A lateral way of thinking about Cause X: barely visible but potentially enormous categories of value
Disclaimer: I don’t know if this idea is an original way of thinking about Cause X. If it is not, I haven’t seen it discussed much. In any case, it is not original outside of the Cause X discussion. Everything here is tentative, and the thing I’m pointing at might even be non-existent, but this line of thought might be promising.
Two concise and complementary ways to describe the search of Cause X might be:
1. Find X, where X is a barely visible but vast tragedy.
2. Find X, where X is a barely visible way to create a vast amount of value.
These are the main ideas relating to Cause X discussed in the introductory articles on effectivealtruism.org. The first idea relates to moral progress and asks if today there are tragedies that, by enlarge, current humans still don’t recognize as such. One such past example is slavery. The second idea also considers the upside: There have been ways of creating huge amounts of value in the past, mainly thanks to scientific progress. What other ways to create huge value do we have today that we are not seeing?
Here, I want to introduce a third way to approach the question of Cause X:
3. Find X, where X is a barely visible but potentially vast new category of value.
Discovering a new vast category of value might be important in itself, but it’s also important in relation to the two other questions: an answer might enable ways to prevent tragedies happening on the new axis of value discovered, or ways to create huge amounts of value on that axis.
This thought has occurred to me while reading the first chapter of The Precipice, by Toby Ord. He writes:
Our descendants could have eons to explore these heights, with new means of exploration. And it’s not just wellbeing. Whatever you value—beauty, understanding, culture, consciousness, freedom, adventure, discovery, art—our descendants would be able to take these so much further, perhaps even discovering entirely new categories of value, completely unknown to us. Music we lack the ears to hear.
The obvious next question occurred to me: “what is this music that we lack the ears to hear?” and then the obvious next-next question occurred to me: “what are examples of new categories of value that arose in the past but weren’t always there?” Much in the same way that now we see tragedies that weren’t considered as such before, we now see value where perhaps we didn’t see it before.
I want to try to answer the second question first. Is there a category of value that we didn’t see before and that we now do? I have one tentative answer that appeals to the music metaphor, not very important or large in scale though (so maybe there are better examples I haven’t thought about): the “music” of mathematics.
In a sense, mathematics is a kind of music that we listen to with other kinds of ears. Modern mathematics is a large corpus of ideas that beautifully relate to each other and the physical world in a way that is valuable to witness in itself. Before the invention of writing, I imagine that mathematics wasn’t very advanced, and if someone glimpsed the intrinsic value in it that we see today, that must have been only a faint glimpse. Perhaps something related to counting and comparing quantities. I suspect that because writing enabled a much better way to pass knowledge, in turn, it enabled more advanced mathematics, and thus a new form of value arose. I think there might be a lesson here: new categories of values might be enabled by new technology.
But you might say: “this is not another value entirely; this is just beauty”. I think this is probably true. I guess this kind of value in mathematics might be considered a subcategory of beauty that wasn’t that prominently considered in pre-historic times.
Another observation is “well, this is not very important, is it?” That’s right. Not at the same level of slavery. Consider this example as just me trying to grasp at something concrete, not necessarily a good example.
One other thing that we might extract from this example though, is that this kind of value is ultimately arising from new patterns of thinking: mathematics enabled new thinking patterns and a new form of beauty within them. And in fact, you might say that many things we value are just neurons firing in particular ways.
So, two main takeaways from the mathematics example:
1. Technology might enable new categories of value, just like writing did for maths.
2. New categories of value might reside in new thinking patterns.
Takeaway number 1. is a potential avenue for researching this question but it is also sort of sobering: if new tech will enable new forms of value anyway, we might not have many new opportunities to do good: we already know that advancing tech is good. Perhaps we might find new technologies that are worth advancing that we didn’t consider worthy of advancing before. But still, this takeaway might mean that this line of thinking about Cause X might be less actionable than we would like.
Takeaway number 2. might be more interesting because it begs interesting questions: “What creates new valuable patterns in our brains? What are brain patterns that very few humans have but that those humans consider very valuable?” I’m sure these questions aren’t being asked for the first time, but perhaps I’m arriving at them from a new road.
Now back to the first obvious next question I asked myself while reading Toby Ord’s paragraph: “what is this music that we lack the ears to hear now?”
I don’t know, and I have just sparse considerations.
Something unique to this kind of approach to Cause X is that new categories of value could be barely visible because they are currently very tiny, but they will be very large in the future. Instead, the tragedies we don’t see yet are large but transparent to us. We may sort of see that there is an enormous monster in the world, but light goes through it, and it escapes sight if you aren’t observant enough.
But there might be brain patterns that are already pervasive in humans, but that are not yet considered values. Transparent in the same way that some tragedies were transparent to our sight. Perhaps because too common? I don’t exclude this option, and it probably deserves some attention.
To conclude: In the same way that beauty in maths was barely visible in pre-historic times, there might be barely visible values today, which will be obvious in the future. The fact that they might still be visible, although barely, makes me optimistic. If we squint hard enough, we might find something.