UFOs and Posthuman Languages
I've been following recent developments surrounding the whole UFO/UAP saga/drama with a mix of skepticism and excitement. To briefly reprise recent events:
So, basically (1) the military has, apparently, not so-subtly admitted (2) that UAPs aren't from Earth, and (3) some of the interactions have been somewhat hostile. I don't want to jump on the hype bandwagon but would like to comment a bit.
I have a bit of skepticism about the whole affair:
- I don't believe non-human technology would share many intelligible schemas with human technology. (More below.) So, anytime I see something that looks like a bad 1980's mockup/science fiction model I'm inclined to be incredulous.
- Why wouldn't UFOs/UAPs just acquire minerals and resources from the Kuiper Belt? Why would they even care about Earth?
- Why haven't other scientific institutions (SETI, NASA) identified or found evidence for them? They have a lot of equipment and a lot of smart people that constantly scan the heavens.
Let's look into those a bit more.
To reprise a comment I posted previously. "[Here are some] Tropes that are probably false (but found commonly throughout science fiction):
- Shared technological "categories" - humans have technology primarily as a need to maximize surpluses. The technologies we develop are specific to our anatomy and biology. In Star Trek every species has ships, languages, uniforms, governments, phasers, etc. They only vary in appearance. This strikes me as very odd. [A kind of vast interstellar anthropomorphism within that narrative, entertaining though it may be.]
- Similar in size - the most successful species are probably very small.
- Same moral orientation - I think morality is objective but I think it is a low probability that other species would discover these precepts (if true) and probably would be equally likely to disregard them as they would adhere to them (if they did). Many humans certainly disregard them.
- Economic exploitation - it makes little sense to mine a planet for resources when a sufficiently advanced species could travel to asteroid belts to mine them. Given sufficient energy and nanotechnology, it’s unlikely specific chemicals, metals, or compounds would matter (pun).
- Technology entails higher innate intelligence - the more advanced one's technology the less one needs to think to survive (evolutionary pressures cease and brain use is costly). As a consequence, advanced species may not be very smart independent of their technology."
In other words, most of the narrative conceits deployed throughout science fiction (and the speculative sciences) seem to assume certain similarities with human societies that are probably dubious: they smack of anthropocentrism, conflating random (and highly-unlikely) evolutionary developments with universal patterns of biological development, etc.
To reiterate and emphasize a couple of key points:
- Technology is a function of biological limitation - different biologies imply different technological impulses not just categories, tools, etc. What drives species to pursue certain technologies is a function of their biology. Technology is inherently augmentative.
- If it's correct that the mind is cognitive, then language is essential for thought (by definition). But languages widely diverge in nature. Many animal languages lack symbols entirely (birds), and are fundamentally chemical in nature, not auditory (bees, ants), etc.
Consequently, I think it's a fairly low probability that genuinely extra-terrestrial scenarios would resemble anything like "human metal spaceships with little windows and little green men". Those smack immediately of a hoax.
Extra-terrestrial beings would likely be nigh-unintelligible.
Some counter-arguments against my skepticism are given below:
- Well, the military has had to redefine the concept of a UFO. They are officially (or at least the ones that are officially under consideration) "transmedium": unlike all-known human vehicles, the UAPs in question fly in all regions of space and the atmosphere, appear to skim on the surface of the ocean, and dive deep below it. Note the great difficulty in aerospace engineering to produce aircraft specialized enough to fly in the outer regions of the atmosphere (much less ones specialized enough to land on water, etc.). These UAPs travel with ease through all known modes of travel. So, counter-point, that's about as non-schematic as one can find.
- If the nature of a being's cognition is radically divergent from our own (and remember that all life on earth shares some commonality with the rest: the so-called Last Common Ancestor - there are some similarities in intention, brain structure, and reasoning shared among animals on Earth.), then trying to second-guess their intention is probably both incredibly difficult and possibly futile. So, as to why they might visit Earth, one reply might come down to blunting the skeptical argument and pointing out that wild conjectures about intention are probably misplaced.
- SETI and NASA lack sophisticated military detection equipment common on fighter aircraft and warships. That might explain the lack of confirming or corroborating evidence from other institutions. (Also, note the absence of reports coming from the Air Force, Army, Marines, and other scientific institutions. We might ask the same questions about those. The whole affair seems specific to the Navy and some commercial airline pilots at present.)
More on Posthuman Language
I define Posthuman Languages as languages that:
- Exceed the semantic capabilities of all-known human languages.
- That lack fundamental or essential features of human language: noun phrases, symbols, etc.
- Or that otherwise diverge from the biological and neurological underpinnings of human language (and radically so) (noise emissive but otherwise inaudible, pheromone-based, chemical-based, etc.).
Not the best definition but it'll do here in a pinch. I'll leave it to better minds to refine those a bit. (Also, note that I'm primarily focused on 1.) Generally speaking, posthuman means "beyond but including humanity." (I'll reprise my annoyance with the silly intellectual trope where ideas have the affix "post-" prepended to them.)
Suppose a species were predominantly chemical in its inter- and intra- communication. It wouldn't just be for a lack of sophisticated and overlapping technology that the Fermi Paradox might remain elusively unsolved, but also due to near-total divergences in the manner of communication, intentionality, goal-setting, language, and thought.
How does a bee read or understand the Rosetta Stone? Is it even possible to translate the Rosetta Stone losslessly into bee pheromones (if that were by itself even possible)?
Human natural language translation is aided by common underpinning neurological and biological substrates. (I've considered ways to bring wildly divergent human logical systems into greater interchangeability here.)
I think this line of thinking is possibly fruitful. We run up against the traditional philosophical concerns surrounding the limits of language but from an interspecies standpoint.
It seems to me that some of the scenarios described in the news article above square more neatly in "a pesky fruitfly harasses a gardener" category rather than "two human civilizations are intercommunicating".
How do we "span the void" so to speak (language-wise)? Is that why the noted interactions above have been so clumsy and uninformative?