Students discussed the likelihood humanity will go extinct at philosophy senior Chase Hamilton’s talk “Existential Risk: Humanity’s Fragility” on Wednesday.
During the lecture for the Secular Student Alliance, Hamilton, who is president of the Undergraduate Philosophy Association of UT, said there is a very high possibility humans will reach extinction. Hamilton said preventing this outcome is more valuable than any other type of humanitarian effort, such as donating to charities or finding a cure for cancer.
“Reducing existential risk by one millionth of one percentage point is over 100 times as valuable as the direct effect of saving 1 million human lives,” Hamilton said.
There are several biases that cause our indifference to this fact, Hamilton said. One of these is that we can’t wrap our heads around the implications of human extinction.
“We overvalue outcomes that we can empathize with,” Hamilton said. “Imagine how bad one funeral is. You can’t multiply that grief. Our brain doesn’t have enough neurotransmitters to do that.”
Hamilton also referenced the Fermi paradox, which describes the fact that we have not seen any sign of alien life as puzzling, given the many planets that are capable of supporting life.
“Why is it so empty out there? It’s kind of spooky,” Hamilton said.
Mechanical engineering senior Jake Lewis said the vastness of the universe may be an obstacle to detecting extraterrestrial life.
“It’s so incredibly big out there,” Lewis said. “And we don’t have the ability to see that far. Isn’t it possible we just haven’t found them?”
Hamilton said the “great filter” — a theory describing the improbable evolutionary circumstances required to form observable extraterrestrial life similar to that of Earth — explains why we have not yet discovered alien life and will likely cause humans to become extinct. According to Hamilton, the uncertainty of humans achieving interplanetary colonization, the last step in the great filter theory, is due to issues in human society such as war.
“No civilization has ever made past it, and we’re up next,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton said people should be making personal sacrifices, such as not driving cars or having fewer children, in order to prevent or delay extinction caused by global warming or overpopulation.
“This is our moral responsibility, but is there any way to reconcile the impetus of the individual to be making their own selfish decisions?,” English senior Rosemary Dammann said.
Hamilton said the importance of future generations should not be overlooked.
“We should care about future people as much as we care about current people,” Hamilton said.