Don’t Be Comforted by Failed Apocalypses

Cross-post from Cold Button Issues.

Is the world at risk of ending soon? One answer is no and people predicting a proximate apocalypse will make a fool out of themselves, just like everybody who predicted this in the past. Ryan Briggs just offered a version of this argument. Briggs pointed out that lots of people have predicted a total upheaval of the world, or its end at the hands of super-beings (gods) and as far as we know those predictions have always failed.

Not everyone finds this style of argument convincing.

One response to Briggs is that contemporary arguments for apocalypses or existential risk are just much more sophisticated and likely to be correct than older arguments. Or perhaps philosophers and scientists are better at predicting the end of the world than pastors and theologians. Maybe.

Objectors can also zero in on a particular world-ending threat, normally artificial intelligence but sometimes something else, and explain that we have very specific reasons to be afraid of this type of apocalypse. Another rebuttal is that the accuracy of religious apocalyptic predictions tells us nothing about the accuracy of secular apocalyptic predictions.

But I think a better response to people bringing up failed apocalyptic predictions is that we must live in a world where the world didn’t end- otherwise we wouldn’t be around to observe it. We are doomed to under-estimate the risk of the world ending because whoever is making these estimations have to exist in order to make them.

Ćirković, Sanderg, and Bostrom call this anthropic shadow. They point out that we can’t use history to estimate every type of existential risk because our existence is predicated on them not happening. They suggest that we are likely underestimating all kinds of existential risks including death by asteroids, supervolanoes, and gamma ray bursts. We can only notice that doomsday preachers are wrong, when we survive doomsday because it doesn’t happen. For all we know, doomsday preachers may be great at their job.

One response and the one recommended by Ćirković, Sanderg, and Bostrom is to take this challenge seriously and invest more in research to try to gauge how at risk is the world from various threats

Maybe we could also try to prioritize interventions that might keep humanity alive through various types of disasters- interplanetary expansion perhaps.

A less optimistic implication is that the far future may be far emptier than we think. Maybe we should eat and drink and be merry- or more altruistically focus on helping people today.