Existential Risk and Existential Viability
8 September 2013
The Life of Civilization
Tenth in a Series on Existential Risk
What makes a civilization viable? What makes a species viable? What makes an individual viable? To put the question in its most general form, what makes a given existent viable?
These are the questions that we must ask in the pursuit of the mitigation of existential risk. The most general question — what makes an existent viable? — is the most abstract and theoretical question, and as soon as I posed this question to myself in these terms, I realized that I had attempted to answer this earlier, prior to the present series on existential risk.
In January 2009 I wrote, generalizing from a particular existential crisis in our political system:
“If we fail to do what is necessary to perpetuate the human species and thus precipitate the end of the world indirectly by failing to do what was necessary to prevent the event, and if some alien species should examine the remains of our ill-fated species and their archaeologists reconstruct our history, they will no doubt focus on the problem of when we turned the corner from viability to non-viability. That is to say, they would want to try to understand the moment, and hence possibly also the nature, of the suicide of our species. Perhaps we have already turned that corner and do not recognize the fact; indeed, it is likely impossible that we could recognize the fact from within our history that might be obvious to an observer outside our history.”
This poses the viability of civilization in stark terms, and I can now see in retrospect that I was feeling my way toward a conception of existential risk and its moral imperatives before I was fully conscious of doing so.
From the beginning of this blog I started writing about civilizations — why they rise, why they fall, and why some remain viable for longer than others. My first attempt to formulate the above stark dilemma facing civilization in the form of a principle, in Today’s Thought on Civilization, was as follows:
a civilization fails when it fails to change when the world changes
This formulation in terms of the failure of civilization immediately suggests a formulation in terms of the success (or viability) of a civilization, which I did not formulate at that time:
A civilization is viable when it successfully changes when the world changes.
I also stated in the same post cited above that the evolution of civilization has scarcely begun, which continues to be my point of view and informs my ongoing efforts to formulate a theory of civilization on the basis of humanity’s relatively short experience of civilized life.
In any case, in the initial formulation given above I have, like Toynbee, taken the civilization as the basic unit of historical study. I continued in this vein, writing a series of posts about civilization, The Phenomenon of Civilization, The Phenomenon of Civilization Revisited, Revisiting Civilization Revisited, Historical Continuity and Discontinuity, Two Conceptions of Civilization, A Note on Quantitative Civilization, inter alia.
I moved beyond civilization-specific formulations of what I would come to call the principle of historical viability in a later post:
…the general principle enunciated above has clear implications for historical entities less comprehensive than civilizations. We can both achieve a greater generality for the principle, as well as to make it applicable to particular circumstances, by turning it into the following schema: “an x fails when it fails to change when the world changes” where the schematic letter “x” is a variable for which we can substitute different historical entities ceteris paribus (as the philosophers say). So we can say, “A city fails when it fails to change…” or “A union fails when it fails to change…” or (more to the point at present), “A political party fails when it fails to change when the world changes.”
And in Challenge and Response I elaborated on this further development of what it means to be historically viable:
…my above enunciated principle ought to be amended to read, “An x fails when it fails to change as the world changes” (instead of “…when the world changes”). In other words, the kind of change an historical entity must undergo in order to remain historically viable must be in consonance with the change occurring in the world. This is, obviously, or rather would be, a very difficult matter to nail down in quantitative terms. My schema remains highly abstract and general, and thus glides over any number of difficulties vis-à-vis the real world. But the point here is that it is not so much a matter of merely changing in parallel with the changing world, but changing how the world changes, changing in the way that the world changes.
It was also in this post that I first called this the principle of historical viability.
I now realize that what I then called historical viability might better be called existential viability — at least, by reformulating by principle of historical viability again and calling it the principle of existential viability, I can assimilate these ideas to my recent formulations of existential risk. Seeing historical viability through the lens of existential risk and existential viability allows us to formulate the following relationship between the latter two:
Existential viability is the condition that follows from the successful mitigation of existential risk.
Thus the achievement of existential risk mitigation is existential viability. So when we ask, “What makes an existent viable?” we can answer, “The successful mitigation of risks to that existent.” This gives us a formal framework for understanding existential viability as a successful mitigation of existential risk, but it tells us nothing about the material conditions that contribute to existential viability. Determining the material conditions of existential viability will be a matter both of empirical study and the formulation of a theoretical infrastructure adequate to the conditions that bear upon civilization. Neither of these exist yet, but we can make some rough observations about the material conditions of existential viability.
Different qualities in different places at different times have contributed to the viability of existents. This is one of the great lessons of natural selection: evolution is not about a ladder of progress, but about what organism is best adapted to the particular conditions of a particular area at a particular time. When the “organism” in question is civilization, the lesson of natural selection remains valid: civilizations do not describe a ladder of progress, but those civilizations that have survived have been those best adapted to the particular conditions of a particular region at a particular time. Existential risk mitigation is about making civilization part of evolution, i.e., part of the long term history of the universe.
To acknowledge the position of civilization in the long term history of the universe is to recognize that a change has come about in civilization as we know it, and this change is primarily the consequence of the advent of industrial-technological civilization: civilization is now global, populations across the planet, once isolated by geographical barriers, now communicate instantaneously and trade and travel nearly instantaneously. A global civilization means that civilization is no longer selected on the basis of local conditions at a particular place at a particular time — which was true of past civilizations. Civilization is now selected globally, and this means placing the earth that is the bearer of global civilization in a cosmological context of selection.
What selects a planet for the long term viability of the civilization that it bears? This is essentially a question of astrobiology, which is a point that I recently attempted to make in my recent presentation at the Icarus Interstellar Starship Congress and my post on Paul Gilster’s Centauri Dreams, Existential Risk and Far Future Civilization.
An astrobiological context suggests what we might call an astroecological context, and I have many times pointed out the relevance of ecology to questions of civilization. Pursuing the idea of existential viability may offer a new perspective for the application methods developed for the study of the complex systems of ecology to the complex systems of civilization. And civilizations are complex systems if they are anything.
There is a growing branch of mathematical ecology called viability theory, with obvious application to the viability of the complex systems of civilization. We can immediately see this applicability and relevance in the following passage:
“Agent-based complex systems such as economics, ecosystems, or societies, consist of autonomous agents such as organisms, humans, companies, or institutions that pursue their own objectives and interact with each other an their environment (Grimm et al. 2005). Fundamental questions about such systems address their stability properties: How long will these systems exist? How much do their characteristic features vary over time? Are they sensitive to disturbances? If so, will they recover to their original state, and if so, why, from what set of states, and how fast?”
Viability and Resilience of Complex Systems: Concepts, Methods and Case Studies from Ecology and Society (Understanding Complex Systems), edited by Guillaume Deffuant and Nigel Gilbert, p. 3
Civilization itself is an agent-based complex system like, “economics, ecosystems, or societies.” Another innovative approach to complex systems and their viability is to be found in the work of Hartmut Bossel. Here is an extract from the Abstract of his paper “Assessing Viability and Sustainability: a Systems-based Approach for Deriving Comprehensive Indicator Sets”:
Performance assessment in holistic approaches such as integrated natural resource management has to deal with a complex set of interacting and self-organizing natural and human systems and agents, all pursuing their own “interests” while also contributing to the development of the total system. Performance indicators must therefore reflect the viability of essential component systems as well as their contributions to the viability and performance of other component systems and the total system under study. A systems-based derivation of a comprehensive set of performance indicators first requires the identification of essential component systems, their mutual (often hierarchical or reciprocal) relationships, and their contributions to the performance of other component systems and the total system. The second step consists of identifying the indicators that represent the viability states of the component systems and the contributions of these component systems to the performance of the total system. The search for performance indicators is guided by the realization that essential interests (orientations or orientors) of systems and actors are shaped by both their characteristic functions and the fundamental and general properties of their system environments (e.g., normal environmental state, scarcity of resources, variety, variability, change, other coexisting systems). To be viable, a system must devote an essential minimum amount of attention to satisfying the “basic orientors” that respond to the properties of its environment. This fact can be used to define comprehensive and system-specific sets of performance indicators that reflect all important concerns.
…and in more detail from the text of his paper…
● Obtaining a conceptual understanding of the total system. We cannot hope to find indicators that represent the viability of systems and their component systems unless we have at least a crude, but essentially realistic, understanding of the total system and its essential component systems. This requires a conceptual understanding in the form of at least a good mental model.
● Identifying representative indicators. We have to select a small number of representative indicators from a vast number of potential candidates in the system and its component systems. This means concentrating on the variables of those component systems that are essential to the viability and performance of the total system.
● Assessing performance based on indicator states. We must find measures that express the viability and performance of component systems and the total system. This requires translating indicator information into appropriate viability and performance measures.
● Developing a participative process. The previous three steps require a large number of choices that necessarily reflect the knowledge and values of those who make them. In holistic management, it is therefore essential to bring in a wide spectrum of knowledge, experience, mental models, and social and environmental concerns to ensure that a comprehensive indicator set and proper performance measures are found.
“Assessing Viability and Sustainability: a Systems-based Approach for Deriving Comprehensive Indicator Sets,” Hartmut Bossel, Ecology and Society, Vol. 5, No. 2, Art. 12, 2001
Another dimension can be added to this applicability and relevance by the work of Xabier E. Barandiaran and Matthew D. Egber on the role of norms in complex systems involving agents. Here is an extract from the abstract of their paper:
“One of the fundamental aspects that distinguishes acts from mere events is that actions are subject to a normative dimension that is absent from other types of interaction: natural agents behave according to intrinsic norms that determine their adaptive or maladaptive nature. We briefly review current and historical attempts to naturalize normativity from an organism-centred perspective that conceives of living systems as defining their own norms in a continuous process of self-maintenance of their individuality. We identify and propose solutions for two problems of contemporary modelling approaches to viability and normative behaviour in this tradition: 1) How to define the topology of the viability space beyond establishing normatively-rigid boundaries, so as to include a sense of gradation that permits reversible failure; and 2) How to relate, in models of natural agency, both the processes
that establish norms and those that result in norm-following behaviour.”
The author’s definition of a viability space in the same paper is of particular interest:
Viability space: the space defined by the relationship between: a) the set of essential variables representing the components, processes or relationships that determine the system’s organization and, b) the set of external parameters representing the environmental conditions that are necessary for the system’s self-maintenance
“Norm-establishing and norm-following in autonomous agency,” Xabier E. Barandiaran, IAS-Research Centre for Life, Mind, and Society, Dept. of Logic and Philosophy of Science, UPV/EHU University of the Basque Country, Spain, firstname.lastname@example.org, and Matthew D. Egbert, Center for Computational Neuroscience and Robotics, University of Sussex, Brighton, U.K.
Clearly, an adequate account of the existential viability of civilization would want to address the “essential variables representing the components, processes or relationships that determine” the civilization’s structure, as well as the “external parameters representing the environmental conditions that are necessary” for the civilization’s self-maintenance.
In working through the conception of existential risk in the series of posts I have written here I have come to realize how comprehensive the idea of existential risk is, which gives it a particular utility in discussing the big picture and the human future. In so far as existential viability is the condition that results from the successful mitigation of existential risk, then the idea of existential viability is at least as comprehensive as that of existential risk.
In formulating this initial exposition of existential viability I have been struck by the conceptual synchronicities that have have emerged: recent work in viability theory suggests the possibility of the mathematical modeling of civilization; the work of Barandiaran and Egbert on viability space has shown me the relevance of artificial life and artificial intelligence research; the key role of the concept of viability in ecology makes recent ecological studies (such as Assessing Viability and Sustainability cited above) relevant to existential viability and therefore also to existential risk; formulations of ecological viability and sustainability, and the recognition that ecological systems are complex systems demonstrates the relevance of complexity theory; ecological relevance to existential concerns points to the possibility of employing what I have written earlier about metaphysical ecology and ecological temporality to existential risk and existential viability, which in turn demonstrates the relevance of Bronfenbrenner’s work to this intellectual milieu. I dare say that the idea of existential viability has itself a kind of viability and resilience due to its many connections to many distinct disciplines.
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Existential Risk: The Philosophy of Human Survival
10. Existential Risk and Existential Viability
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