Mini-Feature: Humans at the Universe-Level

Would it be more frightening to discover that humans are the most advanced species in the universe or that we are far from being the most advanced species in the universe?

Angels terrify people throughout the Bible for a reason. The good ones are shown as encouraging people not to immediately fear or worship them whereas the bad ones - "demons" - encourage the same. And this is precisely what would happen if we encountered a species beyond us. 

Our own pride and the situation we normally find ourselves in is to be the most advanced of the creatures we find in nature. Human beings have always had an awkward relationship to the natural world: we find ourselves stewards of something we can't comprehend and don't fully understand. Further, unlike the animals, we have the potential to rise above instinct for bad as well as good. And while nature is in some ways ordered to or for us, as we arise out of it, in other ways it seems hostile. The job is almost comically too much for us, yet the job is ours.

Yet note this: we create idols when we don't think we are worshipping and fearful enough of what is above and beyond us. And this is what AI is now developing into...

-Matthew Peterson, founding editor of The American Mind

The horror facing the West, at least, is a race of hostile aliens superior to us at conquest—and TOTALLY alien, as in beyond analogy. Slavery to an alien race is one thing, psychological destruction by creatures beyond our ken is another. 

Even still, however, we know since Biblical times that angels are, technically speaking, just such a race of aliens: they know war and how to win it, they outstrip our faculties of comprehension, and their appearance is so deeply unlike ours (“six winged! many eyed”) that they must preface their messages with a warning (“do not be afraid”) oddly familiar from sci-fi (“we mean no harm to your planet”). 

So what we are dealing with is the possible existence of a conquering alien race even more powerful and terrifying than angels (or demons). Here we are exiting the realm of aliens as such and entering that of gods. Lovecraftian sensibilities reinforce the popular fear of dark entities so vast and ancient that the mere disclosure of their existence shatters the human soul. Any Biblically minded person must reject the temptation to see substance behind this fear. 

In fact it is the fear of the falsehood and obsolescence of Christianity that I hear murmuring beneath all worries and fantasies about advanced alien races and primordial gods. The arrival of Christian aliens to our planet would interrupt our regularly scheduled programming to say the least, but it would merely REINFORCE our foundational categories of thought in the West, even among most post-Christians, who still inhabit Christian categories of stain and sin, purity and redemption, etc. It would be easy to expect memes of the Archangel Michael telling a Christian alien race to hold his beer. The recollection that we have “been there, done that” with super powerful off-planet beings will be ever more important to the psychic stability of the West as our machines take on increasingly alien powers. Many will yearn to become exactly the terrifying outsiders they fear, the better (in their imaginations) to fuse the problems of machine and angel and alien and demon into a phenomenon admitting of a single solution, that is, the obsolescence of the human. 

-James Poulos, executive editor of The American Mind

By some accounts, the human brain, with 100 billion nerve cells, is the most complicated structure in the known universe. But "known" universe is the key qualifier. It may be that we cannot see beyond certain limits, and would always assume ourselves to be the most advanced creature in existence, despite any evidence to the contrary—like certain social media types who are convinced they are the most intelligent or fascinating characters in their evolutionary puddle.

If humans are not the most advanced creatures in the universe, then it is frightening to consider from the perspective of our smallness and irrelevance. But if we are the most advanced creatures in the universe then it is frightening because there's nobody else in charge.

However, it seems unlikely that the issue will be settled either way, and there are probably reasons to be grateful for that.

-Seth Barron, managing editor of The American Mind

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On this plane of being, "more advanced" often simply means having greater capacity—to do both evil and good. It would be profoundly unnerving to encounter such a species in outer space unless they were also beyond all thought of doing evil. 

But if by "universe" you mean "all of existence," then without question the greater horror would be to discover no sentient life above ourselves: no angels, no archangels, no God. That said, if existence ends with the cosmos, then even finding higher life forms would do little to assuage our existential dread. What answers would they have, no matter how sophisticated, that could soothe our longing for something beyond flesh?

The real comfort needed is not knowledge of beings above us in intelligence—that is, in mere processing power—but in wisdom and virtue. For that we must suppose something more than a universe in the sense of atoms and planets. We must suppose a kind of existence which, in Raphael's words from Paradise Lost, "surmounts the reach / Of human sense." 

Thus often what we mean when we speculate about extraterrestrials is to speculate about consciousness "out there"—using distance in space as a shorthand or analogue for separation of quality and essence. Hence Dante and the Mormons alike join C.S. Lewis in visualizing paradise in outer space. But by this I understand them to imply that angels are very far removed from us in some essential way having to do with purity and refinement—in physical space they may well already be "right here," whatever that means. Depending how you look at it, this is either a reassuring or an alarming thought. Maybe both.

-Spencer Klavan, associate editor of The American Mind