STRANGELY, not in any interview or essay by anyone in the field of existential risk have we seen a discussion of what “existential” means. For these philosophers, the term existential is treated in a simplistic way as a synonym for the totality of human existence put into crisis. None of the contributors to the field of existential risk consider how the term is caught up with the legacy of existential philosophies, an avoidance that turns into more than a missed opportunity. This dismissal is not explained away by noting long-standing rifts between continental and analytic philosophy. On the contrary, we would expect such an explicitly interdisciplinary project as the study of existential risk to discuss variations of its central concept. Bostrom’s subject of existential risk, at first, appears drawn from “classical” existentialism in that this individual is deeply anxious and preoccupied with mortality—with examining all facets of dying or how to process the subject’s “being-toward-death.” But for Bostrom, mortality itself is among the problems of existential risk that need to be resolved by pursuing a posthuman existence. His version of the posthuman apparently enjoys all that the existential subject has to offer but without being burdened by the existential condition itself.
Here we offer a sketch of what existential thought entails in a broad sense, without narrowing the field to one philosopher or school. And from the outset, existential thought need not be treated as exclusive to the human species.1 We include a number of criticisms of existential thought as revisions and new developments rather than rejections of the need to tarry with how embodied “lived experience” resonates across the philosophical field. The problems with existential thought are many, but the premise of elaborating a robust philosophy of precarious embodiment still matters. In its most basic aims, existential philosophy examines the relationship of lived existence to the broader conditions of being, posing this relation as central to philosophical inquiry. Such thought starts from embodied existence rather than abstract presuppositions of God or Nature, or proof from empirical data, a priori reason, or metaphysics. Existential embodiment is not grounded in naturalism or any fixed historical purpose (and the same goes for existential oppression). To be existentially embodied means that we come to know ourselves and the world through relations and connections (experiential and conceptual) that are continually negotiated and not guaranteed by preset metaphysical principles. Existential embodiment is thus inherently “risky.” This philosophical method throws immediate light on how some bodies more than others—bodies that are marked as racially or socially inferior—are treated as more risky or caught in cycles of disempowerment. Mitigating existential risk makes sense not in the abstract but only in confronting concrete situations of suffering evident in instances such as colonialism, racism, sexism, economic oppression, and the domination of peoples and environments.
Since there are many summaries of existential thought available, our purpose here is to provide a brief analysis of existential thinking in connection to existential risk. Histories of philosophy credit Schelling for introducing the term “existence” (borrowed from the medieval concept of existentia)2 in the modern sense as identifying the position of the subject contra the abstraction of the concept, a position further developed by Kierkegaard’s philosophy of existence as “the subjective problem.”3 While the methods for this inquiry into subjective being varies among philosophers, philosophers of existence agree that the ways of knowing subjective experience can never be fully reducible to objective ways of knowing. First-person experience cannot be fully explained or imitated from the position of a neutral third-person observer (though this does not mean that subjectivity is entirely impervious to objective knowledge, just that there is no final, determinative science of the subject). The difference between subject and object need not be due to some unexplainable metaphysical property of dualism. Indeed, existential thought need not take a definitive position on the question of the “hard problem” of the mind as physical or metaphysical (this also is evidence of the limits of this philosophy—it is not meant to explain all of reality but to give a robust account of lived experience and interrelational being). Even those who adhere to physical/materialist principles do not just treat themselves and other humans as things. People recognize other humans as mortal persons with unique “lived experiences” whose status is different from objects, even if we grant this status may be just due to mechanistic complexity, or ultimately taken to be merely fictional or pragmatic.
The distinct contribution of existential thought to the space of philosophy is to insist that, for the subject, both subjective and objective perspectives are simultaneously possible and intertwined yet nonidentical to each other. This thought is logically paradoxical but true to what Simone de Beauvoir called the “irreducible ambiguity” of lived experience.4 Existential thought does not reduce existence to the biological (the “given”) or the cultural (the “made”) but includes both. For example, in existential thought birth and death are not adopted as strictly naturalist categories but rather are converted into the existential categories of natality and mortality (or “finitude”) that are understood not as reductive determinations but “conditions” of existence that require interpretation and engagement. It is not that the subject as animal-human-machine is natural insofar as it is animal—aspects of nature and culture are intertwined in each of these categorizations of the subject. Each of these categories combines interpretive as well as determinative ways of knowing. Existential thought thinks the conditions of existence across this “cybernetic triad” as contradictorily coherent, both personal and impersonal, first person and third person. But existential thought is not merely subjectivism; each subject is unique as well as socially mediated and reliant on objective material reality. Subjectivity is experienced at the level of the body, in intersubjective relations with other subjects, and interobjective relations with the surrounding environs. Subjectivity is manifest at the level of self-determination and at the level of interconnectedness with other living and nonliving entities, a mix of determinacy and indeterminacy, individuality and sociality, spontaneity and automation, calculability and incalculability acting in simultaneous cooperation and conflict. There is no clear divide between these paradoxical overlapping yet distinct conditions—each side of the paradox is implicated in the other in what is called a double bind.
In existential thought, the life or death of the thinker plays a central role in what constitutes the philosophical field of the subject. Life and death define the core ontological structure of lived experience and serve as coordinates for a wide range of epistemological inquiries and phenomenological intentions. Furthermore, existential thought stresses the existentiality of its own terms. That is to say, philosophical concepts have existential conditions of finitude of their own in which their ongoing ability to exist and generate meaning or cognition is at stake. Language itself has existential properties—there are no permanent signs or perfect perpetuations of sense and communication. Existential thought assumes that there are no guarantees, no permanence or promised presence for any beings. The same precariousness applies to much of the space of philosophy itself. Contra logical positivism, existentialism took philosophy in the direction of becoming open to the undecidable and precarious relationship between referentiality and reality.
Existential thinking seeks to cognize the paradox of the concept as both universal and perishable. This thought does not deny the role played by the traditional architectonics of philosophical truth ascribed to a permanent and indestructible realm of thought, but it adds that the perishability, finitude, and precarity of existences and concepts are also true accounts of being in the world. As Adorno puts it, “Eternity appears, not as such, but diffracted through the most perishable.”5 In existential thought, there is nothing that offers metaphysical security for any lived existence or any concept in which meaningfulness is at stake, because meaning is to be generated precisely in the precarious, risky, exposed condition of a lived existence that has to actively make sense of the lack of full determination of its own finite life. Existence has a built-in ethics that requires it to care for itself as itself, since existence is not beholden to any biological destiny, metaphysical essence, or absolute historical task. Rather than trying to “solve” or explain away the subject and philosophy’s precariousness (for example, by declaring it all just mechanistic activity), existentialism insists on tarrying with the precarious as the very project of philosophy and embodied existence. The finitude of bodies and thoughts has the effect of expanding the space of existence and the space of philosophical reasoning—responding to Hegel’s phrase that the philosophical system entails not just substance but also subject.
Existentialism and Extinction
Many of the first philosophers who foregrounded the existential subject as concerned with its own finitude and fragility understood how philosophy needed to reckon with the scientific evidence of extinction that implicated all life as precarious. Kierkegaard opens Fear and Trembling (1843) with the vision of human generations passing on like other natural cycles: “If one generation emerged after another like the leafage in the forest, if the one generation replaced the other like the song of birds in the forest, if the human race passed through the world as the ship goes through the sea, like the wind through the desert, a thoughtless and fruitless activity, if an eternal oblivion were always lurking hungrily for its prey and there was no power strong enough to wrest it from its maw—how empty then and comfortless life would be!”6 Kierkegaard’s response to the naturalistic view of extinction was to double down on the tenuousness of the human as philosophically primary. He proposed that the very singularity of the subject, having only faith and finitude rather than logical certitude and infinite assurance, was actually higher in standing than universal reasoning. The individual could suspend reliance on the rules of an already-assured universal ethics in pursuit of an even higher ethical devotion precisely because such subjective commitment could not relinquish responsibility by saying objective forces compelled behavior. Kierkegaard thought ultimately only faith afforded by Christian theology, and not universal logic or contingent biological existence, could rescue the subject from existential oblivion.
Nietzsche, instead of retreating from the factual knowledge afforded by biology of the eventual oblivion of humanity, embraced a “nonmoral” worldview in which humans played a bit part, opening his essay “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense” (drafted in 1873) from a cosmic perspective that belittled human doings:
Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe which is dispersed into numberless twinkling solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of “world history,” but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die.—One might invent such a fable, and yet he still would not have adequately illustrated how miserable, how shadowy and transient, how aimless and arbitrary the human intellect looks within nature. There were eternities during which it did not exist. And when it is all over with the human intellect, nothing will have happened. For this intellect has no additional mission which would lead it beyond human life.7
Nietzsche absorbed the astronomical insight of his time that the sun would eventually die out, and with it, humanity (Ray Brassier makes similar arguments below). From this cosmic perspective, Nietzsche hypothesized the real as composed of chaotic forces and eternal flux. Yet like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche affirmed subjective life experience as still worth pursuing, which for Nietzsche meant advancing one’s own will to power and self-creative “style.” Extinction and impermanence freed humans from needing to find any higher meaning in suffering or self-limitation for the sake of some abstract metaphysical principle (for Nietzsche this included rejection of religion but also collective human projects like socialism and democracy). In a world in which value and even “life” itself had to be understood as a temporary and contested metaphor, the only value left would be the heroic–tragic stance toward one’s own subjective existentiality facing the chaos, while admitting no stable values could endure the flux.
Rejecting the biologism and subjectivism of Nietzsche, Heidegger contributed immensely to the elaboration of a philosophy of the subject that is neither subjectivist nor objectivist. This understanding of subjective existence would have a huge effect on existential thought, yet Heidegger’s own political convictions toward fascism and anti-Semitism have prompted many readers of his work to use Heidegger’s own ideas against his view of their implications. In Being and Time (1927), Heidegger goes through all sorts of concatenations with his baroque jargon to develop a theory of subjectivity that does not begin with the conventional subject/object or ego/world split. The figure of Dasein, Heidegger’s term for the type of being that humans have, has a “pretheoretical” or nonconceptual attunement toward the surrounding world. Pretheoretical means that one is already embedded in a real-world situation that requires the subject to respond but is not created solipsistically by the subject or by a priori reason. Dasein does not first detect distinct objects disconnected from any context (a problem in the phenomenological method of Husserl) or axiomatic reasons abstracted from worldly conditions (as in logical positivism). Instead, Dasein already is oriented in the world in which there exists a horizon of concern and meaningfulness that provides the conditions for subjects, objects, reasons, or events to make sense. These conditions of existence are themselves precarious and in need of constant maintenance rather than transcendent or guaranteed to persist.
There are several reasons why this brief sketch of the existential condition detailed by Heidegger is of central importance to the current conceptualizations of existential risk. Heidegger charts the basic conditions of possibility for how a being is able to have a sense of care at all—a care that includes not only the concern for one’s own possibilities and finitudes but also immersion in the world and the relationships that make up our shared condition. Heidegger finds care and finitude built into the ontological level, the very constitution of subjectivity: “As soon as Dasein expressed anything about itself, it has already interpreted itself as care.”8 Care is not just self-care, but always also implicated in care for being in the world and for being with others. Of course, people can be careless and neglect themselves and the world, but they cannot change the fact that their very ontology is imbricated with others.
Against the individualistic theories of the existential subject posed by previous philosophers (singular-mind or isolated ego-based philosophies including Descartes, Kant, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche), Heidegger emphasized how existence entails being embedded in an intersubjective and interobjective world. Many subsequent philosophers, especially Lévinas, Merleau-Ponty, and Irigaray, argued that Heidegger did not pursue enough an analysis of the central role of intersubjectivity and its effects across all conditions of existence. What is most relevant here is that Heidegger’s elaborations of existence provide a basis for how humans engage meaningfully with the world and with their own finitude. Care is grounded in the ontological relation of not just the subject to itself but also Dasein to the world. The Dasein-world relation is prior to subject/object dualism, while this simplistic dualism still plays a central role in utilitarianism that roots value in autonomous self-interested subjects. This subject/object dualism falters most when life straddles the gap and some existences and some life forms are treated dismissively as objects rather than agential subjects.
Heidegger refused to ground existence and ethics strictly in biology or in “objective” abstract reason and logical positivism, and he also rejected “naive” subjective-relativist positions. This philosophy of existence does not reduce the world to the individual ego’s point of view, nor does it elevate subjectivity and consciousness to a cosmic scale, but begins with bodies that care as immersed within “pretheoretical” material–symbolic interrelations. Prior to treating the objects and environs around us as mere things subject to physical as well as epistemic mastery, this argument finds “being-with” and “being-there” as formative for relations of care from the outset.
Being and Care
Frankly, Heidegger does not have to be the primary philosophical messenger for this position. There are multiple non-Western sources and philosophies for conceptualizing care.9 Many thinkers in the existential and continental philosophical traditions have taken the analysis of intersubjective world-building much further. And the reasons for critiques of Heidegger’s articulation of Dasein are numerous: Dasein has no race, no sex, no gender, no parents, doesn’t eat, has no significant insight into the details of biological conditions, and no ecological commitments beyond Heidegger’s own nostalgia for pastoral lifeways.
The existential examination of life and death also needs to be supplemented by a biopolitical analysis, theorized by Foucault as the “matter of taking control of life and the biological processes of man-as-species.”10 Biopolitical theory stands in critique of traditional existentialism that validated an ahistorical and universally applicable “lived experience” and “being-toward-death” that presumed an unquestioned and unmarked notion of life and death guides all existential understanding. Foucault’s historicizing critique of life and species concepts disrupted the existential faith that “life will find a way.” In biopolitics, the enmeshing of biological and political practices aimed at managing “life itself,” some bodies are prioritized and optimized, while others are marginalized, subjugated, left to die, or intentionally killed. The intensification of biopolitical interests in maximizing “ideal” bodies and life principles since the nineteenth century have contributed to the establishment of norms of the human as white, able-bodied, economically productive, and sexually reproductive under patriarchal privilege. The way people and animals are biopolitically positioned in the world continues to be based on doctrines of social health, economic usefulness, racialization, and norms of reproductive sex that will produce bodies beneficial to the trajectories of neoliberalism.
There is a better way to begin: with the embodied, entangled, engaged, ecologically interrelated conditions of existence. This is the existential subject of thinkers like Simone de Beauvoir and Frantz Fanon who analyze the specific “lived experiences” of gender and race. This intersubjective and interobjective condition forms the basis for world-building and world-sharing constructed on ontologically embedded capacities for collective care, consent, and reciprocal duties. The built-in conditions of care and precariousness in existential bodies does not mean that all forms of care are good or that defending care as such will provide a fail-safe route to mitigate existential risks and guide us toward favorable existential possibilities. María Puig de la Bellacasa discusses how the reality of care can be both enabling and exhausting, connective and controlling: “To care can feel good; it can also feel awful. It can do good; it can oppress. It’s essential character to humans and countless living beings makes it all the more susceptible to convey control. . . . Care means all these things and different things to different people, in different situations. So while ways of caring can be identified, researched, and understood concretely and empirically, care remains ambivalent in significance and ontology.”11 Bellacasa insists care is about finding the “right distance” (5), not a blanket statement that all interdependency is good.
If care is both built-in yet also ambivalent and caught up in risks of its own, what does the existential view of care add to the need to cognize and confront existential risks? We readily admit that a commitment to existential thought alone will not stop natural or human-made catastrophes, but practices of care and interrelationality, along with technological developments that allow us to live better together, have helped immensely in making catastrophes survivable in the recent past. Thinking care and catastrophe goes together. Since these practices and technologies continue to help in instances like the COVID-19 pandemic, we see no obligation to prioritize transhuman transcendence over our current relational ontologies. We can focus on improving practices of living and dying together without veering toward either salvation or apocalypse. Certainly the risks of state-based or nonstate agents pursuing mass violence, especially with the use of high-tech weaponry and warmaking, remains paramount, but this does not commit us to an endless technological race for defensive weaponry either. We already know that the only way to win an all-out war is not to play. We can incentivize not playing by reinforcing collective decision-making, consent, and hospitality at a planetary level. We still have to invent what this will look like—it may be a kind of planetary government—but such political forms will require new imaginations and new forms of collective address and response.
For this, we need new forms of democracy and participation, rather than changing the demos at an ontological-technological level so “enhanced” people behave better. Ingmar Persson and Julian Savulescu have suggested that men in particular should be subject to “moral bioenhancement” to quell toxic masculinity—though Persson and Savulescu seem to miss the irony in this masculinist attitude toward championing quick top-down techno-fixes rather than really engaging in the feminist work of achieving gender justice in collective, informed, and noncoercive relations.12 Several thinkers in the existential risk field including Bostrom have suggested that some form of pervasive surveillance, perhaps coupled with a benevolent authoritarianism (human or technological), would be the solution with the most likely chance of success in thwarting dangerous individuals or groups bent on world destruction.13 Yet it is truly hard to envision any version of these two in combination that would stop all malicious agents, and these technologies and political forms would generate other existential risks. It may be that the only way to truly mitigate, if not permanently prevent, existential risks would be to convince everyone to share the planet—sharing both benefits and burdens, risks and rewards, joys and compromises. This kind of radical sharing can take many forms—and the point is that no one single idea or way of existence can “own” the earth. The existential project is the very commitment to expand the space of existence by existential means of care, being in the world, and coflourishing. This project follows the evergreen slogan: respect existence or expect resistance.
Undoing the Existential
To return to Bostrom’s work now, this broad definition of “existential” indicates why neither he nor anyone else in the field has bothered to further analyze the term. Existential risk philosophy provides no special insight into the philosophy of subjectivity and is not interested in the existentiality of philosophy itself as methodologically tied to precarity and finitude. Quite the opposite is the case, since Bostrom is more interested in smoothing the way toward a future superintelligent existence at cosmological scales than examining current risks and rewards of being a precarious human subject. Bostrom would readily admit his version of existential risk is anthropocentric—for now. Yet his philosophy is predicated on a judgmental assessment of humanity’s limitations. Bostrom claims it will be rational for humans to accede eventually to posthumanity,14 abandoning anthropocentrism for a new post-anthropic condition. Bostrom offers no reflection on the existential risks of ecosystems, animals, and the planet unless they are relevant to human and later posthuman flourishing. Thus he adds technocentrism to a triumphant but temporary anthropocentrism, stating that “our focus should be on maximizing the chances that we will someday attain technological maturity in a way that is not dismally and irremediably flawed.”15 Technological “maturity,” in part, entails overcoming human existential perishability and fallibility in favor of transhuman superintelligence. It would be an existential failure to remain merely human. In a kind of anachronistic apocalypse, a future superior is invoked based on the abandonment of existentiality deemed to be already futile in advance.
Bostrom’s long-term proposals to avoid existential catastrophe amount to making the case to de-existentialize the human. The larger aim is to replace the precarious and disaster-prone condition of existence with a more deterministic, reliably calculated, and intelligent existence. Yet de-existentializing people is deeply suspicious because doing so would echo the kinds of oppression that have marked so many disastrous political projects to destroy peoples. Transhumanism would discard the existential structure, which is premised on the paradox of the necessity of freedom as Sartre continually stressed, in the name of an algorithm that would be even more free: “Transhumanists promote the view that human enhancement technologies should be made widely available, and that individuals should have broad discretion over which of these technologies to apply to themselves (morphological freedom), and that parents should normally get to decide which reproductive technologies to use when having children (reproductive freedom).”16 Yet actually existing “reproductive freedom” (which includes “cyberfeminist” and trans freedoms to “hack” the body and redesign it toward gender abolitionism) does not necessitate transhuman technology. And “widely available” is not the same as consensual, free, and universal. Transhumanism draws from the historical language of freedom when convenient, but this movement makes no attempt to ally itself with the longer history of social justice movements.
Curiously, a kind of rudimentary existentialism blossoms among the motives of many transhumanists. In an informal poll of adherents taken by Anders Sandberg, he finds many have turned to transhumanism as a pathway to finding meaning in life that they identify as the core existential project. Sandberg notes that “many of the respondents were clearly existentialist in outlook.”17 Hence Sandberg warms to the proposition that, “Transhumanism might be what enables us to lead truly meaningful lives in a physical universe” (8). Here transhumanism is both a rejection and a fulfillment of existential thought. Transhumanism dreams of total self-determination and self-rationalization and confuses this with an un-conflicted existentialism reduced to egocentric self-mythologizing, what Peter Gordon calls an “ontology of wish fulfillment.”18 Transhumanism declares itself more existential than existentialism. It privileges the longevity of egoic selves enhanced by technology and looks condescendingly at the core existential conditions of anxiety, desire, and care that are wrapped up in finitude. Lévinas’s insight that “a being without anxiety would be an infinite being—but that concept is self-contradictory,”19 applies to all aspects of the existential condition. The attempt to use the existential condition to escape the existential condition appears contradictory and self-defeating.
Transhumanism would exchange existential risk for indefinite existential security, foregoing our currently limited capacity for self-determinacy and relationality for the sake of a superior determined artificial superintelligence. As this superintelligence would show us the way to ever more and more intelligent solutions to any problem of immediate risk, nothing we would define as existential would be relevant anymore. No existential precarity would also mean no more ecology—the superintelligence could make or unmake species and ecosystems as needed. Problems of existence and ecology would be replaced by programming problems. However, scientists have pointed to limits of complexity that computation and the “entailing laws” of mechanical determinism can never cross.20 The question remains why transhumanism should be desirable and what kind of violence, to human and nonhuman life, will result from the side effects of failed efforts to achieve it. Here we can point to the now evident irony in the title of Bostrom’s “Future of Humanity Institute”—the future of humanity is not to be human anymore.
Now, quite evidently, Bostrom is reasonably wary of the transformative possibilities of all current artificial intelligence projects. In Superintelligence, he has written lengthy and astute analyses questioning how one might encode human ethics into an intelligent machine, how we might ensure that the superintelligence follows these ethical rules, and how problematic or unexpected issues might arise even if the first two matters were achieved. Even if it is possible to encode human ethics into a machine (the “value alignment problem”), there is not a perfect consensus on the universal standards, objectives, and methods of morality among humans. Humans often lack consistent value alignment with each other—a problem consistent with the existential condition that lacks metaphysical guarantees. That values are variable and contradictory across many axes of identity and experience is fundamental to the very distinction between fact and value. Furthermore, even if ethics are encodable, a superintelligent machine might choose to rewrite its own code to favor itself. Such a machine may no longer be fixable or controllable by its makers, which is the very principle of self-programming that would mark the ability for AI to truly learn and evolve.
Even good people with good intentions may end up effectuating immensely bad outcomes as technological superpower exceeds traditional forms of control. In yet another scenario, a superintelligence might intentionally or unintentionally cause human ruin by focusing narrowly on one objective and destroying the world to achieve such ends. This problem is emblematized in Bostrom’s example of the paper clip scenario: an AI machine is tasked with maximizing paper clip manufacturing and decides to turn all materials on earth, including humans, into resources for paper clips. Such scenarios may of course be unlikely or impossible (looking back to chapter 2, we mark the undertheorized difference between unlikely and impossible as a fundamental feature of existential risk). Yet the idea of a factory dead set on cornering the cosmic market for paper clips is a capitalist fever dream—who would code a machine to make endless paper clips in the first place?
A universe of paper clips aside, many in the AI-risk community emphasize that the most realistic concern is that an extremely competent superintelligence may not end up being malevolent, but just doesn’t care about humans. The superintelligence will treat humans as inconsequential or just more data to be managed or ignored. It also bears mentioning that Bostrom and others offer no reflection on the lack of value alignment humans have with other life on the planet—evidently value alignment with machines has a higher priority than value alignment with animals. Another problem occurs in the situation that there may be no way to align existential human values with a nonexistential or postexistential entity. Hubert Dreyfus argued some time ago that computers will never achieve artificial general intelligence without an existential sense of being-in-the-world and with an intuition of horizons of possibility relevant to that situation.21 Finally, an AI may outrun the existential condition entirely: consider the situation of chess programs unbeatable by humans today. If the machine algorithm always wins, is there really a game anymore? The existential qualitative activity of play, in which the players cannot anticipate all the possible moves even of a “solved” game, can be de-existentialized in a program that always wins, thus in effect annulling the game as a game.
There never has been a situation in history in which everyone has had equal access to a new technology. The makers of superintelligence may want it to be available to all—note that this is not the same as democratically made—however, the technology itself may stand in the way of equality of access. In the case of superintelligence, Bostrom points out that the first person or group who achieves such technology may be able quickly to dominate the entire world. One might have said the same thing about nuclear weapons. This kind of radical, nondemocratic power may also be achieved in more limited yet still transformative technologies including those focused on longevity, de-extinction, consciousness simulation, or biotechnological enhancement. Advances in these fields could involve a situation in which some humans have a kind of technological alignment that is not just temporarily superior to others but can lead to permanently overwhelming and dominating the entire field. The hopeful fantasy of “widely available” transhuman technology may not come to pass, especially given that near-term AI work is driven almost entirely by capitalist corporate entities that are not beholden to public egalitarian goods.22 The fantasy of endless expansion of superintelligence is modeled on the endless expansion of capital and self-interested economic growth, not sustainable social communion.
Despite all the additional existential risks posed by this kind of technology, Bostrom readily asserts that superintelligence is too promising not to develop. In the words of an early computer scientist, I. J. Good, “The first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.”23 Superintelligence could possibly solve our planetary ecological problems, maximize the capture of solar energy, manage the climate, produce ethical food, develop de-extinction sciences, cure our diseases, and solve our philosophical problems to boot. This of course would just be the beginning. For Bostrom, the greatest existential risk is to remain existential, which is by definition risky.
Even if some of these technological and existential turning points are decades or centuries away, decisions already are being made today in existential risk policy, AI development, and sciences of longevity that follow along the lines that Bostrom and others in the field have set forth. A robust critique of existential risk is needed now. A few important analyses of existential risk from the perspective of critical theory have taken on some of Bostrom’s claims. Claire Colebrook, in her essay “Lives Worth Living: Extinction, Persons, Disability,” slams Bostrom’s theory as perpetuating “a logic of appropriation, extension, survival, and calculus” that perpetuates widespread dominations.24 Colebrook especially is cogent in discerning how Bostrom’s philosophy elevates intelligence as the highest value by which all life shall be compared and judged. Bostrom never really defines “intelligence” (though he does put some stock in IQ tests and other questionable metrics)—what is more important is that measurable quantifications of intelligence, be they human or artificial, continue to show a rise that will lead toward technological maturity and enhanced forms of living and away from existential dangers. As Colebrook discusses, the privileging of the abstract category of “intelligence” as the barometer of the “future of humanity” does not offer any reflection on the long history of violence and expropriation by those deemed possessed of superior intelligence and capabilities. Colebrook argues that “scenarios of catastrophic risk—such as those of Nick Bostrom— . . . assume that humanity is necessarily defined by a certain concept of personhood that is irreducible to the human species. Indeed, it is ability—in Bostrom’s case, intelligence—that needs to be preserved; it is this life that would count as extinction and not ‘merely’ as genocide” (170). Colebrook discerns how Bostrom sets up intelligence as what Sylvia Wynter calls a “new master code”25 that elevates some humans over others and eventually elevates transhumans over humans. Colebrook sees in Bostrom’s utilitarian framework a permission to calculate human lives according to hierarchies of intelligence that have “the logic of extinction” (167) at their core because they inevitably posit that some lives are to be distinguished as good lives (more intelligent) while others are deemed less worthy.
Colebrook, in her recent writings, includes in her summary critical judgment of humanisms, posthumanisms, and transhumanisms any thought that campaigns for indefinite survival and disregards the non-humanist forces of matter that currently make up ourselves and our world and that continue to effectuate geological transformations that do not prioritize human standing or self-interests.26 Even the existential condition and its attachment to worlding and care are found to be suspect in Colebrook’s vision because they harbor a built-in exclusionary ethos such that, to use Heidegger’s language, authentic humans have worlds to care about, animals (and perhaps inauthentic humans) are poor in world, and stones are worldless. Accordingly, only a truly inhuman or outside-of-humanist perspective, unsentimental about any yearning for salvation or possessive worldliness, can circumvent the apocalyptic drive of the human or posthuman that aims to persist at any cost.
At the same time, and perhaps not fully avowed, Colebrook’s thinking and writing does not wholly avoid the effects of calculative valuation and persistence. No form of reasoning or being in the world is fully distanced from some use of calculative and persistive rationality. It is possible to reject the sovereignty of technoscientific reason and calculative thought while still employing these tools in the very disassembling of exclusionary hierarchies of intelligence. We should be able to use calculative reason in assessing existential risks, and still criticize the reliance on statistical modeling, so that we are not oppressed by the sheer pursuit of more and more technoscientific success. Moreover, we need not concede that intelligence is what Bostrom says it is; multiple forms of intelligence (ecological, emotional, ethical intelligences) refuse the triumph of superintelligence. It is possible to critique concepts of existence, intelligence, and the good life while still employing them, striving to improve upon the implications of the human/nonhuman entanglements of a shared world, while not denying the fragility and entropic tendencies of matter and meaning. Furthermore, if one does want to salvage durable institutions predicated on collective justice, these must rely on calculating situations of rights and reciprocities while continually raising critiques about the limits and problems of calculative reason.
Is it just nostalgic to want to keep our current existential structure? Are we clinging to what Ray Brassier calls “unobjectifiable transcendence,”27 whereby we deem the current existential condition untouchable and transcendent by the sheer fact that this condition is what we have always had? Is the existential–ecological condition founded and legitimized by a presumed traditionalism or naturalism or protected by some other “myth of the given”? Brassier, from a very different political and philosophical approach, ends up largely agreeing with Bostrom as to the principled ends of using technology to de-existentialize humans. Brassier, whose philosophical commitments include analytic traditions of scientific realism, continental theory, and Marxism, advocates a “Left Prometheanism” (against what he sees as Bostrom’s Prometheanism of the Right) that would allow us to remake our own current given existential conditions in order to achieve a more just world. Brassier disputes that the existential structure characterized by physical and cognitive finitudes is to be treated as a transcendental condition that we are passively “thrown” into. He questions the existential argument that humans would be unwise to disturb a supposed balance between the given (our initial human condition) and the made (what we do with the human condition to make it meaningful). “I take this claim that we ought to respect the ‘fragile equilibrium’ between what is made and what is given to be fundamental for the philosophical critique of Prometheanism” (474).
In Nihil Unbound, Brassier picks apart arguments in the existential tradition that the human’s orientation toward their own death provides the privileged horizon generative of care and interpretive meaning.28 The fact of humanity’s inevitable extinction is crushing evidence that death does not provide a horizon of meaning and purpose but precisely indicates the opposite, the “realist thesis” (235) that the metaphysics of purpose does not escape physical entropy and that an “originary purposelessness . . . compels all purposefulness” (236). Extinction is a kind of objective, physical realism that annuls human investment in subjective transcendentals as anything more than temporary benefits. “Extinction is not to be understood here as the termination of a biological species, but rather as that which levels the transcendence ascribed to the human, whether it be that of consciousness or Dasein” (224).
Heidegger and others in the existential tradition construe the special relation of humans toward their own horizon of meaningfulness as sufficient to claim that it is finitude and precarious life that structure humanity’s essential condition. Yet Heidegger overstates the specialness of human autonomy, which is composed from the outset by heteronomous relations with symbiotic animals (including the microbiome living inside each person), tools and machines (including language), and inanimate geological materials and forces. For Brassier, there is no real “prohibition on self-objectivation”29 that forbids humans to reengineer themselves, since there is no transcendental status or “fragile equilibrium” between givens and mades. Our lives are already inextricably tied to instrumental, engineered, and cybernetic conditions, so the point is now to conduct these more rationally and equitably. If there is nothing special that upholds this existential condition predicated on claiming its deepest insights from its own finitude, why not change it? Brassier asks pointedly, “What exactly is reasonable about accepting birth, suffering, and death as ineluctable facts, which is to say, givens?” (479).
From a very different perspective than those of the existential risk community, but consistent with their posthuman logic, Brassier urges the reconfiguration of the human according to the rational pursuit of collective goods such as social justice, the overcoming of suffering, freedom from economic burdens and scarcities, and shared technological progress. Brassier also adds that the pursuit of reason—which for him entails the making and following of rational, equitable rules as well as the development of scientific reason and logic—warrants technological as well as philosophical means to accomplish a more rational world. Reason formally compels its own pursuit such that humans are able to revise their concepts and ways of knowing in order to pursue a more correct and just picture of reality. Yet this apotheosis of reason is somewhat in contradiction to the human-centric Left Prometheanism Brassier espouses, since in his book on extinction he adamantly claims that reason cannot serve as consolation for the finitude of life. Humans should pursue the progress of reason, but reason itself is not human and is not bound to the cares and exigencies of the lifeworld.
Yet, to apply Brassier’s own commitment to nihilism to his project, a nihilism that for other thinkers provides an important gateway to existential thought, this pursuit of reason cannot serve as a new necessary metaphysical or transcendental project. Humans are not obliged to technologically change themselves to meet the standards of a relentless and disconsolate rationality. The Left Promethean project remains anthropocentric and relatively unconcerned about the continued domination and destruction of terrestrial nature. There is no overarching “reason” that strictly privileges human interests over all sentient beings, nor brings life into conformity with logic. Just because the givens and the mades of life are not in any transcendental equilibrium does not mean that they should all be revisable and perfectible, and especially revisable according to human self-interests. It also remains questionable how Brassier’s commitment to a realism of purposeless materiality should apply to the project of planetary rationalization, which depends on the assumption that ecosocial systems answer to logical ordering.
Indeed, it may be rational for humans to forgo such a claim for control over everything on the planet, given that the unleashing of Promethean powers to change the human condition would certainly also unleash powers to destroy everything on the planet as well. We need not genuflect to the belief that natural existence should be pristine and never altered, but this does not mean nature should just do our bidding, or even that we should save nature from the “irrational” woes of mortality. Brassier’s genuine exhortation to pursue a communist Prometheanism neglects that these very same technologies to remake the existential condition may end up exceeding any form of reason or pursuit of collective good, and may no longer be revisable due to irreversible technological circumstances. Such powers over life may not be handled reasonably by the collective (as in, for example, the claims for species privilege most humans currently assert over nonhuman animals) and may preclude collective revisability because such technologies may evolve beyond human control or rational cognition. In pursuit of the exigencies of reason, we may make ourselves unfixable and uncontrollable and unreasonable. The existential capacity to revise the given and the made itself must not be made into something unrevisable. The Marxist project has elements of Prometheanism and elements of ecological care that combine in the work of environmental and social justice—there is no need (and perhaps no way) to reduce one to the other, and while there may be no “equilibrium” between the two, there can be a dialectic, a reciprocal and dynamic interchange.
Cosmic Calamity Theory
To return to Brassier’s commentary on “humanity’s inevitable extinction,” we would be remiss not to look at his argument about the death of the sun and compare it to the buffet of extinctions offered up in the field of existential risk. The eventual transformation of the sun into a “red giant” and then diminishment into a “white dwarf” as it completes its cycle of thermonuclear reactions presents a contrast to “risks” such as AI, climate change, and asteroids. Unlike them, the sun’s demise is inevitable. In the final chapter of Nihil Unbound, Brassier draws on nonconsoling thinkers such as Nietzsche and especially Jean-François Lyotard’s argument about “solar catastrophe” in his book The Inhuman. Lyotard divulges a hyperbolic attitude about the retroactive negation of meaning, because this point comes in a dialogue between the characters “He” and “She,” where “He” exaggerates his point with a staccato of sentence fragments:
Human death is included in the life of the human mind. Solar death implies an irreparably exclusive disjunction between death and thought. If there’s death, then there’s no thought. No self to make sense of it. Pure event. Disaster. All the events and disasters we’re familiar with and try to think of will end up as no more than pale simulacra.30
This end of thought that thought cannot possibly think erases the horizon. The male voice in the dialogue argues that this ultimate question is “the sole serious question facing humanity today” (9). In valuations that recall Bostrom’s typology of risks and privileging of the kind that would lead to the extinction of “Earth-originating intelligent life,” Lyotard (or the character “He”) goes on to say that “wars, conflicts, political tensions, shifts in opinion, philosophical debates, even passions”—all are “dead already” because “the explosion to come . . . can be seen in a certain ways as coming before the fact” to render the list of attachments “posthumous” and “futile” (9). Brassier’s point about the death of the sun is similar, though his Prometheanism is very different from Lyotard’s suspicion of technoscience.
What these thinkers share most in common is the logic of retroactive negation grounded in the thought of deep-future extinction. For Brassier, this means that posteriority disqualifies the importance of subject–object correlations crucial to existentialism much like Quentin Meillasoux’s concept of ancestrality does from the vantage of the past. Deep-future extinction is thermodynamic, made inevitable by the law of entropy: potential energy exhausts itself. Even if humans somehow escape the solar system, Brassier reminds us, this would only defer the inevitable:
sooner or later both life and mind will have to reckon with the disintegration of the ultimate horizon, when, roughly one trillion, trillion, trillion (101728) years from now, the accelerating expansion of the universe will have disintegrated the fabric of matter itself, terminating the possibility of embodiment. Every star in the universe will have burnt out, plunging the cosmos into a state of absolute darkness and leaving behind nothing but spent husks of collapsed matter.31
With this point about cosmological exhaustion and darkness, Brassier mocks that no deferral through transhumanism or becoming-interstellar will save humans from extinction. The concept of posteriority is less a posteriori or inductive logic, more retroactivity before the fact. Because “we” humans and all of life will inevitably be extinct, there is nothing now. As Brassier puts it, “the extinction of spacetime” “already cancels” the correlation of being and meaning, with existentiality “already retroactively terminated” (230).
In chapter 2, we showed how this future anterior logic works for existential risk theorists such as Toby Ord. But there is also a clear contrast between their conception of unprecedented events and Brassier’s ideas about extinction. In fact, the two ways of thinking are almost opposing limit cases: extinction is either inevitable or radically contingent, determined in advance or an array of possible ends of human life, unavoidable or something that we should strive to avoid until humanity can achieve the full maturity of superintelligence. Humans (or Earth-originating intelligent life) are either potentially godlike or “spent husks” of nothingness. Through this opposition, Lyotard and Brassier’s own work can serve as a critique of the theological metaphysics of existential risk and a return to the reality of finitude. In The Inhuman, Lyotard was already working against the idea that thought can go on without a body, and his argument links transhumanism to the inevitability of extinction as early as the 1980s. In their effort to mitigate all future extinction scenarios, existential risk theorists seem to ignore the inevitable, or to surreptitiously set the time frame of concern back to a time arbitrarily nearer to us in the lifetime of the universe. Even transhuman minds will have to “reckon with the disintegration of the ultimate horizon” (228), which may or may not preclude concerns about less encompassing extinctions that could happen in the trillions of years before the end of all ends. Even if heat death functions as a critique of existential risk, however, the more subtle reason to read Brassier here is to look for the third term (expanding the space of existences across multiple temporal and cosmological conceptions) in this opposition. By way of questioning heat death, we work toward conclusions about how existential ecology should relate to cosmic timescales.
Taking up the theme that has struck fiction writers from Camille Flammarion to Philip K. Dick, Brassier makes entropy the foundation for retroactive negation. How striking that, on the one hand, the death of the sun and the heat death of the universe seem ineluctable and, on the other hand, that theorists could notice this but close their concepts off from key cosmological questions. The combination of entropy and rationalization of finitude into the terms of nothingness, however, raises the question of how empirically sound is the long-standing cosmic inflation hypothesis, with its reliance on the inevitability of heat death.
Within cosmology, the Big Bang and cosmic inflation have faced challenges in recent years. We do not need to detail the conflicts between the architects of the Big Bang theory and cosmologists like Paul Steinhardt and Neil Turok, who argue that observational evidence is more consistent with infinite, cyclic, or bounding models of a universe that is not unified and lacks a beginning or end.32 Historians of science like Bjørn Ekeberg have suggested that, since the late twentieth century, cosmology and theoretical physics have gone too far in trying to force their observations into rational (mathematically unified) models of the universe, inventing new concepts that must be real even when they cannot be observed.33 So it is easy to cast doubt, from a scientific perspective, on Brassier’s claim of ontological disenchantment. What is striking about his repetition of heat death and inflation theory from only two scientific references is that a theory that depends so much on having the right science about the behavior of matter at the largest scales, in an unobservable future about which we can have no empirical evidence, needs its science to be not just factual but absolute.34 As is often the case when thinkers choose a science to make absolute, much of the actually existing debate and complexity around a theory like inflation vanishes.35 It is dubious to see such remote cosmic events treated as the hard truth of reason and materiality, not only because cosmology is a rather fuzzy and speculative science on which to stake one’s bets, but also because the thought of the end of the universe is so wonderful and rich in questions. The single most common ploy of scientism is to present some still-ambiguous topic as unproblematically true.
These scientific questions raise the usual problems of contingent evidence, the absoluteness of laws, ever-changing observations of the universe, and the technologies that enable them. Yet none of these empirical problems quite capture what is most amazing about Brassier’s argument for disenchantment, which is that it forgets questions of being at the exact moment where they seem unavoidable: the end (or the beginning, for that matter) of the universe. Such questions are as childlike as they are important: What came before the beginning and what will come after the end? What is the being in which the material determinations studied by cosmology and astrophysics play out? What lies beyond the outer frame of our secular scientific worldview? Are there cosmological “ends” at all? If “ends” are an open question, where does this leave the cosmological question of extinction?
In fact, these questions could be asked at any stage of cosmic evolution, but it’s the concepts of origins and ends that make them most urgent when referred to extinction horizons in the present, while also raising our deconstructive suspicions. Without the expertise to decide one way or another, but keeping in mind the current debates in cosmology, would it be perverse to be suspicious about the metaphysics of a Big Bang theory that has such a clear narrative structure of beginning, middle, and end? Even if the theory is correct, this might not reduce away the mystery of the broader context in which the universe is evolving from Bang to entropic Whimper. The radical mystery of this context should not be seen as an answer to human finitude or an escape from extinction, which is the predictably transhuman role played by the “fifth dimension” in Christopher Nolan’s film Interstellar. But this persistent question of being does seem to militate against Brassier’s aggressive interpretation of heat death as disenchanting and demystifying, revealing the ultimate nullity of ontology. Questions about what lies before the beginning or after the end are spurs toward the kind of speculative cosmology that might inform alternatives to risk management and transhumanism.
Can Utopia Be Compulsory?
Cosmological frames of analysis like Brassier’s and Bostrom’s “astronomical” value horizon treat the ultimate ends of evolutionary processes as having conceptual and methodological primacy over any other point in time, including the present. Selecting for scale and a specific “stage” (if it still makes sense to talk of beginnings, middles, and ends) in any evolutionary-historical process always will have outsized effects on the ontological claims of any theory. Our preference for existential ecology has its own framing problems, although the advantage of this scale is that it can process the insights of cosmological entropy as already constitutive in the formations of planetary ecologies and the existences that share these worlds in reckoning with their own finitudes. The cosmological scale of heat death or the astronomical scale of transhuman superintelligence lack a robust theorization of their own implications in ecological and existential precarity in the present. Two more contributions to the tradition of existential thought then can serve as prescient guides for thinking existential ecology in a time of existential risks. The work of Hans Jonas, a Jewish student of Heidegger’s at one time, provides a remarkable example of a restatement of existential thought after witnessing the horrors of World War II. Jonas’s first major writings on existential philosophy in the 1950s culminated in his volume The Phenomenon of Life, which set out to offer “an ‘existential’ interpretation of biological facts.”36 Jonas claims that “biology turns into ethics” (2) since over the course of biological evolution humans have gained the capacity for different forms of care going beyond physical satisfactions. This is not a strict naturalism but an argument that evolutionary processes, over time, have created the conditions for humans to bear a more substantial capacity of responsibility and carefulness that are the hallmarks of the existential structure. Jonas contends that this natural and existential basis for care has now produced a new ought: humans are responsible to maintain the capacity for responsibility itself. Simply put, humans ought to maintain the ability to have oughts. Ethics now includes duties toward the ought itself and to not let perish the capacity for adherence to oughts.
Jonas expands the implications of this argument in The Imperative of Responsibility, first published in German in 1979, a lucid book on the state of ethics after technologies of nuclear war, environmental destruction, and genetic engineering. This book now reads as an existentialist critique of the transhuman position on existential risk.37 Jonas begins by recognizing that the condition of ethics itself has fundamentally changed in the past century due to the apocalyptic power of new technologies. Previous ethical philosophies, from classical Greek philosophy to Kant’s categorical imperative, assumed that “the human condition, determined by the nature of man and the nature of things, was given once and for all; that the human good on that basis was readily determinable; and that the range of human action and therefore responsibility was narrowly circumscribed” (1). Now that these premises no longer hold, with human action capable of changing or destroying the human condition as well as the natural condition, morality has changed. Humans are obligated to care for the future effects of their actions and for the future of the plenitude of life on the planet. Humans have an ethical injunction to bequeath the capacity of having such duties to future humans. We do not have an ethical imperative to achieve perfection or dissolve suffering. There is no metaphysical principle that says we must maximize every human potential or wish for ourselves or for future generations. Toward future generations, Jonas argues, we have a responsibility not to grant them “astronomical” benefits but simply to bequeath a future that includes them in it: “In the final analysis we consult not our successors’ wishes (which can be of our own making) but rather the ‘ought’ that stands above both of us” (41).
With the expansion of the scope of responsibility, Jonas proposes new categorical imperatives: “That there ought to be through all future time such a world fit for human habitation, and that it ought in all future time to be inhabited by a mankind worthy of the human name, will be readily affirmed as a general axiom” (10). There is also the reverse corollary: “Do not compromise the conditions for an indefinite continuation of humanity on earth” (11). These imperatives are meant not to bolster anthropocentric humanism but to restrict humans from putting the whole of humanity and the planet at risk.
Jonas, not a “bioconservative” lamenting technology as such, grants that we live in a technologically mediated world. He stresses caution, care, justice, and reason as practices that can benefit from technology but do not require it, but he adds these commitments are principally and logically against the cult of technology. Jonas especially casts a wary eye to what he calls the “inherently ‘utopian’ drift” of technology that is channeling humans toward “unwanted, built-in, automatic utopianism” (21). Can utopia ever be compulsory? In Jonas’s view, there is no inherent human duty to achieve utopia or immortality or an end to all work and all suffering. Humans are not responsible for perfecting themselves or their world. Ethics is the granting of care to the precarious, not granting perfection to the imperfect. As Jonas states, “Only for the changeable and the perishable can one be responsible” (125). And while there is no inherent obligation to forever keep humans unchanged, Jonas’s argument also calls for a ban on making permanent existential decisions for future generations or depriving them of having any access to the existential condition. This duty applies to nonhuman animals as well.
In her book Wild Dog Dreaming: Love and Extinction (2011), Deborah Bird Rose defines existential ecology as follows: “Ecological existentialism thus proposes a kinship of becoming: no telos, no deus ex machina to rescue us, no clockwork to keep us ticking along; and on the other hand, the rich plenitude, with all its joys and hazards, of our entanglement in the place, time, and multispecies complexities of life on Earth.”38 Rose’s “ecological existentialism,” articulated in the context of Indigenous-settler reconciliation work in Australia, understands entanglement, a different metaphor than the plateau, as ambivalent as well as fundamentally biodynamic (not “bioconservative”). This ecological existentialism is immediately accessible as a multispecies commons and not predicated on trillion-dollar technological industries. Such existentialism is not an anthropocentric humanism but a devotion to explore and experiment within existential relations intertwined with the conditions of biodiversity and earth systems. Rose’s existential ecology welcomes not the overcoming of the human but a process committed to constantly redefining the human without the guarantee of rescue or escape from this condition.
In addition to all the ecological existential risks we face in the next fifty years, we face this risk of irrevocably changing all of our planet’s existential structures. There is no necessary reason for us to ever affix ourselves and our planet to some superior determinative intelligence, but this does not mean we cannot welcome some ways of existing with some kinds of superintelligence, and perhaps these could even expand, rather than circumvent, the conditions for care in a precarious world. With Frédéric Neyrat, we embrace the idea that Earth is a “traject” rather than an object (a thing viewed from space) or a subject (Gaia, a giant organism or person). The Earth as traject is an “interval spanning space time,” “a long term event that began 4.54 billion years ago, the historical trajectory of an entity that will disappear in several billion years.”39 The “unconstructable” Earth is an event that we cannot “reproduce in a laboratory”—it can neither be “controlled nor dominated” because it is an unfolding duration rather than a thing that might be broken down into its parts and remade (171). Even if we were to inhabit other planets, we would be extending the traject elsewhere rather than transcending it.
Cosmology and deep time are not distant from today’s most urgent theory and practice. It seems strange, then, that there is so little attention to cosmological questions in critical theory. In this respect, a critical approach to existential risk must distinguish between the kind of near-term care that we might hope will help different collectives of humans and nonhumans through events like the 2020 pandemic and the kind of existential thought that is fundamentally speculative, reaching forward to ask whether the final horizon for the existence of life is the death of the sun or the collapse of the Milky Way into the black hole at its center, or in fact something relatively close to us in geological time. We should be curious about the metaphysical and cosmological questions of how humanity, “Earth-originating intelligent life,” life, or even being will come to an end. But existential thinking about extinction should keep in mind the difference between shorter timescales at which we can conceivably plan ways of caring for each other and deep time thinking that has a very distinct existential meaning. It might almost be better to choose arbitrary, midlength timescales to frame political theories, like the one hundred thousand years of Madsen’s Into Eternity, rather than working with ahistorical timescales assumed by goals like sustaining the “future of life” or “safeguarding humanity.” This would be a departure from Jonas’s norm that there “ought to be through all future time such a world fit for human habitation.” One must also think the existential meaning of catastrophes such as the current pandemic along with the growing miseries of global heating, which would not count for Bostrom as properly existential risks, and which do not convert into an existential guarantee of a future for humanity. But we are against extending a model of risk management and utilitarianism to truly cosmic scales at which they become absurd ways of denying the inevitability of extinction and thus of blocking those who embrace this model from thoughtfully integrating extinction into their coexistential structures. If the negative critique of existential risk is to roll over into something affirmative, one direction it might take is to understand extinction as the starting point for making new ontologies and mystical practices from the counterintuitive data of physics and cosmology.