The Moral Is
1:00 pm
Fri March 8, 2013

Commentary: Should We Worry About Cosmic Calamity?

Andrew Fiala

From the effects of climate change to the threat posed by a giant asteroid, there’s a lot of things that we as humans worry about. But when faced with the possibility that humans may suffer the same fate as the dinosaurs, what should our rational response be? On this edition of our commentary series The Moral Is, Fresno State philosophy professor Andrew Fiala points to a pessimistic conclusion.


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Recent cosmic events remind us that human existence is fragile.  A meteor exploded over Russia.  A bigger asteroid careened nearby.  Should we worry about cosmic calamity?  Or are there more important things to worry about?

Scientists are working to monitor near-earth objects.  One team wants to crash a rocket into an asteroid in an attempt to move it.

But the risk of damage from a medium size meteor strike is small.  Most of the world is covered with oceans and deserts.  It is unlikely that a space rock would hit a populated area. 

Unfortunately, if we saw a truly catastrophic asteroid headed our way, there is nothing we could do to stop it.  Imagine how difficult it would be to actually hit an asteroid with a rocket and successfully push it away from earth.

In such a scenario, it would be nice to have some advance warning.  But at that point we might as well throw a doomsday party and enjoy ourselves.

This points us toward a significant problem for rationality and ethics.  In some circumstances, it is rational to take up a shovel and get to work.  But in other circumstances, it makes more sense to take up a fiddle and play.  The problem is that we are not very good at assessing those circumstances and allocating our resources.

We like to kid ourselves and believe that we can outsmart disaster and disease.  But that’s not true.  The dinosaurs went extinct; and we all die eventually.  The trick is knowing which things to worry about and how much.  And we need to know when to stop worrying and embrace the inevitable. 

Big and spooky risks—like doomsday rocks from space—can absorb our attention, despite the fact that they are unlikely and unstoppable.  Meanwhile, it is easy to ignore other less spectacular problems. 

The cost of finding a way to prevent asteroid impact is immense, while the risk is small.  Meanwhile mundane diseases like malaria afflict many people living today.  And malaria mitigation is relatively cheap.  Let’s end malaria before we worry about asteroids.  We should not devote our resources to expensive and improbable solutions for existential threats, when there are other more pressing concerns. 

And yet, extinction is forever…  So we can’t ignore the catastrophic threats entirely.

But we do ignore serious threats.  We keep building cities in hurricane-stricken coastal areas, which are going to be ravaged by worse storms as the climate changes.  And no one is taking serious action to prevent climate change.

Perhaps the reason for this is that it is rational to pursue short-term satisfaction, while ignoring speculative worries about worst-case scenarios.  We play our fiddles and keep our fingers crossed, enjoying the good times while they last.

This points toward a pessimistic conclusion.  When ultimate disaster strikes, we will be unprepared.  We are not wired to take existential threats seriously.  Nor, of course, were the dinosaurs, whose dead bodies we burn in our cars every day.

The views expressed on The Moral Is are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Valley Public Radio.

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