Making Sense of Existential Threat & Nuclear War

Episode 7 of The Essential Sam Harris

Episode Companion

Each episode includes a workbook with illustrations, background information on each guest, references, suggested books and films, and more.

April 12, 2023

In this episode, we examine the topic of existential threat, focusing in particular on the subject of nuclear war.

Sam opens the discussion by emphasizing the gravity of our ability to destroy life as we know it at any moment, and how shocking it is that nearly all of us perpetually ignore this fact. Philosopher Nick Bostrom expands on this idea by explaining how developing technologies like DNA synthesis could make humanity more vulnerable to malicious actors.

Sam and historian Fred Kaplan then guide us through a hypothetical timeline of events following a nuclear first strike, highlighting the flaws in the concept of nuclear deterrence. Former Defense Secretary William J. Perry echoes these concerns, painting a grim picture of his "nuclear nightmare" scenario: a nuclear terrorist attack.

Zooming out, Toby Ord outlines each potential extinction-level threat, and why he believes that, between all of them, we face a one in six chance of witnessing the downfall of our species. Our episode ends on a cautiously optimistic note, however, as Yuval Noah Harari shares his thoughts on "global myth-making" and its potential role in helping us navigate through these perilous times.


About the Series

Filmmaker Jay Shapiro has produced The Essential Sam Harris, a new series of audio documentaries exploring the major topics that Sam has focused on over the course of his career.

Each episode weaves together original analysis, critical perspective, and novel thought experiments with some of the most compelling exchanges from the Making Sense archive. Whether you are new to a particular topic, or think you have your mind made up about it, we think you’ll find this series fascinating.