Category Archives: Book Reviews – Science

Review of Phil Torres’, The End: What Science and Religion Tell Us About the Apocalypse

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, March 25, 2016.)

The basic theme of Phil Torres’ new book, The End: What Science and Religion Tell Us about the Apocalypse, is that powerful new technologies threaten the survival of the entire human species. Moreover, belief in religious eschatologies, or end-times narratives, greatly exacerbate the problem. These superstitious, faith-based beliefs greatly increase the probability that our species will either annihilate itself, or fail to anticipate various existential threats because, as technology becomes more powerful, the ability of religious fanatics to realize some of their apocalyptic visions increases. Our predicament then is that “neoteric technologies and archaic belief systems are colliding with potentially catastrophic consequences.” (18)

Now religious believers have been crying that the “end is near” for a long time. Most biblical scholars see Jesus as a failed apocalyptic prophet, and throughout history many Christians have forecast that the end of the world was imminent. Eschatological beliefs play a large role in Islam as well, and many Muslims believe that Madhi will descend from heaven along with Jesus to usher in the end of the world. While such beliefs are silly, they are not irrelevant. When false beliefs influence us, they also can harm us.

Such considerations lead Torres to differentiate between religious and secular eschatology. Faith and revelation provide the epistemological foundation for supernatural eschatology, while reason, observation and evidence underlie the epistemological foundation of worries about natural threats. It follows then that rational persons should take the latter threats seriously, but not the former. We should worry that asteroids, pathogens, nuclear war, artificial intelligence and the like may destroy, but not worry that Jesus or Allah will. But again believers in religious eschatologies are dangerous, especially if they utilize advanced technologies to usher in their view of the apocalypse.

Yet, despite the real possibility that we will destroy ourselves, Torres argues that we typically underestimate existential risks. We have survived thus far, we reason, so we’ll probably continue to do so. But this is mistaken. For all we know many intelligent civilizations didn’t survive the disruptions caused by their advancing technologies, and superstitious religious apocalyptic visions. How we respond to this tension between secular and religious eschatologies will determine in large part whether we survive and flourish, or go extinct.

Such considerations lead Torres to claim: “This makes the topic of existential risks quite possibly the most important that one could study … everything we care about in the world, in this great experiment called civilization, depends on us preventing an existential catastrophe.” (26) Our descendants might live forever, traverse the universe, and become godlike. Or the universe might expand forever as cold, dark, and lifeless. Given these stakes, the study of existential risks is urgent, especially when you consider there are no second chances when it comes to existential catastrophe. What then are these naturalistic threats to our survival? Torres discusses them in turn.

Some are omnipresent, like the nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert. Their use could cause nuclear winter and the starvation, disease, or extinction that might follow. Pandemics caused by viruses and bacteria pose another threat, as does bio-terror unleashed by deranged individuals or groups, as well as the simple errors caused by the application of biotechnology. Molecular manufacturing may bring abundance, but may be used for nefarious purposes too. Moreover, out of control nanobots could conceivably destroy the biosphere. Superintelligence is also a danger, as unfriendly, indifferent or even friendly AI might destroy us, either accidentally or on purpose. Furthermore, given that there is a chance that we now live in a simulation, it is possible that we will simply be turned off.

Our interaction with nature may imperil us too. More than 50% of vertebrates have gone extinct in the last fifty years, and we may also be on the verge of a catastrophic collapse of the ecosystem which leaves the planet uninhabitable. In addition, global warming poses an existential threat, as do supervolcanoes, comets and asteroids.

One of the most interesting threats comes from what Torres calls monsters. These are risks caused by things that we cannot currently conceptualize. So there are unintended consequences of what we do, or do not do, and there are natural phenomena that endanger us of which we are unaware. If we do survive for another hundred years, we will probably look back on the present time and realize there were extinction scenarios that we didn’t even think of. But even if we avoid extinction for eons of time, the universe itself seems destined for oblivion, unless our progeny can somehow stop such universal forces.

Torres turns next to the way that religious beliefs about the future negatively affect prudent actions in the present. The most prominent examples are Christian dispensationalist and Islamic eschatologies. Dispensationalism, a set of Evangelical Christian beliefs about the future, demands, for example, that the United States defend Israel unconditionally. It also dictates that Christians be generally antagonistic toward Palestinians and other Arabs. Islamic eschatologies also influence both people and governments while clashing with Christian eschatologies. The problem is that these superstitious religious eschatologies both increase violence between groups now, as well as the probability of a secular apocalypse in the near future.

The perils posed by belief in religious eschatologies are difficult to overstate. Rather than believing that maximizing happiness is the point of life, as secularist tend to do, the religious tend to believe that doing some God’s will is the purpose of life. (Naturally they believe that they have access to the divine mind with their own small ape-like brains!)The problem is that religious beliefs are extraordinarily influential in people’s lives. And consider that by 2050 about 60% of the world’s population will be either Christian or Muslim.

What do the religious believe about the fate of the universe? More than 40% of Americans believe  that Jesus will probably or definitely return during their lifetime—almost 60% of Evangelical Christians of Americans believe this—while more than 60% of American Evangelicals believe in the Rapture. Moreover, many influential American politicians hold such beliefs. (To take one example, consider how religious conservatives in the American government feel compelled to deny global climate change.) In addition, almost half of all Muslims believe the return of Mahdi will occur during their lifetimes, and nearly the same amount expect to be alive to see Jesus return. Remember again that billions of people are either Christians or Muslims. So even if only a small percentage of them are fanatics determined to inflict catastrophic harm, there would still be millions of such people. And they would be armed with advanced technologies.

Given these many hazards we now face, are there good reasons to believe we can survive? While noted thinkers Steven Pinker and Michael Shermer are optimistic about the future based on past moral progress, Torres is less sanguine. The number of extinction scenarios has increased as our technology has advanced, so inferences from the past about our future survival aren’t helpful. This leads Torres to reject what he calls the “bottleneck hypothesis,” the idea that if we can squeeze through our current situation we’ll be fine. Instead he accepts the “parallel growth hypothesis,” the notion that future technologies will bring about so many new ways to annihilate ourselves that our extinction is practically certain.

Still, despite his misgivings, Torres offers multiple ways we might increase the chances of surviving. The most promising demands that we evolve into a posthuman species. In other words, to have descendants at all humans as we know them must go extinct. And, as Torres notes, this evolutionary transition will have to happen soon before we annihilate ourselves.

Other methods to increase our survivability include: 1) creating superintelligence; 2) colonizing space; 3) staggering technological development; 4)improving education, especially by teaching the critical thinking skills that undermine religious belief; 5) defeating the anti-intellectualism that closes minds; 6) better utilizing female minds; 7) supporting organizations that focus on existential risks; 8) reducing your environmental impact; 9) getting overpopulation under control; and 10) full-fledge revolt if all else fails.

There is little to find fault with in Torres’ analysis. The only thing I might say is that, while I agree that religion is generally as harmful as it is untrue, the secular apocalypse can arrive independent of any belief in a religious eschatology. We might use nuclear or chemical weapons to kill each other because we are greedy, aggressive, racist, ideological, or territorial; we might release pathogens or artificial intelligence that inadvertently annihilate us all; or asteroids or supervolcanoes could destroy us because we aren’t intelligent enough to stop them. Even without religious belief, any of this could happen.

So consideration of biological, psychological, social, cultural and economic factors are also important in understanding how we might avoid oblivion. Torres would no doubt agree. But his proposed solution for avoiding the apocalypse—reason, observation, and science over faith, revelation, and religion—works best against the threat posed to our survival by religious beliefs. However, it is less clear how this suggestion helps us avoid the challenges that ensue from human biology and psychology. Even if we augment our intelligence or even become omniscient, this would not be sufficient to assure our survival. I think we would also need to augment our moral faculties to enhance our chances of survival. So becoming posthuman—putting an end to human nature before it puts an end to us—gives us the best chance of their being any future for consciousness. However such recommendations obviously come with their own risks.

In conclusion let me say that Torres’ book is one of the most important ones recently published. It offers a fascinating study of the many real threats to our existence, provides multiple insights as to how we might avoid extinction, and it is carefully and conscientiously crafted. Perhaps what strikes me most about Torres’ book is how deeply it expresses his concern for the fate of conscious life, as well as his awareness of how tenuous consciousness is in the vast immensity of time and space. The author obviously loves life, and hates to see ignorance and superstition imperil it. He implores us to remember how the little light of consciousness that brightens this planet can be quickly extinguished—and that we will only be saved by reason and science. This is Torres’ central message, which he states most eloquently in his stirring conclusion:

While science, philosophy, art, culture, music, literature, poetry, fashion, sports, and all the other objects of civilization make life worth living, avoiding an existential catastrophe makes it possible. This makes eschatology, with its two interacting branches, the most important subject that one could study. Without an understanding of what the risks are before us, without an understanding of how the clash of eschatologies has shaped the course of world history, we will be impotent to defend against the threat of (self-)annihilation … Our situation has always been precarious, but it’s never been as precarious as it is today. If we want our children to have the opportunity of living the Good Life, or even existing at all, it’s essential that we learn to favor evidence over faith, observation over revelation, and science over religion as we venture into a dangerously wonderful future. (249)

Review of Marcelo Gleiser’s, The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning

(This review was reprinted in Humanity+ Magazine, June 10, 2014)

There is a new book on the intersection between science and the meaning of life: The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning  by Marcelo Gleiser, the Appleton Professor of Natural Philosophy and Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Dartmouth College.

Gleiser’s main thesis is that our observations yield only an “island of knowledge.”Thus there are limits to science’s ability to answer fundamental philosophical questions. These limits to our knowledge arise both from the tools we use to explore reality and the nature of physical reality itself. What we can know is limited by the speed of light, the uncertainty principle, the incompleteness theorem, and our own intellectual limitations. Recognizing these limits does not entail abandoning science and embracing religion. We should continue our scientific investigation of the nature of the cosmos, Gleiser argues, for by coming to know the universe we come to know ourselves. 

Obviously Gleiser is right–there are limits to scientific knowledge as the incompleteness theorem and uncertainty principle strongly suggest. As the island of our knowledge grows, so too does the ocean of uncertainty which surrounds it. Still science gives us our best chance to understand the nature of the cosmos, and hence the the most firm foundation upon which to understand the meaning of the cosmos.

Gleiser also argues that science and religion focus on the same question.

The urge to know our origins and our place in the cosmos is a defining part of our humanity. Creation myths of all ages ask questions not so different from those scientists ask today, when they ponder the quantum creation of the Universe “out of nothing,” or whether our Universe is but one among countless others, all of them exhalations of a timeless multiverse. The specifics of the questions and of the answers are, of course, entirely different, but not the motivation: to understand where we came from and what our cosmic role is, if any. To the authors of those myths, ultimate questions of origins were solely answerable through invocations of the sacred, as only the timeless could create that which exists within time. To those who do not believe that answers to such questions remain exclusively within the realm of the sacred, the challenge is to scrutinize the reach of our rational explanations of the world and examine how far they can go in making sense of reality and, by extension, of ultimate questions of origins.

Gleiser’s point here is uncontroversial—similar desires motivate creation myths and scientific cosmology. As for popularity, religious myths win hands down, but for those not attracted to religious answers Gleiser’s suggestion is insightful. They must make epistemic judgments and reconcile themselves with whatever comfort limited knowledge provides. This may not be an easy way to live, but it is an authentic way. Surely that counts for something. Gleiser’s book makes for a thoughtful read on a timeless topic, especially when humans are in desperate need of new narratives to replace the old religious ones.

Review of Martin Rees’, Our Final Hour

Our Final Hour: A Scientist’s Warning

Martin Rees is one of the most distinguished theoretical astrophysicists in the world. He has held some of the most honored positions in science, among which is his current title–England’s Astronomer Royal. It has been more than ten years since Rees published, and I first read, Our Final Hour: A Scientist’s Warning: How Terror, Error, and Environmental Disaster Threaten Humankind’s Future in this Century—On Earth and Beyond.(Interestingly, the book’s title when published in England was Our Final Century: … I have heard they changed the title to make the issue more dramatic for American audiences.) I thought it was time to revisit it.

Rees begins by acknowledging technology shock: “21st century science may alter human beings themselves—not just how they live.”He accepts the common wisdom that the next 100 years will see changes that dwarf those of the past 1000 years, yet he is skeptical about the validity of specific predictions. He gives numerous examples of forecasts that were wrong, of forecasts that were nearly impossible to make because a particular technology seemingly came out of nowhere, and of the forecasts that were never made—x-rays, nuclear energy, antibiotics, jet aircraft, computers, transistors, the internet, and more.

Despite these failed forecasts Rees insists: “Over an entire century, we cannot set limits on what science can achieve, so we should leave our minds open, or at least ajar, to concepts that now seem on the wilder shores of speculative thought. Superhuman robots are widely predicted for mid-century. Even more astonishing advances could eventually stem from fundamentally new concepts in basic science that haven’t yet even been envisioned and which we as yet have no vocabulary to describe.”2 In this context Rees argues that nanotechnology will enable computing power to progress according to Moore’s law for the next few decades, by which time computers will match the processing power of the human brain.

Rees, a most sober prognosticator, accepts as reasonable speculative claims concerning the malleability of our physical and psychic selves; there is a real possibility that our descendants will be immortal post-humans. With the caveat that present trends continue unimpeded, there are good reasons to think that some living now may live forever. He also accepts the plausibility of superintelligence: “A superintelligent machine could be the last invention humans ever make. Once machines have surpassed human intelligence, they could themselves design and assemble a new generation of even more intelligent ones. This could then repeat itself, with technology running towards a cusp, or ‘singularity, at which the rate of innovation runs away towards infinity.”3 Nonetheless he thinks such ideas exist on the fringes of science, bordering on science fiction, and he is not convinced that a singularity awaits our species even if science continues to advance unimpeded.

Thus I see Rees as forging a middle path. He recognizes the immense potential of scientific knowledge to transform reality, taking even the most fantastic predictions seriously, but he cautions us that some predictions are unlikely to ever come true. This brings us full circle back to the beginning of the book. Many forecasts will fail, many are impossible to make, and many things we don’t forecast will come to be. One of the main reasons for this, Rees says, is that technology doesn’t always proceed as fast as it would if there were only technical barriers to be overcome. There may be social, religious, political, ethical, or economic considerations that impede swift development of new technologies. In short, its hard to predict … especially the future!  

Of course any prediction about the future comes with the caveat that we don’t destroy ourselves. Rees takes such extinction scenarios seriously. “Throughout most of human history, the worst disasters have been inflicted by environmental forces—floods, earthquakes, volcanoes, and hurricanes—and by pestilence. But the greatest catastrophes of the 20th century were directly induced by human agency…”What Rees has in mind are the nearly 200 million persons were killed by war, massacre, persecution, famine, etc. in the 20th century alone. (Despite such somber statistics Steven Pinker has argued that we live more peacefully than ever before in human history. For more see his book: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.

Rees lists multiple extinction scenarios: global nuclear war; nuclear mega-terror; biothreats (the use of chemical and biological weapons); laboratory errors  (for example, accidentally create a new virulent smallpox virus); nanotech “grey goo” (nanobots out of control that consume all organic matter—although this has recently been downplayed by Eric Drexler and others); particle physics experiments gone awry; environmental or climate change, asteroid impacts; and super-eruptions from Earth that block the sun. He notes that most of the threats to our survival come from us. Rees himself has wagered $1000 on the following proposition: “That by the year 2020 an instance of bio-error or bio-terror will have killed a million people.”5

In the end Rees argues that one of two fates will befall humankind: 1) they will go extinct; or 2) they or their descendants will expand throughout space. Which will happen is unknown; after all it is hard to predict the future. Yet Rees books serves as a reminded that the human future is largely up to us.

1. Our Final Hour, 9.
2. Our Final Hour, 16.
3. Our Final Hour, 19.
4. Our Final Hour,  25.
5. Our Final Hour,  74.

E. O. Wilson: To Young Scientists and the Conquest of Earth

Just finished reading both of E. O. Wilson’s latest books: Letters to a Young Scientist, and The Social Conquest of Earth. There are plenty of reviews out there but here are some brief thoughts.

What struck me about Letters to a Young Scientist was his sincere and honest plea for young students to become scientists. Had I heard his message 40 years ago I would have become a biologist. How the survival of the world depends on society producing individuals who know enough about the biosphere to show us how to halt our destruction of it.

This advice followed directly from the former book, The Social Conquest of Earth. Here he asks the great questions: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? And without spoiling his conclusions the arts and humanities still have something to say about this, but only when informed deeply by modern science. We have as a species conquered earth, but we need young scientists who understand the sciences to truly be its caretakers.