Existential Risk and the Death Event

3 May 2013


Fourth in a Series on Existential Risk

I traveled to Palermo specifically to see this great fresco of the Triumph of Death.

I traveled to Palermo specifically to see this great fresco of the Triumph of Death.

“The human race’s prospects of survival were considerably better when we were defenceless against tigers than they are today, when we have become defenceless against ourselves.” Arnold Toynbee, “Man and Hunger” (Speech to the World Food Congress, 04 January 1963, quoted on the Anthropocene Blog)

Readers, I trust, will be aware of existential risks (as well as global catastrophic risks) since I’ve recently written several recent posts on this topic, including Research Questions on Existential Risk, Six Theses on Existential Risk, Existential Risk Reminder, Moral Imperatives Posed by Existential Risk, Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty, and Addendum on Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty. The idea of the “Death Event” is likely to be much less familiar, so I will try to sketch out the idea itself and its relationship to existential risk.

Edith Wyschogrod

Edith Wyschogrod

The idea of the “death event” is due to philosopher Edith Wyschogrod, and given exposition in her book Spirit in Ashes: Hegel, Heidegger, and Man-Made Mass Death. Wyschogrod took the title of her book from an aphorism of Wittgenstein’s from 1930: “I once said, perhaps rightly: The earlier culture will become a heap of rubble and finally a heap of ashes, but spirits will hover over the ashes.”

spirit in ashes

In defining the scope of the “death event” Wyschogrod wrote:

“I shall define the scope of the event to include three characteristic expressions: recent wars which deploy weapons in the interest of maximum destruction of persons, annihilation of persons, through techniques designed for this purpose (for example, famine, scorched earth, deportation), after the aims of war have been achieved or without reference to war, and the creation of death-worlds, a new and unique form of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life simulating imagined conditions of death, conferring upon their inhabitants the status of the living dead.”

Edith Wyschogrod, Spirit in Ashes: Hegel, Heidegger, and Man-Made Mass Death, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1985, p. 15.

Wyschogrod’s conception of the “death world,” also given exposition in the text, is introduced in conscious contradistinction to the late Husserlian conception of the “Lifeworld” (Lebenswelt). (Cf. Chapter 1, Kingdoms of Death) I cannot do justice to Wyschogrod’s excellent book in a few quotes, so I will simply encourage the reader to look up the book for himself, but I will give a couple more quotes to locate the “death event” in relation to the larger picture of our civilization. Wyschogrod sees a relation between the “death event” and the peculiar character of industrial-technological civilization:

“The procedures and instruments of death which depend upon the quantification of the qualitied world are innovations deriving from technological society and, to that extent, extend its point of view.”

Op. cit., p. 25

And again,

“…the world of the camps is both distinct from and tied to technological society, so too the nuclear void is embedded in the matrix of technological society but not related to it in simple cause and effect fashion.”

Op. cit., p. 29

Perhaps at some future time I will consider Wyschogrod’s “death event” thesis in relation to what I have called Agriculture and the Macabre, which is the particular relationship between agricultural civilization and death, but whether or not the reader agrees with me or not (or with Wyschogrod, for that matter) I will acknowledge without hesitation that the character of the macabre in agricultural civilization is very different from the place of the death event and the death world in industrial-technological civilization.

Wyschogrod focuses on death camps and industrialized warfare, but of course what shocked the world more than anything were the nuclear bombs that ended the war. A considerable bibliography could be devoted to the books exclusively devoted to the anguished reflection that followed the atomic explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many of them written by and about the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project and made the bomb possible. Many of the most eminent philosophers of the time immediately began to think about the consequences — both contemporaneously and for the longer term human future — of human beings being in possession of nuclear weapons.

Bertrand Russell wrote two books on the possibility of nuclear war, Common Sense and Nuclear Warfare (1959) and Has Man a Future? (1961) Recently in Bertrand Russell as Futurist I discussed Russell’s views on the need for world government in order to prevent the annihilation of human life due to nuclear weapons — a view shared by Albert Einstein.

Karl Jaspers

Karl Jaspers

In 1958 Karl Jaspers published Die Atombombe und die Zukunft des Menschen, later translated into English as The Future of Mankind. What all of these works have in common is struggling with what Jaspers called “the new fact.” Of this new fact Jaspers wrote:

“The atom bomb of today is a fact novel in essence, for it leads mankind to the brink of self-destruction.”

Karl Jaspers, The Future of Mankind, Chap. I, p. 1


“the atom bomb is today the greatest of all menaces to the future of mankind… The possible reality which we must henceforth reckon with — and reckon with, at the increasing pace of developments, in the near future — is no longer a fictitious end of the world. It is no world’s end at all, but the extinction of life on the surface of the planet.”

Op. cit., p. 4

The fact that fear of nuclear Armageddon was felt viscerally as an all-too-real possibility for our world points to the fact that this was not merely the appearance of a new idea in human history — new ideas appear every day — but a fundamental shift in feeling. When the awful reality of the Second World War, which saw man-made mass death on an unprecedented scale, received its finale in the form of the atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we had acquired a new object for our instinctual fear of annihilation.

The larger meaning of the “death event” — testified not only in Edith Wyschogrod’s explicit formulation, but also in the work of Bertrand Russell, Karl Jaspers, and a hundred others — is that of formal, reflexive consciousness of anthropogenic existential risk. We not only know that we are vulnerable to existential risk, we also know that we know. It is this formal, reflexive self-consciousness of existential risk that is the differentia between human history before the “death event” and human history after the “death event.” The “death event” was a crystallizing event, a particular moment in history that was a watershed for human suffering that placed that suffering in the naturalistic context.

Earlier catastrophes in human experience did not have this character — or, if they did have this character for a few individuals who realized the larger meaning of events, this formal, reflexive consciousness of human vulnerability did not achieve general recognition. Partly this was a consequence of the non-naturalistic and teleological assumptions that were integral with the outlook of earlier epochs of human civilization, before science made a naturalistic conception of the world entire conceivable. If one believes that a supernatural force will intervene to continue to maintain human beings in existence, there is no reason to be concerned with the possibility of human extinction.

The eschatological conception of history is predicated upon the efficacy of supernatural agents.

The eschatological conception of history is predicated upon the efficacy of supernatural agents.

Prior to industrial-technological civilization (made possible by the scientific revolution, which is particularly relevant in this context), the “end of the world” could only be understood in eschatological terms because eschatologies derived from theological cosmogonies were the only “big picture” accounts of the cosmos that had been formulated and which had achieved any degree of currency. (There have always been non-theological philosophical cosmogonies, but these have remained marginal throughout human history.)

Until science provided an alternative, the only big picture conceptions of the world were traditional cosmogonies, to which the least imaginative among us still recur.

Until science provided an alternative, the only big picture conceptions of the world were traditional cosmogonies, to which the least imaginative among us still recur.

The situation in regard to “big picture” conceptions of the world is closely parallel to that of biology prior to Darwin’s theory of natural selection: there were no strictly biological theories of biology prior to Darwin, only theological theories that were employed to “explain” biological facts. With no alternative to a theological account of biology, it is to be expected that this sole point of view was the universal point of reference, just as where there is no alternative to the theological account of history, this theological account is the sole point of reference in history.

Charles Darwin, in formulating a thorough-going scientific biology, gave the world its first non-theological formulation of biology.

Charles Darwin, in formulating a thorough-going scientific biology, gave the world its first non-theological formulation of biology.

In regard to traditional eschatologies, it would be just as apposite to point out that a supernatural agent might intervene to bring about the end of civilization or the extinction of all human beings (in contradistinction to supernatural interventions intended to be to our benefit), regardless of all human efforts made to preserve themselves and their civilization in existence. The point here is that once we recognize the efficacy of supernatural agents in human history, human agency in shaping the human future cannot be assumed, and in fact the idea of “destiny” (especially in the form of predestination) may come to prevail over conceptions of the future that allow a greater scope to human agency. This is why, in my post The Naturalistic Conception of History, I defined naturalism as “non-human non-agency,” i.e., the absence of supernatural agency.

Four conceptions of history, political, eschatology, cataclysmic, and naturalistic.

Four conceptions of history, political, eschatology, cataclysmic, and naturalistic.

To formulate this from the opposite point of view, we could say that it was only the essentially naturalistic assumptions of our own time, assumptions built into the structure of industrial-technological civilization (because it is dependent upon science, and science cannot systematically expand in the way that science has expanded in recent history without the working philosophical presupposition of methodological naturalism), that made it possible for human beings to understand that no deus ex machina was going to emerge at the end of the human drama to save us in spite of our failure to secure our own future.

We once thought that Atlas carried the weight of the world on his shoulders; now we know that we are the ones who carry the world on our shoulders.

We once thought that Atlas carried the weight of the world on his shoulders; now we know that we are the ones who carry the world on our shoulders.

Once human beings realized with fearful clarity that they possessed the power to annihilate civilization and possibly also all human life, it is only a small step from this consciousness of human vulnerability to come to a similar consciousness of human vulnerability whether or not the existential threat is anthropogenic or non-anthropogenic. A sufficient number of ill-advised and irreversible choices (choices that result in action or inaction, as the case may be) could mean the extinction of human beings, or the reduction of human activity to a level of insignificance. That is what we now know to be the case, and it shifts a heavy burden of responsibility onto human beings for their own future — a burden that had once been carried on the shoulders of gods.

It is only in the past few decades of contemporary science that we have begun to look at the long antiquity of man with the thought of our existential vulnerability in mind, retrospectively placing our fingers at the nodal points of our past, for there have been many times when we might have all been extirpated before any of the many thresholds of development that have brought us to our present state at which we can adequately conceptualize our existential risk came about.

In this way, existential risk mitigation efforts not only provide a kind of clarity in conceptualizing the human future, especially in so far as we abide by the moral imperatives imposed by existential risk, but also by giving us a novel perspective on the human past.

One of the guiding principles of contemporary thought on existential risk is to focus on those risks that human beings have no record of surviving. In order to make good on this principle, we need to understand what existential risks human beings have survived in the past, and to this end we must acquire a better knowledge of human evolution in a cosmological context, which is, in a sense, the particular concern of astrobiology.

. . . . .

Grand Strategy and Existential Risk: A Series:

1. Moral Imperatives Posed by Existential Risk

2. Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty

3. Addendum on Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty

4. Existential Risk and the Death Event

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

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