Nadia Eghbal

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Between animal and God

We sleep, we watch Netflix, we smoke, we have sex, we laugh at cat memes and lie tangled in the sheets on a Saturday morning. On other days, we get out of bed, we comb our hair, we make witty comments in work meetings, we form mental models and test them out, we try to figure out what the world is all about, and - if we’re lucky - leave a legacy.

This is what it means to be both animal and God: that particular human ability to hold both lowbrow and highbrow in a single state and, depending on the moment, dissemble and disavow knowledge of either one.

The animal-God duality manifests into actual philosophy. It’s our search for deeper meaning that leads us to find religion, secular humanism, or science to believe in. It’s our private, off-duty lives that lead us to proclaim loudly that we are “no different from animals”, giving rise to such disciplines as evolutionary biology, psychology, and ethology.

Last year, a group of researchers published a paper called “Dissolving the Fermi Paradox”, in which they conclude, after a thorough analysis, that our position in the universe is unique due to a variety of happy accidents, that the Fermi Paradox is a false dilemma, and in fact, we are all alone in the foreseeable universe.

The paper generated buzz, perhaps not because it said anything unequivocally true, but because the timing was right. Like many people in my generation, I grew up believing that it would be stupid not to believe in extraterrestrial life. I now realize that this was hubris, or perhaps fear.

Our interest in extraterrestrial life is a fairly modern obsession, overlapping with a waning interest in God: a search for meaning in the wake of secularization. As our interest in aliens declines, one could imagine the existential threat of artificial intelligence eventually replacing our concern for the little green men.

But the real lesson of “Dissolving the Fermi Paradox” is whether we might be looking for answers in all the wrong places. What does it mean to cease the search altogether? What if this is it?

The thought of this might leave you suddenly flailing, like Wile E. Coyote running off a cliff, fumbling for solid ground. And yet, the wrong conclusion would be that we are no different from animals, as some smug atheist might have us think, doomed to tragedies of the commons, reckless gene propagation, and Malthusian destruction, raging over and over as our planet slowly circles into the sun.

Humans aren’t animals. We may have descended from animals, but in our current state, it seems immediately obvious that we’re much more than that. No other animal has done what we’ve done. No other animal thinks the way we do. Perhaps we share a likeness with animals, but they are not us, or they would’ve done what we’ve done by now.

Are humans animal or God? What if we’re neither?

To be neither animal nor God would mean to accept the inherent meaninglessness of all the things we, as humans, pursue. By this I don’t mean that life is not worth pursuing, but rather that the search for an explanation is futile. Like all painkillers, they wear off eventually.

Politicians don’t start wars because they’re territorial primates, nor as an elaborate conspiracy to increase shareholder value. They do it for reasons even they don’t understand. They do it because it happened. People die for no good reason, and they will continue to die. There is no prescription here. There is no comfort - neither religion nor science - that will save us.

Without animal nor God, the truth is a horror fiction, one in which we stare into the void and recognize that it’s not a higher or baser self that resides within us, but nothingness whatsoever, a sticky web of empty that none of us can crawl out of. But to stop there would be a nihilistic tragedy. Once our eyes adjust to the infinite darkness, the faint outline of humanity starts to come into focus.

There are “only” 7.7 billion of us on the planet. Human civilization is only 5,000 years old. Whatever it is that brought us here, each of our actions have much more influence than we think.

If we’re all there is, and nothing else out there is like us, each person you meet is part of the greatest game. Each person is part of the senseless miracle that put us not-animals-not-Gods into the universe. That immediately affords a certain degree of reverence to every person you encounter. You may not know what role they play, but if our story is the only one we have, they must mean something. We are playing an infinite game with a finite number of players, so we’d better learn how to play nicely, and play well.

Instead of looking for metaphors in biology or religion to explain what we do, maybe instead we should examine the artifacts of the game. We can make sense of the board, the pieces, the wins and losses. These artifacts are more real than we are, because unlike us, they gained consciousness in this world. Even if humanity implodes, ideas survive without a host, hovering in purgatory like space garbage. Our outputs say more about why we’re here, and what we’re doing, than conjectures ever will.

We can work from inductive, not deductive, reasoning. We can start by examining the things we’ve produced and work our way back to the reasons. Our brains are black boxes: our physical environment has known limits, but there is still beauty to be found in the infinitesimally small.

Is this truth or fiction? Is it actually possible to see anything in the complete absence of light, or are these tricks produced by our minds, curling like tendrils towards any wisp of real or imagined sensory input? Does it really matter? Being human is more bewildering and beautiful than either animal or God, because the end of making meaning signifies the start of it all.