Jeemes Akers: A FAWN, A PARROT AND THE WONDER OF LIFE

        A story by AIR Senior Fellow, Jeems Akers                  

A FAWN, A PARROT AND THE WONDER OF LIFE

“Curiosity about life in all of its aspects, I think, is still the secret of great creative people.”

                                                                                                       Leo Burnett

 

One of the good things about a life of self-quarantine these days is that I now take walks—long walks—on an almost daily basis. Not only is it good for my health, it also gives me time to clear my mind, think about things to write and talk to God. One of my favorite walking paths these days is along an old road that circles back behind three or four houses, crosses a couple small creeks and passes a small stand of woods on one side.

I have found these walks are especially useful in times of decision. In Jeremiah 6:16 the prophet says: “Thus says the Lord: Stand by the roads (crossroads) and look; and ask for the eternal paths, where the good, old way is; then walk in it, and you shall find rest for your souls.”[1]

Earlier this week, at dusk, I was standing on a bridge overlooking a babbling brook near the end of that aforementioned walking trail. The sound of water tumbling over the rocks, and the bucolic serenity of the place, makes the rustic bridge and its surroundings one of my favorite stops these days. As darkness slowly descended around me, I raised my hands and thanked God for water, my family, all the amazing friends in my life, autumn colors and the miracle of life in all its many dimensions.

As if on cue, a family of deer stepped out of the woods and crossed the road no more than twenty feet from where I was standing. A tiny fawn trailed the other three. The fawn stopped in the middle of the road, its tiny white tail twitching and oversized ears stretched out like two large antennae—tracking any possible menacing sound—as it stared at me standing on the bridge.

We looked at each other, frozen in time, for several minutes.

Long enough that I wondered who was studying whom.

I hope that scene will remain etched in my memory cells for a long time. (Much as my lingering memory of a similar scene on a crisp, cold mountain morning during my Air Force survival school days at Fairchild AFB, near Spokane, Washington. If I close my eyes, I can still see him. That morning, a giant elk with his incredible antler-rack majestically strutted out of the forest—close enough that I could see and hear his icy breath-cloud snorts—before he retreated into the woods followed by his entourage.)

Today, as then, I am constantly amazed by the variety of life in God’s creation.

Recently, I read about Elon Musk’s assertion that we are part of a simulation and that what we experience with our five senses—our window-gates to reality—is really a computer-like simulation created by an advanced superintelligence. Musk further suggests that there’s a “one in billions chance we’re in base reality.”[2] As much as I admire Elon Musk for his creativity and entrepreneurial skills (Musk is the CEO and guiding spirit behind such pioneer companies as Tesla electric cars and trucks, SpaceX with its growing constellation of satellites and plan to plant a colony on Mars by the next decade, The Boring Company now constructing tunnels in many metropolitan areas, as well as OpenAI, and Neuralink), I think he is off base with this one.

Why do I think so?

Among other experiences, that special moment on the bridge when the fawn and I exchanged glances.

Life is real. A gift from God. It is that simple.

 

When I returned home from my walk that evening, I began to research a possible writing topic. Like my walking routine, one research route leads to another, a decision on which way to turn is made, and before you know it, a different adventure opens up. You end up in a place that you never imagined when you started out. And so, during that research, I stumbled upon—completely by happenstance—the writings of Ted Chiang.

Maybe you don’t recognize the name. Chiang is a techno-science fiction writer who has won several prestigious Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards and has unique insights into the Silicon Valley mindset. Some of you know that I enjoy writing futuristic fiction myself—set 15 to 20 years in the future—portraying Christian believers coping with over-the-horizon technologies.

At any rate, I was fascinated to read one of Chiang’s articles that viewed the universe through the eyes of a parrot.[3] Chiang suggests that as humans continue the expensive and extensive search for extraterrestrial life forms, we have ignored a species here on earth that also uses words to communicate: parrots. He suggests: “… parrots are more similar to humans than any extraterrestrial species will be …”

Chiang relates the story of an African gray parrot named Alex,[4] famous among human beings for his cognitive abilities. Alex was studied by animal psychologist Irene Pepperberg for thirty years. Pepperberg bought Alex at a pet shop when he was about a year old. She insisted that not only could Alex mimic the words for shapes and colors but actually understood their concepts. Others, of course, were skeptical. Alex died suddenly at a relatively young age (1976-Sep 2007). The night before he died, he told Pepperberg, “You be good. I love you.”[5]

Pepperberg believed that Alex’s intelligence was on the level of dolphins and great apes; moreover, Alex seemed to show the intelligence of a five-year-old human (in some respects) and possessed the emotional level of a two-year-old when he died.[6]

Fascinating.

What I really enjoy about Chiang’s writings is that he mentions other topics for you to think about. Ideas for you to mentally chew on. In this piece, for example, he mentions the Fermi Paradox. Chiang sets the table—again from the imaginary perspective of a parrot—this way: “The universe is so vast that intelligent life must surely have arisen many times. The universe is also so old that even one technological species would have had time to expand and fill the galaxy. Yet there is no sign of life anywhere except on earth. Humans call this the Fermi Paradox.”

In my college history and philosophy classes, I loved to get my students embroiled in a discussion of “Fermi’s paradox.” While working at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1950, Enrico Fermi—one of the pioneers of nuclear energy—famously asked “Where are they?” He was pointing to a discrepancy that he found puzzling: Given there are so many stars in our galaxy, even a modest probability of extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) arising around any given star would imply the emergence of many such civilizations within our galaxy. Further, given modest assumptions about their ability of travel, to modify their environs, or to communicate, we should see evidence of their existence.

Yet we do not.

Not so much as a single peep.

No indication whatsoever that any other species in the universe possesses “metacognition,” a quality described by Chiang in another article as “thinking about one’s own thinking, and it’s something most humans are capable of but animals are not.”[7] (Nor, so far, our most sophisticated artificial intelligence).

This absence of communication from outer space is not due to a lack of trying by human beings. Billions of dollars are being spent on satellites such as NASA’s nine-year Kepler exoplanet seeking mission[8] and the European Space Agency’s Gaia spacecraft,[9] generating data leading to a recent conclusion that more than 300 million worlds with similar conditions to Earth are scattered throughout the Milky Way galaxy—with the nearest one probably within 20 light-years of the solar system.[10] In addition to these probes, there are numerous Earth-based giant eavesdropping discs and sensors, and countless broadcasting devices aimed at the skies.

Moreover, despite a plethora of science fiction works and elaborate special effects-laden blockbuster Hollywood movies with themes of extraterrestrial intervention—leading many to falsely believe that extraterrestrial contacts are a proven reality—there has been nothing.

The silence from the stars is—and has been—deafening.

This discrepancy, the Fermi paradox, leads some to call the apparent lifelessness of the universe the Fermi observation.[11] The logic goes this way: if life in the universe develops along lines of the Darwinian evolutionary hypothesis and modern algorithmic theories, there is an expectation that the universe should be teeming with intelligent life. Mathematical models like the “Drake equation” suggests that even if the probability of intelligent life developing at a given site is small, the sheer multitude of possible sites should nonetheless yield a large number of potentially observable civilizations.[12] Yet, as Steven J. Dick observes: “Perhaps never in the history of science has an equation been devised yielding values differing by eight orders of magnitude … each scientist seems to bring in his own prejudices and assumptions to the problem.”

Interestingly enough, the Future of Humanity Institute researchers reached the following conclusion:

 

“When we take account of realistic uncertainty, replacing point                      estimates by probability distributions that reflect current scientific     understanding, we find no reason to be highly confident that the galaxy (or observable universe) contains other civilizations, and thus no longer find our observations in conflict with our prior probabilities … When we update this prior in light of the Fermi observation, we find a substantial probability that we are alone in our galaxy, and perhaps even in our observable universe (53%-99.6% and 39%-85% respectively). ‘Where    are they?’—probably extremely far away, and quite possibly beyond the cosmological horizon and forever unreachable.”[13]

 

So how do scientists account for this silence? Again, listen to Chiang’s parrot speak: “One proposed solution to the Fermi Paradox is that intelligent species actively try to conceal their presence, to avoid being targeted by hostile invaders. Speaking as a member of a species that has been driven nearly to extinction by humans, I can attest that this is a wise strategy.”

The notion that extraterrestrials may be hiding among us reminds me of one of my favorite science fiction short stories by Mack Reynolds. The story begins with two aliens meeting in a bar at some unnamed place on earth. A conversation ensues between the two as they are seated at the bar.

“I felt your mind probe a few minutes ago,” one of them said.

The other alien nodded. “Yes,” he said, “telepathy is a sense not trained by the humanoids. I’ve assumed this body as a disguise and am certainly not humanoid.”

The two laughed and had a beer.

“Where are you from?”

“Al debaran.”

“You?”

“Deneb.”

“Why are you here?” one alien asked the other.

“Researching for one of our meat trusts. We’re protein eaters. Human flesh is considered a delicacy.”

“What about you?”

“I’m scouting this quadrant of the universe for thrill terrorists. We go to backward cultures and help stir tribal or international conflicts.”[14]

 

 

Call me crazy, but could it be that life is not a mathematical possibility (or information inflection point) but rather a special miracle created by God?

Today’s scientists—with their hubris—find this altogether plausible solution impossible to swallow. They will believe almost anything else. Max Tegmark, one of today’s most respected scientists, asserts that “The simplest and most popular cosmological model today predicts that you have a twin in a galaxy about 10 to 10 (28) meters from here.”  Or listen to Israeli megahistorian Yuval Noah Harari (a favorite speaker at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland and various Silicon Valley gatherings): “All the history of the last 150 years can be summed up in three words: ‘organisms are algorithms.’”

We live in a culture where the specialness of life is vulgarized by scientists and demeaned by vote-seeking politicians.

Although I’m sure that he would cringe to be quoted by me in this piece, and in this way, astrophysicist Ethan Siegel’s words perhaps put it best: “The opposite of knowledge isn’t ignorance; it’s the illusion of knowledge.”[15]

We assume that the universe is so vast and old that, for all practical purposes, it will go on forever (a black hole capable of swallowing the universe or a cosmic-level inflationary-deflationary cycle seems billions of years in the future). In this expansive time-and-space scheme, other life forms appear to be inevitable.

But what if the universe as we know it will end in a twinkling of an eye?

Can you wrap your brain around that possibility?

Both the Old Testament prophet Isaiah (34:4) and Jesus Christ in his revelation to John (Rev 6:14) say the universe will be suddenly wrapped up as a scroll and dissolve. The Creative God who created the universe with a word will act again in the final hour. Life will be completely—in an instant—redefined.

 

Until then, the first thing I do every morning when I get out of bed is consciously thank God for His “wonderous works,” including first and foremost the gift of life. A 24-7 ostomy bag on the left side of my body is a constant reminder that life is precious and can be fleeting and fickle.

For me, life is a gift that keeps on giving: one day giving me a fawn to enjoy watching, the next learning about a parrot named Alex, and the next thinking about my place in the universe, the glory of God’s creation and why Jesus Christ self-defined his existence here on Earth as “life.”

 

 

 

[1] Amplified version; the New International version uses the word “crossroads.”

[2] See, among numerous other reports, Jason Koebler, “Elon Musk Says There’s a ‘One in Billions’ Chance Reality is Not a Simulation,” Motherboard (vice-com), Jun. 2, 2016. The first modern enunciation of the “simulated universe hypothesis” was in 2003 by British philosopher Nicholas Bostrom.

[3] Ted Chiang, “The Great Silence: A parrot has a question for humans,” Nautilus, 2019. The article is an excerpt      from Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang, Alfred A. Knopf, 2019.

[4] According to a Wikipedia article on Alex, the name was an acronym for “avian language experiment.”

[5] Chiang, “The Great Silence.”

[6] Wikipedia article.

[7] Ted Chiang, “Silicon Valley Is Turning Into Its Own Worst Fear,” buzzfeednews.com, Dec 18, 2017.

[8] Nadia Drake, “How many alien civilizations are out there? A new galactic survey holds a clue,” nationalgeographic.com, Nov 2, 2020. By the time the Kepler finished its mission in 2018, it had identified some 2,800 exoplanets (by measuring light emissions when orbiting bodies blotted out a portion of their star’s light).

[9] In addition to the Gaia probe, the European member states recently approved the four-year Ariel (the Atmospheric Remote-Sensing Infrared Exoplanet Large-survey) space telescope to study the atmospheres of distant worlds. Ariel is scheduled to launch in 2029. Jonathan Amos, “Europe moves ahead with Ariel exoplanet mission, BBC News, Nov 2020.

[10] Drake, “How many alien civilizations.”

[11] For an interesting discussion of this issue, see the Jun 8, 2018, research study “Dissolving the Fermi Paradox,” compiled by Anders Sandberg, Eric Drexler, and Toby Ord for the Future of Humanity Institute, Oxford University; and, among others, Ethan Siegel, “No, We Haven’t Solved The Drake Equation, The Fermi Paradox, Or Whether Humans Are Alone,” Forbes, Jun 26, 2018.

[12] The Drake equation, formulated in 1961 by American astronomer and astrophysicist Frank J. Drake, is a probabilistic argument used to estimate the number of active, communicative extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy, phrased as a product of seven factors. It was intended to stimulate scientific dialogue at the first scientific meeting on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI).

[13] See fn. 11.

[14] Mack Reynolds, “I’m a Stranger Here Myself,” Amazing Stories, 1960.

[15] Siegel, Forbes article.

A FAWN, A PARROT AND THE WONDER OF LIFE
“Curiosity about life in all of its aspects, I think, is still the secret of great creative people.”
Leo Burnett

One of the good things about a life of self-quarantine these days is that I now take walks—long walks—on an almost daily basis. Not only is it good for my health, it also gives me time to clear my mind, think about things to write and talk to God. One of my favorite walking paths these days is along an old road that circles back behind three or four houses, crosses a couple small creeks and passes a small stand of woods on one side.
I have found these walks are especially useful in times of decision. In Jeremiah 6:16 the prophet says: “Thus says the Lord: Stand by the roads (crossroads) and look; and ask for the eternal paths, where the good, old way is; then walk in it, and you shall find rest for your souls.”
Earlier this week, at dusk, I was standing on a bridge overlooking a babbling brook near the end of that aforementioned walking trail. The sound of water tumbling over the rocks, and the bucolic serenity of the place, makes the rustic bridge and its surroundings one of my favorite stops these days. As darkness slowly descended around me, I raised my hands and thanked God for water, my family, all the amazing friends in my life, autumn colors and the miracle of life in all its many dimensions.
As if on cue, a family of deer stepped out of the woods and crossed the road no more than twenty feet from where I was standing. A tiny fawn trailed the other three. The fawn stopped in the middle of the road, its tiny white tail twitching and oversized ears stretched out like two large antennae—tracking any possible menacing sound—as it stared at me standing on the bridge.
We looked at each other, frozen in time, for several minutes.
Long enough that I wondered who was studying whom.
I hope that scene will remain etched in my memory cells for a long time. (Much as my lingering memory of a similar scene on a crisp, cold mountain morning during my Air Force survival school days at Fairchild AFB, near Spokane, Washington. If I close my eyes, I can still see him. That morning, a giant elk with his incredible antler-rack majestically strutted out of the forest—close enough that I could see and hear his icy breath-cloud snorts—before he retreated into the woods followed by his entourage.)
Today, as then, I am constantly amazed by the variety of life in God’s creation.
Recently, I read about Elon Musk’s assertion that we are part of a simulation and that what we experience with our five senses—our window-gates to reality—is really a computer-like simulation created by an advanced superintelligence. Musk further suggests that there’s a “one in billions chance we’re in base reality.” As much as I admire Elon Musk for his creativity and entrepreneurial skills (Musk is the CEO and guiding spirit behind such pioneer companies as Tesla electric cars and trucks, SpaceX with its growing constellation of satellites and plan to plant a colony on Mars by the next decade, The Boring Company now constructing tunnels in many metropolitan areas, as well as OpenAI, and Neuralink), I think he is off base with this one.
Why do I think so?
Among other experiences, that special moment on the bridge when the fawn and I exchanged glances.
Life is real. A gift from God. It is that simple.

When I returned home from my walk that evening, I began to research a possible writing topic. Like my walking routine, one research route leads to another, a decision on which way to turn is made, and before you know it, a different adventure opens up. You end up in a place that you never imagined when you started out. And so, during that research, I stumbled upon—completely by happenstance—the writings of Ted Chiang.
Maybe you don’t recognize the name. Chiang is a techno-science fiction writer who has won several prestigious Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards and has unique insights into the Silicon Valley mindset. Some of you know that I enjoy writing futuristic fiction myself—set 15 to 20 years in the future—portraying Christian believers coping with over-the-horizon technologies.
At any rate, I was fascinated to read one of Chiang’s articles that viewed the universe through the eyes of a parrot. Chiang suggests that as humans continue the expensive and extensive search for extraterrestrial life forms, we have ignored a species here on earth that also uses words to communicate: parrots. He suggests: “… parrots are more similar to humans than any extraterrestrial species will be …”
Chiang relates the story of an African gray parrot named Alex, famous among human beings for his cognitive abilities. Alex was studied by animal psychologist Irene Pepperberg for thirty years. Pepperberg bought Alex at a pet shop when he was about a year old. She insisted that not only could Alex mimic the words for shapes and colors but actually understood their concepts. Others, of course, were skeptical. Alex died suddenly at a relatively young age (1976-Sep 2007). The night before he died, he told Pepperberg, “You be good. I love you.”
Pepperberg believed that Alex’s intelligence was on the level of dolphins and great apes; moreover, Alex seemed to show the intelligence of a five-year-old human (in some respects) and possessed the emotional level of a two-year-old when he died.
Fascinating.
What I really enjoy about Chiang’s writings is that he mentions other topics for you to think about. Ideas for you to mentally chew on. In this piece, for example, he mentions the Fermi Paradox. Chiang sets the table—again from the imaginary perspective of a parrot—this way: “The universe is so vast that intelligent life must surely have arisen many times. The universe is also so old that even one technological species would have had time to expand and fill the galaxy. Yet there is no sign of life anywhere except on earth. Humans call this the Fermi Paradox.”
In my college history and philosophy classes, I loved to get my students embroiled in a discussion of “Fermi’s paradox.” While working at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1950, Enrico Fermi—one of the pioneers of nuclear energy—famously asked “Where are they?” He was pointing to a discrepancy that he found puzzling: Given there are so many stars in our galaxy, even a modest probability of extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) arising around any given star would imply the emergence of many such civilizations within our galaxy. Further, given modest assumptions about their ability of travel, to modify their environs, or to communicate, we should see evidence of their existence.
Yet we do not.
Not so much as a single peep.
No indication whatsoever that any other species in the universe possesses “metacognition,” a quality described by Chiang in another article as “thinking about one’s own thinking, and it’s something most humans are capable of but animals are not.” (Nor, so far, our most sophisticated artificial intelligence).
This absence of communication from outer space is not due to a lack of trying by human beings. Billions of dollars are being spent on satellites such as NASA’s nine-year Kepler exoplanet seeking mission and the European Space Agency’s Gaia spacecraft, generating data leading to a recent conclusion that more than 300 million worlds with similar conditions to Earth are scattered throughout the Milky Way galaxy—with the nearest one probably within 20 light-years of the solar system. In addition to these probes, there are numerous Earth-based giant eavesdropping discs and sensors, and countless broadcasting devices aimed at the skies.
Moreover, despite a plethora of science fiction works and elaborate special effects-laden blockbuster Hollywood movies with themes of extraterrestrial intervention—leading many to falsely believe that extraterrestrial contacts are a proven reality—there has been nothing.
The silence from the stars is—and has been—deafening.
This discrepancy, the Fermi paradox, leads some to call the apparent lifelessness of the universe the Fermi observation. The logic goes this way: if life in the universe develops along lines of the Darwinian evolutionary hypothesis and modern algorithmic theories, there is an expectation that the universe should be teeming with intelligent life. Mathematical models like the “Drake equation” suggests that even if the probability of intelligent life developing at a given site is small, the sheer multitude of possible sites should nonetheless yield a large number of potentially observable civilizations. Yet, as Steven J. Dick observes: “Perhaps never in the history of science has an equation been devised yielding values differing by eight orders of magnitude … each scientist seems to bring in his own prejudices and assumptions to the problem.”
Interestingly enough, the Future of Humanity Institute researchers reached the following conclusion:

“When we take account of realistic uncertainty, replacing point estimates by probability distributions that reflect current scientific understanding, we find no reason to be highly confident that the galaxy (or observable universe) contains other civilizations, and thus no longer find our observations in conflict with our prior probabilities … When we update this prior in light of the Fermi observation, we find a substantial probability that we are alone in our galaxy, and perhaps even in our observable universe (53%-99.6% and 39%-85% respectively). ‘Where are they?’—probably extremely far away, and quite possibly beyond the cosmological horizon and forever unreachable.”

So how do scientists account for this silence? Again, listen to Chiang’s parrot speak: “One proposed solution to the Fermi Paradox is that intelligent species actively try to conceal their presence, to avoid being targeted by hostile invaders. Speaking as a member of a species that has been driven nearly to extinction by humans, I can attest that this is a wise strategy.”
The notion that extraterrestrials may be hiding among us reminds me of one of my favorite science fiction short stories by Mack Reynolds. The story begins with two aliens meeting in a bar at some unnamed place on earth. A conversation ensues between the two as they are seated at the bar.
“I felt your mind probe a few minutes ago,” one of them said.
The other alien nodded. “Yes,” he said, “telepathy is a sense not trained by the humanoids. I’ve assumed this body as a disguise and am certainly not humanoid.”
The two laughed and had a beer.
“Where are you from?”
“Al debaran.”
“You?”
“Deneb.”
“Why are you here?” one alien asked the other.
“Researching for one of our meat trusts. We’re protein eaters. Human flesh is considered a delicacy.”
“What about you?”
“I’m scouting this quadrant of the universe for thrill terrorists. We go to backward cultures and help stir tribal or international conflicts.”

Call me crazy, but could it be that life is not a mathematical possibility (or information inflection point) but rather a special miracle created by God?
Today’s scientists—with their hubris—find this altogether plausible solution impossible to swallow. They will believe almost anything else. Max Tegmark, one of today’s most respected scientists, asserts that “The simplest and most popular cosmological model today predicts that you have a twin in a galaxy about 10 to 10 (28) meters from here.” Or listen to Israeli megahistorian Yuval Noah Harari (a favorite speaker at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland and various Silicon Valley gatherings): “All the history of the last 150 years can be summed up in three words: ‘organisms are algorithms.’”
We live in a culture where the specialness of life is vulgarized by scientists and demeaned by vote-seeking politicians.
Although I’m sure that he would cringe to be quoted by me in this piece, and in this way, astrophysicist Ethan Siegel’s words perhaps put it best: “The opposite of knowledge isn’t ignorance; it’s the illusion of knowledge.”

We assume that the universe is so vast and old that, for all practical purposes, it will go on forever (a black hole capable of swallowing the universe or a cosmic-level inflationary-deflationary cycle seems billions of years in the future). In this expansive time-and-space scheme, other life forms appear to be inevitable.
But what if the universe as we know it will end in a twinkling of an eye?
Can you wrap your brain around that possibility?
Both the Old Testament prophet Isaiah (34:4) and Jesus Christ in his revelation to John (Rev 6:14) say the universe will be suddenly wrapped up as a scroll and dissolve. The Creative God who created the universe with a word will act again in the final hour. Life will be completely—in an instant—redefined.

Until then, the first thing I do every morning when I get out of bed is consciously thank God for His “wonderous works,” including first and foremost the gift of life. A 24-7 ostomy bag on the left side of my body is a constant reminder that life is precious and can be fleeting and fickle.
For me, life is a gift that keeps on giving: one day giving me a fawn to enjoy watching, the next learning about a parrot named Alex, and the next thinking about my place in the universe, the glory of God’s creation and why Jesus Christ self-defined his existence here on Earth as “life.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Social media & sharing icons powered by UltimatelySocial