Permanent global totalitarianism. Dystopian evolutionary scenarios. Anthropogenic existential risks. Extinction of Earth-originating intelligent life. Permanent, drastic, irreversible destruction of humanity’s potential for desirable future development.

Those terms/concepts appear throughout academic papers dealing with existential risks to to the human population. Many of those terms appear in a paper produced by Nick Bostrom, who is (according to his website), “a Swedish-born philosopher who has a background in theoretical physics, computational neuroscience, logic, artificial intelligence, and philosophy.” The same site also claims he is “the most-cited professional philosopher in the world under the age of 50.” Bostrom’s credibility is strengthened by the fact that he is a Professor at the University of Oxford and is Director of the Future of Humanity Institute.

Irreversible existential risks to the human population have been trumpeted (and their impending outcome predicted) for centuries. The boys who cried wolf in both the recent and distant past tend to lessen the likelihood that people are apt to believe the theories espoused by current philosophers. But, unlike gloomy predictions in the past, more analyses of existential risks produced more recently seem to have considerably more academic and practical “meat” to them. And these more recent assessments are not hysterical pleas to humanity to “do something!” Instead, they tend to be well-reasoned, logical, and entirely plausible. And they acknowledge something many people tend to overlook: we do not know what we do not know. That is, all the most comprehensive analyses in the world might be reduced to ashes by matters those appraisals do not consider—because we did not realize they might influence the conclusions reached by the assessments.

The possibility of human extinction both frightens and intrigues me. Despite the impossibility of “knowing” what will or might cause our species to become extinct, I am fascinated by the analytical explorations undertaken by academics. But because I have a certain degree of skepticism about academic “mumbo jumbo,” I tend to take those explorations with a grain of salt. I do not reject them out of hand, though. I put enough credence in them to allow them to percolate in my brain. I do my own, far less rigorous, assessments, always keeping in mind I do not know what I do not know. And I acknowledge that what I “know” may be false knowledge based on incomplete or unknown information.

In addition to giving me something challenging to think about, the threats of human extinction also gives me something I might consider incorporating into future attempts at writing fiction. Mulling these matters over in my head provides me with an intellectual playground littered with both plausible scenarios and imaginary extensions of those scenarios. I worry that humans today are blithely stumbling into pools of viscous tar—many of which are of our own making—from which we cannot escape. But I temper that worry with curiosity and with resigned acceptance that I can do nothing to change our suicidal course.

I think I might enjoy engaging Nick Bostrom in conversation about his academic work, but only if he would be willing to leave most of the puffery of academia at the office. I prefer to let conversations flow from interests and creativity, rather than relying entirely on scholarly evidence. Maybe that is because I was never fully enmeshed in academia; I was never sure I was smart enough to be a dedicated academic. Whatever. That train has long since left the station. I am content to sit at a table in a caboose on a railroad siding, musing about “what if” and imagining the plausible, if unlikely.


My car’s many dashboard warning lights, etc. have been fixed. Even though I have 112K miles on the eight-year-old vehicle, the repair was covered under a warranty extended because of a “known issue.” However, the sound/vibration—as if a brake pad might be barely engaged or something in the suspension rubs against something else when I veer slightly to the right—remains. I doubt the mechanics even took the car out for a test drive yesterday, so sometime next week I may ask another shop to have a look. If we did not have cars, we would realize we do not need to go all the places we go; we would be motivated to travel more by necessity than by desire. The world would be a simpler, less dangerous place. Maybe. Or maybe not. Certainty is imbecilic. We truly do NOT know what we do not know. Yet we behave as if we did. Fools. All of us. But most of us are, at least, tolerably decent fools. I do not always believe that; the decent part, I mean.


I have a friend who, in an effort to find a permanent solution to her shoulder and neck pain, should go to the Mayo Clinic for a full-scale evaluation. But I doubt she will do that. And I have a self who should take far better care of his body and mind. But I doubt I will do that—at least consistently. And I have a novia who should do the same. But…ditto. SHOULD is a judgmental word. It speaks volumes about knowledge we think we have, but which may be entirely imaginary. And when we use the word in connection with the behavior of others, we reveal ourselves as people who believe we know better than others. I sometimes get quite frustrated with people who THINK they have knowledge they do not. And that, of course, includes me. Even softening the judgment by saying “I THINK you should…” reduces the friction caused by one’s sense of superiority. Even when we do not think of ourselves as superior, we reveal that we do think that when we say someone “should” do this or that. I must continued to train myself out of the habit; I really have been trying. For years. Maybe, on my 85th birthday, I will announce I have succeeded in kicking the habit. If I can stop smoking (which I did almost twenty years ago), I should be able to…there, I used the word again!


In a short while, I’ll wander off to a local diner, where I’ll sit and listen to old men talk about what old men talk about. And I’ll try to say very little. I generally do exactly that. Later, I’ll go to the church to give a new church officer a key to the building. What an exciting, eventful, truly fascinating life I lead. And off I go.


About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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