Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, "This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!" This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it's still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything's going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.
I encourage you to read the quote again and think on it.
If you still believe this Earth was made for us humans, regard carefully this amusing image:
See, god didn't make us, the optimization process known as evolution did. And the ancestral environment in which we did most of our evolving was quite different to modern day life; our brains aren't built to conceive of either seven billion other humans to share with nor are they built to conceive of finite resources. (At least in the ultimate sense of the term. We knew hard winters, we didn't know of physically running out of all the food there could be.)
We also evolved in a time where the average life span was much shorter than it is now. Yet half the people in human history who reached the age of 65 are alive now.
We've grown cozy in our little existence, we've grown so used to the idea of people just dying as if it's the most ordinary thing. We still cry, of course, but we have tricks to get over it, whether it's through religion or existentialism or simply forgetting (it's hard to think about the same thing every day). The sun should flicker every time a sentient life is lost, but 1.8 people die every second, and that's a lot of flickering that we'd soon ignore and forget about that too.
I think that if there were some Almighty Bat that came around fairly frequently and hit random people over the head to the point of concussion, people would begin praising the bat. After a few generations when no one's around to remember what it was like before the bat, people will claim it is the natural way of things and to take the bat away would make life itself meaningless. People would write lots of literature about the moral qualities of the bat, of course there would be some contrarians who would deny the bat's positive qualities but still accept its inevitable existence.
If you find the bat scenario to be too unkind to people, to not put enough belief in people's rationality, look at how we treat Death. Now, it may be that we cannot spread ourselves indefinitely into the future depending on how the multiverse plays itself out (maximum entropy could be a large problem), but living to even just as long as it takes for the last star in the Milky Way to burn out would be close enough to immortality to me. Can we achieve "immortality", with people who are alive today? I'm confident we could, if we would devote more efforts to the task. Eliminating cancer would be a fine step to increasing life spans, but the amount of funding going toward it seems disproportionate with the expected results and the actual results. Even more egregious is the amount spent on the military, but that's obvious and most people agree (according to Gallup polls) that the military budget should be the first thing cut (while the politicians believe it to be the last).
Yet no matter what efforts we make to pursuing "immortality", there will be those who claim death is necessary to give meaning to life. To those people, I direct to the fanfic Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (an awesome read) where one chapter in particular deals with several "Deathist" objections to prolonged life. I think normal people would like the idea of living to 150 if presented in the right way. Something like: "At age 100 you'll feel like what normal 50 year olds now feel. Not like you were in your prime, but you can still do a lot of stuff. At 140 or so is when you start getting modern-day 80-year-old symptoms." The hidden variable under the rug of this argument is that by the time people actually reach the age of 140, odds are good there will be technology invented or in the process of being invented that can extend that to age 200. Ten years is a long time nowadays with our exponentially increasing technology (not Moore's Law, I'm talking general improvements to health, lifespan, electronics, production, research... (see the Genome Project)), and if you can delay death by just 10 years you may be able to delay it 20 years after the first 10 have passed. This is what humanity should be focused on right now. We can deal with overpopulation issues and getting off the planet and so on after we have a lot less people dying for no reason.
Yes, eventually we will have to escape this planet. If we don't, humanity is doomed, just like the puddle, but not from overpopulation (people are already having less offspring on average). We have billions of years to get to the point of leaving before the sun expands and dies, but if we don't start considering it now then one day we'll be taken by surprise and poof. This is apart from the many other much more imminent existential risks we face now like giant asteroid collision, full-scale nuclear and biological warfare, and the coming advent of self-replicating micro-technology and powerful competing intelligences that may not be proven Friendly or designed carefully, which should all be receiving more attention than they are. The sun scenario is just the ultimatum for whichever species end up on Earth in the end, I hope humans--that is, humanity--escapes. As Carl Sagan once said, "We are the Universe understanding itself." If people want a new manifest destiny, let it be to colonize the Stars. And hey, I have a slight environmentalist bent, I want to take cats and plants with me.
Posted on 2011-03-01 by Jach