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If Aliens Contact Us, We Won't Understand

Illustration by Astronomy: Roen Kelly
The cynics' case for why we may never understand extraterrestrial communication

by William Herkewitz

2016 gave us a fair number of false SETI detections. But lets imagine that this year it's the year.

Maybe it's first detected at a radio telescope in Russia, or perhaps an optical telescope in California. But in 2017, somewhere someone picks up a signal. Skeptical astronomers alert their colleagues, yet sure enough, they're reading it out in telescopes around the world. It's too specific or too weird to be a known natural phenomenon, and it repeats itself with suspiciously high fidelity over some interval. Cautiously, but excitedly, the news gets out. We've received a message from the stars.

It's worth wondering: what would happen next?

Well, if you follow the logic of the renowned Polish philosopher and science fiction writer Stanisław Lem, after a lot of hubbub and frustration: absolutely nothing. According to Lem's logic, our species may never be able to read or understand a message from extraterrestrials.

Lem outlined this argument in his 1968 masterwork novel, His Master's Voice. The novel recounts the trials and failure of a massive, Manhattan Project-like effort to decipher an extraterrestrial transmission. And as the book delves into discussion of philosophy, linguistics, mathematics, information theory and more, Lem slowly crystallizes the cynics' case on why long-distance communication with aliens is almost surely doomed to failure.

In its simplest form, Lem's concludes that there are two insurmountable barriers to communication that will naturally exist between alien species. They are the linguistic gap, and the intelligence gap.

Big Ear Radio Observatory / Ohio State University

The Linguistic Gap

Let's give humanity a little bit of undeserved credit, and assume that 2017's hypothetical extraterrestrial message is not utterly beyond our mammalian intellect. Lem argues that even so, a theoretically understandable message would still likely be unreadable.

Reason #1: We almost certainly won't share any of the reference points we rely on for language.

In His Master's Voice, Lem brings up the point that, in every known human language, from Latin to Basque to Kinyarwanda, we can translate the message, “grandmother dead, funeral Wednesday,” and it will be understood.

But this translation is only possible because, biologically and culturally, we all already share the same reference points needed to understand the words. We all die. We all reproduce between two sexes, and have grandmothers. Despite vast species-wide cultural disparities, we all ceremonialize the act of death. And, last but not least, we are all bound to Earth's gravity and mark the passing of time in terms of the dark and light periods caused by the rotation of our planet.

But imagine an alien, Lem posts, that reproduces asexually—like an amoeba. A unisex being would have no grandmother, nor the diction to describe one. Likewise, beings that divided at the end of their life, rather than decomposing, could also be “unacquainted with the notion of death and of funerals,” writes Lem. All these concepts would require explanation. Yet the only tool in our toolbox to explain them, well, is more language, which will be fraught with its own unexplained concepts.

Language, Lem argues, requires shared reference points between communicators. And unless intelligent life looks and acts frighteningly similar to us, any alien species will differ from us in a conceivably endless number of ways. Lining the bedrock of human language is our perceptions of the world around us, and there is no guarantee alien life will be able to communicate a message that we understand, or in a way we understand. And hell, even if they do, who knows if we could ever parse the diction of something as strange as a hive-minded creature with an arsenic-based biology.

Dmytro Ivashchenko / Wikimedia Commons

Reason #2: An extraterrestrial communication could take a number of different, unintelligible forms.

Here's an interesting conundrum examined by last year's Oscar-nominated blockbuster, Arrival. Who knows what form a message from a being with an entirely alien biology would take?

In His Master's Voice, Lem brings up four examples as just a sample of the different possibilities an alien communication could take. Each has its own pitfalls to confuse and bewilder us.

The first possibility is that the message could be written in the way we humans communicate with one another, says Lem, in some “declarative-transactional language like our own” with individual units of meaning, like words refer to objects and concepts. While the vocabulary and grammar of that language itself might be beyond our grasp, at least might know how to start our efforts at translation.

But the communication could also “be a system of 'modeling' signals, such as television,” or radio, says Lem. This would mean the communication we're receiving isn't just the message itself, such as a message in binary code. Rather, the signal we'd receive would code for a message. In this case, we might just be totally screwed. However unlikely, our alien counterparts could primarily communicate through something like smell, and their signals are meant to be run into something like an olfactory TV set. For an olfactory communicator, this could be the most logical way to communicate over long distances.

The third and fourth possibilities are that the communication “could represent a 'recipe,' that is, a set of instructions necessary for the production of a certain object,” writes Lem or it “could contain a description of an object — of a particular 'thing' — in a code that was 'acultural,' one that referred only to certain constants in the world of nature, discoverable by physics and mathematical in form.” In the book, Lem's protagonist briefly toys with the concept that the alien communicators are sending the recipe to grow/build one of the aliens itself, which could then communicate in-person.


Reason #3: Math will only get us so far.

The idea of sending a 'recipe' or a description of an object may sound wacky as heck at first, but it has its own logic. If you're limiting yourself to mathematics and physics—which are as far as we know, the native language of the universe, perhaps the only sure reference point between alien species—the simplest communication might be a mathematical or physical description of something.

Yet Lem is pessimistic about mathematics' ability to lubricate communication. His protagonist argues that, “with mathematics one can say nothing about the world — it is called 'pure' for the very reason that it has been purified of all material dross, and its absolute purity is its immortality. But precisely therein lies its arbitrariness, for it can beget any sort of world, as long as that world is consistent.”

For example, “let us suppose that they send us a hexagon. In it one can see the plan for a chemical molecule, or for a bee’s honeycomb, or for a building. An infinite number of objects correspond to that geometrical information.” You can not move beyond mathematics' abstractions into the world of specificity without the use of language, and that that point you're running into the other linguistic problems we've discussed.

“With mathematics one may signal only that one Is, that one Exists,” writes Lem.


The Intelligence Gap

Now, let's just imagine that through some absurd bout of linguistic luck, we can read our incoming transmission. The message comes at us like a letter, with a binary code with a decipherable vocabulary and grammar. According to Lem, that only really solves half of the problem, very likely still be too dumb or different to comprehend it.

This, more or less, is what happens in His Master's Voice. “Retrieving the message from the stars, we did with it no more than a savage who, warming himself by the fire of burning books ... believes he has drawn tremendous benefit from his find,” writes Lem.

Reason #4: Our extraterrestrial pen-pals may be fundamentally beyond our intellect.

I could spend the better part of a lifetime trying to communicate with an ant colony, and it will all be for naught. What I have to say is fundamentally beyond the cognitive abilities of either the individual ants, or the colony as a whole.

In a similar way, I can communicate with my dog, a highly intelligent animal, but only to the maximal extent to which the dog's cognitive abilities will allow for. 'I am mad at you,' is understandable for Lucy, but higher concepts, like 'here's how WiFi works' is fundamentally beyond her. (Hell, I can't even get across “the bath won't kill you,”)

It's not a complicated argument, but our species could be just not highly evolved enough to understand whatever our alien communicators wish to say. Perhaps the message is meant for whatever Artificial Intelligence takes the baton from humanity; not for us, beings with brains made of meat, which are almost entirely focused on sex and eating. (In our defense, both are great.) After all, our current civilization is basically sitting back to watch in slow-mo as we boil our seas and bake our land with climate change—and who the hell want's to talk to that civilization?

Dadr / Wikimedia Commons

Reason #5: The disparity between our civilizations will likely be too great.

Even if our alien communicators are close to our level intellectually, if their civilization is advanced enough we might also be left in the dark.

Lem argues this with an (admittedly strange) analogy: If an art historian, an anthropologist, a physician, and chemist study the head and “gold death mask of [the ancient Egyptian ruler] Amenhotep,” they can deduce “in modern times, with far more information than its creators possessed,” writes Lem.

From that 6,000 year old object, our researchers could deduce religious beliefs of the Egyptians, the method used to work the gold, if Amenhotep differs from modern humans physiologically, and the diagnosis that “Amenhotep suffered from a hormonal imbalance, acromegaly, that gave him his deformed jaw,” he writes.

Yet, “if we turn the procedure around in time and send to an Egyptian of the era of Amenhotep a letter written today, he will not understand it, not only because he does not know our language, but also because he has neither the words nor the concepts to set alongside ours,” writes Lem.

In a geologic sense, our species is still practically newborn. (We've barely just begun to scan the sky for radio waves from an extraterrestrial intelligence.) If a communication heading toward us is from a civilization that's progressed a few hundred thousand years sense they discovered radio waves, could we be able to understand what they had to say? Even if they dumbed it down to only include concepts they discovered just a few millenia after their radio-wave transmissions, we'd still be in the dark.

William Herkewitz is a science writer based in Kigali, Rwanda. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Popular Mechanics, Gizmodo and more.