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How Humanity Came to Contemplate Its Possible Extinction (mitpress.mit.edu)
51 points by anarbadalov 24 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 71 comments

For me, one of the most impactful movies in the last decade has been Tomorrowland. The entire movie was about how we relate to the future, and how that relationship creates it. I don't believe optimism is a luxury. We have to hold an image in our head of our ideal future and work to make it.

It's a lot like this pandemic. I read the news, and it conjures images in my head from every pandemic movie ever. Cars abandoned in the street. Trash everywhere. Society reduced to tribalism. Then I go outside to see that the sun is shining and everything appears somewhat normal except people are wearing masks.

I haven't seen the movie but I often contemplate the idea that our current pessimism about the future makes it so.

Media of the past like Star Trek inspired us that our future was hopeful.

There is also media which tends to look at an idealized past and a longing to go back to it. Though I love his world, Tolkien is an example here.

These general narratives show up in a ton of the media we consume and shape our view of the world. Sometimes for the negative and sometimes for the positive.

I posit that they shape our real-world direction more than we suspect. We've lost our vision of the future so what's next is bleak because we make it so.

We must first have a strong, positive narrative of the future in order for that future to follow.

We had the pandemic + smoke from the recent fires in the west coast. It was truly dystopian. Not being able to see the stars for weeks, not being able to breath clean air, not being able to touch things.

This is not a world I’d like to leave behind for my kids. I’m not sure there is much I can do though.

> Only recently did people realize the physical universe could continue — aimlessly — without us ... And, in realizing that the entire fate of human value within the physical universe may rest upon us, we could finally begin to face up to what is at stake in our actions and decisions upon this planet.

This does not compute. In the old paradigm we were at the center of the universe with the creator's undivided attention, and answerable to Him after life, with eternal bliss or torture on the table. In the new one we're trivial beings on a trivial dust mote in a trivial galaxy, answerable to ourselves only, and death is the end. Those stakes seem vastly lower. How does that translate into more responsibility for our actions?

Because there is no second chance. We are not answerable to god, we will not live forever no matter what we do in life. The universe does not care whether or not we exist, so if we care about existing, our sole responsibility is to each other and ourselves. God will not save us, there is no salvation that we do not create.

> if we care about existing, our sole responsibility is to each other and ourselves

The conclusion does not derive from the premise... I can care about existing in a hedonistic way and then responsibility in no way derives from my caring about existing. I’ll just do whatever I want to do and get the most pleasure possible while I exist, with nary a worry.

Unless you mean “we” as in “all of humanity” and “existing” as in “humanity surviving”, but then I don’t see why we should assume this premise to hold. Most people don’t have the energy to care about the survival of their entire species, there are enough problems to deal with in an individual’s life.

I did mean the survival of the species. I’m saying we are required to care about these things if we want to survive as a species. I’m not personally certain that we will, because as you said most individuals will have a hard time caring about it.

But, once I’m dead I don’t really care if everyone else dies 5 minutes later, do I? I’m dead and I have no way to know what happens after that point. Nothing that happens after I die has any affect on me.

I think a lot of people would care if everyone they loved died five minutes after they did. Seems like a worst case scenario in fact.

Bad wording. I should’ve said 50 years or some longer time period. The point is I no longer exist so anything that happens can’t matter to me.

My child will hopefully outlive me by several decades. My grand kids certainly could live more that 50 years beyond that. I may never know my great-grandkids, but kinda hope they won't get snuffed out arbitrarily. But fundamentally I don't think "after X years, screw humanity" is something I'll buy into.

This is the exact way of thinking that makes this world the shithole it was and still is. It’s painful to watch but I don’t expect 8billion ppl to sudenly stop being so egoistic. The world as we know it is doomed to fail, so gonna enjoy the ride while I still can.

Many of us with children, family and, you know, friends care very much that life goes on after we die, regardless of our role in it.

You don't care after, but you do care before you die if you know that's about to happen.

Maybe instead of 5 minutes I should’ve said 50 years. The point is, I don’t exist so I can’t care about life, the universe, or anything.

Why do I have a responsibility to other people in a materialistic universe? Why shouldn't I just do what I please no matter the harm to anyone else? I've heard the usual arguments from the new atheists on this topic and have found them unpersuasive (although I am agnostic myself)

Simply because people are capable of understanding causality? Even in a fully atheistic framing, a human society that embraced this kind of nihilism would drastically raise the ambient level of misery for everyone. Even if it’s your intent to selfishly push in this direction, a world where everyone else does the same would be far less enjoyable for you.

Prosocial behavior is also selfish to the extent that encourages the same in others and accrues the corresponding comforts to you.

I am not talking about whether I want society overall to embrace this framing. From a selfish perspective, of course I do not want that.

I'm talking about myself only. I can act purely self-maximizing and reap the gains while society pays the cost (an externality). I can feign kindness etc to extract the prosocial benefit to myself when it's required. I am a small fish in a big pond, I can take take take from society without fundamentally altering the way society treats me.

If I am a psychopath why should I not act in this manner?

If you’re a psychopath, you probably do act in that manner, so that’s irrelevant? What curbs psychopaths behavior is their ability to calculate the risk posed by engaging in varying degrees of antisocial behavior versus the rewards gained by engaging in less of it and preserving their ability to exploit and harm others. And this is largely determined by their intelligence and upbringing.

The vast majority of people aren’t psychopaths though because evolution selected for traits like the capacity for empathy and remorse over amorality. These act as natural checks on antisocial behavior because it’s generally miserable to live in counter to these impulses, although humans have developed many clever means for overriding them (e.g. certain drugs, like amphetamines, and various violent or cult-like ideologies).

I reject the idea that god-fearing psychopaths act more ethically. It feels like a non sequitur.

It’s pretty hard to live socially without any concept of a responsibility to other people, and I think you would find yourself alone pretty fast.

Of course if you didn’t care, there are a lot of other answers to why you should strive not to harm others but ultimately if it’s the thing you most want to do and you don’t care about the consequences that’s not really different whether there’s a god or not, is it?

Yes let's suppose I'm a psychopath who is purely interested in self-maximization.

I have an opportunity to steal money without getting caught. Why wouldn't I do it? If there's a hell then sure I can understand (it would become self maximizing to be legitimately good), otherwise why wouldn't I?

I can feign responsibility and make the right moves to get want I want. Again, I can be ruthlessly self-maximizing.

Taking the long view, collaboration is necessary to live in an environment more hedonistic than primitive technology guy [0]. Collaboration has associated costs, hedging against betrayal, communicating intent, all that jazz. The more people believe they are forced into collaboration with a psychopath, the higher those costs get and the less interesting collaboration happens. Acting like an asshole forces people to live in an asshole universe.


Yes, a psychopath is just being true to his nature in that case. There's no "responsibility" to other people, just actions and consequences. Those of our ancestors who had a bond with their tribe, and took care of each other, did better and reproduced more than the selfish loners. And most of us are left with those successful strategies baked into us. You're free to choose a different path (if it is even a choice), and there will be no comic-book judgement day... but if the past is anything to go by, it's often a losing strategy. It might not be as clean a getaway as you hoped.

I agree with most of what you wrote here. I would argue two things though (1) modern society is very different from tribal society, I can use intelligence to extract/steal benefit from this new environment without the same social cost that my ancestors would've born in the environment they were adapted for, (2) psychopathy, thievery, jealousy, cheating, lying, etc, are all so common that we may even think they were selected for and evolved, so appealing to selective benefit is not too persuasive for me

If there’s a hell you can always ask for forgiveness later though, and a lot of Christians believe that Christ died for our sins and they will be washed away if we acknowledge him.

If you’re an utter psychopath who will always maximize benefit to themselves, then I don’t quite understand why you care about hell. It’s pretty easy to construct hypotheticals under which ethics are void, but I don’t think they tell us a lot about how we should live our lives as non-psychopaths with a sense of self-preservation.

If I'm a self-maximizing psychopath then of course I wish to avoid hell. Nobody wants that.

You are right about the escape clause in Christianity. What I would say is that a nonzero chance of hell is more of a deterrent than a zero chance of hell.

Is this escape clause really in their doctrine? Pascal’s wager doesn’t make sense if you’re allowed to change your mind after getting a live demo of hell.

I guess I just don’t think that there is a significant number of people who would be mastermind criminals and serial killers and whatever if not for believing in god. Maybe I’m wrong.

Psychopathy is considered a disease because it is quite rare. For most people and for the broader culture, the reaction of a psychopath to a given cultural cue isn't a primary consideration.

Your parents and theirs before them went to great lengths to preserve their dna. Anyone who doesn’t care about this won’t reproduce and will be erased from this biological spaceship. It comforts me that my blood traces back to the beginning of life on earth, and the only way I can even make sense of the blink of an eye that is life is in this context.

You are incarnate. You can either doubt it can happen again, or doubt your own existence.

you’re right about materialism.

the issue is, there is a mountain of marginalized evidence and experience suggesting we are not in a materialistic universe.

when we behave in accordance with materialism, we create suffering.

there is no logic to refute your argument at its face.

what we should doubt is the premise of the reality of materialism.

i understand my message may not come across clearly

I’m not sure why you’re asking that. Clearly when we’re just sheep in God’s flock or God’s children (both common wording in Judeo-Christian scripture) you have less responsibility than self-determining agents.

Probably the first thing to help you understand “why [OP] is asking that” is that different Christians and Jews will tell you different things with respect to “self determination”. Some believe in free will, some don’t, and there is plenty of nuance in between. Roman Catholics, for example, believe in free will, in that you are free to choose sin and therefore you are ultimately held responsible to choose love.

> both common wording in Judeo-Christian scripture

No such thing as judeo-christian scripture. Who created this term?

Edit: Instead of downvoting, why name this judeo-christian scripture so I may read it?

What a silly page. Wonder who wrote that. It lists Christian texts and it lists Jewish text. Not a single mention of a judeo-christian scripture. What I was looking for was the "judeo-christian scripture". Is the Talmud a judeo-christian text or is the new testament the judeo-christian text? Or was the guy referring to the old testament?

If in the new paradigm we're in control of our own destiny, how does that make the stakes lower than when it was out of our hands?

under the new paradigm what control remains independent of biological and evolutionary history?

If the world ends with us, there is no worries about what would be after us. There will be nothing, in some sense.

If the universe could continue, it's our responsibility to keep it making aim - in our understanding. That is, if we destroy ourselves, then the rest of history wouldn't make sense from our point of view.

I think the sibling comment is right; the “old” paradigm is one in which an appeal to the powers that be will roll back the transaction so to speak.

Still, the new paradigm isn’t that we’re answerable only to ourselves but that we are the powers that be and there is no way to roll back the transaction.

Perhaps because we have now taken (in a way) the role of God?

You put a bacterial cell in a test tube full of food.

Every minute, the bacterium reproduces, eats, and reproduces again.

At minute 58, there's 75% of the test tube left.

At minute 59, there's 50% of the test tube left.

At minute 60, the food is gone and the test tube is filled with a horde of starving bacteria.

By constantly reading intentionally-scary headlines like this one?

I like this:

“ In the ancient mythologies you will not find the idea of a physical universe continuing, in its independent vastness, after the annihilation of humans. “

If humans are the observers that collapse the wave function, then it’s possible nothing exists after humans are gone ;)

I like to imagine that our bodies/brains are merely suitable hardware with which to tune into consciousness. We then are quickly “enculturated” into associating one very narrow band of consciousness with the idea of “me” which immediately and necessarily creates “you”

Thats why I always like the anthropic principal; that its necessary for life to be possible, because if it wasn't then the universe would pass with no entity there to observe it.

If the universe has a beginning and an end, then why hasn't it ended already? Why does it keep existing?

Well, this particular instance of the Universe popped into existence last Thursday[1] and will run until Tuesday at around 16:33:02. (internal time, that is) After which it's expected another 10^4943332110093! instances will run before the first Universe with (mostly) the exact same configuration as Tuesday 16:33:02 will appear, though that one will only exist for a few hours. After that, it's quite a few iterations before we get to Wednesday.


The universe might be better off without wave function collapse.This is the premise of the Greg Egan novel Quarantine. Totally recommended.

what about (intelligent) machines?

The optical tables join entanglement until we measure them. Those are quite intelligent?

Isn’t this the premise of WALL-E?

What about robot dogs?

Or just regular dogs?

In my opinion, our current talks about the apocalypse are only marginally less naive than similar discussions during ancient times.

We understand so much more about the universe and yet our ability to predict the future is almost nil.

We have sound theories for multiple extinction events in the Earth's past, we have the ability to model complex risks involving astronomy, climate, and biology which will occur in the Earth's future... if you're naïve about future risks to an extent that invites comparison with ancient history, perhaps it's because you've chosen not to be well read on these matters.

I've read quite a lot about these.

We are very bad at predicting the implications of an event that has not happened yet.

We can predict global warming because it is already occuring and what we're doing is not much more advanced than a glorified linear extrapolation.

What is important is the consequences, on ecosystems, on agriculture, on all the interconnected systems.

We can only predict reliably that global warming might be a perturbation.

But we can't predict the reliable consequences of far simpler events.

I would argue that our ability to predict the future is pretty good but our ability to react to/prevent an event from happening is next to nil. Pick any: large solar flare, mega volcanic eruption, climate change, asteroid collision...

Predicting an event is not the same as observing it unfolds or putting a probability on it.

What do we know about the next mega volcanic eruption or large solar flare?

> are only marginally less naive

As I understand naive, it's a relative term - comparing to something which is considered more mature, reasonable etc. which - and that's important - can be presented as an antitheses. If something different, which is "better", can't be presented, then "naive" becomes "best", which definitely changes the meaning to the degree of non-applicability.

"It is only in the last couple of centuries that we have begun to grasp that our existence might one day cease to exist forever."


Actually, this has been a fairly widespread theme in most civilizations.

"With Covid-19 afflicting the world, and a climate crisis looming, humanity’s future seems uncertain."

Oh dear. It is only in the last couple of months that I have begun to grasp that our very fundamental human rights and freedoms may cease to exist forever.

> we can only become truly responsible for ourselves when we fully realize what is at stake

We are a long way away from that. People are living their lives as if it's only theirs that matter - while still having kids. The cognitive dissonance is quite impressive.

I'd welcome the establishment of an annihilation watch that monitored the world for extinction level dangers. They could then rate, classify them and have governments take action.

> People are living their lives as if it's only theirs that matter - while still having kids.

This suggests you have a Malthusian worldview which is not backed by evidence.

Please check http://gapminder.org/ - I highly recommend taking https://forms.gapminder.org/s3/test-2018 and see how much you actually know. The population growth of the humanity is a consequence of the societies transitioning out of the poverty:


and the only morally justified answer is to continue and accelerate this transition.

I read it another way - that de believes it's unfair to our children to not care what we leave behind.

You are right, it's what I meant.

I don't believe the world is "overpopulated", but I also don't believe that falling below the replacement rate is a negative thing. We were fewer before and we can be fewer again.

That interpretation certainly makes sense. If that's indeed the intention, my response has completely missed the mark and that's my fault for misunderstanding.

A hardcoded desire to eat and make kids is pretty much why we're even here to contemplate anything. Many of us who have the means cannot even stop ourselves from overeating. Several leading causes of death are simply connected to people not being able to stop eating.

How do you expect people to take responsibility for the planet's health when so many cannot even stop themselves from harming themselves?

> while still having kids

Are they? Birth rates are below replacement everywhere outside of handful of places like Afghanistan. Even with lots of immigration the US faces a Japanese style demographic crisis.

Large populations may be a big problem but shrinking them through low birthrates definitely causes its own problems. The workers-per-retiree is going to fall from 3 today to 2 by 2030. That's a 50% increased retirement tax burden.

>It is only in the last couple of centuries that we have begun to grasp that our existence might one day cease to exist forever

What about all the ancient world religions who wrote books about how the world was going to end one day and everyone is going to die? Surely eschatology already covers this topic, albeit in a manner lacking the citations and p-values which "truth" requires these days.

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