The Fable of the Bladder-Tyrant

post by JohannWolfgang · 2020-09-30T09:09:31.323Z · score: -3 (10 votes) · EA · GW · 8 comments

(TL;DR: Nick Bostrom's Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant is mere rhetoric and proves too much. I guess this is not a very relevant point since there are other and better arguments in favor of longevity research and the topic is not really important for EA.)

Once upon a time there was a kingdom whose people were suffering from a dreadful plague: hidden within their own bodies – in each and every single one of them – there lived a foul creature, sucking the water from the organs, always threatening to drain them until they were all skin and bones if they did not take care to provide it with more and more water, always threatening to burst if they did not empty it again and again.

Bladder they called the hideous thing.

How and when that parasite had come was not known and contradicting legends were told. Some said it was the curse of a goddess. Others claimed it had fallen from the heavens. Without any other homestead on earth the Bladder had eventually infested the human body, coexisting with it from that day.

For a long time, wizards and warriors fought battles against the Bladder, but their weapons and spells were not suited to defeat it. Many died in the attack against their abdomen. The kingdom had no other choice but to pay the liquid tribute. Every second of the day, some 10,000 people felt the urge to empty themselves or were thirsty.

But humans, ever adaptable, came to accept the Bladder as a fact of life, knowing they just had to deal with it, even embracing it, thinking they would enjoy that release of tension it produced, mistaking its feelings for their own. Where they first tried to fight, now they even taught their children from a very young age the rituals the Bladder demanded. Potty-training, as they called this, was even viewed as the first step of growing up and becoming a responsible adult with the willpower to master hardships.

Yet they still had to lead miserable lives. Because the Bladder’s opening to the outside was located at the most wicked part of the body, the emptying had to be performed in privacy and sometimes people had to cross entire corridors searching for a suitable place. Enormous resources had to be wasted on the installation of closets, plumbing, the production of toilet paper and the like, thus fulfilling the Bladder’s demand. Whole industries were created, providing jobs to thousands of so-called bladderologists.

The dirty rituals the Bladder obliged them to perform sucked not only the water, but also the attention and mental energy from the people. They even thought more about it than we do about death. How they suffered when other obligations kept them from attending the Bladder’s demands! Imagine being tied to a chair on the bus, in class, or in an important meeting with hurting guts and twitching legs unable to alleviate the cause of your pain. Imagine not being able to enjoy a concert or a movie because of such low needs or missing out on the most touching and exciting parts. And don’t get me started on the smell!

But humanity is a curious species and every once in a while someone has a good idea. In the course of the centuries the arts of medicine and surgery progressed – slowly, yet steadily. With sharper cutting tools and better anaesthetics, some bladderologists argued, one might remove the Bladder from the body. The researchers told everyone who would listen about their ideas. Many were sceptical at first, but gradually the plan became known to more and more people. On one wintery evening the king assembled his people for an open hearing.

First, the leading bladderologist presented the current state of surgery and how it was possible to make the scalpel even sharper. “I cannot guarantee that this will work out” she concluded, “but with the requested amount of funding we may develop and perform the procedure on everyone in fifteen to twenty years.”

Then the king got up and asked what objections the people had. Somebody mentioned the thousands of jobs tied to the Bladder’s existence, someone else asked how cleanliness – the foundation of all of morality – could remain a meaningful concept in a world without the Bladder. At last, an old doctor spoke: “I am afraid that complications might arise from changing the body like this. Could its fragile equilibrium be disrupted when the Bladder is gone? I do not know, but I’d wish to hear more about that from the bladderologists. Besides, and that is, I think, an even more important point, we have better things to do. Think of the people in the neighbouring country, who suffer from hunger and die from malnutrition and preventable disease. We ought to help those we can help today with already existing technologies without any risk. Think also of the problems in our own kingdom like pollution, which cannot become any better when we spend less time on the toilet and are able to consume more. In short, I ask: how will, how can a society look like without the Bladder? We need to answer these questions first, before proceeding to remove it.”

The outcry of a child ended his words: “NO! Don’t listen to him. The Bladder sucks. I don’t want to potty-train and I am tired of the other children making fun of me because of my diapers. I don’t want to pee anymore!”

Everybody immediately realized the truth of what he had said and after carving out the details, they agreed on a plan for the Bladder removal. The budget was set up for providing the resources for the next twenty years. Everybody went home, except for the old doctor who, disappointed with the refusal to continue old-fashioned aid to the population of the neighbouring country, left the kingdom to help them as much as (he thought) he could.

However, when everybody in the kingdom woke up the next morning, pulled from their comfy beds by the Bladder’s demands, they doubled and tripled their efforts. The king even sold one of his summer castles on TV. After twelve years and countless failed test surgeries, finally the great day had come. Everybody assembled to have the surgery performed on them. In a ceremony, the first operation according to the newly developed procedure should be performed on an elderly, incontinent lady.

But just as the scalpel was lifted a voice shouted out from the masses: “Stop, wait! Please take me first, please! I just drank two bottles of coke and I have to … pee.” Many compassionate eyes turned to look at him, yet the king shook his head: “I am sorry, my friend, but I cannot, must not help you. We already agreed on a list based on the needs of everyone and changing it now would not only be unfair but would also put the schedule at risk. Don’t be afraid though: your turn will come.” Sobbing, the man walked back to the crowd, but soon he rejoiced with the others as the elderly lady rose up from the operating table, a little pale, yet smiling. After the cheers had faded away, the king delivered a short speech: “It has been done, my dear subjects, the boldest deed in mankind’s history has been done: from now on, we’ll live and we’ll die and we won’t have to fear the Bladder in between! The time we have won, so much time, so, so much! Now finally we can solve all those minor problems, we can build a better country, a better world – under my leadership, which has empowered us all.”

Not much later, that old doctor, who had left the country, returned, for his heart had grown weak and he felt his end was near and he wanted to die at home. He was surprised to find that all his compatriots were also dying or had already passed away. It seemed the operation had caused some unforeseen complications after all.

Alternative ending:

And they lived happily ever after.


In short, I have presented EA’s next big cause area: removing the Bladder from the human body. It is neglected, large-scale – both in the short and the long-term – and for sure is tractable. You don’t want to find yourself betting against human ingenuity, do you?

8 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by kokotajlod · 2020-09-30T10:39:54.132Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Large-scale? Not compared to other things. Poverty is much more important, animal welfare is much more important, defeating aging is much more important... it's so easy to think of things which are much more important that I'm not going to bother extending the list.

Tractable? Not compared to other things. It's much easier to convince people that aging is bad and research on how to stop it should be funded, than to convince people that having to go to the bathroom is bad and research on how to stop it should be funded. Also scientifically there might be less hope for a solution in the short run; the waste our bodies produce has to leave somehow, and there may not be a significantly more elegant way to do it. In the long run with nanobot or upload bodies this problem can be solved, but by far the most effective ways for us to achieve this is to simply work on AI alignment and the like.

Neglected? Sure.

comment by JohannWolfgang · 2020-09-30T13:34:39.785Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thank you for your comment. I agree that poverty, animal welfare and aging are more intense forms of suffering and they should definetely addressed by the EA community and in fact they already are (aging maybe not as much as the others). When I wrote that the bladder is a large-scale problem, I literally meant scale in a narrow sense: every of all 7.8 billion has to pee say 7 times a day. That means that we, as a species, have to undergo this annoying thing almost 20 trillion times a year. That is why is think that, even multiplying with the low intensity, you get easily to the same scales as with poverty and aging.

With respect to scientific aspect of tractability, I do not actually think an operation is a plausible way to achieve the goal. That is merely an element of the fable, to make it more dramatic. However, I think that a solution might be possible with advances in catheter technology. Catheters now still are horrible, but they already do the job. I am confident that with increasing demand, new breakthroughs will happen quickly. On the cultural side, I agree that it does not seem plausible that major parts of the society will engage in a discussion on bladder removal soon, but so many conventions and taboos have been toppled in the past hundred years, that it is very much probable that it will happen. Again, it will help that everybody is affected directly multiple times a day, which is not true for the other problems you mention.

comment by kokotajlod · 2020-09-30T21:21:03.017Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I agree that peeing etc. happens a lot and that a large quantity of minor suffering can sometimes be more important than a smaller quantity of intense suffering. However I think that in this case the things I mentioned -- poverty, aging, etc. -- are overall much more important. Consider: What would happen if we polled people and asked them "What if you had the choice between two pills, one of which would keep you young and healthy until you died by some non-natural cause, and another of which would magically eliminate your pee and poop so you never had to go to the bathroom. Which would you choose?" I'd bet the vast majority of people would choose the first pill if they chose any pill at all. Now imagine asking similar questions about poverty... I'm pretty sure people would rather pee and poop than be poor. Much rather. Similarly, consider asking people to choose between giving the no-pee-or-poop-pills to 100 people, or helping 1 person to stay healthy for just a mere 10 more years. I'm pretty sure almost everyone would say the morally correct choice is the second one. All this to say, I feel pretty confident in my judgment that eliminating poverty, aging, etc. is way more important than eliminating pee & poop etc.

I'm glad to hear you talk about catheters -- they are indeed much more tractable. However, my understanding is that people who use them are usually happy to stop using them; this suggests that they are actually less comfortable, more degrading, etc. than our usual bodily functions!

I totally buy that it's possible for society to change its norms around peeing pooping etc. and decide that we should eliminate it. Like you said, society changes its opinions on things like this every century or so. However, the question is how much control we have over society's opinions on this. And while I think we do have some (small) amount of influence, I think we'd better use that influence to change society's opinions about other things, like the moral status of farmed animals, or the importance of existential risk reduction. (Because again, those things are more important. And for that matter they are more tractable too; it's easier to change people's minds about them, I think.)

comment by JohannWolfgang · 2020-10-01T11:46:49.955Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Also I would like to point out that although catheters are still bad, they are much better that what we used to have, which proves improvements possible and this is more important to tractability than today's dire situation.

comment by JohannWolfgang · 2020-10-01T11:33:20.534Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I checked the numbers thinking that a 1 to 100 ratio in your example should be much larger, that actually the trade-off should be more like 1 to 10000. Turns out that is not the case. If 9% of the world's population is over 65 (I assume you wanted to compare a person's possible impact on aging with their possible impact on the bladder), the ratio is more like 1 to 11. So I have to retract my statement that peeing is on the same scale as aging and poverty. That being said, I still think this is a very important issue and while the most effective people should work on something else, someone whose applications to jobs in other fields got rejected still just consider improving catheter technology as a way to do a tremendous amount of good. The same holds true for advocacy. While catheters are maybe not something Peter Singer should write books about, I for my part am very happy to raise awareness of this topic. And that is more tractable than you seem to think. While people might think fighting poverty is more important, they do not act according to their believes, see the drowning-child thought experiment. While people would prefer having to pee and poop to poverty, that is not a choice most people in rich countries face.

comment by wuschel · 2020-10-01T08:14:25.377Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I am not sure, if no one is getting the joke, or just down voting, because they don't wand irony-jokey content on the EA Forum..

comment by JohannWolfgang · 2020-10-01T11:08:43.208Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Honestly, I can't blame them in either case. I suppose the joke is not funny if you don't know the original and the EA community is open enough to new, unusual ideas that it might attract the sort of crazy people who actually think removing the bladder is a good idea. Also, I told everybody who prove-read the post that it was intended as a parody. Maybe otherwise that is entirely non-obvious. And obviously compared to the normal content on the forum it might be seen as a waste of time to read this.

comment by JasperGeh · 2020-10-06T08:27:56.396Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Pretty sure people get the reference but just think that you're mocking longevity research without making a good point. A disclaimer would've helped.