djbinder comments on Thoughts on whether we’re living at the most influential time in history

• I’m confused as to what your core outside-view argument is Will. My initial understanding of it was the following:
(A1) We are in a potentially large future with many trillions of trillions of humans
(A2) Our prior should be that we are randomly chosen amongst all living humans
then we conclude that
(C) We should have extremely low a prior odds of being amongst the most influential
To be very crudely quantitative about this, multiplying the number of humans on earth by the number of stars in the visible universe and the lifetime of the Earth, we quickly end up with estimates of ~1e38 total humans, and so priors on the order of ~1e-38.

As Buck points out, this argument doesn’t work unless you are willing to also accept with similarly extremely likelihood that the fact we appear to be very early humans is wrong. Otherwise the sheer weight of 1e38 pushes you extremely strongly to the conclusion that either (A1) is false or that we are almost certainly in a simulation.

Perhaps a somewhat different argument is closer to what you actually think. Here I’ve tried to frame the argument in a way that I think both you and Buck would find reasonable:
(A1′) A prior it is plausible that the most influential human is early. For simplicity, let’s say we have a 10% prior that the most influential human lives while the majority of humanity is still all on earth.
(A2′) The number of humans that will be alive up to the end of this period is plausible on the scale of a 100 billion people.
(A3′) Our evidence that humanity is restricted to one planet is incontrivertible (ie, no simulation)
We now conclude that
(C’) We should have low, but not absurdly astronomically low odds of being amongst the most influential humans

Note that compared to the previous argument, the a prior odds on being the most influential person is now 1e-10, so our earliness essentially increases our belief that we are the most influential by something like 1e28. But of course a 1-in-a-100 billion prior is still pretty low, and you don’t think our evidence is sufficiently strong to signficantly reduce it.

Do you agree with this argument Will? Or have a I misunderstood you?

• Note that compared to the previous argument, the a prior odds on being the most influential person is now 1e-10, so our earliness essentially increases our belief that we are the most influential by something like 1e28. But of course a 1-in-a-100 billion prior is still pretty low, and you don’t think our evidence is sufficiently strong to signficantly reduce it.

The argument is not about whether Will is the most influential person ever, but about whether our century has the best per person influence. With population of 10 billion+ (78 billion alive now, plus growth and turnover for the rest of the century), it’s more like 1 in 13 people so far alive today if you buy the 100 billion humans thus far population figure (I have qualms about other hominids, etc, but still the prior gets quite high given A1, and A1 is too low).

• I should also point out that, if I’ve understood your position correctly Carl, I agree with you. Given my second argument, that a prior we have something like 1 in a trillion odds of being the most influential, I don’t think we should end up concluding much about this.

Most importantly, this is because whether or not I am the most influential person is not actually relevant decision making question.

But even aside from this I have a lot more information about the world than just a prior odds. For instance, any long-termist has information about their wealth and education which would make them fairly exceptional compared to the average human that has ever lived. They also have reasonable evidence about existential risk this century and plausible (for some loose definition of plausible) ways to influence this. At the end of the day each of us still has low odds of being the most influential person ever, but perhaps with odds more in the 1 in 10 million range, rather than 1 in a trillion.

• (It appears you dropped a closing parenthesis in this comment)

• In his first comment Will says he prefers to frame it as “influential people” rather than “influential times”. In particular if you read his article (rather than the blog post), then in the end of section 5 he says he thinks it is plausible that the most influential people may live within the next few thousand years, so I don’t his odds that this century is the most influential can be very low (at a guess, one in a thousand?). I might be wrong though; I’d be very curious to know what Will’s prior is that the most influential person will be alive this century.

• It’s the time when people are most influential per person or per resource.