Introduction anthropic reasoning and global risks

Different types of global catastrophic risks (GCRs) are studied in various chapters of this book by direct analysis. In doing so, researchers benefit from a detailed understanding of the interplay of the underlying causal factors. However, the causal network is often excessively complex and difficult or impossible to disentangle. Here, we would like to consider limitations and theoretical constraints on the risk assessments which are provided by the general properties of the world in which we live, as well as its contingent history. There are only a few of these constraints, but they are important because they do not rely on making a lot of guesses about the details of future technological and social developments. The most important of these are observation selection effects.

Physicists, astronomers, and biologists have been familiar with the observational selection effect for a long time, some aspects of them (e.g., Malmquist bias in astronomy1 or Signor-Lipps effect in paleontology2) being the subject of detailed mathematical modelling. In particular, cosmology is fundamentally incomplete without taking into account the necessary 'anthropic bias': the conditions we observe in fundamental physics, as well as in the universe at large, seem atypical when judged against what one would

1 The difference between the average absolute magnitudes of stars (or galaxies or any other similar sources) in magnitude- and distance-limited samples, discovered in 1920 by K.G. Malmquist.

2 The effect by which rare species seemingly disappear earlier than their numerous contemporaries (thus making extinction episodes more prolonged in the fossil record than they were in reality), discovered by P.W. Signor and J.H. Lipps in 1982.

expect as 'natural' according to our best theories, and require an explanation ompatible with our existence as intelligent observers at this particular epoch in the history of the universe. In contrast, the observation selection effects are still often overlooked in philosophy and epistemology, and practically completely ignored in risk analysis, since they usually do not apply to conventional categories of risk (such as those used in insurance modelling). Recently, Bostrom (2002a) laid foundations for a detailed theory of observation selection effects, which has applications for both philosophy and several scientific areas including cosmology, evolution theory, thermodynamics, traffic analysis, game theory problems involving imperfect recall, astrobiology, and quantum physics. The theory of observation selection effects can tell us what we should expect to observe, given some hypothesis about the distribution of observers in the world. By comparing such predictions to our actual observations, we get probabilistic evidence for or against various hypotheses.3

Many conclusions pertaining to GCRs can be reached by taking into account observation selection effects. For instance, people often erroneously claim that we should not worry too much about existential disasters, since none has happened in the last thousand or even million years. This fallacy needs to be dispelled. Similarly, the conclusion that we are endangered primarily by our own activities and their consequences can be seen most clearly only after we filter out selection effects from our estimates.

In the rest of this chapter, we shall consider several applications of the anthropic reasoning to evaluation of our future prospects: first the anthropic overconfidence argument stemming from the past-future asymmetry in presence of intelligence observers (Section 6.2) and then the (in) famous Doomsday Argument (DA; Section 6.3). We proceed with Fermi's paradox and some specific risks related to the concept of extraterrestrial intelligence (Section 6.4) and give a brief overview of the Simulation Argument in connection with GCRs in Section 6.5 before we pass on to concluding remarks.

Continue reading here: Pastfuture asymmetry and risk inferences

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