What’s really out there? Are we alone in the universe? Do aliens exist? I gamble that no person ever to live has not thought at least once of these questions. In our lifetimes, who hasn’t looked up at the stars and wondered ‘what’s up there?’. Many still must have imagined how we might communicate with such forms of life were we to be given the opportunity. Might they have the capacity for language? How could we ever know what their communicative efforts meant? Contemporaneous technological advances in space travel demand these questions to have an answer. In this essay, I shall attempt to address them and to propose a solution to a final question: ‘could we talk to aliens?’. After all, we ought to be ready.
In this pursuit, the first issue that arises, even before any linguistic puzzle, concerns whether extraterrestrial beings might enjoy some form of mental life. Does ‘a mind’ need to be taken for granted in order to guarantee the possession of language?
A central part of human life, the mind might be computationally described as the central processing unit, the hard drive, the graphics card, and even the software of experience. It houses the memory of our childhood bedroom, the knowledge of when to cross a street, and facts about mountain lions in Ancient Greece. It projects images into our minds’ eyes, permits a rolling screen of thoughts, and generates sentences. By all accounts, the mind is our best friend and our worst enemy. It will forgive us as we give up running uphill and taunt us with the awkward memory of our first kiss. Would it be the same for aliens? How could we possibly tell?
Well, a good point of reference could exist with the closest thing we might have to an alien’s mind: the animal mind. Though obviously they will differ species to species depending on neurological clout, we humans nonetheless seem to consider (e.g., in our dietary, behavioural, and political activities) the animal mind as separate conceptually to our own. How do the minds of animals come about, and what might they be said to contain? If we take as a model the minds of animals, or more precisely how the minds of animals arise evolutionarily, we might be able to infer consequently some compositional facts about those of extraterrestrials.
Starting generally, let us consider what it may take evolutionarily to have arrived at being a productive species within an ecosystem. Though it is possibly too far to generalise Darwinian models of evolutionary theory to extraterrestrial systems in full, nonetheless some basic facts about adaptive fitness and its link to morphological form must be permitted in understanding how a species comes to survive. Taking inter-species hostility as an essential feature of an environment (with such principles of scarcity of resources and competition to reproduce extant), it must be the case that even extraterrestrial life, and certainly animal life, will have to adapt and evolve to meet the demands of its surroundings. No species can survive without knowing where to hide from predators, how to fight off rivals, or when to attract a mate.
All such knowledge must necessarily be possessed and accessible to a species to ensure the possibility of survival. All such species must surely have some place in which this content-rich information is stored, a way to access it, and abilities to employ it. All such content, thus, must surely be governed by a faculty we might call a mind.
Now, I hear the sceptics shouting one question regarding these claims’ implications for aliens. ‘How could you possibly know?’, they cry from the rafters. An easy response would be to argue for something we might call the ‘universality of evolutionary principles’; that is, I might claim it to be sufficiently safe that the evolutionary picture I’ve just painted applies to extraterrestrial ecosystems just because they inhabit the same universe with the same fundamental physical properties as ours. Yet, of course, biological properties might be argued to arise from chemical ones arising from physical ones — two steps too far for the sceptics, I’m sure. They might say there are too many possibilities that would render this discussion effectively pointless. ‘How can you say aliens would have comparable minds just on the basis they might have had to evolve them?’, they yell. Let me try to respond by observing the logical consequences of the sceptic’s position.
First, if our alien could not definitely be said to have a mind, we must hold that it existed within a perfectly unchallenging environment. No predators must have ever threatened its existence, for even a slight impact would result in behavioural changes that might affect morphological development; no mate would ever have required competition (and, for that matter, no genetic information could ever be reduplicated in offspring erroneously); no climate could ever affect migratory or other behavioural patterns; and no shortage of sustenance could ever occur (etc.). In short (unless we would wish to posit another driver of evolution than environmental and genetic pressure) no need to have developed a system for the processing and utilisation of information gathered from the environment would have ever needed to arise.
Second, if it must be true that aliens cannot have minds in any way comparable to our own, then it must also be true that they could not seem to be involved in sensory experiences with which all us Earthian species are so familiar. No light could be seen, no pressurised waves of whatever gas forms the atmosphere could be heard, no tactile activities could be felt, no fear nor pain experienced. Disregarding the manner or location of these mental events, their necessary place in contributing to systems of knowledge make them too valuable to discard. Even plants on Earth have some comprehension of these sensations, and though at a stretch it might be possible to ascribe them mental faculties in a comparable sense to our own, we can still suggest they process information and utilise it for survival goals.
Third, if aliens must be devoid of minds necessarily, it would seem likely that they might not even be discoverable for us, to the extent that entertaining their possibility almost seems equally as futile as alien mentalism seems to my aforementioned sceptics. If we accept the idea of the universality of evolutionary principles, it seems plausible to suggest that somewhere within an alien species would lie something like a mind. Of course, implicit within current discussion is the idea that extraterrestrial life will take some biological form for which discovery and with which physical interaction could be possible — forms of life composed of matter discoverable to us are the only ones worth consideration, and those forms of life, we could assume, would be subject to similar environmental pressures as species on Earth.
Note too how mentions of essential forms of matter, discreteness of mental lives (think of the alien tree in the film Avatar), or even content of mental experiences have not occurred in this essay. Contingent features of life though these may be, nonetheless their essential relation to a biological form make them interesting for us to consider in this essay; alien life could take any form, I only wish to argue that forms with mind-like features and interactable physiological forms with are plausible. After all, if we could not find the damn things, let alone meet them, who cares if they exist without minds?
I do not suggest beyond possibility that aliens might know things or feel things just by the very suggestion; the only reach would be in describing the of what, in fact. I do not suggest that alien life must all necessarily be mentalistic; not even all Earthian life, after all, is really. I do not even suggest that an alien species’ mind would be so well developed as to be comparable to humans’; mentalism must be conceived spectrally, with sophistication of mental faculties and structures being defining criteria for a species’ mind’s development.
So, let us say that aliens do have minds on the basis that an investigation into their formation through the lens of animal evolution makes their existence plausible. Delving deeper into our philosophical investigation, keeping in mind the notion above that mental sophistication might be mapped as a function of faculties’ developments, what fundamental principles of the alien mind might allow it to produce language?
At first glance, one might assume consciousness should ultimately be required. Having the ability to think, reflect, introspect, and deliberate all seem essential in the ways in which we go about choosing what we say and how we say it. Though these processes happen so fast in us during ordinary discourse to the point that they may as well be unconscious, the fact we (i.e., neurotypical individuals) feel in control of everything we say gives rise to the idea that we’re in charge when it comes to language. But does this description paint too constrained a picture of the linguistic landscape? What else can be argued to do language?
Answering this question entirely depends upon the criteria one uses to fence off certain ‘types’ of communication from others. While the goalposts on this issue are unavoidably only fixed theoretically, nonetheless many have tried to delineate forms of communication into what counts as language and what doesn’t. Some point to an arbitrary relationship existing between linguistic forms and their meanings (but, what about iconicity?), others to the technical possibility for sentences to go on infinitely recursively with new phrases (but, who really speaks like this?), some say the facility to displace conversation from the present situation represents a necessary feature (but, what about tenselessness?), whilst others still say the capacity to produce novel sentences shows a truly defining linguistic phenomenon (but, how many sentences are really new?). In this essay, I will attempt to argue in favour of a much broader, more accepting criteria.
First, let us work against the notion that consciousness should underpin all else in this discussion. Forthwith, it seems we exclude all animals from the ability to have language. Whilst possibly uncontroversial a position to hold for some, to most ordinary individuals it would seem rather odd to deny only on theoretical grounds my pet cat, Pickle, the right for his cognitive ability of letting me know that and when he is hungry to count as linguistic. Sure, linguists cry, ‘that’s communication all right; but it’s not language.’ Why? The canon of linguistics may demand to see a syntax, a semantics, a lexicon, and a productive capacity. It wants to draw comparisons with human languages only because those are the only phenomena it knows and takes seriously.
OK, linguists, here’s your language: when Pickle walks into the living room to let me know he’s hungry, he will stride in with a certain passion that consultation with the time of day tells he is hungry. He will not come to jump and sit on my lap for some affection, but instead will stand by the sofa on which I lay and stare into my eyes. If I proceed to move in my reclined position, even to adjust my comfort, he will take this as a sign that I have understood his message (which I have) and have decided to comply with his demand by getting up from my seat and walking into the kitchen (which I haven’t; knowing Pickle, this will be several hours before tea time).
The combination of the discrete actions of walking confidently into the room and staring stilly into my eyes might parallel lexical items (as might his response to his interpretation that I have complied), their combination in the overall event of his action embody a syntactic sentence in his language, and the event’s meaning is only clear from the composition of those actions. No words were spoken, no human acted, yet a meaning was conveyed to me with a compositional semantics built by individual actions equivalent to lexical items in a workable syntax, all produced by my cat, Pickle.
This argument will be agreeable to most without roots in linguistic formalism, but for some I will not have provided convincing evidence. Pickle’s noble communicative attempts may not be permitted into the guarded vaults of languages just because some observed features of human languages aren’t observable in his own. Alas, the complexities of his language will surely go unstudied. Unless, however… unless we move these goalposts ourselves.
Let us step back, above all issues in linguistics, philosophy, and psychology, and speculate what it might take fundamentally to communicate. Though one might be drawn to think of communicative organs like mouths and ears, logical constituents of a conversation like a speaker and a hearer, or for there to be some relation extant between the content of discourse and the real world, it must surely be plain to see that these are all contingent upon two quite distinct cognitive faculties. Disregarding consciousness, a language faculty, or even an interlocutor, there are only two properties of the human mind that permit us to communicate, and thus, by extension (granted the suggestion that extraterrestrials possess some comparable mind) there are just two fundamental properties of the alien mind for which we would necessarily have to search. What are they?
Knowledge and intention.
Why? The communication of a message only requires knowing what message one wants to convey and the ability to convey it. In this essay, I have conveyed knowledge relating to evolutionary biology, theoretical linguistics, and philosophy of mind, and I have been able to do so my acting upon the keyboard in front of me. When I stop at a junction in traffic, the policy decision to have the colour light ‘red’ as the symbol to demand a halt and the showing of the colour ‘red’ on the traffic lights communicate the message to me that I must stop. When chimps make certain calls across the jungle to inform their fellow chimps of threats that exist or of their need for help, their knowledge of warning calls corresponding to situations and their ability to screech allow that message to be conveyed.
Why, apart from the dissimilarities with certain features of human languages that only exist some of the time, do these latter two forms of communication not count as language? Why do we not accept them into the canon as possibly linguistically informative for reasons other than that outlying properties of human language do not seem observable within them? Why cast them aside? Let’s not.
Let’s disregard previous criteria for being a language, if for no other reason would it be acceptable to do so, just because the broadest possible scope we take for these criteria will allow us to consider and take seriously the widest range of linguistic evidence we might find. Looking even beyond traffic lights and chimps and my cat, Pickle, let us say that we must define language only by knowledge and intention just so no possible extraterrestrial languages (or, forms of communication) fail to slip through the empirical nets we dangle down from our ships flying through space. Let us define language thus just so we might find others to examine, at home and amongst the stars.
With knowledge and intention presumed in the alien mind, thus so too is an answer to this essay’s founding question. Yes, we could talk to aliens.
So, how do we do it? Do we just garble and point ostensively to learn the different names for shared concepts? In whatever form their language takes, ours being primarily vocal/auditory, as we grow to understand the contents of their knowledge, we might be able to form common ground in communicative settings by reducing the possibilities of what they refer to down to what they truly intended. This is what we do with babies, cats, chimps, and traffic lights. Why not E.T. too?