Aug 20, 2008

Contact!

When I fly on a clear day, I often watch the ground go by and think, "What signs of intelligent life do I see from here? If I was an alien visitor how would I conclude that there are intelligent beings down there? What is an acceptable parameter for determining when some shape or design or happening can be accepted as evidence for a design rather than randomness?

This question arises in the movie Contact! Jodie Foster plays an astronomer involved with SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence). One day out of all the background noise of space she detects a different noise that resolves into numeric sequences that are repeating in a pattern beyond mere chance or random order.

I've read someone's thesis (Francis Sheaffer?) that human language proves the existence of God because, as I recall his explanation, it requires a certain transcendent view from beyond ourselves to comprehend language. I was somewhat amazed by the discovery of this essay because I had had a similar sense that language was significant just a while before. One morning, sitting quietly in my hotel room, getting ready to go to work, I heard the sound of water running in a wall and at first, while it was too faint to fully identify, it sounded like voices on the other side of the wall. That got me to thinking. Even if the water made the sounds of an entire Shakespeare play, but it only happened by chance, then it is not a sign of intelligent life. BUT if the laws of chance dictate that these sounds did not occur randomly, then it becomes a pretty good indicator that there is intelligence behind it.

Which got me to thinking - have you ever seen a word? We see these scratches on paper, or pixels on a screen but is that really what a word is? Don't these marks merely trigger some sort of signals in our brains, which then trigger even more mysterious and completely invisible thoughts and concepts and ideas and imaginings... A word (or certainly the greatest part of a word) is actually invisible. Yet so powerful.

Similarly have you ever heard a word? Again, we sense vibrations in the air which produce chemical reactions in our brains which again trigger amazing and invisible thoughts, ideas, concepts -- the mind. I find this an incredible thing.

And in a very real sense isn't it these invisible parts of words that make humans what we are?

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

--From Hamlet (I, v, 166-167)

5 comments:

david said...

You're talking about semiotics -- there's probably a Wikipedia article that can point to further reading.

Sarah said...

Fascinating. I agree there is something very special about language that is connected with human intelligence. When you think back to how and when "civilization" arose, you find speech and the written language at about the same time. After that, it was a meteoric technological rise ( and fall? watch it fall... gravity's rainbow ) to where we are now.

One of the more provocative books I have ever read is the admittedly speculative & now sort of dated "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind", by IIRC Julian Jaynes. I think you'd enjoy it, if you're not offended by his speculations about the origins of religion. :)

Sarah

Anonymous said...

Been following your blog from the beginning, it was great.

I don't think I want to fly with you.

Aluwings said...

David - thanks, I'll check that out.

Sarah - Interesting book title - I'll look for it. I'm never offended by other's opinion of religion etc.. Without free flowing honest dialogue how will we discover truth?

Anonymous - re: "I don't think I want to fly with you." Maybe you already have and lived to tell the tale ;-)

Dan said...

Personally, I think it's fun to get into these topics. Usually this type of talk is reserved until after the 4th or 5th beer though... It's a doozy of a conversation.

A well reserved and diplomatic answer to our Anonymous friend by the way ;)

Thanks also for checking out my blog. I appreciate that... The Wings Stayed On was one of my inspirations to get it started in the first place.