Cosmic Diversity? By Brian Simpson

It is the Star Trek syndrome, the believe in the unity of life in the entire universe, all living, I suppose, in cosmic communism, sharing all the universe. Here is some speculation that we may be able to understand aliens due to some common features of language in the world. I suppose the idea behind this, is that we can then all form one multicultural comic society. But, as I see it, aliens might be more like those in the Predator movies, mighty unfriendly and not interested in such earthly foolishness. Who knows, maybe there is nothing out there at all.

Human contact with alien civilizations may be more likely than we think. A recent NASA study estimated that there should be at least four habitable planets (and probably more) within about 32 light years of Earth—a cosmic stone’s throw away. Those planets could just now be receiving (albeit faintly) our television broadcasts of the 1989 inauguration of President George H.W. Bush. But would aliens understand those broadcasts? Would we understand aliens? Could we ever interpret their languages?

The 2016 movie “Arrival” portrayed scientists frantically scrambling to decode an alien language. Although the on-screen aliens communicated—and even thought—in a completely different way from humans, the hero played by Amy Adams of course eventually succeeded. But off-screen, alien language may be so, well, alien that we could never understand anything about it. How do we approach dealing with something so completely unknown that it may also be completely different from anything we might expect?

In fact, questions about the nature of possible alien languages are tractable. Language remains the lone thing that appears to separate humans from other animals on Earth. The comparison of human language with animal communication can help, should we ever frantically need to decode an alien signal. After all, aliens will have evolved their language on a planet that is, like Earth, also full of non-linguistic species. But what really is the difference between language and non-language?

The most important of these seems to be this: Language should be as complex as it needs to be to convey the necessary information, but no more. An infinitely complex language would mean that aliens would need infinitely large brains to process it. Evolution values efficiency, and absurdly complex language is inefficient. This principle applies equally well to humpback whale song and to Michelangelo’s paintings: We can understand the meaning in a painting’s beauty because it is balanced, not because it is complex.

Such a principle should apply to an alien’s language too, and hence to their messages to the people of Earth. Even if an advanced civilization decides to restructure its language to be more regular, as humans have done with Esperanto, it is already too late. Our brains have been shaped by our language as much as the other way round, and Esperanto still carries with it the traits of its earlier, less well-structured predecessors."







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Sunday, 03 July 2022