So far, no signal from an extraterrestrial civilization has been received that can be regarded as finally confirmed. This has led some to argue that the search is not worth the while, since the evolutionary biological paths of possible intelligent life must and would be so different from ours that, even if they exist, communication would be impossible. We would, in fact, never be able to confirm their existence, let alone search for communication.
The argument mainly runs as follows: On Earth there are currently many divergent cultures, and this complicates communication. What one human understands with and under certain concepts, even though these may seem analogous, is in fact so different from what another human understands that we humans can never fully understand each other. This is the ethnocentric and anthropocentric argument. Human cultures are living in worlds of their own. All human knowledge is humanly interpreted. Communication does take place, but our concepts are so laden with cultural frames of reference that these communications cannot be considered meaningful. It is even argued that science and technology are not excluded from this: Chinese, Japanese, Western, and American sciences differ vastly from each other because they are culturally conditioned.
There is even a school of thought within mathematics which argue that French and British mathematics are dissimilar because of the British and French cultural mindsets. If this is the case amongst beings of the same biological evolutionary stock, how much more impossible would it be for communication to take place between civilizations of divergent biological evolutionary origins? With such different roots, we can only begin to imagine how different language and science (including mathematics) might be. It would be like someone trying to explain the theory of relativity to a Stoic academic of the Roman Empire in 110 AD. This academic would not follow our thinking and argument and would not understand them, not because s/he is less intelligent, but because relativity would simply not make sense to them.
For primarily biological historical reasons, brains and minds of alien civilizations would be so vastly different that even scientific radio telescope and optical laser searches are futile from the start. Alien brains and minds would function so differently that, apart from some very small and minute similarities, the gap between them and us would be so large that communication would be impossible. Their evolutionary biological makeup will probably not be carbon-based like us, but something different. Their mathematical constructs need not even be geometry, trigonometry, or algebra as we know them. If their brains and minds were so divergent from ours, so would be their laws of logic. If divergent cultures have divergent logics on Earth, how much more totally divergent would be the logics of alien, extraterrestrial civilizations?
This anthropocentric argument may seem appealing to explain the fact that no confirmed contact with extraterrestrial civilizations have been made to date. I have, however, very strong reservations against this anthropocentric and ethnocentric argument, because I do not think it is valid. It cannot be denied that cultures and societal environments do play a role in the shaping of thinking and that in some cases misunderstandings do arise in communication on Earth. It could also be accepted that cultural reasons do play a role in the generating of knowledge and new areas of research. Many things are indeed local in origin. It could even be granted, in fact I think it is certain, that alien civilizations' biological makeup would, evolutionarily speaking, be divergent from ours. Instead of a life-form that is carbon-based, it may be silicon or something different. Their reproduction/replication processes may be different, the way their brains and minds function may be different -- for example, the firing of neurons may be absent and this function be performed by some other process.
However, I do not think that this is the complete or total picture. The anthropocentric and ethnocentric argument does not follow .In fact I think the anthropocentric and ethnocentric argument is one-sided. On Earth, in spite of many divergences, there are many universals as well, which are as much a part of humanity as are the divergences. The best example is science and technology. Sciences differ from each other in detail, object of study, and technical methodologies, but all of them are played according to basic general rules of what it is to be scientific. For one reason or another, humans in all cultures worldwide accept this as meaningful and play the game of science according the same basic rules of rationality, objectivity, methodology, and critical discussion as well as being open-minded.
Cultural influences may steer research into new or other areas, but mathematics, whether in France, Britain, America, Japan, or Tahiti is the same mathematics. For cultural reasons and superstition, some societies, do not regard logic and causal thinking as important. From this, however, it does not follow that they do not have the same logic and rationality in principle. This why I cannot accept the psychologistic argument (psychologism is not the same as psychology) that laws of logic and mathematics, apart from others, are in a one-to-one correspondence relationship connected to brain states and brain events.
Of course, all thinking is connected in some way to brain functions, but in my view, consciousness emerged from neuronal brain activities, not as something totally independent from the brain. In a quite definite sense it has a "life of its own," i.e., a relative independence of function. This means that the laws of logic or mathematical deduction and argument are not in a one-to-one way determined by biological brain states. For example, the law of non-contradiction holds whatever your emotional state may be during your arguing adherence to this law, or whatever the exact chemical combination in the brain may be, or whatever the speed or frequency of neuronal firings may be at the stage of logical deduction. X multiplied by X remains validly X squared, whatever the relevant brain states may be at the time of this mathematical deduction. Of course, emotional and chemical states may influence a human into not thinking clearly for a moment, concentration may actually be reduced or enhanced, but the validity of logical and mathematical laws is unaffected by these contingent and changing circumstances.
This very same argument can be extended to SETI. The laws of logic, for example, are not only universally human, but also universally universal. Mental states (thoughts, deductions, even the experiencing of pleasure or pain) are not congruent with contemporaneous brain states. Mentality is not a matter of the brain's biological/chemical composition, but of the structure of the internal activities that the brain sustains. As I argued a while ago, this internal structure has in a definite sense a life of its own, where thoughts can causally interact with other thoughts and mental states, whatever the sustaining physiological material base may be.
Because mental states are not identical with a certain material brain states, it follows that any possible alien civilizations whose brains are constructed from different stuff than ours could and may well have the same logic, mathematics, and mental states such as joy or pain. Therefore, an alien being constituted with a different physiology, with a chemistry and physical structure systemically different from ours, could even so sustain a functional economy of internal states whose mutual relationships parallel perfectly the mutual relationships that define our human mental states. Their understanding of mathematics, logic, and physics could match ours, even though it might be much more advanced. The alien may have an internal state that meets all the conditions for being a law of contradiction, X squared, or a pleasure or pain state.
This state, considered from an evolutionary biological perspective, may have a very different, even vastly different, makeup from that of a human, but from a functional point of view it may nevertheless be identical to a human adherence to the law of non contradiction or pleasure state. These logical positions or mental states are not identical to the physical state, because what mental states have in common is not their status as physical states, but their causal role. For example, to be a turbine or radiator engine is to have a certain functional role and not primarily a certain physical structure. Logic, mathematics, etc. do not rely for their existence on any particular physical or physiological state.
Evolution is not only divergent, but also quite often convergent. As far as we have observed, not only does the universe have the same basic chemistry and the same laws of nature throughout, but also successful adaptations are repeated several times. It is reasonable to expect the same as we widen our fields of observation. The spontaneous emergence of life on the edge of nonlinear chaos and linear order implies that the abundant emergence of life in the universe is even more probable.
SETI is thus not a search in the void or in vain.
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this page last updated 4 January 2003
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