in my life now there's this recurring inner character. i'll be reading some heady book on religion and he'll whisper in my ear "oh, so you're just going to sit here and read about God while the world melts to nothing? while millions of children die of hunger? is that what God wants? interesting..."
i've also noticed i'm not alone in this. there's a lot of guilt nowadays around "not doing enough". so hopefully this is helpful.
and so to that voice, a few years ago, i'd break down and think "wow, so many people are so much more useful than me, what am i doing with my time, i must re-evaluate. do i need to create a personality that's more useful to the world? maybe get really good at architecting affordable housing?"
but recently i tried listening to the voice as Socrates would.
"hm, perhaps i am too selfish. perhaps there is something wrong with me. let us investigate the matter."
imagine our rational minds judging the usefulness of each organ. the brain (self-declared commander of the body) criticizes the thymus. especially Peter Medawar's brain.
Thymus, what do you even do here? what are these useless cells for? seems like you just sit there, doing your useless lymphocyte origami, causing myasthenia gravis.
and the thymus of course listens because the brain is so high and big and maybe it martyrs itself and is removed from the body in surgery, or maybe it shrinks in shame and starts re-engineer itself to filter blood like that so much more useful liver, but it's obviously not suited to this and so it does a bad job at that too and feels bad and everyone is still mad at it.
and then one day there's a massive world plague and the body is fighting all kinds of weird infections, and-- would you look at that, there's no thymus anymore to create immune cells!
the mind can't rationally plan what your contribution should be. it's too ignorant for that. don't let it dictate to the heart. yes i'm saying trust your heart. i think there's a daimon in there, or maybe an angel, that gives me much better and more inspirational guidance than my verbal brain, that arranges beautiful synchronicites i could have never planned, and all it asks for is attention, faith, and trust, but
if you aren't yet metaphysics-pilled, i can try a more practical justification:
a lot of the material abundance around us was created not made by people under extreme pressure to save the world, but by weird outlier STEM people obsessed with their own ideas. and a lot of the technology that enabled these inventions are a product of war, rationally, a terrible thing!
should we then start more wars to accelerate technological development? of course not. it just means you can't predict what your outcomes will be. i used to think all these billionaires throwing money at space exploration was this useless, expensive, luxury game, and they should spend more time solving Earth-problems.
but my pro-space friend recently said to me: "you should be more humble about thinking you know how problems get solved." yes!
Buckminster Fuller created these incredible geodesic domes, which still have practical application to the fundamental problem of shelter. But these domes were only possible because of material science advancements in the aerospace industry, that enabled him to build these massive, light-weight, aluminum domes.
another example is the internet. what was first implemented for military use is now a boon for education. so i'm almost certain there will be massive positive externalities from space exploration, either space manufacturing, or further advancements in material science.
left to their own devices, people will passionately pursue different things (as long as they aren't all slaves to pleasure, will write about decadence soon). to make someone who's obsessed with math work at a soup kitchen is ridiculous, because how many people are naturally obsessed with math? most people hate math. it's insane that some people love math. if you love math do math all day with no guilt-- you could be the next Newton!
so, guilty voice in my head, i'm going to ignore you for now, and trust my heart, and if i die useless, i will concede, you were correct, i should've dedicated my life to effective altruism. this misguided post will then be a testament to your wisdom, so that future generations may burn every copy of The Alchemist and live confidently, foresaking any hallucinatory "inner guidance", notions of "passion", and instead dedicate their lives to.........
i'm not even sure. what should the rational altruist do? activism? but what if it ends up ineffective? maybe growing food is a better, more productive, bet? but the impact of your garden would be so small. can even know grow enough food for yourself? shouldn't you focus on enacting larger scale change? maybe activism is the right move. oh! what if you became a regenerative farming influencer? no, definitely not. ok, ok what if we built this massive central planning machine which takes in everyone's material needs and outputted a job schedule, people are randomly selected and assigned only useful jobs, the material outputs are allocated according to need, and everyone is happy and useful and fed and housed. but should you spend all this time building this system if most people won't agree to this in the forseeable future? should you instead be reading books on military strategy and assembling an army to take over the world and implement your ideas by force? what is the likelihood of global domination succeeding? is the expected utilitarian value of all this greater than or less than just doing your best at a soup kitchen? is utilitarianism even the right ethical framework? ok what if you just worked at a prop trading company and donated money to someone who can employ it for good better than you'd be able to? what if my high paying job leads to more income tax going to the US government which leads to beef subsidies that encourage the torture of hundreds of millions cows? how much do i weight cow sentience? what about plant sentience? what if i made money by selling heroin so i wouldn't have to dodge income taxes? is it ok the benefits of my malaria net donations outweight the harms of heroin? heroin seems dumb (or is it??? are drugs actually really bad? shouldn't we be free to choose?) no no enough enough, I'll move to Denmark. Denmark seems cruelty-free, so my income taxes would be put to better use, but hm... i may have to learn Danish? what’s the opportunity cost of that?
"this is absurd! obviously just pick something! they're all good! you're being facetious!"
but surely there's some spectrum between choosing the first idea that pops into your head for how best to help, and spending your whole life deliberating? what i don't spend enough time thinking and end up causing a famine?. at what point does thinking become overthinking? can this be calcuated rigorously? thoughts? anyone still there?