- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 28, 2012


Almost daily there are new reports of distant planets. They may outnumber the 100 billion stars in our galaxy. What we’re look- ing for, of course, is ex- traterrestrial intelligence, not just orbiting rocks. But nothing has been found. The silence in outer space “is maddening,” Charles Krauthammer has written. It “makes no sense.”

One of the great dogmas of our age is that there is nothing unusual about the human race. We are told that only in degree do we differ from the apes. The belief that nature and human nature form a continuum came to prominence with Charles Darwin, whose avowed aim was to bring man and nature “under one point of view.”

Yet the evidence for that continuum is still missing - despite a search that has persisted for over a century.

If humans are not exceptional, intelligence at the human level should be widespread and easily detected. But we are still looking. We have still not been able to find any trace of the intelligence that children display by the age of 3.

The Hubble telescope searches outer space; we refine our machines, add “memory” to our computers. Maybe one day they will become conscious. We coax chimpanzees in animal labs. Perhaps one day they will speak. Still nothing.

Fifty years ago, a mathematical exercise called the Drake Equation posited that extraterrestrial civilizations should be numerous. Carl Sagan thought there might be a million advanced civilizations in our own galaxy. But the numbers in the Drake Equation were guesses, and they were skewed by Sagan himself. They deliberately boosted the odds that life can arise by chance from non-life. As far as we know, life has only appeared here, and perhaps not by chance.

The quest for artificial intelligence (AI) began in earnest at about the same time. A conference at Dartmouth College in 1956 was organized by mathematicians John McCarthy and Marvin Minsky. The problem of creating artificial intelligence would be solved within a few years, they believed. It took much longer than that for failed experiments to show that the world of human intelligence can’t be reduced to math.

The movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” (made in 1968) featured a sinister computer called HAL that tried to sabotage a space mission. In the year 2001, Mr. Minsky asked: “Where is HAL?” Nothing resembling an independently minded computer has ever been constructed.

The leading champion of AI today is probably Ray Kurzweil. He correctly foresaw that computer programs would defeat chess champions. But the chess problem can be digitized. The best next move can be calculated by a computer.

Computers facing real-world problems face unanticipated difficulties - the “frame problem.” Programmers must attend only to what is relevant to a task, ignore what is irrelevant and spell out instructions in minute detail. This can create problems of infinite regress. Small children never see them as problematical to begin with. Meanwhile the programming of common sense into computers seems to have bogged down. By 2009, OpenCyc 2.0 had a knowledge base of 47,000 concepts and 306,000 facts. But there are never enough. The human mind routinely does something incalculable.

Mr. Kurzweil predicted in “The Age of Spiritual Machines” (1999) that computers would claim to be conscious by 2029. But with each passing year, that seems less and less probable.

Efforts to get chimpanzees to talk have produced nothing but disappointment. Talking logically is something that small children suddenly do and animals never learn. Our mastery of complex language may be the pre-eminent demonstration that humans are exceptional.

The leading supporter of our linguistic uniqueness is Noam Chomsky of Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Children have an innate knowledge of a basic grammatical structure common to all human languages, Mr. Chomsky said. It allows them to produce an infinite number of sentences, including ones that no one ever previously uttered. They learn language so quickly that only an innate capacity can explain it.

Meanwhile denigration of the human race has become fashionable, constant and, in the academy, almost obligatory. Sagan derided “our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe.” Evolution theorist Stephen Jay Gould made similar comments.

It’s as though we go around sounding like Mohammed Ali: “We’re the greatest!” But who say such things? Sagan and Gould never identified them. In most cases, I think, the real target is not human boasting but faith in God. Often, the complaints are made by those who have lost their own faith. What really upsets the Darwinians is not that we think we are so great, but that we still think God is greater.

Human dethronement still eludes the Darwinians, whose search has stalled. Perhaps that is because our possession of the faculty of reason really is unique.

Tom Bethell is a senior editor at the American Spectator.

Sign up for Daily Opinion Newsletter

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide