SETI: A Critical History: 7. Philosophers' critique of SETI

Pioneer plaque

Fig. 9. Plaque designed by Sagan and Drake for Pioneer 10 213.

Perhaps ... we have not made the right mental effort.
– 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.


SETI graphic


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 difficulties."200


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 become AH.


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


SETI graphic


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 period.


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 contained.


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 graphic


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."


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.


SETI graphic


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 plausible non-humanoids.



200. Tovmasyan, 3; and Kaplan, 243.
201. Cognitive Psychology was first published in 1970 and Cognition in 1972.
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, 1981), 38.
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.
213. http://ails.arc.nasa.gov/images/newimages/jpegs/lowres/AC72-1338.jpg, 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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