by Mary Harrington
Saturday, 21
March 2020
Weekend read

How do we face human extinction?

by Mary Harrington
Between new tech-driven threats, climate change, the coronavirus pandemic, the human species will stop existing

In case you haven’t had enough doom recently, this week’s long read pick comes from The Point, where Agnes Callard considers the philosophical challenges of imagining the end of humanity.

Between new tech-driven threats, climate change, the coronavirus pandemic and other nameless future threats, “We may not have arrived at the end,” she says, “but we have certainly arrived at the thought of it.” Eventually, she points out, one way or another, the human species will stop existing:

We can tell ourselves soothing stories, such as the one about escaping to another planet, but we are embodied creatures, which is to say, we are the sorts of things that, on a geological time scale, simply do not last. Death looms for the species just as surely as it looms for each and every one of us.
- Agnes Callard, The Point

How are we not to collapse into despair if we cannot imagine even a human legacy continuing, via our descendants or those of our friends? Philosophers, artists and humanists, she argues, should set down the dream of making ‘advances’ as scientists do and engage instead with the question of meaning:

The humanist was never really in the business of making progress. Her job is to acquire and transmit a grasp of the intrinsic value of the human experience; this is a job whose difficulty and importance rises in proportion to the awareness that all of it will be lost. 
- Agnes Callard, The Point

As we grapple worldwide to cope with a deadly pandemic, Callard suggests that while scientists and engineers seek to defer our inevitable end for as long as possible, it is the job of humanists to face that end without abandoning all capacity to find value in life, or courage to face its loss:

It is the humanist’s task to ensure that, if and when the infertility scenario should arise, things will not stop mattering to people. […] At times like this, when a window opens, and all of humanity sees the End rushing at us from the future, it behooves the humanists to be the ones who refuse to shut our eyes.
- Agnes Callard, The Point

Join the discussion

  • March 24, 2020
    This essay by Catherine Ingram is a humbling read on extinction realities and how we can come to terms with them if indeed they are realities for us. Read more

  • March 21, 2020
    This is completely ridiculous. This is not a serious disease. If the mortality is over 2%, I'd be shocked. What we do have is a problem of perspective - we are over-reacting massively to a serious but not world-ending disease. Read more

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