John Michael Greer muses on the topic of Ebola (in a typically luxuriant post, ultimately heading somewhere else):
According to the World Health Organization, the number of cases of Ebola in the current epidemic is doubling every twenty days, and could reach 1.4 million by the beginning of 2015. Let’s round down, and say that there are one million cases on January 1, 2015. Let’s also assume for the sake of the experiment that the doubling time stays the same. Assuming that nothing interrupts the continued spread of the virus, and cases continue to double every twenty days, in what month of what year will the total number of cases equal the human population of this planet? […] … the steps that could keep Ebola from spreading to the rest of the Third World are not being taken. Unless massive resources are committed to that task soon — as in before the end of this year — the possibility exists that when the pandemic finally winds down a few years from now, two to three billion people could be dead. We need to consider the possibility that the peak of global population is no longer an abstraction set comfortably off somewhere in the future. It may be knocking at the future’s door right now, shaking with fever and dripping blood from its gums.
The eventual scale of the Ebola outbreak is a known unknown. A number of people between a few thousand and several billion will die, and an uncertain probability distribution could be attached to these figures — we know, at least approximately, where the question marks are. Before the present outbreak began, in December 2013 (in Guinea), Ebola was of course known to exist, but at that stage the occurrence of an outbreak — and not merely its course — was an unknown. Before the Ebola virus was scientifically identified (in 1976), the specific pathogen was an unknown member of a known class. With each step backwards, we advance in abstraction, towards the acknowledgement of threats of a ‘black swan‘ type. Great Filter X-risk is a prominent model of such abstract threat.
Skepticism, as a positive or constructive undertaking, orients intelligence towards abstract potentials. Rather than insisting that unexpected occurrences need not be threats, it is theoretically preferable to subtilize the notion of threat, so that it encompasses even beneficial outcomes as abstract potentials. The unknown is itself threatening to timid animals, whose conditions of flourishing — or even bare survival — are naturally tenuous, under cosmic conditions where extinction is normal (perhaps overwhelmingly normal), and for whom unpredictable change, disrupting settled procedures, presents — at a minimum — some scarily indefinite probability of harm.
Humans aren’t good at this stuff. Consider Scott Alexander’s (extremely interesting) discussion of the Great Filter. The opening remarks are perfectly directed, moving from specific menace to ‘general’ threat:
The Great Filter, remember, is the horror-genre-adaptation of Fermi’s Paradox. All of our calculations say that, in the infinite vastness of time and space, intelligent aliens should be very common. But we don’t see any of them. […] Why not? […] Well, the Great Filter. No [one] knows specifically what the Great Filter is, but generally it’s “that thing that blocks planets from growing spacefaring civilizations”.
As it develops, however, the post deliberately retreats from abstraction, into an enumeration of already-envisaged threats. After running through various candidates, it concludes:
Three of these four options – x-risk, Unfriendly AI, and alien exterminators – are very very bad for humanity. I think worry about this badness has been a lot of what’s driven interest in the Great Filter. I also think these are some of the least likely possible explanations, which means we should be less afraid of the Great Filter than is generally believed.
What SA has actually demonstrated, if his arguments up to this point are accepted, is that the abstract threat of the Great Filter is significantly greater than has yet been conceived. Our lucid nightmares are shown to fall short of it. The threat cannot be grasped as a known unknown.
While the Great Filter distills the conception of abstract threat, the problem itself is broader, and more quotidian. It is the highly-probable fact that we have yet to identify the greatest hazards, and this threat unawareness is a structural condition, rather than a contingent deficiency of attention. In Popperian terms, abstract threat is the essence of history. It is the future, strictly understood. To gloss the Popperian argument: Philosophical understanding of science (in general) is immediately the understanding that any predictive history of science is an impossibility. Unless science is judged to be a factor of vanishing historical insignificance, the implications of this transcendental thesis are far-reaching. Yet the domain of abstract threat sprawls far more extensively even than this.
“I know only that I do not know” Socrates is thought to have thought. The conception of abstract threat requires a slight adjustment: We know only that we do not know what we do not know. Unknown unknowns cosmically predominate.
Your security is built upon sand. That is the sole sound conclusion.
ADDED: “… this whole episode suggests another explanation of the identity of the Great Filter. It’s leftism. All civilizations eventually become leftist, and after that they accomplish nothing, or even actively die off.”
ADDED: “Not only do I disagree with the constant stream of soothing and complacent rhetoric from Dr. Zeke’s friends in government and media. I also believe it is entirely rational to fear the possibility of a major Ebola outbreak, of a threat to the president and his family, of jihadists crossing the border, of a large-scale European or Asian war, of nuclear proliferation, of terrorists detonating a weapon of mass destruction. These dangers are real, and pressing, and though the probability of their occurrence is not high, it is amplified by the staggering incompetence and failure and misplaced priorities of the U.S. government. It is not Ebola I am afraid of. It is our government’s ability to deal with Ebola.”