Possible Worlds

Letter from the Editor

In EM Forster's 1909 novella The Machine Stops, humans live in underground caves after a pandemic has devastated the world. Humans communicate with one another via video calls through networked screens, and their daily well-being is handled by a single powerful machine.

Many of Forster's speculations were wrong, a few were right, some may be too early to call. That being said, Forster was writing fiction, not attempting anything more than to suspend a reader's disbelief. And yet, his vision of a technologically mediated reality is compelling, even across the chaotic span of the 20th century. At many points in the last hundred years, history could have taken a different turn and our present would have been radically different. Forster could have missed the mark entirely.

In my first letter, I discussed how the futures that we target are imaginatively generated but built scientifically. Wherever our desires come from, they are not constructed on the same assembly line as a car engine. Human drives represent an important source of contingencies. It can be hard to predict where our hopes and fears will take us; perhaps concern over superintelligent AI may aid in its creation.

Our past is also available for imaginative construction. If our ancestors were given different goals and dice rolls, we would have a different present. We need not only speculate on future hypotheses, we can also counterfactually think through alternative histories. For instance, "what would our present be like if the Cuban missile crisis hadn't happened?" These imagined realities are possible worlds: worlds which are coherent and logically sensible but just so happen to not be the actual world we find ourselves in.

The second issue of The Latecomer explores some of these possibilities.

In an interview and article, Eric Schwitzgebel asks whether it's even worth thinking about the very far future. He argues that it isn't—at a sufficiently large time scale it becomes impossible to determine the outcomes of our actions. In response, Richard Yetter Chappell writes that even if we can't make precise calculations, we can still make reasonable inferences about what should be done to safeguard the future.

Niko McCarty's article explores the history of how we ended up with our current view of the cell. For instance, our laboratory equipment have given us the mistaken view that proteins are merely fixed crystalline structures rather than wiggling strings. Esvelt, Mueller, and Sunil offer an implicit critique of the COVID-19 response—we failed to rigorously identify essential workers and give them sufficient protection. Lastly, Matt Gentzel looks at how difficult it has been to reduce the risk of nuclear war due to the phenomenon of risk compensation.

Thinking through counterfactuals can give us an opportunity to reflect on historical opportunities and mistakes. With any luck, these articles will aid our understanding of history on behalf of the future.

About the author

Matt Southey

Matt Southey is the founding editor of The Latecomer.

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