Existential risks are bad. Stopping human extinction is good. Without getting too deep into philosophy, let’s talk about why we believe these things.
Most people would agree that human life is a good thing, and that the death of a human is a bad thing. In case you don’t hold this belief, I recommend these words by Eliezer Yudkowsky about the death of his brother.
This is familiar ground for most of us. Most moral systems posit that living is a good thing and that human deaths are something to be avoided if possible, and to be mourned if they come to pass. Let’s try to extend this moral intuition to existential risks.
Before we begin, let’s acknowledge that thinking about human extinction is very hard. We tend to make mistakes when we try. We’ll take it slow and try to work our way towards understanding.
Take a deep breath.
Try to imagine or recall the death of someone you know. Everything that they were is gone. Their actions will continue to have an effect on the world after they are gone, but they themselves will never know it. They have been destroyed. Our memories of our loved one are precious because they are all we have left of them.
Hold that feeling in your mind. Let it weigh on your heart. This is the tragedy of the irrevocable death of a sentient being.
Take a deep breath.
Now, imagine that all of your family and friends suffer a similar fate. School classmates, sports teammates, drinking buddies, work colleagues, all of them. Every life, so different from the others, is worthy of our attention. In this imagined reality, the light of dozens or hundreds of humans has been extinguished. Their dreams have been snuffed out. If these deaths suddenly happened today, it would probably be all over the news. In some countries this would be a tragedy of such magnitude that it would define a generation.
Take a deep breath.
Imagine the death of every person alive today. Every single person you’ve ever seen or heard of is no more. Every hope that any human ever held has been annihilated. Every caring parent; every wide-eyed child; every bold and cautious thinker; every soul struggling to survive and thrive, all of them are gone – never to return.
No one person can comprehend the entirety of this loss, but we must try. It’s all at stake, everything that we value in this world and everything we hope for.
Take a deep breath.
Think of all the human lives that could have existed in the future. If humanity had thrived rather than gone extinct, there may have one day have been a billion humans for every person alive today.1 Whether or not these people share our personal beliefs or specific biology, they are the descendants of all of us today. They grow from our culture, our thoughts, our hopes.
Let’s take a detour for a moment and dwell on what it means for there to be a billion times as many humans as there are today.
Start again with yourself. Think of what you’ve experienced in your life and try to feel it all. The bad and the good. The imperfect and the perfect. The boredom and the adventures. If your life so far has led you to be pessimistic or depressed, then for the purposes of this moral calculation you should strive to acknowledge the fact that most people are happy. Overwhelmingly, humans consider life to be desirable – a huge net positive.
Imagine several billion humans with their own cares and thoughts. Imagine the laughter and love of all of the people on the Earth today. Imagine the hope of every child.
Now do the impossible and try to grasp what all of these things would be if they were made a billion times what they are today.
Such a civilization might have continued to thrive for billions of years, producing perhaps billions of masterpieces of art and thought for each one that we hold dear today.
The loss of this future is beyond feeling, but not beyond calculation. We haven’t evolved the ability to grasp calamity on this scale, but we can augment our sentiments with intellect. No one can multiply their emotions by a billion. Emotional reasoning alone will fail us. The best we can do is courageously generalize what we feel. If ten deaths are bad, ten billion deaths are a billion times worse.
These can be uncomfortable thoughts. Why are they worth thinking?
We feel that we’ve learned a lot by exploring this meditation ourselves. Here are two of the ideas that stand out for us:
If we know with great certainty that one person’s death is a bad thing, then numerous deaths are worse. Regardless of whether our emotions evolved the ability to multiply by a billion, we can. This means that we can be extremely certain that human extinction is very, very bad. This insight can help us with our decisions moving forward.
We can grow our feelings. One human death is a profound tragedy, but it is not the greatest of all possible tragedies. This meditation will hopefully encourage you to value individual lives more. But with effort and practice we can extend our understanding of loss (and gain) to a vast scale. We can develop our sentiments and intuitions to bring them more into alignment with our deeply held values.
If this meditation has moved you, please do what you can to help avert existential threats. Just as every individual life counts, every individual’s actions count.
If you’re looking for a good place to start, we recommend spending at least a few hours reading on the subject. We’ve written a few brief articles to get you started. Digging deeper, we’ve found the work of Nick Bostrom and the Future of Humanity Institute to be excellent. Many others have done excellent work on the subject as well, too many to list here. See here for a large collection of important works relating to existential risks.
If you’ve read a bit on the subject, we recommend discussing these challenges with friends and colleagues. Striking the right tone can be difficult because the subject tends to elicit either hysteria or dismissive contempt. Since neither of those extremes are productive, we recommend starting slowly and from a place of questioning rather than sermonizing.
Thanks for your attention, and good luck to us all.
- The number “billion” was chosen for illustrative purposes. Among far-future predictions of humanity’s potential, this is rather conservative. For a more thorough treatment of the subject, see Bostrom, N. (2003). Astronomical waste: The opportunity cost of delayed technological development. Utilitas, 15(03), 308-314. [↩]