On A Desire To Save The World

Suppose that, for better or worse, it appears that I want to save the world. Very well, I do. It’s been a running theme with me, most recently reawakened by a book I read (review forthcoming).Today we’re going to analyze this desire in depth.

The first question, of course, is whether I actually want to save the world? This asks two additional questions: does the world need saving, and if so, what from? Here things get tricky, because while I doubt that modern civilization will survive the next few centuries without deliberate action, it’s not clear that “saving” is the word to use. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. So really, I want to inoculate humanity against certain threats.

Existential risk comes in a lot of different forms. Personally, I think biological, chemical, and nuclear threats are overrated. Not that we shouldn’t be worried about such things because they’d be really bad on their own—they just don’t strike me as posing an existential threat in quite the same form as, say, an asteroid strike.

Climate change, similarly, seems like a serious issue but not a species-ending event. Now a supervolcano eruption—that is a genuine problem. There’s not a whole lot we can do for it, besides trying to backup the biosphere on Mars or L5. The same story with a geomagnetic reversal (if that’s actually a risk) and asteroid strikes. The problem only widens when we consider cosmological issues, like a hypernova or gamma ray burst. Nothing can really be done about those in the medium-term.

More exotic issues also include alien invasion, artificial intelligence, or runaway nanotechnology. These are all very interesting concerns, but not, for the most part, something I wish to discuss here.

Let it suffice to say that the world will need saving if nothing is done. Yet this essay isn’t about saving the world. It’s about my desire to save the world.

A desire to save the world is distinct from a desire for the world to be saved. Even at my most nihilistic, at some level I’ve wanted for the train to be put back on the tracks, for the catastrophe to be averted. A great part of my pre-Objectivist angst can be attributed to the fact that middle school administrators seem more concerned with riding herd over five hundred humanoid hormone bags than dealing with the pressing issues of global warming and space colonization.

“Down to earth” has never been an accurate description of me.

But I digress. Why should I want to save the world myself? Most folks don’t think its their responsibility or power. That’s not an unreasonable view. Unless the world needs saving most Tuesdays, it’s not exactly a job for everyone. Why is it a job for me?

Arrogance, in part. Big challenges seem more worthwhile than smaller ones.

Systemization and eternalism. If I can’t live in a quasi-static universe, then what’s the point of trying?

And fear. Fear of dying, fear of never accomplishing a goal worth setting. This is a big part of the sentiment I’m calling a desire to save the world. Despite various attempts, I’ve yet to truly accept the notion of a “boring” life. Doing the same damn thing, over and over again, for no greater purpose than to pass that dull routine on to another generation seems worse than pointless. If you’re not having fun, then what’s the point?

That’s sort of what’s going on. Treating my nine-to-five (or nine-to-nine) as the daily grind sounds counterproductive. Framing my work as saving the world sounds fun.

Which brings us to another question: what would saving the world actually entail for me?

Unlike many others concerned with existential risks, I’m not planning to restructure my life around it. That would be necessary if I wanted to focus on a particular risks. If, for instance, I wanted to tackle artificial intelligence, I could treat aerospace engineering as my day job and spend the next few years moonlighting as an autodidact until I knew enough about mathematics and computer science to contribute towards that conversation.

I am not changing majors this late in the game. Instead, my plan is simple: keep plugging away at getting humanity off the planet. Finish school, get a job building spacecraft, and treat my work as part of a grand project to save the human race. It’s not a far stretch if I can keep my mind on it.

What does this mean for me right now? Well, it means I should really try at aerospace engineering.

Story time: during the last final exam I took at Purdue, happened to look around and noticed that one of the nearby test-takers was balding. It was a sudden reminder of the adult world. My plans were crashing in around me, yet on a certain level I knew that I wasn’t really acting like this was serious business.

College felt like more school i.e. not fully real. I was going through the motions but not entirely convinced that the whole situation was real. In that moment, the truth suddenly became apparent. I felt like an impostor—I wasn’t really trying to understand everything, to engage System 2 and do the work necessary to pass that exam (which I didn’t). I felt like an irresponsible kid. In that way, I was.

(Don’t take this as excusing Purdue Engineering’s role in my failure. They definitely share a lot of that blame, making things more difficult and less intuitive than necessary yet offering little benefit in return. Eventually I’ll get around to writing about conceptualization in education, but suffice to say that my thermodynamics professor at KU offered considerably better insight for fewer migraines.)

So that’s my meta-level theme for this year: taking both my schooling and myself seriously. Removing distractions and unpleasant pastimes, narrowing my life down to something closer resembling the essentials. No more politics, no more inanity. Rather than viewing my assignments as an obstacle to overcome in pursuit of a passing grade, I’d like to see them as part of a project to accomplish great things—each fact or equation a brick in an edifice of engineering erudition, world-saving or no.

As I’ve said elsewhere, you can’t rely on the schools to educate you. Now the professors here are pretty decent, but the curriculum only goes so far. Reading ahead, branching out into relevant side topics—that’s what excites me. I’m already building my pleasure reading list with this in mind.

Not that it’s all textbooks. It’s not even mostly textbooks. The majority is general science, history, and philosophy, alternated with fiction. Keeping balance is essential. Staying on top of my schoolwork is one aspect of that, but relaxing once I’m caught up is another key component. Saving the world through BRUTE STRENGTH only works in fantasy worlds. Indeed, I could have finished this essay sooner, but decided my limited recreation time was better spent split between writing and Kerbal Space Program, than on writing alone.

This approach seems like the best way, to date, of motivating myself to pursue my own self-interest. It’s both sufficiently meta to withstand internal scrutiny, and manages to unify present and future behavior.

But please be advised that this is not general advice. It’s a consciously adopted crutch. If this works as itself, it works. If it doesn’t work as itself, it collapses into functional behavior. And if it fails, well, another one for the rejects pile. This is my personal approach. It is not intended for everyone. Most people are relatively happy with “a normal life” as a terminal goal. I’m not. There’s no strong philosophical backing for this preference. It’s a quirk of my own mental apparatus.

I want to save the world. I want to help humanity spread out from this world. I want to shape the world in my own image. I don’t expect your help, dear reader (unless you teach engineering at the University of Kansas). But in the words of John Galt: get the hell out of my way.

On Feeling

It’s no real secret that I’m not a particularly emotional person. That clickbait is still a halfway viable business model honestly confuses me—after the eighteenth time you read a listicle called “19 $whatevers to blow your mind” and coming away bored if not actively annoyed, one would think you’d stop. Even when I heard of John Glenn’s passing yesterday, my reaction was more solemn than somber.

This doesn’t particularly bother me because not spending time reading clickbait doesn’t even qualify as a First World Problem. But I’m also not bothered because of what does emotionally engage me.

For example, Jai’s post on Smallpox Eradication Day:

A whisper became a voice; a voice became a call; a call became a battle cry, sweeping across villages, cities, nations. Humanity began to cooperate, spreading the protective power across the globe, dispatching masters of the craft to protect whole populations. People who had once been sworn enemies joined in common cause for this one battle. Governments mandated that all citizens protect themselves, for giving the ancient enemy a single life would put millions in danger.

And, inch by inch, humanity drove its enemy back. Fewer friends wept; Fewer neighbors were crippled; Fewer parents had to bury their children.

At the dawn of the 20th century, for the first time, humanity banished the enemy from entire regions of the world. Humanity faltered many times in its efforts, but there individuals who never gave up, who fought for the dream of a world where no child or loved one would ever fear the demon ever again. Viktor Zhdanov, who called for humanity to unite in a final push against the demon; The great tactician Karel Raška, who conceived of a strategy to annihilate the enemy; Donald Henderson, who led the efforts of those final days.

The enemy grew weaker. Millions became thousands, thousands became dozens. And then, when the enemy did strike, scores of humans came forth to defy it, protecting all those whom it might endanger.

The enemy’s last attack in the wild was on Ali Maow Maalin, in 1977. For months afterwards, dedicated humans swept the surrounding area, seeking out any last, desperate hiding place where the enemy might yet remain.

They found none.

35 years ago, on December 9th, 1979, humanity declared victory.

This one evil, the horror from beyond memory, the monster that took 500 million people from this world – was destroyed.

I don’t cry particularly often. These words reliable bring me to tears. Now to be fair, there is plenty of other stress in my life lately, but I’d rather cry over global successes than local failures.

Local failures don’t really affect me in the same manner, though. The idea of millions struck down, helpless against a force we’ve conquered yet they could not resist, strikes me far more strongly than supposedly heart-wrenching tales. Maybe the thousandth sob story made me numb. All I know is that dissatisfaction is my preeminent emotion when hearing about individual cases of distress, like homelessness or disability. My understanding is that presenting specific people in need is an effective tactic for raising charitable donations. For me, empathy takes far longer to kick in—I’ll be looking for solutions (so I can move on to more interesting problems) well before that happens.

Which is fine. Empathy didn’t cure smallpox. Rationality did. Human compassion alone is useless against the pain and suffering of the world. It is by our dedication, our intelligence, our creativity that disease and starvation will be overcome. Values direct your course of action, but will not carry you on the journey.

This is a systematizing mindset at work.

Not even ten posts into this blog and a certain theme is appearing. I’m interested in big, species-level projects. Eradicating smallpox is such an endeavor. We’ve nearly done the same with polio and are making significant progress with malaria. Such projects permanently address the root causes of human suffering. We seek to cure the disease, not treat symptoms, both literally and metaphorically.

I am not an altruist. Humanitarian work is worthwhile not because helping is good but because suffering is evil. Observe the world, do the math, and choose the projects which will objectively eliminate or prevent the most pain and death. We’ve done it before, we’re doing it now, and we’ll do it again until the last of our enemies has been vanquished.

500 million, and not a single one more!

Introspection and Depression: Thoughts from the Edge

Two years ago this day, I stood at the third-floor railing overlooking the atrium of Armstrong Hall (yes, that Armstrong), and debated with myself whether I wanted to die. It was a warm Friday afternoon, the last day of classes in the spring semester before finals began, and I was on my way to office hours in the vain hope of getting enough points back on my latest aeromechanics exam that I wouldn’t flunk it. I had stopped briefly to look over the balcony when the thought of jumping occurred to me, and I nearly dismissed it, but in an unexpected show of honesty decided to stay and think it through, all the way.

Looking over the edge that day, I realized my problem was worse than I’d thought. The semester and indeed my entire time at Purdue University had not been very good for me, and I knew there was a very real danger I would stay on academic probation for a second semester, which was tantamount to being expelled. My spirits were low, my comprehension was worse, and my grades were something I actively didn’t think about. I was afraid of being expelled, unfit for anything beyond the sort of retail job I’d taken the previous summer (making dimes above minimum wage), and loaded with a pile of debt I was completely incapable of paying off. It seemed that my life was completely hopeless, still a month away from my twentieth birthday. Maybe I should just “get it over with,” I thought to myself.

It wasn’t hopeless, but we’ll get to that later. I felt terrible because for the past six years my self-worth had been almost entirely based on perceptions of my own intelligence, largely measured through school. I’d been an honors student in high school, done reasonably well on my standardized tests, very well on my advanced placement tests, and so on. I had every reason to believe in my own ability to succeed at the fourth-best aerospace engineering school in America.

But the results just didn’t add up. I was struggling from the first semester, completely disappointed with the first-year curriculum, still frustrated once I got into my major, and overall not having a good time. Going from high school, where I was a middle-to-low honors student, to a population comprised almost entirely of honors students, wasn’t exactly stroking my ego. My entire self-worth and vision of the future was rapidly crashing down around me, and there was basically nothing I could do about it.

I flunked that exam, and I flunked the class, and I flunked two other classes. That itself wouldn’t have been an entirely unworkable problem, but the long string of Cs and Ds stretching back to Calc II were enough for Purdue to kick me out. And to them I said “good riddance, a whole lot of good you ever did me.”

The obvious message here is about measuring self-worth, in that any attempt to measure yourself against an outside metric is explicitly opposed to the philosophy I held at the time. In the worlds of Nathaniel Branden, “If my aim is to prove I am ‘enough,’ the project goes on to infinity–because the battle was already lost on the day I conceded the issue was debatable.” Though no longer much of an Objectivist, this much I still believe today.

The more abstract lesson, however, is about the importance of introspection. While perfect self-awareness may be impossible, a certain degree is necessary for ensuring one lives a happy and fulfilling life. It is certainly possible that someone will accidentally manage to live satisfactorily, even probable given certain circumstances and preferences, but that is far from a guarantee. At this point it’s quite evident that that is not the case for me.

Knowing what I want is the first step in this process, but even that is a challenge to ascertain. In the weeks before my first semester at Purdue began, I was slightly regretting not making an effort to get into more prestigious schools like MIT or Caltech. (The only school I applied to more selective than Purdue was the University of Southern California, which rejected me no doubt in part due to my hasty and unimpressive application.) At that point in my life, it wasn’t an entirely unreasonable thought. Having spent four years now at various sorts of schools, I can say very strongly that a maximally-difficult curriculum is not what I want.

Furthermore, one needs to know how to get what they want. A significant factor in choosing Purdue was its record of producing astronauts, which has been my dream job since elementary school. Of course, the odds are stacked against me, which was pretty clear by middle school: I’m unathletic, not terribly motivated, haven’t the best health, and don’t particularly like to study. This isn’t a winning combination, and for a sample as small and selective as the astronaut core focusing on work ethic and executive function would have been (and still is–I haven’t given up, but adjusted my expectations) a far more sensible approach than applying to a difficult school that I didn’t know I could handle.

And one has to realize the limits of possibility. I didn’t push my limits very far in high school, taking only a moderate slate of classes that were ultimately well within my abilities (I graduated with an unweighted GPA around 3.8). I didn’t apply to a large number of colleges, which would have given me a better idea of where I stood in the 2012 class of incoming engineering students. I never asked myself if there was a significant change of failure. The notion never occurred to me.

Sometimes I wonder if I had pushed myself, or if my parents had pushed me harder, then would I have been able to handle Purdue? In retrospect, none of it seems all that difficult, though the workload was a little high–and even that could have been dealt with provided sufficient executive function and time management. After this summer, I’ll have retaken every class I failed at Purdue, and even covered some material I didn’t get to. I’m still worrying about my grades, but I’m worried about getting multiple Cs instead of multiple Fs. Despite regular complaints, my comprehension is orders of magnitude better. Was it the change in environment? Just practice? Something else?

We’ll never find out. My life is an experiment I can only run once. But as I continue my climb out of depression and failure, I’ll know just what I’m dealing with.