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The Guardian Published an Article About My Work. Here's What Missed the Mark.
The Guardian recently ran an article about my scholarly and journalistic work, including my new book Human Extinction: A History of the Science and Ethics of Annihilation and many criticisms of the TESCREAL cult. Parts of the article are quite good, but overall I think it gives readers a very inaccurate view of my ideas, and it contains a number of factual errors. Let’s take a look at some of these:
The original headline was “The Pro-Extinctionist Philosopher Who Has Sparked a Battle Over Humanity’s Future.”
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This is 100% false: while I may have “sparked a battle,” I am not a “pro-extinctionist philosopher.” I wrote The Guardian about this, and they immediately acknowledged that it was indeed inaccurate. The journalist who interviewed me said that he would have never described me as a “pro-extinctionist,” and that the headline was chosen by someone else (which is standard: journalists typically don’t write the headlines of their articles).
It took two days for The Guardian to change the headline to “‘What If Everybody Decided Not To Have Children?’ The Philosopher Questioning Humanity’s Future,” which is better but still kind of weird. Nonetheless, as of this writing, the old headline still appears when one shares the link on social media, as seen here:
I think this is unacceptable, and worry about the damage it may have already caused. The original headline was false, they admitted this, yet two days later I’m still labeled a “pro-extinctionist philosopher” on social media.
In the book, I express some sympathies for philosophical pessimism, the view (speaking roughly) that the world is overall quite bad,and note that some philosophical pessimists have adopted pro-extinctionist views according to which (a) Being Extinct is in some sense better than Being Extant (or continuing to exist), and (b) that we should actively work to bring about our extinction, which virtually all pro-extinctionists believe should be entirely voluntary, without any coercion at all.
But sympathies for philosophical pessimism do not imply pro-extinctionism. The most important passage of the book where I discuss the practical ethical implications of my view is this:
In reality, the most plausible scenarios leading to our extinction arise from involuntary natural or anthropogenic catastrophes, which would cause tremendous amounts of misery and anguish. It follows that since a global catastrophe would be very bad, and since there is no plausible route from Being Extant to Being Extinct that doesn’t involve catastrophic harms, those who accept my view will in practice work diligently to not only ensure humanity’s continued survival by reducing the probability of global catastrophic risks, but make the future as good as it can possibly be, a task whose urgency is underlined by my claims above that the future could be much worse than the present.
In this sense, my position actually aligns with longtermism and totalist utilitarianism, although there are also crucial differences—e.g., my view isn’t potentially dangerous like longtermism and totalist utilitarianism, as explored in the book and at the end of Section 3 of my book summary. I am very sensitive to the sufferings of the world, and understand why some philosophers would think that Being Extinct might be better. Yet there is a world of difference between the view that I defend—which concludes with “Mitigate extinction risk!”—and the view defended by actual pro-extinctionists like Eduard von Hartmann, Philipp Mainländer, Peter Wessel Zapffe, and David Benatar, all of whom thought we should try to go extinct. These philosophers are discussed at length throughout Part II of the book.
Indeed, I am not even—in any way—an antinatalist like Mainländer, Zapffe, and Benatar: I do not believe that people should stop having children. There is nothing wrong with having children, and there is nothing wrong with not having children.
All of this is to say that I’m very peeved about the original headline of the Guardian article, which continues to show up on social media as of this writing.
The Guardian author writes:
Whatever the truth of the matter, it’s a shame that two mutually hostile camps have taken shape, because there is doubtless much that could be beneficial to both sides if there was a more productive exchange of ideas.
I take it that by “two … camps” he means anti-TESCREALists like myself, on the one hand, and pro-TESCREALists, on the other. In context, this is unclear, because in the paragraphs leading to the passage quoted above the author mentions two New Atheists, and I’ve also been highly critical of the New Atheism movement, after leading figures like Sam Harris slid into the alt-right, as I discussed in one of the most-viewed Salon articles of 2021.
If my interpretation is correct, and the Guardian writer means TESCREALists vs. anti-TESCREALists, then I completely disagree with his claim about it being a “shame.”
There is no “productive exchange” to be had with people who claim that “Blacks are more stupid than whites.” There is no debate to be had with people who say that “‘the main problem’ with the Holocaust was that there weren’t enough Nazis!” There is no debate to be had with someone who argues that just about everyone on Earth should be “allowed” to die to prevent an apocalyptic sci-fi scenario involving superintelligent machines, so that “there’s still a chance of reaching the stars someday,” i.e., creating a transhumanist techno-utopia:
There is no debate to be had with people who write that saving the lives of people in rich countries should, from a radical longtermist perspective, take priority over saving the lives of people in poor countries, or that risking preemptive war is okay to ensure the creation of a posthuman civilization, or that one type of existential risk that we might worry about is too many less “intellectually talented” people breeding, or that “even with fifteen degrees of warming, the heat [from global warming] would not pass lethal limits for crops in most regions,” and so on.
No, it’s not a shame that these two “camps” are unable to have a conversation.
In the Guardian article, I’m quoted as saying that “Peter Boghossian and Helen Pluckrose are extreme individuals with radical far-right views.” The author of the article then adds a qualification, namely, that “both would reject that characterisation.”
This is absurd. Peter Boghossian has defended Nazis, is a vigorous supporter of the authoritarian regime of Viktor Orbán, is a “longtime collaborator” of the white supremacist and antisemite Stefan Molyneux, has questioned why gay people should be “proud,” and has appeared on Epoch Times, a media company associated with the Falun Gong movement that’s “fueling the far-right in Europe” and has spread COVID conspiracy theories.
Boghossian rejects the historically accurate claim that “slavery … was not merely an unfortunate thing that happened to black people. It was an … American institution, created by and for the benefit of the elites,” and he’s obsessed with taking down “wokeism,” because he believes it’s a dire threat to “Western civilization.” In an interview with the rightwing pundit Dave Rubin, he says:
I’m done playing. … I am waging full-scale ideological warfare against the enemies of Western Civilization. … We must broker absolutely zero tolerance with this ideology, and the only way forward at this point is full-scale ideological war, and I will take no prisoners, … . I seek the complete eradication and extirpation of the [woke] ideology from every facet of life.
Helen Pluckrose is a long-time collaborator and friend of Boghossian, as well as James Lindsay. Lindsay is a Trump supporter who’s been working with Michael O’Fallon, a Christian nationalist and COVID conspiracist. He’s called women “bitches” on social media, hurled “your mom” insults at people who disagree with him, argued that antisemitism is caused by woke Jews, spread COVID conspiracy theories, and argued in 2020 that people should vote for Trump because Joe Biden is a neo-Marxist. He hates Black Lives Matter, and popularized the term “okay groomer” along with the conspiracy theory that LGBTQ+ people like myself are “grooming” children.
Pluckrose, Boghossian, and Lindsay were responsible for the “Sokal Squared” “hoax,” in which they intentionally deceived dozens of academic editors by lying about their identities and submitting articles with fabricated data, in an attempt to embarrass “woke” scholarly journals. In 2020, Pluckrose and Lindsay coauthored the factually impaired book Cynical Theories, which misrepresents “woke” scholarship and is partly responsible, along with the openly dishonest activism of Christopher Rufo, for triggering the moral panic surrounding “critical race theory,” or CRT. This has, of course, become hugely influential among the far-right in the US.
So, Andrew Anthony, the author of the Guardian article, wants readers to know that Pluckrose and Boghossian don’t consider themselves “far right.” What he fails to mention are facts like those just listed. These are extremists who believe that “wokeness” threatens the very foundations of “Western civilization” and are willing to engage in underhanded tactics like fabricating data and intentionally deceiving dozens of professional academics to advance their “ideological warfare.”
In fact, Boghossian, the only one of the three who was affiliated with a university at the time of their “hoaxes,” was brutally reprimanded by university officials after an investigation into this deceptive and “unethical” behavior. To quote the vice president of research and graduate studies at Boghossian’s university: “I believe the results of this office’s view of your research behavior raises concerns regarding a lack of academic integrity, questionable ethical behavior, and employee breach of rules.”
This leads to a fourth point, which is the most outrageous part of the article, both because of what the journalist reports and his response when I challenged the veracity of his words. The Guardian journalist writes:
Yet online there are accounts of Torres harassing the philosopher Peter Boghossian and the British cultural theorist Helen Pluckrose.
What are these “online accounts” of harassment? Statements from Pluckrose about me that ended up on an anonymously written blog. And apparently that’s worthy of being mentioned in a Guardian article. I have, quite honestly, lost all respect for The Guardian. Are there no standards? No journalistic guidelines? No ethical principles?
In truth, Pluckrose harassed me online sometime around late 2017 and early 2018. When I accused her of this, she responded with: “You’re harassing me!” When I mentioned on Twitter that I spoke with my therapist about her behavior, she responded with: “I had to see a therapist because of you!” It’s like the school bully saying: “I know you are, but what am I?” Most of these tweets are lost, as I purged my Twitter account circa late 2018, as I recall, to get away from the toxicity of the far-right “New Atheist” crowd. Indeed, my disagreements with Pluckrose, Boghossian, and Lindsay were almost entirely over social justice issues: I have been an outspoken supporter of social justice causes, while Pluckrose, Boghossian, and Lindsey came to believe that “SJW” activism, a central component of “wokeism,” threatens the very pillars of Western society.
When I asked the Guardian journalist about this, he told me—I kid you not—that he’s not interested in digging into the truth of who said what, or what actually happened. As a colleague of mine said after reading the journalist’s response: “That … sentence is a hell of a line for a journalist to put in writing.”
Personally, as a journalist (and academic), I see it as my ethical duty to ensure that everything I write is factually accurate! In this case, the author stumbled upon an anonymously written blog post, saw that Pluckrose accused me of harassing her, ignored tweets also included in those screenshots of me complaining that Pluckrose was harassing me, and decided that Pluckrose’s false accusations are good enough to publish in The Guardian. Is this what passes for journalism? If I falsely accuse someone on Twitter of harassment, should the New York Times pick it up in a story?
For months, I was bombarded with harassing tweets from New Atheist extremists staunchly opposed to the social justice wing of Movement Atheism, which I participated in. I was even called names like (I kid you not) “Phil Hitler Torres,” a reference to my old name, “Phil Torres,” which I no longer use.
Pluckrose, Boghossian, and Lindsay’s campaign of trolling me reached a climax with the “Sokal Squared” fiasco, as one of the “hoax” papers they wrote specifically focused on a book chapter that I’d published about machine superintelligence. This was their attempt to publicly embarrass and mock me. The relevant paper of theirs, which (thankfully) was never published, was: “Super-Frankenstein and the Masculine Imaginary: Feminist Epistemology and Superintelligent Artificial Intelligence Safety Research.” If memory serves me right, it argued that my book chapter exemplifies “toxic masculinity,” or something like that (a claim that I would actually agree with now, as my views on superintelligence have changed radically since I wrote that book chapter).
I would have liked the journalist to include this information. In the article, he contrasts “online … accounts” with my own claim that Pluckrose, Boghossian, and Lindsay are lying. The first sounds “objective,” while the second sounds like “mere opinion.” In fact, it’s Pluckrose’s word against mine, and given her known history of deception, trolling, hoaxing, and her association with conspiracy theories about CRT and the LGBTQ+ community, it boggles the mind that anyone would take anything any of these people say seriously.
There are other factual errors in the article, but at this point I’m hesitant to bother The Guardian with additional emails, especially given that they don’t seem very interested in getting the facts right. For example, the article states that I’ve published in Foreign Policy, which is not the case. I guess I’ll just leave that be?
Moving on to some more philosophical issues, the Guardian article begins with these lines:
Given all the suffering, pain and destruction produced by humanity, Émile Torres, who is a non-binary philosopher specialising in existential threats, thinks that it would not be a bad thing if humanity ceased to exist.
“The pro-extinctionist view,” they say, “immediately conjures up for a lot of people the image of a homicidal, ghoulish, sadistic maniac, but actually most pro-extinctionists would say that most ways of going extinct would be absolutely unacceptable. But what if everybody decided not to have children? I don’t see anything wrong with that.”
First, why does the author note that I’m nonbinary? After a few minutes searching the Web, it appears that the author published an article this year in the New Zealand Listener titled “Transition Alley.” It discusses the controversy over “transgenderism,” a term that only anti-trans activists use, and appears on the website Resist Gender Education under “other recommended reading.” So my guess is that he’s not the biggest fan of the trans movement, and probably wants to call attention to my gender as a kind of dog whistle for his audience. (I don’t know this for sure—just a sneaking suspicion, given the hostility toward trans people in the UK.) He also, it turns out, wrote a book pronouncing “the death of multicultural society,” in which he writes that,
over the years, I had absorbed a notion of liberalism that was passive, defeatist, guilt-ridden. Feelings of guilt governed my world view: postcolonial guilt, white guilt, middle-class guilt, British guilt. But if I was guilty, 9/11 shattered my innocence … For while I realized almost straight away that 9/11 would change the world, it would be several more years before I accepted that it had also changed me.
So, there you have it! This might explain his resistance to labeling Pluckrose and Boghossian what they are: trolls who’ve played an important role in propelling conspiracy theories about CRT, LGBTQ+ people, and “wokeness” into the mainstream of far-right politics.
Second, the opening paragraphs of the Guardian article, quoted above, smash together a bunch of quite different things, and right away give a wildly distorted picture of my position. I was absolutely emphatic with the journalist that human extinction would be very, very bad. Why? Because by far the most probable ways that Going Extinct might unfold would cause unfathomable suffering and death.
The following sentence, therefore, will be very misleading to most readers: “Émile Torres … thinks that it would not be a bad thing if humanity ceased to exist.” No, I think it would be a terrible thing! I dedicate pages in my book discussing just how ill-equipped our minds are for grasping the extreme awfulness of an extinction-causing catastrophe—think of thermonuclear war, a global pandemic, or an asteroid impact. In making my argument, I borrow from Günther Anders’ notion of “inverted Utopianism” and foreground psycho-emotional and cognitive biases like “psychic numbing” and “scope neglect.” These issues are also emphasized at the end of Section 3 in my book summary. I don’t think I could have been clearer about this in the interview.
That said, I don’t think the subsequent outcome of Being Extinct would be bad. Why? Because if there’s no one around to bemoan the non-existence of humanity, then no one will actually be harmed,and I disagree with “further-loss theorists” like the longtermists and totalist utilitarians that the “loss” of, say, 10^58 digital people (an actual estimate they give) would constitute a moral tragedy of quite literally cosmic proportions. My brother, John Albert Torres, was never born—I have no brother—but I don’t think this unborn “non-person” is suffering because of it, nor do I think that the universe is better or worse off because of his non-existence, even if he would have had a wonderful life. The same goes for all these future digital people if they, too, never exist.
This is not a radical view. It’s the “equivalence view,” which is not the same as “pro-extinctionism,” as the opening paragraphs of the Guardian article might lead one to believe. Dr. Elizabeth Finneron-Burns, for example, defends a version of the equivalence view in this paper, but she isn’t a pro-extinctionist! She just thinks that the “loss” of things like future people, civilization, science, and so on, can only be wrong if some particular people are affected by this “loss.”
An implication of the equivalence view is that if there’s nothing bad or wrong about Going Extinct, then there’s nothing bad or wrong about extinction—full stop. This is why I say that if everyone on Earth were to voluntarily, without any coercion at all, stop having children, there wouldn’t be anything bad or wrong about human extinction.
That said, I am absolutely clear in the book, the book summary, and the interview I had with the journalist that the probability of everyone not having kids is approximately zero. Almost certainly, then, Going Extinct would be unimaginably terrible if it were to happen, caused by a catastrophe rather than a deliberate failure to reproduce, which is why I conclude that
those who accept my view will in practice work diligently to not only ensure humanity’s continued survival by reducing the probability of global catastrophic risks.
The point I was making about pro-extinctionism is what I stated earlier: even pro-extinctionists think that if Going Extinct causes lots of suffering and death, it would be bad. But they go beyond equivalence theorists in arguing that we should still try to bring about the state of Being Extinct, though only through voluntary, uncoerced means.
So, there’s a lot going on in those two paragraphs. The problem is that it makes me look like I’m advocating for pro-extinctionism, which I’m not. I’m largely an equivalence theorist with sympathies for philosophical pessimism and the view that Being Extinct might have a thin silver lining (think of child abuse, violent genocides, and the like no longer existing), while at the same time holding that Going Extinct would be so bad that the only morally acceptable thing to do is to take mitigating extinction risk very seriously. As I write in the book summary: “The position that I defend combines elements of all three positions that we’ve discussed,” namely, further-loss views, equivalence views, and pro-extinctionist views, “although it most closely aligns with the equivalence view.”
I highly recommend that people read the closing paragraphs of Section 3 of the summary, or pages 427-440 of the book, for a complete picture of my position. I do state at one point that my view “leans” toward pro-extinctionism, though it’s anchored in the equivalence view and yields the practical-ethical implication that we should, in fact, work hard to prevent our extinction, precisely because suffering and death are (obviously!) very bad. Nor do I anywhere endorse antinatalism, which I would need to endorse if I were a (humane) pro-extinctionist.
The Guardian article states: “Up until now, Torres has been best known through their trenchant pieces for magazines such as Salon, aeon and Foreign Policy as a thorn in the side of the longtermist movement. The new book is a more academic rendering of the arguments they have rehearsed in these publications.”
Putting aside the fact that I never published in Foreign Policy, I’d say that perhaps 3% of the book covers topics that I’ve written about in Salon and elsewhere. That’s it. The rest of the book is original research that hasn’t been previously published anywhere.
The article states: “Many longtermists, including MacAskill, reject the repugnant conclusion.” The word “reject” should be “accept,” because MacAskill and other longtermists don’t think that the Repugnant Conclusion is much of a problem. See this paper, coauthored by many notable TESCREALists, as evidence.
Or consider MacAskill’s statement in his 2022 book What We Owe the Future: “One option is simply to accept the Repugnant Conclusion—and perhaps argue that it is not quite as repugnant as it first seems. This is the view that I incline towards” (italics mine). Hence, “reject” is the wrong word in the Guardian article.
I write in the book, which the article quotes, that “I am, tentatively, inclined to agree with Schopenhauer’s sentiment that Being Never Existent would have been best.”
This is intended to be a merely philosophical reflection on all the atrocities and horrors that pollute human history. It is not equivalent to saying that we should Become Extinct, for the same reason that “I wish I’d never have been born” is not the same as “I wish I’d die.” Once humanity exists, there may be very good reasons to keep it going—and this is, in fact, precisely my view.
The article states:
If longtermism can be characterised as dangerously utopian then it’s also easy to see how Torres’s position could be viewed as worryingly nihilistic. They reject that label, pointing out that their concern is the avoidance of human suffering, including any suffering that would occur through humanity’s extinction. While they can appreciate the theoretical benefits of not existing, in practice it’s not an end they wish to see or promote.
To underline once again, because I think it’s important, a direct implication of my view is that one “will in practice work diligently to not only ensure humanity’s continued survival by reducing the probability of global catastrophic risks.”
The author is, of course, totally welcome to describe my position like this. People can interpret it however they’d like, of course. As the author notes, I wouldn’t consider my position to be “nihilistic” at all—rather, I’d describe it as being infused by a certain kind of purpose- or meaning-giving vitality. Right now, we live in a world where global catastrophes like thermonuclear war could happen any day, and global catastrophes like climate change are already devastating the globe. It’s our duty to prevent and mitigate these disasters! This implies a mission, greater than ourselves, which all of us should take seriously.
The article states: “… many in that community have accused Torres of factual misrepresentation and intellectual dishonesty.”
Sure, but my articles are chock-full of citations, hyperlinks, quotes, and lengthy pull-quotes. Everything is very well corroborated! TESCREALists employ such accusations because they have nothing of substance to say in response to my critiques.
Second of all, these accusations are a bit comical given that some leading members have engaged in deceitful actions to promote their brand using fake names, misled the public about the “humble” lifestyle of Sam Bankman-Fried, and secretly spent 15 million Pounds on a palatial estate to host EA events called Wytham Abbey. I write about some of these duplicities here, but see also Gideon Lewis-Kraus’ New Yorker article about the lies surrounding Bankman-Fried, which were perpetuated by leading TESCREALists like MacAskill.
Worse, I’ve received a deluge of harassing messages from Effective Altruists, longtermists, and Rationalists over the past year, often from anonymous social media accounts or emails, some of which have included threats of physical violence. One said “Better be careful or an EA superhero will break your kneecaps,” while another referenced a murder-suicide and warned that they hope something that extreme isn’t necessary for me to change my ways. Yet another warned: “Get psychiatric assistance before it’s too late, buddy.” This was sent from an anonymous email account in response to criticisms I’d made of the TESCREAL bundle.
There’s a reason that even people who believe in the EA movement publish criticisms of the movement anonymously. They are afraid of going through what the EA movement has put me through. This movement is a cult that doesn’t take kindly to criticisms.
As noted earlier, I thought some of the Guardian article was very good. But I also think it presents a very distorted picture of my position within Existential Ethics, and I worry about the damage that it’s patently false original headline might have already caused. The article fails to note that people like Pluckrose and Boghossian have a known history of deception when it suits them, and it reports false accusations from Pluckrose and Boghossian as worthy of being included in the public record. This is very disappointing. I hope this article has provided some much needed clarity, as I fear that the Guardian article has done more to obfuscate than illuminate.
At some point, I’ll write an article about how I ended up being sympathetic with philosophical pessimism, as this view does not, in any way, align with my natural tendencies or disposition! It’s been a lifetime of witnessing tragedies, including multiple friends dying, some in horrendous suicides that shatter the soul, that has pushed me, against my will, toward pessimism. I don’t want to think that the world is very bad but, gosh, look around! Even William MacAskill, who I’d describe as something of a philosophical optimist (if you will), paints a dire and dismal portrait of the world. Search for the paragraph beginning with “I asked about the slippage, in his response, from moral to aesthetic propriety” in this article.
To be honest, though, I strongly suspect that the entire framework here, built on Western philosophical categories, distinctions, ideas, and theories, is rubbish. One of my primary scholarly goals now that the book is finished is to examine the core questions of Existential Ethics from various non-Western perspectives, such as Indigenous perspectives. I’m really not interested anymore in debates within Western “population ethics,” for example, because I think this field is problematic in fundamental ways that aren’t yet fully appreciated or acknowledged. My aim, then, is to identify these problems and, hopefully, construct a novel approach drawing from the rich traditions of non-Western thinking.
Though see the footnote below:
That is to say, pro-extinctionists could also endorse pro-mortalism and omnicide, as I discuss in the book and the book summary. But the large majority of pro-extinctionists see antinatalism as the only permissible means of Going Extinct. Hence, my rejection of antinatalism is consistent with my rejection of pro-extinctionism, even if I have sympathies for philosophical pessimism and the idea that non-existence itself wouldn’t be all bad.