General, Research, Technology

If aliens contact us, will we understand them?

Polish philosopher and science fiction writer Stanislaw Lembelieved that our species would never be able to read or understand an alien message. Lem outlined his argument in his 1968 masterpiece, The Voice of the Lord. The novel tells the story of the trials and failures of a massive, similar to the Manhattan Project, an attempt to decipher an extraterrestrial message. As the book delves deeper into philosophy, linguistics, mathematics, information theory, and more, the author is slowly crystallizing the skeptics' arguments about why alien communication is almost certainly doomed to fail. In his simplest manner, Lem concludes that there are two insurmountable barriers to communication with intelligent life forms that will naturally exist between alien species. This is a linguistic barrier and a gap in intelligence.

We may never find a way to communicate with alien intelligence

Linguistic barrier

Remember the 2016 movie Arrival? In it, an alien ship lands on our planet, and the creatures in the captain's cabin - hyptopods, resemble the terrestrial inhabitants of the deep sea - cephalopods (octopuses), which greatly complicates communication between people and visitors from space. To unravel the language of hyptopods, the government turns to one of the world's leading linguists for help. I will not tell the further plot of the film, saving readers who have not watched it from spoilers. However, Lem claims that even in the case of contact with aliens, a theoretically understandable message will still be unreadable.

Lem writes that on all known humanlanguages, from Latin to Basque, we can translate the sentence "grandma died, funeral on Wednesday" and it will be understood. But this translation is only possible because biologically and culturally we all share the same reference points necessary for understanding words: we will all die. We reproduce sexually and we have grandmothers. Despite huge cultural differences, we all, in one way or another, ceremonialize the act of death. Last but not least, we are all connected to the gravity of the Earth and mark the passage of time in terms of the dark and light periods caused by the rotation of our planet.

But imagine an alien whoreproduces asexually - like an amoeba. A same-sex creature would not have a grandmother or a speech apparatus to describe her. Likewise, these creatures may be "unfamiliar with the concept of death and burial." All these concepts require explanation.

Shot from the fantastic movie "Arrival" (2016)

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Language, Lem argues, requires common reference points between communicators. And if intelligent life does not look and behave intimidatingly like us, then any alien species will differ from us in an infinite number of ways. The basis of the human language is ourperception of the world around us, and there is no guarantee that alien life will be able to convey a message that we understand, or how we understand. But even if they do, who knows if we will ever be able to make out the diction of something as strange as an intelligent being with biology based on arsenic or silicon?

Forms of extraterrestrial communication

Lem gives several examples which area model of the various possibilities of alien communication. Each of them has its own pitfalls that confuse us. For example, a message can be written in the way we humans communicate with each other and in a language like ours, with separate units of meaning, such as words related to objects and concepts. While the vocabulary and grammar of this language itself may be beyond our comprehension, at least we could figure out how to start translating. In a word, just like in the movie Arrival.

But communication can also be a system"Simulate" signals such as a TV or radio signal. This means that the message we receive is not a message as such, but, for example, a message encrypted in binary code. Lem believes that our chances are doomed to failure. According to the writer, representatives of a species alien to us would most likely communicate using something like a smell. This idea, by the way, is described in the movie "Save yourselves! 2020" - the story tells about aliens, similar to small ottomans, who flew to take over our planet. I recommend for viewing.

Poster of the movie "Save yourself!" 2020

The third and fourth examples are thatthe message can be a kind of "recipe", that is, a set of instructions required to produce a certain object, or it "can contain a description of the object - a particular" thing. "For example, in Lem's book, aliens send a recipe to raise an alien who then could to communicate with people.

You will be interested: Astronomers were looking for aliens among 10 million stars. What did they find?

Distinguished astronomer and popularizer of science KarlSagan expressed a similar point of view. He outlined his thoughts on the possible communication with an alien civilization in the novel "Contact", based on which the film of the same name was shot in 1997 with Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughew. According to the plot, a young radio astronomer (the heroine Foster) caught a message from aliens, the decoding of which showed a scheme for the construction of something like an alien ship. I note that Sagan considered radio astronomy the most possible way of contact with extraterrestrial intelligence.

The intelligence gap

Let's imagine that thanks to someabsurd linguistic luck, we will be able to read the received alien signal. Lem believes that decoding it solves only half of the problem: “it is possible that having received a message from distant worlds, we would have treated him like savages basking by the fire of burning books,” Lem writes.

This is how the installation looked like, assembled according to alien instructions (film "Contact" 1997)

The writer believed that most likely the intelligence of our extraterrestrial friends is fundamentally higher than human:

I can communicate with my dog, a highly intelligent animal, but only to the maximum extent that the cognitive ability of the dog allows.

So our view could just benot highly developed enough to understand everything the aliens want to say. But even if representatives of an extraterrestrial civilization are close to us intellectually and their civilization is similar to ours, we simply may never know about it - in the end, no one canceled cosmic distances and the laws of physics, according to which the speed of light is limited in the Universe - about 300,000 kilometers per second, as well as the limitation of the speed of sound, which I talked about in this article.