Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Does Intelligence Exist?

Does Intelligence Exist?

I was wondering about the existence of intelligent life in the universe, and my speculations took an unexpected turn. For it occurred to me that planet Earth is in the universe, so the question of intelligent life in the Universe includes the question of intelligent life on planet Earth. Is there any? The question of course includes the human race, and you, and myself.

The poet Piet Hein wrote:
will find their true perfection
in knowing all the follies of mankind
by introspection.

Am I intelligent? Looking over my life, I find plenty of evidence to support that proposition; but also plenty of evidence against it. Also, I am not qualified to judge, being biased. So really the only intelligent answer to the question of my own intelligence is for me to doubt it.

What of you and others? As near as I can tell, you are a being like me, with plenty of evidence in favor of your intelligence, and plenty of evidence against it. And again, we humans are not qualified to judge whether or not we humans are qualified to judge. So it would be intelligent of mankind for mankind to doubt the intelligence of mankind.

In theory there might one day arise artificial intelligences. But we would call a machine intelligent only if it passes the Turing Test – i.e. if it proves that it is as intelligent as we are. But are we?

What of other worlds? This brings us back to the question of intelligent life in the universe. First of all, there is the Great Silence; so we cannot tell if other life exists or not. Nor is it at all clear that intelligent life would send messages to the stars by radio signals. That might seem the intelligent way to do it, for us, but as noted above, it is not proven whether or not we are intelligent; therefore it is not proven that intelligent life, if it exists, would send radio signals. 

One might speculate on what radio messages an intelligent life form would transmit. Perhaps a chapter from the Encyclopedia Galactica; or an epic poem in praise of the beauty of  the universe; or a proof of the Riemann Hypothesis, encoded in a classical symphony. But inspection of our own planet’s radio output reveals neither one page of galactic wisdom, nor one word of cosmic poetry, nor a single note from the Riemann Symphony. Would we recognize such transmissions were we to receive them? 

Perhaps a truly intelligent life form wouldn’t transmit at all, in order to avoid drawing unwanted attention.

Were we to start receiving radio messages from the stars, I speculate that those signals would, like those emanating from Earth, obey Sturgeon’s Law; 90% crud. It would be mostly their equivalent of boasts, threats, and lies, with only the occasional glint of sense. So they too would present evidence for their intelligence, and evidence against it; leaving the question indeterminate.

Perhaps this is too materialistic. Perhaps there are higher dimensions of being, within which intelligence resides. But there too a Great Silence intervenes, leaving the very existence of those higher beings in doubt. Also, any such being intelligible to us would, to that extent at least, have intelligence on par with ours; but there is no proof that we are intelligent, so there would be no proof that they are either. And were we to seek evidence, well there are plenty of reports, but they conflict, which leaves the matter in doubt.

Collectively those reports clash; individually they invariably display a strange confusion, euphemistically called mystical. If you inspect any particular scripture, in any particular way, for long enough, then it will offer plenty of evidence that God is intelligent; but it will also offer plenty of evidence that God is not intelligent. So again the question remains indeterminate.

So I look within for intelligence, but I end up unsure whether or not it’s there. Then I look all over planet Earth for intelligence, with the same result. The aliens and the angels both score a tie for me; as does God. Maybe it’s just me, but in any case my search for intelligence has so far found no proof that it exists.

Given such uncertainty, doubt is the only logical conclusion. I therefore deduce that the only intelligent response to the question:
“Does intelligence exist?”
“I don’t know!”

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