(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)