Eighth in a Series on Existential Risk:


Every Risk is also an Opportunity

It is a commonplace that every risk is an opportunity, and every opportunity is a risk; risk and opportunity are two sides of the same coin. This can also be expressed by distinguishing negative risk (what we ordinarily call “risk” simpliciter) and positive risk (what we ordinarily call “opportunity”). What this means in terms of existential thought is that every existential risk is an existential opportunity, and existential opportunity is at the same time an existential risk.

If we understand by risk the uncertainty of frequency and uncertainty of magnitude of future loss, then by opportunity we should understand the uncertainty of frequency and uncertainty of magnitude of future gain. The relative probability of a loss is offset by the relative probability of a gain, and the relative probability of a gain is offset by the relative probability of a loss; both are calculable; both are, in principle, insurable. Thus these risks and opportunities represent the subset of uncertainties that present actionable mitigation strategies. Where uncertainty exceeds the possibility of actionable mitigation, we pass beyond insurable risk to uncertainty proper.

In existential risk scenarios, our very existence is at stake; in existential opportunity scenarios, again, our very existence is at stake. To formulate this parallel to the above, we can assert that existential risk is the uncertainty of frequency and uncertainty of magnitude of future loss of earth-originating life and civilization, while existential opportunity is the uncertainty of frequency and uncertainty of magnitude of future gain for earth-originating life and civilization. In formulating the existential condition of humanity, there is little that is risk sensu stricto, since much of the big picture of the human future is given over to uncertainty that lies beyond presently actionable risk. However, the calculus of risk and reward remains, even if we are not speaking strictly of risk that can be fully calculated and thus fully insured. In other words, the existential uncertainties facing humanity admit of a distinction between positive uncertainties and negative uncertainties. Any valuation of this kind, however, is intrinsically disputable and controversial.

Given that our very existence is at stake in existential opportunity no less than in existential risk, a future defined by the realization of an existential opportunity might be unrecognizable as a human future. Indeed, the realization of an existential opportunity might be every bit as unrecognizable as the realization of an existential threat, which means that the two futures might be indistinguishable, which means in turn that existential opportunity might be mistaken for existential risk, and vice versa.

Faced with a stark choice (i.e., faced with an existential choice), I think few would choose extinction, flawed realization, permanent stagnation, or subsequent ruination over species survival, flawless realization, permanent amelioration, or subsequent escalation. (If, in moments of decision in our life, we make our choice in fear and trembling, how must we fear and tremble in moments of decision for our species?) Any such choice, however, is not likely to be visited upon us in this form.

Much more likely that an explicit choice between an utopian future of astonishing wonders and a dystopian future of dismal oppression is an imperceptibly gradual process whereby a promising future suggests certain day-to-day decisions (seemingly seizing an opportunity) which lead incrementally to a future with unintended consequences that greatly outweigh the promises that prompted the daily decisions that led to the future in question. This is how history generally works: by degrees, and not by intention. (Notwithstanding the Will Durant quote — “The future never just happened, it was created.” — that I mentioned in Predicting the Human Future in Space.)

In so far as industrial-technological civilization continues its exponential growth of technology (growing incrementally and often imperceptibly by degrees, and not always by intention), and therefore also the growth of human agency in shaping our environment, the expanding scope of this civilization will mitigate certain existential risks even as it exposes humanity to new and unprecedented risks. That is to say, industrial-technological civilization itself is at once both a risk and an opportunity. Civilization centered on escalating industrial-technological development exposes us to escalating industrial accidents and unintended consequences of technology, unprecedented pollution from industrial processes, changes in our way of life, and indeed changes to our very being as a result of the technological transformation of humanity (i.e., transhumanism).

At the same time, escalating industrial-technological development offers the unprecedented possibility of a spacefaring civilization, which could establish earth-originating life off the surface of the earth and thereby secure the minimum redundancy necessary to the long-term survival of such life. The transition of the terrestrial economy to an economy fully integrated with the industrialization of space — a process that I have called extraterrestrialization — could not take place without the advent of industrial-technological civilization.

Yet the expansion of business operations and interests into extraterrestrial space is a paradigm of uncertainty — no such effort has been made on a large scale, and so the risks of such an enterprise are unknown and cannot be calculated, fully managed, or insured against. Space operations therefore exemplify uncertainty rather than risk, and for the same reason that such operations are uncertain, their execution is potentially beset with contingencies unknown to us today. This does not make such an enterprise is too risky to contemplate — this is the only imaginable contribution that industrial-technological civilization can make to the long-term survival of earth-originating life — but we must undertake such enterprises without illusions or the subsequent losses endured may become socially unsustainable leading to the end of the enterprise. Subsequent unforeseen losses resulting from the transition to a spacefaring civilization may even be interpreted as a form of subsequent ruination, and thereby conceived by many as an existential threat. How we understand existential risk, then, affects what we understand to be a risk and what we understand to be a reward.

In the larger context of industrial-technological civilization we can identify individual industries and technologies that represent in themselves both risks and opportunities. The most fantastic speculations of transhumanist utopias, like the most dismal speculations on transhumanist dystopias, constitute unprecedented opportunities (or risks) implied by the present trajectories of technology. One of the best examples of risk and opportunity in future technology are the possibilities of nano-scale robots. The development of nano-scale robots could, on the one hand, provide for unprecedented medical technologies — robots that could be injected like an inoculation which would treat medical conditions from the inside out, repairing the body on a microscopic scale and potentially greatly improving health and extending longevity. On the other hand, nano-scale robots loose in the biosphere could potentially cause great harm. if not havoc, perhaps even resulting in a gray goo scenario.

In so far as any proposed existential risk mitigation initiatives prioritize safety over opportunity, any concern for existential risk could itself become an existential risk by lending support for policies that address risk through calculated stagnation instituted as a risk-averse response to existential threats. The question then becomes how humanity can lower its exposure to existential risks without reducing its existential opportunities. The attempt to answer this question, even if it does not issue in clear, unambiguous imperatives, may at least provide a framework in which to conceptualize problematic scenarios for the human future that some may identify as desirable while others would identify the same as a moral horror — such as transhumanism.

. . . . .

danger imminent existential threat

. . . . .

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

. . . . .

ex risk ahead

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .


Manifest Destiny personified

In my last post, Taking Responsibility for Our Interpretations, I wanted to emphasize how both individuals and political wholes (social groups) seek to vacate their responsibilities by cloaking them in a specious facticity, so that an interpretation of the world is treated as if it were something more than or other than a mere interpretation. One of the most common ways of doing this in relation to history is to formulate an interpretation of history, whether personal or social, as “destiny.”

We are all painfully familiar with loaded terms from historiography like “destiny,” “progress,” “inevitability,” and the like. We find them impartially on the left and the right. In fact, the most strongly ideologically motivated institutions make a practice of most grievously distorting history to fit a particular model that flatters the ideology in question. All one need do is recall the utopian plans of communism and Nazism from the previous century to understand the extent to which visions of the past and the future supposedly inherent in the very nature of things issue in dystopian consequences.

I realize that I’ve engaged with this issue recently in slightly different terms. In Gibbon, Sartre, and the Eurozone I formulated two principles that I called Gibbon’s Principle and Sartre’s Principle. Gibbon’s Principle is that the authority of a social whole is inalienable. Sartre’s Principle is that the authority of the individual is inalienable. In other words, even if a social whole or an individual engages in the pretense of surrendering its autonomy, this is an act of bad faith (mauvaise foi) because the social whole or the individual retains the autonomy to act even as it denies this autonomy to itself. Gibbon’s Principle as applied to history means taking responsibility for the history of social wholes; Sartre’s Principle as applied to history means taking responsibility for the individual’s personal history.

It may seem a bit incredible to compare the benign Eurozone to malevolently utopian visions like communism or Nazism, but the narratives employed to defend the Euro — the inevitability of European integration and its historical irreversibility — are on a par with inherentist narratives that make claims upon history that cannot be sustained. In Gibbon, Sartre, and the Eurozone I compared the attempt to make the Eurozone permanent to the Cuban attempt to incorporate its present socio-political regime as a permanent feature of its constitution, which latter I had discussed in The Imperative of Regime Survival.

It is significant in this connection that the US experienced a traumatic challenge to its national claims of permanence that took the form of the Civil War. Had I been alive in the 1860s, I suspect that I would have argued that it was utter folly to craft a national constitution that had provisions for adding to the territories of the United States but no provisions for the peaceful succession of regions that no longer desired to be part of the US. Because there were no peaceful provisions for succession, the succession took the form of militant succession, which was answered by militancy on the part of those who believed the Union to be indissoluble.

So am I arguing that the Confederates were right? That would certainly put me in an awkward position. If the South had peacefully succeeded from the Union, it is entirely possible that the Balkanization of North American would have yielded a map of minor states such as we find in South America (after the breakup of Gran Colombia), though it is equally possible that the fractured Union would have left only two successor states in North America. Counterfactuals are difficult to argue with any kind of confidence precisely because inherentist and essentialist conceptions of history almost never provide an adequate narrative of what happens.

Regardless of what might have happened, what did in fact happen is the the unity of the US was imposed by force of arms, more or less guaranteeing the US a continental land empire without any power able to seriously challenge the US in the Western hemisphere. This likely resulted in the US repeatedly intervening in the internecine quarrels of Europe until the US itself took responsibility for European security, eventually winning the Cold War and becoming the dominant world power. None of this was inevitable, but it has been given the air of inevitability by nationalistic narratives of American exceptionalism.

There is a sense in which the Cuban narrative of a permanent revolutionary government and the Eurozone narrative of indissolubility seek to emulate the apparently successful indissolubility revealed by the US national experience. Who, after all, would not want to be the exception to the mutability of all human things?

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .


This sketch by Hans Holbein of the family of Sir Thomas Moore (the painting has been lost) shows Moore at the center of the household, presiding like an emperor, while the women of the house are on their knees before him.

In yesterday’s Personal Dystopias I argued that the same kind of thinking that produces dystopian results from utopian intentions when practiced on a visionary scale is responsible for dystopian results from utopian intentions on a personal, local, and even private scale. Thinking more about this, another obvious example is despotism: there are large scale despotisms and small scale despotisms. The traditional patriarchal family structure found throughout much of the world is often modeled on despotic rule within the context of a single family. This is no longer acceptable in the industrialized world as it was in the recent past, but it played a significant role as recently as what I called the conformist patriarchy of mid-twentieth century America in The Agricultural Paradigm.

I realized today that these are examples of what Deleuze called “micropolitics.” I also realized, in contrasting the idea of micropolitics with the implied idea of macropolitics, that these are political instantiations of the microcosm / macrocosm theme, an ancient fractal theme in Western thought in which the large is mirrored in the small and the small is mirrored in the large. From this perspective, it would be interesting to engage in a detailed and through analysis of political paradigms seeking their parallels in private and domestic life, at the same time as seeking parallels of private and domestic life in systems of political and social organization.

. . . . .

If George Washington is the Father of his Country, does that make us all one, big happy family?

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

Personal Dystopias

21 June 2010


In some earlier posts I have mentioned Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius’ lectures on Utopia and Terror in the 20th Century from The Teaching Company (specifically in The Threshold of Atrocity). One of Liulevicius’ themes is that the attempt to realize ideologically-inspired utopias has more often than not issued in actual dystopias. This is not a theme unique to Liulevicius, but has been a matter of some comment once the trends of the twentieth century became clear. Ideologically motivated terrorist organizations as ruthless and bloodthirsty as the Khmer Rouge, Sendero Luminoso, and Al Qaeda, in their pursuit of utopian political communities, have been the source of death, destruction, and immiserization.

Plato begins the utopian tradition in Western political thought, and therefore also unintentially initiates the dystopian tradition as well.

Such “efforts” — if such we may call them — constitute utopian thinking on a grand scale — visionary utopianism — and therefore issue in dystopian circumstances on a grand scale — if you will, visionary dystopia. While this is the most familiar species of the genus (i.e., the genus of dystopias), it is not the only species of the genus. In the Republic, Plato’s Socrates begins with the inquiry as to what constitutes a just man, and then asserts that, since it is easier to see justice in the large than justice in the small, that he will first inquire into what constitutes a just state. This inquiry constitutes the bulk of the Republic — another utopia which, if realized, would have been a genuinely philosophical dystopia — and so we think of the Republic as a work of political philosophy. But Plato’s Socrates does eventually come around and apply his theory of a just state, mutatis mutandis, to the question of what constitutes a just man. So too it is with dystopia: it is seen more easily in the large than in the small.

Today it occurred to me that small scale dystopias — dystopias decidedly less gruesome than the “visionary” dystopias of the likes of the Khmer Rouge — are not at all uncommon in life, and that they follow from similar motives; namely, the desire to have things be perfect. I am sure that almost anyone reading this who has some life experience has known someone (if not several persons) who are so obsessed with getting things right and making things perfect that these efforts ultimately make the other people around them miserable and unhappy because of their demands for perfection. This is especially the case in regard to the planning of events that are especially valued and which the planners and at least many if not most of the participants would like to have come off as a wonderful event that leaves everyone concerned with wonderful memories. I am thinking about events like weddings and graduations and maybe even birthday parties.

This obsession with perfection and getting everything right, quite explicitly undertaken with the idea that it is in the selfless service of the happiness of others, often takes on a dark and sinister edge. This is one reason I have always instinctively hated and avoided events and parties and social occasions of all kinds. And I have no doubt that many who plan and participate in such events are so deluded that they truly believe that a good time was had by all and that everyone took home wonderful memories. Probably many people did. But by now we all know that utopias come at a cost, and they always come at the greatest cost for those who are least valued. One of the slogans of the Khmer Rouge was, “To keep you is no benefit; to destroy you is no loss.” In other words, if you weren’t with the Khmer Rouge, you were against them, and if you were against them they would rather you were dead. And this was a slogan upon which they acted vigorously and decisively.

It might seem a little bit overly-dramatic for me to compare a wedding or a party gone sour to the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge, but I believe that both follow from the same source, and as long as we are not aware of how utopian thinking goes horribly wrong, we are vulnerable to its depredations on the ordinary — and imperfect — business of life. The overly-eager party planner who wants to regiment the lives of others for an evening is a terrorist in miniature who creates a personal dystopia, and we should be as proportionately intolerant with this kind of for-your-own-good meddling as we are (or should be) proportionately intolerant of terrorism. It is imperfection that makes us human and teaches us humility, and in this spirit we ought to celebrate our imperfections, if not as what is best in us, at least as part of what is best in us.

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

hope utopia perfection progress

Part I

Theoretical Reflection

1.0 An unstable future is more likely to inspire fear than hope, but an exhaustive tradition in which everything is determined in totality is perhaps even worse than fear of the unknown.

2.0 Mature institutions converge on totality, foreclosing upon instability (hence also opportunity) in the name of order, and perhaps also in the name of perfection, as in the pursuit of a more perfect union.

3.0 In so far as perfection is understood to be a finished state, an end attained, perfection cannot incorporate progress—there can only be progress toward perfection, never progress in perfection.

3.1 Even if perfection must be innocent of progress, we can still define progress as a utopian process as contrasted to a finished utopian state of being.

3.2 While progress and utopia are mutually exclusive, they are also intimately related—there must be progress in order to achieve utopia, but in the same motion that utopia is realized, progress ceases.

3.21 The ladder of progress is to be cast away once of the summit of utopia has been surmounted; the end of history has arrived.

4.0 Hope is a disposition, not an emotion.We can distinguish between the disposition of hope and the emotion associated with hope.

4.1 While it would be inaccurate to call hope an emotion, there is a hopeful state of mind that qualifies as an emotion.

4.11 This hopeful state of mind could be called hopefulness, in order to distinguish it from hope proper.

4.12 In same way, while it would be inaccurate to call love an emotion, there is a loving state of mind that qualifies as an emotion.

4.2 Hope and love are dispositions that admit of parallelism.

4.21 The hopeful state of mind (4.1), i.e., hopefulness, and the loving state of mind (4.11) are emotions that admit of parallelism.

5.0 Hope and expectation can be distinguished.

5.1 Although hope and expectation are distinct, and can be distinguished by those who care to distinguish them, hope and expectation cannot however be disentangled in the life of any individual.

5.2 Hopes and expectations naturally escalate when things are going well, each one contributing to the other, so that expectations of a certain standard of living encourage one to hope for better, while this on-going hope for the better, if it receives any encouragement at all, often leads to an expectation of an improved standard of living, inspiring, in turn, further hopes to live better yet.

5.3 When an individual’s circumstances are declining the expectation of a declining standard of living is checked by hopes that these expectations will not be fulfilled, so that the unrealistic spiral of hopes and expectations during good times are rarely brought down to realistic levels even in poor times.

6.0 Human beings, being driven primarily by emotion, are more readily reached through hopefulness than through hope sensu stricto.

6.1 Even where hope has fled, hopefulness often remains, which explains why (5.3) when an individual’s circumstances are declining… etc.

6.2 Wittgenstein wrote in the Foreword to his Philosophical Remarks that he would like to say that he had written the book to the glory of God, but, he says, that would be chicanery today. Similarly, to mention hope today sounds like chicanery, and even those who have not read T. S. Eliot’s line that “hope would be hope for the wrong thing,” would instinctively understand the lines and believe them to be an accurate summary of our present condition.

6.21 Hope for the wrong thing is possible because hopefulness subsists even in the absence of hope.

7.0 If politics cultivated hope in the way it now cultivates anger, the world would be a different place than it is today.

Part II

Practical Application

1.0 To counteract stagnancy and despair an explicit policy of encouraging change, promoting progress, and inspiring enthusiasm for the future should be pursued without apologies to any who find the measures unrealistic, sentimental, insufficiently sophisticated for our time, or just plain wrong. Progress has had its share of critics—perhaps more than its share of critics. Perhaps it is time for the advocates of progress to make their case again. It would be difficult to identify an idea that came in for more abuse in the twentieth century than the idea of progress.

2.0 The events of the twentieth century constitute an inductive argument against progress as an operative principle of world history.

3.0 Being an operative principle of world history is a matter distinct from being worthy and admirable, or even from being the source of whatever was worthy and admirable in a century of crimes and atrocities.

4.0 We are not obliged to take facts for our ideals, and we are not in error if we are unable to transform our ideals into facts.

5.0 We are bound to history and its unsavory facts, but we are not absolutely bound, and we also have the capacity to transcend history.

5.1 The events of history, while not inevitable, occur within the parameters of the possible.

5.2 The parameters of the possible are established by past events without being determined by them.

5.21 Past events establish a point of departure for events of the future without determining events of the future.

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .

%d bloggers like this: