Saturday, March 10, 2012

Man's Uniqueness

Years ago Nobel Prize winning physicist Enrico Fermi introduced something called the Fermi Paradox. He wondered why, if the probability of life being common in the universe is so high, we don't find evidence of it anywhere but on earth. Tom Bethell explores that very question in an article in the Washington Times. Bethell begins with this puzzling fact:
Almost daily there are new reports of distant planets. They may outnumber the 100 billion stars in our galaxy. What we’re looking for, of course, is extraterrestrial intelligence, not just orbiting rocks. But nothing has been found. The silence in outer space “is maddening,” Charles Krauthammer has written. It “makes no sense.”

One of the great dogmas of our age is that there is nothing unusual about the human race. We are told that only in degree do we differ from the apes. The belief that nature and human nature form a continuum came to prominence with Charles Darwin, whose avowed aim was to bring man and nature “under one point of view.”

Yet the evidence for that continuum is still missing - despite a search that has persisted for over a century.

If humans are not exceptional, intelligence at the human level should be widespread and easily detected. But we are still looking. We have still not been able to find any trace of the intelligence that children display by the age of 3.

The Hubble telescope searches outer space; we refine our machines, add “memory” to our computers. Maybe one day they will become conscious. We coax chimpanzees in animal labs. Perhaps one day they will speak. Still nothing.

Fifty years ago, a mathematical exercise called the Drake Equation posited that extraterrestrial civilizations should be numerous. Carl Sagan thought there might be a million advanced civilizations in our own galaxy. But the numbers in the Drake Equation were guesses, and they were skewed by Sagan himself. They deliberately boosted the odds that life can arise by chance from non-life. As far as we know, life has only appeared here, and perhaps not by chance.

The quest for artificial intelligence (AI) began in earnest at about the same time. A conference at Dartmouth College in 1956 was organized by mathematicians John McCarthy and Marvin Minsky. The problem of creating artificial intelligence would be solved within a few years, they believed. It took much longer than that for failed experiments to show that the world of human intelligence can’t be reduced to math.
Like the search for extraterrestrial life, the development of artificial intelligence seems to have stalled. Likewise, the quest to develop language in apes seems to have hit a wall. Man still stands, as far as we know, as a unique being in all of the cosmos. Some find this galling.

They consider it laughably chauvinistic and anthropocentric to think that perhaps in all the universe we are the only living, intelligent, conscious beings. Sagan derided “our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe.” It must be frustrating to those who follow Sagan's thinking that almost every scientific discovery, and non-discovery, seems to conform to this delusional prejudice.

Perhaps the evidence is out there that intelligence, reason, consciousness, and life are commonplace in the cosmos, but the expectation that it'll be found seems to grow dimmer every year. And if it turns out that we and our planet really are unique then that raises some fascinating "how and why" questions.

I suspect that part of what motivates people like Sagan to find life elsewhere is a desire to avoid those very questions. Perhaps they don't like where they see them leading.

I'm reminded of the lines by the late Robert Jastrow, an astronomer who authored God and the Astronomers. Jastrow wrote:
The scientist has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he's greeted by a band of theologians who've been sitting there for centuries.
I imagine that would be irritating.