Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Superior Intelligence

Yesterday I watched a fascinating program in the Naked Science series about the possibility of human contact with extra-terrestrial intelligence. There's no compelling reason to believe that ET's have ever visited Earth, and some people take this as reason to believe that they don't exist. But if they do exist, why do we think they'd be able to come here in the extremely unlikely event that they knew about us or even want to come here, given the unfathomable vastness of space and the incomprehensibly large number of stars and planets that populate this awesome universe?

And if they did come here (either themselves or via robotic explorers, perhaps on a nanotechnological scale), would we ever be able to communicate with them? And if they simply reached out to us by some kind of interstellar communication, would we be able distinguish between it and astrophysical static, and, if so, could we even begin to decipher any messages it might contain? If we can scarcely understand the languages of other species here on Earth, how do we have a proverbial snowball's chance in hell of understanding the language of some alien race perhaps thousands of light years away and millions of years more advanced than us?

We might not be able to understand them, but some scientists believe that we might at least be able to estimate their intelligence by the sophistication of their language. How can we measure the complexity of a language we don't even understand? I'm not sophisticated enough to have understood the explanation too well (and, perhaps, my cat jumping up on the table while I ate played a role in my incomprehension), but it had something to do with measuring the number and size of discernible syntactical patterns in the signal.

The interesting thing is, if ET's used this same method for evaluating the intelligence of Earth species in order to direct their communications to the most intelligent among them, they probably wouldn't pick us. They'd pick the humpback whale. For if human language has a sophistication level of 9 and dolphins and chimpanzees are at level 4, some scientist has determined that humpback whales seem to be far above all of us. Does this mean that humpbacks are more intelligent than us and that Star Trek IV was prescient in its depiction of aliens communicating with humpbacks? I guess I wouldn't be too surprised if that were so, even though I wonder why, if humpbacks are so intelligent, they don't do a better job of evading their less intelligent human predators.

Yet, one of the most provocative possibilties raised by the program is that the real ET's are US in the sense that our microbial forebears may have been transplanted here from Mars or some other planet via space debris falling here and seeding this planet with life that evolved into us. I must admit that I'm not too impressed with this hypothesis. I guess it's OK if someone merely argues that this just happens to be how life came into existence here. On the other hand, if someone argues that this is the only way life could have developed here, I ask how life came into being on the other planet from which it found its way here. This is similar to the question I ask Christians who argue that God had to have made this universe because it couldn't exist by itself. I ask them how the God that had to have made this universe exits without needing to have been made by something else, and it by something else, and so on. I've never been fond of infinite regresses.

All in all, I watched an interesting program yesterday that still has me thinking cosmic thoughts instead of the usual mundane ones.

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