In both scientific and popular circles it is often said that we are in the midst of a sixth mass extinction. Although the urgency of our present environmental crises is not in doubt, such claims of a present mass extinction are highly controversial scientifically. Our aims are, first, to get to the bottom of this scientific debate by shedding philosophical light on the many conceptual and methodological challenges involved in answering this scientific question, and, second, to offer new philosophical perspectives on what the value of asking this question has been — and whether that value persists today. We show that the conceptual challenges in defining ‘mass extinction’, uncertainties in past and present diversity assessments, and data incommensurabilities undermine a straightforward answer to the question of whether we are in, or entering, a sixth mass extinction today. More broadly we argue that an excessive focus on the mass extinction framing can be misleading for present conservation efforts and may lead us to miss out on the many other valuable insights that Earth’s deep time can offer in guiding our future.