August 19, 2013

Some cheerful reading on apocalypses

Keep calm and reduce xriskPreventing Human Extinction by Nick Beckstead, Peter Singer, and Matt Wage - a very good brief explanation of just why reducing existential risk is such an important mission.

I read it just after reading Rob Goodman's The Comforts of the Apocalypse (The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 19 2013). There he argues much apocalyptic thinking is about typology: finding meaning and a point to history, even if it ends with a bang or whimper. Dystopias are cozy, in a sense. Against that he puts 1984 and Stapledon's Last and First Men: he argues that they represent a Copernican view of history, where there might not be any point or pattern, yet there might still be local meaning rather than global meaning.

If one accepts that "leap of doubt" as Goodman calls it, should one care about existential risk? The nice thing about the prevention essay is that it doesn't build its argument on some global joint value of The Future of Humanity, the story of (human) evolution or progress. Instead it argues that causing people to come into existence can benefit them: their happiness or unhappiness is a local property, and it is better that there is a lot of it than less of it.

If we fail to prevent our extinction, we will have blown the opportunity to create something truly wonderful: an astronomically large number of generations of human beings living rich and fulfilling lives, and reaching heights of knowledge and civilization that are beyond the limits of our imagination.

Of course, one can be a pessimist and think that coming into existence is a net bad, or that human lives have sufficiently bad effects on other morally relevant entities that they are net negative.

I think pessimists of the first kind are simply wrong. They might be individually right - there are lives not worth living to their owners - but there are also good lives worth living. Again, the property of 'being worth living' is a local property rather than something universal or due to some big narrative of history.

Taking the second view just means we better become better, changing our relationship with other beings (e.g. using in vitro food or going autotrophic). Reducing existential risk by this account seem to be sensible, since if we die out before we stop causing harm we can never outweigh it.

Avoiding negatives is a bad motivator: our loss aversion might spur us more strongly into motion than possible gains, but it also feeds our anxieties making even success pale and worried. Trying to bring about something wonderful on the other hand fills us with dynamic optimism: maybe we will fail, but we will have enjoyed trying.

Posted by Anders3 at August 19, 2013 09:27 PM