So, it’s been a while since I’ve said anything here, which is probably evidence of my growing suspicion that I don’t have much to say, or maybe my fear that the world is so heavy and immovable that saying anything won’t matter anyway. But that’s dramatic and depressing, so I’ll shut it.
I should be researching and writing right now, but I found that that’s always true, and so I must regularly neglect that urge in order to get anything else done. So here’s a little nugget of thought….on aliens.
“Otherness”, I’m learning, is one of these terms that people insecure of their own identity as intellectuals throw around to signal you to think of them as profound and intelligent. That’s not why I’m going to talk about it, because I know I’m profound and intelligent. If you doubt it, just say so and I will quote Heidegger to you and name the sorts of wine I pretend to like.
I thought I’d mention the concept of “otherness” still, because it ties in with something I’ve been thinking some about lately: aliens. Now, I’ve never met one (knowingly) or seen a UFO or anything, but it seems fairly reasonable to think that there are some out there, somewhere in the billions of galaxies that are drifting around out there and crashing into each other all the time. And I have to wonder, what would they be like? I mean, there seem to be lots of possibilities, and there’s probably lots of existing examples of each in the universe. If not, they at least exist in sci-fi movies.
Think – there could be relatively unintelligent, exoskeletal creatures, like in Starship Troopers – gigantic, screaming roaches the size of large cows, that have pincers like crabs. There could be completely unintelligent, fungus-like creatures, like what lives in our sewers. (But maybe they’re huge on other planets – the size of lakes or continents?!) There could be beings about as intelligent as humans, that only really differ from us in that they have ridges on their foreheads, or greenish-blue skin, like in…well, almost every single sci-fi movie ever (Star Trek’s “Warf” character, and tons of characters on Star Wars). But we could imagine other sorts that would be more expensive for make-up artists to create, and so don’t make it onto our tv screens. They could be three-legged, or no-legged, or centepede-like, but extremely intelligent. Or they could be intelligent, but plant-like; like the super-intelligent, grass-like aliens in Clifford Simak’s All Flesh Is Grass. We normally connect intelligence and the ability to move around freely, but there’s obviously no reason they have to go together, right?
So, there could be all sorts of beings that took different biological forms. But that’s not what’s so interesting to me – the question of what they’d look like. I’m more interested in the question of what they’d be like as beings, as thinking selves. And I’m not interested in that question because they’d be aliens. I’m interested because asking the question of how extra-terrestrials would be is just asking the question of how beings in general could be. How you or I could be (given some serious changes). How God could be. And this is where otherness comes in.
A dude named Richard Kearney has a cool discussion of how we think of other beings (the term excludes non-selves – so a rock, even though it exists, is not a being because it is not a self). We class Others, he says, in one of three categories: Strangers, Monsters, or Gods. From the tiny bit of thought I’ve put into it, it seems like a good breakdown to me. (Maybe there are also “friends”, but friends are always strangers too, on some level). These categories are philosopher’s categories though, and they’re not the terms most people use, but the categories are still there for us. We don’t think using the term “other” as a philosophical category. We just think of people. And people are either equals or unequals. The equals are just people like us – strangers on some level. The unequals are either “over” us, or “under” us. The “overs” can be lovers we worship, who could destroy us with an unkind word, or parents (when we’re children) whom we depend on for life. They’re our Gods, in Kearney’s categories. The “unders” are the despised homeless, prostitutes, criminals, social failures. They could even be the lovers we abuse, or the children we despise. They’re our Monsters that we must either hide from (the murderers), or rid ourselves of (the homeless, the criminals). So, the categories are there, even in our own minds.
When we think of extra-terrestrials though it’s a scary sort of thing. They’re like the ultimate Strangers – selves from we-know-not-where that came for we-kn0w-not-what, that think in ways we know nothing about, and live in ways we haven’t apprehended. All we know is that they’d be beings. That’s it. And so we ask, on the most fundamental level, what sort of other they’d be, once they were no longer strangers. Would they be Monsters or Gods, or our equals, destined always to be Strangers to some degree, but ones with whom we could coexist as equals?
I think that, even after that first encounter, it would be hard to tell, because I’m not so sure that substantial communication would even be possible really. We don’t have too much communication difficulty in every-day life. We can get our meanings across fairly well it seems (unless we’re dating each other). Even when there’s a language barrier, once we’ve learned the basics of the language and gotten a good vocabulary, things go well enough, though it takes some time. That’s not the problem here though. If we were to encounter a being totally different from us, learning the language would only be a first step. Then we’d have to get all of our concepts in line, so that we could transfer meaning to each other. This wasn’t too much of a problem when two cultures met for the first time here. The Native Americans and the Europeans both had a similar bank of concepts – trees, water, food, women, men, money, etc. But would this be true with a non-human culture that may be far more advanced than us?
Imagine going back five hundred years and telling someone about our trips to the moon, or nuclear weapons. You wouldn’t sound like an amazing scientist. If you told people that you come from a place where people can fly off the earth, and someone can push a button and evaporate an entire city, they wouldn’t think you come from a very scientifically advanced place; they’d think you came from a land of wizards. That’d be quite a conceptual gap to cross. But imagine now going back to when your great-grandparents were your age and trying to explain the Internet to them. They wouldn’t understand at all. They wouldn’t even be able to understand because they don’t have the necessary concepts. What’s a computer? How do they network? You wouldn’t sound like a wizard, or a scientist. You’d sound like you were babbling nonsense. If you wanted them to understand anything you were saying, you’d have to try to rework everything to fit into their categories. To explain the internet, the best you could do might to be to tell them that you have a way to say anything and anyone you want can instantly see or hear it using this object you can carry around with you. And then again, you sound like a wizard.
I think that this is normally what we do with aliens. They look like wizards to us, but since we all come from the same universe we know in the back of our heads that they’ve just figured out some stuff that we haven’t, and we could be wizards too if we knew what they knew. I think talking to an advanced alien wouldn’t be like this though. I think that what makes us seem like wizards to our great-great-great grandparents is the fact that our existences are fundamentally the same, but we have a few isolated abilities that are really cool that they don’t have. We still live the same sorts of day-t0-day lives for the most part that they do, but we can fly around and blow cities up if need be. The wizard is just a person like you who can do some neat stuff. But technology is more and more transforming and characterizing our day to day lives. In a hundred years, I guarantee it, if we don’t kill ourselves off, human lives will be so radically altered by technology that there will be almost no common ground left between us and our future selves. We won’t be able to understand impressive, isolated abilities, because the whole of human existence will be transformed into something unrecognizable. It won’t be like trying to explain a nuclear explosion to a Puritan. It will be like trying to explain the Internet to a Roman. Except everything may be that way. All facets of life.
This is what I think an advanced alien would probably be. So many degrees removed from us that clear, literal communication isn’t possible, because the relevant concepts aren’t there. So, they might just seem to be talking gibberish. Or, more likely, they’d force their explanations into our narrower conceptual framework. In which case, they wouldn’t sound like wizards or scientists, but like poets. Or like God.