In my Centauri Dreams post Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? I noted that it has become a contemporary commonplace that the emergence of superintelligent artificial intelligence represents the greatest existential risk of our time and the near future. I do not share this view, but I understand why this view is common. Testimony to superintelligence as an existential risk is the book Superintelligence by Nick Bostrom, who has been instrumental both in the exposition of existential risks and in the exposition of superintelligence.

Bostrom prefaces his book on superintelligence with a fable, “The Unfinished Fable of the Sparrows.” In the fable, a flock of sparrows decides that they would benefit if they had an owl to help them. One member of the flock, Scronkfinkle, objects, saying, “Should we not give some thought to the art of owl-domestication and owl-taming first, before we bring such a creature into our midst?” The other sparrows disregard the warning, upon the premise that they will first obtain own owlet or an owl egg, and then concern themselves with the control of the owl. As the other sparrows leave to find an owl, the fable ends:

“Just two or three sparrows remained behind. Together they began to try to work out how owls might be tamed or domesticated. They soon realized that Pastus had been right: this was an exceedingly difficult challenge, especially in the absence of an actual owl to practice on. Nevertheless they pressed on as best they could, constantly fearing that the flock might return with an owl egg before a solution to the control problem had been found. It is not known how the story ends, but the author dedicates this book to Scronkfinkle and his followers.”

Nick Bostrom, Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, Oxford, 2016

Bostrom leaves the fable unfinished; I will provide one account of what happens next.

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The few sparrows who remained behind, despite their difficulties, settled on the plan that the best way to approach owl taming and domestication was by not allowing the owl to understand that he is an owl. They would raise any owl obtained by the sparrows to maturity as a sparrow, so that the owl would believe itself to be a sparrow, and so would naturally identify with the flock of sparrows, would desire use its greater strength to build better nests for the sparrows, would want to help with the care of both young and old sparrows, and would advise the sparrows even while protecting them from the cat. “This owl will be as sparrow-like as an owl can possibly be,” they asserted, and set about formulating a detailed plan to raise the owl as one of their own.

When the other sparrows returned with the enormous egg of a tawny owl, many times the size of a sparrow egg, the owl tamers were confident in their plan, and the returning sparrows with their owl egg rejoiced to know that the most advanced owl researchers had settled upon a plan that they were sure would work to the benefit of all sparrows. Several sparrows sat on the egg at the same time in order to evenly incubate the owl egg, and once the young owlet broke out of its shell, it immediately imprinted its sparrow mothers, who brought it seeds and small insects to eat. This was a challenge, as the large owlet ate much more than several sparrow chicks, and many sparrows had to be tasked in the feeding of their owlet.

The owlet grew, though it grew slowly, and certainly was not the most impressive specimen of a tawny owl, fed as it was an small seeds and small insects that were scarcely enough to satisfy its hunger. As the owlet grew, all the sparrows, overseen by the owl researchers, sought to teach the owl to be a good sparrow. Wanting to please his sparrow parents, the owlet tried to chirp cheerfully like a sparrow, to dust bathe with the other sparrows, and to hop around on the ground looking for seeds and insects to eat.

The plan appeared to exceed all expectations, and the owlet counted himself one of the flock of sparrows, never questioning his place among the sparrows, and already beginning to use this growing strength to aid his “fellow” sparrows. Until one day. The sparrows were together in a large flock looking for seeds when an enormous adult tawny owl suddenly descended upon them. The sparrows panicked and scattered, all of them flying off in different directions. Except for the owlet, for he, too, was a tawny owl, though he did not know it. He stood his ground as the great, magnificent tawny owl settled down, folded his feathers smoothly and seamlessly to his body, and looked quizzically at the little tawny owlet, who stood alone where moments before there had been hundreds of sparrows.

And what is this?” asked the large tawny owl, “An owl living with sparrows?” And then he gave a large, piercing hoot of the kind that tawny owls use as their call. The little owlet, a bit frightened but still standing his ground, replied with a subdued, “Chirp, chirp.” The large owl tilted his head to one side, perplexed with the little fellow, and also a bit put-out that one of his kind should behave in such a manner and be living with sparrows.

The large owl said to the little owlet, “I will show you your true nature,” so he picked up the owlet carefully but firmly in his powerful beak and flew the little owlet to a branch that hung low over a still pond. There he set the owlet down on the branch, and indicated for him to look down into the water. The still, smooth surface of the pond reflected the perfect likeness of the two tawny owls, one large, one small, so that as both looked down into the water they saw themselves, and for the first time the little owlet saw that he was an owl, and that he was not a sparrow. “You see now that you are like me,” said the large owl to the owlet, “Now be like me!”

Now,” said the large owl, “I will show you how an owl lives.” He took the owlet to his nest in the hollow of a tree as the sun was setting, and as the little owl flew behind the big owl he saw how beautiful the forest was in the low light of dusk. He perched at the edge of the hollow, and the large owl said, “Wait here,” then dived down into the growing darkness below. The little owlet realized that even in the dim light he could see the large owl swoop down and fly purposefully, but to some purpose the owlet did not yet understand.

Soon the large own returned, and he held in his claws a freshly killed bird, about the size of a sparrow (he had spared the owlet the agony of beginning with a sparrow). The little owlet felt sick to this stomach. He said to the big owl, “I’m hungry and I would like some seeds and insects please.” The large owl looked at him disdainfully. He held the dead bird down with one talon and ripped the body open with his beak. “This is owl food!” he said to the owlet as he gulped down a chunk of fresh meat. The big owl tears off another chunk of meat and says to the owlet, “Open your beak!” The little owlet shakes his head from side to side (finding that he can almost rotate his head all the way around when he does so) and tries to flatten himself against the wall of the tree behind him.

No, I want to eat seeds,” says the little owlet. The large owl will have none of it, and he forces the chunk of fresh meat down the maw of the little owl, who gags on the bloody feast (as all gag upon attempting to swallow an unwelcome truth) but eventually chokes it down. Gagging and frightened, the little owlet slowly begins to understand that he has now, for the first time in his life, encountered his true food, the food of owls, the only food that can nourish him and sustain him as an owl. For he has seen himself in the still water of the pond, and now knows himself to be an owl.

The little owlet attempts to hoot like a tawny owl, and though his first owl-utterance is a weak and sickly sort of hoot, it is the right kind of sound for an owl to make. The big owl looks down on him with growing satisfaction and says, “Today you are an owl. Now I will take you into the depths of the forest at night and we will hunt like owls and eat owl food.” While the little owl does not understand all that this means, he nods uncertainly and follows as the larger owl leaps into the darkness again.

What happens next in the Fable of the Sparrows has not been recorded, but one can conjecture that the owl researchers among the sparrows returned to their notes and their calculations, trying to understand where they had gone wrong, and attempting to form a new plan, now that their sparrow-like owl had been taken under the wing of a true owl.

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Readers familiar with the work of Joseph Campbell will immediately recognize that the myth I have here made use of is the Indian myth of the tiger and the goats from Campbell’s “The Occult in Myth and Literature” in The Mythic Dimension: Selected Essays 1959-1987.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Suboptimal Civilizations

25 April 2015



When Thinking about civilization this also entails thinking about compromised forms of civilization as well as the end of civilization. Ideally, a comprehensive theory of civilization would be able to account for both civilizations that flourish and prosper as well as those that fail to flourish, and which stagnate, decline, or disappear, or which develop in an undesirable direction (flawed realization). One can think of stagnation and decline as selective or partial collapse; contrariwise, civilizational collapse can be understood as the totality of stagnation or decline (the fulfillment of decline, if you will, which shows that not only progress but also decay can be formulated in teleological terms).


In what follows I will adopt the term “suboptimal civilizations” to indicate those civilizations that have weathered existential threats and which have not gone extinct, but have continued in existence, albeit in a damaged, deformed, or otherwise compromised form due to being subject to stresses beyond that civilization’s level of resilience. A suboptimal civilization, then, is a civilization that has fallen prey to existential risk or risks, but is still extant.


A civilization may become extinct even when the species that produced that civilization has not gone extinct. Thus the extinction of civilizations is a separate and distinct question from that of the extinction of species. However, the extinction of a species is likely to be much more tightly coupled to the extinction of a civilization, though we could construct scenarios in which a civilization is continued by some other species, or some other agent, than that which originated a given civilization. Generally speaking, those existential risks that lead to the extinction of a civilization are extinction and subsequent ruination; those existential risks that lead to suboptimal civilizations are stagnation and flawed realization.

Temple of Heaven

There is a philosophical problem when it comes to judging civilizations of the past that have transitioned into contemporary forms of civilization, losing their identity in the process, but leaving a legacy in the form of a continuing influence. One way to deal with this problem is to distinguish between civilizations that attained maturity and those that did not. Is a civilization that failed to attain maturity because it was preempted by another form of civilization now to be considered extinct? The obvious example that I have in mind, and which I have cited numerous times, is that of early modern European civilization, which I have called modernism without industrialism, which rapidly was transformed by the industrial revolution, which latter preempted the “natural” development of modernity before that modernity had achieved maturity.

India postcard

I will not attempt at present to define maturity for civilization, but my assumption will be that the maturity of a civilization will have something to do with the bringing to fulfillment of the essential idea of a civilization. I am not prepared to say how the essential idea of a civilization is to be identified, or how it is to be judged to have come to fulfillment, but this should be sufficient to give the reader an intuitive sense of what I have in mind.


The range of suboptimal civilizations, including those trapped in the social equivalent of neurotic misery, might be quite considerable. Toynbee formulated a range of concepts to understand suboptimal civilizations, including abortive civilizations, arrested civilizations, and fossil civilizations. Extrapolating from Toynbee’s conceptions of suboptimal civilizations, I formulated the idea of submerged civilizations in my post In the Shadow of Civilization.


Toynbee’s conceptions of suboptimal civilizations are imaginative and poetic, but more qualitative than quantitative conceptions. In order to do this in the spirit of science, we would want our comprehensive theory of civilization to incorporate quantifiable metrics for the success or failure of a civilization. At our present stage of social development, it is controversial to compare civilizational traditions and to rate any one tradition as “higher” or “more advanced” than any other tradition (an idea I discussed in Comparative Concepts in the Study of Civilization), as representatives of those civilizations that rate lower on any proposed scale are offended by the metric employed, and they will usually suggest alternative metrics by which their preferred civilizational metric fares much better, while the civilizational tradition that fared better under the other metric would not come off as well by this alternative metric. The attempt by the nation-state of Bhutan to measure “gross national happiness,” may be taken as an example of this, although I am not sure that this is a helpful measure.


It would also be desirable in a comprehensive theory of civilization to formulate metrics for the viability or sustainability of a given civilization. In some cases, metrics for the success of civilization might coincide with metrics for the viability of civilization, but the possibility of very long lived civilizations that are less than ideal — suboptimal civilizations — points out the limitations of defining civilizational success in terms of civilizational survival. In some cases viability and optimality will coincide, while in some cases they will not coincide, and suboptimal civilizations that survive existential risks in a compromised form will be an example of such non-coincidence. The survival of a stagnant civilization can be a matter of mere cosmic good fortune, whereby a particular planet enjoys an uncommonly clement cosmic climate for an uncharacteristically long period of time (while other contingent factors may mean that the climate for civilizational development to maturity is not equally clement).


There are many ways to explore the idea of suboptimal civilization, as was observed above there are many ways for a civilization to languish in suboptimality. Indeed, it may be the case that the essential idea of a civilization has a much smaller class of circumstances in which that idea comes to full fruition and maturity, and a much larger class of circumstances in which that idea fails to mature for any number of distinct reasons, so that suboptimal civilizations are likely to outnumber civilizations that have attained optimality.


There is another philosophical problem, related to the problem noted above, in identifying the continuity of a civilization, so that a later stage of development can be considered the fulfillment, or failure of fulfillment, of some earlier civilizational idea, and not the emergence of a new idea not yet brought to fulfillment. I have previously considered this problem in several posts on the invariant properties of civilization. If a civilization emerges that seems to lack heretofore invariant properties of civilization, is to identified as a new form of civilization, or as non-civilization? Another way to formulate the problem is to ask whether civilization is an open-textured concept. The problem is posed every time an unprecedented development occurs in the history of civilization, so that the problem re-emerges at every stage in the history of a tradition, since the unprecedented is always occurring in one form or another. Let me provide an example of what I mean by this claim.


Imagine, if you will (as a thought experiment), that there were social scientists prior to the scientific revolution who studied their contemporaneous society much as we study our own societies today, and further suppose that despite the disadvantages such pre-modern social scientists would have labored under, that they manage to assemble reasonably accurate data sets that allows them to model the world in which they live and the history up to that point that had resulted in the world in which they lived (that is, the world of modernism without industrialism).

Venice from the early 20th Century

If you were to show pre-modern social scientists the spike in demographics, technology, energy use, and urbanization that attended the industrial revolution they might deny that any such development was even possible, and if they admitted that it was possible, they might say that a world so transformed would not constitute civilization as they understood civilization. They would be right, in a sense, to characterize our world today, after the industrial revolution, as a post-civilizational institution, derived perhaps from the long tradition of civilization with which they were familiar, but not really a part of this tradition. I implied as much recently when I wrote that, “It could be argued that traditional society… has already collapsed and has been incrementally replaced by an entirely different kind of society. For this is surely what has happened in the wake of the industrial revolution, which destroyed more aspects of traditional society than any Marxist, any revolutionary, or any atheist.” (cf. Is society existentially dependent upon religion?)


The thought experiment that I have suggested here in regard to the industrial revolution could also be performed in regard to the Neolithic agricultural revolution, although in this case we could not properly speak of an ancient civilization. Humanity as a species might have attained a great antiquity and even have made use of its intellectual gifts without having passed through any stage of large-scale settlement. This is an especially interesting thought experiment when we reflect that the paradigmatically human activities of art and technology predate civilization and may be understood in isolation from civilization, and might have developed separately from civilization. The rate of technological innovation prior to the advent of civilization was very slow, but it was not zero, and extrapolated to a sufficient age it would have produced an impressive technology, though this would have taken an order of magnitude longer than it took as a result of the industrial revolution. Something like civilization, but not exactly civilization as we know it, might have emerged from a very old human society that had not adopted large-scale settlement and consequently the institutions of settled civilization.


This ancient human society that had never crossed the threshold of civilization proper — at least in some senses a suboptimal form of social organization, even if not a suboptimal civilization — suggests yet another thought experiment: an ancient civilization that, despite its antiquity, never passes the threshold to become a Kardashevian supercivilization. The motif of a million-year-old civilization is a common one, Kardashev called them “supercivilizations” and Sagan often speculated on their histories, but what about the possibility of a million-year-old civilization that never develops technologically and never experiences an industrial revolution?


If we plot out the history of technology and population (among other metrics) on a graph and extrapolate from trends prior to the industrial revolution (when these metrics suddenly spike) we can easily see the possibility of a very old civilization — tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of years old — that would be the result of a simple diachronic extrapolation of trends that had characterized human life from the emergence of hominids up until the industrial revolution. This is at least possible as a counter-factual, and conceivable by way of an analogy with our prehistoric past.

Downtown Hartford early 1900s

The very old civilization that would be the result of a straight-forward diachonic extrapolation of civilization prior to the industrial revolution, given climatological conditions that allow for continual development, would be a civilization conceived in terms proportional to human history. We often forget that, prior to Homo sapiens, there is a multi-million year history of hominids with minimal toolkits that changed almost not at all over a million or even two million years. The human condition need not change appreciably even over very long periods of time.


A million year old agricultural civilization would probably look much like a 2,000 year old civilization, except that it would have a very long history, which means either a massive archive if continuity is maintained, or a lot of ruins and buried artifacts of the past if continuity has not been maintained. Would we have anything to learn from a million-year-old civilization that was not a supercivilization? Consider the possibility of art and literature a million years in development — the steady rate at which civilization prior to the industrial revolution produced masterpieces of art suggests that civilization without industrialization would be a very old agrarian civilization that was laden with a million years’ worth of art treasures. In this case a suboptimal civilization would be productive of values that would not and could not be achieved under an optimal civilization, which ought to make us question the optimality of optimal civilization where our presuppositions of optimality are drawn from industrialization.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The Developmental Conception of Civilization

classes of exrisk

Eleventh in a Series on Existential Risk

It is common to think about civilization in both developmental and non-developmental terms. As for the former, ever since Marx historians have identified a sequence of stages of economic development, and of course the idea of social evolution was central for Hegel before Marx gave it an economic interpretation. As for the latter, it is not unusual to hear clear distinctions being drawn between civilized and uncivilized life, very much in the spirit of tertium non datur: either a particular instance of social organization is civilized or it is not.

The developmental conception of civilization can be used to illuminate the idea of existential risk, as the classes of existential risk identified in Nick Bostrom’s “Existential Risk Prevention as Global Priority” readily lend themselves to a developmental interpretation. Here are the classes of existential risk from Bostrom’s paper (Table 1. Classes of existential risk):

● Human extinction Humanity goes extinct prematurely, i.e., before reaching technological maturity.

● Permanent stagnation Humanity survives but never reaches technological maturity.
Subclasses: unrecovered collapse, plateauing, recurrent collapse

● Flawed realisation Humanity reaches technological maturity but in a way that is dismally and irremediably flawed. Subclasses: unconsummated realisation, ephemeral realisation

● Subsequent ruination Humanity reaches technological maturity in a way that gives good future prospects, yet subsequent developments cause the permanent ruination of those prospects.

These classes of existential risk can readily be explicated in developmental terms:

● Human extinction The development of humanity ceases because humanity itself ceases to exist.

● Permanent Stagnation The development of humanity ceases, although humanity itself does not go extinct.

● Flawed Realization Humanity continues in its development, but this development goes horribly wrong and results in a human condition that is so far from being optimal that it might be considered a betrayal of human potential.

● Subsequent Ruination Humanity continues for a time in its development, but this development is brought to an untimely end before its potential is fulfilled.

In this context, what I have previously called existential viability, i.e., the successful mitigation of existential risk, can also be explicated in developmental terms:

● Existential viability Humanity is able to continue its arc of development to the point of the fulfillment of its technological maturity.

It would be possible (and no doubt also interesting), to delineate classes of existential viability parallel to classes of existential risk, and informed by the developmental possibilities consistent with the fulfillment of technological maturity or some other measurement of ongoing human development that does not terminate according to an existential risk scenario.

Bostrom originally expressed his conception of existential risk in terms of “earth-originating intelligence” — “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 (Bostrom, 2002).” In more recent papers he has expressed existential risk in terms of “humanity” and “technological maturity” (as in the formulations quoted above), as in the following quote:

“The permanent destruction of humanity’s opportunity to attain technological maturity is a prima facie enormous loss, because the capabilities of a technologically mature civilisation could be used to produce outcomes that would plausibly be of great value, such as astronomical numbers of extremely long and fulfilling lives. More specifically, mature technology would enable a far more efficient use of basic natural resources (such as matter, energy, space, time, and negentropy) for the creation of value than is possible with less advanced technology. And mature technology would allow the harvesting (through space colonisation) of far more of these resources than is possible with technology whose reach is limited to Earth and its immediate neighbourhood.”

Nick Bostrom, “Existential Risk Prevention as Global Priority,” Global Policy, Volume 4, Issue 1, February 2013

For the moment, humanity and Earth-originating intelligence coincide, but this may not always be the case. A successor species to homo sapiens or conscious and intelligence machines could either take over the mantle of earth-originating intelligence or exist in parallel with humanity, so that there comes to be more than a single realization of earth-originating intelligence.

While Bostrom mentions civilization throughout his exposition, his crucial formulations are not in terms of civilization, though it would seem that Bostrom had the human species, homo sapiens, in mind when he formulated the class of human extinction, while the other classes of permanent stagnation, flawed realization, and subsequent ruination bear more closely on civilization, or at least on the social potential of homo sapiens, such as the accomplishments represented by intelligence and technology. It is a very different thing to talk about the extinction of a biological species and the extinction of a civilization, and it would probably be a good idea of explicitly distinguish risks facing biological species from risks facing social institutions, even though many of these risks will coincide.

For what classes of entities might we define classes of existential risk? Well, to start, we could define classes of existential risk for individuals in contradistinction to existential risks for social institutions comprised of many institutions, with civilization being the most comprehensive social institution yet devised by humanity.

I suspect that a developmental account of the individual is much less controversial than a developmental account of civilization (or, for that matter, of Earth-originating intelligent life), partly because the development of the individual is something that is personally familiar to all of us, and partly due to the efforts of psychologists and sociologists in laying out a detailed typology of individual developmental psychology. Attempts to lay out a detailed developmental typology of civilization runs into social and moral controversies, though I don’t see this as an essential objection.

In any case, here is an ontogenic formulation of the classes of existential risk:

● Personal extinction Individual development ceases because the individual himself ceases to exist. Death as an inevitable part of the human condition (at least for the time being) means that personal extinction is the personal existential risk that is visited upon each and every one of us.

● Personal Permanent Stagnation Individual development ceases, although the individual himself does not die (as of yet).

● Personal Flawed Realization The individual continues in his development, but this development goes horribly wrong and results in a life that is so far from being optimal that it might be considered a betrayal of the individual’s potential.

● Personal Subsequent Ruination The individual continues for a time in his development, but this development is brought to an end before the arc of personal development fulfills its potential.

Many of these cases of personal existential risks strike very close to home, as in imagining these situations one may well see all-too-clearly individuals that one knows personally, or one may even see oneself in one or more of these classes of personal existential risk. It is poignant and painful to confront permanent stagnation or flawed realization in one’s own life or in the lives of those one knows personally, however fascinating these conditions are for novelists and dramatists.

Just as we can imagine the classes of existential risk formulated specifically to illuminate the life of the individual, so too we can formulate phylogenic forms of the classes of existential risk:

● Civilizational extinction The development of human civilization ceases because human civilization itself ceases to exist. (But note here that the extinction of civilization may be consistent with the continued existence of humanity.)

● Civilizational Permanent Stagnation The development of human civilization ceases, although human civilization itself does not go extinct.

● Civilizational Flawed Realization Human civilization continues in its development, but this development goes horribly wrong and results in a civilization that is so far from being optimal that it might be considered a betrayal of the very idea of human civilization.

● Civilizational Subsequent Ruination Human civilization continues for a time in its development, but this development is brought to an end before the arc of the history of civilization can fulfill its potential.

Such large-scale formulations lack the poignancy of the personalized classes of existential risk, though they are more to the point of existential risk understood sensu stricto. Note that the civilizational formulations of the classes of existential risk are at least in one case consistent with the existential viability of humanity, and all classes of civilization existential risk are consistent with personal forms of existential viability — individuals within stagnant or flawed civilizations may continue to develop and to fulfill their full potential, although this potential is not expressed in a social form. Thus any individual human potential that is intrinsically social would be ruled out by civilizational failure, but I assume that human potential is not exhausted by exclusively social forms of fulfillment.

The poignancy of personal classes of existential risk may be useful precisely due to the visceral effect they have — not unlike the visceral nature of the overview effect and the potential of the overview effect in raising personal awareness of planetary finitude and vulnerability. Similarly, the finitude and vulnerability of humanity on the whole may be driven home to the individual by a personal illustration of existential risk.

There is a yawning chasm that separates the disasters all-too-easily rationalized away as not being worth the effort to pursue preparedness, and global catastrophic risks and existential risks that have as yet no existing preparedness efforts because they seem intractable and overwhelming merely to contemplate.

It is possible that just as we may begin with mundane forms of risk management — readily understood and readily implemented — move up to crisis management, then to global catastrophic risks and finally to existential risks, so too we may start with personal risks and move up to the most comprehensive forms of risk — and this emerging consciousness of more comprehensive forms of risk is itself a developmental process.

This macrocosm/microcosm approach to existential risk suggests a cross fertilization of ideas, such that personal methods for mitigating existential risks may suggest societal methods, and vice versa. However, we know that flawed individuals sometimes do great things, just as flawed societies can boast of great accomplishments. It may be necessary to distinguish between flaws that augment existential threats and flaws that diminish existential threats. If this is also true on a societal level, the consequences are decidedly interesting.

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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

10. Existential Risk and Existential Viability

11. Existential Risk and the Developmental Conception of Civilization

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Grand Strategy Annex

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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).

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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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Frank Knight

Frank Knight on risk and uncertainty

Early Chicago school economist Frank Knight was known for his work on risk, and especially for the distinction between risk and uncertainty, which is still taught in economics and business courses. Like Schumpeter, Knight was interested in the function of the entrepreneur in the modern commercial economy, and he employed his distinction between risk and uncertainty in order to illuminate the function of the entrepreneur.

Although it is easy to conflate risk and uncertainty, and to speak as though facing a risk were the same thing as facing uncertain or unknown circumstances, Knight doesn’t see it like this at all. A risk can be quantified and calculated, and because risks can be quantified and calculated, they can be controlled. This is the function of insurance: to quantify and price risk. If you have correctly factored risk into your calculation, it is no longer an uncertainty. You might not know the exact date or magnitude of losses, but you know statistically that there will be a certain number of losses of a certain magnitude. It is the job of actuaries to calculate this, and one buys insurance to control the risk to which one is exposed.

The ordinary business of life, and of business, according to Knight, involves risk management, but the unique function of the entrepreneur is to accept uncertainty that cannot be quantified, priced, or insured. The entrepreneur makes his profit not in spite of uncertainty, but because of uncertainty. No insurance can be bought for uncertainty, so that in taking on an uncertain situation the entrepreneur enters into a realm in which it is recognized that there are factors beyond control. If he is not destroyed financially by these uncontrollable factors, he may profit from them, and this profit is likely to exceed the profit made in ordinary business operations exposed to risk but not to uncertainty.

Here is how Knight formulated his distinction between risk and uncertainty:

To preserve the distinction which has been drawn in the last chapter between the measurable uncertainty and an unmeasurable one we may use the term “risk” to designate the former and the term “uncertainty” for the latter. The word “risk” is ordinarily used in a loose way to refer to any sort of uncertainty viewed from the standpoint of the unfavorable contingency and the term “uncertainty” similarly with reference to the favorable outcome; we speak of the “risk” of a loss, the “uncertainty” of a gain. But if our reasoning so far is at an correct, there is a fatal ambiguity in these terms which must be gotten rid of and the use of the term “risk” in connection with the measurable uncertainties or probabilities of insurance gives some justification for specializing the terms as just indicated. We can also employ the terms “objective” and “subjective” probability to designate the risk and uncertainty respectively, as these expressions are already in general use with a signification akin to that proposed.


Knight went on to add…

The practical difference between the two categories, risk and uncertainty, is that in the former the distribution of the outcome in a group of instances is known (either through calculation a priori or from statistics of past experience), while in the case of uncertainty this is not true, the reason being in general that it is impossible to form a group of instances, because the situation dealt with is in a high degree unique.


The growth of knowledge and experience can transform uncertainty into risk if it contextualizes a formerly unique situation in such a way as to demonstrate that it is not unique but belongs to a group of instances. Of the tremendous gains made in the space sciences during the last forty years, during our selective space age stagnation, it could be said that the function of this considerable gain in knowledge has been to transform uncertainty into risk. But this goes only so far.

Even if the boundary between risk and uncertainty can be pushed outward by the growth of knowledge, the same growth of civilization that attends the growth of knowledge and technology means that the boundaries of civilization itself will also be pushed further out, with the result being that we are likely to always encounter further uncertainties even as old uncertainties are transformed by knowledge into risk.

The evolution of the existential risk concept

In many recent posts I have been discussing the idea of existential risk. These posts include, but are not limited to, Moral Imperatives Posed by Existential Risk, Research Questions on Existential Risk, and Six Theses on Existential Risk. The idea of existential risk is due to Nick Bostrom. (I first heard about this at the first 100YSS symposium in Orlando in 2011, when I was talking to Christian Weidemann.)

Nick Bostrom defined existential risk as follows:

Existential risk – One where an adverse outcome would either annihilate Earth-originating intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential.

And added…

An existential risk is one where humankind as a whole is imperiled. Existential disasters have major adverse consequences for the course of human civilization for all time to come.

“Existential Risks: Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards,” Nick Bostrom, Professor, Faculty of Philosophy, Oxford University, Published in the Journal of Evolution and Technology, Vol. 9, No. 1 (2002)

In his papers on existential risk and the book on Global Catastrophic Risks, Bostrom steadily expanded and refined the parameters of disasters that have (or would have) major adverse consequences for human beings and their civilization.

Table of six qualitative categories of risk from 'Existential Risks: Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards'

Table of six qualitative categories of risk from ‘Existential Risks: Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards’

The table from an early existential risk paper above divides qualitative risks into six categories. the table below from the book Global Catastrophic Risks includes twelve qualitative risk categories and implies another eight; the table further below from a more recent paper includes fifteen qualitative risk categories and implies another nine. From a philosophical point of view, these further distinctions represent in advance in clarity, contextualizing both existential risks and global catastrophic risks in a matrix of related horrors.

Table of qualitative risk categories from the book Global Catastrophic Risks.

Table of qualitative risk categories from the book Global Catastrophic Risks.

The specific possible events that Bostrom describes range from the imperceptible loss of one hair to human extinction. Recently in Moral Imperatives Posed by Existential Risk I tried to point out how further distinctions can be made within the variety of human extinction scenarios, and that some distinct outcomes might be morally preferable over other outcomes. For example, even if human beings were to become extinct, we might want some of our legacy to remain to potentially be discovered by alien species visiting our solar system. Given the presence of space probes throughout our solar system, it seems highly likely that these would survive any human extinction scenario, so that we have left some kind of mark on the cosmos — a cosmic equivalent of “Kilroy was here.”

Qualitative risk categories, Figure 2 from 'Existential Risk Prevention as Global Priority' (2012) Nick Bostrom

Qualitative risk categories, Figure 2 from ‘Existential Risk Prevention as Global Priority’ (2012) Nick Bostrom

Further distinction can be made, however, and the distinction that I would like to urge today is that of distinguishing existential risks from existential uncertainties.

The need to explicitly formulate existential uncertainty

Once the distinction is made between existential risks and existential uncertainties, we recognize that existential risks can be quantified and calculated. Ultimately, existential risks can also be insured. The industrial and financial infrastructure is not now in place to do this, although we can clearly see how to do this. And this much is obvious, because much of the discussion of existential risk focuses on potential mitigation efforts. Existential risk mitigation is insurance against extinction.

We can clearly understand that we can guard against the existential risks posed by massive asteroid impacts by a system of observation of objects in space likely to cross the path of the Earth, and building spacecraft that could deflect or otherwise render harmless such threatening asteroids. It was once thought that the appearance of comets or “new stars” (novae) in the sky heralded the death of kings of the end of empires. No longer. This is the perfect example of a former uncertainty that has been transformed into a risk by the growth of knowledge (or, at very least, is in the process of being transformed from an uncertainty into a risk).

We can also clearly see that we could back up the Earth’s biosphere about a truly catastrophic global disaster by transplanting Earth-originating life elsewhere. Far in the future we can even understand the risk of the sun swelling into a red giant and consuming the Earth in its fires — unless by that time we have moved the Earth to an orbit where it remains safe, or perhaps even transported it to another star. All of these are existential risks where “risk” is used sensu stricto.

There are a great many existential risks and global catastrophic risks that have been proposed. When it comes to geological events — like massive vulcanization — or cosmological events — the death of our sun — the sciences of geology and cosmology are likely to mature to the point where these risks are quantifiable, and if industrial-technological civilization continues its path of exponential development, we should also someday have the technology to adequately “insure” against these existential risks.

The vagaries of history and civilization

When it comes to scenarios that involve events and processes not of the variety that contemporary natural science can formulate, we are clearly pushing the envelope of existential risks and verging on existential uncertainties. Such scenarios would include those predicated upon the development of human history and civilization. For example, scenarios of wars of an order of magnitude that far exceed the magnitude of the global wars of the twentieth century are on the outer edges of risk and, as they become more speculative in their formulation, verge onto uncertainty. Similarly, scenarios that involve the intervention of alien species in human history and human civilization — alien invasion, alien enslavement, alien visitation, etc. — verge onto being existential uncertainties.

The anthropogenic existential risks that are of primary concern to Nick Bostrom, Martin Rees, and others — risks from artificial intelligence, machine consciousness, unintended consequences of advanced technologies, and the “gray goo” problem potentially posed by nanotechnology — are similarly problematic as risks, and many must be accounted as uncertainties. In regard to the anthropogenic dimension of many existential uncertainties I am reminded of a passage from Carl Sagan’s Cosmos:

“Biology is more like history than it is like physics. You have to know the past to understand the present. And you have to know it in exquisite detail. There is as yet no predictive theory of biology, just as there is not yet a predictive theory of history. The reasons are the same: both subjects are still too complicated for us. But we can know ourselves better by understanding other cases. The study of a single instance of extraterrestrial life, no matter how humble, will deprovincialize biology. For the first time, the biologists will know what other kinds of life are possible. When we say the search for life elsewhere is important, we are not guaranteeing that it will be easy to find – only that it is very much worth seeking.

Carl Sagan, Cosmos, CHAPTER II, One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue

This strikes me as one of the most powerful and important passages in Cosmos. When Sagan writes that, “[t]here is as yet no predictive theory of biology, just as there is not yet a predictive theory of history,” while leaving open the possibility of a future predictive science of biology and history — he wrote as yet — he squarely recognized that neither biology nor human history (much of which derives more or less directly from biology) can be predicted or quantified or measured in a scientific way. If we had a science of history, such as Marx thought we had discovered, then the potential disasters of human history could be quantified, and we could insure against them.

Well, we can insure against some eventualities of history, though certainly not against all. This is a point that Machiavelli makes:

It is not unknown to me how many men have had, and still have, the opinion that the affairs of the world are in such wise governed by fortune and by God that men with their wisdom cannot direct them and that no one can even help them; and because of this they would have us believe that it is not necessary to labour much in affairs, but to let chance govern them. This opinion has been more credited in our times because of the great changes in affairs which have been seen, and may still be seen, every day, beyond all human conjecture. Sometimes pondering over this, I am in some degree inclined to their opinion. Nevertheless, not to extinguish our free will, I hold it to be true that Fortune is the arbiter of one-half of our actions, but that she still leaves us to direct the other half, or perhaps a little less.

I compare her to one of those raging rivers, which when in flood overflows the plains, sweeping away trees and buildings, bearing away the soil from place to place; everything flies before it, all yield to its violence, without being able in any way to withstand it; and yet, though its nature be such, it does not follow therefore that men, when the weather becomes fair, shall not make provision, both with defences and barriers, in such a manner that, rising again, the waters may pass away by canal, and their force be neither so unrestrained nor so dangerous. So it happens with fortune, who shows her power where valour has not prepared to resist her, and thither she turns her forces where she knows that barriers and defences have not been raised to constrain her.

Nicolo Machiavelli, The Prince, CHAPTER XXV, “What Fortune Can Effect In Human Affairs, And How To Withstand Her”

What remains beyond the predictable storms of floods of history are the true uncertainties, the unknown unknowns, and these pose a danger we cannot predict, quantify, or insure. They are not, then, risks in the strict sense. They are existential uncertainties.

It could be argued that our inability to take specific, concrete, effective measures to mitigate the obvious uncertainties of life has resulted in religious responses to uncertainty that systematically avoid falsifiability and thereby secure the immunity of hopes to exterior circumstances. Whether or not this has been true in the past, merely the recognition of existential uncertainty is the first step toward rationally assessing them.

Existential risk suggests a clear course of mitigating action; existential uncertainty cannot, on the contrary, be the object of planning and preparation. The most that one can do to address existential uncertainty is to keep oneself open and flexible, ready to roll with the punches, and responsive to any challenge that might arise, meeting it at the height of one’s powers; any attempt to prepare specific measures will be fruitless, and quite possibly counter-productive because of the wasted effort.

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categories of existential uncertainty

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Morally Distinguishable Outcomes in

nuclear_explosion_on_earth_from_space small

Global Catastrophic Scenarios

Below is Nick Bostrom’s table of qualitative categories of risk. Bostrom and Milan M. Ćirković have together edited a book on Global Catastrophic Risks, which includes this table. Existential risks, that is to say, risk that could result in human extinction, are identified as “an especially severe subset” of global catastrophic risks.

qualitative categories of risk

Of existential risks and their potential consequences I recently wrote this:

“When we think about what this means for us, our other ‘priorities’ pale by comparison. Nothing else matters, no matter how apparently pressing, if we are made extinct by an accident of local cosmology.”

Thinking of this further, I realized that there are many ethical presuppositions implicit in my formulation, and that (at least some of) these presuppositions can be spelled out and made explicit.

Bostrom’s table of qualitative risk categories suggest possibilities of scope and intensity beyond those comprised by global catastrophic risk and existential risk, and on the margin of the table we see “Cosmic?” as a possible scope beyond “pan-generational” and “Hellish?” as a potential intensity beyond “Terminal.” Thus what is cosmic and hellish is a qualitative risk category beyond even that of existential risk. I think that there are moral intuitions from catastrophic outcomes that correspond to these almost unthinkable scenarios.

While it would seem that there is little worse that could happen (from a human perspective, i.e., fully informed by anthropic bias) than human extinction, even given our anthropic bias and therefore our desire to avoid human extinction there are morally distinguishable outcomes in many different scenarios of global catastrophe and human extinction, and where there is the possibility of morally distinguishable outcomes there also will be the possibility of ranking these moral outcomes from the least awful possibility to the worst of all possibilities. There is also the likelihood of moral disagreements on these rankings, and these moral disagreements over prioritizing existential risk mitigation could prove crucial in future debates over the allocation of civilizational resources to existential risk mitigation. Thus even if existential risk comes to be seen as an overriding priority for human beings and civilization, this is not yet the convergence of human moral effort; room for profound disagreement yet remains.

Considering a range of devastating and catastrophic events that could compromise human life and human civilization, possibly to the point of their extinction, I can think of six scenarios in order of severity:

1. Massive but survivable catastrophe A global catastrophic risk realized that results in the loss of millions or billions of lives and deals a major setback to civilization, without either extinguishing human beings or human civilization (in Bostrom’s table of qualitative risks these would include global, trans-generational, and pan-generational endurable risks).

2. Catastrophic failure of civilization A global catastrophic risk realized that resulted in the catastrophic failure of civilization, but does not result in the extinction of human beings. The human population might be drastically reduced to paleolithic population levels, but potentially could rebound. There remains the possibility that civilization might be reconstituted, but this is likely to take hundreds if not thousands of years. (“Global dark age” in the table above.)

3. Human extinction The first level of human extinction I will call simple extinction, which is an existential risk realized, which however leaves the Earth intact, and the legacy of human civilization intact. I add this latter qualification because it is possible, even if human beings become extinct, that human civilization might leave monuments that could be appreciated by other sentient species that could visit the Earth. It is even possible (however unlikely) that other species might appreciate the human record of civilization more than we appreciate it ourselves. Thus human extinction need not mean the loss of human cultural legacy. A pandemic that killed only human beings could have this result. (X marks the spot in the table above.)

4. Human extinction with the extirpation of all human legacy The second level of human extinction I will call compound extinction, which is an existential risk realized that results in human extinction and the elimination of all (or almost all) signs of human presence, but which leaves the biosphere largely intact, and the ordinary business of terrestrial life continues largely unchanged. (This is human extinction coupled with “destruction of cultural heritage.”)

5. Catastrophic compromise of the biosphere The third level of human extinction involves not only the extinction of human beings and all human legacy, but also the extinction of all complex life on the Earth. Terrestrial life continues, but is reduced to single celled organisms. Thus there remains the possibility that life on Earth may recover, but this would probably require billions of years and result in very different life forms.

6. Terrestrial sterilization The most radical form of realized existential risk is terrestrial sterilization which results in human extinction, the extirpation of all human legacy, and the elimination of all terrestrial life, i.e., complete catastrophic failure of the biosphere. From this point there is nothing that can be recovered and no human legacy remains.

I tried to arrange these various morally distinct outcomes on an expanded version of Bostrom’s table of qualitative risk categories, but couldn’t yet find a conceptually neat and straight-forward way to do so. Further thought is needed here. I don’t think there is a need to distinguish further qualitative categories of risk beyond existential risk — in other words, we can refer to all of these morally distinct outcomes as outcomes of existential risk, as realized in distinct scenarios. However, one could make such distinctions if it were helpful to do so.

The most radical moral imperative of existential risk is to take existential risk as absolute and as trumping all other concerns, which is what I clearly implied when I wrote that, “…our other ‘priorities’ pale by comparison. Nothing else matters, no matter how apparently pressing…” if we are made (or make ourselves) extinct. This radical position has profound and discomfiting implications.

If we survey the evils of the world, we would be forced to acknowledge that it is better that any or all of these evils continue than that human life should be permanently extinguished, because the continuation of these evils is consistent with the continuation of human life and human civilization. The end of all human life would also mean the end of all the cruelties and inhumanity that we inflict upon our fellow man, and this would be a good and indeed a desirable state of affairs, but from a radical perspective on existential risk we would have to affirm that, as good a state of affairs as this represents, it would not be as morally good as the state of affairs that involves the perpetuation of these evils together with the perpetuation of human life and civilization.

Of course, under most conceivable scenarios there is no reason whatsoever to suppose that we had to choose between the perpetuation of all the evils of the world and human extinction. That is to say, there is no reason that we cannot work toward the elimination of human evils and the mitigation of existential risks. As a moral thought experiment, however, we can employ the method of isolation and ask whether the survival of human beings and human civilization, together with all the evils this entails is better than the annihilation of human beings and human civilization, so that neither human good nor human evil remains.

While I would be willing to assert that existential risk mitigation trumps all other concerns, even in a thought experiment in which human evils remain unmitigated, I can easily imagine that there are many who would disagree with this judgment. Moral diversity is a fact of human life, and we must recognize that if some among us (myself included) would be willing to explicitly affirm the radical moral consequences of prioritizing existential risk mitigation, there will be others who will equally explicitly reject a radical prioritization of existential risk mitigation, and who will affirm that it is better that the world should come to an end than that the manifold evils of our time should persist. From this point of view, in view of the limited resources available to human beings, we would do better to direct these resources to the mitigation of human evils than to direct these resources to the mitigation of existential risk.

It is entirely possible that someone might affirm that it is a good thing civilization should be ended, and the idea has incredible romantic appeal that cannot be denied and should not be ignored. Many are the science fiction books and films (for example, think of Logan’s Run or 12 Monkeys) that depict a world empty of human beings and populated only by collapsing buildings and animals hunting in the ruins. This scenario is depicted, for example, in Alan Weisman’s book The World Without Us.

The idea that civilization is evil can easily be extended to the idea that humanity is evil in and of itself. The predictions of the original Club of Rome report of 1972, The Limits to Growth, have been widely discussed on its recent 40th anniversary, but what has not been remarked is the language and tone of that original document (which you will not find on the internet, despite the millions of used copies kicking around). The report boldly asserted, “The earth has cancer and the cancer is Man.” This kind of rhetoric, which is less common today, can easily play into a principled denial of the moral value of humanity.

And it is easy to understand why. The world is filled with evils, and the most horrific evils are those that human beings perpetrate upon other human beings — homo homini lupus. If we prioritize existential risk mitigation over the mitigation of human evils, we find ourselves forced into the uncomfortable position of tolerating Kantian radical evil, Marilyn McCord Adams’ conception of horrendous evils, and Claudia Card’s atrocities. Imagine the horrors of genocide, torture, and industrialized warfare and then imagine being forced to admit that it is better than genocides occur, better that torture continues, and better that industrialized warfare persists than that an existential risk be realized. This is a hard saying; nevertheless, this is the argument that must be made, and it is always best to face a hard argument directly than to attempt to avoid it.

In Marilyn McCord Adams’ exposition of what she calls “horrendous evils” in her book Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God Adams wrote:

“Among the evils that infect this world, some are worse than others. I want to try to capture the most pernicious of them within the category of horrendous evils, which I define (for present purposes) as ‘evils the participation in which (that is, the doing or suffering of which) constitutes prima facie reason to doubt whether the participant’s life could (given their inclusion in it) be a great good to him/her on the whole.’ The class of paradigm horrors includes both individual and massive collective suffering…”

Marilyn McCord Adams, Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God, Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1999, p. 26.

She went on to add in the next section:

“I believe most people would agree that such evils as listed above constitute reason to doubt whether the participants’ life can be world living, because it is so difficult humanly to conceive how such evils could be overcome.”

Loc. cit.

In the last paragraph of her paper of the same title, Adams again suggests that horrendous evils call into question the possibility of having a life worth living:

“I would go one step further: assuming the pragmatic and/or moral (I would prefer to say, broadly speaking, religious) importance of believing that (one’s own) human life is worth living, the ability of Christianity to exhibit how this could be so despite human vulnerability to horrendous evil, constitutes a pragmatic/moral/religious consideration in its favour, relative to value schemes that do not.”

Marilyn McCord Adams, “Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God.” Anthologized in The Problem of Evil, edited by Marilyn McCord Adams and Robert Merrihew Adams, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 221.

A generalization of Adams’ argument could easily bring us from the point where horrendous evils make the individual doubt or question that one’s life is worth living to the point where humanity on the whole legitimately, and on principle, questions whether any human life at all is worth living. If humanity comes to decide that horrendous evils overwhelm all value in the world and make human existence utterly meaningless and pointless, then the mitigation of existential risk can come to seem like an evil or an impiety.

Adams finds her answer to this in Christianity; we naturalists cannot appeal to supernaturalistic validation or justification: we must take human evil on its face along with human good, and if we prioritize the mitigation of existential risk (and therefore the continuity of humanity and human civilization), we do so knowing that human evils will continue and are probably ineradicable if not inseparable from human history.

We can actively seek to mitigate human evils, and the effort has intrinsic value, but the intrinsic value of the mitigation of suffering and mundane meliorism can only continue in the case that humanity and organized human activity continue. Therefore the prioritization of the mitigation of existential risk is what makes possible the realization of the intrinsic value of the mitigation of suffering and efforts toward meliorism. With the end of humanity would also come not only an end to all intrinsic goods of human life, but also an end to the intrinsic good of the mitigation of suffering and the effort to make the world a better place.

We can only create a better civilization if civilization continues. If we are perfectibilists, we may believe in the perfectibility of man and indeed even the perfectibility of civilization. This project cannot even be undertaken if humanity and human civilization are cut short in their imperfect state.

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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?

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ex risk ahead

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Pulp-O-Mizer existential risk

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Learning to Love the Wisdom

Homo technologiensis

of Industrial-Technological Civilization

A confession of enthusiasm

Allow me to give free rein to my enthusiasm and to proclaim that there has never been a more exciting time in human history to be a philosopher than today. It is ironic that, at the same time, philosophers are probably held in lower esteem today than in any other period of human history. I have recently come to the opinion that it is intrinsic to the structure of industrial-technological civilization to devalue philosophy, but I have discussed the contemporary neglect of philosophy in several posts — Fashionable Anti-Philosophy, Further Fashionable Anti-Philosophy, and Beyond Anti-Philosophy among them — so that is not what I am going to write about today.

Today, on the contrary, I want to write about the great prospects that are now opening up to philosophy, despite its neglect in popular culture and its abuse by the enthusiasts of a positivistically-conceived science. And these prospects are not one but many. In some previous posts about object-oriented philosophy (also called object-oriented ontology, or OOO) I mentioned how exciting it was to be alive at a time when a new philosophical school was coming into being, especially at a time when academic philosophy seems to have stalled and relinquished any engagement with the world or any robust relationship to the ordinary lives of ordinary human beings. (As bitterly as the existentialists were denounced in their day, they did engage quite directly with contemporary events and contemporary life. Sartre made a fool of himself by meeting with Che Guevara and by mouthing Maoist claptrap in his later years, but he reached far more people than most philosophers of his generation, and like fellow existentialist Camus, did so through a variety of prose works, plays, and novels.) Now I see that we live in an age of the emergence of not one but of many different philosophical schools, and this is interesting indeed.

Philosophical periodization: schools of thought

Anyone who discusses so-called “schools” in philosophy is likely to run into immediate resistance, usually from those who have been characterized as belonging to a dubiously-conceived school. As soon as Sartre gave an explicit definition of existentialism as being based on the principle that existence precedes essence, Heidegger and Jaspers explicitly and emphatically denied that they were “existentialists.” And if we think of the hundreds years of philosophical research and the hundreds of philosophers who can be lumped under the label of “scholasticism,” the identification of a school of “scholastic” philosophers would seem to be without any content whatsoever.

Nevertheless, some of these labels remain accurate even when and where they are rejected. While Heidegger and Jaspers rejected the principle that existence precedes essence, there is no question that all three of these great existentialist thinkers were preoccupied with the problematic human condition in the modern world. Similarly, the ordinary language philosophers had their disagreements, but there were unified by a method of the analysis of ordinary language.

The school of techno-philosophy

With this caveat in mind about identifying a philosophical “school” that will almost certainly be rejected by its practitioners, I am going to identify what I will call techno-philosophy. In regard to techno-philosophy I will identify no common goals, aspirations, beliefs, principles, ideas, or ideals that belong to the practitioners of techno-philosophy, but only the common object of philosophical analysis. Techno-philosophy offers an initial exploration of novel ideas and novel facts of life in industrial society, and especially the ideas and facts of life related to technology that rapidly change within a single lifetime.

What makes the school of techno-philosophy interesting is not the special rigor or creativity of the philosophical thought in question — contemporary Anglo-American academic analytical philosophy is far more rigorous, and contemporary continental philosophy is far more imaginative — but rather the objects taken up by techno-philosophy. What are the objects of techno-philosophy? These objects are the novel productions of industrial-technological civilization, which appear and succeed each other in breathless rapidity. The fact of technological change, or even, if one would be so bold, rapid technological progress, is unprecedented. As an unprecedented aspect of life in industrial-technological civilization, rapid technological progress is an appropriate object for philosophical reflection.

The original position of technical society

The artifacts of technological progress have been produced in almost complete blindness as regard to their philosophical significance and consequences. What techno-philosophy represents is the first attempt to make philosophical sense of the artifacts of technology taken collectively, on the whole, and with an eye to their extrapolation across space and through time. In fact, the very idea of technology taken whole may be understood as a conceptual innovation of techno-philosophy, and this very idea has been called the technium by Kevin Kelly. (I wrote about the idea of the technium in Civilization and the Technium and The Genealogy of the Technium.)

Thus we can count Kevin Kelly among techno-philosophers, and even Ray Kurzweil — though Kurzweil does not seem to be interested in philosophy per se, he has pushed the limits of thinking about machine intelligence to the point that he is on the verge of philosophical questions. Thinkers in the newly emerging tradition of the technological singularity and transhumanism belong to techno-philosophy. Academic philosopher David Chalmers, known for his contributions to the philosophy of mind (and especially known for formulating the phrase “explanatory gap” to indicate the chasm between consciousness and attempted physicalistic accounts of mind) was invited to the last singularity conference and tried his hand at an essay in techno-philosophy.

Bostrom and Ćirković and techno-philosophers

The work of Nick Bostrom also represents techno-philosophy, as Professor Bostrom has engaged with a number of contemporary ideas such as superintelligence, the Fermi paradox, extraterrestrial life, transhumanism, posthumanism, the simulation hypothesis (which is a contemporary reformulation of Cartesian evil spirit), and existential risk (which is a contemporary reformulation and secularization of apocalypticism, but with a focus on mitigating apocalyptic scenarios).

Serbian astronomer and physicist Milan M. Ćirković has also dealt with many of the same questions in an admirably daring way (he has co-edited the volume Global Catastrophic Risks with Bostrom). What typifies the work of Bostrom and Ćirković — which definitely constitutes the best work in contemporary techno-philosophy — is their willingness to bring traditional philosophical sensibility to the analysis of contemporary ideas, and especially ideas enabled and facilitated by contemporary technology such as computing and space science.

The branches of industrial-technological philosophy

Industrial-technological civilization is created by practical men who eschew philosophy if they happen to be aware of it, and those with a bent for abstract or theoretical thought, and who desire a robust engagement with the world, turn to science or mathematics, where abstract and theoretical ideas can have a direct and nearly immediate impact upon the development of industrial society. Techno-philosophy picks up where these indispensable men of industrial-technological civilization leave off.

Once we understand the relationship between techno-philosophy and industrial-technological civilization (and its disruptions), and knowing the cycle of science, technology and engineering that drives such a civilization, we can posit a philosophical analysis of each stage in the escalating spiral of industrial-technological civilization, with a philosophy of the science of this civilization, a philosophy of the technology of this civilization, and a philosophy of the engineering of this civilization. Techno-philosophy, then, is the philosophy of the technology of industrial-technological civilization.

Philosophy in a time of model drift

In parallel to the emerging school of techno-philosophy, there is a quasi-philosophical field of popular expositions of science by those actively working on the frontiers of the sciences that have been most profoundly transformed by recent developments, and which are still in the process of transformation. This is the philosophy of the science of industrial-technological civilization, and it is distinct from traditional philosophy of science. The rapid developments in cosmology and physics in particular have led to model drift in these fields, and those scientists who are working on these concepts feel the need to give these abstract and theoretical conceptions a connection to ordinary human experience.

Here I have in mind the books of Brian Green, such as his exposition of string theory, The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory, as well as criticisms of string theory such as Peter Woit’s Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law. Some of these books are more widely ranging and therefore more philosophical, such as David Deutsch’s The Fabric of Reality: The Science of Parallel Universes — and Its Implications, while some appeal to a traditional conception of “natural philosophy” as in David Grinspoon’s Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life. While these works do not constitute “techno-philosophy” as I have characterized it above, they stand in a similar relationship to the civilization the thought of which they represent.

The prospects for techno-philosophy

As techno-philosophy grows in scope, rigor, depth, and methodological sophistication, it promises to give to industrial-technological civilization something this civilization never wanted and never desired, but of which it is desperately in need: Depth. Gravitas. Intellectual seriousness. Disciplined reflection on the human condition. In a word: wisdom.

If there is anything the world needs today, it is wisdom.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Planetary Torpor

6 November 2012


A curious case of selective stagnation:

A whole new way to think about Weltschmerz

Among those who think about human space exploration, the relatively modest (i.e., less than ambitious) human space program since the end of the Apollo program that took human beings to the moon is a problem that requires an explanation. There have always been futurist speculations that have taken particular trends out of context and extrapolated them in isolation. Such narrowly focused futurism almost always gets things wrong. But when we think of all that might have been accomplished in terms of space exploration in the past forty years, and how far we might have gone in terms of existential risk mitigation as a result of a robust space program, one inevitably asks why more has not been done.

Putting the space program in the context of existential risk shifts our understanding a bit, since the space program is usually understood as science or exploration or adventure, but I am coming more to the view that it must be understood in terms of mitigating existential risk, that is to say, establishing self-sustaining, self-sufficient settlements off the surface of the Earth so that life and civilization can go on whatever the vulnerabilities of our home world. From this perspective, from the perspective of existential risk, the space program, and in fact all of human civilization, has been stagnant. We have had the power to leave the Earth and to create a second home for ourselves elsewhere, and we have failed to do so.

The idea of existential risk is due to Nick Bostrum, whom I have mentioned several times recently. His papers Existential Risks: Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards and Existential Risk Reduction as Global Priority lay out the basic architecture of the concept, introducing several qualitative risk categories and their classification in terms of existential risk. Bostrum distinguishes four classes of existential risk: human extinction, permanent stagnation, flawed realization, and subsequent ruination.

How are we to construe the relative stagnation of the space program over the past forty years, which could provide a degree of existential risk mitigation, but which has not been widely viewed in this light. Space science has had many spectacular successes in recent decades, which have substantially increased our knowledge of the universe in which we live, but all of this is for naught if our exclusively-terrestrially dwelling species is wiped out by a natural catastrophe beyond the power of our technology to stop or to tame. There is a sense, then, no matter how valuable our scientific knowledge from unmanned missions, that the past forty years have been a wasted opportunity to secure against existential risk. We had the knowledge to go into space, the ability, the economic foundation — all the elements were present, but the will to secure the survival of our own species has been lacking. How do we explain this?

We cannot say that civilization has been exactly stagnant over the past forty years. How can human civilization be said to be stagnant when we have been experiencing exponential technological growth? We have experienced an explosion in the development of telecommunications and computing that was unpredicted and unprecedented. This has profoundly changed our personal lives and the structure of the overall economy and society. It has also increased the rate of technological change, since computerized engineering and design makes it possible to build other technologies in a much more sophisticated fashion than previously was the case. When we think of technological triumphs like the SR-71, the Apollo project, and the Concorde, we must remember that most of this was accomplished by engineers with slide rules writing calculations in pencil on paper. And yet today we have no sophisticated supersonic aerospace industry and nothing on the scale of the Apollo program, though we could presumably do both better now than we did before.

With all this technological progress, there remains a feeling of unfulfilled potential in the past half century. No one can say — as it was in fact said before the space program — that it is simply impossible to travel in space, or for human beings to live in space, or to travel to the moon. We’ve all seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, and even this modest human future in space, with a rotating space station and a base on the moon, didn’t happen. Did people lose interest? Did they turn inward, preferring personal comfort to what Theodore Roosevelt called “the strenuous life”? Was the human spirit broken by the Cold War and the haunting threat of nuclear annihilation?

In German there is a word that we lack in English: Weltschmerz, sometimes translated as “world-weariness.” Americans have never had much use for either the term or the idea, and it sounds a bit too much like post-War French existentialism with its systematic exposition of guilt, despair, alienation, and absurdity. Nevertheless, it is difficult to look at the past half century without thinking of it in terms not unlike Weltschmerz.

Thomas Couture Romans of the Decadence

Stagnation can take the form of a civilization being shot through with ellipses. We could called this condition selective stagnation. Because there are so many possible explanations for the selective stagnation of the past forty years, and because it is unlikely that any one single social, economic, political, or ideological explanation could explain our selective stagnation, the only way we can embrace the complex social phenomenon of selective stagnation is to cover it with a term specifically intended to indicate many historical causes coming together into a trend that constitutes a whole greater than any of its individual parts. Once upon a time this was called “decadence,” as in Thomas Coulture’s famous painting “Romans of the Decadence.” We could also call it Weltschmerz (although it this case it should be Raumshmerz rather than Weltschmerz), or we could call it terrestrial malaise or even planetary torpor.

Since the advent of civilization, there have been several periods of extended stagnation, which historians formerly called “dark ages” but which term is avoided today because of its disparaging connotations. I have previously written about the Greek Dark Ages, and I still occasionally refer to the early middle ages in Western Europe as the “dark ages” because there are senses in which the term remains apt. When we compare the selective stagnation of the past half century to these comprehensive periods during which Western civilization stumbled, and it was a real question whether or not it would recover its footing, our selective stagnation is so minor it scarcely bears mentioning.

But there is a crucial difference: the Greek Dark Age and the Dark Age following the collapse of Roman power in the western empire took place long before the scientific revolution. Since the scientific revolution we have continuously learned more about our place in the universe, and since the industrial revolution we have had the power to modify our place within nature with increasing scope and efficacy. Now we understand better than at any time in the past the existential risks we are facing, and for the past fifty years we have had the power to do something about that existential risk: to establish a human presence in extraterrestrial space that would not be vulnerable to disasters specific to the Earth. This is not absolute risk mitigation — the idea of absolute risk mitigation is illusory — but it is incrementally much better, perhaps even or order of magnitude of distancing ourselves from manifest vulnerability. .

It may be the case that when civilization reaches a certain stage of development at which a minimum level of creature comforts are available for the bulk of the world’s population, that this relative prosperity undermines the springs to action. Because we have only our own terrestrial civilization by which to judge, we don’t have a sufficiently big picture conception of civilization that would allow us to generalize at this level of the idea of civilization.

Singulatarians and transhumanists will tell you that we are poised on the verge of transformative change that will make all previous transitions in human history pale by comparison, and which will launch human beings — or, rather, the post-human, post-biological beings who will be the successors of specifically human being — on a course of development that will make these considerations either irrelevant, or so trivial that it will be a small matter to execute the required solution. But even as these wonders are coming about, we remain vulnerable. We might be on the very verge of the technological singularity when we are wiped out by a stray asteroid. This scenario would constitute what Nick Bostrum called “ephemeral realization.”

For these reasons, as well as many other that the reader will immediately see, I think that the idea of selective stagnation bears further study in its own right.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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