey: So as I understand your position, Ted, I think you’re not saying that it’s completely not a meritocracy, you’re not saying it’s a full meritocracy, it’s somewhere in between. There’s some statistical contribution to success which is not dependent upon your abilities and dependent upon your privileged status, and these kids do a little bit better but not as much as we would like. I’m just curious, what do you think is missing? Is it the connections? Because you’re really commenting about today’s society. Is it the connections? Is it the kind of soft social skills? What do you think is non-meritocratic about today’s society, and likely to continue to be non-meritocratic?
Ted: Actually, I think most aspects of our society are probably not meritocratic. I think meritocracy only exists in very narrow contexts in our society. I think there is enormous systemic and structural bias in our society, and these things are going to be very, very difficult to correct. And I think that everyone likes to think that their system is meritocratic — everyone wants to think that they are choosing people based on their actual skills, their actual performance — but there is ample reason to believe that that is not actually the case in almost every aspect of society.
Corey: It’s interesting, I’ve read two op-eds in the past three or four months. One was yours, and one was a recent one in The Times — two op-eds in The Times — about a black female professor at Yale who decided to ask white guys about white privilege. I think this ran just a couple of days ago. She describes different kinds of experiences… being in line in the airport [with] basically a bunch of people of color in line, women. A bunch of white guys showed up, and they’d have to basically stand behind this group if they were to follow the rules, but they simply created their own line right next to them and then were merged into this existing line, so half of them went ahead of half of the people in the original line. She eventually works up the courage to ask one of these guys, after she had some pleasant interactions with them, about his white privilege, and his response was: “I’ve earned everything that I’ve gotten.” I can’t remember exactly what she said, but my inclination was she should have said: “How do you possibly know that? [Steve laughs] Are you sure that none of the friends who helped you get jobs weren’t motivated by your skin color? Or your parents’ connections might not have helped you in some particular way?” It’s these kinds of — I tend to agree with you there — these kinds of things, that are often hidden from us because we have a hard time seeing them or don’t want to see them, that have an enormous impact.
Ted: Everyone wants to believe that they earned what they got. No matter how much privilege a person has, they are going to say that they deserved everything that they got, that they worked for it. I think we can say: “Did George W. Bush work for everything he got? [Steve laughs]Or maybe did he benefit from the fact that he came from a wealthy and powerful family?” George W. Bush would never say: “I got it easy.” No, George W. Bush is convinced that he worked for everything he got. Everyone is convinced of that. But that is clearly not the case for everyone.
Steve: I want to agree with you that luck plays a huge role in most outcomes, and it’s generally not acknowledged by people. Now, at the risk of being too pedantic, I want to just give a simple statistical argument, which should be familiar to everyone but is not. Imagine you take a person who is exceptional in some way: it could be that he’s a very good basketball player, or it could be he’s very smart, or very rich. Let’s suppose this person is four standard deviations above average in terms of whatever quality you’re measuring for him. The most [likelihood of finding] a person who is plus-four standard deviations on that quality is to find someone who’s plus-two standard deviations in ability and another plus-two standard deviations in luck, because both are playing a role, and it’s much harder to get a plus-four fluctuation all in ability or all in luck, than to just combine two [plus-]two standard deviation fluctuations. Plus-two standard deviations is a couple of percent probability, but plus-four is like one in 30,000 — or something like that, 50,000 — so basically, most people who are above average have a component of their success due to luck and a component due to ability. Same thing for people with very bad outcomes: they might be a little bit below average on a characteristic, but then they also were unlucky, conditional on just selecting people who are in a super bad position in life. So in almost all these cases there’s a hidden component of luck, which just from statistical analysis you can guess is there in most situations, but people never acknowledge it because they’re just not used to thinking this way. Sorry if that was too pedantic. [laughs]
Corey: To come back to Ted’s example, one example people have given that may now be forgotten is the contrast that was often drawn between George Bush and Roger Clinton, who was Bill Clinton’s half-brother, who had very, very different lives, primarily because George Bush came from a wealthy family and Bill Clinton came from a poor family. Bill Clinton had some luck, but he also had extraordinary abilities that allowed him to do well, and George Bush did well in spite of not particularly having those skills.
Steve: The reason I was particularly struck by Ted’s op-ed was not just because Ted is one of my favorite science fiction writers, but also The Times and other people are starting to recognize this idea that there is inequality in genetic luck, that some people do get more genetic luck than others, and that maybe in the future we’ll have technologies that allow you to equalize that genetic luck and then you might even choose as a society to do that. Ted is pointing out that even that is not enough to have equality of outcome at the end. But what struck me as very interesting is a kind of flip-flop between saying genes don’t influence anything, it’s all environment, to well, genes do affect some things, so let’s equalize that if we have the technology now. That seemed like a big jump.
Corey: I don’t think The Times, I don’t think anyone’s ever said genes don’t matter. I mean, just look, genes affect height, genes affect how you look. The Times may have been skeptical about genes and intelligence, but they were never skeptical about genes and physical appearance, and the power of physical appearance.
Steve: Okay, but this article was about intelligence.
Corey: That’s right, okay. You’re right. I think it’s becoming much more mainstream, the basic premise that Ted’s accepting in this view. Now here’s a question hidden in the back of your article: you don’t think that having this kind of engineering will equalize things, but it’s kind of unstated whether you think it might be a good idea for people to have the opportunity to avail themselves of it if it does improve outcomes to some degree. I’m curious, because you don’t take a position on that, but you must have thought about this as part of writing the article, or otherwise.
Ted: Would it be good for society as a whole?
Ted: It’s not clear to me that it would be good for society as a whole. I think the article suggests that it would very likely wind up being another excuse used for inequality, to justify inequality. It would be a way for people to claim that there’s a biological basis for the kind of class discrimination, or wealth discrimination, that they already engage in. So I don’t know that it would be good for society as a whole.
Steve: On the other hand, as an outcome of this genetic intervention, you have a lot more people that are capable of doing a good four-year college degree. So in some absolute sense, don’t you have a more capable society than you did absent these genetic interventions?
Ted: Maybe. If my goal were to get more people to graduate from four-year college, I think my preferred route would be entirely different. It would be things like free college for everyone, which has been proposed, and is something that a lot of people argue would not be that expensive compared to some of the other things that we spend money on. I think that would be a much better way of getting more people to complete a four-year degree.
Corey: My concern with both of these proposals is I think they would probably end up exaggerating inequality, given that people who are more likely to avail themselves of genetic engineering opportunities are likely to be wealthy; and if we keep the current cost structure of college the same and we allow people to go free to places like Yale and Harvard, you already may be favoring people more likely to get into those schools in the first place by having them not have to pay. I’m very sympathetic to the free college idea, but you’re going to have to change the structure of college costs, so you’re not simply subsidizing wealthy people going to wealthy colleges. I think some of the debt forgiveness proposals are going to wipe out debt for people who are often fairly wealthy.
Ted: That’s true. We’d have to have a long conversation about the best way to eliminate college debt, or make college accessible to the largest number of people.
Steve: I believe that the cost of free IVF and free CRISPR is way below the cost of four years of college education for one individual. It’s probably about a quarter of the cost. Just throwing that out there.
Corey: But free IVF or CRISPR to do what exactly? Presumably there are hundreds of genes [for] intelligence. You actually don’t know the effects [when] you change these genes that we’ve seen with the current case, so we’re not anywhere close to—
Steve: No, I meant in his science fiction. This is set in 2059. So assuming CRISPR gets better, gene mapping gets better, cost of an IVF cycle might be $10,000, cost of the CRISPR vector might be $20… It’s a lot less than four years of tuition at Michigan State or Harvard.
Ted: Well, then there’s the question of what is the goal? Is your goal to increase the number of smart people as cheaply as possible? Or is your goal to create a more just society? If your goal is how do we create more smart people as cheaply as possible, then yes, there are probably all sorts of ways that we could do that. If your goal is to create a more just society, then I don’t think genetic cognitive enhancements will play a role in that. Or only a very small role.
Corey: I think it will have the opposite effect, actually.
Steve: I think these technologies will, at least in the short run, have the opposite effect. They’ll increase inequality rather than decrease it. The question is theoretically in the long run, if you have a wonderful Scandinavian-style government that’s progressive and quasi socialistic, could they use the genetic technologies to good end? And it’s not clear to me whether that’s the case. But it’s not excluded.
Corey: Scandinavian-style world government, right?
Steve: Yeah. World government.
Steve: Yeah. “The Federation.” [laughter] All right. Well, we’re way over time, Ted, so I really appreciate your spending this much time with us. I really enjoyed the discussion. I’m sorry we didn’t let you talk more. Corey and I got too excited about the topics. But it’s been great, and we will edit this into something intelligible, I hope, and I think the fans will really enjoy it.
Corey: This has really been a pleasure, Ted. Thank you.
Ted: Thanks for having me. I enjoyed the conversation.
Steve: All right, take care.