What Is At Stake?
In the traditional Christian worldview, God sets the overall path of human history, a history confined to one planet for a few thousand years. Individuals can choose to be on the side of good or evil, and maybe make a modest difference to local human experience, but they can’t change the largest story. That is firmly in God’s hands. Yet an ability to personally choose good or evil, or to make a difference to mere thousands of associates, seemed to be plenty enough to motivate most Christians to action.
In a standard narrative of elites today, the entire future of value in the universe sits our current collective hands. If we make poor choices today, such as about global warming or AI, we may soon kill ourselves and prevent all future civilization, forever destroying all sources of value. Or we might set our descendants down a permanently perverse path, so that even if they never go extinct they also never realize most of the universe’s great potential. And elites today tend to lament that these far grander stakes don’t seem to motivate many to action.
Humans seem to have arrived very early in the history of the universe, a fact that seems best explained by a looming deadline: grabby/aggressive aliens will control all the universe volume within a billion years, and so we had to show up before that deadline if we were to show up at all.
So now we have strong evidence that all future value in the universe does not sit in our hands. What does sit in our collective hands are:
A) the experiences of our descendants for roughly (within a factor of ten around) the next billion years, before they meet aliens, and
B) our influence on the larger mix of alien cultures in the eras after many alien civilizations meet and influence each other.
Now a billion years is in fact a very long time, a duration during which we could have an enormous number of descendants. So even that first part is a big deal. Just not as big a deal as many have been saying lately.
On the longer timescale, the question is not “will there be creatures who find their lives worth living?” We can be pretty assured that the universe will be full of advanced complex creatures who choose to live. The question is instead more “How much will human-style attitudes and approaches influence the hundreds or more alien civilizations with which we may eventually come in contact?”
It is less about whether there will be any civilizations, and more about what sorts of civilizations they will be. Yes, we should try to not go extinct, and yes we should try to find better paths and lifestyles for our descendants. But we should also aspire, and to a similar degree, to become worthy of emulating, when compared to a sea of alien options.
Unless we can offer enough unique and valuable models for emulation, and actually persuade or force such emulation, then it won’t really matter so much if we survive to meet aliens. From that point on, what matters is what difference we make to the mix. Whether we influence the mix, and whether that mix is better off as a result of our influence.
Not an easy goal, and not one we are assured to achieve. But we have maybe a billion years to work on it. And at least we can relax a bit; not all future universe value depends on our actions now. Just an astronomical amount of it. The rest is in “God’s” hands.