Feeling grim about the future? ExistentialHope.com offers reasons for rational optimism.
Updated: Sep 28, 2021
The author and humorist Douglas Adams once wrote that "nothing travels faster than the speed of light with the possible exception of bad news, which obeys its own special rules." It's easy to find the inspiration for Adams's quip in today's media, which often seem to exclusively cover grim portents. Stormclouds like international strife, climate change, and runaway technology have become such fixtures on the news horizon that it's hard to imagine a future that isn't dominated or even defined by them — an imbalance that a new website called ExistentialHope.com aims to help you correct.
ExistentialHope.com's mission is to make positive futures more likely by asking people to imagine them clearly and think about how we might be able to shift humanity’s trajectory towards them. It’s an effort to defuse the cycle of pessimism and paralysis, expand our perspective beyond the scarcity mindset and zero-sum ethics, and inspire concrete projects that aim to build a better world.
Named for a paper by the philosophers Toby Ord and Owen Cotton-Barratt about the potential for major disruptions in human history to enable more happiness in the long term, ExistentialHope.com compiles resources from across the internet that envision brighter future paths for our civilization and wrestle with how to reach them. The organization takes an active, aspirational approach to the question of humanity's future, with a focus on what glories we and our descendants could achieve — rather than a passive obsession with the dark fates that might await us.
Founder Allison Duettmann explains:
"We need a change of perspective: away from fatalism in the face of doomsday, and toward the “intelligent optimism” that sublime futures are within our reach — if we reach for them. This shift has to be wider than just first-principle philosophizing: It needs to be accompanied by action items and tools that spark action."
ExistentialHope.com aims to provide many such tools under one roof, organized by topic into publicly-commentable Google Doc pages. Each page features a list of reading & listening resources in addition to suggestions for how to take action. We've highlighted some of our favorites below:
Existential Angst & Existential Hope: This page compiles many key texts from throughout the history of philosophical existentialism, including works by major thinkers like Nietzsche and Sartre. These texts feature a particular emphasis on feelings of meaninglessness and "philosophical pessimism" – the notion that the experience of existence is actually more harmful than the alternative. It also features a range of works from academia and science fiction that attempt to directly challenge these sorts of attitudes and provide methods for coping with them.
Big History & Big Future: This page contains resources that encourage a broad, long-term view of humanity's place in the cosmos. The "Big History" materials focus on unconventional lenses for viewing history in a less deterministic way, from physical sciences like astronomy to materialist philosophy influenced by Deleuze and Guattari. Meanwhile, the "Big Future" materials focus on long-term predictions about the possible directions human civilization and technology could take. This section features work by the likes of Stephen Hawking, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke, along with futurists like Nick Bostrom and Robin Hanson.
Risks and Threats: This page focuses on potential serious risks to the continuance of human civilization from threats like nuclear war, runaway AI, and resource depletion. (Our blog post on existential risk features detailed descriptions of many such risks.) The materials place a particular emphasis on the idea of "the Great Filter" — the mysterious hypothetical constraint on civilizational advancement that many thinkers use to explain the apparent absence of other intelligent life in the universe, itself known as the Fermi Paradox. This section features an extensive list of organizations that are working to counter existential risks, including the Future of Humanity Institute, the Center For The Study Of Existential Risk, and Duettmann’s organization the Foresight Institute.
Living Longer, Better, Smarter: This page deals broadly with the idea of life extension — scientific efforts to expand the possible human lifespan and “healthspan” far beyond its current limits. Its materials examine the state of affairs around life extension from a variety of angles, from descriptions of biomedicine's current anti-aging techniques to philosophical arguments for viewing aging as a disease to be combatted instead of an inevitable and even desirable aspect of life. It features an extensive subsection of materials on whole brain emulation (or WBE) – the concept of "uploading" human minds into more durable containers than the body.
Philosophy & Rationality: This page ponders the question of what kind of future is worth being hopeful about, as well as how to evaluate proposals on the subject. Many of its readings involve famed thinkers like John Rawls, Peter Singer, and Derek Parfit making arguments about social ethics — how society should ideally be constructed, and how to choose between competing visions for public policy. It also features a large subsection of materials dealing with human rationality and how to improve reasoning skills — featuring an appearance by ClearerThinking.org, alongside excellent writings and talks from thinkers like Daniel Kahneman, Eliezer Yudkowsky, Jonathan Haidt, and Julia Galef. (Our free mini-courses on making tough decisions, the Sunk Cost Fallacy, the Planning Fallacy, the Question of Evidence, and Explanation Freeze are helpful for leveling up in a number of the areas highlighted by these writers and thinkers.)
Effective Altruism: This page features materials dealing with Effective Altruism, a social movement that advocates for evidence-backed and unusually impactful forms of altruism. It contains a holistic summary of EA's core ideas and many options for how you can get involved with active efforts and organizations in the field. (Our mini-course on Leaving Your Mark On The World interactively teaches many ideas from Effective Altruism.)
These pages are just a sampling of the broad expanse of materials ExistentialHope.com covers; the site features 24 such pages, from AI & Cyberspace to Society & Economics. If you have ever found yourself feeling frozen by the enormity of the problems that humanity faces, ExistentialHope.com's treasure trove of resources is a great vantage point for looking past the stormclouds towards a more hopeful horizon.