Assortments of Thought

Cosmic Language

Posted on: July 27th, 2013

By our own standards at least, communication of a high order remains the hallmark of an intelligent, sentient species. The ability to communicate thoughts, feelings, and abstract ideas sets us apart from all other known animals, and is arguably the basis of sentience itself, for to communicate without, one must first think (“communicate”) within. Yet in spite of its magnificence, should it ever come to meeting with intelligent aliens, communication will likely present a great many barriers to be overcome, beyond even “practical” and environmental ones that may hinder mere attempts at it. For different species may communicate through varying physical means, for instance, or else be physiologically incapable of producing or of even perceiving others’ languages. Further, just as two equally-functional computer processors typically can’t understand the other’s “languages”, so too might alien minds be incapable of comprehending languages that developed independently of them. While the use of multiple sign languages though–each species perceiving all others, while producing just their own–could likely be a workaround for the physical and physiological barriers (in fact, given certain characteristics of light versus sound, spoken languages could probably work in this way as well), no such simple workaround exists for the potential comprehension barrier. Indeed, only the rather extreme and questionable approach of creating a new species could seemingly handle it, for “universal translators” could only be built once someone had comprehension of the languages to be interpreted between. Hence inter-species communication may be far trickier than science fiction at least nearly always suggests, and with it, so too may be any true form of a cosmic community; serving as a reminder, perhaps, of the very special bond that we–like all members of any given species–truly share.

Preliminaries

Practical and environmental barriers exist, of course, even to mere attempts at communication, constituting an initial set of considerations regarding its feasibility. I’ve already covered some in my post “Barriers Beyond Contact“, but here, we might focus on issues of long-distance space travel and signal transmission; of drastically differing cognitive abilities across unfathomably advanced stages of evolution (or of artificial progression); and of differing environmental requirements. Indeed, before communication could even be attempted, two species would have to find themselves in contact; either in person, or across communicative channels. If technologies can’t be devised to realize these scenarios (this itself, of course, assuming that intelligent civilizations are even remotely prevalent at any given time and region of space, without even considering possibilities of parallel universes and dark matter beings and such), then needless to say, communication wouldn’t be possible.

Further, that any two species could be in drastically differing evolutionary stages could present an insurmountable barrier, as one species could be unfathomably more cognitively advanced than the other. Here on Earth even, we know that some animal species are more intelligent than others, and while, for instance, a trained expert knows how to “read” and respond to a dog’s actions (or while we know that dolphins and certain primates show evidence of culture and relatively sophisticated communication), they still aren’t our cognitive equals. Relationships and communication between us and them, in other words, as we have amongst ourselves, simply aren’t possible. Hence while it’s difficult for us to fathom beings a few steps above us in cognitive abilities, they may nonetheless exist, perhaps from having taken their evolution into their own hands with advanced bioengineering technologies and such (or–in the case of androids–by having tweaked themselves to higher cognitive stages that what they were originally created with). Regardless, any such beings could never relate to beings such as us as we do amongst ourselves, and, needless to say, this would necessarilly preclude all but the most trivial forms of “communication”.

Finally, differing environmental requirements could be a barrier as well, albeit perhaps a solvable one. Indeed, any given species that has evolved on a particular planet is extraordinarily fit for at least part of that planet’s environment, and not just in obvious terms like temperature and atmospheric composition (or liquid medium, perhaps), but even with things like gravity and its effects on bodily processes; frequencies of light from a star and their roles in regulating sleep-wake cycles; types and level of radiation that routinely reaches the surface; and other such things. Hence, it could easily be infeasible for members of any given species to go to alien worlds or outposts or such over the long-term for sure, while even going for the short-term might require special environmental suits. (Although androids, of course, might be free from such considerations.) Overall then, barriers exist even to mere attempts at communication, and while environmental ones are solvable even if inconveniently so, others are so solid as to render communication impossible.

Potential Physical Barriers

Practical barriers of distance and evolutionary states aside though, many direct barriers to communication exist as well. These include differing physical means of communicating; insufficient abilities to perceive or duplicate the physiological expressions of other species’ communication; and outright inabilities to comprehend other species’ languages. And, it goes without saying, of course, that all of these could be quite formidable. Amazingly though–albeit far from guaranteed–there’s a fair chance that the physical and physiological barriers at least are actually manageable. The ultimate solution, in particular, might be for all participants in a conversation to produce a sign language of their own choice, which all other participants would only have to perceive. If only given the prominence though here on Earth of spoken languages, it’s worth considering at length that while two species may, for instance, use different physical means of communicating, this probably wouldn’t be an issue even for spoken communication–because most species probably do communicate with sound.

Indeed, to see why most species probably communicate with sound, consider that all species communicate through their senses; that the senses a species evolves depends on its environment; and that only so many physical phenomena in an environment can be used to transmit high-order information. Molecules are a possibility, for instance, such that something akin to a sense of smell could be used for communication; and yet, molecules travel far too slowly to allow for the rapid communication an evolving, social species would need. It’s hard to see as well how senses of magnetic or electrical fields or such would work for communication, while touch–though feasible–would likely not be selected for as a communicative sense, due to its requirement for individuals to be in direct physical contact. And, while telepathy would be absolutely excellent, in spite of the immeasurable advantages for survival that it would endow a given species with, it doesn’t seem to have developed here on Earth, so perhaps it’s quite rare. (Although with that said, note that outside a paranormal context, just as we’ve developed wireless technologies, a species could conceivably evolve to possess an organ specifically for transmitting detectable and measurable material from the mind. Although, since “thought waves” wouldn’t be present in the environment to begin with–as light and sound typically are–perhaps evolution would lack a way to select for such an extraordinary adaptation; an advanced species would instead have to bioengieer it at some point.)

Hence phenomena for communication are limited, and of the obvious choices of electromagnetic radiation and sound waves to realize it–both of which rapidly travel over long distances–consider both how good and how ubiquitous sound really is. Indeed, sound exists everywhere, from planetary and lunar surfaces through atmospheric depths to the deepest of sub-surface realms, equally prevalent in areas bathed in starlight, and in areas utterly devoid of it. And, even where light is abundant, unlike light, sound isn’t readily blocked from perception, for it travels through objects in an environment far more readily than light does. It therefore allows an evolving, social species to convey danger and such over the greatest distances possible, and consequently then, it’s so advantageous for communication that it’s the phenomenon that evolution should invariably select for.

Of course though, it’s conceivable that a species could instead communicate with sound by passively perceiving patterns within reflections of it (similar to how communication with sign languages involves perceiving light reflected from others’ limbs and bodies), or else, even by actively producing light (“visual vocalizations”)–distinctions which another species could find impossible to handle. (Such communication schemes would essentially be inversions of the ways we humans, for instance, communicate.) Even so though, to see why such means aren’t very likely, just consider the merits of light versus sound–for communication, of course, but also for a species’ interaction with its environment. Light, for instance, is comparatively constant in great variety when and where it abounds, and given how objects of varying distances, textures, and other qualities typically reflect only select frequencies of it, it provides a given species with a way to perceive many, many details of its surroundings. Hence it serves excellently as a means of perceiving one’s surroundings, but as a (primary) means for communication, again, whether actively or passively used, it limits species to visual contact.

Conversely though, sound, for instance, is relatively transitory (at least in great variety) when it arises, and considering how given frequencies of it will largely just travel through or collectively reflect off of all the objects in a given environment, it can only provide a given species with limited details of its surroundings, and of only a few parts of those surroundings at a time at that. Hence it pails in comparison to light as a (primary) means of perception (although in light-deficient environments, it takes on greater importance; here on Earth, consider how bats navigate caves using echolocation, much as marine mammals use it to detect features of the ocean floor), but as a means for communication, it excels. In particular, even while it’s not so great for passive use (for instance, as with detecting limb movements of a sign language by reflected sound, when at any given moment, sound may not even be present), actively producing it is, in fact, the ideal means of communication with sound, for it only further allows an evolving, social species to communicate over the largest ranges, and therefore to the greatest extent possible. Hence while light nonetheless has a role to play in communication, evolution probably selects for vocalized sound most of the time, simply because even light can’t beat it for all its advantages as a communication means. Overall then, while communication through differing physical means could leave two given species with no way to communicate, most probably communicate actively with sound (or else passively with light; again, sign languages), mostly eliminating this particular barrier from consideration.

Physiological Barriers

Next though, a more formidable barrier comes from potential inabilities between species to duplicate or even perceive the physiological expressions of each others’ languages–although even here, there are some surprisingly simple workarounds that would probably work. Again focusing on communication through vocalized sound, the three underlying issues are that the range of frequencies that two species can perceive may fail to overlap well; that two species may lack the physiological means to produce each others’ vocalizations; and that two species may perceive similar frequencies as totally distinct sounds. Of these three, that two species may only be able to hear sounds in non-overlapping frequency ranges is probably the most severe, because it would render communication with vocalized sound impossible. That two species may be incapable of producing each others’ vocalizations is problematic as well though, partly because it’s so much more likely, perhaps, to be the case. Here on Earth, for instance, other primates, dolphins, and elephants are all believed to be among our closest contenders for top intelligence (see, for instance, the news article “The 10 Smartest Animals: How Do Humans Compare to Other Intelligent Creatures?” at NBCNews.com, plus the Wikipedia articles “Elephant Cognition,” “Cetacean Intelligence,” and “Primate Cognition“), and yet most of these animals can’t reproduce human speech sounds, just as we can’t easily reproduce their own vocalizations. Further, even if we assume that most intelligent species are mammals, birds, or perhaps insects (because such animals are all likely driven to intelligence by the social tendencies of their antecedents–tendencies which reptiles and amphibians and such lack), this still leaves many possibilities concerning the biology of intelligent species, and thus the very physiology with which they produce vocalizations.

Lastly though, that two species may perceive similar frequencies as totally distinct sounds is a troublesome possibility as well. This is a particularly subtle issue, but as I explained in my post “Internal Realities“, no species–intelligence aside–can interpret objective features like frequencies of light or sound in any “true” way. Rather, the brain of every species must interpret such things as specific colors or sounds within the constructed reality in every mind, which clearly leaves open the possibility that between two species, a given frequency of sound, for instance, may sound quite different. In practical terms then, sustaining spoken conversation could be challenging for speakers of different species, because whenever a speaker would reply to what was heard, the original speaker might nonetheless hear something not even present in their own language. The sounds would have undergone a transformation, in other words, through the differing conceptions of sound in the two species’ minds. Overall then, potential inabilities to duplicate or even perceive the sounds of each others’ languages are definite possibilities that constitute a slightly tougher barrier to establishing spoken communication, as it’s a barrier that can’t be so easily presumed a non-issue.

Solutions: Physical & Physiological

Fairly straightforward workarounds seem to exist though for much of the physiological barrier, all centering on novel uses of language. Depending on which of the potential issues are in fact at issue (still presuming communication through vocalized sound, for now), many approaches are possible, including developing new languages whose sounds are mutually producible by a given set of species; learning to associate a new phonology to existing languages; or–and this is likely the ideal approach–simply using two or more languages simultaneously. Indeed then, if two or more given species can produce at least some sounds in common, then developing a new language consisting solely of those sounds would eliminate the issue of production, as would fitting a new phonology to existing languages. Further, even if the transformation issue wasn’t a problem, anyone learning to comprehend another language has to learn to recognize the phonology, and so in the face of transformation difficulties, learning what one’s own language sounds like after having gone through given transformations would seemingly be a doable solution. There’s even some hope with the perception issue, assuming either that two or more species’ sound production ranges would be large enough to permit speech in a range that would coincide with all the other species’ hearing ranges, or else that the hearing ranges that species evolve tend to include a common core of frequencies.

Overall though–barring perception difficulties–using two or more languages simultaneously would probably be the workaround of choice for inter-species communication, because it’s simpler than developing a new language (which may not work anyway, if a given set of species are incapable of producing a sufficiently large, common set of sounds), even as it eludes the need to associate a new phonology to one’s own language for each and every separate species with which communication is desired. The idea is a bit odd in our own experiences, and yet it’s so very simple; for while here on Earth, we generally only use one language at a time to communicate with someone from another culture, it isn’t strictly necessary to ever be able to produce another’s language. Instead, if all participants in a conversation simply learn to comprehend each others’ languages, then that is enough; communication can proceed with all speakers comprehending each other, while nonetheless each responding solely in their own native language. In the context of communication between two or more species then, with such an approach, issues of production and transformation are rendered utterly inconsequential, for all speakers involved would simply speak their language of choice. Overall then, the only strict barrier, perhaps, that might arise with duplication or perception problems is the possibility of non-overlapping hearing ranges, for while other issues would require novel uses of language, such workarounds could nonetheless be readily done.

Even the perception issue might be surmountable through the use of sign languages–visual or tactual–thus making them the languages most suited, perhaps, for inter-species communication. Indeed, unlike spoken ones, sign languages aren’t really subject to perception issues, considering that they can even eschew any visual aspect for purely tactual communication. (That is, for instance, holding one’s hands around those of someone else to feel the signs and movements they’re making.) Further, that light is also so ubiquitous throughout most realms where life may be expected implies that most species should evolve a sense to perceive it (although life that evolves deep within a world of course might not), while the capacity to feel one’s interactions with one’s environment is so critical for survival that a sense of touch must be outright universal among all but the most very simple forms of life. And, of course, while communication with sign languages would still face the duplication issue (differing anatomy could easily preclude members of another species from producing the signs of a given language), this could again be handled through the use of many languages simultaneously.

Meanwhile, of course, sign languages leave issues of transformation pretty inconsequential as well. To see this, consider how communication through spoken languages requires listeners to perceive the sounds actively, and that again, if a given sound can’t be perceived as the speaker perceives it–or indeed, at all–then something drastically different will be heard, or perhaps nothing at all. Conception of sign languages though doesn’t face such a potential perception problem, because it’s not frequencies of light that must be actively perceived during signing, but simply the passive reflections of light from limb and body movements. In terms of inter-species communication then, two species could indeed be incapable of perceiving a common set of light frequencies, but while they mightn’t be able then to see the “right” colors of a signer’s limbs, they could still perceive the movements and contortions of those limbs (or in terms of touch, feel them, as communication through touch is also passive in this sense). Hence, unless two species communicated neither actively with sound nor passively with light or touch (or else had such differing anatomies that even tactual signing wasn’t possible), issues of differing physiological means of communicating wouldn’t be a problem. Barriers of duplication and perception are indeed formidable then, and yet most species could probably still overcome them through the use of multiple sign languages–mostly eliminating even these barriers from consideration.

The Comprehension Barrier

All other barriers aside though, it’s still possible that the minds of two given species could handle language in such drastically differing ways that neither species could ever comprehend the languages of another. This is perhaps the most enigmatic potential barrier of all, partly because it lacks any conventional solution (if even possible, the rather extreme approach of creating a new species would have to be taken to overcome it), but also because it’s impossible to even reason about it very far. Here on Earth, for instance, we know that while people learn languages besides their native one(s) all the time, computer processors usually can’t interpret programs or operating systems written in programming languages other than their own–even when those programs do essentially the same things. While such an analogy is crude at best–given the incomparable sophistication of the human brain to any computer–it nonetheless raises the possibility of alien minds being “locked in” to only one set of languages–one set among several equally-functional ones. And, in fact, sophistication has little if anything to do with it. A given computer processor, for instance, is limited to running programs in the languages for which it’s been designed, but then so too have people only been known to know languages which the human mind itself has originated over the past thousands of years. In other words then, human consciousness indeed allowed people to develop countless languages as they spread out across the world–a feat infinitely beyond any computer processor–and yet while this fact explains why people can comprehend even the most foreign of languages here on Earth, it also implies that even the human brain has a set of languages with which it’s suited for–much as any computer processor has. Generalizing to all species then, whether any given species could ever comprehend languages that originated independently of its own mind is certainly questionable–again, no matter how similar those languages otherwise were–and in lieu of actually seeing it tried out, there’s no way to quantify the possibility. Hence a comprehension barrier may very well exist between species, and, if it does, it would easily be the greatest barrier to inter-species communication of all.

The possibility of such a comprehension barrier is indeed enigmatic though, for while a reality of different species comprehending language in disparate ways would firmly settle its existence, there’s actually reason to believe that most species think, at least, in essentially the same way. While this hardly excludes the possibility of a comprehension barrier (given again, for instance, how computer processors that “think” the same way nonetheless can’t “communicate”–equivalent thinking within doesn’t equate to equivalent communication without), it does at least imply that a prerequisite for comprehending another species’ languages is satisfied. Indeed then, in his article “Communication with Alien Intelligence” at the MIT Media Labs’s website, Marvin Minsky gives an extended argument as to why different species are likely to think in the same ways. Central, perhaps, is his realization that the very evolution of intelligence requires the capacity to see situations in terms of constituent parts–as things, changes, and causes–so that learning and accumulation of knowledge may take place (sec. “Causes and Clauses”). Indeed, Minsky points out that many problems can only be solved by breaking them down into smaller, more manageable ones, and that to do so–indeed, even to simply think–absolutely requires that complex scenarios be perceived in parts, so that the same mental processes may be used again and again to build up ever-more-complicated conceptions (sec.s “Causes and Goals” and “Causes and Clauses”). Of course, foundational to all this is the simple fact that all beings must confront economic and evolutionary realities of resource constraints and survival needs, at least until and if they attain a stage beyond evolutionary concerns (see the introductory section); but of greatest significance here is that similarities of thought imply similarities of language. Indeed, Minsky explicitly links such perception-in-parts to the nouns, verbs, and other parts of speech in the languages we know, but even more so, he muses that to think requires languages to likewise employ re-usable structures (sec. “Causes and Clauses”), which seems to be precisely what we would think of as the grammars of our own languages. Overall then, Minsky’s arguments provide a solid basis for believing that intelligent minds must think and communicate in similar ways, and so a prerequisite at least for mutual comprehension between species–perhaps even the prerequisite–is seemingly fulfilled.

Of course though, the possibility of a comprehension barrier still lingers, simply because similar (or even identical) thinking doesn’t automatically imply mutual comprehensibility. Yet again, just as equally-functional computer processors typically can’t understand the languages of others, so too may it be that minds that have each originated an equivalent set of languages simply aren’t capable of comprehending languages from others’ sets. Whether a comprehension barrier exists then or not seems to hinge on peculiar and as-yet unknown features of how consciousness and comprehension actually work; in particular, on whether there is truly only one, somehow-unique way to have and use language. In his article “Communication with Alien Intelligence“, Minsky does address this point with an appeal to evolutionary progression and a “principle of sparseness”. Indeed, arguing that evolution will likely always hit upon the simplest way to achieve a given thing, he posits that when multiple ways in fact exist to achieve the same thing, one will be far, far simpler than any other, and hence natural selection will always select for it (sec. “The Sparseness Principle”). Nonetheless, while such reasoning certainly seems sound, it still feels much more speculative than firm–perhaps not quite addressing the underlying issue–likely because of how consciousness and comprehension work–or even ever could work–is simply too unknown as of yet. Hence a comprehension barrier between species remains a distinct and perhaps even likely possibility, and with no conventional solution or workaround seemingly possible, of all barriers to inter-species communication, it would be the sole one, perhaps, that would be largely insurmountable.

Conclusions

In the face of such a likely comprehension barrier then, seemingly the only set of approaches that might still allow for communication between species would be those involving the creation of new life. The underlying idea would be the rather conventional one of finding interpreters to facilitate communication, as we do here on Earth, for instance, when it isn’t feasible for several people to learn various other languages. Nonetheless, considering how unlikely it would be (in light of a comprehension barrier) to find a species capable of communication with two or more others, interpreters simply wouldn’t exist naturally, and so instead, they would have to be created. Such approaches would necessarily be extreme then, and would raise several ethical issues, even beyond the obvious technical ones. The implications, for instance, of creating either a new organic species, an android species, or even of “merely” creating an altered form of a pre-existing species (or else, perhaps, a “hybrid” between two or more others) would be substantial, even if the newly created had the recognition from others of self-autonomy. Of course, even assuming that an interpreting species could be created, there would also be the question of how a species could go about collecting the necessary information and materials to actually go about doing it. In particular, some understanding of the brain and mind of the “target” species would need to be discovered, and this in turn would likely require analysis at first, and then later on, genetic samples, perhaps, to greatly simplify the rest of the work. (Such samples and analysis could of course involve volunteers, although if not, then covert activities–like abductions–would have to be employed.) Of course, much of this could be avoided if only a “universal translator” could be invented, but whereas an interpreting species could perhaps be designed using some knowledge of the target species’ brain structures, the creation of a translation device would require direct experience with others’ languages. In other words, translation devices are necessarily built by those fluent in that which they wish to interpret between, and so one for inter-species communication could only ever arise after communication was otherwise achieved. (And incidentally then, note that success at written communication would likewise hinge–for the most part at least–on the mutual intelligibility that two species could otherwise establish, as a piece of writing similarly only makes sense once you understand the language that it’s written in.) Overall then, amazingly, perhaps, even a comprehension barrier between species could possibly be overcome by the truly dedicated, but only after facing many complex issues, and necessarily after confronting much uncertainty. Whatever workarounds exist to all other barriers then, a comprehension barrier would still stand–most probably–to render the prospect of inter-species communication infeasible.

Contrary to virtually all sci-fi notions then, achieving communication between species is likely a challenging or even impossible feat, and so too then may be the establishment of a true cosmic community. Whether a specific barrier involves establishing contact; sharing similar physical and physiological means of communicating; or even just enjoying mutual comprehensibility indeed matters little in some sense then, for just one insurmountable barrier could forever preclude social relationships–personal and professional alike. Of course, even with no barriers at all, there would still be the task of actually establishing relations, which would be tricky with other space-faring species even. Presumably, it would all fall back to the old days of language-learning here on Earth; back when no teachers, tutors, textbooks, or multimedia programs were available to help; back when simple immersion–much time spent with members of the other culture–was the only way to proceed. Even so, that would be doable, and perhaps even exciting if a bit intimidating, whereas overcoming communication barriers may not be. There are indeed a great many possible workarounds though–including the use of multiple languages such that each speaker must only produce their own–plus reasons to think that most species could communicate, if not with vocalizations and sound, then with visual or tactual signing. As for comprehension issues though, of course, until and if we interact with another intelligent species, we simply can’t know.

Perhaps then inter-species communication is possible, or perhaps not; and perhaps there already exists a great community in space. Perhaps though several species co-exist in its vastness, and yet nonetheless exist in perpetual isolation, unable to do more with regards to one another than simply convey vague feelings and intentions. Regardless, all of us may one day know one way or the other, but until and even if that time finally comes, there’s a truth here that we might all do well to keep it mind. And it is, simply, that like any given species, we all share a bond of potential friendship, participation, and understanding to an extent that only the members of one given species perhaps can, for we literally share nearly everything about who we are, how we think, and–indeed–even of how we communicate. Whether we ever join a true cosmic community or not then, and whether any interactions with other species are harmonious as we would hope, or else harmful as some of us might fear, we do at least know–as we always have–that we have quite a lot in each other. Perhaps it’s simply that we hope, though, that we may one day find even greater kinship … if only such a fantastic thing is truly possible.

References:

Applemin, D.S: “Barriers Beyond Contact,” Jan. 5th, 2011, at The Assorted Blog of Applemin as of July 27th, 2013
[https://applemin.wordpress.com/2011/01/05/barriers-beyond-contact/].

Applemin, D.S: “Internal Realities,” July 9th, 2009, at The Assorted Blog of Applemin as of July 27th, 2013
[https://applemin.wordpress.com/2009/07/09/internal-realities/].

Minsky, M: “Communication with Alien Intelligence,” 1985, at the website of the MIT Media Lab as of July 27th, 2013
[http://web.media.mit.edu/~minsky/papers/AlienIntelligence.html].

NBCNews.com: “The 10 Smartest Animals: How Do Humans Compare to Other Intelligent Creatures?,” at NBCNews.com as of July 27th, 2013
[http://www.nbcnews.com/id/24628983/ns/technology_and_science-science/t/smartest-animals/#.UeOzCY5tI21].

en.Wikipedia.org: “Cetacean Intelligence,” at Wikipedia as of July 27th, 2013
[http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cetacean_intelligence].

en.Wikipedia.org: “Elephant Cognition,” at Wikipedia as of July 27th, 2013
[http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elephant_cognition].

en.Wikipedia.org: “Primate Cognition,” at Wikipedia as of July 27th, 2013
[http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Primate_cognition].

©2013, D.S. Applemin. All rights reserved.

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