Communicating with Extraterrestrials
What is it like to be an alien? I mean, in the sense in which the philosopher Thomas Nagel famously asked: ‘What is it like to be a bat?’ It is almost the only question worth asking about life elsewhere in the universe. It is certainly the only one that has any implications for our understanding of what contact with advanced extraterrestrial life forms might mean for us. Yet it is hardly ever asked.
We live on a tiny planet orbiting a star which is just one of two or three hundred thousand million other stars in a galaxy we call the Milky Way, itself one of a hundred thousand million other galaxies in the universe. One way of getting a handle on this incredible, unutterable, unimaginable vastness is to pick up a handful of sand on a dry, warm day on the beach and let the grains of sand trickle through your fingers - see how many there are in just a handful of sand. Now there are more stars in the universe than there are grains of sand on all the beaches of the world. As for the earth, it is a speck of near-nothingness a millionth the size of the ‘grain of sand’ that it orbits - too tiny to see with the naked eye. And here we live on this speck of nothingness, adrift in a vast ocean of space and time.
Grains of sand on the beach are closely packed together of course, stars not so. They are separated by equally unimaginable vast distances of empty space. To understand just how far away they are, consider that light, travelling at 186,000 miles per second takes four and a half years to reach us from the nearest star. The light from Andromeda, our nearest galactic neighbour, began its journey to earth two-and-a-half million years ago. We are looking at some galaxies now as they were when dinosaurs roamed the earth, others even before the earth was formed. In all this vastness, how conceivable that life has arisen only on this speck of near-nothingness? Looking up at the starry heavens, gazing through telescopes at the distant galaxies, we cannot help asking the eternal question: are we alone? And the only answer that seems to make any sense is: no, we cannot be alone. In all this incredible vastness, there must
be life out there.
So we turn our radio telescopes on the night skies and listen. We listen for signals, for signs of intelligent life, messages from across the vast reaches of interstellar space. Messages sent out long, long ago, perhaps, from civilisations immeasurably more advanced than we are.
We imagine that one day our radio telescopes will pick up signals from outer space that we recognise as intelligent and that we will then set about deciphering them. When we crack the interstellar code, it will say something like: ‘Greetings, earthlings!’ or if our planet has not been specifically targeted: ‘To whoever receives this message, greetings...’ and it go on to tell us about the extraterrestrial life forms who sent it. Using the same code, we shall reply to the message, greeting the aliens in turn and telling them something about ourselves... and an interstellar conversation will commence. We shall ask them to tell us more about themselves, how old their civilisation is and what they know about the nature of the universe. We may tap them for knowledge of how we can get free energy, overcome the light barrier or build a spaceship to the stars. Perhaps we shall ask them fundamental questions about the meaning of life and whether there a God. Well, perhaps not quite like that it but that’s not a light year removed from how we envisage our first contact with extraterrestrials. And it is unutterably, hopelessly naive. I want to show why it is naive. I want to show why it will not be like that at all – why it cannot be like that and why we have fallen into a trap in thinking that it ever could be like that.
In trying to imagine what extraterrestrials may be like, we have suffered a kind of strangulation of the imagination. Even in trying to envisage what they might look like – and goodness me, this is hardly paramount in the matter of interstellar communication – we have, as often as not, allowed ourselves to be seduced by sci-fi movies and TV series with their budget-dependent portrayal of aliens as human-like, at times barely indistinguishable from us in their appearance. Not always, of course – we have sometimes given the matter some serious thought and allowed that they may – indeed, must- look very different to us. As far as we know, and just as an amusing aside, they may look like myriad-eyed monsters, luminescent slime pods, giant brains, plasma balls or crystal lattices... Or they may not look like anything at all. They may have evolved out of ordinary matter into creatures of pure light, perhaps of a frequency and wave-length outside what is for us the ‘visible’ spectrum or they may have become trans-dimensional. After all, even we will not look like us after the next stage of our evolution.
What they look like, however, is beside the point. A slightly less trivial matter –or so it seems to us on prima facie consideration - is how technologically advanced they might be. Even here there has been an embarrassing failure of imagination – or is it nerve - often from quarters where you’d least expect it. Not so long ago the eminent Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking considered the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe and came to the conclusion that while it must surely exist we ought not to try to contact it because ‘they might turn out to be something we would not want to meet [and] they might steal our resources’. I will confess to finding these words of warning so shocking coming from a scientist of such repute – shocking in their provinciality – that I wondered for a moment if I might have misunderstood them. But no, there seems to have been no twinkle in the eye accompanying these pronouncements. Hawking really does imagine that advanced extraterrestrial life forms might be short of material resources. It really doesn’t seem to have occurred to him that they will have long ago learned how to transmute one form of matter into another (we already know it is theoretically possible), transmuting even light itself into any form of matter we choose like the cosmic alchemists we shall ourselves become one day - sooner than we think, because progress is exponential, not linear.
It is a mere four hundred years since the beginning of the scientific revolution, just two-and-a-half millenia since the dawn of reason, ten thousand years or so since our Palaeolithic ancestors developed the ‘new technology’ of stitching animal skins together with needles of bone. Imagine what we will be up to in another ten thousand years - or a million years. A million years ago, our ancestor homo erectus, having learned how to stand upright, was chipping away at flints and fashioning primitive stone tools. Imagine what we will be up to in another million years. Imagine what extraterrestrial life forms a million years in advance of us might be doing.
A million years is nothing - a blink in cosmic time. The vast age of the universe and basic laws of probability stack up high odds against any extraterrestrials we might encounter being no more than a million years older than us. It would mean that while life on earth was 3,500 million years old, life on the alien planet was 3,501 million years old. We and they would be much the same age in evolutionary terms – possible but a bit of a coincidence! Suppose, then, that they were not a million, but ten million or a hundred million. Ten million years ago our ancestors had just climbed down from the trees and were gazing dimly at the horizon. A hundred million years ago our shrew-like ancestors, no bigger than field mice, were dodging the feet of dinosaurs. An encounter with an extraterrestrial a hundred million years in advance of us – a mere hundred million years - would likely be as inconsequential for them as an
encounter between us and, say, a field mouse. If we had not seen field mice before we might be interested in studying them, but would we be interested in communicating with them? Would we try to teach it what we know of quantum physics? What would ‘communication’ even mean in this context?
Even a hundred million years is not a particularly long time in cosmic terms. A period over thirty times as long separates our tiny Jurassic ancestors from the first organic molecules that formed in the warm primeval seas of planet earth. Elsewhere in the universe at that time, there must have been life forms as old, in evolutionary terms, as we are now – indeed, given the vast age of the universe, there must have been some that were inconceivably more advanced even then than we are now.
The notion that extraterrestrials might be interested in stealing our resources is as absurd as a field mouse fearing we might be interested in stealing its hoard of a few ears of grain. We go to war to get our fingers on the oil spigots of foreign countries and imagine that advanced extraterrestrial life forms are engaged in the same sort of practice. It is a projection of our own shadow. In fact, our cinematic portrayal of aliens is nought but a reflection of our own obsession with technology – and you have to be blind not to see it. We are unable to attach any other meaning to ‘advanced’ than ‘more technologically capable than we are’. Of course they will be technologically advanced: so technologically advanced that they will have learnt to manipulate the physical world as easily as breathing, transmuting one element to another as
easily as our bodies turn oxygen to carbon dioxide. They will long ago have reached the end of the technological adventure, as we will do ourselves one day. They will have left it far behind and embarked on another...and another...and another, and left those too behind in the river of time.
All that, however, is irrelevant when it comes to communicating with alien life forms.
What extraterrestrials might be capable of technologically, what they might look like, how they would be seen to behave if we were to look down on them through a telescope from a satellite orbiting their planet is trivial and superficial. It is looking at things ‘from the outside’. The only question worth asking when it comes to communication is what those extraterrestrial are like ‘from the inside’. As Nagel would frame it: what is it like to be an alien?
As life was evolving on planet Earth, increasing physical complexity was paralleled by evolving modes of consciousness. The latter - what was happening 'from the inside', as it were - is far more relevant to alien communication than what happened 'from the outside' (a spatial metaphor, but everyone understands what is meant). From the outside, atoms and molecules combined to create strands of RNA, then DNA, then single cells, then multiple-cellular creatures and ever more complex organic structures. From the inside, that is from the perspective of what it was like to be an individual member of an evolving species, what was happening was the creation, from nothing and out of nowhere, of (in the case of homo sapiens) the sense of wonder, the desire to know the answers to fundamental questions about life and the universe, the aesthetic sense, the notion of right and wrong, the sense of justice, the religious impulse, language, music, the discovery of logic and mathematics, the sense of
the numinous, of the ‘spooky’, of the mysterious and so on. So we need to ask ourselves: with what magical, unknown and entirely unknowable and unimaginable modes of consciousness might nature have endowed advanced extraterrestrial life forms?
No sooner have we begun to ponder this question than we realise with the force of revelation – and some dismay – that it is unanswerable. Being human with human qualities makes it impossible, in principle, for us to know what it is like to have non-human qualities. No deep source of wisdom, alien or divine, could impart it to us. We might as well try to convey colour to a congenitally blind person or quantum mechanics to a field mouse. It would be the same hopeless task. That is why sci-fi writers have anthropomorphised aliens when it comes to what they are like‘from the inside’. How could they do otherwise? Sci-fi writers, exo-biologists and SETI scientists are merely humans exploring the shores of the human imagination.
Everything we have tried to imagine about what it might like to be an extraterrestrial has only been a mirror of the human psyche. Aliens in science fiction have been coldly reptilian invaders or compassionate saviours of mankind and the rest of it, but always it has been a selecting and re-modeling of qualities inherent in, and familiar to, ourselves. How could it be otherwise? Being human, we cannot step outside ourselves to imagine what it is like to be even a member of another terrestrial species, such as a bat, as Nagel showed. Not that there was anything special about bats. What Nagel had to say applies equally to jelly-fish, giraffes, sharks, humming birds, alligators or mice, but you get the point. This barrier prevents us from ever understanding what it is like to be an alien in even more ways than it prevents a dog from ever wondering what we are reading or what it is like to read or why we prefer a Bach cantata to canine howling. Yet these other creatures are terrestrial and a dog is closer to homo sapiens than any other terrestrial species.
This is not to deny what we have in common with the other species with which we share the planet. As I opened door of my shed the other day and a startled mouse scuttled out of it into the field, I was reminded that even such tiny animals experience the same primitive emotions of fear and alarm that we do. It doubtless also experiences physical pain, hunger, rudimentary forms of love, not least for its young, companionship, courage and so on. Even a field mouse must lead a rich and complex life if we could but apprehend it – and perhaps we can dimly apprehend it, reaching down deep into our own protean nature to find an affinity. Yet it could never understand us – not that part of us that evolved later. Even its perceptual patterning is different to ours. What the shed means to the mouse is different to what it means to me. If I could see the shed through the eyes of a mouse– or the ‘soul’ of a mouse – how amazed I would be at how different its appearance, how different its significance. Extraterrestrials who had advanced along a different evolutionary path to ours might not even understand us ‘dimly’ in the way we understand a mouse. As for us understanding them, seeing the universe as they see it, apprehending what it is like to be them...well, it would not even be possible in principle.
Yet we need to ask the question ‘what is it like’ because even though it is unanswerable the reason why it is unanswerable gives us insight into the barrier that necessarily exists to communication with extraterrestrials. Now we come to the crux of the matter.
Any communication between humans and extraterrestrials must involve language of some sort. That language must use symbols of some kind. We use sounds in the air that we make with our vocal chords or marks on paper (or screen). Of course there is no cosmic censor prohibiting extraterrestrials from also using sounds in air (if they can detect sound) with some equivalent of vocal chords (if they have them) but no particular reason why they should. They are just as likely to use some other medium: light, for instance, or magnetic pulses – or some medium outside our range of perception. Anyway, they will have to use some kind of symbols – that is what language is: the use of symbols that have shared meaning. Here, though, is the rub. Humans and non-humans cannot have a shared meaning. This was the point Wittgenstein was trying to get across when he said: 'If a lion could talk, we would not understand it.' Nor could there be any possibility of translation. For not only would the language of the lion 'cut up' the world in quite a different way from ours, it would cut up a different world. It would cut up the lion world. And the world of the lion is unutterably different from the world of homo sapiens, just as the world of the bat, the beetle, the sea gull, the jelly fish...is different from the world of homo sapiens and from one another. The Rosetta stone was deciphered, after a deal of ingenuity and effort, because the message on it was written by creatures like ourselves. We can learn French or Chinese only because we have shared experiences and therefore shared meaning with the French and the Chinese. We cannot have shared meaning with a bat or a lion. What is true for any other terrestrial species is a fortiori true for any extraterrestrial species. We imagine that if one day our giant radio telescopes detect signals from deep space it is only a matter of being clever enough to decipher them. It is not like that at all. Being clever enough isn’t the problem. The problem is that even if we detect signals of life from another planet we will not be able to decipher them. The only intelligent life form that can decipher them is the one that made them: the extraterrestrials.
In any case, our means of communication with one another is a specifically human affair. The meanings we attach to words and the strings of words that are sentences are all constructs of the human mind. At first, we might be inclined to challenge this. We might concede that this is obviously so in the case prepositional words like ‘for’ and ‘to’ and‘but’ and ‘almost’ and so on and might be partially true in the case of abstract words like ‘recession’, ‘economy’, ‘association’ ‘erosion’ and ‘truth’but we imagine that these abstract words are rooted in the perceptual world so that if you unpack a word like ‘recession’ you come ultimately to things you can see and touch, like money and food – even if the relationships between them are human constructs. Even this is not so. In human language, words take their meanings from semantic links with other words, not from direct references to the thing itself. So we are profoundly mistaken if we think we can have even the shared meaning of grass with Wittgenstein’s lion. The word ‘grass’ means what it means because of semantic links to other words: to ‘outdoors’, ‘green’, ‘walk’ ‘foot’ and so on. In turn, all of these other words take their meaning from yet other words to which they are semantically linked in a vast web of meaning. This web of meaning is a construct of the human mind, which is imposed or projected onto raw sense data. Even if you were to strip the word ‘grass’ –the phonetic sound – of all its links with other words, tear it from the web, retaining just its links with perception it would still represent an abstract entity, a kind of composite of all the sense data I had ever received while walking through or seeing grass. What is left so impoverished that it cannot be said to be a word at all. It would be a chaotic mass of sense data that has not yet been organised into (specifically human) perception. That is why philosophers of language have insisted that direct apprehension of reality – that is to say, sense data - cannot get into language. We cannot expect extraterrestrials even to organise sense data the way we
do – and it may even be different sense data.
For years scientists working on the SETI program have been unaware of this barrier to extraterrestrial contact. They imagined that electromagnetic pulses could be used as a common code which would translate something from their language into something from ours and vice versa. They are only now beginning to realise the nature of the barrier that exists: they call it the Incommensurability Problem. It is extraordinary that SETI scientists have taken so long to arrive at this insight, but it can only be because they have avoided the question: what is it like to be an extraterrestrial? We may speculate on why they have avoided it but I would suggest that it has something to do with the taboo against studying consciousness. In their search for objectivity, science has always only concerned itself with studying things from ‘the outside’.
The optimism that SETI scientists still have about communicating with extraterrestrials is entirely unjustified. The barrier of incommensurability is a barrier far greater than that of the vast distances of space which separates humans from extraterrestrials. It is a barrier that seems absolute. I cannot see any way round it. I cannot see that even extraterrestrial can have found a way round it. This being the case, then it becomes immediately understandable why we have not heard from ET. Extraterrestrials just a tad more intelligent than SETI scientists would know that any message they sent would be undecipherable? Why would they go to the trouble of sending an undecipherable message?
Is there any way for a greater intelligence to communicate with us? I don’t know. We can certainly dismiss the SETI project, at least in its current form. Any series of pulsed electromagnetic radio waves that SETI might receive from some distant star may tell us that there is intelligent life out there, but it can never decipher it. It has been suggested that in our search for alien intelligence we perhaps ought not to restrict our search to electromagnetic signals from space, but wherever you look you come up against the same problem. Any message received from an alien must remain forever indecipherable because what it is like to be an alien is surely utterly unlike what it is like to be a human being.
Is it possible that there could be direct communication between us and them by means of something akin to telepathy? It is hard to imagine it. For nothing of the alien mind could be communicated to us in this way because we have only the human mind to receive it. It would not therefore be a two-way communication – so not really communication at all. Yet we cannot entirely dismiss – on logical grounds - the possibility that minds immeasurably superior to our own might have access to our minds, to our consciousness, to our inner being. What would it feel like for our minds to be accessed in this way and perhaps even manipulated? Perhaps it would feel like nothing at all. Or perhaps it has been going on so long that we have become familiar with it and simply do not recognise it. Perhaps it would feel like intuition or insight or a spiritual awakening.That is pure conjecture, of course. How strange it would be,
though, if it turned out that the astronomers with their powerful and sophisticated radio telescopes had been looking in the wrong direction.