Conceptualization of Existential Risk

27 July 2013


Ninth in a Series on Existential Risk:

astronaut in space

How we understand what exactly is at risk.

In my last post in this series on existential risk, Existential Risk and Existential Opportunity, I wrote this:

How we understand existential risk, then, affects what we understand to be a risk and what we understand to be a reward.

It is possible to clarify this claim, or at least to lay out in greater detail the conceptualization of existential risk, and it is worthwhile to pursue such a clarification.

We cannot identify risk-taking behavior or risk averse behavior unless we can identify instances of risk. Any given individual is likely to identify risks differently than any other individual, and the greater the difference between any two given individuals, the greater the difference is likely to be in their identification of risks. Similarly, a given community or society will be likely to identify risks differently than any other given community or society, and the greater the differences between two given communities, the greater the difference is likely to be between the existential risks identified by the two communities.

This difference in the assessment of risk can at least in part be put to the role of knowledge in determining the distinction between prediction, risk, and uncertainty, as discussed in Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty and Addendum on Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty: distinct individuals, communities, societies, and indeed civilizations are in possession not only of distinct knowledge, but also of distinct kinds of knowledge. The distinct epistemic profiles of different societies results in distinct understandings of existential risk.

Consider, for example, the kind of knowledge that is widespread in agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization in contradistinction to industrial-technological civilization: in the former, many people know the intimate details of farming, but few are literate; in the latter, many are literate, but few know how to farm. The macro-historical division of civilization in which a given population is to be found profoundly shapes the epistemic profile of the individuals and communities that fall within a given macro-historical division.

Moreover, knowledge is integral with ideological, religious and philosophical ideas and assumptions that provide the foundation of knowledge within a given macro-historical division of civilization. The intellectual foundations of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization (something I explicitly discussed in Addendum on the Agrarian-Ecclesiastical Thesis) differ profoundly from the intellectual foundations of industrial-technological civilization.

Differences in knowledge and differences in the conditions of the possibility of knowledge among distinct individuals and civilizations mean that the boundaries between prediction, risk, and uncertainty are differently constructed. In agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, the religious ideology that lies at the foundation of all knowledge gives certainty (and therefore predictability) to things not seen, while consigning all of this world to an unpredictable (therefore uncertain) vale of tears in which any community might find itself facing starvation as the result of a bad harvest. The naturalistic philosophical foundations of knowledge in industrial-technological civilization have stripped away all certainty in regard to things not seen, but by systematically expanding knowledge has greatly reduced uncertainty in this world and converted many certainties into risks and some risks into certain predictions.

Differences in knowledge can also partly explain differences in risk perception among individuals: the greater one’s knowledge, the more one faces calculable risks rather than uncertainties, and predictable consequences rather than risks. Moreover, the kind of knowledge one possesses will govern the kind of risk one perceives and the kind of predictions that one can make with a degree of confidence in the outcome.

While there is much that can be explained between differences in knowledge, and differences between kinds of knowledge (a literary scholar will be certain of different epistemic claims than a biologist), there is also much that cannot be explained by knowledge, and these differences in risk perception are the most fraught and problematic, because they are due to moral and ethical differences between individuals, between communities, and between civilizations.

One might well ask — Who would possibly object to preventing human extinction? There are many interesting moral questions hidden within this apparently obvious question. Can we agree on what constitutes human viability in the long term? Can we agree on what is human? Would some successor species to humanity count as human, and therefore an extension of human viability, or must human viability be attached to a particular idea of the homo sapiens genome frozen in time in its present form? And we must also keep in mind that many today view human actions as being so egregious that the world would be better off without us, and such persons, even if in the minority, might well affirm that human extinction would be a good thing.

Let us consider, for a moment, a couple of Nick Bostrom’s formulations of existential risk:

An existential risk is one that threatens the premature
extinction of Earth-originating intelligent life or the permanent and drastic destruction of its potential for desirable future development.

…and again…

…an existential risk is one that threatens to cause the extinction of Earth-originating intelligent life or the permanent and drastic failure of that life to realise its potential for desirable development. In other words, an existential risk jeopardises the entire future of humankind.

Existential Risk Prevention as Global Priority, Nick Bostrom, University of Oxford, Global Policy (2013) 4:1, 2013, University of Durham and John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

What exactly would constitute the “drastic failure of that life to realise its potential for desirable development”? What exactly is permanent stagnation? Flawed realization? Subsequent ruination? What is human potential? Does it include transhumanism?

For some, the very idea of transhumanism is a moral horror, and a paradigm case of flawed realization. For others, transhumanism is a necessary condition of the full realization of human potential. Thus one might imagine an exciting human future of interstellar exploration and expanding knowledge of the world, and understand this to be an instance of permanent stagnation because human beings do not augment themselves and become something more or something different than we are today. And, honestly, such a scenario does involve an essentially stagnant conception of humanity. Another might imagine a future of continual human augmentation and experimentation, but more or less populated by beings — however advanced — who engage in essentially the same pursuits as those we pursue today, so that while the concept of humanity has not remained stagnant, the pursuits of humanity are essentially mired in permanent stagnation.

Similar considerations hold for civilization as hold for individuals: there are vastly different conceptions of what constitutes a viable civilization and of what constitutes the good for civilization. Future forms of civilization that depart too far from the Good may be characterized as instances of flawed realization, while future forms of civilization that don’t depart at all from contemporary civilization may be characterized as instances of permanent stagnation. The extinction of earth-originating intelligent life, or the subsequent ruination of our civilization, may seem more straight-forward, but what constitutes earth-originating intelligent life is vulnerable to the questions above about human successor species, and subsequent ruination may be judged by some to be preferable to the present trajectory of civilization continuing.

Sometimes these moral differences among peoples are exemplified in distinct civilizations. The kind of existential risks recognized within agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization are profoundly different from the kind of existential risks now being recognized by industrial-technological civilization. We can see earlier conceptions of existential risk as deviant, limited, or flawed as compared to those conceptions made possible by the role of science within our civilization, but we should also realize that, if we could revive representatives of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization and give them a tour of our world today, they would certainly recognize features of our world of which we are most proud as instances of flawed realization (once we had explained to them what “flawed realization” means). For a further investigation of this idea I strongly recommend that the reader peruse Reinhart Koselleck’s Future’s Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time.

It would be well worth the effort to pursue possible quantitative measures of human extinction, permanent stagnation, flawed realization, and subsequent realization, but if we do so we must do so in the full knowledge that this is as much a moral and philosophical inquiry as it would be a scientific and theoretical inquiry; we cannot separate the desirability of future outcomes from the evaluative nature of our desires.

Like the sailors on the Pequod who each look into the gold doubloon nailed to the mast and see themselves and their personal concerns within, just so when we look into the mirror that is the future, we see our own hopes and fears, notwithstanding the fact that, when the future arrives, our concerns will be long washed away by the passage of time, replaced by the hopes and fears of future men and women (or the successors of men and women).

. . . . .

danger imminent existential threat

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Existential Risk: The Philosophy of Human Survival

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

5. Risk and Knowledge

6. What is an existential philosophy?

7. An Alternative Formulation of Existential Risk

8. Existential Risk and Existential Opportunity

9. Conceptualization of Existential Risk

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ex risk ahead

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Grand Strategy Annex

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