Premise A: In a universe without conscious beings, nothing would be valuable.
Both value realists (people who believe values are an objective part of the world) and relativists (people who believe values are relative to one’s perspective) can accept Premise A. There’s good reason to accept Premise A, because it seems intuitively obvious that nothing would really matter in a universe where nothing is conscious, and thus, nothing can feel pleasure or pain.
Premise B: In a universe with conscious beings, some things are valuable.
While the realist and relativist will have very different explanations for Premise B, both can accept the version of it that fits with their definition of value. The realist thinks that there are objectively valuable things in a universe with conscious beings, and the relativist thinks that conscious beings will value some things in this universe.
The point I want to address concerns the possible justifications for accepting both A and B. Why does the introduction of conscious beings change a universe from one in which there is no value, into one in which there is value?
The relativist has an easy, straightforward explanation: the introduction of conscious beings creates value because the conscious beings are doing the valuing. Without conscious beings, there is no one who could value anything.
The realist can offer a slightly more difficult explanation: the introduction of conscious beings creates value because conscious beings are the only things of intrinsic value. In a world without conscious beings, there are no intrinsic values, so there are no values; in a world with conscious beings, the beings themselves are intrinsically valuable and other things are instrumentally valuable to the extent that they affect conscious beings. This story can be run in multiple ways. Perhaps the realist is a utilitarian who claims that only pleasure felt by conscious beings is valuable, so everything in the universe is valuable only to the extent that it affects the pleasure and pain of conscious beings.
I argue that the relativist has a comparably better explanation for why values are introduced to a universe when conscious beings enter it. To make this argument, I want to imagine a case where we transition from a universe with conscious beings to one without.
So, imagine that you are the last conscious being in the universe, and there is no possibility that any conscious beings will ever exist in the future. You are about to die, leaving the universe a consciousness-less mess. But, you come across a machine that grants you insane power to change the entire structure of the universe – whatever you code into the machine, it will make the universe in that exact manner. You can create planets, galaxies, or even change the laws of nature. There are only two limitations – you cannot create anything conscious, and the machine will not take effect until after you die.
What would you do with this machine? Personally, I would go crazy – I would create jello worlds, change some galaxies to have completely different physics, have pilot-less spaceships going every which way, and all sorts of other absurdities. I hope you would also choose to do something, because it would be tragic to waste such an opportunity.
Back to the issue: if you’re a realist who accepts both A and B, the effects of the machine mean nothing to you. Since you’ll die before any changes and there are no conscious beings left that could be affected, there is no value to anything the machine can do. It does not matter whether the universe stays the same or becomes an absurd one, because a value difference between the two would entail that one affects conscious beings in a way that the other does not, which is impossible in a universe with no conscious beings.
The relativist has no such problem. There is a value difference between a jello universe and a regular universe because you can value one more than the other. There is no need to find a feature of each universe that has value once you die, since that uses the realist conception of value. To be clear, the relativist cannot claim that there is a value difference between the two universes once you die – rather, the relativist can only claim that you value these two universes differently before you die even though you know it will not affect any conscious beings.
The realist cannot make the same move. If a realist values these two universes differently, there must be a valuable feature to one that the other does not have – so long as the realist accepts Premise A, this move is impossible. Perhaps the realist claims that the value of coding the machine lies in the pleasure you get from thinking about how crazy the universe will be once you die (so the value of the difference is instrumentally tied to the intrinsic value of your pleasure). While this is a partial explanation, it seems to leave something important out – namely, that I really would care whether the machine actually makes the universe the way I coded it. I would not want to just experience the pleasure of thinking about it, I want the universe to actually change in the way I want.
To summarize, the relativist has a comparably better explanation than the realist for why the machine has value, given that both accept Premises A and B. The relativist only needs to show that you value some difference independently of its effect on conscious beings. Conversely, the realist needs to show that there is some value in one universe not present in the other, which cannot be the case if the realist accepts A and B. Realists in general can avoid this conclusion either by 1. bite the bullet and deny the value of the machine (a position that might be common, as most other grad students I talked to about this believe that the results would not matter), or 2. reject Premise A, and argue that there are some intrinsic values that do not depend on conscious beings. I argue that the relativist has an advantage because, intuitively, both A and B are correct, but the results of the machine still seem to matter.