Ask Dr. SETI ®
by Dan Duda
from the April, 2014 issue of Penn Central,
the monthly newsletter of Central PA Mensa,
used by permission
"Look again at that pale blue dot...The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena... There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly or human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world." - Carl Sagan, Pale Blue DotIt's my personal feeling that the conceit of anthropocentrism still permeates much of scientific thinking today. Now, I have a deep respect for SETI and their mission, but I feel that their target may be too narrow. Their primary focus is "life as we know it" (LAWKI). And, of course, this is expanded to include the likely possibility that there may be life forms that deviate from what we might "know" or expect. From this, SETI searches for signals that may emanate from one or more of these prospective citizens of the universe that may have developed technology sufficiently advanced to signal their existence to us. So far, so good.
Now, in previous articles I've discussed the possibility, stated by many leading cosmologists, particle physicists, and other scientists, that the universe itself may have a consciousness of sorts. "... our knowledge of the universe is not something separate from the universe; it is part of the universe. Thus, for humans to know the universe is for the universe to know itself. As Carl Sagan put it, "Humans are the stuff of the cosmos examining itself." (Psychology Today, 4/30/2010) The quoted article speculates that the universe, somehow, has intentionally "engineered" consciousness into humans to foster awareness of itself.
The human body is a metaphor for a conscious universe. Take a living cell, for example, in our heart that acts in a way to help maintain a much larger life form - us. Does that cell really understand its mission or its role? Not likely. But somehow it has evolved and been motivated to perform its task, to our benefit. Might we be in a similar situation? Could we have been deliberately "engineered" to perform a function that we don't fully comprehend?
As far back as human history has been recorded it's clear that we have wondered about the meaning of our existence. The more we learn about our planet, the solar system, the galaxy and beyond, the more thrilled and confused we are about answers to the fundamental questions. Are we alone? What's it all about? Where did we come from and where are we going? Does anything really matter? It seems that this speculation is engineered into us as well.
OK, back to SETI. I'd like to see a search for "life as we do not know it." For example, consider the Sun. Think about the enormous mass; the rich variety of matter; the incredible dynamics, all beyond anything we can even comprehend. Might the Sun be alive and conscious, and maybe intelligent beyond anything we can even imagine? Could there be a way to search for this possibility - to look for life that would not emanate signals that would be naturally meaningful to us? Think about planets; the Solar System; nebula; galaxies; strings of galaxies. Consider the possibility that we are not the center of the conscious universe, but rather, part of what - the universe itself.
If we directed our search for these possibilities, what might we find? Now let's bring this discussion back to Earth. With the world population now over 7 billion and climbing rapidly, the old philosophical questions related to anthropocentrism are being transformed into very serious, real world questions about the impact of our species on this planet. The prose of Carl Sagan in the series Cosmos is haunting, and his warnings are becoming more prophetic every day. We need to carefully avoid being deceived by misinformation so that our focus and our resources can be deployed in solving real environmental issues rather than political decoys. In the immortal words of Carl Sagan, "We have arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces."
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this page last updated 7 June 2014
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