Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

Astropsychology: Wondering About Alien Nature

An unusual way to see how you fit into a broader psychological context

Astrobiologists try to generalize carefully from terrestrial life to life anywhere in the universe.  Astropsychologists would do the same for minds.  Since we don’t have alien minds to check our theories against, astropsychology is not a science yet. Perhaps it’s more a topic in bio-philosophy, but a fascinating one, a chance to explore not just the human condition but a universal equivalent, the intelligent life condition, what minds would have to deal with anytime, anywhere in the

Sci-fi authors do informal astropsychology when they imagine intelligent life from other planets. Would the aliens be out to destroy us or be helpful and kind? Would they be as nasty as Nazi’s or as enlightened as Zen masters?  Would they have our flaws or have figured out the formula for living in perfect harmony that has eluded us all this time?  Would they have our morals?  Compared to us, how would they be similar and different?

Astropsychology can take a page from anthropology. Human cultures branching out early on and evolving independently have traits in common but a whole lot of divergent traits too.  Astropsychologists would have to overcome the same cultural chauvinisms that made early anthropologists assume that other cultures should and would all converge on the one right way to live.

Life comes in three basic flavors. There are vegetative organisms without nervous systems, organisms with nervous systems, and organisms with nervous systems, and language, like us humans. The last two flavors could be called intelligent life forms since they’d have the capacity to learn, not just evolve.  Leave the vegetative organisms to the astrobiologists.  Astropsychologists would be primarily interested in aliens with nervous systems and especially languaged species like us. 

Language may seem a minor add-on but it has made a world of difference here on earth.  Organisms with nervous systems can learn, but language accelerates learning in all those ways we see human ingenuity outpacing all other known organisms.  Still, accelerated learning isn’t all we get from language. 

What do you get when you cross feelings with language?  You get a creature that is good at justifying its feelings. You get big dreams and big delusions; sound reasoning and crappy rationalizations. You get a refined capacity for empathy, an ability to put oneself in other’s shoes, which makes us both kinder and more horrible to other creatures, in that imagining being in other creature’s shoes one can imagine how to torture them most effectively. 

I believe intelligent life anywhere in the universe would be dealing with the same dilemmas it faces here, dilemmas nicely capture by the serenity prayer and variations on it. 

Languaged life brings its own special dilemmas.  For example, language gives us a capacity to delay gratification in ways other organisms can’t since we can give ourselves encouraging pep-talks about the value of long-term goals. Plenty of other organisms delay gratification but by instinct, not self-motivation. But from that capacity comes a new dilemma about how long to delay gratification. How long to hold out would be a dilemma faced by languaged aliens too.

Languaged life anywhere would face the same dilemmas we humans face and would, I suspect come up with the same dilemma resolving rationales as we have, rationales that I think of as antibodies racing from all sides to heal the open wound of serenity prayer-like dilemma, supposed moral principles that make it sound like you can always resolve the dilemma the same way.  

Take the Serenity Prayer’s dilemma:  should you try to change or accept something?  The answer is best resolved case by case with accumulated “wisdom to know the difference” between what you can and can’t change, but deciding case by case is a gamble.  What if you bet you can change something that in fact you can’t change?

To purge all doubt about a decision to change something, we employ sweeping moral principles like “you can do anything if you set your mind to it.”  To purge doubt about a decision to accept something you can employ the opposite moral principle that “you can’t change anything but your attitude.  Acceptance is the purest moral virtue and should be applied all the time.” 

Neither of these doubt-purging sweeping moral principles are honest or true.  We’re some-nipotent, not omni-potent.  We only have some power, and can only change some things. But still you hear such attempts to resolve the dilemmas once and for all, and I’m guessing that languaged life anywhere would come up with equivalents. 

I’d also bet that languaged life anywhere in the universe would have arrived at religious ideas much like ours, pantheism and monotheism, belief in an afterlife-meritocracy (born again in heaven or hell or back here on earth), belief in a God that knows what we should all be doing, and all of what I call religion’s “killer apps,” ways to rationalize tribal exceptionalism, including the big first one that my tribe (Jews) happened to come up with first:  There is only one God and he likes us best, and you can’t join us.  The others too including Christianity’s:  There’s only one God and he likes us best but you can join us. 

The authors of a recent book (Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind by Ajit Varki and Danny Brower) speculate that other life forms might have evolved language but that one of the big challenges they would face would be that with language they could foresee their own deaths, which would somehow be deadly. Only humans succeeded in acquiring language because we also acquired a capacity for denial necessary to ignore our inevitable deaths.

To me, that’s a flawed theory because it implies that denial is some further add-on beyond language.  It isn’t.  Language is inherently fuzzy, or as the people who study it say “promiscuous” meaning that words can, in effect sleep around with many meanings, promiscuous being a perfect example, a word that here doesn’t mean having sex but being loosely affiliated. 

Some like to think of language as a coding system, each word corresponding with a particular thing, but that’s only, at best true of proper names, for example Chicago, IL in one-to-one correspondence with that windy city in the Midwest.  All other words have much more malleable implications (malleable is another example of promiscuity). I’d argue that a capacity for denial through equivocation is inherent in language, not some add-on.

Elsewhere I speculate about an issue related to astro-psychology, arguing that its very likely than languaged life anywhere would have faced climate change as we have and with a similar response including plenty of denial. 

Languaged life would be a latecomer anywhere in the universe, and would eventually gain the ingenuity to harvest the fossil fuels that would have accumulated in its planet’s evolution before the languaged species evolved.  They would have figured out how to exploit it before foreseeing the consequences of using that much fuel all at once, and with language’s promiscuity would have had ways to deny the damage they were doing.  

It’s a speculation in response to what’s known as the Fermi Paradox, the question why, if the universe is so vast do we seem to be the only intelligent life form around, in other words, where is everybody?”

Carl Sagan among others speculate that intelligent life would likely be very short-lived anywhere it arises. It tends to bring about catastrophes the way it has here, one or another of which eventually wipes them out.   

It’s a discouraging speculation, and yet in a way a beautiful one.  I’ve invented a religion (R&Deism) based on it, a hands-off God who has been trying to create a self-sustainable planet and has been experimenting lately with language life,  a quick-study species that with all of its capacity for fast adaptation could become stewards of the planet. So far the experiments haven’t worked.

But any planet now, it just might.

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

more...

Subscribe to Ambigamy

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?