February 6, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

Intelligence as a Cosmic Reality

The “I” in SETI takes “Intelligence” seriously.  It requires that intelligence is a recognizable, quantifiable property of nature.  The origin of intelligence is a question that separates theists from materialists – whether it is a fundamental or emergent property.  Before engaging that question, it might be instructive to see how scientists who are not necessarily theists are regarding it.

  1. SETI protocol:  The Arecibo Message beamed to the stars in 1974 was a binary encoded stream of bits.  Subsequent messages have included graphical depictions of humans, and catalogs of human science and art.  PhysOrg recalled those attempts at communication with other intelligences and asked what would be the most likely protocol that aliens would recognize as intelligent on the receiving end.  This is the study of METI: messaging to extra-terrestrial intelligence.
        METI includes considerations of how to maximize communication effectively at the lowest cost.  What good would an engraving of human forms be for aliens without eyes?  An international team, PhysOrg reported, considered factors like “signal encoding, message length, information content, anthropocentrism, transmission method, and transmission periodicity” for an upcoming report in Space Policy.  Their current recommendation is to concentrate on “short, simple messages with minimal anthropocentrism, and which rely on simple physical or mathematical language….”
        “The scientists also emphasize that searching for and attempting to communicate with extraterrestrials is as much about understanding ourselves as it is about finding aliens,” the press release continued.  We need, in other words, to understand human intelligence.  The only way we have to calibrate a test message, though, is to try it on other human beings with other cultures and languages.  Whatever they decide to send for the next broadcast from Earth, they must assume intelligence is real at both the sending and receiving end.
  2. Universal intelligence:  Science Daily expanded the concept with an article, “On the hunt for universal intelligence.”  The question is, “How do you use a scientific method to measure the intelligence of a human being, an animal, a machine or an extra-terrestrial?”  To plumb that question, Spanish and Australian AI researchers (artificial intelligence) devised a new intelligence test to replace the historic Turing Test that Allan Turing developed in 1950 to demonstrate intelligence in machines.  Their new “Anytime Universal Intelligence” test that “can be applied to any subject – whether biological or not – at any point in its development (child or adult, for example), for any system now or in the future, and with any level of intelligence or speed.”  Their model measures Kolmogorov Complexity, “the number of computational resources needed to describe an object or a piece of information,” yet they admit this is a first step in an ongoing evaluation of intelligence.
  3. Language efficiency:  Philip Ball at Nature News reported on a new proposal in linguistics at MIT theorizing that longer words carry more information.  In contrast to a 1930-era model by George Kingsley Zipf that language speakers seek to minimize time and effort when speaking, Steven Piantadosi and colleagues propose that “to convey a given amount of information, it is more efficient to shorten the least informative – and therefore the most predictable – words, rather than the most frequent ones.”  While not speaking of intelligence directly, this article overlaps with the means of communication between intelligent agents.  The words informative and predictable presuppose intelligences able to discriminate those factors using abstract reasoning.
  4. Mind matters:  At the threshold of mind and matter, neuroscientists continue to probe how intelligence is mediated by the physical brain.  PhysOrg reported on experiments at the University of Sydney’s Centre for the Mind that seemed to indicate electrical stimulation of the anterior temporal lobe produced “flashes of insight” that might lead to an “electronic thinking cap” some day.  Neuroscientists at New York University found, according to Science Daily, that memory storage and reactivation is “more complex than thought.”  Experiments on lab rats showed that “different effects of specifically inhibiting the initiation of protein synthesis on memory consolidation and reconsolidation, making clear these two processes have greater variation than previously thought.”
        Memory, however is a tool of mind, not mind itself – if the distinction is more than academic.  No SETI researcher, however, is expecting lab rats to attempt purposeful communication with alien civilizations.  If memory is more complex than thought, thought is also more complex than memory.

Intelligence is a concept that overlaps the fringes of many sciences.  Researchers in neuroscience, artificial intelligence, linguistics, information theory, cryptography, SETI and communications all assume intelligence is real, but like life, have a difficult time defining it (01/16/2011).  While using the term as applied to birds, rats, machines or aliens, there is something about human intelligence that yearns to communicate – not just for food or sex, or as a response to a stimulus or program – but for understanding at a deep level.  Is that just more of the same as observed in animals?  And can such longings, while making use of atoms (as in brain memory centers), be reduced to atoms?

These are deep questions that have not been exhausted by philosophers despite millennia of trying.  But when you use your intelligence to define intelligence, or think about thinking, who is acting?  While intelligence is somewhat quantifiable in birds or dolphins or apes, our self-consciousness as beings, as persons, able to communicate and desiring communication with others, is unheard of in the animal kingdom.  Unlike bird chirps and ape grunts, we speak with meaning (semantics) using complex syntax, referring to abstractions in the conceptual realm.  We use codes and references.  We write philosophy books and symphonies with no survival value.  We can communicate the same message through entirely different physical media.
    Perhaps the better question is the search for extra-terrestrial personality.  Like the fire triangle (heat, oxygen, fuel), the triad of personality – intellect, emotions, and will – lights the fire of communication as only intelligent persons experience it.  It is doubtful today’s human SETI staff would be particularly thrilled if future intelligent robots made contact with alien robots, intelligent as they might be.  Even if emotions and will were programmed into the robots, we would recognize the robots to be just carrying out the program.  Similarly, if our self-conscious intelligence is to be accepted as real as we know it to be deep in our souls, it cannot be just executing a genetic program.
    If intelligence were an epiphenomenon of matter in motion, no scientist could ever know that to be true.  Truth implies morality (honesty).  If morality is also an epiphenomenon of matter in motion, the materialist soon multiplies epiphenomena upon epiphenomena, reducing his explanation to ghost stories.  The only self-consistent explanation for intelligence, personality, and truth is that they derive from a Creator who is intelligent, personal, and true: I AM.

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