Image: Philosopher Nick Bostrom at a 2006 summit
at Stanford University. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

 

Bostrom: From Extinction to Transcendence

by PAUL GILSTER on FEBRUARY 27, 2013

At the top of my list of people I’d someday like to have a long conversation with is Nick Bostrom, a philosopher and director of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute. As Centauri Dreams readers will likely know, Bostrom has been thinking about the issue of human extinction for a long time, his ideas playing interestingly against questions not only about our own past but about our future possibilities if we can leave the Solar System. And as Ross Andersen demonstrates in Omens, a superb feature on Bostrom’s ideas in Aeon Magazine, this is one philosopher whose notions may make even the most optimistic futurist think twice.

I suppose there is such a thing as a ‘philosophical mind.’ How else to explain someone who, at the age of 16, runs across an anthology of 19th Century German philosophy and finds himself utterly at home in the world of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche? Not one but three undergraduate degrees at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden followed. Now Bostrom applies his philosophical background, along with training in mathematics, to questions that are literally larger than life. As Andersen reminds us, ninety-nine percent of all species that have lived on our planet are now extinct, including more than five tool-using hominids. Extinctions paved the way for the emergence of new species, but for the species du jour, survival is the imperative.

Colonizing Waves or Individual Explorers?

You’ll want to read Andersen’s essay in its entirety (helpfully, there’s a Kindle download link) to see how Bostrom sizes up existential risks like asteroid impacts and supervolcanoes. One of the latter, the Toba super-eruption about 70,000 years ago, seems to have pumped enough ash into the atmosphere to destroy the food chain of our distant ancestors, leaving a scant few thousand alive to move into and populate the rest of the planet. We do seem to be a resilient species. Bostrom likes the long view, which means he sees a 100,000 year hiatus as humans bounce back from a possible future catastrophe as little more than a pause in cosmic time. That perspective has interesting consequences, as Andersen notes:

It might not take that long. The history of our species demonstrates that small groups of humans can multiply rapidly, spreading over enormous volumes of territory in quick, colonising spasms. There is research suggesting that both the Polynesian archipelago and the New World — each a forbidding frontier in its own way — were settled by less than 100 human beings.

Read more: Bostrom: From Extinction to Transcendence — Centauri Dreams.

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