Mini-Review: All Possible Views…Are Wild by Holden Karnofsky

This is a response to “All Possible Views About Humanity’s Future Are Wild,” a blog post by Holden Karnofsky.

In this post, Karnofsky explains why he thinks “all possible views about humanity’s future are wild.” The argument is a little winding. He says that it seems “wild” that humans will eventually colonize the galaxy, but also “wild” to rule it out completely. Therefore, whether the view is that we do or we don’t, the view is “wild.”

This doesn’t make total sense to me at first. How can either answer to a yes-or-no question be “wild”? I think that’s simply because the long term future is unpredictable, so any prediction seems doubtful. The unpredictability of the shape of the future of humanity is what Karnofsky seems to be trying to make a case for with this article. Thus, if we entertain some very “wild” possibilities, then our current actions may have the potential to have wild effects.

What I’m unconvinced of is that the likelihood of humans never colonizing the galaxy is “more than 50%” but less than “overwhelmingly” likely, and that in turn, it’s reasonably likely that we will settle the galaxy “and beyond.” There isn’t any real justification in the post for this, which he acknowledges, saying “Defending it in depth is not on my agenda at the moment.” However, I think a defense is necessary if he is to argue that the never-colonizing-the-galaxy situation is wild. In my opinion, it’s not (post incoming). So this post does nothing to convince me otherwise, leaving me in disagreement with its hypothesis. 

That’s the problem with this post for me: if you already agree that space settlement is “reasonably” likely, then sure, all possibilities takes are wild because space settlement certainly feels wild, and never-space-settlement is not very likely so therefore also wild. On the other hand, if you don’t agree that space settlement is “reasonably likely,” then the post does nothing to convince you. As such, I don’t think the post accomplishes much. I also think it’s a bit silly that he says “I don’t think it’s really possible to hold a non-“wild” view on this topic.” Well, of course it is. Anyone can think anything. What he perhaps meant was, “I don’t think it’s really possible for someone who thinks space settlement is reasonably likely to hold a non-“wild” view on this topic.”

Lastly, I want to make a distinction between “wildness” and “likelihood.” By my reading, Karnofsky does not mean them to be synonymous. I think he uses “wildness” to mean the sort of gut-reaction disbelief you might feel about a possibility, while likelihood or probability is the more calculated judgement. This isn’t the central argument of the post, but I do agree with the idea that seemingly “wild” things can actually be quite likely. The genetics of our brains were molded by the far past, not the present, so we can’t trust ourselves to have wholly accurate gut feelings about the future. We surprise ourselves, and the world surprises us.

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