Picture: alien.

Picture: Blandula. 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.

Picture: Bitbucket. 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.

Picture: Blandula. 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.

Picture: Bitbucket. 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.

Picture: Blandula. 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.

Picture: Bitbucket. 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.

Picture: Blandula. 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.

Picture: Bitbucket. 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.

Picture: Blandula. 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.

Picture: Bitbucket. 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.

Picture: Blandula. 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.

Picture: Bitbucket. 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.

Picture: Blandula. 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.

Picture: Bitbucket. 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.

Picture: Blandula.

You know that Wittgenstein said that if a lion could speak, we couldn’t understand what he was saying?


Picture: Bitbucket. 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.


  1. 1. Krull says:

    You don’t think animals are conscious?

  2. 2. Lloyd Rice says:

    Krull, I believe you have misinterpreted the word “we”. What Blandula said was, “we’re the first animals on Earth to evolve consc.”. Clearly, “we” was referring to every animal since, say, frogs, and maybe even a bit before that.

    It IS interesting how quickly the conversation gets around to consc.

    I happen to believe that consc. is an inevitable byproduct of a certain combination of perceptual and integrative capabilities. I don’t know exactly what that list includes, but at some level of perceiving the world and relating one’s self (one’s actions and internal conditions) to the perceived world, it is necessary to create internal representations of things. We call these “qualia”. They serve to distinguish percepts that need to be distinct. I see no reason to believe that your red looks anything like mine, but of course, we can never know that. In my view, what things “look” (smell, taste, …) like to each of us will depend upon the exact sequence in which we had to learn to distinguish each thing from the next. And, of course, it means that all talk of zombies is nothing more than philosophical hogwash.

    I don’t know exactly what that makes me. Certainly a Materialist, possibly a Determinist. Actually, I don’t care what you call me. But I do hope I have not shut out all future communications.

    In all humility,

  3. 3. Peter says:

    Gosh, that’s right, I don’t think Blandula would want to say that no non-human animals were conscious, but he doesn’t express himself very clearly in that respect. To be honest, I think he was, as they say, on the back foot a bit in this argument.

  4. 4. David says:

    Just curious, as I’m new to the site, what is the background on the dialogue that takes place in this and other posts? I’m assuming it’s the author playing devil’s advocate with himself, but I had to ask.


  5. 5. Peter says:

    That’s right, David – it’s all me – though I quite like the fact that the site is listed in a couple of places as having multiple authors. I can often see what seem like pretty good points on both sides of the discussion, so a dialogue seems a good way of bringing them out. I think of the abacus character as Bitbucket, the mouthpiece for hard science, reductionist materialism and AI, and the cherub person as Blandula, who thinks that view, and computationalism in particular, misses important points about consciousness.

  6. 6. Kar says:

    Peter, interesting topic. I came across a piece of news a while back about a 400-year-old clam being discovered. http://www.physorg.com/news112870855.html In the process of trying to determine the clam’s age, it was inevitably destroyed. Well, the first thought came to my mind was what a cruel sentence it would have been if a human being were sentenced to become a clam and let stuck (i.e. live) under water for 400 years, without eyes, without light, without fresh air, and then got killed by some mad scientist at the end of serving the sentence. Of course, in thinking this thought, I was projecting the quality of my human consciousness into that of a clam. Can anyone even start to imagine the horror of being turned into a clam? But if the life of a clam is as miserable and depressing as a human imagining it (despite the saying “as happy as a clam”), why clams don’t commit suicide, but instead, struggle to live? Quite possible, a clam likes being a clam, and wants to live on. The point I am trying to make is: Human beings don’t understand clams. There is no way and no reason for us to communicate with a clam because our qualia are so different. By communication, I don’t mean simple things like feeding a clam to encourage it to move to a certain corner of a little aquarium. These are just feedback training. By communication, I mean a back and forth exchange of information regarding each side’s environment and situation. Even if the clam is a very wise clam, a clam that can tell us the meaning of life (clam’s life), we will still be unable to understand what it is talking about (far worse than lion speak). It may tell you the joy of staying underwater in total darkness, living day after day for 400 years, happily repeating the same boring routine thousands of times, we still cannot understand it. So, if we cannot communicate with a clam, what chance do we have in communicating with a space alien, which might even be silicon based instead of carbon based? Might I add that to a certain extent, men don’t understand women, heterosexuals don’t understand homosexuals, and communications of certain topics become difficult when the qualia regarding that topic is very different. Example: Can heterosexual understand the quality of homosexual love? Can someone who just broke up from a romantic relationship communicate the feeling to someone who has never been in a relationship, like a two-year-old kid? Alien consciousness is a tricky thing. One more thought: I suspect people who see the hard problem and people who don’t see the hard problem are having different sets of qualia in this area. Neither side seem to be able to communicate the “reasons” supporting their view to the other side, even though those “reasons” seem to be obvious to the side who is holding it.

    Imagine the horror generated when someone sends a message into outer space to our alien friend asking “Do you think the hard problem of consciousness is a real problem?” and a message comes back saying “Yes!”, followed by another message moments later saying “No!” They are having the same problem as we do….


  7. 7. Peter says:

    Thanks, Kar, although I may now have nightmares about being a clam…

  8. 8. Lloyd Rice says:

    “Obvious to the side who is holding it”, indeed. It seems obvious to me that clams simply don’t have brain cells to process “the joy of staying underwater in total darkness”. After all, we do know a fair amount about clam physiology. But then, what do I know? Are you, Kar, suggesting that the clams (or any other organisms) could have qualia that result from something other than brain cell activity?

  9. 9. Kar says:

    Lloyd, life on earth exhibits a full continuous spectrum of complexity ranging from single cell animals to insects to human beings. If I have to draw a line dividing animals that can have qualia and animals that cannot, I really don’t know where to put it. I would then reason that the level of qualia follows the same continuous distribution as the levels of complexity, instead of having a step-function like jump. That will imply even single cell animals have some sort of primitive minimal qualia that are unimaginable to us human beings. That does seem a little bit extreme, though logical. However, if you want to pursue further and ask: Does a white blood cell in my body have any sort of minimal qualia that I cannot feel? To that I have no answer, considering the fact that each white blood cell is part of me. I have some “sub-qualia” running around in my body without me knowing it? Also consider this piece of reporting: A girl, after receiving a heart transplant from a former boxer, developed a keen interest in boxing, a sport she had never before shown any interest. Perhaps our qualia are not solely determined by the brain, but has involvement from the rest of the body?

  10. 10. Lloyd Rice says:

    Kar, I agree with you on the “full continuous spectrum of complexity” of life, and as I said above in comment 2, I share your uncertainty about drawing the dividing line on qualia. But I do not see that our lack of knowledge implies a continuous distribution of aspects of qualia across species. If the presence of qualia depends, as I believe it does, on some particular combination of components, then without that combination, there are no qualia, with it, there are. I feel relatively sure that clams do not have that required combination and I am quite certain that a thermostat cannot make the grade at all. On the other hand, I also believe that the presence of additional components, over and above the required minimum, would allow more complex kinds of qualia than the bare minimum. In this way, I believe that the qualia we humans enjoy are more complex and elaborate than those of a puppie or a kitten. As for the heart transplant recipient, you did not say whether she knew her heart came from a boxer. I assume she had lots of possibilities for new-found positive influences from the sport in addition to her new heart tissue.

  11. 11. Kar says:

    Lloyd, Sorry that it has taken me so long to respond. You brought out an interesting point: A continuous spectrum of brain complexity and the existence of a threshold below which qualia do not exist for the owner of that brain (read: no owner below that threshold). It is interesting because if we apply this thresholding to the development of a human embryo, or for that matter, development of a human from the sperm+egg system to adulthood, we will conclude that a human (in its most general sense) at some point turns into a conscious being from a zombie. So out of a sudden, the brain generated an owner of its qualia. For a lot of people, this implication is worth a full discussion in its own right. But let me just comment that the threshold is a good possibility consistent with many known physical systems in which phase transitions occur, in a way not unlike an unconscious person suddenly regains his consciousness in split of a second, or even like waking up from a “dreamless” sleep. But there are dissimilarities that are worth exploring but we may not be able to fully explore here. Enjoyable discussion indeed!

  12. 12. Lloyd Rice says:

    Kar, I mostly agree. I am not entirely comfortable with the word “zombie”. You seem to use it here to refer to any living thing that does not experience qualia. I have most often seen it used in the philosophical sense only to refer to beings without qualia which would “ordinarily” be thought to have qualia. A fine point. But I do certainly believe that there are living things “below the threshold”. And I completely agree that this whole matter “is worth a full discussion”. In particular, I believe that a newly fertilized ovum would clearly be below the threshold. Fighting words, to many.

  13. 13. Lloyd Rice says:

    Peter, I just reread your dialogue and I see that you have also used the word “zombie” to mean “no real inner experience”, without further qualification. Maybe my point in comment 12 was unwarranted.

  14. 14. Gwen says:

    Isn’t it a possibility that we are the aliens and are just remembering our own consciousness? That we were evolved before but had forgotten why we are here and where we came from?

  15. 15. Peter says:

    I suppose it can’t be ruled out. (If only some of us were of alien descent it might explain some communicative difficulties I’ve experienced from time to time!)

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