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Is it plausible that an advanced civilization commits suicide due to philosophical despair? (if not committing suicide directly, then doing something like collectively party to death) If yes, what kind of a civilization is it?

If this is at all possible, I think the civilization in question must have at least these attributes:

  • Everyone is very intelligent: otherwise the stupider members that don't understand the problem would survive. Unless those that understood feel like killing the stupid ones too, but only if the latter are in the minority.
  • More advanced than human civilization, because we are still not collectively committing suicide.
  • Very emotional: more specifically, very emotionally attached to a particular idea, otherwise being disappointed by one idea may not be enough for them to give up the enjoyment of others. This particular fact make such a civilization a little implausible.
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    $\begingroup$ smbc-comics.com/comic/2013-06-28 $\endgroup$ – Owen Nov 25 '16 at 19:34
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    $\begingroup$ Larry Niven's (Draco's Tavern) short story "The Subject is Closed" explores a possible scenario. $\endgroup$ – dmckee Nov 25 '16 at 21:59
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    $\begingroup$ In the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, an existential crisis prompts a species to wipe out all other civilizations. :) $\endgroup$ – jpfx1342 Nov 29 '16 at 2:57
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    $\begingroup$ In Arthur Clarke's book Childhood's End something similar happened (spoilers): in some point, all human children become something beyond humanity, lacking the emotional ties with their families and even individuality, and eventually they are withdrawn from their parents. So, "without children, a civilization loses its reason to live", and then most people commit mass suicide or live the rest of their lives practicing dangerous sports (which seems more like "small civil wars".) $\endgroup$ – Brian Hellekin Dec 1 '16 at 13:48
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    $\begingroup$ @MissMonicaE: As a comment on the problem of extending that into the whole society, consider that I (well educated and IMHO culturally literate) have no effing idea who those people are :-) $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Aug 14 '17 at 18:35

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I think that it is possible for a civilization to die because of an existential crisis, lato sensu; I think that it has actually happened several times. it may even be the general rule.

There is a well-known if not universally well-regarded point of view that civilizations have a certain resemblance to living things, in that they show a period of exuberant youth, a longer period of calm maturity and finally a period of decrepit senescence. And then they die. For example, in his Study of History, Toynbee, as summarized by Wikipedia, maintains that

[T]he breakdown of civilizations [is not] caused by loss of control over the physical environment, by loss of control over the human environment, or by attacks from outside. Rather, it comes from the deterioration of the "Creative Minority", which eventually ceases to be creative and degenerates into merely a "Dominant Minority"—which forces the majority to obey without meriting obedience. He argues that creative minorities deteriorate due to a worship of their "former self", by which they become prideful and fail adequately to address the next challenge they face.

Let's consider possible examples of civilization breakdown or even outright extinction which could be attributed to existential crises.

  • The most striking, in my opinion, is the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648). Essentially (Western and Central) Europe went at war with itself, with two or three consecutive generations fighting all against all in the name of some nebulous and inchoate religious principles. Just about all European states participated, from Spain in the west to Transylvania in the east and from Norway in the north to the Italian states in the south, luckily with the exception of France (mostly) and England. Eight million people died, most of them Germans -- about one in two German men of fighting age. (A cynic might say that the war was staged in Germany because at the level of military technology of the time that was the only place in Europe suitable for massive battles.) In the 17th century, when they had rather primitive cannon and smoothbore guns. Mercifully, France stayed out of the war (initially) or was only minimally involved (finally); what if France, the greatest European power of the time, had succumbed to the wind of madness and plunged fully into the fray?

    This war killed feudalism dead. Out of the peace of Westphalia came the principles which shaped the modern concepts of sovereignty and international law.

  • Another example is the ignominious end of the Ancient Egyptian civilization. Ancient Egypt had been the sole world superpower for two millenia. Two millenia. And then, with no apparent cause, it stopped being a superpower and became a place to be conquered. First by the Persians, then by the Greeks, then by the Romans, then by the Arabs. Not only did it become a place to be conquered, but all knowledge of its former glory was completely erased, and had to wait for the arrival of European archaeologists to be rediscovered. The locals did not know anything about their ancestors who had ruled the world for two thousand years.

  • The abrupt decay of the Ottoman and Chinese empires. At the beginning of the 17th century China had the largest economy in the world and the largest army in the world; two centuries later the British won the First Opium War on Chinese territory although their expeditionary force was outnumbered 10 or 20 to one by the Chinese army. In 1683 the Ottoman Empire was at the zenith of its power; the Ottomans besieged Vienna and were repulsed only by the timely intervention of the Polish army led by John Sobieski; two hundred and fifty years later the Empire vanished, leaving behind the north African and Middle Eastern chaos the effects of which are still felt today.

  • The Crisis of the Third Century "was a period in which the Roman Empire nearly collapsed" (Wikipedia). It's a very well studied example of turbulence threatening the end of a civilization.

What all those examples have in common is that there is no immediately obvious overwhelming material cause. Yes, in each case we can follow the chain of causality between individual events; but we are struck by the sudden incapacity of rich, powerful, and vibrant civilizations to cope with adverse conditions, and to identify and manage historical trends. Something went profoundly wrong with the civilization itself.

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Generally speaking, an analog creature such as ourself is typically resilient to such crises. However, if a species were to build their entire existence upon some axiom, only to find out that it is false, it may find that it is incapable of recovering.

The species as a whole does not need to be intelligent, but it needs to be completely dependent on something intelligent for its survival. Then that intelligent thing may have an inconsistency to pull at.

A near example of such a catastrophe would be the infamous Credit/Default swaps of 2008. A large market had been built around the axiomatic assumption that defaults (bankrupcy) are rare. This fared well until the economic crises of the mid 2000's which lead to a surprising set of defaults. The whole system was built around the assumption that these defaults didn't happen, so there was nothing in place to try to trace what happened. There was a genuine fear that the world stock markets might crash under the weight of an avalanche of CDS transactions.

In the end, it didn't happen. The opaque mess we created happened to be relatively stable, and the giant string of CDS transactions went by without the sound of trumpets and bright lights from on high. In this case we got lucky, and in this case it was only money. But its a good example of how an inconsistent assumption can tear an entire system to ribbons.

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    $\begingroup$ I assume you mean "only to find out that it is false". $\endgroup$ – Reinstate Monica Nov 25 '16 at 8:08
  • $\begingroup$ @Angew Yes, thank you, and thank you to Peteris for correcting it. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon - Reinstate Monica Nov 25 '16 at 16:13
  • $\begingroup$ Re: "The opaque mess we created happened to be relatively stable": Well, it required massive injections of cash from other components of our civilization (namely, national governments), and even then it caused a recession that lasted several years. So our civilization is relatively stable, but that specific opaque mess was not (unless "doesn't bring down civilization" is your benchmark for relative stability :-P ). $\endgroup$ – ruakh Nov 25 '16 at 18:02
  • $\begingroup$ @ruakh You provide a very useful addition to my story =) That being said, there was fear of it being a LOT worse. It could have been war-causing levels of messy. There's a lot of people who really hate losing pieces of paper that say they have money. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon - Reinstate Monica Nov 25 '16 at 20:04
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Basically it has to be a technological civilization where an individual or a small number of individuals have the power to destroy their civilization. The civilization would have enormous collective power, but if it only requires the diversion of a small amount of that power to destroy its world then it can happen.

The most probable form of philosophical despair would that where the agents of annihilation realized their ideological conception of the world was going to fail or was under serious threat. It would be simplistic to claim the current jihadist terror movements as they arise from complex political causes. However, complex political causes could be the seed to trigger the world's destruction.

The capacity for small groups to create novel biological warfare agents will certainly exist before this century ends. Cyber warfare and computer viruses could potentially cripple, incapacitate or destroy much of our computer controlled technology and infrastructure. If this happened, when our dependence of computerized systems had grown too great this could be absolutely catastrophic. Perhaps, simply someone triggering the world's nuclear missiles of all nations in a simultaneous mutual attack.

For the further future, antimatter powered energy systems and relativistic vehicles have potential for annihilation.

For a civilization to commit suicide from philosophical despair possibly they create utopian worlds of total immersive virtual reality they can no longer face the rigours of commonplace reality. They might their only options are to remain immersed in VR or pull the plug on reality by ending it all. This might include uploading themselves onto computer systems where we can enjoy the paradise of a cybernetic afterlife.

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If you want all the individuals in that civilisation to commit suicide, then I think you should have a look at suicide cults and mass suicides.

However I think you should also consider the very powerful instinct to survive.

Take for example one of the biggest mass suicides in recent times - the Jonestown Massacre, where over 900 people killed themselves. However there were survivors.

Another example is the Nazi suicides. Germany was stricken by a series of unprecedented waves of suicides during the final days of the Nazi regime. However not all of those involved with the Nazi party committed suicide, many survived the fall of Nazi Germany.

Religous cults like Heavens Gate have chosen mass suicide, but even in those cases, there were survivors. In the case of Heavens Gate there was a sole survivor, Rio DiAngelo/Richard Ford.

So, assuming you want all the people to commit suicide, I think you should make compensation for some people who decide, at the last moment or not, to live and not commit suicide.

No matter how intelligent and emotional your race is, no matter how bad the existential crisis is, there will always be a few who think differently, or are less emotionally attached. Not everybody is going to think the same way and have the same feelings about a situation, even if there is a general consensus you will always have a few who go the other way. If there was a collective "party to death", there would be some who don't like the party and leave (or escape) early on.

I guess it all depends on what you mean by "wipe out a civilisation" - you could have so few survivors that the civilisation ceases to function. Some people survive, but they have to regress back to a more primitive state, living off the land like a post apocalyptic scenario. Or perhaps they migrate to another place where they can begin again. If this satisfies what you mean by wiping out a civilisation, then you could use any number of historic examples of mass suicides for inspiration. For example your existential crisis could easily be religious in nature.

But if you want every member of that civilisation to die, then things get a bit more difficult to explain properly. You could develop some ways for killing off these few survivors, however this will turn the situation into more of a murder cult rather than everyone killing themselves because of an existential crisis.

The only way I can think of everyone in a civilisation all committing suicide together, at once, is if you eliminated individual thought. Perhaps give them all a hive mind which has absolute control over its collective. Then the hive mind decides to kill itself, and all those who are part of it obey.

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    $\begingroup$ Jonestown was more a mass murder than it was a mass suicide. A few people with guns made sure that those without took the poison. $\endgroup$ – Wayne Conrad Nov 25 '16 at 17:10
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Can existential crisis wipe out civilisation? Almost yes, it has happened many times in the last century where nations and peoples underwent existential crisis. There have been a few significant examples of the death of big ideas, and this creating destructive downward spirals. I think it's best to base this sort of question in the realities of history. Perhaps the decline of the USSR is a good example to speak of, and you could make something of a sci-fi metaphor of it.

A common view of the end of the cold war is that the Americans forced the Soviets into bankruptcy because of military spending, but the reality is about internal Soviet politics.

The initial optimism of the Russian revolution wouldn't last forever, and by the mid 1970s the country had entered an Era of Stagnation. Mismanagement, economic malaise, and political regression led to widespread disillusionment. A decade later, efforts to modernise and open the system to participation and feedback ended up causing its collapse, because the communist system no longer could enforce the authority required to survive.

Soviet society immediately fractured along tribal lines and split into newly independent republics. This triggered bloody conflicts, from Yugoslavia to Azerbaijan and Chechnya. Corruption has not got better since then, in recent years it has got worse, and Putin's attempt to centralise power has been hampered by growing internal strife.

Chechnya degenerated, and has since then become something of an Islamic Republic. Some of the former Yugoslavia by comparison joined into a new grand vision of a united Europe, and so did better for themselves. But as you'll no doubt have noticed, even that dream is dying, with Brexit, and now the risk of Frexit owing to a possible election win by the National Front.

The thing is, Russia isn't the only example we have of a recent decline. When the Ottoman empire collapsed the Arab world was full of hope about the creation of a union of Arab states which could rival the USA and USSR. But this never happened, regardless of various attempts to join nations together and make the Arab people one. Now the Middle East is a mess, just like the former USSR.

Iraq's fate is very much typical of this; the dream of pan-Arabism died, replaced with a brutal and yet at least secular regime, which itself died (was killed) and then collapsed into an even more corrupt, primitive, and tribal state. Indeed the continent of Africa is full of other examples of fledgling nations full of optimism and hope after independence from their colonial masters, becoming ruined by chaos often caused by external meddling.

So there's plenty of historical examples of advanced societies losing hope and collapsing into bloody war and hopeless corruption during the last century. All you need to do is read history more broadly, mix up examples (Russia, Islamic World, post-colonial Africa, EU), and exaggerate their technological level and the scale of the decline. That should surely provide you with plenty of food for thought!

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    $\begingroup$ This answer misses many facts. The decline started with after bad decisions of the latest government which came to power in 1985. They wanted to bolster the stagnant economy, but ended up dismantling the system. Fertility rates dropped only at the very end of 80s, so the cause and effect is different. And even during the last year of the USSR people didn't lose faith in it, and 78% of the people voted to preserve it on the referendum in 1991 (with an impressive turnout of 80%), although they weren't listened to. The decline came from the government, not the people themselves. $\endgroup$ – Malcolm Nov 25 '16 at 20:22
  • $\begingroup$ @Malcolm Fair points, I shall have to reconsider my knowledge on the matter. $\endgroup$ – inappropriateCode Nov 26 '16 at 12:42
  • $\begingroup$ @Malcolm According to this, 71% of Ukranians were for the USSR in March 1991, but then come December 92% voted to leave. Do you have any recommended reading which can explain this behaviour? $\endgroup$ – inappropriateCode Nov 26 '16 at 13:01
  • $\begingroup$ The key event that triggered this is August Coup, when the Soviet government was effectively ousted by the RSFSR's government. $\endgroup$ – Malcolm Nov 26 '16 at 13:09
  • $\begingroup$ @Malcolm Well I'm having to read a bit to catch up and double check things I thought I knew! Also, edited answer to focus on the central point more: the collapse of bigger ideas in named examples. The Era of Stagnation leading to reforms which in turn led to a loss of control. Hope the edit is less inaccurate! $\endgroup$ – inappropriateCode Nov 26 '16 at 14:01
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One possibility is passive suicide. Just stop procreating. Universal fertility suppression. Life goes on without children ... until it doesn't.

One scenario where this even makes sense is if the end of the world really is nigh. A nearby soon-to-be- supernova or GRB that will blow within a couple of lifetimes in a universe where FTL travel is impossible might lead to a collective decision to just give up, rather than bearing children doomed to die horribly along with their planet.

Or even the big rip, the imminent end of the universe as dark energy gets completely out of control. No point even trying to build a starship. We think we have hundreds of billions of years to go. We may be wrong, or their faith in erroneous science too great.

Or on a smaller scale a planet so.polluted with (accidental?) Teratogens that the act of attempted procreation comes to be seen as morally unacceptable, and self-extinction of intelligent life as the moral path.

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  • $\begingroup$ if a civilisation were advanced enough to detect an incoming supernova or GRB in time to commit passive suicide - wouldn't they be advanced enough to move away from the incoming disaster? $\endgroup$ – Jimmery Nov 25 '16 at 18:10
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    $\begingroup$ Assuming there is no possibility of FTL propulsion and that the rocket equations hold, then no. It is not realistic to move even a small viable settlement by tens of light years in a couple of centuries. BTW it is probably easy to see a giant star is in its final instabilities if it is only 10 or 20 lIghtfield distant $\endgroup$ – nigel222 Nov 25 '16 at 20:26
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In the same vein as the fungus that creates zombie ants and the parasite that convinces rats to willingly sacrifice themselves to cats to complete its life-cycle, consider a parasite that invades the human brain. It causes selective damage to the brain that results in extreme anhedonia for all activities other than sex. Naturally, the parasite is sexually transmitted.

Desperately pursuing the only source of pleasure that remains to them, people cease to take care of themselves, falling into depression and existential despair about their situation. If the parasite spreads sufficiently rapidly, it could destabilize a good chunk of society.

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  • $\begingroup$ so ... college? $\endgroup$ – MissMonicaE Jul 20 '17 at 17:41
  • $\begingroup$ @MissMonicaE But you forget the saviors of society and eventual repopulators of earth, Engineers! $\endgroup$ – Dent7777 Aug 14 '17 at 17:58
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No

Books such as Children of Men talk about a civilization that is, universally, looking down the barrel of extinction, and talks about how suicide ramps up and plays an effect in society. However, even in that case - and nearly every other conceivable case - individual members do not come to the same conclusions about the existential crisis at hand.

In every example of mass suicide there has been centralized dogma and/or authority, and it rarely extends beyond a thousand people - so hardly the size of a civilization. So, on the first hand you don't have a necessary requirement: that everyone in the civilization is so struck by the existential problem that they want to commit suicide, but on the other hand you don't have a full civilization.

Any sort of 'centralized' decision for self-suicide is really murder. Nuclear war, disease, etc. are all things where some agency besides the individuals in question are causing the death. Therefore can be ruled out.

We have to ask, then, is there any condition where everyone in a civilization would choose to commit suicide? And the answer to this is an emphatic no because, by necessity, individuals all hold slightly different points of view. While they are connected to other individuals through certain shared ideas (even as basic as language), everyone has some idea or set of ideas that causes them to be different. To have a mass civilization suicide, everyone would need to share at least one idea - and the chance that there is no member that didn't differ on that one critical idea is, effectively, zero. In fact, it's probable that at least half a civilization would consider suicide bad - if only because they have programmed some willingness to live.

Thus, we know that if some existential crisis encouraged suicide, even one such that a majority of the civilization felt it appropriate, there would be a minority segment that would reject the conclusion - rationally or not. Truly, an unlikely combination of existential crises would have to arise such that everyone partook.

But

There is one opening; and that is if the thinking by the society collapsed to a singular decision making engine. You can imagine the Borg from Star Trek, for instance, coming to a group conclusion and offing themselves. However, even in that example there is a drive to differentiate and become individuals. One could imagine a world, though, where the precursor event was one where everyone signed on to or became reliant on a single source of decision making. You see this in computer networks that become unhealthy; where a single node with authoritative powers acts erroneously, and causes the entire network health issues of one variety or another. Without that precursor and without the drive to differentiate being smothered, it remains unlikely that you'll see this sort of event, ever, merely by the nature of civilizations.

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The question: Is it plausible that an advanced civilization commits suicide due to philosophical despair?

Well it depends, first on what you mean by "commits suicide" and secondly, what you mean by "due to philosophical despair"

If what you meant was "every member of an advanced civilization individually chooses to kill themselves due solely to philosophical despair.*" Then the answer is NO. Even in an advanced civilization philosophy is a relatively new and ephemeral thing. Evolution on the other hand is billions of years old and the one thing that evolution writes into the very heart, soul and DNA of every living thing is SURVIVE! And you don't get to be an advanced civilization unless your species is better at surviving than all others.

So, although specific individuals may be able to kill or sacrifice themselves (evolution allows this for the potential improved survival of the overall species), and greater intellect gives an increased ability for this, their very natures as biological creatures simply would not allow everyone to do it. Not for mere philosophy anyway.

Now if what meant was "every member of an advanced civilization individually chooses to kill themselves due partly to philosophical despair.*"

Then the answer is YES, IF THEY HAD "HELP". What kind of help? Well possibles are 1) Technological, Chemical: Mental damage or defects from drugs and/or addiction is certainly possible, along with philosophical despair. 2) Technological, Biological: Genetic alterations that intentionally or accidentally removed their survival instinct would certainly change things a lot. 3) Situational: A true existential crisis, such as the knowledge that you were going to die or be killed anyway, along with certain POVs/philosophies could persuade a large group of people to exercise the only control they have left by killing themselves. For examples see Masada. 4) Perceptual, Deception: Philosophical despair alone cannot do it, but philosophical decpetion sure can: See Jonestown or Heaven's Gate for examples of these.

Finally, if what you meant was "an advanced civilization chooses to kill themselves due solely to philosophical despair."

Then the answer is YES. Because that allows for some people, (maybe even a single person, their ruler) to make the decision for everyone else. So some crazy old absolute ruler could just use, nuke/poison/radioactive waste to make sure that the whole civilization dies when they do. Also, some ruling class could do this as retaliation if they thought they were going to lose their power.

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Possible in the face of the ultimate doom that the civilization would all fall apart. During the black plague some portion of society did fall apart as people faced the possibility of that they would all die.

In 1938, a Martian invasion scare caused mass rioting and looting. For your civilization to fall apart they have to be faced with a doom so powerful and unstoppable that even thinking about trying stopping it is pointless, and the only thing left to do is party or riot.

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    $\begingroup$ Re: "In 1938, a Martian invasion scare caused mass rioting and looting": Not true. There's an oft-repeated story that it caused panic, but it's unsubstantiated; see snopes.com/war-of-the-worlds. "Mass rioting and looting" would be an embellishment on top of a falsehood. $\endgroup$ – ruakh Nov 25 '16 at 17:51
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You needn't look much further than the American opioid epidemic to see how this could happen. West Virginia has 42 fatal opioid overdoses per 100,000 people, and that number is skyrocketing year after year. This exceeds the rate of live births, and similar figures can be found throughout Appalachia. To whatever degree you could consider Appalachia to be a civilization independent from the rest of the United States, it is committing mass suicide by numbing agent.

So what's happening there? Few jobs and little opportunity. Crushing poverty. And a couple small groups outside the "civilization" making money off a fun way to die.

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  • $\begingroup$ The opiod crisis dosen't have anything to do whit suicide, people are not throwing their life away. People got addicted abd now bad people are selling them junk. We have the problem in Canada as well : cbc.ca/firsthand/m/features/… $\endgroup$ – Vincent Aug 15 '17 at 5:19
  • $\begingroup$ So in fact , your answer does not address the question. $\endgroup$ – Vincent Aug 15 '17 at 5:20
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I think, like many posters before me, that it's highly unlikely that all members of a civilization would collectively come to the conclusion that suicide is the solution. The will to survive is too great with most species. We can, of course, imagine a civilization of genetic defeatists but how did they get to the position of civilization in the first place?

A major cataclysm such as Nigel222 suggests may of course give inclination to just give up and check out early for a majority of the species. (With further members being killed in lawless chaos once governments collapse.) Leaving only a small splinter of the previous civilization who no longer can uphold the scientific and industrial advances of their precursor and as such can say have devolved into something else. The ur-civilization is now dead, even though members of the species which constituted it are still alive. However, as AlexP's examples show remainders of the species may over time come to power as a new civilization. While Roman, Ottoman and Chinese civilizations have come and gone the human civilization persists.

So, how do we kill off an entire world by collective suicide in the face of existential crisis?

Well, I suppose if we're going by the OP's original premise that this crisis erupts with the intelligentsia who are smart enough to recognize the futility of carrying on this may, at a sufficiently advanced technology level, create enough problems to kill of enough the less sensitive parts of the population.

Possible scenarios are:

  • Launching nuclear weapons out of spite/nihilism.
  • Leaving maintenance intensive infrastructure such as nuclear powerplants to self-destruct.

Even without nuclear power a civilization dependent on rivers for energy and travel could easily be wiped out if nobody maintains the river dams. (Or dikes if your civilization is the Netherlands. Imagine a world were all the land that's left is below sea level due to polar ice cap melting and then nobody knows how to keep the walls water proof...)

It may, or may not fall withing the premise Luna wishes, but I will claim that the best way to come about this scenario would be for the right segment of society giving up with the right circumstances to make that surrender fatal for the rest of the world. What happens to us if all farmers burn their farms, animals and themselves due to some horrific insight? Can we survive if all doctors check out early to avoid the rush of the next pandemic?

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Yes

Consider the case of Easter Island. The people who lived there believed that their ancestors watched over and provided for them, so they would construct giant heads to ask for help. They built too many heads and ruined the ecosystem because of it, and, unfortunately, their only way of fixing it was to build more heads.

Now consider super-colliders. We keep needing more powerful idea to test our theories, so we keep making them bigger and bigger. Imagine a world do wrapped up in whatever they're trying to prove that we use all of the planet's resources.

While neither of these events strictly philosophical, I do believe that such a failure would have resounding effects on the attitude of the people. Everybody worked towards something that failed and now we're going to die soon and there's nothing left to party with.

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I'd be inclined to go with maybe, Rome tore itself apart in large part due to an internal collapse of philosophical cohesion, the civilisation stopped pulling in the same direct and became vulnerable to outside forces that hadn't previously been an issue. At least that's how the Eastern Empire framed the collapse of the western portion still using Rome as a capital. I'd also have a look here for some ideas.

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