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Review of Phil Torres’ “Morality, Foresight & Human Flourishing
John G. Messerly   Nov 6, 2017   Reason and Meaning  

Phil Torres has just published an important new book: Morality, Foresight, and Human Flourishing: An Introduction to Existential Risks. Torres is the founding Director of the Project for Future Human Flourishing, which aims to both understand and mitigate, existential threats to humanity. Astronomer Royal of the United Kingdom Martin Rees writes the book’s foreword, where he states that it “draws attention to issues our civilization’s entire fate may depend on.” (13) We would do well to take this statement seriously—our lives may depend on it.

The book is a comprehensive survey of existential risks such as asteroid impacts, climate change, molecular nanotechnology, and machine superintelligence. It argues that avoiding an existential catastrophe should be among our highest priorities, and it offers strategies for doing so. But are we especially likely to go extinct today? Is today a particularly perilous time? While Steven Pinker, in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, argues that we live in the most peaceful time in human history, Torres replies that “we might also live in the most dangerous period of human history ever. The fact is that our species is haunted by a growing swarm of risks that could either trip us into the eternal grave of extinction or irreversibly catapult us back into the Stone Age.” (21) I think Torres has it right.

And while we have lived in the shadow of nuclear annihilation for more than 70 years, the number of existential risk scenarios are increasing. How great a threat do we face? ABout 20% of the experts surveyed by the Future of Humanity Institute believe we will go extinct by the end of this century. Rees is even more pessimistic, arguing that we have only a 50% of surviving the century. And the doomsday clock reflects such warnings; it currently rests at two-and-a-half minutes to midnight. Compare all this to your chance of dying in an airplane crash or being killed by terrorists—the chance of either is exceedingly small.

Torres uses the Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom’s definition of existential risk:

An existential risk is one that threatens the premature extinction of Earth-originating intelligent life or the permanent and drastic destruction of its potential for desirable future development. (27)

Bostrom also differentiates between total annihilation, and existential risks that prevent us from achieving post-humanity. The latter category includes: permanent technological stagnation; flawed technological realization; and technological maturity and subsequent ruination. Bostrom also distinguishes risks in terms of scope—from personal to trans-generational—and intensity—from imperceptible to terminal. Existential risks are both trans-generational and terminal.

As Torres notes, what is important to realize about these risks is that they are singular events that happen only once. Thus our strategies to deal with them must be anticipatory not reactionary, and this makes individual and governmental action to deal with such risks unlikely. Furthermore, the reduction of risks is a global public good, precisely the kind of goods the market is poor at providing. So while future generations would pay astronomical sums to us to increase their chance of living happily in the future, we wouldn’t necessarily benefit from our efforts to save the future.

But why should we care about existential risks? Consider that while a pandemic killing 100 million would be a tragedy, as would the death of any subsequent 100 million people, the death of the last 100 million people on earth would be exponentially worse. Civilization is only a few thousand years old, and we may have an unimaginably long and bright future ahead of us, perhaps as post-humans. If so, total annihilation would be unimaginably tragic, ending a civilization perhaps destined to conquer both the stars and themselves. Thus the expected value of the future is astronomically high, a concept that Torres calls “the astronomical value thesis.” Torres conveys this point with a striking image.

the present moment …. is a narrow foundation upon which an extremely tall skyscraper rests. The entire future of humanity resides in this skyscraper, towering above us, stretching far beyond the clouds. If this foundation were to fail, the whole building would come crashing to the ground. Since this would be astronomically bad according to the above thesis, it behooves us to do everything possible to ensure that the foundation remains intact. The future depends crucially on the decisions we make today … and this is a moral burden that everyone should feel pressing down on their shoulders. (42)

As to why we should value future persons, Torres argues that considerations of  one’s place in time have as little to do with moral worth as considerations of space—moral worth does not depend on what country you live in. Furthermore, discounting future lives is counter-intuitive from a moral point of view. Is a life now really worth the lives of a billion or a trillion future ones? It seems not. Clearly living persons have no special claim to moral worth, and thus they should do what they can to reduce the possibility of catastrophe.

Next Torres addresses how cognitive biases distort thinking about the future—most people don’t think far into the future. Moreover, throughout history humans have thought their generation was the last one. Even today more that 40% of US Christians think that Jesus will probably or definitely return in their lifetimes, and many more Muslims believe the Mahdi will do so too. And, since these apocalyptic scenarios have not yet occurred, one might be skeptical of scientific worries about global catastrophic risks. The difference is that scientific concerns about the end are based on reason and evidence as opposed to being based in religious faith. We should heed the former and ignore the latter. However, Torres is aware that we live in an anti-intellectual age, especially in America, so reasonable concerns often go unheeded and superstition rules the day.

Torres also hopes that understanding the etiology of existential risk will help us eliminate their catastrophic effects. To better understand causal risks Torres  distinguishes:

natural risks—super volcanoes, pandemics, asteroids, etc.
anthropogenic risks—nuclear weapons, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, etc.
unintended risks—climate change, environmental damage, physics experiments, etc.
other risks—geoengineering, bad governance, unforeseen risks, etc., and
context risks—some combination of any of the above.

Next Torres proposes strategies for mitigating catastrophic threats. He divides these strategies as follows: 1) agent oriented; 2) tool-oriented; and 3) other options. Agent-oriented strategies refer mostly to cognitive and moral enhancement of individuals, but also with lessening environmental triggers, creating friendly AI, and improving social conditions. Tool-oriented strategies focus on reducing the destructive power of our existing tools, or altogether relinquishing future technologies that pose existential risks, or developing defensive technologies to deal with potential risks. Other strategies include: space colonization, tracking near-earth objects, stratospheric geonengineering, and creating subterranean, aquatic, or extraterrestrial bunkers.

His discussion of cognitive and moral enhancements is particularly illuminating. Cognitive enhancements, especially radical ones like nootropics, machine-brain interfaces, genetic engineering and embryo selection, seem promising. Smart beings would be less likely to do stupid things like destroy themselves, the cognitively enhanced might discover threats from phenomena that unenhanced beings could never discern, etc. The caveat is that smarter individuals are better at carrying out their nefarious plans, and cognitive enhancements would expedite the development of new technologies, perhaps making our situation more perilous.

Similar concerns surround the issue of biological moral enhancements. Why not augment the moral dispositions of empathy, caring, and justice through genetic engineering, neural implants or mostropics? One problem is that the unenhanced may prove to be a great threat to the morally enhanced, so the system may only be safe if everyone is enhanced.  Another problem is that the morally enhanced may become even more fervent in their pursuit of justice, at the expense of those who have a different view of what is just. In fact, concerns about justice often motivate immoral acts. So we can’t be sure that moral bioenhancements are the answer either.

(My own view is that we will not survive without radical cognitive and moral enhancement. Reptilian brains and twenty-first century technology are a toxic brew, and there is nothing sacrosanct about remaining modified monkeys. We should transform ourselves as soon as possible. Yes this is risky, but there is no risk-free way to proceed.)

Torres concludes by considering multiple a priori arguments which purportedly demonstrates that we considerably underestimate the possibility of our annihilation, arguments I find compelling. Still Torres doesn’t want to give in to pessimism. Instead, he recommends an active optimism which recognizes risks, and tries to eliminate them. So while we may be intellectually pessimistic about the future, we can still work to save the world. As Torres concludes: “The invisible hand of time inexorably pushes us forward, but the direction in which we move is not entirely outside of our control.” (223)

Reflections

This is a work of extraordinary depth and breadth, and it is carefully and conscientiously crafted. Its arguments are philosophically sophisticated, and often emotionally moving as well. Torres’ concern with preserving a future for our descendants is sincere, and readers come away from the work convinced that the problems of existential risk are of utmost importance. After all, existence is the prerequisite for … everything.

Yet reading the work fills me with sadness and despair too. For a possible, unimaginably glorious future seems to depend on the most reckless, narcissistic, uniformed, and vile among us. The future seems to rest primarily in the hands of those ignorant of both the delicate foundations of civilization that separates us from a warlike state of nature, and the fragility of an ecosystem and biosphere that shield us from a cold, dark, and inhospitable universe. But, as Torres counsels, we must not give in to pessimism, and our optimism must not be passive. Instead, our hope that we can save the world must inspire action.

For in the end what keeps us going is the hope that the future might be better than the past. That, if anything, is what gives our lives meaning. If we are not as links in a golden chain leading onward and upward toward higher states of being and consciousness, then what is the point of our little lives? But to be successful in this quest, we must both survive and flourish, which is what Torres calls on us to do. Let us hope we listen.

John G. Messerly is an Affiliate Scholar of the IEET. He received his PhD in philosophy from St. Louis University in 1992. His most recent book is The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Scientific, and Transhumanist Perspectives. He blogs daily on issues of philosophy, evolution, futurism and the meaning of life at his website: reasonandmeaning.com.



COMMENTS

“While Steven Pinker, in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, argues that we live in the most peaceful time in human history”

Which is true- yet not saying a whole lot.

” ’ we might also live in the most dangerous period of human history’ “

Naturally we do. Everyone knows/senses it. It has become a platitude.

“cognitive enhancements would expedite the development of new technologies, perhaps making our situation more perilous”

Already the case.

“If we are not as links in a golden chain leading onward and upward toward higher states of being and consciousness, then what is the point of our little lives?”

To have children and grandchildren? Such would appear to be the reality.

“Still Torres doesn’t want to give in to pessimism”

Sure, otherwise why write another Big Book About The future? 

“Instead, our hope that we can save the world must inspire action”

Everybody says so- but they pass the buck to other people. Which segues to:

“Phil Torres has just published an important new book”

Every day countless important (to someone) new books—incl. on the Web—are published. The ink in all of the printed books could power engines; the fibers could be used to build houses…

“and this is a moral burden that everyone should feel pressing down on their shoulders”

Really now, John? More important to them than what they are going to have for lunch?

“The difference is that scientific concerns about the end are based on reason and evidence”

Pure science, yes. Applied science?: that is where things start to get dicey.

“there is nothing sacrosanct about remaining modified monkeys. We should transform ourselves as soon as possible. Yes this is risky, but there is no risk-free way to proceed”

Agreed.. problem is “ourselves”
The overwhelming majority of people may well decide giving up the filial-based ‘natural’ life of today would not be worth the gain.

“Let us hope we listen”

Hope we listen? Should we send a Memo to ourselves?

“However, Torres is aware that we live in an anti-intellectual age, especially in America, so reasonable concerns often go unheeded and superstition rules the day”

Perhaps the public is tired of Big Books About The Future?

 

If humanity passes into “post-humanity”, isn’t by definition “humanity” over with?

Either way?

It’s starting to seem to me that if one believes the myths’ of today, one is going to end up a “demi-god”, or a “pile of ashes”.  Doesn’t this almost always boil down to a fear of/for one’s own mortality?  Sure there’s the catchall, “Humanity”, but really who’s live’s are trying to be saved more often than not with every argument?

...to an extent Survival of the Fittest (Evolution) are those who adjust to the circumstances as they arise instead of sitting around prophesying, or arguing about events going on (whether they are or not, and if they’re going to happen or not).

In a sense, isn’t this all inductive reasoning?  With that logic I could just as likely keel over in the next half-hour from a smote from God….

This is good- it is something to think about for a long long time:

“Sure there’s the catchall, ‘Humanity’, but really who’s live’s are trying to be saved more often than not with every argument?
...In a sense, isn’t this all inductive reasoning?”

Yes.
‘Course, there’re no answers to it, otherwise someone would write a Big Important Book (BIB) about it.

“If humanity passes into ‘post-humanity’, isn’t by definition ‘humanity’ over with? Either way?”

Yes.
If. Doesn’t seem that humanity will choose to be post-human. At this time it strongly appears the overwhelming number of humans will stay with being transhumans: all sorts of operations and medical procedures. Post-humanity, though, means relinquishing much of the past/present (e.g.filial piety).
The lives people lead.. in general.. are considered tolerable in furthering so much of the past/present that the future is relegated to something to be put off for as long as possible. A quick example: right now, what are we heading into?- the Holiday Season; no linkage between St. Nicholas and the future, save commerciality. Or The Pilgrims, and whatever it is in Europe which does in fact give a warm fuzzy feeling to billions of people around the world. ‘I have seen the past—and it works!’
Naturally it is a platitude to write six of one a dozen of another. Choose to be posthuman and one does choose to lose what it means to be human. Choose to remain human/transhuman, and take the consequences. Or even decide to be a tree hugger, and one can live a brutish yet not necessarily nasty and short life.
Don’t know, but do know if space is ‘colonized’, the colonization might be posthuman-colonization—in such an outcome the collective sapien-noun ‘colony’ might not apply.

The one thing I’ve learned about future is that no-one can predict the future. Prediction makes sense to a gamer- however that is the extent of it at this time. Don’t know about AI/AGI—and frankly don’t want to know; too mindboggling except for the greatest of minds.

“instead of sitting around prophesying, or arguing about events”

True enough albeit it doesn’t involve sitting around… IMO it means, again, putting off the future for as long as possible. Of the seven billion+ people on Earth today, only a very few (an—not The—elect, a Nietzschian-type super-people) are actually interested a posthuman future.

I’m not anti-intellectual however do think intellectuals are very frequently academic con-artists. But necessary con-artists. Glue all their books together and houses could be built for everyone. Now that is facetious- but still the resources put into books and papers mean in a sense we are destroying the world by attempting to ‘save’ it.

...PS, am not criticizing intellectuals for being elitist- but rather, for being clueless.
And what to DO? thinking about the future is not destructive, RJP8915, doing is. We do things hoping we are not as destructive as we know deep down we are. We are gamers, pretending our actions are not so destructive: we pretend it is that someone else’s actions are.

If you wish to reply, by all means do so. But I have nothing more to write on this. What is there to say?

Hmm, not sure why I’m going to bother replying then, but here’s a tilt.  Why are we seen as so destructive in such a deep manner?  Perhaps it’s the narrative?  I mean even with the current pinnacle of destructive technology, nuclear weapons.  We aren’t really impacting the “objective world”....just ourselves.

The universe allows, and takes part in the destructive narrative.  Hurricanes, super novae, black holes, and a whole host of other “natural” phenomena.  We are effectively nothing in a materialist objectified world, but in a “spiritual sense” we are the world.

Is either viewpoint more valid than the other, no.  Why should a little entity on a planet called “Earth” in the native tongue be any more important than an entity on the planet “Byrea” (fictional planet w/ fictional species).

The only thing that is certain is that we exist, and it is from that point where we have to circumscribe our “Reality”.  Ex; The Problem of Evil is dependent upon the Narrative.  As a spin off of Christianity, the “Problem of Evil” is a choice in Narrative.  What happens if the narrative is changed to the idea of, “Why does the concept of a “God” exist itself in the first place”?

Ex; Jesus was Evil to the Jews.

Is it easier to rationalize a Worldview of “suffering/pain/evil” if there is no appellations to a deity?  What if the concept of “I AM” (God) is really just a recognition of self-awareness?  It puts the impetus upon us to become more responsible, and seek to correct perceived wrongs in the world.  Does it not?

Jesus is just a name for a person (nearly the same meaning as Joshua), and Christ means “The Anointed” in old Greek.  After all, if we weren’t given a name upon birth, or a title to identify ourselves by.  What would we call “ourselves”?  “I AM”, perhaps, a raw, and unbridled awareness?

Just some idle rambling, I guess.

Am a rambler too- and never wrote I would not reply; wrote that I have nothing to say. Doing is what counts yet we live in a world that with one side of its mouth advises:

“look before you leap.”

However, with the other side of its mouth, the world says;

“he who hesitates is lost.”

A double-minded planet. Leave it at that.

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