Could you tell the difference…

by John Armstrong

I am a big fan of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.  SETI‘s job is to search for artificial – dare I say “designed” – signals in the Universe.  To probe the cosmos for any hint of intelligence, some artifact in nature that clearly indicates the existence of another creative species like us.

I’m teaching an honors astrobiology course this term, and the students – much to my joy – chose to study Carl Sagan’s Contact for our final projects.  During the last several weeks, we’ve been reading the book, watching the movie, solving Fermi problems about the number of civilizations and the cost of interstellar communication and transportation.  We’ve been asking the question “Are we alone?” and finding that the answer is really, really important.  If ETI are common, perhaps there is some hope for us.  If they aren’t there, then…well, then what?

We’ve spent a lot of time discussing the implications of “contact” on society.  The answers range from “Incredible” to “None”.  From “Independence Day” to “District 9”.  Would it change your life?  And, if not, what scientific result ever could?

As a final project, students can choose to write about ETI in a number of ways.  They can choose a position paper or a research paper.  They can write a poem or a story.  They can choose to write a feature article for a magazine.  But my favorite is the interview/survey.  Several of my students want to ask other people questions about ETI and probe their responses, relating those back to the impact on our society.

One student will survey clergy from various denominations in the area to see if “The Signal”, scientifically realized, would be distinguishable from a message from God.  What would convince them?  The content of the message?  The method of delivery?  As I think about it, this is an important question.

Consider: the world’s religions have been receiving signals from space for thousands of years.  They may have come in the form of blind oracles or a burning bush, but the message is clearly from “beyond”.  How are radio signals from space distinguishable, for your average person, from a statue that bleeds?  Does it come down to an evaluation of the data?  Are we to expect people to “believe” scientists because we can show them wiggly lines on a graph?  How, as a nonscientist, can you tell the difference?

As a kid, I became enamored with the idea that God (or, earlier, gods) were really aliens from another planet visiting Earth.  This made a lot of sense to my little kid mind.  Interstellar space travel is very hard, so they visited 10,000 years ago, and we interpreted their visits from the animistic perspective.  The visited 5,000 years ago, and we saw them as gods from on high, interacting directly with humans.  A couple (or perhaps just one) visited 2,000 years ago.  Even as a kid in junior high, when I read in Exodus God’s commandment to “not have any other gods before me”, that implied that there must be other gods.  And these gods were other aliens.

Crazy, I know.  As I got older, and learned about scientific exploration, I found it more likely that humans just made up stories about gods and God, in order to help us understand the Universe.  That is a much simpler explanation.

But, if tomorrow – or Thursday, during NASA’s big press conference – the signal finally came from “on high”, is it really simpler to attribute it to an alien species?  Or would it be far more likely, in the mind of 90% of the people on the planet, that the message came from “God”.

And how on Earth would you convince them otherwise?

2 responses to “Could you tell the difference…

  1. I’m delighted with the issue of distinguishing between artificial intelligence and god, not to mention something else. (Not knowing how evolution could go in other places, I imagine that some non-self aware life form could produce something we might recognize as “intelligent,” even though it might simply be lucky. Hmmmm . . . I wonder if there’s a difference.) Anxious to see the results your students come up with.
    Also really like the admission that gods and aliens could be one in the same. I now remember similar notions, but I won’t admit to them.
    Finally, I think the issue of how to describe to the nonscientist how we think about data, evaluate it, make sense of it, etc. is the heart of most of our problems. It’s why we have general education, I think, and it’s also why they seem to fall so short in most cases. (Your class is a notable exception and a model for others.)

  2. It probably depends on what the aliens have to say! 😉

    If they say, ‘Thou shalt only be kind to pink people’, most people will think the aliens are gods.

    If they say, ‘Do you like cream soda? Cause we really like cream soda!’, most people will probably think the aliens are us.

    And if they say, ‘1, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17…’, most people will think the aliens are aliens. Because only weirdo aliens know about prime numbers!

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