I was reading somewhere about SETI and I was struck by the level of confidence the writer seemed to enjoy that we should be able, not only to recognise a signal from some remote aliens, but actually interpret it. It seems to me, on the contrary, that finding the signal is the ‘easy problem’ of alien communication. We might spend much longer trying to work out what they were saying than we did finding the message in the first place. In fact, it seems likely to me that we could never interpret such a signal at all.
Well, I don’t think anyone underestimates the scope of the task, but you know it can hardly be impossible. For example, we send off a series of binary numbers; binary is so fundamental, yet so different from a random signal, that they would be bound to recognise it. The natural thing for them to do is echo the series back with another term added. Once we’ve got onto exchanging numbers, we send them, like say 640 and 480 over and over. If they’re sophisticated enough to send radio signals, they’re going to recognise we’re trying to send them the dimensions of a 2d array. Or we could go straight to 3D, whatever. Then we can send the bits for a simple image. We might do that Mickey Mouse sort of picture of a water molecule: odds are they’re water-based too, so they are bound to recognise it. We can get quite a conversation on chemistry going, then they can send us images of themselves, we can start matching streams of bits that mean words to streams of bits that mean objects, and we’ll be able to read and understand what they’re writing. OK, it’ll take a long time, granted, because each signal is going to take years to be delivered. But it’s eminently possible.
The thing is, you don’t realise how many assumptions you’re making. Maybe they never thought of atoms as billiard balls, and to them methane is more important than water anyway. Maybe they don’t have vision and the idea of using arrays of bits to represent images makes no sense to them. Maybe they have computers that actually run on hexadecimal, or maybe digital computers never happened for them at all, because they discovered an analogue computing machine which is far better but unknown to us, so they’ve never heard of binary. But these are all trivial points. What makes you think their consciousness is in any way compatible with ours? There must be an arbitrarily large number of different ways of mapping reality; chances are, their way is just different to ours and radically untranslatable.
Every human brain is wired up uniquely, but we manage to communicate. Seriously, if there are aliens out there they are the products of biological evolution – no, they are, that’s not just an assumption, it’s a reasonable deduction – and that alone guarantees we can communicate with them, just as we can communicate with other species on Earth up to the full extent of their capability. The thing is, they may be mapping reality differently, but it’s essentially the same reality they’re mapping, and that means the two maps have to correspond. I might meet some people who use Urgh, Slarm, and Furp instead of North and South; they might use cubits for Urgh distances, rods for Slarm ones, and holy hibbles for the magic third Furpian co-ordinate, but at the end of the day I can translate their map into one of mine. Because they are biological organisms, they’re going to know about all those common fundamentals: death and birth, hunger, strife, growth and ageing, food and reproduction, kinship, travel, rest; and because we know they have technology they’re going to know about mining and making things, electricity, machines – and communication. And that guarantees they ‘ll be able and willing to communicate with us.
You see, even on Earth, even with our fellow humans, it doesn’t work. Look at all the ancient inscriptions we have no clue about. Ventris managed to crack Linear B only because it turned out to be a language he already knew; Linear A, forget about it. Or Meroitic. We have reams and reams of Meroitic writing, and the frustrating thing is, it uses Egyptian characters, so we actually know what it sounded like. You can stand in front of some long carved Meroitic screed and read it out, knowing it sounds more or less the way it was meant to; but we have no idea whatever what it means: and we probably never will.
What you’re missing there is that the Cretans and the Meroitic people are never going to respond to our signals. The dialogue is half the point here: if we never get an answer, then obviously we’re not going to communicate.
Though I like to think that even if we picked up the TV signal of some distant race which had actually perished long before, we’d still have a chance of working it out because there’d just be more of it, and a more varied sample than your Egyptian hieroglyphs which let’s face it are probably all Royal memorials or something.
Look, you argue that consciousness is a product of evolution. But what survival advantage does phenomenal experience give us – how do qualia help us survive? They don’t, because zombies could survive every bit as well without them. So why have we got them? It seems likely to me that we somehow got endowed with a faculty we don’t even begin to understand. One by-product of this faculty was the ability to stand back and deliberate on our behaviour in a more detached way; another happened to be qualia, just an incidental free gift.
So you’re saying aliens might be philosophical zombies? They might have no real inner experience?
Somehow I knew it would come back to qualia eventually.
More than that – I’m not just saying they might be zombies, but that’s one possibility, isn’t it?
Incidentally, I wonder what moral duty would we owe to creatures that had no real feelings? Would it matter how we behaved towards them…? Curious thought.
Even zombies have rights, surely? Whatever the ethical theory, we can never be sure whether they actually are zombies, so you’d have to treat them as if they had feelings, just to be on the safe side.
Anyway, to be honest, I don’t think I like where you seem to be going with this.
No, well the point is not that they might be zombies, but that instead of our faculty of consciousness, they might have a completely different one which nevertheless served the same purpose from an evolutionary point of view and had similar survival value. We’re the first animals on Earth to evolve a consciousness: it’s as if we were primitive sea creatures and have just developed a water squirt facility, making us able to move about in a way no other creature can yet do. But these aliens might have fins. They might have legs. You sit there blandly assuming that any mobile creature will want to match squirts with us, but it ain’t necessarily so.
No, your analogy is incorrectly applied. I’m not saying they’d want to match squirts; I’m saying we’d be able to follow each other, or have races, or generally share the commonalities of motion irrespective of the different kit we might be using to achieve that mobility.
Your problem here is really that you can’t imagine how an alien could have something that delivered the cognitive benefits of consciousness without being consciousness itself. Of course you can’t; that’s just another aspect of the problem; our consciousness conditions our view of reality so strongly that we’re not capable of realising its limitations.
Look, if we launch a missile at these people, they’ll send us a signal, and that signal will mean Stop. It’s those cognitive benefits you dismiss so lightly that I rest my case on. For practical purposes, about practical issues, we’ll be able to communicate; if they have extra special 3d rainbow qualia, or none, or some kind of ineffable quidlia that we can never comprehend – I don’t care. You might have alien quidlia buzzing round your head for all I know; that possibility doesn’t stop us communicating. Up to a point.
You know that Wittgenstein said that if a lion could speak, we couldn’t understand what he was saying?
Yes, I do know; just one of many occasions when he was talking balls. In fairness to old Wittless he also said ‘If I see someone writhing in pain with evident cause I do not think; all the same, his feelings are hidden from me.’
And the same goes for writhing aliens.