IDEAS ABOUT SPACE ALIENS

by James Grossmann

What would aliens be like?

Would aliens necessarily have superhuman intelligence?

Would aliens have a significant number of concepts in common with humanity?

Would aliens behave sensibly?

How incomprehensible would alien language and thought be to us?

What, if any, emotions would aliens have?

Would aliens be good?

Why wouldn't aliens visit us?


What would aliens be like?

1.....In the first place, they might not exist. Although extraterrestrial intelligence seems theoretically likely, definitive evidence of it has never been found. But rejecting the possibility of alien intelligence seems premature. Humanity's ignorance of the universe at large is still too profound justify dismissing a theoretical likelihood merely because the evidence has yet to obligingly radiate itself onto our primitive instruments, or land on the White House lawn.

2....In the second place, alien intelligence might be so advanced and powerful that, even if we did find it, we could understand nothing about it. For all we know, Arthur C.Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey might accurately portray first contact. Aliens advanced to the point of transcending time, space, and corporeality might indeed overwhelm us humans into a state of stupefied religiosity. Then again, they might merely bore us, as a college lecturer would bore a small child.

The alien as god of disembodied light is a common theme in science fiction, but not a plausable one. Why would alien intelligence resemble our angels and deities? Why should beings formed by Nature be able to transcend it? Why believe that alien minds would abandon corporeality when not one shred of evidence exists that such abandonment is either possible or desirable?

3....It seems more reasonable to assume that even the most exotic alien beings would still be recognizable as a material entities, if only as blobs or clouds of unknown composition. Deep space might make a good home for the most advanced and exotic alien beings. Since one of technology’s chief aims is to eliminate scarcity, and since planetary resources are finite, an ancient cosmic species might eliminate scarcity once and for all by freeing each individual from reliance on the ecologic, atmospheric, and mineral resources of any particular planet. Such individuals would be born to live in space. Their bodies would be all but self-contained, requiring only energy from stars and raw materials from comets and asteroids. These beings might even be capable of interstellar travel, allowing them to socialize with distant relatives, or escape supernovas and other stellar calamities.

Such advanced beings might not be biological in the strict sense. Each might consist of microscopic machines organized into a larger whole along lines inspired by biology. Like organisms, they would possess great structural complexity and capacities for self-repair, reproduction, and independent adaptation. Like machines, their composition could include any useful material, organic or inorganic. They would also have the machine's consequent ability to store and use large amounts of energy at once.

In fact, given all the difficulties that planet-bound creatures like ourselves are likely to experience with interstellar travel, common sense dictates that the first aliens we meet are more likely to be space-faring nano-machine-life than naturally evolved organisms. But machines can’t evolve spontaneously; some life somewhere must create them. We are still left with the question of what this life might be like.

5....So we arrive at a conservative approach: that our ideas about alien intelligence should conform to science and our knowledge of humans. We will suppose the following about space aliens.

5....This conservative stance still leaves plenty of room for all sorts of speculation about the nature of alien beings.

Science fiction writers have set down hundreds of speculations about aliens more imaginative than these. So now we will turn our attention to some speculations that this writer has not heard before about how aliens might talk and think.


Would aliens necessarily have superhuman intelligence?

1....It has been argued that any aliens we might encounter would be so intelligent that nothing worth communicating in their estimation could be understood by human beings. After all, what would we have to say to ants?

While it seems likely that intellect has evolved many times in the universe, it is unlikely that all intelligence evolved in the same instant of galactic time as homo sapiens. Therefore, any contemporary extraterrestrial civilization would have originated in the vast stretches of time before the human era. At first blush, it seems reasonable to assume that such a civilization would have evolved by now into something much smarter than Humanity. But this development is far from inevitable; a number of factors could prevent it.

2....For one thing, selection for superhuman intelligence might never occur naturally. Thanks to the technology granted us by mere human ingenuity, our species cannot be said to undergo natural selection for intelligence at all. The comforts of civilization preserve the dull and the clever alike. If a sentient species generated too much pollution, Nature might select for resistance to poisons and radioactivity, but superhuman intelligence would have to be artificially selected or genetically engineered.

3....Aliens might never make these choices. The desire to extend the power of the individual in this manner might be peculiarly human. Extraterrestrials no smarter than humans might create artificial intelligence, and re-evaluate native intelligence as we humans have re-evaluated physical prowess over the years.

Back when Beowulf was written, physical prowess had fundamental political and economic importance: wars were waged, and technology was powered, chiefly by human muscle. Heroes with superhuman strength, agility, and stamina were not comic book curiosities, but serious subjects of epic poetry. That was before steam, gas, guns, and atomic power. In the modern era, the nature of the value placed on physical prowess has changed dramatically. It is now a desirable personal characteristic: necessary for good health, admired by others, handy in a fight, but not nearly as important to society as it once was. Intelligence, however, continues to be prized as it was in ancient times, not only as one of the chief measures of a man or woman, but also as a force that fuels civilization. Though the anything-goes ramblings of intellectuals remain unpopular, the intelligence that designs our cities, creates the latest art forms, discovers new science, and sues rivals into poverty is all but deified--so much that most of us assume that any species capable of doing so would amplify its intelligence to astronomical levels. All that might change when profound thinking becomes something a mere machine can do.

Aliens who have had artificial intelligence for millennia might be no more impressed with superhuman intellect than we are with the physical strength of our bulldozers. To such aliens, intelligence might be a desirable personal characteristic; necessary for self-fulfillment and belonging, admired by others, handy for making plans, but not nearly as important as other virtues, such as Identity, Morality, Inner Beauty, Piety, Loyalty, Pleasure, or ideals beyond human ken.

Some aliens might never venerate intelligence as we do in the first place. Consider a species with only one sentient sex. Perhaps the smarter sex would declare itself superior, but in appreciating the value of the opposite sex, it might instead reject the notion that intellect constitutes the chief virtue of its species.

The exaltation of reason and the desire to be something more than an animal may be peculiarly human. Other sentient species may define their own civilizations as vast networks of husbandry--continent-wide parks, if you will--organized for the benefit of non-sentient as well as sentient life. Just as some humans think of pets as part of the family, some aliens might think of their fauna as part of society. These aliens might value intelligence only as much they value food and other crucial commodities. Once they had developed enough brains to care for "everybody" (themselves and all animals capable of emotion), they might not pine for more.

4....In addition, many sentient species could be incapable of developing the technology necessary to genetically engineer a new, super-intelligent species. Genetic engineering presupposes an advanced scientific culture, made possible by the mathematical talent of a small minority. Mere sentience does not presuppose the presence or development of such talent.

Consider the thousands of prehistoric human societies that must have had strong mythic and poetic traditions but not much in the way of mathematics. Probably only a small percentage of these people were utterly lacking in mathematical talent, but in societies without much mathematics, this would not have been a handicap. Many alien sentient species could have subhuman mathematical ability, but still enjoy the other benefits of intellect.

In fact, since the advanced mathematics now spread throughout our world has been instrumental in the creation of forces that may yet destroy our species, it is possible that alien races with world-preserving cultures (e.g. similar to Native North American) and subhuman mathematical aptitude greatly outnumber alien races who are more like ourselves. Without mathematics, this majority might have only as much incentive for selectively breeding super-normal intelligence as it would for the similar pursuit of super-normal height.

5....It is by no means clear that the course of an eons-old civilization would be characterized by continual progress. Progress could be periodically halted or reversed by numerous natural, social, or technologically-induced calamities, which could precipitate countless dark ages of countless years in length. Since civilization impedes natural selection, evolution itself might periodically dim the light of sentience in any nation that survived long enough.

Even without such problems, aliens might not pursue a course of technological development as rapid and destructive as our own. So-called progress is depleting the resources we depend on--everything from minerals to medicine to food. A geologically ancient species might avoid our pace of change, exercising a degree of control over technological development as incomprehensible to Humanity as adult self-control is to a one year-old. Discipline, rather than intellect, might be the greatest strength of the oldest civilizations in the Cosmos.

6....The suggestion that any contemporary sentient species would be too advanced to be interested in contacting us might be true. However, this would not prevent an entire network of species with intelligence comparable to Humanity's from eventually contacting us. Time travel eliminates the apparent contradiction, and might constitute an effective means of interstellar contact.

Journeying between stars, at ANY percentage of the speed of light, would take a long time according to the clocks on one's planet of origin. One might theoretically travel to the future at speeds close to that of light, but this may never be practical, because collision with even the tiniest interstellar particles would be dangerous at such speeds. It would be more practical to genetically engineer one's astronauts so that they could live long, consume little, and travel to the future more-or-less as we do.

Once in the future, our space travelers might be able to use an exotic configuration of matter akin to a black hole to travel back into the past, and thereby return to the points in time and space that they call home. At least, the current version of Einstein's theory allows for the bare possibility.

All this could be the foundation of an indefinitely large interstellar network. Aliens from the vast stretches of future time could visit us by traveling back into their past, and go home again by making a long interstellar trip. Aliens from the vast stretches of past time could visit us by making a long interstellar trip, and go home again by traveling into the past. In practical (if not theoretical) terms, time for the interstellar traveler would become little more than a new kind of distance from port to port. If contemporary species were too advanced to want to contact us, countless species from the past or future might be interested and able. Intellectually, these species might be no more god-like than ourselves.


Would aliens have a significant number of concepts in common with Humanity?

Technologically advanced aliens would have to. They would have to know space, time, number, cause and effect, agency and inanimacy, and other concepts. They would have to be able to communicate and think abstractly about the structures and functions of the things in their environments, present and future. They would have to be able to imagine and discuss counterfactual conditions and thereby form hypotheses. They would have to be able to teach their young the skills needed to maintain a culture, from food harvesting to home building. They would have to have the basic good sense that deities are alleged to have given rocks.


Would aliens behave sensibly?

Information and reasoning skills needed to correctly perceive and cope with the physical environment and the expectations of one's fellows, common to nearly everyone of average or better intellectual and social competence, we may call "common sense." At first blush, it seems reasonable to assume that the behavior of all sentient beings would consistently reflect this faculty. We would expect any intelligent organism to have sense enough to flee from danger, seek shelter from the elements, feed itself regularly, and move around rather than into obstacles. Arguably, all sentient species would possess such good sense by definition, but whether they would display it with any degree of consistency is another issue entirely. In humans, common sense is often overridden by emotions and beliefs.

Let's suppose that such lapses could be observed by aliens ignorant of human psychology. Let's call these beings "naive observers," and stipulate that they regard behaviors that defy common sense as indicative of intellectual deficiency. This limited perspective would not prevent correct inferences about human intelligence from our technology and group movements, but would hinder correct evaluation of common sense in particular individuals. For instance ...

Many of our attitudes and beliefs that take precedence over common sense could be peculiar to our species. Aliens might have no conception of them. We in turn might have no inkling of the attitudes and beliefs that would make aliens seem oblivious to the most pressing realities.

Since small groups of aliens could travel farther through space than whole colonies, we might meet aliens individually before encountering large contingents of them. If so, the pitfalls of the naive standpoint illustrated here could prevent us from correctly evaluating their intellect or common sense.

It should be noted that non-sentient creatures in their natural habitats deviate from the dictates of common sense far less often than humans do. Wild animals tend to feed themselves, avoid danger, and perpetuate their kind dependably, unless physically prevented from doing so.

Far from ruling out intelligence, a lack of adequate caution and self-care among mature, alert higher organisms could be indicative of this virtue. Chowder-headed behavior could be common to all sentient life. Then again, intelligent species could vary in the reliability with which they display common sense. To Humanity, consistently sensible aliens would be alien indeed.


How incomprehensible would alien language and thought be to us?

1....It is tempting to argue that alien language and thought would bear strong general similarities to ours. Since Nature is the same in the universe at large as it is on Earth, wouldn't intelligent responses to its universal laws and their consequences entail mastery of a similar set of concepts among even the most disparate sentient species?

2....An affirmative answer to this question does not imply that extraterrestrial thought would be easily accessible to humans. While natural objects and forces, and the relationships among them, might be similar for all intelligent life, symbols for them would be arbitrary, and subject to limitless variation. All symbols for abstract facts of life would be necessarily arbitrary. Mathematics, gravitation, radiation, electricity, times of day, feelings--none are picturable, so nothing guarantees that we could understand alien expressions of them.

3....Suppose, for example, that Earth is atypical because biologically-based radio communication never evolved here. The signals of sentient beings with biological radio would not resemble our artificial transmissions. Since humans brains have no sites for perceiving radio messages, our machine transmissions are designed to be converted into things we can perceive, such as sounds, pictures, and written notation. No such conversion would be necessary for aliens who could perceive radio as easily as we perceive sound. They would assign meanings to variations in the properties of the signals themselves; variations which would not have to be translatable into anything that humans could understand. A man on the street might have an easier time learning to understand FAX pulses without instruction than our linguists would have in learning a form of communication evolved for the air waves.

4....But let us be conservative and assume that aliens communicate as most humans do, through sound artificially supplemented by writing. A number of factors could still make an alien tongue much harder to translate than even the most exotic or isolated human language. Part of the difficulty might arise, ironically, from general similarities between alien and human speech.

5....Humans are neurologically suited to perceiving speech as a succession of distinct consecutive sounds articulated in discrete bundles of words and sentences. But the separateness of the elements of speech is an illusion induced by our ability to decode sounds into language. In normal speech, we use no actual pauses to separate words spoken in the same breath, and the acoustic correlates of sounds we hear as separate and consecutive often overlap. Overlapping sounds and a lack of pauses make human speech very efficient. Speech does not usually sound fast when we hear it, because our brains are suited to perceiving it efficiently. But try transcribing running speech, or listening to the native speaker of a foreign language, and the speed of human speech becomes apparent at once. Alien speech would probably be efficient too.

6....Human speech sounds are complex, and this facilitates a necessary redundancy. What we hear as "one sound" may actually be a number of different acoustic cues spread throughout the syllable. This redundancy makes it difficult for human speech to be obscured by noise. A single acoustic cue for a speech sound might go unheard in a gentle wind, but this is less likely with multiple cues. Alien speech might have similar properties.

7....Human brains are suited to hearing a given speech sound as remaining the same when it occurs in different contexts. But according to acoustic measurements, noises we perceive as "the same speech sound" vary with their positions in words and phrases, the style of speech used, and other factors. For instance, objective acoustic measurements reveal that the "p" sounds in "pot" and "spot" are not really the same sound. This kind of variability is partly due to sound pattern rules that vary from language to language.

When we hear a speech sound such as "p," uttered in different contexts, we are really hearing a family of similar sounds, called a "phoneme." Grouping similar sounds into phonemes is something the human mind does when it learns a language.

We hear "r" and "l" as separate consonants because the rules of English group a bunch of similar sounds into two phonemes, "r" and "l." The rules of Japanese group the same sounds into one phoneme. That is why native Japanese speakers do not hear the difference between English "r" and "l" as native English speakers do. For exactly similar reasons, native English speakers do not hear sound distinctions that are crucial in other languages, such as the difference between "b" and unaspirated "p" heard by speakers of some Asian tongues.

In short, the discovery of the basic elements of a human language involves more than searching for simple acoustic regularities. Identifying phonemes is a complex perceptual skill, facilitated by the fact that our brains are adapted for decoding human speech, and by our acquaintance with human language. Identifying the elements of an alien language would also be a complex perceptual task, hindered by the fact that our brains are not suited for decoding alien speech, and by our unfamiliarity with alien languages.

8....Perhaps it would be easier to decode alien speech if their mouths were similar to our own. If their organs of sound production were the same as ours, their languages might develop sound patterns like ours. But the spontaneity of evolution makes this too much to hope for.

Who knows what organs the aliens would talk with? Human evolution provides no clues; we have no organs evolved primarily for speech. Although our vocal tract is slightly adapted for conveying messages, its main functions are still eating and coughing. An alien mouth, evolved for the consumption of animals and plants unknown on Earth, might differ dramatically from the human version. Then again, structures other than the mouth might be adapted for speech. For instance, redundant eardrums might evolve into vibratory membranes used for talking.

Worse yet, it might be common for alien sentient species to communicate with organs originally evolved for sending messages: organs that their sub-sentient ancestors used for territorial or sexual display. If so, anything goes, since Nature permits diverse and absurd structures for attracting mates and bluffing enemies. An alien whose ancestors were blessed with a natural pipe organ that did the work of peacock feathers might possess a hundred voices to speak with. Human speech sounds require, at most, one voice. Correctly grouping such an alien's sounds into phonemes might be very hard.

9....Incidentally, what if the aliens were better than humans at transmitting lots of information simultaneously? If their speech sounds were more complex than ours, each might contain as much information as a phrase or sentence in a human language. Each of their speech sounds might simultaneously convey what something is and what it is doing, and so stand for an event. In recordings of many such overlapping complex speech sounds, how could we identify the acoustic cues that correspond exactly to even a single human word?

Multiple sets of speech organs could transmit a lot of information simultaneously. Such organs might be used together. Humans, after all, do not confine themselves to using only one hand. Simultaneous utterances confuse human listeners, but this is a limitation of our neurology. Aliens with multiple speech outputs would have brains suited to the possession of these, and might easily utter and listen to more than one concurrent stream of speech.

Let's be conservative and assume that these aliens would need the ability to stick to one subject as much as we do. In that case, our multiple sound outputs might serve to convey one stream of language, whose grammar would therefore be rich with rules of concurrence and counterpoint absolutely foreign to humans. Translators baffled by this obstacle might also have problems with a language not spoken, but signed with a hundred feelers originally evolved for display.

Alien speech and/or alien superiority in the ability to transmit information simultaneously might make their systems of writing tough for humans to comprehend. Without consonants, vowels, syllables, or words in the human sense, who knows what their written signs would correspond to?

10....Bizarre speech or sign production in aliens could affect the structure of their languages in ways that make translation difficult. But even if we embrace a reactionary conservatism, and insist that their speech would have elements perceivable to us as consecutive sounds, words, and sentences, the translator might still have a hard time.

11....Grammar could be a problem. Differences in the ways that humans construct sentences are numerous and baffling. Alien syntax might be more puzzling by orders of magnitude, even supposing only slight differences between their abilities and ours.

The rules of some human languages allow speakers to utter sentences of paragraph length without confusion. Aliens better able to sustain attention than humans might utter many complete thoughts in chapters, in which modifying words and phrases occur at absurdly great distances from the terms they qualify.

Aliens for whom the use of a superhuman vocal range was sufficiently effortless might use tone more extensively than humans do. Sufficient variation in voice quality and relative pitch could do the work of all our particles, prepositions, articles, and other grammar words. In the language of aliens with superhuman memory, the number of variant and irregular forms might seem impossibly high to us. Similarly, the number of synonyms and words in general might be staggering, along with the length of both sentences and proper names. Alien syntax might differ from ours in countless other ways, including subtle and profound ways conceivable only by linguists or mathematicians. But less abstruse difficulties might also present themselves.

12....There are two great facilitators for learning an unknown language: the resemblance of the unknown language to a known one, and native speakers of the unknown language, who can gesture, point, emote, and babysit potentially bilingual toddlers.

For the translation of an alien language, we can forget the first; not one root, suffix, or grammatical structure would be related to that of any known language except by the sheerest coincidence. As for the second facilitator, it is unlikely that aliens could be as helpful as humans in teaching us their unknown tongues. We could not interpret their facial expressions or body language; the series of evolutionary and cultural accidents that shape such signals would take different courses on different worlds.

For example, aliens might not point at anything. Pointing could be their ultimate taboo. Or it might carry arbitrary alien meanings, placing the human translator in the position of an ignorant person trying to figure out what the semaphore flags are pointing at. Meanwhile, the most innate alien gestures of location and distance could be as foreign to Humanity as the instinctive dances of honeybees.

It is generous to assume that aliens would use gestures, rather than sounds or changes in skin color, in their innocent attempts to draw attention to some object. Three properties of sound, such as pitch, loudness, and quality, could be varied independently to specify approximate coordinates in three-dimensional space. Sound duration differences or concurrent blinking could specify trajectories. Similarly, a spot of skin color change could indicate general direction by its location on the body. Specific direction and distance could be conveyed by the shape and color of the spot.

All this leaves toddler-swapping; humans and alien young are ferried back and forth between Earth and the flying saucers, so that they grow up conversant in both human and alien languages. This might work, but could easily be impeded by an important obstacle: alien thought, as conditioned by metaphor, other cultural factors, and neurology.

13....Although high school grammars describe metaphor as a means of embellishing composition, its contribution to language and thought is more fundamental and pervasive. Metaphor gives us idioms. It helps us match words with images and use old words to discuss new ideas. What is more, some of Humanity's most commonly expressed concepts are often couched in metaphor.

For instance, many of us here on Earth describe time in spatial terms. English speakers can get behind or ahead of schedule, and do things on, in, or throughout a day, which might be long or short. We can arrive at 3:00, or merely around that time. We can wonder about events far back in the distant past, and hope that our children can look forward to the near future. Meanwhile, philosophers can discuss our Western linear concept of time.

Spatial metaphors also express abstract ideas besides time. One likes to have close friends, but for great statesmen, priorities over and above this may be far removed from social fulfillment. Bodily motion also supplies images for the metaphorical expression of abstractions. Men and women hope that their friends will not shut them out, push themselves too hard, or run themselves into the ground. Meanwhile, young people embrace new ideas that their elders find difficult to swallow. This ridiculously brief treatment only hints at how much we depend on metaphor in our thought and language.

The assumption that alien language would also be rich with metaphor seems sensible. Intelligence implies the ability to make comparisons, and metaphor allows words to carry extra meanings without confusion, which is efficient.

Even so, nothing in the laws of physics, nothing in the laws of logic, and nothing in any presumed basic behavioral patterns prerequisite to intelligence dictates that even the most common metaphors in alien languages would have to resemble our own. Consider these statements:

All the latter sentences are nonsense--except for beings who use sound as a metaphor for time and timing in expressing the following ideas:

Knowing the context of this little game, and provided with enough simple examples, any clever person could catch on to the sonic time metaphor illustrated here. But remember how nonsensical the examples seemed at first, and how nonsensical they would still seem outside this context. Then remember how pervasive and elaborate English spatial time metaphors are. Then remember that we humans use more than one major metaphor to talk about abstractions.

What if aliens had dozens of major metaphors to work with, all foreign Humanity? What if they relied more than humans on metaphors taken, not from Nature, but from cultural references? Any alien discourse above the level of "The stone is on my foot," would then confront the translator with a monumental wall of apparent nonsense, whose dimensions could take lifetimes to fathom.

Perhaps a human child raised among both humans and aliens could understand and explain alien metaphors. Then again, human children might be innately handicapped when it came to learning an alien language.

Some comparisons might come more naturally to aliens than to humans, and visa versa. In that case, metaphor might prevent even a child raised part-time among aliens from acquiring adequately sophisticated self-expression in the alien language.

But let's be stubborn, and assume that alien metaphor would resemble our own to the precise extent that alien experience would. Let's suppose that being able to see what we see, walk as we walk, and pick things up and manipulate them as we do, would prompt aliens to adopt figures of speech closely analogous to our own. Even granted this chauvinistic premise, alien metaphor could still be extremely difficult for humans to comprehend if aliens had experiences unknown to Humanity.

Non-human sensory powers could create vast experiential sources for alien metaphor inaccessible to human acquaintance. Consider aliens who could echolocate, see infrared light, taste and smell better than humans, deliberately transmit and receive pheromones, and perceive electrical fields or radio transmissions. A human child attempting acquire metaphors based on such experiences would be laboring under a sensory handicap.

14....Metaphor is not the only cultural factor that could hinder the erstwhile interpreter of alien communication. Aliens might define 'appropriate communication' in ways unheard of on Earth, and unfriendly to any humans trying to make sense of them. Even in familiar human cultures, the definition of acceptable forms of contact may have little apparent basis in reason. For instance ...

In the face of all of the unfathomable deeds performed in the name of communication by the cultures most familiar to us, we can make no definitive assertions about what aliens would consider appropriate in the transmission of sentiments and ideas. Would aliens greet us by buzzing our atmosphere with floating lights for a century or two? Would they announce their presence by dismembering local fauna? Would custom restrict them to non-verbal interaction with anyone outside their own species? Would they hide themselves collectively, as we hide our naked bodies individually? Far from being ridiculous, such questions are probably too conservative. Non-human ideas about appropriate interaction could prevent any human--child or adult--from acquiring even a single word of alien language.

15....Then, there is science. Since the natural sciences make the greatest number of references to truths about the universe that hold for all rational beings, and since science depends on mathematics whose application is equally valid for all technologically advanced cultures, it seems reasonable at first blush to assume that discourse on the natural sciences would be the next best thing to a universal language, providing humans and aliens with a completely common set of referents with which to teach one another their symbolic systems. However, several considerations cast doubt on this optimistic vision.

Differences between alien and human neurology that could hinder communication between sentient species have already been mentioned or hinted at a number of times above. Let us now consider the possibility that representations of the natural world might vary across sentient species not only at the level of language, but also at the level of neurology.

The extraordinary advancement of science in this century has lulled many of us English speakers into believing that the human brain has no inherent limits--that only the burdens of history and finite time prevent us from attaining a correct and universal account of reality--that human intellect, considered apart from emotion or appetite, has no natural weaknesses that condition its perception of the world.

If the mind were visible and tangible, the absurdity of this bias would be apparent to everyone. Consider the human hand. Faced with the potential infinity of objects it can create, some fool might claim that nothing could limit its powers of manipulation. Yet the hand is frail, finite, and peculiarly configured. An engineer could easily design tools unsuited for it, even basic tools needed for the manufacture of all other devices. Such tools might confront the fingers with an impossible reach, a requirement for more or fewer fingers than we have, or a hopeless overestimation of human grip strength. With such tools literally beyond Humanity's grasp, alien hands might construct artifacts that do the same work that ours do. Who is to say that analogous considerations could not apply to alien brains?

Information about the relative infirmities and strengths of the human brain might suggest ways in which alien cognition could differ from our own. For example, consider the partial specialization of our two cerebral hemispheres.

One contains the best sites for language processing, while the other is better at processing spatial information. Sure enough, human language is infirm when it comes to describing sights. What painter, however skilled, could reproduce a detailed photograph from a written description alone? For humans, a picture is worth a thousand words.

The same might not be true for aliens, whose language and spatial reasoning centers could be more integrated than ours. A nervous system capable of integrating visual and verbal information, such that it could command a naturally acquired symbolic system that does the work of both language and digitized photography, could contain an intelligence comparable to our own. Yet our psycholinguists might strive in vain for years to understand the expression of such a strangely integrated way of thought. Humans researching such alien minds could be conceptually hobbled by their own partly split brains.

Representation of reality at the level of neurology might vary from human norms in other ways. For example, what if alien brains were much better suited than ours at applying the strange concepts of advanced science to their everyday experience? Quantum mechanics and general relativity, which lie beyond the grasp of this writer and most other humans, might be easy to picture for another species. If this were reflected in their everyday language, we might despair of understanding much of what they have to say, even if some of it could be translated into a human tongue.

Who knows how alien thinking might differ from Humanity's? Pairing concepts into opposites seems more natural to us than arranging them in threes. Attending to the present is easier for us when we forget the past. The geometric simplicity of our artificial objects is easier for most of us to understand than the fractal riot of natural forms. These are ideas about the way we think, not the constitution of reality. Perhaps aliens could deal just as effectively with reality as we do without sharing these habits of thought. If the alternative habits proved inconceivable to us, would they therefore be impossible for all species, or just ours?


What, if any, emotions would aliens have?

1....Alien sentient beings might not have emotions, but a common sense line of reasoning suggests that they probably would. If the aliens are sophisticated organisms, in more-or-less the same sense that we are, their physiological states and behavioral sets would vary in consistent ways across classes of situations--benign, reproductive, satiating, threatening. Said physiological states and behavioral sets would have, in conscious organisms, subjective correlates, which the aliens could recognize, name, discuss, and otherwise express. Why not call these subjective correlates "feelings" or "emotions?"

2....Be that as it may, the degree to which aliens would conceptualize or experience their emotions as we do is anyone's guess. Just as similar tasks can be performed by different machines, so similar behavioral sets might be triggered by different neurologies in human and alien brains. For this reason, being angry with an alien brain might feel different from being angry with a human brain. In what way, we could never know; we humans can barely understand other humans whose tastes and opinions differ from our own. Actual differences in brain physiology might put alien feelings forever out of reach of our empathy.

However, it is a safe bet that, after sufficient contact with aliens possessing a complement of emotions superficially similar to ours, careful study of their behavior would reveal subtle differences between their anger and ours, their joy and ours, their sorrow and ours, and so on--if only because they would not be primates, and their brains would not be made of organic materials found on Earth.

3....Of course, culture has a profound effect on emotional life. Although all humans might be born with the same capacities for happiness, sadness, curiosity, anger, desire, and other feelings, culture dictates when and how these feelings should be expressed. Arguably, some emotions are themselves products of culture. Embarrassment and jealousy are good candidates. So it is that the members of distinct human societies, meeting for the first time, might find each other's emotional responses exotic, threatening, or ridiculous.

Since humans have trouble understanding the feelings of other humans across cultural lines, it is difficult for us to even speculate about how culture might influence the emotions of alien sentient beings. Maybe it’s enough to say that aliens might not share even the most common human notions of what is absurd or sensible, restrained or extreme, authentic or affected, significant or trivial, sublime or repugnant, obsessive or fickle, or pathological or healthy when it comes to emotional response.

4....Alien emotions, like our own, might be influenced by biological and ecological factors.

There is no guarantee that the manner in which aliens experience and conceptualize their emotions would bear even a superficial resemblance to our own.

Values might serve as feelings for many other types of beings. While no theoretical consideration prevents machines from having emotions, an artificial person powered by fission would not need adrenaline, and its programming would probably reflect more useful dictates than those of passion.


Would aliens be good?

1....Would aliens embrace moral principles that most humans hold dear? The answer to this question depends one's assumptions about the nature of ethics. This writer will assume that ethical systems are institutions used to influence people, and that ethics probably evolved from commands given by our sub-human ancestors to their young. With this in mind, consider any society of rational beings for whom the following held true:

Any society fitting this description, no matter what its ideology, would have to institute a system of rules that specify what individuals must do in a way that psychologically reconciles private desires to the demands of public need. Let's call such systems ethical. Such a system might begin as a list of things one must do or refrain from doing, and later be supplemented by a set of principles.

2....Ethical rules and principles are delineated by emotions as well as public needs. For any sentient species possessed of them, emotions would determine the range of behaviors one might expect from individuals, and make the successful institution of any given ethical rule or principle more or less probable.

A prohibition against harming infants is consonant with the emotions of beings who reproduce slowly and psychologically bond with their helpless young. A rule dictating the use of infants for nourishment in times of famine is less likely to be instituted by the same species. However, another species that reproduced quickly and bore independent young might embrace this alternative to starvation.

It seems clear that some ethical principles are instituted in nearly every human society, partly because some public needs are accurately perceived by and common to almost all cultures, and partly because some human emotional responses spring from biology, and so have a universal influence on ethical thought. For example, incest taboos prevent inbreeding and preserve kinship structures in most cultures, and the prohibition against murder is consonant with the universal, geologically ancient fear of mortal injury.

3....The claim that ethics are institutions demands at least a rough explanation of what kind of institutions they are. Ethical systems make demands on our personal conduct and theoretically apply to all members of society, like the law. But the power to interpret ethical principles and make moral judgments is dispersed throughout society, like economic spending power. Even in cultures that give an elite person or group the final say on ethical matters, moral authority is still dispersed among nosy friends and relatives, people who raise children, and anyone facing a moral dilemma.

The power to invent ethical principles may or may not be dispersed. At one extreme, a single person could go up to a mountain and come back with a complete system of ethics and law allegedly written by a deity who threatens to destroy all those who disobey. At the other extreme, the development of ethics might entail many interpretations of the teachings of numerous sages over time.

All this dispersal poses little threat to the ethical rules that society requires to survive. Uniformity in emotion and accurate perception of public needs are sufficient to maintain a fair amount of moral consensus in any given society. Only isolated and short-lived groups such as cults would institute complete relaxations of crucial rules like the prohibition against murder. Furthermore, information and persuasion that promote moral consensus can spring from various sources, such as elders, churches, political groups, sages, scripture, philosophy, and folk wisdom.

4....Since ethical systems are so beneficial and pervasive, the fact that people often disobey them needs to be explained.

5....Also requiring explanation is variation of ethical rules across societies. If ethics fulfill social needs common to all societies, why do humans have so many disagreements about what is right and wrong? Also, why do ethics change? Sometimes, defective ethics are the reason. An ethical rule or principle can be called defective if it fails to contribute to social integrity, or has a destructive effect on part or all of the society in which it is instituted. Defective ethics may arise from the fallibility of rational beings or from the exploitation of people. Other sources of variation in ethical systems are necessary and unavoidable, including the need to assert cultural identity, and the differing circumstances in which societies find themselves.

6....The fallibility of rational beings could insure the existence of the following kinds of ethical defects:

7....Since ignorance is an important source of our fallibility, advances in human knowledge have prompted ethical change. Human sacrifice may have seemed right for people who believed it necessary to appease the god who caused Spring to come. Whipping crazy people may have seemed right for people who believed in demonic possession. Beating children may have seemed right for people who thought that this correction was necessary. Now we know better, so the relevant ethics have changed.

Differences among cultures in accumulated knowledge will produce corresponding differences in ethical systems. The ever greater accumulation of knowledge within a society could theoretically lead to ethical progress, entailed by the elimination of ethical rules founded on superstition. But in practice, the ethical progress one might expect from the advancement of knowledge is wiped out by the power and consequent temptations that new knowledge creates. So in America, for instance, no one wants to burn witches anymore, but the majority accepts burning and defoliating countries who won't play ball with our corporations. This brings us to the next factor that can make ethical systems differ.

8....Human beings are inherently exploitative. If we were angels, we would exploit only things. None of us wishes to be exploited, so all of us could agree in principle to prohibit the exploitation of people. Unfortunately, exploiting people gains economic utility as societies become more economically complex. Sure enough, most human ethical systems allow the exploitation of people, but differ from one another and change over time when it comes to who is permitted to do the exploiting, in what manner, and to what degree. In one society, the clergy gets inordinate police powers. In another, landowners get to enslave people. In still another, the military enforces the use of other societies for raw materials and cheap labor. So it is that each society's ethics might in turn emphasize piety, property rights, and patriotism.

A large agrarian or industrial society can remain stable and yet allow the exploitation of even a majority of its people. In fact, this state of affairs has characterized all agrarian or industrial societies from ancient times across radically different cultures throughout our world. But the economic usefulness of exploitation eventually leads to its escalation, which weakens society in all too familiar ways. Societies become less stable as the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Chronic tensions erupt between the victims of exploitation, who hate their mistreatment, and the perpetrators, who perceive the demands of the oppressed as excessive. Riots, increased crime, and social disintegration result. Maximizing the exploitation of the public in any society entails keeping the public ignorant or misinformed, which compromises education and decreases a society's ability to exploit its own knowledge and adapt to its own technological advances.

Humanity's physical and intellectual uniformity helps limit the exploitation of people. Exploitative leaders must maintain their friendships and carefully limit public outrage; they do not have the option of quashing rebellion by trampling cities and burning the rebels with their radioactive breath. Some exploitative leaders imagine that they are smarter than the people, but they are not, and the mistakes that flow from their inflated opinion of themselves weaken their organizations and move their societies ever closer to revolution or chaos.

9....Fortunately, there are less odious sources of ethical variation and change, including the need to express cultural identity. Oddly enough, this universal human imperative can only be satisfied by having different rules in each society. Society A worships God X, eats bread only on Mondays, never brings clocks into barns, and esteems consistent concealment of the toes as a sign of decency. Society B worships God Y, eats anything other than dogs, insists on nearly continuous hat-wearing, and rejects all public and most private nudity except on beaches, where nakedness is perfectly okay. This writer will call such regulations "identity rules."

Identity rules can be defective. Some are incompatible with liberty, an ethical principle of unparalleled utility in reconciling private desires and public needs. Some identity rules cannot be changed, and therefore promote fear of innovation and reluctance to adopt beneficial foreign ideas and populations. Identity rules can also become symbols of social divisiveness, and even badges for groups that persecute others.

But identity rules can also be beneficial. Although many of them have no discernible function when considered by themselves, taken together, they can communicate a solidarity--a society-wide sense of trust and belonging--more fundamental than loyalty expressed in mere words. Furthermore, identity rules can inspire resistance to hostile outsiders, and enhance the perception of social continuity across time.

Some identity rules, in and of themselves, do represent practical ways of satisfying public needs, but serve to identify a particular society because they represent one of several equally viable alternatives. Monogamy can be facilitated by arranged or couple-initiated marriage. A society can remain stable with either, and can help to identify itself through its fidelity to one arrangement or the other.

10....Finally, ethical rules will vary or change when the circumstances of the societies in question vary or change.

11....So at last we come to the ethics of non-human intelligent life. If one accepts the kind of assumptions made about ethics here, it follows that many factors influencing ethical systems on Earth could vary considerably from world to world, and make alien ethics differ from our own. In the examples below, some common rules will be used to illustrate such differences.

12....Even if similar to our own, ethics in an alien society might be conceptualized and promoted in ways unfamiliar to our species. Although this writer maintains that ethics are institutions evolved to influence people, the fact that other writers can disagree shows that ethics need not be conceptualized in the same way by everyone. For some humans, ethics are rules to live by. For others, they are commandments from God. For others, they are a priori truths. For aliens, who knows?

14....Some alien ethical principles might resemble our own in a general way, but differ markedly from human ethics in the specifics of their application.

14....Some of our ethical rules might not logically apply to certain intelligent species, even if our other rules did.

15....Belief systems not found on Earth, and symbolic gestures not found on Earth, would give rise to ethical rules not found on Earth. On another world ...

The the list of behaviors that aliens might demand in the name of Deity, Decency, Identity, or principles beyond human ken is potentially ENDLESS.

16....Some alien ethical principles might utterly contradict the ethics embraced by the overwhelming majority of human societies.

Let's turn to a more general speculation, related to the exploitation of people. It is been argued above that physical and intellectual uniformity limits our ability to exploit one another. What about aliens who were not so uniform? What if the members of an alien race started out as small animals and grew continuously in size, strength, and intelligence until death? Imagine aliens who always became bigger and smarter with each year of life, whose brains continued to grow even as the decades wore on, and whose size differences reminded one of the size differences found among trees,. Let us suppose further that these aliens could live for a very long time, and that they were capable of surviving independently from birth.

Human ethics might be totally foreign to such a species. Avoidance of elders, alliance with peers, and exploitation of the young might be the only principles of personal conduct. It would cost the elite nothing to exploit little people. What pressure could humans bring to bear against a leader with the size and strength of a tidal wave and the mind of a god? How could preschoolers prevail against an adult the size of a house? An elder could physically trample the rebellious young, and outsmart them at every turn. The young could be lied to, stolen from, eaten for food, and abused in every way-- helpless to resist. Among the oldest group of peers in this society, alliance based on enlightened self-interest might result in a social harmony as beautiful as a sunlit forest. Like the trees in this forest, our elder aliens would grow, blissfully blocking out light and life from their smaller relatives at no cost to their tranquillity.

17....Some aliens might not need ethics. For example, consider the members of planetary hives, each devoid of individuality. With no private desires and no imperatives other than fulfilling their assigned functions, such beings would draw no distinctions between what they should do and what they want to do. If they attempted to learn a human language, they would struggle in vain to understand "rights" as anything more than an irrational pseudo-concept invoked to defend behaviors that do not embody total devotion to the collective and therefore do not make sense.

18....Some alien societies might enjoy greater success than Humanity in creating ethical systems with few defects. For example, some aliens might never exploit people. Some species might institute giving from each according to their ability to each according to their needs. Some species might, more often than not, treat others as they would like to be treated themselves. None of this excludes heated arguments, bad policy decisions, mistakes in child rearing, cheating so no one will notice, or the occasional evil individual. Aliens could be flawed in many ways, and still be far better than most people on Earth.


Why wouldn't aliens visit us?

1....Faced with the idea that our galaxy might be teaming with intelligent life, some people argue that we should have been visited by now, and that the absence of such visits counts as evidence against the existence of alien intelligence. But there are other reasons why technologically advanced aliens might never seek out life-bearing worlds.

2....There might be no economic incentive to leave a solar system. A population that expanded rapidly enough to require materials from outside its solar system would expand too rapidly to benefit from the necessarily slow and expensive acquisition of such materials over interstellar distances. A population that stopped increasing after a certain point would not require materials from outside its solar system.

3....Aliens might only leave their solar systems as part of a controlled, long-term plan for interstellar expansion, executed for reasons we humans would call 'ideological.' Such plans might never include the search for life-bearing planets, for these reasons.

4....Interstellar contact between representatives of life-bearing planets might be extremely dangerous. Let us suppose for a moment that unknown regularities of chemical evolution insure that life would be chemically similar across worlds. This would make life-bearing planets treasure-houses of nutrients--sources of topsoil to invigorate ancient cultures that squandered this resource on their home worlds--sources of literal continents of food and medicine.

Unfortunately, chemical similarity among the biospheres in the universe could also make life-bearing planets home to infections against which visitors would have no natural immunity. With sufficiently long incubation periods, such infections could wipe out whole species whose astronauts returned in apparent safety from encounters with offworld life.

The need for interstellar quarantine might even dictate the elimination of interstellar travel. Perhaps our first encounter with alien culture awaits the day when manned spacecraft leave the solar system, only to be immediately vaporized by swarms of robot attack drones, programmed to protect the universe against the innocently genocidal explorations of our germ-ridden species.

Ironically, aliens who would impose such a quarantine would have to search for intelligent life. But they would not have to talk to us. If all our manned interstellar ships were vaporized upon passing Pluto's orbit, we would get the idea. Communication would only increase the risk of our finding out their weaknesses.

5....Even if voyages to life-bearing worlds were safe, Earth might have nothing to attract the jaded interstellar jet set. With only one native intelligent species, a filthy atmosphere holes in the ozone layer, diminishing wildlife, no interstellar travel of its own, and xenophobic air force yokels shooting at UFO's, Earth might be generally perceived as a stultifying, inbred, podunk planet--definitely not worth a ten-decade interstellar voyage.

6....In all seriousness, why would aliens visit us? The desire to meet new people and understand different points of view isn't even universal among humans! Only a tiny portion of us take the time to learn about other languages and cultures, and this mainly out of practical need--because the company wants work done overseas, because America needs spies, and so on.

7....What practical need would motivate an interstellar voyage to Earth?

8....Scientific curiosity might prompt small parties of aliens to visit Earth. So might an esthetic appreciation for life-bearing planets. However, this does not mean that alien visitors would communicate with us. If they wanted to observe nations unspoiled by the knowledge of life on other worlds, they would have a powerful incentive to remain undetected.

9....If aliens came to Earth to contact human beings, their reasons would probably be ideological. They would have to believe that affecting our society through their information and/or presence would serve a higher purpose than mere expediency. Such purposes might include ...

But all this is probably too anthropomorphic. If aliens visited us for a higher purpose than expediency, we might never understand that purpose. We can't even explain some of our own ideals and concepts to each other. German gemutlichkeit. American classiness. Medieval honor. The true meaning of existentialism. The Tao, and its cousin Zen. The God of the Sufis. The gods of polytheism, whose images communicate principles that words cannot. Mere explanation is inadequate for the transmission of such concepts. Yet they could all seem easy to define in comparison to the ideas that might guide aliens to our world.


copyright 1999, from "Collected Essays of James S. Grossmann, Volume 1"


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