Time Scale and Spatial Scale Is Important in Defining Life and Intelligence

Main point: Defining “life” and “intelligence” becomes that much more difficult when you consider the possibility of an organism operating on a different scale of time and space than those “living” on Earth.

In 1995, the first planet (51 Pegasi b) orbiting another sun was discovered. Ever since then, the idea of life (even intelligent life) being a widespread phenomena in the universe became real in the minds of many astrophysicists and scientists in general. The 1961 Drake equation got a little empirical boost, and the imagination of the public was off and running.

Once you open your mind to the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe, the next question is: what does it look like? How do we identify an object as “living” when we see it? And once we say it’s a living thing, how do we know if it’s “intelligent”?

As I was walking home yesterday, it occurred to me (as it must’ve occured to a lot of people seeking a definition of life) that when we intuitively think of what is a living thing we think of objects operating on a time scale similar to our own life. So, in defining whether that thing is intelligent, we consider whether it can “reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience” (Gottfredson 1994) on the time scale of a human life.

So here is a question… are plants intelligent? At first the intuitive answer is no. But what if we normalize the changes that “happen” to plants to be on the same time scale as our own, then the gradual adaptations of plants would seem no different than our own physical movements in response to the external environment.

Even more radically, here’s another questions… is a planet a living organism? Let’s again normalize a planet such as Earth in size and time to be similar to the size of human beings and the time scale of our daily life. Could we then classify a planet as a living thing? Under the common biological definition, one of the things missing is the ability to reproduce. But is it really missing? In a certain kind of way, human beings are the cells of this organism. These cells are the carriers of information in the same way that DNA is.   So perhaps a planet can indeed reproduce, luckily without the commitment-laden intimacy of sexual intercourse, by the colonization of other planets.

I don’t like writing long blog posts, because the main point can too easily be drowned in the rambling chaos of poorly formed ideas. In fact, often, a long blog post is an indication that there is no main point. Well, let me just end it by saying that our understanding of life and intelligence is limited by the way our brain has evolved to effectively deal with the environment around it.

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