Regardless, I found it surprising because I think the one thing that could possibly get me to question my atheism is the discovery of intelligent life that did not originate on Earth.
- Oxygen metabolism
- Bilateral symmetry
- Two biological sexes (as opposed to three or one or seventeen)
- Keeping most of our sensory apparatus at one end of our body
- Two pairs of limbs adapted to different purposes
- Upright posture
- Five-fingered hands (as opposed to twelve or three or tentacles, for that matter)
For some reason, however, while this seems to be generally accepted for physical features, people balk at accepting it is also true for our status as sophonts. Sophontry is not a single feature; it is a large number of different features, each of which occurs independently in some form in other species, that together comprise what we call a sophont. Remove even one, and the result, while interesting, is not recognizably a sophont--not a "new civilization." These features include:
- Nth-order agency attribution: Agency attribution is the capacity to distinguish between agents (entities that act with intent) and non-agents, and respond accordingly. It is the ability to respond differently to grass rustling because a tiger is passing and grass rustling because of the wind. Most vertebrates and a handful of invertebrates possess it. Second-order agency attribution is the ability to recognize that other entities have agency attribution and respond accordingly--the ability to disguise one's intent, in other words. This is reasonably widespread among the mammals and some birds. Third-order agency attribution is the ability to recognize the possibility of deception, essentially, and has been observed in some great apes. A typical game of cops and robbers involves something like 9th-order agency attribution, and there is no known upper limit to humans knowing that you know that they know that you know that...
- Ability to contemplate counterfactuals and possible futures.
- Modeling: The ability to learn through observation, rather than conditioning.
- Culture: Passing information both vertically to offspring, and horizontally to other individuals.
- Language or similar.
- Complex tool-use, including the ability to improvise tools previously not observed.
- Problem-solving ability.
- Pattern-recognition ability.
- Intellectual empathy.
- Emotional empathy.
Now, some developments appear to actually be selected for in a wide variety of environments; they are so broadly useful that they recur again and again. Birds and bats, for example, have both hit on variants of wings, despite their common ancestor having none. Eyes operating on similar principles to our own evolved independently in mollusks (although we do likely have a common ancestor with light-sensitive spots to start the process off).However, there is no reason to believe this is the case for most of the elements of intelligence. And there is even less reason to believe it is the case for intelligent life to develop off Earth; after all, everything with wings that we know of evolved on the same planet; maybe there is something unique about Earth that encourages wings, or some coincidental occurrence way back in the history of life on Earth that shaped the environment in such a way as to encourage wings. Equally, there may be some chance event in the history of Earth that set the stage for agency attribution to evolve multiple times (one possible candidate for that event would be the development of heterotrophs).
So really, what it would mean if we found intelligent aliens is that something about the universe is encouraging all these traits to develop in concert in many different environments. It would mean that the universe is somehow friendly to intelligence in a way that was not previously obvious. That wouldn't be enough to make me believe there was something divine at work, but it is unlikely enough to make me pause and reconsider. Even more so if said aliens follow something resembling a specific Earth religion.