Abstract: For practical reasons, we should trust that we probably will not go extinct before becoming an advanced civilization.
F1) we probably will not go extinct before becoming an advanced civilization [assumption]
To read a discussion of the faith position, see this post.
The Angel Argument
Abstract: If basic life forms are probable then we should trust that advanced civilizations are probable.
A1) EITHER basic life forms are improbable OR we probably will go extinct before becoming an advanced civilization OR advanced civilizations are probable [great filter argument]
A2) basic life forms are probable [assumption]
A3) EITHER we probably will go extinct before becoming an advanced civilization OR advanced civilizations are probable [from A1 and A2]
A4) advanced civilizations are probable [from A3 and F1]
The stars, as we look at and listen to them, present many of us with a paradox. On the one hand, the universe should be old and large enough to have produced many Earthlike planets. It's almost fourteen billion years old, and the visible portion alone contains over 100 billion galaxies. If our galaxy, containing over 400 billion stars, is typical then there are over forty sextillion stars in the visible universe (that's forty billion billions or forty followed by 21 zeros). We're orbiting one of those stars on a planet that is four and a half billion years old. Unless Earth is extremely improbable, there's been time and space enough for many other planets like ours. On the other hand, we lack sufficient evidence for the existence of advanced civilizations. The SETI program, an internationally funded search for extraterrestrial intelligence, reports no reproducible messages from Alpha Centauri or anywhere else outside our atmosphere. Claims of UFO sightings and encounters with ET are open to broad interpretation, leaving most of us skeptical. While we cannot say with infallibility that advanced civilizations have not contacted or visited us, we should acknowledge that we lack objective reason to conclude they have. Despite all that time and all those stars, despite our careful looking and listening, we lack evidence for advanced civilizations.
There must be a reason for our lack of evidence of advanced civilizations. One possibility is that they are extremely rare (if they exist at all) because civilizations like ours almost always go extinct before becoming advanced; maybe we're likely to destroy ourselves with super-weapons or irreversibly exploit our environmental resources. Another possibility is that advanced civilizations are extremely rare because civilizations like ours are already extremely rare; it may be that the initial formation of life, and the subsequent development of complex species and civilizations, is likely to occur on only one in a septillion planets. If advanced civilizations are improbable then candidate civilizations, such as ours, must almost never appear or, if they commonly appear, they must almost never move on to become advanced civilizations before going extinct. In other words, if we are not already extraordinarily lucky and have benefited from very low probability events in our past development, then very high probability events in our future development will almost certainly stop us from becoming an advanced civilization. In the vastness of time and space, across innumerable Earthlike worlds, somewhere along the evolutionary path from inorganic matter to advanced civilizations, something is filtering the many possibilities down to improbabilities. That filter is either in our past or in our future. The only alternative is that advanced civilizations are not as rare as we might suppose. This is the great filter argument, that one of the following propositions must be true: either basic life forms are improbable or we probably will go extinct before becoming an advanced civilization or advanced civilizations are probable.
Recently, a NASA robot verified the presence of water on Mars, and some speculate that we may soon discover primitive life there. In response to such speculation, Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom recently wrote: "I hope that our Mars probes discover nothing. It would be good news if we find Mars to be sterile. Dead rocks and lifeless sands would lift my spirit." He wrote this from the perspective of someone that understands the force of the great filter argument, but also from the perspective of someone who has assumed that the lack of evidence for advanced civilizations implies a probable lack of existence. If a robot discovers primitive life on Mars, or if we otherwise determine that basic life forms are probable, Bostrom would confront the troubling conclusion that we probably will go extinct before becoming an advanced civilization. I wonder how he would live with such a specter overshadowing him. Perhaps it would be sufficient to move him to question his assumption that advanced civilizations are improbable. I don't know how he would react, but I know how he should react.
If basic life forms are probable then, according to the great filter argument, either we probably will go extinct before becoming an advanced civilization or advanced civilizations are probable. Faced with such options, our moral responsibility is to invoke the faith position, reaffirm that we probably will not go extinct before becoming an advanced civilization, and embrace the consequence: trust that advanced civilizations are probable.
We need not sacrifice rationality to embrace trust that advanced civilizations are probable. We know too little to entertain confidence in our ability to discern them. It is not merely modern UFO and ET claims that contend for recognition as subjective experience of advanced civilizations, but also the ancient and persistent weight of religious tradition, and its purported interactions between the human and the divine. While some find religious claims absurd, appeals to absurdity do not disprove subjective experience. If advanced civilizations exist, why should we suppose they would interact with us in ways that are only slightly more advanced than our current capacities? Why not suppose that their interactions with us would be indiscernible from magic? Why should we suppose that we even have the anatomical capacity to comprehend them fully? One need not embrace a religious tradition to acknowledge the possibility that advanced civilizations are among the causes of experiences that some of us have interpreted into religious traditions.
While we lack evidence for advanced civilizations, a lack of evidence is not evidence to the contrary. In some cases, lack of evidence to the contrary is of little or no practical consequence, but in this case, given the assumption that basic life forms are probable, our probable future correlates with the probable existence of advanced civilizations. In this case, a lack of evidence enables reasonable hope.
On a personal note, I'll add that I've had the opportunity to interact with Dan on many occasions, and have been repeatedly impressed by his character. He has a big heart and a sharp mind -- an inspiring and inspired man. Thanks, Dan, and good luck with your new opportunity!
Abstract: If basic life forms are probable then we should trust that advanced civilizations are probable. If any advanced civilization probably has increased in destructive capacity faster than defensive capacity, and if any advanced civilization probably creates many worlds like those in its past, then we should trust that an advanced civilization more benevolent than us probably created our world. The alternative is that we probably will go extinct before becoming an advanced civilization.
I am sometimes disturbed by the observation that our religious tradition, Mormonism, is not unified in faith that we can and should become God. Too many of us have capitulated to the violent dogmatism of traditional Christianity, particularly in its evangelical forms. Too many of us only hear whisperings of the doctrine. Too many of us, even, while giving lip service to this core idea on which Mormonism originally relied, yet only talk the talk without walking the walk. Many of us can still quote the prophets, affirming that as man is, God once was, and as God is, man may become. But our faith so often appears to end in the verbal affirmation, or perhaps goes no further than imagining that the perpetuatuion of self-hypnosis toward greater compassion will, in itself, be sufficient to transform us into gods. Who is walking the walk? Who can see that our future depends not only on thoughts, but also on power and action? Where are the Gods in embryo? Who will rise together in the name of Christ as joint heirs in the glory of God? Who is Mormon enough to declare, without shame, that we have got to learn how to become gods, the same as all other gods before us?
At Sunstone today, one session asked: are we still gods in embryo? The presenter outlined the history of the doctrine of theosis in the LDS Church over the last couple centuries. The respondent, Mormon historian Michael Quinn, stated that if, in our shame and efforts to conform with mainstream Christianity, we give up our doctrine of theosis, we have traded our birthright for a mess of pottage. The audience applauded vigorously. I cheered, "Amen!" Yet I wonder, how many persons in the audience trust in theosis to the point of action? How many even have any idea how we might go about learning to create worlds? How many are content with appeals to magic? I wonder, even in the applause, how many of us are Mormon enough to make use of all the means with which God is now endowing us?