A Higher Intelligence

Occasionally you will hear the term “a higher intelligence” used to invoke a deity by categorical designation rather than by naming names. The clear implication is that this supreme being (another term of art) is smarter than we are, which certainly ought be true, assuming there is one. However, the term might have proved puzzling to the ancient Semitic tribes who modeled their deity – the one we are most familiar with -- after Middle Eastern potentates. You will find no such designation in the Bible – or, for that matter, in the Koran. Among divine attributes, intelligence has only lately migrated to the head from the heart, where it was more commonly known as wisdom.

The 19th-century German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach observed that we tend to create gods in our own image, which I think is true even if there is a God who exists apart from our conception of him. How can we – who, after all, believe we are created in God’s image --understand him in any way other through than our understanding of ourselves? Feuerbach, an atheist unburdened by the usual pieties, wrote, “God is man writ large.” So in a scientific age that extols human intellect, it is not surprising that God should be conceived of as a pretty smart cookie. Even scientists who are generally dismissive of a personal God will concede that there are numerous signs of intelligence in the universe. “Why is nature constructed along these lines?” wondered the physicist Paul Dirac, another professed atheist. “One could perhaps describe the situation by saying that God is a mathematician of a very high order, and he used very advanced mathematics in constructing the universe.”

Of course, merely pointing to patterns and complexity in nature doesn’t necessarily constitute evidence of a higher intelligence at work, particularly since many in the scientific community would stoutly deny there is any purpose behind natural phenomena. So perhaps we should start by asking what we mean by intelligence. Most of us would say we know it when we see it, but it turns out that unequivocal evidence of a higher intelligence is surprisingly hard to nail down.

This quickly becomes apparent when we contemplate communication with intelligent beings other than ourselves. Like God himself, we don’t really know if such creatures actually exist. We just know there are hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy alone, many with habitable planets circling around them, and billions more galaxies beyond that. It’s increasingly hard to believe we are alone in the universe, so how do we make contact with other advanced civilizations, some of which may be thousands or even millions of years older than our own?

Physicist and mathematician Stephen Wolfram, who served as consultant on the alien encounter film Arrival has given careful thought to this problem. He has concluded that it is virtually impossible to devise a message that communicates meaning or knowledge outside a particular cultural context that would be comprehensible to extraterrestrial beings who are radically different from us. Start with the fact there are languages from human antiquity that have not been deciphered, never mind from an alien civilization. How could you decipher an alien language if there is no equivalent of a Rosetta Stone containing common cultural references?

Suppose we use a “universal” language like mathematics that should be comprehensible to any advanced civilization, regardless of cultural context. Yes, but how do we communicate mathematically? Arab numerals are out for the same reason as any other written or spoken language. What about precise geometric shapes? The philosopher Emmanuel Kant once argued that if you came upon a hexagon drawn in the sand on an uninhabited island, you would have to rule out natural causes. Kant would not have been aware of the hexagonal cloud pattern, three times the circumference of the earth, at Saturn’s north pole -- nor apparently the perfect hexagonal shape of honeycomb cells. The fact is that geometric shapes abound in nature, whether it is spherical planets with their elliptical orbits, the perfect spirals of the Nautilus shell or pinecone, the triangular shape of ruby or amethyst crystals or even the rectangles in pyrite or common table salt. Wolfram suggested, for the sake of argument, that we might use cellular automata to generate complex geometric patterns from relatively simple, well-defined rules. But he immediately acknowledged there are plenty of natural processes that produce similarly elaborate patterns.

If patterns and complexity per se don’t constitute evidence of a higher intelligence at work, what does? Leaving aside communications with alien civilizations, how would we know the universe in which we live is the work of an intelligent entity? Not if it arose by happenstance, as many in the scientific community insist. But if there were some purpose behind the whole thing, then happenstance becomes something else altogether. Einstein, for one, believed the universe “reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection." Why did he think this? Because he, like Dirac, was astonished to discover that even the most complex natural phenomena could be expressed mathematically. He wondered, “How is it possible that mathematics, a product of human thought that is independent of experience, fits so excellently the objects of physical reality?”

Rather than try to uncover some grand underlying purpose to the universe, I would come at it from the opposite direction and show that things don’t just happen at random. I would start with the anthropic principle, which is the discovery that the universe is precisely calibrated to make life possible. There are some three dozen physical constants that must be just so for life to emerge at all, among them the force of gravity, the mass of the proton and the cosmological constant. What are the odds? Vanishingly small, as it turns out -- so improbable that the astronomer Fred Hoyle, a onetime atheist himself, became a believer when he realized the odds had been so overwhelmingly stacked in our favor from the beginning. He commented, “A common-sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super intellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature.”

Most improbable of all is that carbon-based life forms arose from a universe that initially was made up entirely of hydrogen and helium atoms. As it happened, Hoyle played a pivotal role in figuring out how heavier elements like carbon emerged from the crucible of the stars. The synthesis of carbon atoms required the near-simultaneous collision of three helium nuclei at extremely hot temperatures under very exacting conditions. He figured out that this only would only happen if the energy state of carbon 12 exactly equaled the energy of the three helium nuclei, which proved to be the case. What were the odds of that? Never mind that self-replicating molecules arose from inorganic matter by a process that we haven’t begun to understand. Or that microorganisms evolved into creatures that believe themselves to be created in the image of God. Toward what end? Perhaps to the discovery that this God is a mathematician of a very high order, and the only way we appreciate that is if we ourselves can do the math.

Stephen Wolfram, "How to Design Beacons for Humanity's Afterlife," Wired, January 31, 2018

© Copyright 2004-2022 by Eric Rennie
All Rights Reserved