From global climate change to nuclear war, there are many things threatening our existence at any given time. Existential risks are those that endanger the existence of the entire human species. These are threats that can potentially lead to human extinction, or cause irreversible damage to the human civilization.
End-times worries and predictions are nothing new: philosophers and religious figures have been proclaiming that “the end is near” for thousands of years during our human history.
There is even a special field of theology focused on studying end-times narratives, called Eschatology. Traditionally, this field of study was mainly a religious one. However, in the modern times scientists have also taken an interest in end times scenarios, and a new field of existential risk studies was born.
Existential Risk Studies
The field of existential riskology attempt to understand and weigh these threats, and to come up with ways to lessen or mitigate them. It became a serious scientific field of study after the 2nd world war – no surprisingly. In 1947, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists created a “Doomsday clock” to symbolize how close the world is to global disaster – the closer the hand of the clock is to midnight, the greater the threat.
In 2015, the hand of the clock was moved to 3 minutes until midnight – the second closest we have ever been to potential global disaster. Concerns over lack of action about global climate change and the stockpiling of nuclear weapons by many countries were the main reasons for this. Since the establishment of the doomsday clock, the only time the hand of the clock was closer to midnight was in 1953, when the United States and Soviet Union both detonated thermonuclear bombs.
Future Technologies and Existential Risks
As we progress through the 21st century and develop new technologies like nanotechnology, biotechnology, artificial intelligence, we will be faced with new existential risks the likes of which we have never seen before. As these technologies become more advanced and more accessible to an average person, the risk of abuse or misuse will also increase.
It is important to study the scientific data that has to do with the major existential risks we are facing today. Risks like climate change can no longer be denied, considering how much data we have that undisputedly proves that it is real and man-made. It is also important to look ahead and understand what risks we will be facing in 10, 20, 30 years.
Phil Torres and the Religious Extremism Factor
Phil Torres is a researcher and author who has been studying existential risks for a number of years. He has worked with the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies for nearly 10 years, where he is an affiliate scholar. He has recently published a book called The End: What Science and Religion Tell Us about the Apocalypse. In this episode, we speak with Phil about his research and views on the main existential risk humanity will face in the 21st century, and the possible solutions to them.
Phil’s research focuses on the interplay of future technologies, and those who could abuse or misuse them. His book puts special attention on religions that have end-times narratives, and the people who may be interested in bringing those predictions into reality.
“When one’s beliefs are not properly anchored to the evidence, chances are that’s going to be bad. You’re trying to navigate objective reality with beliefs that have nothing to do with objective reality.” – Phil Torres
In This Episode of Future Thinkers Podcast:
- [03:05] – What existential risks we are facing today?
- [05:00] – Existential risks of the future
- [07:10] – Why religious narratives are an important thing to study
- [12:31] – Understanding the relationship between the “agents” and the “tools”
- [14:24] – Potential solutions to future existential risks
- [21:20] – Alarm vs. Alarmists
- [31:59] – How can increasing empathy help?
- [42:04] – Optimism for the future
Mentions and Resources:
- Phil Torres’ website
- Centre for the study of existential risk at Cambridge
- Future of humanities institute at Oxford
- Doomsday clock
- Nick Bostrom on existential risk
- Empathy pill
- God on the brain, documentary film
More From Future Thinkers:
- Apocalypse and the Cognitive Vertigo of Reality with Duncan Trussell (FTP034)
- Our 5-part Interview with Vinay Gupta on Techno-Social Systems and Enlightenment (FTP018, 19, 26, 27, 28)
- The Exponential Revolution: Are You Prepared? (FTP014)
- Global Phase Shift with Daniel Schmachtenberger (FTP036)