They Might be Aliens

[This article is reprinted from Hackcircus #4, 2014.  I recommend this magazine for many of the other issues and articles, which are wild and varied in theme, idea, and presentation.]


How would we know that we have encountered extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI)? What would distinguish ETI from unintelligent aliens (like the parasite in Alien) and intelligent terrestrials (us)?

It may seem obvious that we can come up with an answer. We know of some intelligent things – ourselves. And we know about extraterrestrial things – planets, stars, interstellar clouds of vinegar.[1] One kind of ETI could be a combination of the two together: things like us, but from space. Consider the tall waving alien at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

But it is not enough to give an easy example. We cannot assume the first ETIs we meet shall be just like us. How they might not be like us makes it hard to identify them at all.

1 Does It Matter that We Recognise Extraterrestrial Intelligence?

Say we encounter something extraterrestrial which has something we want, such as a mineral. If it is not living, e.g., an asteroid, there seems to be no moral obstacle to simply taking it. Even if it is alive, e.g., extraterrestrial bacteria, there is no immediately obvious obstacle. We take something essential to another living thing every time we eat. But there are ethical issues if ET is in any way intelligent. If something has the capacity for self-awareness, it looks safe to assume that it can suffer and there is some moral obligation toward it.

Of course, we might not care about that. Even if it suffers or is self-conscious, we may decide to take from it anyhow. But this assumes the situation is one in which we are the ones taking. The more likely situation is one in which ETI can take something from us. If intelligence only evolved in this Solar System on Earth, it’s more likely that we’ll encounter ETI which travels to us. It survives well enough in space, an environment in which we have barely touched. If it can also enter our atmosphere, then it also can survive somewhat on Earth.

You can’t reason with unintelligent things. An asteroid rushing toward the Earth is not slowed by arguing for your rights. Alien bacteria chemically synthesizing flesh is not moved by suffering. But if you can make yourself understood, you can at least ask an intelligent alien to stop what it is doing – to slow down; to eat something else.

If it recognises you. In his short story ‘The Things’, Peter Watts narrates Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ from the perspective of the alien.[2] It is a compassionate, intelligent being which does not understand humans at all. It is horrified by us. Sees us as empty and blind, lacking sentience, self or feeling.

2 Language

Perhaps there is one feature unique to intelligent beings. Like us, ETIs use language. If we encounter an extraterrestrial language, then we know that there is intelligence behind it.

Here are three ways we might encounter an ETI language:

(a)  Communication aimed at us by something that understands us.

(b)  Communication aimed at us by something that does not understand us.

(c) Communication not aimed at us at all (and which we only coincidentally encounter).

(a) is relatively easy to identify, as easy as a broadcast in a familiar human language. (b) is a common target of SETI and relatively simple as well. Intended for us (the aliens to the communicating ETIs), it should include patterns strongly indicative of intelligence, patterns which do not naturally occur but which all intelligent beings should know, e.g., sequences of primes.

These sequences make sense if ETIs tries to communicate with us. Yet, it’s reasonable to think that most ETI signals we pick up, aware of it or not, are (c): they are messages ETI is sending to itself. Human-directed broadcasts by humans (e.g., TV broadcasts) far outweigh ETI-directed ones (e.g., the Voyager probes). This is something we should assume is true of ETI as well. We are more likely to be eavesdropping than be involved in the first ETI we hear.

Whether or not we recognise it. Given an influential theory of language development, we may not be able to tell eavesdropped ETI conversations from noise.

According to Chomsky’s theory of language acquisition, the available linguistic data surrounding an infant (e.g., parents’ speech) is insufficient for the infant to learn that language. Yet nearly every infant learns the language which surrounds them. Chomsky posits what Kukla[3] calls the Innateness Hypothesis: An infant is born with something, an innate module, to supplement the environmental data. And, as infants can typically learn any language, this module uses a ‘universal grammar’.

The psychologist Kukla argues that this raises a problem with communicating with ETI. Chomsky’s universal grammar applies only to human languages. It is not evidence that any language shares the grammar. If the grammar is only ‘universal’ for humans, one lacking the innate module can’t learn it the way one who possesses it can. If the module is necessary to learn it, those without it cannot learn it.

If our innate language modules evolved, then ETI and we are unlikely to share the same innate modules. We do not share the same evolutionary history.

One way out of this is convergent evolution. Perhaps the same module and grammar evolves under similar environments. Perhaps those environments exist in other places than Earth. If so, then we may encounter ETI which we can understand and which can understand us.

This still leaves out all the other possible environments in which ETI may have evolved. If those other environments are more numerous than those like ours, then we are more likely to encounter an ETI from them. We are more likely to pick up their signals. If Chomsky is right, we will not be able to comprehend them.

3 Technology

Perhaps we can avoid using language to detect ETI. Perhaps ETI does non-linguistic things that indicate intelligence. Especially if we have a close encounter with ETI — on its own world, in deep space, on Earth.

Here is one non-linguistic possibility: ETI exhibits awareness of mathematical, chemical, biological and physical principles. They are more technologically advanced than us. They turn up in gigantic starships hanging effortlessly in the sky. Their hulls are constructed of complex difficult-to-comprehend chemical alloys. When one of them is injured, they heal using advanced medical procedures.

Such traits may convince us that the extraterrestrial before us is ETI. Advanced technology seems inconceivable without engineering plans, invention, devised and tested theories of physics, chemistry, an understanding of the body.

Yet, only recently did we grasp how bees fly: their flight was once thought impossible.[4]  As the philosopher Dupré notes, not humans but microbes are “the most versatile and effective chemists in the biosphere” (Dupré, p.37[5]). And next time you cut yourself, look at the scar. Your body is repairing itself in a way no current doctor can.

All of these processes occur due to natural evolution — by definition, an unintelligent blind process. They are far more advanced than anything we can do now.

The complex giant ship hanging over your city may be the extraterrestrial equivalent of lichen.

4 Scale

There is one significant difference between lichen and that ship. Size. Lichen doesn’t grow that big or spread across space.

One of the main reasons Earth life does not grow so huge is because of gravity and heat. The different sizes and shapes regulate body temperature, allow movement, and allow creatures to eat. Elephants do not look like mice. Humans have soft tissue on the outside. Without it, when we move we would easily break. Insects, which are smaller, have no need of that tissue. A real Godzilla could not walk or even breath; he couldn’t even cool down.[6]

Yet, ET does not need to be so restricted. It did not evolve here on Earth. If an ET evolved, say, in the depths of an interstellar cloud, it is not clear what size or shape it could be. The morphology and scale of extraterrestrial life, including intelligent life, could vary as widely as extraterrestrial environments allow.

The only reason to deny this possibility for intelligent aliens is if intelligence can only survive for any significant time in Earth-like environments. But if intelligence can only survive in Earth-like environments, then no ETI has crossed space to arrive here. Nor shall we ourselves ever make it to meet them on their own world, or anywhere in-between.

There is a final way that size and shape might indicate intelligence. If ETI turns out to be the same scale as us, then, given the wide range of options, this would be so much a coincidence that it may be better to think it is intentional. The ET is copying us. It’s difficult to understand how this could be possible through natural selection. They didn’t evolve with us to mimic us. They would have to do it on arrival. The better explanation is they have studied us. These human-sized things may be like costumes worn to raise whooping cranes.[7]

That an ETI copies us, then, may tell us that it is intelligent. But it does not mean that it recognises our intelligence. That may be the more important challenge: how to convince ETI that there is terrestrial intelligence.

Just ask the ‘Thing’.









Snowfall and Spider Time

The last few days, I was snowed in, like many Irish people. This is the worst it’s been in thirty-something years. I live on the South East coast of Ireland. A year can go by here with only one day of snowfall, and usually none of it settles. A few days ago, to get to the shed five metres away, I had to clear the path of about a half-metre high of snow.

While it was like this, everything blurred and lost colour. Strange birds hung on to the bare swaying branches in a gray, streaming sky. They dropped to the snow to fight over apple cores. They were redwings, like mistlethrushes with rusted feathers on their chests and a black strip over each eye: a Groucho Marx eyebrow. None of us had seen them before (except my dad, who’s in his ’80s).(One of my instagram videos of redwings from this weekend.)

One morning, I opened the door and a bit of snow fell into the hall.  A flock of birds leapt out of the evergreen bushes in a shocked flurry of wings. I stood there for a minute, taking in this erasing scenery. A ginger cat came around the corner of the house and looked at me, then left.

It snowed all day on Friday. It was snowing as it became light and continued into the sun setting again. I was working at home. Every hour or so, I’d break off work and walk out into the garden to see how things were. At the start, I groggily wore a dressing gown going out. The pond was frozen. My feet sank into piles of snow.

There was no sun these few days. Usually, in this town, the sun comes out at least once, gleaming on the sea or passing along the headland. But not these last few days. Or even today. Today, the snow has become piles of slush and running water. Blackbirds and wood pigeons have reappeared. Finches wash themselves in puddles and starlings have joined the redwings to fight.

The day before all this snow came down, I walked on to the beach. It was deserted, except for birds. A flock of black-headed seagulls settled in the surf as it rolled in, then lifted off again as it pulled back out. They did this over and over, as if they wanted one thing, wanted it, but kept forgetting it was transitory, and were constantly surprised.

What It is Like to Not Know

In these moments, I’m brought up short by the suggestion this gives me of the psychology of animals. There is an alienness of other creature’s sense of time. I don’t consider this an understanding to think of them this way. It is a bafflement. It is the opposite of insight.

There are lots of reasons why we may not understand the perspective of something else.

On  a fundamental level, there may be a barrier  to understanding ‘what it is like’ to be another thing , as most philosophers of consciousness refer to it (original article on this by philosopher Thomas Nagel). To change Nagel’s example of a bat for a seagull, I don’t know what it is like to be a seagull – even if I had wings; feathers; was surrounded by seagulls; liked dipping my feet in the surf. There is some irreducible subjectivity to being a seagull that cannot be shared with a non-seagull (such as me), even if the non-seagull, too, has subjectivity. We can even go further, following Nagel: there is some irreducible subjectivity to being me, or to being you, that cannot be shared with anyone else, even if they, too, have subjectivity.

I often struggle with Nagel’s ideas here and the ‘Hard Problem’ of consciousness that follows it (as characterised by David Chalmers). I won’t go into my problems here. I think there are still problems with imagining ourselves into the lives of other creatures, even if we don’t take on Nagel and Chalmers’ ideas (which, again, I struggle with anyway).

Another reason why we may be unable to understand what it is like to be something is closer to Nagel’s work, and something I find compelling and bizarre. It’s that part of what it is like to be something else other than me (or you) is that it is not me (or it is not you).

When I look at the seagulls lifting and sinking into the surf, I myself am not doing this. I have never done this. I’ve never had wings. I wear clothes. I do not have feathers. I like chocolate, coffee, and beer; I don’t like raw fish. It doesn’t matter to me what any particular seagull thinks of me. I remember the boredom of learning Irish from felt figures stuck on a board. I am standing on the shore watching these birds fall and sink.

I’m watching creatures that could in all ways be like me except this: they are not standing on the shore watching themselves sink. They don’t know what it’s like to wear clothes, to not have feathers, to like chocolate, coffee, beer, and to not like raw fish. Seagulls lack knowledge that I myself possess. I do not know what it is like to lack this knowledge. I do not know what it is like to know nothing of my own life.

(For what it is worth, I think this is buried in some of Nagel’s talk about people hanging upside down, yet not knowing what it’s like to be a bat.)

This is also true of you and me. I don’t know what it is like to be you, or you me. Even if you read these accounts of my life, or you tell me parts of yours, you won’t know what it is like to be me — because part of knowing that requires you to forget what it is like to be you.

If I could perfectly share with you my point of view, because my point of view is limited and does not include yours, you would need to lose your own point-of-view. If I were to become a seagull, I would need to forget to become me.

The Difference in Time

Another less forbidding difference between my perspective and those of other animals is in my sense of time. Animals’ sense of time may be very different to our own, and this difference alone may make them baffling to us.

My friend Kevin lives near Glendalough, way out in the Irish countryside, married to my school friend Joan. For years I’d come stay with them in their house; we’d drink wine, watch Gilbert & Sullivan, Morse, Hammer Horrors, talk about nature. Joan and Kevin’s is where I learned indifference to spiders; there were just too many of them in the room where I slept.

One night, a bit drunk, Kevin and I wandered into their bathroom. It was crowded with house spiders. By ‘house spiders’ I mean what lots of Irish folks call ‘daddy long-legs’ (I don’t because that’s what I call crane-flies). Kevin and I got talking. He pointed at the spiders on the walls and drew my attention to the main cluster. They were around a female spider with a large dark egg sack in her mandibles. She was much bigger than the rest. Two males were cautiously stalking her and each other. But on other walls, there were lots of other spiders. These were also males drawn by the smell of the female spider but not competing for her attention.

Kevin told me they could keep all night at this mating, stalking, and clustering. He added this: when he lived in his old house, before he met Joan, he came into his bathroom at night and saw harvesters fighting. Harvesters are a kind of insect with four long translucent legs, like house spiders. They were on the rim of his bathtub. They had their front legs raised and locked against each other, and were pushing at each other. First, one moved back, then the other moved back; they kept doing this. They didn’t slow down, take a break, stop. Just: over and back, over and back.

Kevin went to bed. Next morning, he came back into the bathroom and there they still were: over and back, over and back, legs locked still in competition.

I moved back to Cork a couple years ago and lots of wolf spiders came into my room. I learned something by watching them. Wolf spiders can stay very still for long periods of time, then suddenly move, and be gone.

There was a wolf spider beside my lamp. I got up in the morning. There it was. I went to work. I came back nine hours later. There it still was. Then I moved something on the desk and it – vanished. I didn’t see it again. But, that night, with the light off, every so often I heard it scuttling around the floorboards.

Similarly, the year before last, at about 9pm each evening, a wolf spider would appear near the dining room curtain in my folks’ place. It wouldn’t move for hours. But it would always be gone in the morning.

Now, it is possible that all these creatures — invertebrates in this case — get up to regular activity when we’re not around. The harvesters take a break, go for a wander, look for food. Or the wolf spiders wait until no humans or similar animals are around, then hunt inside the rooms they occupy.

However, it’s worth asking why we should think that. What is it we think they must do in the time we spend away from them? Perhaps they do nothing. Perhaps their experience of these periods are like the brief moments between our eye blinks. It is not sleep but simply: nothing. There is nothing it is like for them to undergo this particular change — or, we might say, to pass through this particular period of time.

One of the difficulties with imagining this is we think of ourselves as constantly aware of time while we are awake. If I imagine the period between getting on the bus tomorrow and getting to work — about 90 minutes — I imagine myself experiencing all of that time. 

I also imagine myself as having a state similar to what I’m in now: aware of the time I’m living through and also of past time (breakfast earlier today, last week on the beach) and in some way future time (going to work tomorrow morning, and every day after).

However, am I aware of all of the moments in my past and future, all the experiences I go through during my waking times? Am I aware of my breathing three seconds ago, or my thoughts at 7am this morning? It might seem that I can bring up a sense that I am or, if pressed, that I should be. But I don’t know if I am, really.

This brings me back to the seagulls on the surf: one of the difficulties of understanding these seagulls is that I imagine a certain state of consciousness they possess in lifting and falling. When I imagine that, I can’t help thinking of them as bizarre and alien. They lift up out of the surf as it rolls back, then settle over and over. It seems exhausting and confusing. Why would they settle when they do, and lift when they do? What state are they pursuing by their activity? What is going through their minds?

There may be something going through their minds, even as they lift and fall. I don’t believe that animals cannot be conscious, cannot have a point-of-view,  cannot have subjectivity, or a what-it-is-like. However, that doesn’t mean they must experience every instance of their rising and falling.

Perhaps it is this: the seagulls feel their rise and fall like we feel breathing, heartbeats, or even eye blinks. Although there may be an experience to it, doing it over and over is not boring or bizarre. It is simply something that they do.

When the birds finally settle, the moments they spent to get there may be like a single moment.

Alternatively, there is something arduous to it, and it feels like a long time for them. My point is: I don’t know.

Why I don’t know brings my final point: my trouble with consciousness is that I’m not sure how to sort between unconsciousness and consciousness in other things. For example, I’m not sure how to sort between the activities in another being that are like eye blinks and the activities that are like visual experiences of looking. With eye blinks and looking, I can do it because I am aware of those activities in myself.   I project the differences in me onto others. I know I’m not aware of my own eye blinks; I project on to you that you’re not aware of your own eye blinks.

But: with seagulls dipping? Spiders and harvesters competing? What do I do with them? How do I even divide consciousness from unconsciousness?

Indeed, even with other people, what I think may be an unconscious activity may not be. I see someone blink rapidly, and take it as a sign of insecurity or flinching. Yet, they are acting the blink, fully aware of doing it. One person or thing’s unconscious act may be another’s fully conscious practice or ritual.

A lot of other activities can be physically matched but not consciously matched. I need something else to grasp whether or not another creature’s behaviour is conscious or not.

One thing I think could help with this: we might get a better account of other creatures’ perspectives if we take into consideration the possibility that there are significant differences in different creatures’ experiences of time.