Touching The Limits Of Knowledge

Cosmology and our View of the World


Life in the Universe
Mike DeLone and Mike Wills


Summary by Steve Pirnie

Life in the Universe

A handout was given to the class outlining some of the major concepts that were covered in some reading that that presenters did. It posed some interesting questions, some of which where discussed in class. This is a brief summary of what it discussed.

  1. Planets may have life, but that does not necessarily mean that these life forms are intelligent like us
  2. Different forms of intelligence can be found in humans and animals on earth. While there may be ETI out there, perhaps their intelligence only allows them to walk and talk. This may also mean that this intelligence is more advanced.
  3. Life is able to exist on earth because of our large moon, which has had a stabilizing effect.
  4. That the question is not whether intelligent life exists elsewhere, but why does it exist here?]
  5. The discovery of fossils somewhere else (Mars, for example) would suggest that many planets within our universe are inhabited
  6. Does intelligent life in the universe reason like we do? Perhaps they reason in completely different ways and we are unique in that aspect.
  7. What about moral decisions? Will ET’s morals be like ours or entirely different?
  8. Supposing ET’s are moral creatures, will they be angelic, demonic, or conflicted, much like us?
  9. Do ET’s hope like we do?
  10. Russell theorizes that ET’s will be much like us, “seeking the good, beset by failures, and open to the grace and forgiveness and new life that God offers all God’s creatures, here or way out there.”

Two sites that the presenters mentioned were
This is a website advocating the release of classified government records which the authors feel point toward the existence of extra-terrestrial life.

The discussion began with the question of what makes Earth so special. Professor Davis read a passage, which explained why the moon may be important to the stability of the earth’s orbit. He pointed out that the moon stabilizes the axis of the earth, so that it doesn’t change radically and lead to extreme changes in condition. In this way, seasons are determined by wobble of the axis of the earth, not how far the planet is away from the star.

The discussion next moved to the question of a creator. Does life necessarily mean that there is a creator? Is it possible for life to spontaneously appear? What about artificial intelligence, might these eventually represent a new sort of life, a silicon based life? If computers become a viable self-replicating entity, were humans their creator, and will we have created “intelligent life”? Someone also raised the question that if there is a creator, is the universe merely an experiment? None of these questions were answered, understandably, but they were interesting to discuss and ponder.

The conversation next moved to a discussion of what makes humanity’s intelligence different from all other life on the planet? Much hinges on the direct meaning of intelligence. How do we define the intelligence? Psychologists have identified 6 distinct intelligences, some of which are listed here.
Types of intelligence
Formal manipulations
Emotional intelligence
Naturalist intelligence
Perhaps language is the hallmark of intelligence. What about dolphins? They are said to be intelligent animals, but only in the standard of human definitions of intelligence. They are able to communicate verbally. DeVries argues that the ability to respond flexibly to stimuli and change behavior is the definition of intelligence. There must be some thread or theme that links all of these different types of intelligences. Perhaps flexibly appropriate behavior across very different types of situations. Nick Smith states that it is important how we define intelligence. We see intelligence as being located in the brain, but not to any part of the brain alone. His lawn seems to respond as a unit to stimuli, but he doesn’t classify it as intelligent. We need to define micro and macroscopic intelligence. On the brain or planet scale, no intelligence, on human race scale, not very intelligent, but on the individual level there is “intelligence.” It seems that when we get to the very large or very small the idea of intelligence seems to break down. He also says that there might not be a common theme, because we haven’t had an agreement on what intelligence is.

Martin suggested that we may be searching for a life form with intelligence that we just don’t understand. This begs the question what types of intelligence would other life forms have that we wouldn’t be able to observe? ESP, perhaps? We would be able to tell that they were changing their behavior by any means that we weren’t able to detect; we would have to conclude that they had some other sensory perception. De Vries argues that having another sense is not necessarily more intelligent. That may be true, but it seems that the ability to relate an alternate intelligence with our own might be compromised if they express themselves very differently from humans. Davis brings up the suggestion that mathematics might be the universal language, e.g., sending out prime numbers might signal our intelligence. There needs to be some sort of capability of sending information and receiving information, which means that there needs to be some technological base for these capabilities.

This brings up the specifics of technologically connecting with other civilizations/organisms. How do we assume that there is other intelligence that is more or less advanced than we are? What is the possibility of them being able to receive or decode this information? Are they more or less advanced technologically? It seems that in order to receive and decode any information, the two civilizations would need to have relatively similar technology.

What if they (extraterrestrials) don’t care? What if they have the ability to receive this information, but are just not looking for other life. If they are not curious, they might get the information and say “whatever.” We make assumptions that because we are interested in finding other life, then they must be, or even that it is probable. Science is human’s curiosity, and we wouldn’t have all the technology we do if we weren’t interested in expanding borders, including looking for life outside of our universe. DJ argues that technology is born out of necessity, not in an attempt to look for life outside of our planet. He used the argument that the cotton gin was not created to search for life outside the universe. The counter argument to this statement was that theories about relativity, gravity, and other physics principles aren’t necessary, but are born out of humanities craving for knowledge, and this is the driving force behind many developments in both pure science and technology.

If there is other life out there, should we be looking? If we do find them, what should we do? How would Earth react if we knew definitively that there was extraterrestrial life? Möbius says that it might be the greatest moment of human history. Might they just show up at our doorstep? What would we do if they did.

The Drake Equation is used to estimate the possible number of planets in the universe which may have intelligent life on them. This is what the final product, N, stands for. This is what the equation itself looks like, as well as a description of the variables used in the equation.

The variables are defined as follows:
N*=# of stars
fp=fraction of stars with planets
ne= planets per star capable of sustaining life
f1=fraction of planets where life evolves
fi=fraction of f1 where life is intelligent
fc=fraction of fi that communicate
fl=life span of these civilizations (expressed as a fraction)

By carrying out the computations using varying numbers, you arrive at different numbers of intelligent civilizations. We discussed the dimensional analysis of the equation, and what the units of the term N are, however we were not able to reach a final conclusion. Some in the class thought the equation presented too many unknown variables. Others thought that these are the things that we need to define in order to make a prediction. It is not necessarily usable, but it defines the variables that are important for us to observe/measure in order to make a sound prediction. The state of these variables was discussed, and the following are generally accepted skeptical values.

N*=pretty well known
fp=most stars have planets
ne= these planets must have certain conditions
f1= who knows
fi= who knows
fc= who knows
fl= who knows

In the Ferris book, there is a passage that talks about the Drake Equation. It says that the product of the equation, when consensus values are plugged in, seems to be equal to the number of years that a civilization is capable of communicating outside of its atmosphere. Perhaps this is a better definition of the product of the Drake Equation, N. Even with very conservative estimates, there are still very large calculated numbers of intelligent civilizations. But if it is so possible for life to exist, then why haven’t we received anything from anyone? Perhaps they are all developing at the same rate, and no one else has had a chance to receive or respond. Could civilizations send out their dying breath?

What are the signals we are sending out? TV, radio, other radiation constitute the majority of what we send out. What are these things saying? SETI is just looking for signals. There was a program (Project OZMA) in which scientists sent out signals targeted at nearby stars, containing prime numbers, basic math as a starter. Are these signals getting out there? Or are they being absorbed. We are looking at things in a wide range of frequencies. We probably shouldn’t look at the common absorptive frequencies, such as the water band, because these signals will be absorbed. SETI is an optimistic program, because it goes on the precept that we will be able to communicate for X number of years, or that another civilization will be able to communicate for that length of time. The first radio signals emitted in the early 1900’s, have now traveled about 100 light years, and nobody has responded yet. In the 1960’s, specific signals were sent purposefully towards other stars. As a signal is sent out, the strength of the signal decreases with distance, and therefore by the time these signals reach a potential planet with a civilization, it is possible that they are too weak to be detected.

How easy is it for life to evolve? Really no way to know, but if it is relatively easy then the probability is high. These values are not really measurable or even appraisable, but if they have happened here, then why couldn’t intelligent life happen elsewhere? The last two variables cannot really be known. At the moment there is not enough knowledge to fill in the variables or even.

Are ET’s visiting the earth now? Davis says that there was a professor who believed that ET’s had visited the earth. If this were true, there would be no reason to search for ET when he is already here. We haven’t looked at the reasons for rejecting the claims of these people in this class. There are lots of accounts of UFOs at

Pot shots at some of the points for discussion: It is stupid to assume that ETI would reason differently than us. This can be described at an abstract level, and at that level, it cannot be completely different, because that is the reason for abstraction. There must be a process of evolution for intelligence to come to be on a planet, and therefore reason couldn’t be that different.

Is mathematics just a creation of humans? Or is it a description of the way things work; are mathematical theorems necessary truths that just describe the way that things are, at an abstract level? We can understand the world through language, and with different languages, it is still possible to understand the world at the same level as people with a different language. There is a language of mathematics, but the tenets of math won’t change, it is just a problem of figuring out the language. These tenets are common throughout the universe, because they are so basic and so abstract.