We live in a genuinely unique period of human history, one in which the alarmist's hackneyed warning that “The end is near!” could actually come true. The world is cluttered with increasingly powerful advanced technologies. Global warming and biodiversity loss are unchecked catastrophes that will likely push society to the brink of collapse. How are we to respond to this situation? What can we do to maximize the probability of a positive outcome for our species? The End surveys the expanding wilderness of big-picture hazards before us. It offers a comprehensive and detailed analysis of our evolving existential predicament, which includes risks from synthetic biology, nanotechnology, nuclear weaponry, and (possibly, soon) superintelligence. But understanding the science of risks isn't enough to effectively mitigate them: one must also understand the social, political, and especially religious contexts in which advanced technologies are being developed. The End provides this knowledge by showing how faith-based belief in religious eschatologies (or end-times narratives) is inching us ever closer to a secular apocalypse. Action needs to be taken immediately to avert a disaster. The question is whether humanity will choose reason over faith, observation over revelation, and science over religion.
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About the Author
Phil Torres is a philosopher who writes about emerging technologies, existential risks, and religious eschatology. He's published articles in a wide range of academic journals, is a regular contributor at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, and is the author of A Crisis of Faith: Atheism, Emerging Technologies, and the Future of Humanity. He lives in Carrboro, North Carolina. Russell Blackford is an Australian philosopher, literary critic, and writer.
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What Science and Religion Tell Us About the Apocalypse
By Phil Torres
Pitchstone PublishingCopyright © 2016 Phil Torres
All rights reserved.
Looking Forward to the Future
* * *
The Most Important Conversation of Our Age
"Eschatology": "the study of the end of the world."
People in every age have waved their arms in the air and shouted "The end is near! Prepare for the world to be destroyed!" Most scholars of the New Testament in Europe and the United States since Albert Schweitzer published The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906) have seen Jesus himself as a failed apocalyptic prophet who expected the imminent end of the world in his own day. This is why Jesus says in Matthew 24, "Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened." The Apostle Paul also appears to have anticipated an imminent end. In encouraging men "not [to] look for a wife," for example, Paul says, "What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. ... For this world in its present form is passing away" (1 Corinthians 7).
Since the time of Jesus and Paul, a staggering number of Christians have expected the world to end in their lifetimes, or the foreseeable future. Few Christians are fully aware of how extensive and diverse this tradition is. To pluck just a few examples from the fields of history: Irenaeus, the second-century Church Father who argued, quite influentially, that there should be four Gospels because there are four zones of the world and four principal winds, anticipated Jesus' return in 500 AD. Two centuries later, a bishop named Martin of Tours wrote that "there is no doubt that the Antichrist has already been born. Firmly established already in his early years, he will, after reaching maturity, achieve supreme power." And Martin Luther, of Protestant Reformation fame, expected the world to end before 1600. More recently, Pat Robertson predicted the end in the early 1980s, saying, "I guarantee you by the end of 1982 there is going to be a judgment on the world." And the retired NASA engineer Edgar Whisenant published a brilliantly incorrect (but nonetheless best-selling) book called 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988, which, one might surmise from the title, forecast the Rapture in 1988. Whisenant declared, "Only if the Bible is in error am I wrong."
Perhaps the most famous instance of eschatological embarrassment involved the followers of the American Baptist preacher William Miller, known as the Millerites. These faithful believers anticipated the end on October 22, 1844. As The Midnight Cry put it in a final editorial:
Think for eternity! Thousands may be lulled to sleep by hearing your actions say: "This world is worth my whole energies. The world to come is a vain shadow." O, reverse this practical sermon, instantly! Break loose from the world as much as possible. If indispensable duty calls you into the world for a moment, go as a man would run to do a piece of work, in the rain. Run and hasten through it, and let it be known that you leave it with alacrity for something better. Let your actions preach in the clearest tones: "The Lord is coming" — "The Time is short" — "This world passeth away" — "Prepare to meet thy God."
Many Millerites were so convinced that they abandoned their material possessions, gave up their careers, and left their families in preparation for Christ to "cleanse, purify and take possession" of the earth. As the October date approached, some Millerites "failed to plow their fields because the Lord would surely come 'before another winter.'" This belief "grew among others in [the] area so that even if they had planted their fields they felt it would be inconsistent with their faith to take in their crops."
When Jesus failed to emerge from the clouds, many sank into a gloomy despondence. One poor Millerite wrote: "I waited all Tuesday and dear Jesus did not come; — I waited all the forenoon of Wednesday, and was well in body as I ever was, but after 12 o'clock I began to feel faint, and before dark I needed someone to help me up to my chamber, as my natural strength was leaving me very fast, and I lay prostrate for 2 days without any pain — sick with disappointment." Another recorded the experience like this: "The 22nd of October passed, making unspeakably sad the faithful and longing ones; but causing the unbelieving and wicked to rejoice. All was still. ... Everyone felt lonely, with hardly a desire to speak to anyone. Still in the cold world! No deliverance — the Lord [did] not come!"
More recently, an American evangelist named Harold Camping made international news by declaring that the Rapture would occur on May 21, 2011. He put up more than 3,000 billboards worldwide to announce this event. Like the Millerites of the nineteenth century, some of Camping's followers abandoned their families and jobs to prepare for Jesus' appearance in the sky. One man gave over $140,000 of his own money for Rapture-related advertising. As Camping told Reuters before the big day, "We know without any shadow of a doubt it is going to happen." Meanwhile, atheists planned "rapture parties" for the evening of May 21 and "non-Judgmental Day" activities for May 22. None of these events were cancelled, of course: Camping was wrong.
As we'll see later on, a large percentage of believers in the contemporary US actively anticipates the imminent end of the world. The influence of these "dispensationalists" on American society and politics has been appreciable: as the historian Paul Boyer puts it in an article linking dispensationalism with the 2003 Iraq War, there's a "shadowy but vital way that belief in biblical prophecy is helping mold grass-roots attitudes toward current US foreign policy." He adds that academics "need to pay more attention to the role of religious belief in American public life, not only in the past, but also today. Without close attention to the prophetic scenario embraced by millions of American citizens, the current political climate in the United States cannot be fully understood." In chapter 13, we'll examine how the powerful Christian Zionist lobby in the US is centrally driven by dispensationalist convictions, according to which the last chapter in God's prewritten narrative of history is crucially dependent upon the existence of a Jewish state in Palestine. The result is an unwavering, dogmatic allegiance to Zionist causes that's fueling some of the more significant conflicts in the world.
One finds no dearth of eschatological fervor in the Islamic world either, beginning with the prophet Muhammad himself. As Allen Fromherz states in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World, "some scholars have suggested that Islam was, from the first revelations of Muhammad, almost entirely an apocalyptic movement. ... Some have even supposed that Muhammad deliberately failed to designate a successor because he predicted that the final judgment would occur after his death." Since Muhammad passed away in the eighth century, many Muslims have claimed to be the Mahdi, a messianic figure prophesied in the hadith (a collection of Muhammad's deeds and sayings) to unite the Muslim world (ummah) and, with the help of Jesus (or Isa, who will descend to Earth from heaven), defeat the Dajjal (the Muslim Antichrist) in a battle of monumental proportions.
A rather dramatic instance of Islamic eschatology being taken seriously in recent times occurred in 1979, when an apocalyptic group stormed the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the holy city of Muhammad's birth. The Grand Mosque is the biggest worship center in the Muslim world, and it's built around the holiest site in Islam, the Kaaba, toward which Muslims face when they pray. While 100,000 worshipers were inside the mosque on November 20, some 500 insurgents gained control of the building. These men claimed to have the Mahdi among them: a man named Mohammed Abdullah al-Qahtani. Saudi forces attempted to take back the mosque but repeatedly failed. It took a whole two weeks of fighting for the insurgents to finally surrender, probably after the "Mahdi" was killed (thereby proving their eschatological claims wrong). Most of the rebels who survived this incident — more than sixty — were publicly beheaded in 1980, a form of execution still practiced in modern-day Saudi Arabia.
Many others have come forward as the Mahdi. Dia Abdul Zahra Kadim, for example, the leader of the Shia extremist group Soldiers of Heaven, believed he was the Mahdi. He was killed in 2007 fighting the coalition forces in Iraq. That same year, an influential Iranian cleric (who's notable for supporting church and state separation) was sentenced to eleven years in prison "for allegedly — among other things — claiming he was the Mahdi." As of 2013, over 3,000 people claiming to be this messianic figure were, in fact, living in Iranian prisons. And the leader of arguably the most powerful and well-funded terrorist organization in history, the Islamic State, has been reported "to be trying to style himself as the Mahdi" (see chapter 13 for contrary opinions). This Sunni group is explicitly motivated by apocalyptic visions of the end, and it believes we're on the verge of an epic battle — essentially, Armageddon — that's set to occur in a small town in northern Syria. Chapter 13 will examine this topic in much greater detail.
Zooming out a little more, one finds a significant number of terrorist groups around the world today driven by delusions of history's imminent conclusion. Boko Haram, for example, is a radical Islamic group based in Nigeria whose name translates as "Western education is forbidden." In 2015, they officially pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, thereby embracing its eschatological worldview of impending catastrophe. Further east, a millennial cult known as the Eastern Lightning preaches that a woman in central China is the reincarnation of Christ and "that the righteous are engaged in an apocalyptic struggle against China's Communist Party — which they refer to as the 'great red dragon.'" This group is named after the prophetic verse of Matthew 24:27, which states that "for as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man," and as of 2012 it was estimated to have around a million followers. Finally, here in the US, the Christian Identity movement is a terrorist group that adheres to an ideology whereby "the end of the current world order is close, that they need to take some active role in promoting this event, and that this apocalyptic event is an imperative to be furthered with the use of violence."
Thus, from Europe to the United States to the Middle East and China — across space and time, history and geography — end times, or millenarian, thinking is ubiquitous. One simply can't understand world affairs without understanding how the major religions think it will end. Yet every single end-times enthusiast to date has been wrong about his or her predictions. Some observers take this to imply that anyone claiming the world may soon come to an end is probably wrong (and perhaps crazy). This tendency (for reasons explored in appendix 4) ought to be resisted, at least in a qualified way. The fact is that a thousand people having cried "Wolf!" without an attack doesn't mean that a vicious canine isn't creeping up behind us. What ultimately matters are the reasons behind one's cries, the arguments one has for arm-waving and shouting kooky things like "The end is near!"
This leads to an important distinction within the contemporary field of eschatology. Ever since the ancient Persians (in particular, the prophet Zoroaster) basically invented eschatology, this field has consisted of only a single branch: religious eschatology. By the middle of the twentieth century, though, it sprouted a second: secular eschatology. There are several notable differences between these branches. First, whereas religious narratives typically involve miraculous events and supernatural agents, secular eschatologies are thoroughly "naturalistic." There's nothing awaiting us on the other side of the grave, according to naturalism (also called materialism, and physicalism), no eternal paradise for "the elect" to inhabit once this world wastes away. So the stakes are high — perhaps far higher for the secular eschatologist, since this life is our one and only shot.
Along these lines, religious eschatologies include, quintessentially, some portion of humanity surviving a catastrophic transformation of the cosmos as the forces of Good overcome Evil through a series of climactic confrontations. This world soaked with sin and suffering is thus destroyed and along with it all those who failed to convert to the One True Religion (whatever it happens to be). In contrast, secular eschatologies concern, quintessentially, a special category of tragedies known as existential risks. We'll examine these in detail below; for now, we can say that an existential risk involves either no one surviving or some portion of humanity surviving but coming to inhabit a postcatastrophe world marked by severe and irreversible privation. Examples of possible existential risks include a nuclear war between world powers, a terrorist attack using designer pathogens, and a supervolcanic eruption.
The most crucial difference between the religious and secular branches of eschatology, though, pertains to their radically different epistemological foundations. Whereas the end-times stories of religion are based on faith in prophecies acquired through revelation, those of the secular branch are founded on empirical evidence acquired through observation. It's this fundamental philosophical difference that accounts for why we should take the cries of "Wolf!" made by secular riskologists (very, in some cases) seriously, while dismissing the pious prophets' tales of raptures, resurrections, and the return of supernatural entities as unjustified nonsense. Indeed, it's epistemology that makes the difference between being alarmed and being an alarmist, two attitudes often confused in public debates about big-picture risks like global warming. As we'll explore in chapters 12 and 13, a large portion of humanity is far more interested in the eschatological narratives of religion than the doomsday scenarios put forth by evidence-minded scientists. The result is that, given the superior epistemological status of secular eschatology, most people are fixated on the wrong apocalypses.
This is quite terrifying, especially since the best current estimates suggest that the probability of Homo sapiens following the dodo into extinction is greater than it's ever been before in our history (in part because people are looking the wrong direction!). The fact is that we live in a qualitatively different epoch in human history, one marked by a steadily increasing number of existential risk scenarios (see chapter 14). And while we have a good track record of avoiding the background risks that have always haunted us in nature — you wouldn't be reading this if our track record were bad — we have hardly any record of dodging the threats facing us in the present and coming centuries. We're charging into uncharted territory, rushing from the twilight into darkness with hardly a constellation above to guide us.
This makes the topic of existential risks quite possibly the most important that one could study. Indeed, I began writing this book because I don't believe there's any subject of greater ultimate value: everything we care about in the world, in this great experiment called civilization, depends on us preventing an existential catastrophe. So do all future humans — potentially billions and billions of people living lives that could be even more valuable, relative to some criteria of self-actualization and prosperity, than ours. There is, in fact, a real possibility that our children could live indefinitely long lives, become superintelligent uploaded minds, and even colonize the universe, traversing the great expanses of space at near the cosmic speed limit of light. (If this sounds like quixotic speculation, imagine explaining a smartphone, cochlear implant, or jet engine to a Neanderthal.) Thus, given how high the stakes are, not to mention that end-times thinking has had a pervasive (and perverse) effect on world affairs, the field of eschatology constitutes arguably the most urgent and imperative conversation of the present day.
Excerpted from The End by Phil Torres. Copyright © 2016 Phil Torres. Excerpted by permission of Pitchstone Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Foreword Russell Blackford 13
1 Looking Forward to the Future 20
The Most Important Conversation of Our Age 20
Big-Picture Hazards: Definitions 26
Causes of Big-Picture Hazards 32
Speculation and Predictability 35
2 Fire and Ice 43
The Doomsday Clock Is Ticking 43
When Hell Freezes Over 45
With God on Our Side 47
Close Calls and Near Misses 51
Duck and Cover 53
3 Bugs 59
A Dual Etiology: Turning Biology against Itself 61
Menacing Mistakes 67
4 Manufacturing Molecules 72
A Stairway to Heaven 72
Manufacturing Problems 74
Ecology Eaters 79
5 Our Children Might Kill Us 84
Killer Computers 84
Flavors of Brilliance 85
A Core Distinction 88
Mindware on Wetware 89
Steal, Copy, Invent 93
Suicide by Parricide 99
6 Our Parents Might Kill Us 108
Sentient Simulants 108
So Many Ways to Die 110
7 Dinosaurs and Dodos 114
Pruning the Tree of Life 114
The Holocene Extinction Event 116
Not on My Planet (NOMPism) 119
8 Warming Up to Extinction 123
Global Warming Is the Climate's Change 123
Positive Feedback Is Unwelcome 126
9 C alder a and Comets 130
A Meteorological Frankenstein 130
The Impact of an Impactor 134
10 Monsters 141
Unknown Unknowns 141
Varieties of the Unknowable 144
God Created the Devil 147
11 The Really Big Picture 152
The Sun's Future Is Bright 152
In with a Bang, Out with a Whimper 156
12 The Power of Prophecy 160
The Other Branch of Eschatology 160
Abraham's Bosom and the Lake of Fire 161
The Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful 169
13 Guns, God, and Armageddon 191
The Clash of Eschatologies 191
What Would Jesus Do? 194
Don't Shoot the Messenger 201
Same Page, Different Holy Book 211
14 Proaction and Precaution 221
Numbers and Probabilities 221
Two Hypotheses about the Existential Threat 224
Strategies for Survival 228
Top Priorities 241
The End Is Here 247
Appendix 1 Alternative Risk Typologies 257
Appendix 2 The Story of Zoroastrianism 261
Thus Spoke Zoroaster 261
The Beginning and End of Time (Literally) 262
Appendix 3 Religion without God 268
Appendix 4 Thinking Clearly about the Big Picture 270
A Fundamental Difference 270
What Kinds of Things Are True? 271
But What Makes It True? 273
How Do Beliefs Fit into This Picture? 274
When Should One Believe Something? 275
Some Qualifications 276
Knowledge and Faith 283
About the Author 288