At Odds
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At Odds • Posted: Nov 10, 2007 11:48:08Comments WelcomeVote CoolPhotoblogsPurchase a PrintShare

Not long ago, there was considerable controversy surrounding a photograph NASA made of a small portion of Martian landscape. Rocky mounds strongly lit from the side appeared to resemble a carved face. The question arose: was it or wasn't it an intentionally carved face?

It isn't unusual for humans to see meaningful forms in cloud formations, smoke, swirls of water or dust, in patterns of light filtering through trees, or in the shape of mountains. That's what the human brain does, try to make sense of things. But it would be unusual for an extra-terrestrial intelligence to leave a recognizable sculpture for us to discover via telescope.

To settle the question, scientists tried to determine whether the observed carved face on Mars could have arisen by "natural processes". The implication being that a form intentionally carved by a being of intelligence wouldn't follow from the same rules as geological processes.

The key difference would be "intent". Living things produce outcomes by intention. Non-living process do not. Non-living processes proceed as if rolling downhill, from higher energy to lower and from lesser randomness to greater. By contrast, living things expend energy to produce outcomes that are decidedly non-random: seeds, honeycombs, apple pies, nuclear submarines. Living things roll their stones uphill in continual struggle against the downdraft of nature's forever increasing entropy or randomness. In the end, it is very likely all we produce will turn to dust.

The face on Mars later proved to be an aberration, a fortuitous consequence of light on rock and angle of observation. Our brains erroneously suggested it might be significant.

Friday, August 11th, 2006