Saturday, February 4, 2012

Extraterrestrial "Intelligence"

One story that gets dug up every so often on a slow news day is that some priest or official at the Vatican Observatory have said something (positive, usually) about extraterrestrial life and its compatibility with Faith (usually the headline is sensationalistic and misleading...)

In itself, I see no real problem there, but think speculation is useless. We'd really have to see what "they" were like before we reached any conclusions. If there are myriads of bodiless spirits in the angels (and demons), why couldn't their be other material creatures with immortal souls? We would then have to re-examine our definition of man as a "rational animal" and see whether these other races, not descended from Adam presumably, had fallen themselves, whether they had been given some other Revelation or other "dispensation" of salvation from us, etc.

If the angels can exist as a separate spiritual "race" with a somewhat different dispensation, I see no reason why aliens with bodies couldn't also exist. Tolkein, as a "sub-creator" in fiction, imagined a possible world with many races on earth with different dispensations from God, and Aquinas even seems to hold out the possibility that God could have incarnated more than once, or in a Person other than the Son (or even two or three of the persons taking on the same created nature; see questions 5, 6, and 7 especially.)

So, really, who knows. Likely they'd be so far away that barring something like the invention of a real hyperdrive, we'd never actually meet before Judgement Day (and, if they're out there, won't we all be so surprised, to find out we were not alone after all, to meet our brothers after all those vast eons!) Though, surely, if it did happen, First Contact would be the most important event in [secular] history if it happened, and would probably constitute a massive paradigm shift and revolution in consciousness for many people (in a way that might threaten religion and have other massively unexpected results, so we should prepare).

However, lately I've been thinking that I'm not even sure it is meaningful to expect "intelligent" life to be found out there in the cosmos. Not for scientific reasons (most scientists seem to expect the universe to be teeming with civilizations), but for metaphysical reasons.

A friend recently pointed out to me this salient quote from Solaris by Stanisław Lem:
We take off into the cosmos, ready for anything: for solitude, for hardship, for exhaustion, death. Modesty forbids us to say so, but there are times when we think pretty well of ourselves. And yet, if we examine it more closely, our enthusiasm turns out to be all a sham. We don't want to conquer the cosmos, we simply want to extend the boundaries of Earth to the frontiers of the cosmos. For us, such and such a planet is as arid as the Sahara, another as frozen as the North Pole, yet another as lush as the Amazon basin. We are humanitarian and chivalrous; we don't want to enslave other races, we simply want to bequeath them our values and take over their heritage in exchange. We think of ourselves as the Knights of the Holy Contact. This is another lie. We are only seeking Man. We have no need of other worlds. A single world, our own, suffices us; but we can't accept it for what it is. We are searching for an ideal image of our own world: we go in quest of a planet, a civilization superior to our own but developed on the basis of a prototype of our primeval past. At the same time, there is something inside us which we don't like to face up to, from which we try to protect ourselves, but which nevertheless remains, since we don't leave Earth in a state of primal innocence. We arrive here as we are in reality, and when the page is turned and that reality is revealed to us - that part of our reality which we would prefer to pass over in silence - then we don't like it anymore.
I've only seen the movie, but it raises the spectre of alien "intelligence" that is totally, well, unintelligible to us. Whether because it is so far "above" our own, or because it is simply different.

I am not sure there is any reason to expect that we will find life that will be mutually intelligible with us in the cosmos. Because our notion of intelligence is conditioned by our categories, which are mental, and another sort of creature may well have incomprehensible categories.

What I mean is based on some other things I've been thinking about lately related to Idealism (the philosophical school) and the knowability of God from natural reason. Like, is "number" really a feature of the external universe? Or is it just a category in how human brains organize/construct reality in a way that another species may not have? Same/different, more/less, good/bad, etc...who is to say that these dualities of human thought would be any part of the syntax of the "programming language" of extraterrestrial brains? And yet, of course, such categories, such Forms, are what render the universe intelligible to us. We simply can't think outside the limits imposed by the box of our own system of thought.

When people speak of finding extraterrestrial intelligent life, they seem to be imagining ultimately human brains just put in weird looking bodies on weird planets, but assuming that the Forms will be constant and in the end "translate" across all intelligences. For those who believe there is a God, there is some more basis for believing this, at least; it is much less clear to me why atheist scientists would make this assumption (by analogy: try to input Java code into a C++ engine.) It can be difficult even for two human cultures to be entirely mutually intelligible to one another, so why should we expect any sort of empathy or communication or mutual understanding would be possible with aliens?

So, yes, I think people are looking for Man out there. And I see no reason to expect that we will find him. We may well find life, very complex life even, and life that creates highly advanced [inorganic] "technology" (as do chimps, and bees, and termites, and human beings). But I am not sure it makes sense to expect these creatures whose brains evolved totally separate from ours will be meaningfully intelligent in the human sense we would recognize (perhaps they don't even have a concept of intelligence! Or of living vs. dead!)

I think 2001: A Space Odyssey makes this point wonderfully and hauntingly: HAL, the Artificial Intelligence, bore man's image, because it was created by man. It has super-human computing capacity, of course, but ultimately it is programmed on the model of human thought, human intelligence, human categories (and so fittingly expresses very human flaws). On the other hand, what we assume is alien life in the last simply wholly Other. There is something totally sublime as it blows our mind. It's "intelligence" cannot even really meaningfully be called that, as it is not comprehensible to us.

And why should we expect it to be?


Turmarion said...

I take it you saw the American-made, George Clooney/Steven Soderbergh version of Solaris? It was originally done in Russian by Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972. The former version is probably closer to the book, though both movies depart from it in significant ways; and Tarkovsky's version has long been considered a classic of sf moviemaking. It's available on BluRay with subtitles.

The Tarkovsky version is definitely less accessible, and more "art-film" in nature. Still, I'd recommend both versions; and I've have to say I like the latter version better.

The book is less accessible than either movie, and the central relationship between Kelvin and his wife is portrayed in much more sexist, and to my mind, less emotionally resonant terms. On the other hand, up until last year (as I just found out by Googling), the only translation available was an English translation of a French translation of the original Polish; and I've always suspected that there may have been a substantial amount lost in the double translation. Apparently a direct translation from the Polish--which I just bought for my Kindle--is now available. Apparently Lem disliked the older English translation; the new one might be worth a shot.

Anyway, the basic concept of the difficulty of communication between radically different life-forms is consistent in the book and both movies.

Another classic presentation of this problem is in Terry Carr's short story "The Dance of the Changer and the Three", which you can read in its entirety here. Anyway, I'm inclined to think that interstellar travel and/or communication between us and anyone who might be out there is never going to happen because the physics are prohibitive, even assuming they do exist and think enough like us to for communication to be possible. It's something we're not likely to find the answer to in this world.

A Sinner said...

No, actually, I've only seen the Soviet version. How presumptuous of you to "take it" though!

Turmarion said...

Mоё недоразумение! Простите! (My mistake! Sorry!)

I assumed the American version because most people haven't even heard of the Tarkovsky version. Oh, well....

James Kabala said...

I think the American version was such a box office flop that the Russian original is actually the better-known of the two.