SETI: A Critical History
Part II Expanding the ETI discourse
Chapter 7. The philosophers' critique of SETI
Perhaps ... we have not made the right mental
– Carl Sagan
SETI's proponents believed that all intelligent beings would be similar.
They reasoned that, because the universe was everywhere composed of the
same elements and governed by the same natural laws, the cognitive structures,
consciousnesses, and intelligences of beings everywhere had been forged
in a set of fundamentally similar evolutionary experiences. This assumption
of uniformitarianism was a key element of SETI-Science because it provided
the rationale for why inter-species communication is possible.
During the 1970s a number of philosophers of science, pioneers in the expansion
of the ETI discourse to incorporate the issues of a being's nature, began
to use the evolving concepts of cognitive science to level pointed critiques
against SETI's assumption of uniformitarianism. By the early 1980s they
decisively subverted uniformitarianism using linguistics-based arguments.
SETI's architects began to waver in their commitment to uniformitarianism,
and SETI-style searches were left vulnerable to the claim that they only
searched for humanoid ETIs.
As early as Byurakan-I the Soviets showed they were alert to the risks that
uniformitarianism posed to constructing a sound search strategy. The mathematician
A. V. Gladkii warned the astronomers present at the first CETI conference
that ETI's nature might be so fundamentally different that even our mathematics
would be different. In the Kaplan text, the Soviet team that continued to
think about the issues raised at Byurakan-I referenced Gladkii's concern
and concluded that, in those cases when ETI and we did have different
mathematics, "the decoding of messages will naturally encounter serious
Philosophers of science, using new tools developed by the field of cognitive
science, were largely responsible for the American critique of SETI's assumption
of uniformitarianism. By the 1970s the multi-disciplinary field of cognitive
science was rapidly gaining traction. The term itself was being used, and
the field had its first two professional journals.201 As it became
possible to discuss ideas about the human mind using the new vocabulary
of cognitive science, commentators were drawn to using this same vocabulary
to describe the possible nature of ETIs and, in particular, how their cognitive
structures, consciousnesses, and intelligences might differ from our own.
The philosopher of science Wilfred Desan introduced the critique. He explained
how different beings might literally see different objects when encountering
the same external environment. He explained that when ETI observes Object
A it will become object AE and when a human sees it, it will
Both may claim they know what object A is.
What they see and know may very well be a definition of object A: They
both know what it is – and they will both be right –
yet their knowledge of object A will not be the same.... In fact there
is no reason to deny the knowability of object A as being infinite....
Object A, then, would be viewed and viewed and viewed, again and again
and again, differently; yet each one of these viewings would be true.202
Then in 1978 the anthropologist and psychiatrist team of Doris and David
Jonas explained how different cognitive structures provide different "slits"
through which beings glimpse reality; looking through these different slits
leads to the construction of different realities. In a passage reminiscent
of Fontenelle's comments three centuries earlier, the pair explained that,
"Each sense we possess gives the equivalent of a narrow slit window on reality....
If the slit windows of other creatures elsewhere in the universe are a little
wider than ours in some places, a little narrower in others, or if they
open onto a different part of the cosmic scene, how different would the
conclusions they arrive at be from ours?"203
The philosopher Gonzalo Munevar acknowledged the uniform nature of the universe
but questioned whether that necessarily implied the common adaptive response
to it that SETI-Science assumed. "Let us suppose that there are indeed features
of the universe so pervading that all higher organisms must deal with them.
Such features would then be dealt with in a variety of ways, each
the result of the long interaction of the environment with a particular
cognitive frame of reference."204
Nicholas Rescher, another philosopher, explained what was epistemologically
at stake in the critique of SETI's uniformitarianism.
Admittedly there is only one universe, and its
laws, as best we can tell, are everywhere the same ... but the sameness
of the object of contemplation does nothing to guarantee the sameness
of the ideas about it. It is all too familiar a fact that even where human
(and thus homogenous) observers are at issue, different constructions
are often placed upon 'the same. occurrences.... The things are
the same, but their significance is altogether different."
He concluded that uniformitarianism, or "the one world ... argument shatters
against the fact that it is different thought-worlds that are at
issue...."205 Elsewhere he went so far as to suggest that, "it
is surely naïve to think that because one single object is in question,
its description must issue in one uniform result. This view ignores the
crucial impact of the describer's intellectual orientation."206
Uniformitarianism's contention that all intelligences are similar in some
fundamental way was one of the key principles that SETI's architects tried
to establish. Its immediate operational significance lay in the project's
assumption that we could understand, or at least detect, a message composed
by ETI. Yet even this narrower claim attracted expert criticism during this
The Soviet CETI team highlighted the importance of linguistics in the construction
of a soundly conceived radio search. Among the resolutions they adopted
at Byurakan-I was the injunction that "more attention should also be devoted
to ... the development of methods for establishing communication and further
improvement of cosmic linguistics on the basis of the general theory of
language."207 The Soviets did, in fact, give the matter more
attention. In the Kaplan text we saw their pessimistic conclusion that it
was "prudent to assume, however, that the decoding of these messages will
present considerable difficulties, no smaller, say, than the decoding of
inscriptions in ancient lost languages."208 This was tantamount
to admitting that ETI's messages would be indecipherable. When the Soviets
raised this problem with their American counterparts at Byurakan-II, the
latter listened politely but expressed their faith in "anti-cryptography."
The Soviets understood that unless radio astronomers understood a message
from an ETI they ran the risk of making the same kind of observational error
that Kepler and Lowell made when they found an artifact whose manifest order
suggested that it was of intelligent origin. The only certain way to avoid
making the same mistake was to go beyond simply detecting an instance of
coherent radiation by understanding the message they believed it
Chomsky's theory of language, which he did not fully elaborate until shortly
after the publication of the Kaplan text, offered one, widely popular, theoretical
approach to the problems of communicating with and detecting ETIs. As discussed
above, Chomsky's seminal paper was published the same year as Cocconi's
and Morrison's. By 1968 Chomsky hypothesized a biological basis for language.
His claim that language was species-specific implied that inter-species
communication would be problematic. Chomsky himself specifically addressed
the issue of communicating with ETIs:
The same structures that make it possible to
learn a human language make it impossible for us to learn a language that
violates the principles of [human] universal grammar. If a Martian landed
from outer space and spoke a language that violated universal grammar,
we simply would not be able to learn that language the way that we learn
a human language.209
By the early 1980s a number of philosophers fashioned Chomsky's biolinguistic
theory into a specific critique of SETI based on the problems of communicating
between species that construct realities in fundamentally different ways.
George Sefler questioned whether communication could take place between
Chomskyan universal grammars. "Indications are that languages carve up the
world in different ways. Theoretically, then, the possibility exists that
one communications system can segment reality in a way so totally different
from another system that together they defy intertranslation." The different
linguistic frameworks of two beings "are not determined by their content,
that is, how things are, but by the forms of the language ... [thus] things
can be said in one language which are a priori not sayable in another."210
Samuel R. Delany's 1966 science fiction novel Babel-17 is filled
with references to the role language plays in defining a being’s reality.
The historian and philosopher of science William Schuyler used the story
as a vehicle to examine the plausibility of the proposition that humans
could communicate with ETIs. Schuyler observed that language "forces a mode
of cognition on its speakers," and concluded that one intelligent being
might not even recognize another as such.211
Peter Barker, another historian and philosopher of science, recalled a point
that Panovkin tried to impress on the American SETI scientists at Byurkan-II
a decade earlier. Barker wrote that “in order to understand the set of symbols
used by another civilization, there must be ... a close identity of the
historical background of the two societies." Barker argued that we would
have trouble communicating with ETI unless we were at a similar point in
the evolution of our scientific understanding. Whereas Chomsky, in the quote
above, left open the possibility of learning an ETI's language, Barker took
the more extreme position that it would be impossible for a human to "successfully
set aside a language already acquired and learn an alien language as the
aliens themselves learn it."212
SETI's architects were inconsistent in their adherence to uniformitarianism,
suggesting that they, too, were sensitive to this fissure at the core of
their project’s foundation. For example, in 1962 Morrison began a presentation
about the SETI project by asking the very question at the heart of the debate
over uniformitarianism: "I would like first to speak to the question of
whether or not we could recognize living things of a very different form
from our own." Morrison not only failed to address his own question; he
revealed just how far his thoughts were from the issue he raised by referencing,
a short while later, one of the few examples that existed at the time of
a plausible non-humanoid ETI, Hoyle's Black Cloud, with whom communication
was impossible. A decade later, in 1972, NASA hosted a SETI symposium with
the telling title, "Life Beyond Earth and the Mind of Man." During the conference
Morrison referred, ambiguously, to "people [sic] who ... will be incredibly
alien." He spoke of their "extraordinary differences, so great we can hardly
imagine how great they are."
|Fig. 9. Plaque designed by Sagan and
Drake for Pioneer 10 213
Sagan made an even more curious statement at the conference. He referred
to the aluminum plaque he and Drake designed for the Pioneer 10 probe. They
designed the plaque just a few months after the Byurakan-II conference.
The plaque and Sagan's comments about it suggest that he and Drake had been
only selectively receptive to the ideas that Panovkin and the other Soviets
presented to them at the conference.214 Sagan and Drake wanted
to fashion a plaque that identified the probe's senders to any beings that
might eventually intercept it. They crafted a message in binary notation
to identify the location of fourteen pulsars that, in turn, situated our
sun, solar system, and planet. Sagan claimed that any ETI finding the plaque
would be able to figure out where it was sent from because "it is written
very clearly ... in Scientific, which anybody who can intercept the spacecraft
will surely speak." This was a classic kind of uniformitarianist claim.
However, the use of binary notation was, of course, an example of the "isolated
symbol systems" that Panovkin warned against as not necessarily interpretable
by a being that had evolved a different nature.
The plaque also contained a picture of two humans. Having just invoked uniformitarianism
to explain why he thought any ETI would be able to decipher binary notation,
Sagan said, "And then there are two quite mysterious objects on the plaque
which they [the ETIs] will never figure out. These objects are intended
to indicate who sent the probe."215 One is left to wonder why
Sagan and Drake bothered to include it. Sagan's comments may have been a
concession to the issue raised by the Soviet linguist Kuznetzov at Byurakan-II.
He had, it will be recalled, challenged Minsky and Sagan to explain how
a picture of a cat could communicate the information essential to understand
a living cat. It is just as likely, however, that the promotional genius
in Sagan saw an opportunity, once again, to capture the imagination of,
not ETIs but his fellow earthlings. The image he and Drake created not only
became iconically recognizable, it also put Sagan's signature on the first
manmade object to leave our solar system.
The following year, in Cosmic Connection, Sagan exhibited the same
ambiguity he and Morrison showed at the "Life Beyond Earth and the Mind
of Man" conference. Sagan began the book by rhetorically asking why we might
ever expect that an ETI "based entirely upon different biological principles,
could ever send a message we could understand?" By way of an answer, he
invoked the now-standard SETI assumption of anti-cryptography, or the assumption
that any being intelligent enough to send us a message will be intelligent
enough to send us a message we can easily detect and understand. As Sagan
put it, it will be "a message so simple that even civilizations as primitive
as ours can understand it." He explained that the mechanics of
anti-cryptography will be based on uniformitarianism, or the commonalities
of "the universe around us, science and mathematics." Again, so far there
are no surprises: this is the SETI party line.
But a few pages later Sagan raised the inconsistent possibility that the
realities we construct could be different from ETI's, and that this could
pose a problem detecting a message, let alone understanding it.
This was, of course, the very point the Soviets made at Byurakan-II. "At
this moment, the messages from another civilization may be wafting across
space ... there for us to detect them – if we knew how.... Perhaps
the messages are already here, present in some everyday experience that
we have not made the right mental effort to recognize."216 Indeed,
the critics of SETI that we have been studying might have made this exact
point. This rather obvious inconsistency in Sagan's logic suggests, like
his use of isolated symbol systems that might make as much sense to an ETI
as Linear B does to us, that the American SETI pioneers struggled to understand
the "nature"-based challenges to their project.
Philosophers of science directly and decisively critiqued one of SETI's
most important assumptions – uniformitarianism – using the new
tools of cognitive science. SETI's architects began to waver in their commitment
to the claim that all intelligences were fundamentally similar at the very
time the new "nature" segment of the ETI discourse began to broaden to include
3; and Kaplan, 243.
201. Cognitive Psychology was first published in 1970 and Cognition
202. Wilfrid Desan, "Angular Truth and Planet X," in James L. Christian,
ed., Extraterrestrial Intelligence: The First Encounter (Buffalo:
Prometheus Books, 1976), 211.
203. Doris Jonas and David Jonas, Other Senses, Other Worlds
(Briarcliff Manor, NY: Stein and Day, 1978), 14.
204. Gonzalo Munevar, Radical Knowledge – A Philosophical Inquiry
into the Nature and Limits of Science (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing,
205. Nicholas Rescher, "Extraterrestrial Science," in Edward Regis, Jr.,
ed., Extraterrestrials – Science and Alien Intelligence
(New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 90, 95.
206. Rescher, Limits of Science, 184.
207. Tovmasyan, 98.
208. Kaplan, 133.
209. Noam Chomsky, "Things No Amount of Learning Can Teach," interview
by John Gliedman, Omni 6 (November, 1983): 113.
210. George F. Sefler, "Alternative Linguistic Frameworks: Communications
with Extraterrestrial Beings," in Nicholas D. Smith, ed., Philosophers
Look at Science Fiction (Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1982), 71–2.
211. William M. Schuyler, Jr., "Could Anyone Here Speak Babel –
17?," in Smith, Philosophers Look at Science Fiction, 88–9.
212. Peter Barker, "Omnilinguals," in Smith, Philosophers Look at
Science Fiction, 82, 84.
accessed 10 April 2009.
214. See the discussion in Chapter 4, "Byurakan-II."
215. Richard Berendzen, ed., Life Beyond Earth and the Mind of Man
– A Symposium held at Boston University on November 20, 1972, NASA
SP–328 (Washington, DC: NASA Scientific and Technical Information
Office, 1973), 43, 14.
216. Sagan, Cosmic Connection, 217, 224.
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