In their September 7th discussion on the British radio program, “Unbelievable?”, astrophysicist David Wilkinson and astronomer Mark Kidger discussed how the discovery of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe would impact Christian belief. Thoughts were exchanged regarding what life elsewhere might be like. The two commentators were in agreement that it would likely be almost unrecognizable to human beings. Life forms elsewhere may not be carbon based, would possibly communicate in ways other than sound, and may look more mineral than biological. They discussed the likelihood that much life in the universe may be primitive microbes or basic, unremarkable organisms. Others might be millions of years more evolved and advanced than humans.
Possibly one of the more imaginative authors when it came to envisioning non-human life forms was the horror author H. P. Lovecraft. In his most celebrated short story, The Call of Cthulhu, what made the creature from the story so alien was not its appearance – which though monstrously inhuman, still bore recognizable features such as bilateral symmetry, a head and four appendages. The truly alien thing about the titular character, Cthulhu, was its mind. While in a death-like stasis, this being’s powerful mind transmitted its dreams to the sensitive psyches of artists, poets, and writers the world over. The result of contact with so alien a mind was insanity. The story describes the time that Cthulhu and his kind would emerge:
“The time would be easy to know, for then mankind would have become as the Great Old Ones; free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and reveling in joy. Then the liberated Old Ones would teach them new ways to shout and kill and revel and enjoy themselves, and all the earth would flame with a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom.”
When questions regarding alien life are bandied about, the question “are humans alone in the universe?” is often used to frame the discussion. This question is very revealing about the mindset of the questioner. It is not just any life-form humans seek to contact. There are inhuman life-forms aplenty on earth; but still the question is “are humans alone in the universe?”
An old lady that lives with dozens of cats is not said to be fulfilled, but lonely – she lives alone with her cats. There is a reason Eliot freed the frogs but kept E.T.
SETI is not the search for extra-terrestrial life but rather the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence. This is a search for life forms that share an essential quality found so far only in human beings: intelligence. But what defines intelligence? Perhaps the work of Howard Gardner is an appropriate study in answer to this question.
Unsatisfied with the traditional I.Q. test as a global treatment of the concept of intelligence, Gardner formed the theory that each individual possessed a number of ways in which they perceived the world and framed their thoughts. As Gardner put it:
"…we are all able to know the world through language, logical-mathematical analysis, spatial representation, musical thinking, the use of the body to solve problems or to make things, an understanding of other individuals, and an understanding of ourselves. Where individuals differ is in the strength of these intelligences - the so-called profile of intelligences -and in the ways in which such intelligences are invoked and combined to carry out different tasks, solve diverse problems, and progress in various domains." (Gardner, 1991)
But how many of these aspects would an alien being have to share with humans in order to be categorized as “intelligent”?
In their discussion on “Unbelievable?”, Wilkinson and Kidger speculated that alien beings would most likely look nothing like humans. This eliminates the possibility that they would share the same “use of body to solve problems or to make things” as do humans. Kidger and Wilkinson also discussed how they may communicate and perceive sounds differently, which would revoke the concept that they would “know the world through language,” or have “musical thinking” in the same way that humans would. As they would be so different from humans, humans and aliens would be severely limited in their ability to understand one another.
This leaves those things which are truly universal: logical-mathematical analysis and spatial representation. Indeed, this is the kind of thing for which SETI searches. That is why the discovery of pulsars – rotating neutron stars that pulse radiation – caused such a stir in 1967. Burnell, one of the discoverers of the pulsar, says this about their initial reaction:
"…we did not really believe that we had picked up signals from another civilization, but obviously the idea had crossed our minds and we had no proof that it was an entirely natural radio emission. It is an interesting problem—if one thinks one may have detected life elsewhere in the universe, how does one announce the results responsibly?" (“Little Green Men, White Dwarfs, and Pulsars,” Burnell, 1977)
The fact that they were picking up regular, patterned, and consistent radio “pulses” immediately brought to mind the concept of intelligent communication. The universe is structured in a logical and mathematically definable way. Any life form that successfully evolves within the universe will think, behave, and communicate in logical ways in order to survive and to adapt; regardless of their chemical makeup, location, language, and body plan.
Of course behaving and communicating in patterned, logical, spatially representative ways doesn’t quite meet the robust standards humans have for sentient intelligence. Honey bees behave and communicate in such ways, but one does not have a bee as a conversation companion.
In their discussion, Kidger and Wilkinson brought forth the fact that humans are helplessly prone to anthropomorphize everything around them, from animals to plants to inanimate objects. If the universe truly is the result of a random, undesigned expansion of space and time coupled with random chemical reactions sufficiently complex to create walking, talking, thinking flesh-bags; then humans will ultimately be stymied in their search for someone in the sky to talk with. Circumstances would have to gift the alien visitors with body plans, sensory capabilities, and perception of identity very close to those of a human if any common ground were to be had. Otherwise they would be just one more animal for humans to observe and catalogue.
In his book, Lord of the Flies, author William Golding tells the story of a group of British school children stranded on a deserted island. As they struggled to survive and maintain some kind of order and civilization, they rapidly and tragically devolved into superstition and predatory behavior toward the wild pigs on the island and eventually toward one another. When they are finally rescued, the British Naval Officer who discovers them is shocked at their degraded, primitive, and animalistic state. He says that he would have expected “a better show” from British children.
When humans degrade to a might-makes-right way of behaving, and prey on one another, they are said to have become “animals.” Perhaps, then, it is worth consideration that, consciously or unconsciously, for something to meet the human standard of intelligence, people would expect it to behave in a very particular way. It would have to have a sense of “I” and of “you.” It would have to identify that “I” and “you” are equal in terms of how “we” are to be treated. In other words, the alien would also have to be a person. Far from being “free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside,” humans find that laws and morals are the very thing they use to define the “intelligence” for which they seek.
Sometimes the search through outer space is framed as a search for “alien civilizations.” A civilization is more than a mere capacity to build dwelling structures. Ants, termites, and bees do this quite efficiently. It is the ability to be civil.
The impact that discovering extra-terrestrial life might have on religion, and the nature of this life itself are entirely hypothetical. It would be improper without any evidence of such life existing to use its hypothetical existence as an argument against the existence of God, as Lawrence Krauss attempted to do in his September 21st, 2013 discussion with John Lennox on “Unbelievable?”. It is, however, fascinating to examine what the idea of “intelligence” truly entails, and how - when considered - self-awareness and mutual respect are so closely bound up in what humans expect from intelligence.