03 July 2009

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: What if there are intelligent extra terrestrial beings?

Dear friends,

This Sunday we are discussing: What if there are intelligent extra terrestrial beings?

This is the first time we are trying to leave the confines of the Earth and Molly Malone’s , but as I try to show in my very short essay (some ideas put together) this is no Hollywood picnic.

Take care and see you Sunday



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What if there are intelligent extra terrestrial beings?

One of the biggest problems in finding extraterrestrial beings is distance. Distance not only complicates the type of methodology we use to find such beings, but also the difficulty in going to these places. Or them coming to us.

Notwithstanding these issues, one of the more exciting new sciences to emerge these past couple of decades is astrobiology. The scope of this science includes the search for life in other parts of the universe. So, on this aspect of expanding our knowledge of the universe there are scientists who are working on this issue of extraterrestrial life.

But finding evidence of life does not necessary mean we are a step closer to getting in touch with them. There is an old joke which says that the universe is full of intelligent life and that’s why they are trying to avoid us like hell. You might know a different version.

Of course, a big issue in our debate is what do we mean by intelligent. Some might argue that evidence of technology is evidence of intelligence. Nevertheless, what does count as technology?

An iPhone or a cruse missile are both examples of technology, but is the sonar capabilities that dolphins have also technology? I am inclined to think that the sonar dolphins have is as much technology our iPhones. It is just that our methods of developing technology is different.

Some might argue that mathematics might be good evidence of intelligence. Thus, if we could somehow communicate at this higher level of intelligence than that settles the issue of intelligence.

Of course, I agree that maths can take us a long way at establishing intelligence. Thus, if we see information from extraterrestrial beings that contains mathematical structures as content we can safely assume that some form of intelligence was involved. However, I’m not convinced that maths is either a necessary and or sufficient condition of intelligence.

First of all, absence of public manifestation of mathematical knowledge or intelligence is not evidence of absence of mathematical intelligence. For example, it is well established that the brain is a probabilistic machine and that, for example, language is used and learnt on the principles of induction and probability. But not everyone can publicly (consciously) manifest their skills in probability theory. Again, we don’t know what kind of maths dolphins use to triangulate their position using sonar relative to another creature. However, it seems reasonable to assume that some form of calculation that involves our number concepts is involved.

Is this last claim justified? Maybe or maybe not what is relevant s that our notion of maths, and our intelligence, and that of dolphins and extraterrestrials in closely linked to our environment. But given that our environments are completely different does this make our intelligence different and therefore incompatible?

But even if we do establish a channel of communication with intelligent extraterrestrials this does not mean that we are going to understand each other immediately. In fact this issue of understand each other, in this context, takes us back to one of Descartes’s problems in the meditations.

In the meditations, Descartes tried to imagine a creature that non have ever seen or imagined before. He was led to conclude that whatever we try to imagine it will always involve in one way or other what we experience. Bosch tried a similar exercise with canvas and the result was The Garden of Earthly Delights that hangs in the Prado. Can we really imagine what it is like to live on another planet? I doubt it.

I am not asking, however, what it is like to be an extraterrestrial. We know the answer to this one, since we are probably someone’s extraterrestrial beings.

Although we can establish whether there are carbon based (let’s not complicate the debate by considering other forms of life) intelligent beings, it is not in my opinion, that easy to establish a communication relationship with them. After all, the chances are that they will face similar problems to us when trying to communicate outside their environment. Do not forget that just because we have sophisticated means of communications it doesn’t mean that we can start phoning the dolphins very soon.

If there are intelligent extraterrestrials the implications for us, are twofold. First, we would prove that life is part of the evolutionary process of the universe. Which would be good news since this would make us normal beings and not someone’s freak show. And secondly, we can claim that our intelligence is sufficiently objective to enable us to identify intelligence outside our environment of operation. This is equivalent to saying that I know my mobile phone is good because I’ve just spoken to a dolphin.

The real issue, and maybe something to worry about, would be if can establish channels of communications with some extraterrestrials but they refuse to take the call.

Take care


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from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: What if there are intelligent extra terrestrial beings?

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