25 March 2019
I’ve been fortunate lately to get to meet and interact with Phil Torres, independent scholar of existential risks. At my prompting, Phil came to a GSW meeting where Peter Brannen was talking about mass extinctions, and later he came to my class to talk to my Historical Geology students at NOVA about risks humanity faces. I figured it was about time I read his books, and now I can report on reading the first of them. It’s got a clever title: The End: What Science and Religion Tell Us About the Apocalypse.
The book is an approachable survey of eschatology – that’s the study of the end of the world. (Or really, perhaps we should say “the study of ideas about the end of civilization and human extinction.”) Torres breaks it into two bits: secular risks, and religious views of eschatology. In the first category, he covers about a dozen potentially destructive issues, some of which are natural (e.g., supervolcanic eruptions, asteroid impacts), some of which are artificial (e.g., nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, nuclear war), and some of which are both (e.g., runaway climate change, ecological collapse due to biodiversity loss, pandemics). All are covered competently and efficiently, and as such The End is a productive survey for those wishing to dabble in ‘x-risks’ for the first time. In the category of artificial risks, Torres makes a nice distinction about dual-use technologies: those technologies we develop that could greatly improve lives if used ethically and thoughtfully, but could also be employed to nefarious ends, resulting in suffering or worse. Many of these dual-use technologies are becoming increasingly accessible to non-specialists at the same time our understanding of them becomes more complete and thus more powerful. The power to genetically edit organisms, for instance, could theoretically allow a terrorist who wants to inflict harm to merge the most lethal aspects of the Ebola virus with the transmissability of the common cold, and release the manufactured plague into a crowded place. Most people aren’t so motivated, but there are some who are. Torres points out that many of the key components for such a mission are now within reach to purchasers with a few thousand dollars. The threshold for access, both financial and conceptual, is being lowered all the time.
This is territory that was covered in the more formal academic papers gathered together under the title of Global Catastrophic Risks, edited by Nick Bostrom and Milan Ćirković, but Torres’s account of them is much more engaging, written for the non-specialist audience. It’s worth reading for that reason alone. He goes further though, but explicitly examining the role of religion as a contributing factor to the secular suite of existential risks, in particular those of anthropogenic origin. The two least engaging chapters of the book were the ones wherein Torres documents the End Times narratives of Christianity and Islam, but I only found these ‘non-engaging’ because they’re both so crazy with bizzarro details about predictions of future comings and goings of deities, resurrected prophets, anti-deities of various flavors, and the fates of various classes of souls. For someone who’s not a part of either faith, it makes for bonkers reading, just one nonsensical thing after another, untethered to reality the way the rest of the book is. But Torres has a master plan for delving into these details: The payoff comes when he returns to real life and discusses how these End Times narratives work in the minds of actual modern humans, navigating the world with its dual-use technologies and their religiously-inspired imperatives to help bring about prophecies they deem to be essential. That’s where the context of religious viewpoints really matter – because they motivate actual humans in their decision-making. Why does the U.S. care so much about the nation of Israel? Why does the Islamic State care so much about the little town of Dabiq in northern Syria? Both of these places are key localities in the apocalyptic narratives of the Christian and Islamic faiths. People with such a sense that they are helping to realize their god’s master plan may place a greater priority on enacting prophecy than on making life pleasant for humans dwelling on the physical Earth. This is a problem, and I agree with Torres that it needs to be considered as part of any complete survey of existential risks. That’s the second reason this book is important.
Torres makes the case for his [secular + religious] approach to eschatology in a consideration of the Fermi paradox – considering all the signals (radio waves) our civilization has been giving off into the cosmos for a century and a half, and given all the bazillions of stars in the sky, most of which probably host planets, where are the other civilizations? To Torres, steeped in thinking about these two branches of eschatology, the answer may well be: they’re all dead. Perhaps every civilization hits a point where powerful new technologies come into conflict with ancient, outmoded ideas, and the mixture turns out to be too volatile in at least one of many possible ways. The putative result is the self-induced extinction of technologically-advanced civilizations as the standard outcome. It’s a grim thought – but a sobering one, a thought that should motivate us to do everything in our power to understand existential risks, and build resistance and resilience to their threats.
One other thing I found exemplary about The End is that it devotes a chapter to the notion that our own consciousnesses could be intelligent algorithms in a simulation of a world. Matrix analogies aside, this idea is not as silly as it might at first appear. It is not only difficult to disprove or dismiss logically, but it carries with it a statistical case that it is probably true, in stark incongruity with our instincts. Quickly summarized: If we eventually build artificial general intelligence, we might well choose to run simulations wherein artificial intelligences play the role of people. (Call them ‘simulants.’) Imagine how much better economic models could be in such circumstances; such simulations might open up new experimental approaches for anthropology and sociology, wherein digital minds by the billions can be simulated, each thinking its own thoughts with idiosyncratic autonomy. These studies could yield great insights into the human condition, …or maybe they would just make for good entertainment. With sufficiently advanced AI at our fingertips, why not set aside scripted movies or ‘reality’ TV in favor of simulations, or maybe make the characters we face in video games think for themselves? In fact, any sufficiently advanced civilization probably would run these simulations for a panoply of reasons — perhaps even allowing the simulants to run their own simulations, like a set of nesting Russian dolls. The implication of this inference is profound: it means that most conscious minds in the universe are more likely than not to be simulated ones. If this is true, then it implies that we are more likely than not to be simulants, too. You should read Torres’s chapter on this on your own to see the way he presents it, which I found far more compelling than I ever could have expected to. I’ve read discourses by others on this topic before, but never before has the idea seemed really plausible or likely to me before The End. That’s the third big thing I got out of reading the book. It’s one short, speculative chapter in a 14 chapter book, but it stands alone as a topic worth considering, and this is the best summary I’ve read.
Similarly, Torres gives a very useful summary of epistemology, including known unknowns and the “unknown unknowns” that Donald Rumsfeld memorably brought to wider attention, but also a useful elucidation of the concept of unknowable concepts – ideas that we are “cognitively closed to,” in the same way that a pigeon’s brain is just never going to grasp the theory of general relativity, no matter how patiently you explain it. Our brains are organs evolved to do a certain job for hunter-gatherer bipedal primates, and it turns out this enables them to do a lot of things well, but that doesn’t mean they can comprehend everything. The standard list of cognitive pitfalls aside, our brains might be inherently and permanently limited in their ability to comprehend relevant risks – unknowable unknown unknowns. Grappling (as best you can) with the possibility of these “monsters” (as Torres calls them) is a fourth good reason I would recommend the book to you to read. (An appendix on the nature of truth serves as a nice primer on epistemology, too.)
All told: I think this is a really, really useful book that discusses really, really important stuff.
You should read it.