Imagine for a moment that intelligent beings exist hundreds of light years from Earth. These things are this size of solar systems and collectively make up an entire galaxy. They possess advanced scientific instruments that allow them to detect planets, and on those planets, some details on the planet’s surface. Through other instruments they detect movement and chemical compositions of various surfaces. In some cases they can peer deep into large structures and map out interiors. Let’s call these distant observers Solar Giants.
The first thing Solar Giants notice on a strange planet is large centers of activities that emit light and heat and motion. They label these things ‘cells’. They note that many cells are located in close proximity to other cells, and sometimes even merge into larger conglomerates of cells.
Within these cells (and sometimes standing all alone) they discern various structures of differing sizes and shapes. They calls these things ‘blocks’. In some blocks, nothing very interesting seems to occur, but in others, they detect the input of several objects, and then the output of things that are quite different. They deduce that some form of transformation goes on within those ‘delta’ blocks, converting one kind of resource into another.
They also detect objects in motion, and dub these ‘rects’ (rectangles). Some rects are larger than others, and some seem to move faster than others.
Moving much faster than the rects, and apparently not bound to the surface, they detect what they call tris (triangles – their minds are quite Euclidean).
The smallest meaningful object they can identify they call ‘dots’. These things are quite numerous and move between and into rects, into and out of tris, between and in and out of blocks constantly. These dots are ubiquitous and seem to be central to the existence of tris, rects, blocks and cells.
Tracing the surface of this planet are many lines, most of them full of moving rects. They call these things ‘lines’. Lines connect all of the cells, and each cell is densely packed with them.
Over time new blocks appear, and sometimes (although rarely) disappear. The cells tend to grow in size, occasionally shrink. They never move.
While pondering all of the information provided by their instruments, the Solar Giants detect nothing that appears similar to their form of being. They are obviously too small to live or think. Leading Solar Giants propose that the phenomena on this planet naturally arises from its unique aspects, as it is the only known one with such oceans, volcanic activity, and dense atmosphere, one rich in oxygen (a serious anomaly in their planetary studies).
A spiritual minority suggests that this anomalous planet is the work of God. But this is a minority view and rarely taken seriously.
To prove otherwise, the Solar Giants perform intrusive experiments. With their advanced technology, they excise a small cell and subject the contents to detailed analysis. They discover mixes of elements never before seen, including the primary source of energy, a fluid hydrocarbon that burns easily and is used to motivate the rects, and in a slightly different form, the tris.
As they crush and submit the cell to huge centrifuges, they isolate components that are obviously fabricated from baser elements. This tends to bolster the claim of the spiritualists, as the Solar Giants do not possess a natural explanation for the components, or how they came to be assembled.
Given the perspective of the Solar Giants (individually the size of a solar system) they are limited in the realm they can explore. They can barely discern dots scurrying about, let alone anything smaller. When they attempt to manipulate the dots into something that can be defined, the dots simply disappear. Just gone.
They identify a particular block and perform an internal mapping, one that shows multiple levels and vertical shafts the extend top to bottom. Within the block on every level several cubicles are distinguished, although they vary in shape.
In another block they discern some form of machinery, as these things appear to transform one thing into another through a complex series of processes.
The Solar Giants tend to take these discoveries in stride, and avoid considering more difficult questions, such as, how can inanimate structures behave is such a complex manner? How did these things arise?
After a great deal of time pondering these mysteries, an imaginative Solar Giant postulates that what they observe is some form of ‘life’. That the growth and activity of the cells is clear evidence for intention and design. Some form of life that cannot be seen or distinguished from the background.
This imaginative Solar Giant is jeered and insulted. Everybody knows, another Solar Giant might say, that nothing that small can think. There is simply no precedent.
The imaginative Solar Giant perseveres, despite the disrespect. It carries on more experiments, attempting to isolate something that can be interpreted as a primitive intelligence. The dots seem to connect everything, but the Solar Giant assumes that the dots are simply a transfer agents of some kind, linking all the various other elements, one of which is sure to emerge as the driver of all this mysterious activity.
Over time the imaginative Solar Giant witnesses many strange things. Furious activity across most of the planet leads to large formations of tris moving long distances and dispatching destruction upon distant cells. Many cells are devastated and their blocks knocked to small pieces until they disappear. Large rects move across the vast oceans of the world in large formations, and send tris into the atmosphere that intersect with other large ocean-going rects, and then disappear in small flashes of energy, and sometimes a large surface-going rect disintegrates into nothing.
The imaginative Solar Giant is intrigued, and communicates his findings to the larger community. ‘This cannot be the work of random natural processes,’ it insists. ‘Some form of intention exists on that planet.’
Once again the community of Solar Giants laugh. ‘That’s impossible,’ they insist.
The imaginative Solar Giant doesn’t waver. ‘The dots,’ it says, ‘are more like small strings. They tend to shudder and shake when agitated, perhaps providing the key to the strange activity.’
A kind Solar Giant (they are a mellow lot) expresses sympathy. ‘The planet is strange, no doubt,’ it says. ‘An anomaly in the known universe. Surely some odd aberration is at work, some strange set of natural forces that chanced into the cells and dots and rects.’
I don’t know how the Solar Giants would ever discover the actual nature of Earth and its inhabitants. The context and perspective of the Solar Giants is so vastly different than human that it seems almost impossible that they could ever relate. Their way of thinking and being are utterly different from human. They perceive and experience reality in completely different ways, in the same way humans perceive and experience reality in completely different ways from an amoeba.
And that is the point of this thought experiment. To consider how vastly different humans experience reality compared to a living cell. There is nothing privileged in our scale of perspective. Vastly smaller and larger worlds exist within the known universe. Whether anything akin to intelligence exists at the larger end of the scale remains unknown. In fact, how large the larger scale exactly is, that is, the size of the universe, is also unknown.
As far as the smaller scale is concerned, we possess clear evidence that something deliberate takes place at the molecular level within living cells, within the Vicarian Domain. In the same way the Solar Giants in the thought experiment perceive the odd figures on a distant planet. The two situations are analogous, and the challenges similar.
How can we determine exactly what takes place when we can’t see or perceive it? We know something is there, and we know complicated and coordinated activity takes place within the Vicarian Domain, but we can’t figure out exactly what, or exactly how.