Friday, November 30, 2012

Absolute Vulnerability

by Joel Marks
Published in Philosophy Now, no. 86,September/October 2011, p. 52

I live in perpetual sadness and anxiety and frustration in the face of death. No, not my death … nor of a loved one … nor of the 7 billion currently living human beings who will, under normal circumstances, be laid to rest in a century or so inside this charnal house we call Earth … nor of the scores of billions of nonhuman animals we human beings slaughter needlessly every year, nor the scores more who succumb to loss of habitat from encroaching humanity or to predators and other natural agents of fatality. All of those things certainly have their place in my thoughts and concerns, some to an overwhelming measure. But the most immediate, the most devastating, the most far-reaching, and, ironically, the most preventable source of death for us all is our planet’s collision with a 10-kilometer rock.

            Jonathan Schell famously coined the concept of a “second death" in his 1982 book The Fate of the Earth regarding the prospect of human extinction by nuclear war. The point was that not only billions of individuals but also the entire cultural memory of humanity would be obliterated by this ultimate catastrophe. It would be the loss of hope in the worldly equivalent of immortality. That is exactly the kind of death I am talking about now but brought about by an asteroidal or cometary impact. I have written about this for my Philosophy Now readers before (issue no. 79 and below), but there I was concerned about the fallacies of thinking that make even the experts discount the risk of such an event. My claim was that, despite the rarity of extinction-level impacts in the recent history of our planet, the magnitude of the threatened consequences and the randomness of the timing combine to make the danger of the next one urgent and compelling.

But a different (albeit related) kind of thought occurs to me now. (Indeed, it struck me like a rock from outer space.) It is that we are absolutely vulnerable. I suppose you could call this an existentialist thought – not only because it is about a threat to our our species’ (and others’) existence, but also because it points to us as the masters of our destiny. The idea in plain language is that the universe could not care less about whether humanity survives to see another day. Despite the magnificence of human accomplishments (I think of Beethoven), our extraordinary ability to comprehend the universe (I think of cosmology), and countless moments of utter charm (think of your child) – and how inadequate to the task one feels when attempting to inventory the amazingness of human existence! – it could all be wiped out in the blink of an eye. Indeed, it already has been, time and time again, as history is littered with lost and even forgotten civilizations. “Nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky,” goes the song by Kansas – “and not those either,” goes cosmology.

But the inevitability of the final dissolution of Everything is not a reason to be careless about the endurance of everything we care about. In addition there is the possibility that the kind of consciousness human beings have attained on Earth is unique in the universe. So the loss would be not only like that of one’s irreplaceable child but one’s only child. Of course it would be a loss to no one if no one were left to mourn it, and hence not a loss at all, some clever reasoner might rejoin. But the sorrow I experience now is the (so to speak?) anticipatory loss of all. For apart from us – and again, this is precisely my point – the universe neither mourns nor rejoices in anything. And it certainly has no stake in our continued existence, singly or en masse or in toto. Therefore if we do not face the threats to our existence (and to our future and to our memory) with clear and rational eyes, we are that much more likely to succumb to them.

It is queerly fitting that I would be mulling this over as doomsayers fill the airwaves with Biblical prophecies. October 21 is now slated to be the end of the world, according to the Christian pastor in the United States who set the latest frenzy in motion. But that is just the sort of response – one of passive acceptance -- I wish to counter. Another is the Republican Party’s approach to catastrophic threat, such as climate change, which is that nature will sort things out without our help. And it is certainly true that nature will sort things out – one way or another. It is also true that the very logic of both biological evolution and the cosmological anthropic principle assures that we are naturally well suited to survive under prevailing conditions. However, another constant of the universe is that conditions change, which is why we are here and not dinosaurs.

What is needed, then, is a healthy dose of fear (to allude to a theme of an anonymous advisor of mine on these matters). So long as we lull ourselves into believing that our own extinction by asteroid can’t happen any time soon, our efforts will be insufficient to avert it. And the problem is that this is always going to be the case until such time as an incoming rock is close enough for us to calculate that … we’ve run out of time to stop it! But the silver lining of the fear of which I speak is that if humanity could get it into its collective thick skull that there is no angry God directing an inevitable and irresistible Judgment upon us, nor a loving God who will perform a miracle of planetary salvation upon us, but instead we’re in a cosmic skeet-shooting contest with comets and asteroids serving for clay pigeons, we might be just scared enough to do something effective and not so traumatized that all we can do is pray.