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All of us want to know the answers to the big questions about why life exists, and why we humans have the intelligence we possess.
Those questions came up in a BahaiTeachings.org reader’s questions about a series of essays inspired by an Intelligence Squared debate about God between physicists Lawrence Krauss and Ian Hutchinson and their respective cohorts, Michael Shermer and Dinesh D’souza.
The reader (whom I’m calling Marty) responded by asking me questions about the essays that I thought merited answering and sharing. His final question turned to a discussion of the very nature of life.
He took exception to a comment I made about “whether we would recognize life or not,” writing:
You mention about it (life) “not being perceptible to the senses”–but I want to point out our science already deals with things far, far, far, far outside of the realm of our natural senses … In particular, what we define as life may not necessarily be everything that could reasonably be called life. Biologists operate under a very specific definition of life, that seems essentially to echo ‘Earth life’ and furthermore a chemical substrate specifically, but I have also often wondered if that is too limiting. In particular, how ‘simple’ can a life form get?
First, I need to clarify that I said nothing about life that is “not perceptible to the senses.” I was speaking of elements or structures or energies (or whatever term you want to use) that our current means of perceiving do not allow us to see. Scientists are no strangers to that phenomenon. It is quite literally the stuff of which discoveries are made.
As a science fiction writer I deal with this theme often. Or themes, I should say, because there are two ideas here that are sometimes conflated—finding life and finding intelligence. They are not the same thing. I’ve written extensively about recognizing “alien” intelligence, though in the article, I’m addressing a broader issue: the limitations imposed on us by our own natures and senses. I previously mentioned the structures in the universe that we are unable to process visually, even with the aid of telescopes, but that suddenly spring into visible reality when we apply the appropriate optics. Our perceptions of those things change when we look at them through different filters or with a different set of criteria.
If we want to think of an entity like God as a life form, then we can stretch my comment to include that invisible entity, but I wasn’t really thinking of biological life.
“At very last,” Marty wrote, “I think it is really interesting that quote you give from the Baha’i religion about our knowledge of the universe being dependent on the observer.” Here’s the quote:
As to thy question whether the physical world is subject to any limitations, know thou that the comprehension of this matter dependeth upon the observer himself. In one sense, it is limited; in another, it is exalted beyond all limitations. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 162.
This is an idea that has taken science by storm. I have several Baha’i friends who are physicists and who have found it interesting that scientists—especially in their discipline—are recognizing more and more how the observer’s point of view determines what they will observe, to a greater or lesser extent. As a writer and as a Baha’i, I have learned that viewpoint exerts a powerful influence on our conclusions about ‘Life, the Universe, and Everything’ (to use SF writer Douglas Adams’s all-encompassing phrase). I remind myself of this frequently by mentally referring back to the story Flatland by Edwin Abbott and its metaphorical (and metaphysical) conclusion: to a two-dimensional intelligence, an arc looks like a point.
So, I wholeheartedly agree with Marty’s closing comment, which is that communication is crucial to the dialogue between people who have diverse points of view or frames of reference, and that we ought to establish, as much as possible, a common language we will use in holding those conversations.
I have frequent dialogues with people from a wide variety of backgrounds and world views. I try to be very careful with my words and to speak their language. That sometimes requires stopping to agree about the meanings of certain words.
For example, I know when I use the word ”religion” I mean something very different than the atheist or born-again Christian I may be conversing with means when he or she uses the same word. In either case, I may ask that we use the term ”dogmatism” or ”dogmatic religion” when we mean what they’re talking about and just ”religion” or ”faith” when we mean what I’m talking about. Sometimes they agree to that, sometimes they refuse and I have to find another term that expresses what I mean. If I’m unwilling to do that, I have essentially given up on communicating with that person—something I hope never to do:
Look at the world and ponder a while upon it. It unveileth the book of its own self before thine eyes and revealeth that which the Pen of thy Lord, the Fashioner, the All-Informed, hath inscribed therein. It will acquaint thee with that which is within it and upon it and will give thee such clear explanations as to make thee independent of every eloquent expounder.
Say: Nature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Its manifestations are diversified by varying causes, and in this diversity there are signs for men of discernment. – Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 142.