Below are my notes regarding Chapter 1 of Thomas Moynihan's book X-Risk: How Humanity Discovered Its Own Extinction, which are essentially structured transcriptions. Any errors/misinterpretations are my own.

A Fateful Question

  • Assuming a naturalistic origin to life and mind, and taking into consideration the titanic size and age of the universe, so the argument goes, there should be other, much older—and thus more advanced—civilisations ‘out there’.
  • And there are good reasons to presume that such extremely advanced civilisations would be visible to us in one way or another.
  • With recent discoveries revealing innumerable terrestrial exoplanets, the discovery on Earth of extremophile lifeforms that thrive in inhospitable environments, and the realisation that our own planet is a relative latecomer on the galactic scene, the urgency of the Paradox has only intensified since [Enrico] Fermi’s time.

Bringing The Paradox Home

  • Fermi, one of the chief architects of the atom bomb, seems himself to have immediately made the inference that perhaps we don’t see interstellar colonisation efforts because ‘technological civilization doesn’t last long enough for it to happen’.

A Timely Concern And An Emerging Discipline

  • Tellingly, many scientists suggest dating the beginning of the Anthropocene age to the first nuclear detonation on the 16th of July 1945.
  • Moving forward to 2020, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has lately moved their Doomsday Clock, which measures our proximity to planetary catastrophe, to ‘100 seconds to midnight’.
  • The CEO of Tesla, Elon Musk, in conversation with Joe Rogan, watched by a YouTube audience of tens of millions, has recently popularised the notion that an artificial intelligence unaligned with our goals and values may cause the extinction of our species.

Futures Potential And Perfect

  • Nonetheless, it is crucial to note at this juncture that the major motivation for research into X-risk is not doomy pessimism but resolute optimism concerning our collective future.
  • Projected upper limits for potential human-like beings, if we use all available computational resources even in the latest stages of the dying cosmos, sit at around a googol—in decimal notation, the digit 1 followed by 100 zeros.

History Of The Future

  • These findings [iridium deposits and an impact crater dating to the end of the Cretaceous Period] provided convincing evidence for the hypothesis that the dinosaurs were extinguished by an asteroid impact, overturning centuries of scientific presumption that large-scale catastrophes and mass extinction events—particularly those arising from extraterrestrial causes—could not have played a decisive role in the prior history of life on Earth.
  • This sense of insecurity was only increased by the repeated failures of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) to return any evidence of extraterrestrial civilisations — and the attendant intensification of Fermi’s Paradox.
  • Each of these developments [Population Ethics, Doomsday Argument and Anthropic Cosmological Principle] proved instrumental because they innovatively applied analytical rigour and precision to topics previously confined to the miasma of the purely conjectural and speculative or relegated to the domain of science fiction rather than science.

Before The Bomb

  • Concerted thinking about human extinction, then, appears to be a phenomenon primarily of the post-atomic age.
  • However, as improbable and remote as it may have seemed, and however far it was from becoming a sober policy issue, this did not stop thinkers prior to the advent of nuclear weapons from musing upon extinction’s unique moral severity.

Enlightenment, Extinction, Apocalypse

  • Existential risk is a concept that thinkers have been piecing together, slowly but surely, for quite some time—as mentioned above, since the Enlightenment.
  • Religious prophecies concerning apocalypse are designed to reveal the ultimate meaning and morality of things.
    • Extinction, by direct contrast, reveals precisely nothing, and this is because it instead prognosticates the end of morality and meaning itself. For if there are no humans, there is by definition nothing humanly meaningful left.
  • Judgement Day allows us to feel comfortable in the knowledge that, in the end, the universe is ultimately in tune with what we call justice (even if its sentences are divine and inscrutable). In this sense, nothing was ever truly at stake.
    • Extinction, on the other hand, alerts us to the fact that all that we hold dear has forever been in jeopardy. Or, in other words, that everything is at stake.
  • In short, apocalypse is premised upon a projection of our values and a naive identification of those values with the universe at large. Extinction, in starkest contrast, rests upon an appreciation that the universe is utterly unresponsive to our moral wishes and our sense of justice.

A Perennially Overlooked Distinction

  • Where apocalypse secures the sense of an ending, extinction anticipates the ending of sense. One is conciliatory, the other inconsolable. As such, they are distinct and incompatible conceptions.
  • Distinct in kind, they are also distinct in origin.

Plenty To Go Around

  • It [Principle of Plenitude] is the assumption that there is nothing that can be realised in nature that somehow forever fails to be realised.
  • It results from an unwarranted projection of rational values onto nature: we consider waste irrational, and if there is something that could be but simply never is, this seems like a waste.
  • Likewise, it seems like reckless irrational squandering for nature to go to all the work of producing a species only to annihilate it forever.
  • Furthermore, the assumption that nothing is ever permanently lost also entails the indestructibility of value.
    • Hence, no X-risk.

Indestructible Value

  • It [presumption of plenitude] derives, ultimately, from the same intuition that leads to belief in apocalypse and Judgement Day.
  • That the cosmos itself is inherently imbued with rational value and justice—a belief that goes back to the roots of Western philosophy.
  • It [belief that the cosmos is inherently moral in structure] projects onto independent nature our deeply intuitive belief that everything that exists is somehow, without any further qualification, in itself, morally good, and has a reason to be as it is.
  • Without too much risk of overgeneralisation, it can be said that pre-Enlightenment thinking is typified by this tendency to conflate moral values and natural facts.

The End Of All Values

  • It was only when it was realised that reason and morality were not inherent features of the physical universe, but were in fact something localised to the activities of thinking creatures, that we could become gripped by the possibility that thought may entirely cease to exist, and be driven to predict and plan so as to prevent this outcome.
  • It is this realisation that first made us truly care about our future, began dragging our perspective deeper and deeper into the future, and continues to do so.

Things To Come

  • Core claim of this book: that the discovery of human extinction may well yet prove to have been the very centrepiece of that unfolding and unfinished drama that we call modernity.
    • In discovering our own extinction, we realised that we must think ever better because, should we not, then we may never think ever again.
  • Chapter 2 looks into the burgeoning appreciation that outer space is not teeming with humanoid life, foreshadowing current discussion within what is called astrobiology.
  • Chapter 3 attends to the emerging awareness of the vicissitudes of our own planet’s natural history, focusing on the birth of the geological sciences and the acknowledgement of our placement within an unstable Earth system.
  • Chapter 4 turns to the consolidation of a mathematical understanding of risk itself, inspecting the early origins of probabilistic long-term forecasting and what later came to be called futurology; investigating the first speculations on human self-annihilation or omnicide.
  • Chapter 5 explores the lineage of thinkers who conclude that extinction is the inevitable culmination of technological modernity.
  • Chapter 6 reassesses the all-important notion of a human vocation or the idea that humanity itself constitutes a type of daring project, and attends to the Enlightenment origins of this guiding ideal as a way of updating it for the billion year perspectives of twenty-first-century science and our oncoming age of global risk.


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1 comment, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 10:35 AM

Thanks for this very helpful for a post-religious person like myself.