I was reading a blog post yesterday over at the Sensuous Curmudgeon which was about this article here, which combines biblical fundamentalism with SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. In the interest of full disclosure, I have at times run the SETI@Home screensaver that crunches data for them. I think it is an interesting project, but probably not as important as finding a cure for cancer. The blog post from SC got me thinking about a common problem that SETI and most of humanity share. And that is: if you look for a being with advanced intelligence that you can’t actually see, will you know if you have found it?
This is not a trivial problem either for SETI or for anyone who believes in some kind of personal god or other supernatural being.
In the case of SETI, using our current understanding of science they are searching the electromagnetic spectrum (for sake of simplicity, radio waves) for patterns that would indicate some kind of intentionality against the background noise. The earth has been giving off such signals for about 100 years now. So, we know what that pattern would look like if we ran across it. We can make some theoretical guesses as to what other kinds of patterns might exist and search for those as well.
But what we cannot do is search for signals in areas that exceed our current understanding of physics and information theory. We cannot even imagine on what basis there might be other forms of communication. Perhaps we are awash in signals from the “subether” (as Hitchhiker’s Guide put it) but we have no idea what the subether IS! Imagine that a thumbdrive ($6 from OfficeMax) fell through a time warp into Benjamin Franklin’s hands. Now, Ben was a pretty smart guy, but how in the world would he possibly conclude that such a thing was full of information? Arthur C. Clarke quipped that, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Of course, it would help if the aliens wanted to communicate with us. Presumably with their advanced technology they could figure out our communication system and try to communicate with us in a way that we could understand. But even then, we have no idea, it might be like us trying to communicate with ants. Even if we could influence their behavior in some way, can we understand what an ant is thinking and can they possibly understand what we are thinking? We could well have the same issue with alien beings. The movie depiction of humanoid creatures with somewhat similar psyches to ours is is possible, but we can’t even imagine the possibilities of what alien life might be like.
In the same way, we toss around conceptions of what god might be like and we use really big words, but we are limited in what we can imagine about such a being. We toss around terms like “eternal” but I think we have no concept of what they would mean if literally true. Our universe has been in existence for some 14 billion years. But this isn’t even a long Saturday afternoon to an eternal being. Does such a being experience time passing? Does it pass at the same rate as it does for us? Does such a being get bored? This being could well be on his 15th such universe — and it STILL is just a long Saturday afternoon. He could be on his millionth — OK, you get the idea.
Now, presumably, a personal god would WANT to communicate with us and if he is in fact all powerful and all knowing, I suppose that he could. It is clear that he would understand us (if he is in fact all those omni things) but it is not at all clear that we would understand him. In this case, we are the ants. And this is a case where we run into a slight problem with the “all-powerful” thing. It is sort of like the old, “can god make a rock so big that he can’t lift it.” How can he possibly make us understand his “omni-ness” with our semi-evolved brains. The only way to truly understand the mind of god is to have a mind similar to god’s. Clearly we don’t have any kind of “omni” powers, especially in intellect. How many light years are we away from understanding the mind of an omni-god?
Now, one mistake that we (atheists and humans) make is to think that we can somehow figure out what would and would not make sense for an omni-god. It is certainly possible that such a being could dictate the bible. Engrave stone tablets. Raise people from the dead. And all of that. And he could have perfectly logical (in his logic, not ours) reasons for doing those things.
For example, we look around at creation and say, “Isn’t this marvelous?” And I suppose it is, but we can’t even imagine what the alternatives might be. Why couldn’t the omni-god create us to not have to eat? Just get our energy straight from the sun in some way. Why talk and read and write, why not communicate by brain waves? If we could move around by levitation I might be more inclined to believe that we had been created. If a Yugo were to fall through a time warp and land 100 years ago, they would think it a miracle of automotive design.
Again, I know I am violating my own idea of not trying to out think an omni-god, but his alleged action really are hard to fathom. He creates an entire universe to come down to show himself to one iron age tribe in the desert. He ignores China, India and Macedonia. Maybe he likes an underdog? Even though he from time to time physically appeared to them, they have a habit of seeking out other gods. So he punishes them by having other tribes invade them. Seems rather small minded for the all powerful creator of the universe.
And then he dictates a book which is to be for all time. Apparently he doesn’t get involved with the final editing of the book, as it is filled with many errors and contradictions. At the very least it seems that people slipped in a few stories that reflected local political squabbles rather than universal moral and ethical issues. And it also seems that he left out tons of useful information that might have been nice to know. Like maybe the germ theory of disease, for example. The bible certainly is an interesting book for an all powerful being to have created, to say the least.
What should be in the book, we can’t even begin imagine. No matter how far we stretch our imaginations we probably can’t within one percent of the mind of an omni-god. And yet there are those among us who seem think this omni-god has explained to us everything he knows and that we have understood that instruction perfectly.
That seems like the ultimate in hubris to me.