How Incomprehensible Could Extraterrestrials Be?
Weird bodies will be no problem. It's culture that will really get us.
Posted August 3, 2012
A few days ago Paul Gilster, the author of Centauri Dreams: Imagining and Planning Interstellar Exploration and the curator of Centauri Dreams, posted a thoughtful discussion of a blog entry I wrote (titled What's The Connection Between Deafness and SETI?)
His discussion and the resulting comments were fascinating, and in this post I want to carry on that conversation. I want to ask: Will extraterrestrials be so different from us as to be truly incomprehensible?
I think the answer is no. And yes.
In one of the comments, Christopher Phoenix argued that aliens could be so different from us as to be incomprehensible. He wrote,
"How can we expect to use extraterrestrials as a mirror for human behavior? If aliens are completely different from humans—both physiologically and psychologically—t may be very hard to use them as Earth human analogues. Imagine that we discover a an alien civilization with a similar pattern to social insects like bees on Earth. Perhaps the alien queen mother will wonder why Earth’s President doesn’t just kill and eat her opponents instead of holding an election ever five years, while the humans are utterly horrified over juvenile aliens’ habit of eating their weaker siblings."
Excellent point. And very well put. I love Phoenix's examples.
Okay. Let’s say that an alien race is in fact an insectoid hive mind. To be sure, they would be very strange to us. But we already have methods of studying unfamiliar cultures: anthropology, sociology, and linguistics. This is what science does. It observes, accumulates information, and tries to explain. I don’t see why we couldn’t apply these methodologies to aliens.
Still, it’s fair to ask if an alien species might be so different from us that even our science wouldn’t be able to get a grip on it. This is where things get interesting. We have to distinguish between differences caused by biology, technology, and culture. Let's look at each in turn.
I don’t think biology in itself would create that kind of radical incomprehensibility. If aliens look and act like bugs—fine: we study them until we understand their bugness. If they eat their weaker siblings, we figure out the evolutionary reasons why that is advantageous for them.
Technology presents us with a more difficult problem. Technology changes the way we think and behave. Just look at the difference between America in 1912 and 2012. People like Marshall McLuhan, Robert Putnam, Shoshana Zuboff, and Sherry Turkle have done an excellent job of explaining how printing, TV, computers, and texting have profoundly changed the way we communicate, socialize, and think.
What this means is, you can’t understand a society without understanding its technology. And that would be very difficult for us if we don't understand the technology. What if Phoenix's buglike aliens use quantum computers in their daily lives to query parallel universes on how a given action will have an effect? We’d struggle to understand that, though I think we would eventually. If you showed Ben Franklin an iPhone, he’d be amazed, but he would understand that it is a physical machine that can be understood in physical terms.
But I think culture is where we would discover the truly alien aliens, the ones that are utterly beyond our understanding. I mean culture in the broadest sense, which I would define for now as “the system of metaphors that a society uses to understand itself and set priorities.”
In using the word "culture" this way, I have in mind Ken Wilber’s “all-quadrants, all-levels” model of evolutionary development, which he discusses in several of his books, including A Theory of Everything. In this schema, there are four axes along which a society's development can be described. If you look at the diagram you'll begin to get the idea. (Here's a bigger version of the image.)
If a society is at (say) level 10 along one axis, it will probably be at level 10 on the other three. For example, level 10 in the upper-left quadrant isconceptual thinking. It’s aligned with level 10 in the other quadrants, which are the complex neocortex, the tribe/village, and magical modes of thought. When brains developed complex neocortexes, that was when they were able to sustain the social structures of tribes and villages, along with rituals of propitiation. One could also put it the other way around: tribal structures facilitated the development of the modern neocortex. These are all intimately related and mutually constituting. Each level on each axis is dependent upon, and enables, the others.
Well, so what? Here's the point I'm getting to: this schema can be extended indefinitely far in all directions. Advanced extraterrestrials would be somewhere off the chart on all four axes. By studying this schema, we can get a glimpse of just how alien to us they really would be.
That's because (as Wilber argues) each level includes all the previous ones but also transcends it. By “transcend” he means that it develops forms of thought that are simply not available to earlier levels. If you tried to explain them to earlier levels, you would fail. Individuals would lack the neural structures to conceptualize them, and societies would lack the tools to which they could be analogized.
For example, think of the difference between a nonliterate society and a literate one. It is simply not possible to explain science to a nonliterate society that has never seen, or conceived of, written language. Scientific argument is crucially dependent on the ability to externalize language and manipulate it. Scientists can’t work without text to record data precisely, manipulate it, and communicate findings accurately. This is not something you can explain to someone who has never seen a written sentence. (Here I am drawing from Walter J. Ong's brilliant book Orality and Literacy.)
So when I think of aliens that are incomprehensible to us, I don’t think of weird biologies. I think weird bodies will be the least important barrier to mutual understanding. It's the mindsets, the respective positions along the schema, that will really make planetary civilizations strange to each other.
The odds are that any civilization we find will be older than ours. We've had written history for all of 6,000 years, and spacefaring technology for about half a century. That's not much in a universe 13.7 billion years old. It's as if a baby surveyed the population of New York City. Almost all of it would be older than it was. So when we make First Contact, we're much more likely to be looking up the ladder than down it.
(I'm setting aside the question of whether evolutionary development of this kind is necessarily linear, and necessarily traversed in the same way by all intelligent species. That's a very complicated question. Some other day.)
So we do have to think seriously about the possibility of true incomprehensibility. But we can do more than just throw up our hands and wait for First Contact. In most science fiction, aliens are usually either just coded humans (e.g. Klingons) or absolutely incomprehensible (e.g. the inscrutable monolith in 2001, or the planet Solaris.) There are no gradations, no parsings of ways that minds can be different. But they can be created. I hope to write a book that does just that. I think it’s possible to say something intelligent about our ignorance.
That's what makes SETI a truly profound intellectual enterprise. I think Phoenix underestimates SETI when he writes,
"SETI—and thinking on aliens in general—suffers from the “space brother” syndrome. People, including the researchers, seem to think that programs like SETI will locate aliens who think similarly to humans, rather than considering the difficulty of communication with an intelligence totally different from our own. People seem to think that human thought patterns are universal…"
My answer to this is that serious SETI researchers are doing something much more sophisticated than simply looking for “space brothers.” The point wouldn’t be to “use them as Earth human analogues.” The one thing we can say for sure about aliens is that they won’t be just like us.
So we'd ask, What do we have in common? How are we different? What does that tell us about what’s likely to be universal among intelligent minds, and what’s specific to a given species? In short, First Contact lets us begin doing comparative sociology. And comparative evolutionary theory.
So SETI isn’t just about acquiring warm fuzzy feelings of cosmic community—though those would be nice to have. No, real SETI is motivated by learning. Meeting another intelligent species, boy, that would be a learning opportunity. A chance to make ourselves a little less provincial.
I’d like to be optimistic. I’d like to think we’d be better off than preliterates puzzling over Wikipedia on an iPad. In his book The Beginning of Infinity, David Deutsch argues that humans crossed a crucial threshold with the scientific method. We now know that everything is explainable in principle, if we make the effort to understand it. Arthur C. Clarke famously said that any sufficiently advanced technology will be indistinguishable from magic. This may be true, but we will not mistake it for magic. We have a postmodern openness to difference, a future-oriented culture, and well-established methodologies for studying the unknown. Our relative horizons are much larger than our ancient ancestors’ were.
I hope we could peer up the ladder of Wilber's schema to glimpse ways of thinking much larger and broader than our own. I'd like to think we would hold our own with aliens. In doing so, we would learn about ourselves—and possibly about our own future as a species.
If you liked this blog entry, you may like my others on SETI: