David: Bodily expressions and pheromones aside, do you think that language usage pretty much explains human communication? Or do you ever entertain the notion that telepathic, or other means of communication currently unrecognized by conventional science, can play a role?
Noam: First of all, language by no means exhausts human communication. We communicate in all sorts of ways–by gesture, by the clothes we wear, by our hair styles. All sorts of interactions are communicative. Language is just one of many modes of communication. But as for things like, say telepathic modes, I don’t have any reason to believe in their existence. I can’t prove with certainty that they don’t exist, but we need some evidence for it. It seems very unlikely because it would be quite inconsistent with, at least, what’s understood about the nature of physical reality. It doesn’t necessarily prove that it’s wrong, but just that it’s unlikely. It raises very high the bars to belief in it.
David: What is your perspective on the concept of God, and do you see any teleology in evolution?
Noam: I don’t think there’s any reason to suspect that there’s any validity to any such notions.
David: What do you personally think happens to consciousness after death?
Noam: I assume it’s finished.
David: It’s finished. That’s the end?
Noam: That’s the end. Death is the end of the organism, and the end of everything associated with it.
David: What do you think is the biggest threat to the human species, and what do you think we can do to help avoid it?
Noam: The biggest imminent threat, I suppose, is nuclear war, which is not far away. We’ve come very close to terminal nuclear war a number of times. It’s kind of a miracle that the species has escaped in fact. And those threats are increasing. For example, the development and the expansion of military systems into space–with highly destructive space-based offensive weapons, that are probably on hair-trigger alert–is almost a guarantee of devastation, if only by accident.
Now those are very imminent threats and they’re being increased, and the same is true with other weapons of mass destruction. For the moment, nuclear weapons are by far the most destructive, but bio-weapons are increasing in lethal character and being spread. The failure to develop a bio-weapons treaty is a serious danger to the species. Actually the United States has been in the lead in blocking any implementation of bio-weapons treaties. In fact, it just undermined the latest bio-weapons treaty, and is in fact also in the forefront of developing new nuclear weapons and the militarization of space.
Now those are extreme dangers. In fact, if you were watching from Mars, a rational person would be amazed that the species has survived this long, and wouldn’t put very high odds on it for the future. Now, beyond that, there are many other dangers. I mean, nobody really understands very much about the environmental threats, but there’s a very broad consensus among scientists that they’re serious. It could be that a nonlinear process is taking place–meaning that small differences, small changes, could have massive effects. This could have unpredictable consequences, and many of the possibilities are lethal. And there are a list of others. The species is in a very hazardous state. A rational person wouldn’t put very high odds on survival.
David: Do you think that the human species is going to survive, or do you think we’re headed towards extinction?
Noam: It depends whether we can take control of our own destinies. We have the means to do it. I mean, there’s no law of nature that says you have to put destructive weapons in space, or that you have to destroy the environment by wild overconsumption of hydrocarbons. Those are choices.
David: What are you currently working on?
Noam: Oh, a whole range of things. I happen to be finishing up a book on the question you just raised about the chances of survival of the species. Last night I gave talks about the new U.S. imperial strategy. Today I’m having meetings with students about technical work with linguistics. I’m always working on the usual range of things I’ve been working on for years.
David: What gives you hope?
Noam: The short answer is that it doesn’t really matter. How hopeful one or another of us may be is an insignificant matter of personal assessment of incalculable possibilities. We should do exactly the same things no matter what our subjective probabilities are. But when we see people all over the world struggling courageously under conditions of really terrible adversity, it seems to me not our business to pay much attention to our personal guesses, but rather to make use of the legacy of freedom and privilege that most of us enjoy.