What Do Philosophers Think About Human Extinction?


It’s a near certainty that humanity will come to an end, but what form this end might take, and when it might happen, are of course unknown. What should we think about the end of humanity and its various variables? What do we think?

[photo of “Spiral Jetty” by Robert Smithson]

Phil Torres (Leibniz Universität Hannover) and Bruce Tonn (Tennessee) want to know, and are conducting a survey of philosophers to find out.

Torres writes:

It seems increasingly clear that humanity faces unprecedented threats to its survival, the most obvious arising from nuclear conflict and climate change. As Stephen Hawking wrote in 2016, “we are at the most dangerous moment in the development of humanity.” The Doomsday Clock is currently closer to midnight (doom) than ever before, and prominent figures like Noam Chomsky argue that our species is racing toward what he calls “the precipice.”

Surprisingly, despite a few notable exceptions, philosophers have said very little about the ethical and evaluative implications of human extinction. Would our extinction be good, bad, or in some sense neutral? Would causing or allowing humanity to disappear be right or wrong, permissible or not? To what extent are the circumstances under which our extinction unfolds relevant to answering these questions? What if we are replaced by a new species of humans? What if our extinction were 100-percent voluntary? And so on.

We are very interested in how the philosophical community as a whole would answer these questions of “Existential Ethics.” As the topic of human extinction becomes more salient in the coming decades—if only because of climate change—the survey below could be a very useful snapshot of philosophical beliefs in the first quarter of the twenty-first century. It takes about 15 minutes (or less) to complete, and consists of roughly 50 questions. Both students and professors are eligible to take the survey, which is completely anonymous.

You can take the survey here.

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Joona Räsänen
3 months ago

Bioethics (Wiley) is doing a special journal issue on “Human Extinction: Its Bioethical Significance”. The guest editors are Walter Glannon, David Benatar, Timothy F. Murphy. Maybe the authors of this study want to check the details from the journal’s website and submit their work to it?Report

Phil Torres
Reply to  Joona Räsänen
3 months ago

Yes, was in touch with them a while ago about submitting this! Thanks so much for the very kind suggestion, though!Report

Richard Y Chappell
3 months ago

This question is ambiguous “14. A world without humanity would, all things considered, be good.”

Read literally, it’s asking whether such a world is absolutely good, i.e. better than nothing. But ordinary speakers would instead likely interpret it as asking whether such a world would be better than one containing humanity (ie whether the *absence of humanity* would be good). These are very different questions, and I’m not sure which is intended by the survey creators?Report

Rebeka Ferreira
3 months ago

An interesting idea and survey. Unfortunately, the components of the survey include a number of assumptions about which normative judgments follow from adherence to certain descriptive states of affairs. I found myself agreeing with the descriptions, but having vastly different intuitions about what should be inferred from them, normatively speaking. Perhaps it’s my antinatalist inclinations…Report

Maimonides
3 months ago

“It’s a near certainty that humanity will come to an end…” Well, not if one of the Abrahamic religions is true. And, as far as I can tell, it’s not a near certainty, or anything approaching a near certainty, that one of the Abrahamic religions is false.Report

Alastair Norcross
Reply to  Maimonides
3 months ago

I think you meant to say that it’s not a near certainty that all the Abrahamic religions are false. Given that they are inconsistent with each other, it’s not just a near certainty, but an absolute necessity, that at least two of them are false. And even if one of them is true, it doesn’t follow that humanity won’t come to an end. In fact, Christian eschatology, for example, seems to involve a definite end of humanity. Eternal life is about as unhuman as I can imagine. Not that that’s a bad thing (it might be, I don’t know).Report

Phil Torres
Reply to  Alastair Norcross
3 months ago

These are really great points — I would say to both Maimonides and Alastair! My view is that, indeed, nearly all world religions are incompatible with human extinction in naturalistic sense, i.e., the sense that biologists, existential risks scholars, etc. would use the term. We cannot disappear the way the non-avian dinosaurs or dodos did, for at least two reasons: ontologically, we have immortal souls (bracketing all sorts of qualifications), and eschatologically, we are part of a prewritten plan for cosmic history that cannot unfold without us. Without a doubt, eternal life is strange (and “unhuman,” as you say), but even with our new glorified bodies (like the one Jesus had after his resurrection), we are still fundamentally human, on the standard Christian account.

So, yes, I am tacitly assuming that world religions (not just the Abrahamic faiths, but those with cyclical eschatologies as well–Buddhism, Hinduism, etc.) are false. Although (as I discuss in a paper) there are *many* legitimate, distinct, morally relevant interpretations of “human extinction,” most of the survey assumes that we’re discussing “terminal extinction,” whereby (a) the population dwindles to zero, (b) this remains the case forever, and (c) we leave no successors. (Other questions, though, are about phyletic extinction, whereby Homo sapiens become a new posthuman species.) I hope this helps just a little! Thoughts? Thanks!Report

Maimonides
Reply to  Alastair Norcross
3 months ago

That’s right, Alastair. I meant that it’s not a near certainty that all of them are false. Thanks for that. And, as I’m sure you know, on the Abrahamic view, eternal life in communion with God and one another is–far from inhuman–precisely what humans are made for. It’s the conditions under which humans fully flourish. So, on Christianity, humans continue to exist forever. You say “those aren’t humans” but that’s because you think Christianity is false, or morally bankrupt, or whatever. Fair enough. But, *according to Christianity*, they’re humans and they’ll live forever.Report

Alastair Norcross
Reply to  Maimonides
3 months ago

I wasn’t taking any position on whether eternal existence in the form that some religions posit (as far as I know) is good or bad. I would quite like to live forever, or at least for a lot longer than the actuaries say I will live. I don’t think the question of whether such existence is human or not can be settled by appealing to the claim that this existence is what humans were designed for. Again, taking no position on the truth of these religious claims, it clearly doesn’t follow from the claim that humans were designed to end up the way you’re describing that such an existence constitutes the survival of humanity. Maybe humans were designed to transcend their human existence. Now we’re human. In the future we won’t be human anymore. And that’s the way that God planned it. And it’s a really good thing. Sounds fine to me (at least in theory). I understand “human” to be a biological category. I don’t recall any biblical, or other, passages explicitly saying that eternal life in the loving embrace of a creator will be a biologically human life.Report

Matt
3 months ago

X-phi is getting stranger and stranger…

Well mark me down as being “against” human extinction.Report

Vito Strati
3 months ago

This question is problematic: “In all likelihood, no one event, such as nuclear war or a global pandemic, will bring about human extinction. It is more probable that a series of bad decisions and incompetent actions will lead to extinction.”

Someone that is sympathetic towards human extinction being a good thing yet thinks it could be brought about by multiple events would disagree that these events would be based on “bad decisions and incompetent actions”, they would rather argue that these decisions are the wisest ones humanity could make.Report

Alastair Norcross
3 months ago

A lot of the questions were badly phrased, and many others could only be answered with considerably more knowledge about the future effects of current behavior than anyone can reasonably be thought to have. I ended up having to answer “neither agree nor disagree” to many of them (perhaps most). The demographic information was also quite detailed. Despite the survey being supposedly anonymous, I wouldn’t be surprised if I were the only white male 60-69 utilitarian with a Ph.D in Philosophy living in Boulder who completed it. Not that I particularly mind. I doubt whether the authors are interested in trying to identify particular participants, and I have no problem with knowing that I answered in the ways I did.Report

Elizabeth Finneron-Burns
Elizabeth Finneron-Burns
Reply to  Alastair Norcross
3 months ago

I ended up having to choose ‘disagree’ about a position attributed to me!Report

Phil Torres
Reply to  Elizabeth Finneron-Burns
3 months ago

Oh no! The position wasn’t attributed to you, although the quote was! Indeed, I included it partly because I found your discussion of the topic really interesting and important, and I was hoping to direct at least a little extra attention your way. For whatever it’s worth, I agree with you that “it would mean the loss of rational life and civilization” is not a good reason for opposing human extinction.Report

Elizabeth Finneron-Burns
Elizabeth Finneron-Burns
Reply to  Phil Torres
3 months ago

Don’t worry I was just joking! I just thought it was amusing to press ‘disagree’ next to something I had said.Report

Phil Torres
Reply to  Alastair Norcross
3 months ago

I’d be happy to know which questions you thought were poorly phrased! The survey was reviewed by a large number of philosophers prior to being made public, and none complained. Thanks!Report

Richard Y Chappell
Reply to  Phil Torres
3 months ago

Hi Phil, could you resolve the ambiguity in Q14 that I flagged above? Thanks!Report

Phil Torres
Reply to  Richard Y Chappell
3 months ago

Yes, will try. Thanks again for pointing it out — really appreciate it!Report

Alastair Norcross
Reply to  Phil Torres
3 months ago

Hi Phil, I wasn’t making a note of the exact questions as I answered them. Is it possible to see the questions again? I do remember thinking many times that you were asking us to make predictions about the future that no-one is anywhere near qualified to make. Some of them seemed to require figuring out whether certain outcomes would contain more or less total well-being than others. At least for those of us for whom that question is relevant (that’s most philosophers, almost no-one denies the relevance of such questions, even if some deny that they are the only relevant questions), an honest answer would always have to be “I simply don’t know”. Take the often-raised question of whether the world would somehow be better without any human beings in it. Given the complexity and multitude of changes from the current situation that would entail, anyone who confidently answers either yes or not to that question simply hasn’t thought about it, even a little bit. The exception would be someone for whom the mere existence of humanity is lexically preferable to any other state of affairs. I think some people claim to believe this, but given how absurdly preposterous a view it is, I prefer to employ the principle of charity and interpret them to be either lying or speaking loosely.Report

Theodor
3 months ago

I don’t think that humanity will come to an end. I am almost sure that if we continue to act in the same way we act now, we will encounter a very great catastrophe. An interesting question is what will we learn from it, e.g., from Covid we learned nothing. Report

Fabian Barnsworth
3 months ago

Human extinction would make it even harder to get in to Nous and PPR (long moratorium) — unless editors were cryofrozen to pick up with backlog after ozone gets back to normal … people with R&Rs might try to time their unfreezing with future expected date that doesn’t overlap with moratorium, some time before sun becomes red giant.Report