Getting Outside Ourselves

I recently responded to a rather nice blog post by Herb Silverman as follows:

The average lifespan of a Drosophila fruit fly is about 30 days. Imagine what it observes from its perspective: young humans, old humans, middle-aged humans, wandering through the world. No single fruit fly observes a human of one sort turning into another. From its "pre-theoretic" point of view, it only sees "types" of humans that are more or less "fixed" across time (the 30 days of its life). There's no direct evidence of human aging in any single fruit fly generation. Then a particularly clever fruit fly comes along and claims that -- all intuitions to the contrary -- one type of human can actually turn into another: little children can get taller, become adults, and then become gray and wizened. I understand how this might be difficult for fruit flies to accept. And yet it's true: people do age! We're in the exact same position with respect not to development, but to evolution. I understand why evolution (speciation, transmutation) is hard to believe. But a lack of imagination and openness to the evidence is no excuse in 2015. ...

The moral of this analogy concerns the need to overcome our "natural" ways of thinking about the world -- to get outside ourselves, so to speak. Doing this is becoming increasingly important as we venture into the twenty-first century, a qualitatively new kind of epoch in which a growing number of anthropogenic existential risks are threatening to snap off the only remaining twig on the once-bushy branch of Homo, namely us.

Perhaps you've heard it said that science education involves more unlearning than learning. This is correct for two reasons. The first pertains to Richard Dawkins' notion of "Middle World," or the mesoscopic level of reality on which we exist. Over the past 2.5 million years, beginning with "man the maker" (Homo habilis), the human mind evolved both on and for the particular circumstances of this level. As a result, most mesoscopic objects, events, happenings, occurrences, and phenomena fall within our conceptual grasp.

When we attempt to understand things on the micro- and macro-scopic levels of reality, though, we begin to encounter mental roadblocks, some being quite insuperable. Quantum mechanics provides copious examples. Interestingly, it might be that quantum phenomena aren't intrinsically difficult to understand. The problem may simply be that we're trying to understand such phenomena with the wrong mental machinery! An alien cognitive architecture might find, say, 11 spatial dimensions as easy to grasp as the concept of digestion is for us to wrap our heads around.

In a phrase: "It's not you (abstruse phenomena), it's me (and my brain): the three pound lump of Jell-O between my ears was designed to make sense of a very narrow range of things in the universe."

But we didn't just evolve in Middle World -- we also evolved in a World of Immediacy. That is to say, there was nothing about life the grassy savanna that required deep historical or futurological thinking to successfully propagate one's genes: what mattered was the short-term. In fact, thinking too much about the distant future (or distant past) would probably have been disadvantageous, since mental resources are limited and, well, there might be a lion behind that tree. Surviving the hostilities of the savanna would have required thinking about today, not about what East Africa might be like two decades from now.

In sum, evolution designed the computer inside our skulls to focus on small picture issues. The brain is a "dedicated machine," and the thing to which it's dedicated is a small spotlight surrounding each of us in both space and time. (This is why we employ conceptual metaphors all the time in our thinking: we use what we already know as a vehicle for understanding phenomena we otherwise would struggle to grasp.)

In the contemporary world, this is a problem -- and not just because it's dumb to reject evolution in 2015, given the Everest of available evidence in its favor. It's a problem because humanity will have to confront a rapidly expanding constellation of apocalyptic hazards in the twenty-first century -- risks that threaten to relocate us from the category of "extant" to that of "extinct." This is not hyperbole: advanced technologies with dual use capabilities have introduced annihilation scenarios that no creature on earth has ever encountered.

While some of these scenarios are speculative -- e.g., a recursively self-improving artificial intelligence that thrusts the amity-enmity problem upon us -- many others others are not -- e.g., an engineered pandemic, a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan, an unstable arms race involving molecular manufacturing, and a volcanic supereruption (which happens to be about twice as likely as an asteroid / comet impact). Just because many religionists in the past have cried "wolf" and been utterly wrong doesn't mean that a vicious canine isn't creeping up behind us right now. (In fact, it is.)

The point is that these existential risks require exactly the sort of big picture thinking that our brains were never designed to engage in, at least not efficiently. Risks of this variety are global in spatial scope, transgenerational in temporal scope, and terminal in intensity (Figure A). As a result, they are the hardest of all risk types for us humans to meaningfully grasp. This is why the field of x-riskology continues to be severely underfunded (see the "Outlook" section here) -- and it's why a large portion of humanity persists in its misplaced skepticism about global warming and biodiversity loss (both of which are real and potentially catastrophic).

Figure A. Risk typology. A simulation shut down, an engineered pandemic, an all-out nuclear war, and a physics disaster are all possible red dots. A totalitarian regime with global control that severely oppresses its citizens and a dysgenic scenario in which human cognitive capacities significantly decline are both possible black dots. Aging corresponds to the orange dot; the disappearance of Maldives due to rising sea levels corresponds to the green dot; the volcanic winter caused by the supereruption at Toba (lasting 6 to 10 years) corresponds to the purple dot; 2012’s Superstorm Sandy corresponds to the light grey dot; a survivable germline mutation corresponds to the blue dot; and a survivable case of skin cancer corresponds to the yellow dot.

Making matters worse, existential risks are unlike every other kind of risk we've ever encountered in our 2.5 million year existence. Unlike a lion attack, forest fire, or earthquake, existential risks cannot be learned from. A catastrophe of this sort could happen tomorrow, but not have happened yesterday. Because of this asymmetry, our usual method of looking over our shoulders in order to avoid future hazards simply isn't workable: our only option is to be proactive rather than reactive. A single slip-up would mean not only that the game is over, but that we lost.

The twenty-first century will be increasingly cluttered with unprecedented risks to our survival. This by itself is cause for concern: the world really might end, not for faith and revelation reasons, but fork reasons relating to evidence and observation. But it's even more terrifying when one recognizes that the only way to avoid a secular apocalypse is to use the problem-solving device perched atop our flimsy spines. Yet this device was specifically built to navigate the Middle World of Immediacy in which we evolved long ago.

Suddenly, after surviving for 2.5 million years amidst a small number of improbable natural risks, our ingenuity (in combination with ancient beliefs about how the world ought to be) has inadvertently expanded the number of ways Homo sapiens could kick the bucket by a lot. Whether or not we succumb to our species' apparent death wish (see: the rise of apocalyptic terrorism) depends in large part on whether we can overcome our "natural" habits of thought -- on whether we can get outside ourselves and glimpse the big picture. While science, art, philosophy, literature, poetry, music, fashion, sports, and entertainment make life worth living, avoiding an existential risk makes it possible.

Written by Phil Torres.