I would like to take a different spin on this subject. If we wish to talk about the “possibility” of other “intelligent life” in this universe, sure, it is possible. There is no need to debate on or discuss the “possibility” of something existing or happening. Just as it is possible to win the Powerball jackpot by blind-folding myself and throwing darts at the lotto coupons using my foot while doing a handstand, and choosing the numbers that the darts pierce. AND winning 5 times in a row. Heck, that is POSSIBLE, but very very very improbable. You know, actually there is a better example. How about winning the jackpot 5 times in a row with the numbers 1,2,3,4,5,6? Just how likely is that? But still possible.
OK, that’s as far as “possible” is concerned. How about those two other words: “intelligent” and “life.”
Life. Can we say what is life? Or what is alive and what isn’t? Is a virus alive? It has some, but not all, the characteristics of a living being. I once “heard” Dr Stephen Hawking suggest that even a computer virus might be considered a living thing. Because for one thing, it can and will replicate itself.
So, when we go looking for life elsewhere in the universe, will we know when we stumble upon it? What if we saw a cloud-like thing that seems to move, breaks into smaller pieces that seem to grow, consumes energy, expels waste, and move away from us as though it perceives us as a threat? It seems to exhibit the characteristics of a living thing, but how do we know that it is not just an inanimate vapor that is responding to physical forces?
What if we jump ahead to the future, say, 150 years from now, and came face to face with a cyborg (cybernetic organism) not unlike what we saw in the “Terminator” series of movies? Now, the terminators in the movies did not and could not reproduce like we humans do, but what if the cyborgs in the future could make copies of themselves? Wouldn’t that be considered reproduction? Who are we to say yes or no? “Life” as explained in biology textbooks is only defined by what most scientists consider to be “life.” It is a definition that is decided upon by general consensus. But it is not an absolute definition. We cannot give an absolute definition because we don’t have absolute knowledge.
Not only that, but when it comes to life, we hardly can say what is alive and what isn’t because we did not invent life. We don’t really know what it is. We can talk about it, study it, and even manipulate it. Even end it. But we cannot give it and create it. And we don’t really know what it is. So how can we say what is life, what is alive and what is not? We can’t.
The last word to look at is “intelligent.” This one is so simple that it makes me want to laugh and cry at the same time. Who are we to say what is intelligent and what is not?
To our own ultimate downfall, we seem to set everything else to our standard of intelligence. Meaning, anything that is significantly less intelligent that us is deemed “not intelligent.” Like a blade of grass, for example. Unless you’re speaking of biological intelligence, that is. That blade of grass can grow back if it is cut. It absorbs moisture, breathes in carbon doxide and expires oxygen. In that sense it is intelligent.
But a light bulb is not intelligent. Unless it is a “smart lamp” which saves energy. But we’re not talking about that kind of intelligence.
So, what kind of intelligence are we talking about? When explorers go to Mars and find a worm whose main thrust in life is to eat dirt and excrete faeces and find more dirt to eat, can we break open the champagne?
At the other extreme, we may encounter beings so intelligent that they will be able to hide themselves from us. Or I could put it the other way around: We are so stupid compared to them that we won’t know even recognize their presence. Our instruments may tell us that there is life right under our noses, but it does not seem to be intelligent because it is not communicating or responding. Let me give you an illustration.
This really happened. One day a friend came to visit. As usual, the dog became excited and began wagging its tail, yapping, etc. Now, David had not come into the house yet, and stood outside with the gate between the dog and him. David and I decided to play a trick with the dog. He slowly squated down and continued to look at the dog which continued being excited. But David did not respond. He kept very still and quiet. Gradually the dog quietened down and eventually went to lie down somewhere else. It must’ve thought, “That thing sure is stupid; I communicated so clearly with it, and yet it did not respond. I’m sure it was alive; I could smell its breath and its sweat, feel its body heat, hear its heart beat. It sure was alive, but apparently it did not have the intelligence to respond or even to understand that I was trying to make friends with it.”
You see, a more intelligent (very much more intelligent) being could very well behave in the same way (as David, not the dog). Why? Well, maybe because it could? Maybe because it had its own personal reasons? Maybe because it did not see any point in communicating with us? After all, it would be much more intelligent than we, and I’m sure because of that it would have very good reasons not to respond to us or even to make known to us its presence. Although we might detect its presence. (But then again, we might not be able to detect its presence because our instruments would be tuned to detect life as we define it, and not necessarily life as it is.)
So, once again, is there a possibility of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe? It all depends on how we define “intelligent life.” In other words, it depends on what we are looking for. Possible? Sure. The better question is, “How probable?” But given the vastness of the universe, it should not be too improbable to exist at least a virus-like thing that exhibits some form of life and intelligence. On the other extreme, we could encounter a life form so advanced and intelligent that we are considered by it too un-intelligent to make contact with. And, of course, we’d be too stupid to even know it’s there.