If humanity goes extinct, it will be because it destroyed itself by some combination of neglect and willful self-destruction.
Elon Musk is noted for trumpeting this problem and urging a solution to it by going to Mars. Indeed one might even say that the overarching purpose of his life is to help humanity escape this fate. As this article puts it:
… Enrico Fermi, the world’s first nuclear reactor inventor, proposed a paradox in 1950. He claimed that due to the universe’s age and size, there must be a civilization far more advanced than ours, which begs the question, “Why is it just us?”
Many scientists believe that if a civilization exceeds a particular scale, it will inevitably kill itself by killing the world, either by sophisticated weaponry or natural catastrophe.
Natural catastrophe causing human extinction may happen at any time. As I wrote in The Fourth Plane, we should deem such outcome as resulting from our own negligence. For at least the past 2000 years, humanity has had the potential to follow authentic virtue where it should lead; instead it has, overall, pursued wildly petty, exploitative, and self-destructive ends. Humanity has and still does operate far beneath its actual potential to flourish.
Will fleeing to Mars solve this problem? Or will we only be taking our old problems to a new place? To the civilized mind, it is elementary: if you wish to solve a problem, you must address the problem’s root cause. Is the fact that we’re not on Mars the root cause of our problem? Clearly not. To the extent that such endeavor aims at solving the problem, it is therefore a foolish distraction, a high-tech flailing around, like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
From time immemorial, the major problem with our elites is that they think that whatever political-economic regime anointed them is the ideal sifting function for wisdom and virtue; they have risen to the top and therefore they are anointed with the best truth that humanity has to offer. Such foolish and self-serving premise is an aspect of the real root problem here.
This illustrates the central social problem, at least as old as Plato’s Republic: to find a method by which the best elements of humanity would actually rise to the top, and thereby lift humanity to new heights, setting us free to discover our real potential for flourishing. In order to thrive, humanity desperately needs a real meritocracy, based upon real virtue. Plato himself had offered up the pattern for our present regime: those who succeeded best at business should be deemed to have the greatest potential for wisdom. This isn’t a patently stupid idea, but what Plato neglected to consider was that if the political-economic scene was littered with corruption, then those who were capable of rising in that environment would not actually be the ideal candidates.
Everyone knows that production and achievement are good, and that destruction and stagnation are bad. Even the worst governments know this, therefore if they can’t reach the former state then they at least provide a counterfeit to them to make things seem as if they did. It is through this lens that we can understand the Peace of Westphalia and the rise of the sovereign nation-state, or the principle of federalism as embodied in the early American government, whereby free and independent States joined to create a common defense but were otherwise free to pursue governance in their own ways, free from national tyranny. What humanity had learned the hard way (through centuries of war and stagnation) is that it’s not a good idea for the foolish elites of one geographic area to presume to meddle in the affairs of the foolish elites in another geographic area, that to avoid rampant and incessant destruction through war, we needed to afford nations sovereignty, the national right of self-determination.
Such ideal of national sovereignty is not a nuanced principle learned by reason, but rather a primitive understanding very reluctantly learned by foolish elites who punished their populations with hundreds of years of suffering and death. No such elite is ever satisfied with merely ruling their own populations; they also eagerly wish to dominate and exploit other populations as well, if for no other reason than to punish the success of foreigners in order not to look bad to their own populations. Therefore, there would have been no reason to predict that this primitive understanding would have worked well over time, and it hasn’t.
An obvious problem with national sovereignty that persists to this day is the problem of genocide. Does a nation-state’s sovereignty extend to their “right” to exterminate groups of people they don’t like, not only in blunt and direct manner but also in subtle and insidious ways? Do other nation-states have some kind of moral obligation here? Indeed, as the case of Nazi Germany highlights: if an evil nation-state is permitted such evil actions against their own population, is there any reason to suppose they would respect the ideal of national sovereignty? Furthermore, precisely what is the moral principle that makes it morally vile for (say) a group of strong men to refuse to intervene when vicious crimes happen before their eyes, but morally virtuous for a strong nation-state to not lift a finger to help individuals when a vile foreign government does the same?
The critical turning point for the sovereign nation-state was the development of nuclear weapons, where, again, what our foolish elites did not learn by a careful process of reason they were forced to concede to by the brute threat of nuclear annihilation. Whereas the question of whether any nation-state should have such destructive powers is too difficult for them to decide (particularly for elites who are in control of such power), their dazzling intellects are still able to perceive that allowing dozens of petty dictatorships such globally-destructive powers is a bad idea. When the threat of mutually-assured destruction is the best idea our elites can think up, we are in a bit of a problem.
So here is why we are now having to deal with “globalism” – the idea that we need a global totalitarian elite to manage all human beings everywhere, in order to avoid the disasters caused by too much local autonomy. The Scylla and Charybdis for the human race is indeed the threat of a totalitarian government on the one hand, and chaotic anarchy on the other. Can there ever be a standard which transcends these two destructive paths?
“The vulgar, who take things according to their first appearance, attribute the uncertainty of events to such an uncertainty in the causes as makes the latter fail their usual influence… But philosophers, observing, that, almost in every part of nature, there is contained a vast variety of springs and principles, which are hid, by reason of their minuteness or remoteness, find, that it is at least possible the contrariety of events may not proceed from any contingency in the cause, but from the secret operation of contrary causes. This possibility is converted into certainty by farther observation; when they remark, that, upon an exact scrutiny, a contrariety of effects always betrays a contrariety of causes, and proceeds from their mutual opposition. A peasant can give no better reason for the stopping of any clock or watch than to say that it does not commonly go right: But an artist easily perceives, that the same force in the spring or pendulum has always the same influence on the wheels; but fails of its usual effect, perhaps by reason of a grain of dust, which puts a stop to the whole movement. From the observation of several parallel instances, philosophers form a maxim, that the connexion between all causes and effects is equally necessary, and that its seeming uncertainty in some instances proceeds from the secret opposition of contrary causes.”— David Hume
The civilized mind will solve social problems not by stumbling from emergency to emergency, perennially driving the pendulum of history between totalitarianism and chaos, but by reasoning from cause to effect, and thereby actually solving the problem.
Nature’s solution to the problem of the survival of the species is natural selection: when those individuals best suited to carry on the genes of the species are selected for then the species will tend to flourish, and if not, then it will tend to die off. We humans have no comprehension or command over our own genetic code relative to what specific alterations will yield the most ideal survival, so if we consciously manipulate and intervene in the process of natural selection then what can we expect to eventually happen? Only disaster. This is why eugenics can never work – we are far too stupid to implement it. At best, we can get out of nature’s way in some meaningful sense. What is this meaningful sense?
Human beings domesticate animals, which is detrimental to the animals’ independent survival; but they also domesticate other human beings, as when they forced Socrates to drink the hemlock, or as when they mandate vaccines as a prerequisite for having a job. Protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, most contemporary government policies are inherently and actively eugenical, in that they transfer resources and opportunity from one kind of group to another, thereby favoring the receiving group. Indeed, most people believe that such unnatural favoritism is unavoidable: there’s winners and losers but no “right” or “wrong” of it, so asking whether politicians and government bureaucrats are really smart enough to be making these eugenical decisions for the whole human race is beside the point; such decisions are, they claim, inherent and necessary to government.
My point here isn’t that Social Darwinism is a valid social-political standard. It isn’t. The only point is that the human species are not immune to the process of natural selection, and to consider that giving our foolish elites the power to arbitrarily exert natural-selective functions on society is a dubious scheme at best and, when viewed from the timescales at which natural selection works, a reductio ad absurdum at worst. Furthermore, it’s deeply hypocritical for them to, on the one hand condemn eugenics while also blatantly practicing eugenics. We should certainly avoid schemes concocted by epic fools whereby these very same epic fools get to pick the winners and the losers.
“I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”— Thomas Jefferson (whose statues are now being removed from American institutions)
Classical liberals understood that in order for the best individuals to rise to the top and thereby best serve humanity, they first need to not be harassed and persecuted into oblivion. Such is the key critical function of the so-called “liberal democracy” – to not actively destroy what is most essential to humanity’s future, to leave individuals free to decide for themselves what their own ends will be and to pursue those ends, without interference from either the corruption of the elites or the masses. The culmination of such tradition was of course in America, which to some degree embraced the ideal that an individual should succeed or fail on their own individual merits, as determined by an objective system of merit. It is certainly no coincidence that it was here that the concept of “natural rights” had its best and most explicit expression, nor is it a coincidence that the height of humanity’s scientific, technical, and industrial prowess had emerged in America.
In the ideal of natural rights is the idea of an objective and natural selection process for individual success; a sorting function for merit that transcends the constant foolish manipulations of establishment elites. Ergo the singularly American tale of a business tycoon who started out in poverty and “pulled himself up by his own bootstraps” into the heights of wealth. This was not a myth, it was real, but this particular quality of American life was never consistent and it is now fading fast.
The reason why is simple and mundane and a tale as old as history. It does not matter if a given elite became so largely from their own laudable efforts; they can still be expected to abuse their powers once these are gained. A political system that respects everyone’s natural rights is not as apparently beneficial to a given elite as one that favors his own interests against theirs, therefore he will typically pursue any and all policies that cement his own powers (which inexorably fade with age) against youthful upstarts. Compounding this problem in our present era is the fact that everyone’s retirement accounts are dependent on granting these elites the political favors they incessantly clamor for. In such manner the imperfect American system of merit has now become very corrupt and unreliable. While it does still manage to pick out merit here and there, it has become very decrepit and ineffective at this.
So what is the answer to the Fermi Paradox? Individuals (whether from Earth or an alien planet) in a wild state naturally thrive if they are superior at destroying competing individuals, so too are tribes, cities, and nation-states – up to a point. Building superior weapons technology that overcomes other individual tribes and nations demands a certain respect for and facility with the truth, so individuals, tribes, and nation-states who better deal with that kind of truth will prevail over those that don’t. In the words of Bacon, “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.” Yet as Bacon well-knew, the moral truths which pertain to mankind are also part of the natural world, and must also be understood, and when they are not we wind up in the perverse situation we are now in: where mutually-assured destruction is our only guard against the destruction of the human species.
The “prime directive” of illegitimate power (and the “might makes right” power I have been describing certainly is illegitimate) is to keep that power at all costs. But moral truth is opposed to such power. Therefore illegitimate power centers can naturally be expected to attack the factual and philosophical basis of truth. Therefore the elites and their state-sponsored charlatans have always tried to spin the illusion that rationality is a myth and natural rights are unreal. We don’t need wild conspiracy theories to explain this phenomenon; bizarre events or philosophies are just a direct manifestation of illegitimate power attacking the rational/critical meritocracy that would otherwise check such power. “… at all times and in all circumstances, all over the globe, there exists a conspiracy, framed by nature herself, of all the mediocre, inferior, and dull minds against intellect and understanding. … Everyone praises only as much as he himself hopes to achieve. … narrow-mindedness and stupidity always and everywhere, in all situations and circumstances, detest nothing in the world so heartily and thoroughly as understanding, intellect, and talent. Here mediocrity remains true to itself, as shown in all the spheres and affairs that relate to life, for it endeavours everywhere to suppress, indeed to eradicate and exterminate, superior qualities in order to exist alone. No kindness, no benevolence can reconcile it with intellectual superiority. … This is one of the main obstacles to mankind’s progress in every sphere.” (Schopenhauer)
We can imagine that this phenomenon happens even on alien planets. All species must emerge from a barbaric “might makes right” past. Stronger individuals that have no moral qualms about killing weaker individuals will tend to dominate. But being stronger will require some semblance of respect for the truth. Ultimately this yields the subtle type of mind that can understand scientific truth. But it is precisely this type of mind that can also comprehend moral truth. And so comes the battle between good and evil, between the ideals of natural rights and the establishment powers that naturally wish to maintain their authority at all costs. The consistent, principled regard for reason and natural rights is indeed one of the final hurdles a successful interstellar civilization must achieve. Judging by the slow progress on this front in our own world, it may even be The Great Filter. In any case, traversing the moral chasm between the “might makes right” world of the past to the natural rights world of the future should be the top priority of any authentic elite.