OF CLOTHES DRYERS, MOUNT RUSHMORE, AND PRIME NUMBERS
The folks at SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) have done some thinking along the lines of what constitutes signs of intelligence. They are searching for extraterrestrial life, as opposed to God, but they have to deal with the same problem set. How would they recognize communication from outer space if they saw or heard it?
Some of their thinking is brought out in the movie Contact. In one scene, the character played by Jodie Foster spends the evening listening to her dryer (presumably Blockbuster was closed). But there is a method to her apparent madness. She is trying to train her ears so that she will be able to recognize intelligent radio signals from outer space, filtering out the zillion random signals produced by all manner of objects in the cosmos.
A clothes dryer produces a certain level of mechanical rhythm; its noise actually has a level of design, sort of like that of a snowflake. But that noise (especially when you have sneakers thumping around in there) represents a type of design that nonintelligence (that is, nature) can produce.
How can we tell the difference between design that occurs naturally and intelligent design?
Let’s say we’ve headed out to Vegas, and along the way, we come upon a bizarre rock formation. I say, “Hey, look at the erosion on that rock. It looks kind of like Richard Nixon when the Watergate tapes were made public.” You, on the other hand, think it looks like Vladimir Putin eating scrambled eggs. We agree to disagree, but we both note that the forces of erosion made something that looks a bit like a product of intelligent design.
Now, as we drive farther, we come to Mount Rushmore. Seeing it for the first time, I am amazed. I say, “Wow, look at the erosion on those rocks. It looks just like three presidents I recognize and some guy wearing glasses.” You rightly call me an idiot, not only because you know who Teddy Roosevelt is, but also because it is obvious by the way the stone is cut and the extraordinary degree of design that this is the product of intelligent craftsmen—ones who apparently have no fear of heights. But there must be a more scientific way to differentiate between these two levels of design: one that can be produced by nature and one that can’t.
Later on in the movie Contact, the scientists receive radio waves at the sequence of 1,126 beats and pauses. The sequence, they deduce, represents the prime numbers 2 through 101. It becomes doubtful that random radio waves could emit such a sequence, thus they presume they have made contact.
This is a more scientific way of differentiating between two different orders of design. It is commonly called CSI. This acronym has nothing to do with a popular TV show. It stands for “complex, specified information.”
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