A bit of existential hope for Christmas (and beyond)

Slide from the Foresight Vision Weekend 2018. Image by Robert McCall.

Existential hope is in the air. The term was coined by my collegues Toby and Owen to denote the opposite of an existential catastrophe: the chance that things could turn out much better than expected.

Recently I had the chance to attend a visioning weekend with the Foresight Institute where we discussed ways of turning dystopias into utopias. It had a clear existential hope message, largely because  it was organised by Allison Duettman who is writing a book on the topic. I must admit that I got a bit nervous when I found out since I am also writing my own grand futures book, but I am glad to say we are dealing with largely separate domains and reasons for hope.

Now I extra am glad to add a podcast to the list of hopeful messages: the Future of Life Institute had me on the podcast Existential Hope in 2019 and beyond. It includes not just me and Allison, but also Max Tegmark, Anthony Aguirre, Gaia Dempsey, and Josh Clark (who also interviewed me for his podcast series End of the World).

I also participated in the Nexus Instituut event “The Battle between Good and Evil”. I assume the good guys won. I certainly had fun. I ended up arguing that good is only weak compared to evil like how water is weak compared to solid object – in small amounts it will deform and splash. In larger amounts it is like the tide or a tsunami: you better get out of the way. In retrospect that analogy might have been particularly powerful in the Netherlands. They know their water and how many hands (and windmills) can reshape a country.

Do we really have grounds for existential hope?

A useful analysis of the concept of hope can be found in Jayne M. Waterworth’s A Philosophical Analysis of Hope. He defines that hoping for something requires (1) a conception of an uncertain possibility, (2) a desire for an objective, (3) a desire that one’s desire be satisfied, and (4) that one takes an anticipatory stance towards the objective.

One can hope for things that have a certain or uncertain probability, but also for things that are merely possible. Waterworth calls the first category “hope because of reality” or probability hope, while the second category is “hope in spite of reality” or possibility hope. I might have probability hope in fixing climate change, but possibility hope in humanity one day resurrecting the dead – in the first case we have some ideas of how it might happen and what might be involved, in the second case we have no idea even where to begin.

Outcomes can also be of different importance: hoping for a nice Christmas present is what Waterworth calls an ordinary hope, while hoping for a solution of climate change or death is an extraordinary hope.

We may speak of existential hope in the sense that “existential eucatastrophes” can occur, or that our actions can make them happen. This would represent the most extraordinary kind of hope possible.

But note that this kind of hope is potentially “hope because of reality” rather than “hope in spite of reality”. We can affect the future to some extent (there is an interesting issue of how much). There doesn’t seem to be any law of nature dooming us to early existential risk or a necessary collapse of civilization. We have in the past changed the rules for our species in very positive ways, and may do so again. We may discover facts about the world that greatly expand the size and value of our future – we have already done so in the past. These are good reasons to hope.

Hope is a mental state. The reason hope is a virtue in Christian theology is that it is the antidote to despair.

Hope is different from optimism, the view that good things are likely to happen. First, optimism is a general disposition rather than directed at particular hoped for occurrences. Second, hope can be a very small and unspecific thing: rather than being optimistic about everything going the right way, a hopeful person can see the overwhelming problems and risks and yet hope that something will happen to get us through. Even a small grain of hope might be enough to fend of despair.

Still, there may be a psychological disposition towards being hopeful. As defined by Snyder in regarding motivations towards goals this involves a sense of agency (chosen goals can be achieved) and pathways (successful plans and strategies for those goals can be generated). This trait predicts academic achievement in students beyond intelligence, personality, and past achievement. Indeed, in law students hope but not optimism was predictive for achievement (but both contributed to life satisfaction). This trait may be more about being motivated to seek out good future states than actually being hopeful about many things, but the more possibilities are seen, the more likely something worth hoping for will show up.

If there is something I wish for everybody in 2019 and beyond it is having this kind of disposition relative to existential hope. Yes, there are monumental problems ahead. But we can figure out ways around/through/over them. There are opportunities to be grabbed. There are new values to be forged.

The winter solstice has just passed and the days will become brighter and longer for the next months. Cheers!

Existential risk and hope

Spes altera vitaeToby and Owen started 2015 by defining existential hope, the opposite of existential risk.

In their report “Existential Risk and Existential Hope: Definitions” they look at definitions of existential risk. The initial definition was just the extinction of humanity, but that leaves out horrible scenarios where humanity suffers indefinitely, or situations where there is a tiny chance of humanity escaping. Chisholming their way through successive definitions they end up with:

An existential catastrophe is an event which causes the loss of most expected value.

They also get the opposite:

An existential eucatastrophe is an event which causes there to be much more expected value after the event than before.

So besides existential risk, where the value of our future can be lost, there is existential hope: the chance that our future is much greater than we expect. Just as we should work hard to avoid existential threats, we should explore to find potential eucatastrophes that vastly enlarge our future.

Infinite hope or fear

One problem with the definitions I can see is that expectations can be undefined or infinite, making “loss of most expected value” undefined. That would require potentially unbounded value, and that the probability of reaching a certain level has a sufficiently heavy tail. I guess most people would suspect the unbounded potential to be problematic, but at least some do think there could be infinite value somewhere in existence (I think this is what David Deutsch believes). The definition ought to work regardless of what kind of value structure exists in the universe.

There are a few approaches in Nick’s “Infinite ethics” paper. However, there might be simpler approaches based on stochastic dominance. Cutting off the upper half of a Chauchy distribution does change the situation despite the expectation remaining undefined (and in this case, changes the balance between catastrophe and eucatastrophe completely). It is clear that there is now more probability on the negative side: one can do a (first order) stochastic ordering of the distributions, even though the expectations diverge.

There are many kinds of stochastic orderings; which ones make sense likely depends on the kind of value one uses to evaluate the world. Toby and Owen point out that this what actually does the work in the definitions: without a somewhat precise value theory existential risk and hope will not be well defined. Just as there may be unknown threats and opportunities, there might be surprise twists in what is valuable – we might in the fullness of time discover that some things that looked innocuous or worthless were actually far more weighty than we thought, perhaps so much that they were worth the world.