Could Alien science and epistemology be incomprehensible to humans?

Discussion in 'Science Fiction' started by firerobin88, Nov 17, 2011.

  1. firerobin88

    firerobin88 New Member

    Joined:
    Nov 17, 2011
    Messages:
    1
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    0
    On Wikipedia, I was reading the Stanisław Lem article and got linked to the Hypothetical types of biochemistry and Fermi paradox article, particularly the section on They are too alien, where it states "Another possibility is that human theoreticians have underestimated how much alien life might differ from that on Earth. Alien psychologies may simply be too different to communicate with human beings, to understand the concept of communication, or to even be interested in other lifeforms at all, and so they may be unable or unwilling to make the attempt. Human mathematics, language, tool use, and other concepts and communicative capacity may be parochial to Earth and not shared by other life."
    Can anyone provide any websites, articles, or books that explore this concept?
    Specifically I would be interested in learning about the biological evolutionary and epistemological origins of a incommensurably radically different Alien consciousness, mathematics, perception, cognition and science.
    As humans we get primarily depend on a specific range of light-waves as our way of perceiving the world. Our fellow mammals the bat "sees" sound, while the Platypus "sees" smell. Evolutionarily speaking, mammals are our close cousins. So the difference in perception of a an evolved species with a radically different environment is barely comprehensible.
    At its core, I think the question comes down to whether you have a realist or instrumentalist view of science. If our knowledge and science is just what "works for us" or is "useful" than it might not necessarily be objectively True. It is caused by the mind-independent objective world, but might be experienced in radically different ways.
    Does alien life need to even be biochemical ? Perhaps a purely electromagnetic life form can arise in the interior of stars. Or perhaps dark matter, whatever it is, is alive. Or, even if we talk about biological life forms, I believe there are bacteria which live deep underground that have much slower metabolisms than those we are familiar with. Yes, they aren't intelligent, but perhaps more complex organisms can exist with a similarly slow metabolic rate.
    This would be the epistemological basis for the cosmic horrors explored by Hp Lovecraft and Stanisław Lem in which aliens are so alien to humans, that it leads to complete incommensurablity and even madness.
    Anyway I look forward to any comments anyone has on this interesting topic
     
  2. odo

    odo Registered User

    Joined:
    Oct 24, 2005
    Messages:
    457
    Likes Received:
    4
    Trophy Points:
    53
    Off the top of my head, I'd recommend Blindsight by Peter Watts (available for free in several electronic formats, btw) and Embassytown by China Miéville. The former focus on conscience and intelligence while the latter deals mainly with language. Both great reads, in my opinion. Oh, and, of course, the truly excellente "Wang's Carpets" by Greg Egan. I've read it at least three times and it blew my mind every single time.
     
  3. odo

    odo Registered User

    Joined:
    Oct 24, 2005
    Messages:
    457
    Likes Received:
    4
    Trophy Points:
    53
    Something similar is explored in The World at the End of Time, by Frederik Pohl by I found the ideas a bit underwhelming. Other people seem to like the novel a lot, though. Also, the recent Nebula Winner "That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made" by Eric James Stone features aliens living inside stars. I quite enjoyed it, but it raises religious topics that can be controversial. You can find it here: http://www.ericjamesstone.com/blog/stories/that-leviathan-whom-thou-hast-made/
     
  4. odo

    odo Registered User

    Joined:
    Oct 24, 2005
    Messages:
    457
    Likes Received:
    4
    Trophy Points:
    53
    A short story by Spanish SF author Javier Redal introduces alien life forms living in ice asteroids with a very, very slow metabolic rate. The original title "El bosque de hielo" (The Ice Forest) but I think it hasn't been translated intro English. I also vaguely remember an old story called "The wait-a-bits" (or something like that) about aliens which were much slower than humans.

    Editing: I think this is the story: http://variety-sf.blogspot.com/2008/05/eric-frank-russell-waitabits-short.html
     
    Last edited: Nov 18, 2011
  5. odo

    odo Registered User

    Joined:
    Oct 24, 2005
    Messages:
    457
    Likes Received:
    4
    Trophy Points:
    53
    I haven't read it yet (might do it over the weekend), but "Anticopernicus" by Adam Roberts could be related to that idea. At least the blurb talks about dark energy, first contacts and the Fermi Paradox:

    http://www.adamroberts.com/2011/07/21/anticopernicus/

    In that regard, you might be interested in the short story "The Evolution of Human Science" by Ted Chiang, included in his wonderful collection Stories of your Life and Others. And now that I think of it, "Story of your life" also in that collection, deals with an alien species with a radical different language. Excellent story, too.

    PS: Didn't mean to post four times in a row, but this is so interesting a topic that new ideas keep coming to my mind all the time.
     
  6. suciul

    suciul Read interesting books

    Joined:
    Dec 24, 2005
    Messages:
    2,864
    Likes Received:
    1
    Trophy Points:
    73
    while sf abounds with (tries by authors to describe) very different to the point of incomprehensibility aliens, there are also good reasons to believe that actually there is no such thing and we humans are examples of "universal constructors" - a view that has been articulated most recently in the superb Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch
     
  7. Woofdog2

    Woofdog2 Registered User

    Joined:
    Apr 16, 2010
    Messages:
    83
    Likes Received:
    2
    Trophy Points:
    43
    Alastair Reynolds, in Pushing Ice, has some aliens that would seem to meet this general theme. More generally his aliens are the most incomprehensible of those I have read in SF. Interested to see what else is mentioned in this thread.
     
  8. psikeyhackr

    psikeyhackr Live Long & Suffer

    Joined:
    Feb 12, 2008
    Messages:
    2,935
    Likes Received:
    2
    Trophy Points:
    73
    The story

    Omnilingual by Henry Beam Piper
    http://www.feedbooks.com/book/308/omnilingual

    addresses that point to a degree.

    I still consider Einsteinian Physics to be ALIEN SCIENCE myself. And if there was a way of testing it I would bet the majority of degreed physicists don't understand it. I bet they just memorized the equations and how to apply them. :D

    psik
     
  9. winterkill

    winterkill Registered User

    Joined:
    Oct 18, 2011
    Messages:
    24
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    0
    Reminds me a bit of an alien species encountered by humans in the novel Diaspora, by Greg Egan. Don't want to give anything away, but basically they are a species that exists within their own simulated universe and are fundamentally incapable of ever conceiving of the "real universe" that we inhabit.
     
  10. odo

    odo Registered User

    Joined:
    Oct 24, 2005
    Messages:
    457
    Likes Received:
    4
    Trophy Points:
    53
    Exactly. That chapter was previously published as "Wang's Carpets", the story that I mentioned above.
     
  11. Steven L Jordan

    Steven L Jordan I like SF. SF is cool.

    Joined:
    Nov 23, 2010
    Messages:
    454
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    26
    Arthur C. Clarke discussed the same thing in one of his books (I'm at a loss as to which at the moment), and said that if aliens are built like us, they will be examples of very inefficient design... just like us.

    He points out things like the mouth, set nowhere near the stomach, and using the same throughput for food that is shared with the lungs, and the resultant choking hazard. The mouth should have a direct line to the stomach, and best to be mounted closer to it, on the belly. Also the brain, set atop a five- to six-foot high frame, and capable of suffering a concussion if it falls to the ground from that height... another hazardous design. The brain should be safely tucked into the chest as well.

    In fact, humans are very inefficient in design and prone to damage that lesser creatures in this world have no concern about... when's the last time a dog fell over and suffered a concussion?
     
  12. offog

    offog Registered User

    Joined:
    Sep 12, 2011
    Messages:
    39
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    0
    "Wang's Carpets" was great. Egan's "Riding the Crocodile" also featured an incomprehensible alien civilization. "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang dealt with a language expert trying to learn to communicate with aliens.
     
  13. Fung Koo

    Fung Koo >:|Angry Beaver|: <

    Joined:
    Oct 31, 2007
    Messages:
    2,420
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    71
    Try 40,000 in Ghenna, CJ Cherryh.

    Two interesting TED talk that fit into your question:

    Martin Hanczyc creates life-like molecular ecosystems using as few as 5 elements. He basically proves that there is a spectrum between life and non-life, and that the occurrence of life is actually a staggeringly simple process.
    http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/martin_hanczyc_the_line_between_life_and_not_life.html

    Daniel Wolpert suggests that the only real reason for the brain to exist at all is movement -- which is to say, all higher brain functions arose due to the need for self-propelled lifeforms to interact with their environment.
    http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/daniel_wolpert_the_real_reason_for_brains.html

    And, of course, this question is grounded in the Anthropic Principle. The universe allows us to exist, therefore it stands to reason that life just like us exists elsewhere. Fermi paradox aside, we know this worked here, so it is probable that it can work elsewhere.

    Hanczyc's tale illuminates the fact that life could have evolved along a different chemical process. Also, that all life, even a simple cell, has an internal ecosystem and relies on an external ecosystem to sustain it. Wolpert's talk indicates a fundamental truth to life as we know it, that life is only identifiable primarily by its ability to interact with its environment.

    Taken together, this suggests that life in any form should be recognizable for its ability to behave differently than a purely physical process. The less complex the process (Hanczyc's experiments), the less evidently life-like, the more it appears purely physical. The more complex the process (Wolpert's movement oriented brain), the more evidently life-like, the more it appears sentient.

    The universe may be rife with low-complexity life that evolved along all sort of lines. High complexity, ground-detached self-propelled mobile life like us may be comparatively rare, since even on our own planet we're the vast minority of life.

    The evolution of life in totally non-physical means seems extremely unlikely to me. Most forms of energy we know about are byproducts of mass interactions. Seems weird for life to develop in the byproduct only.
     
  14. Steven L Jordan

    Steven L Jordan I like SF. SF is cool.

    Joined:
    Nov 23, 2010
    Messages:
    454
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    26
    Life on Earth was created and nurtured under a very specific set of physical parameters (Earth's environment). Even as vast as the universe is, there's no certainty that there are, were, or will be other planets that will develop similarly to ours to the extent that they can create and nurture life. And although we're discovering more planets out there, the likelihood that they developed within "the Goldilocks zone" with the right chemicals and environmental state to support life is very small.

    Also, the variety of life on our planet should be a good indication that just because a planet can harbor life doesn't necessarily mean that life will take an expected form... in other words, it could be like any of the millions of life variants on this planet, or it could be a variant that's nothing like what's on this planet.

    Put simply, the odds of a life form that will be "like us" developing on another planet is incredibly small, as in practically approaching zero.
     
  15. Fung Koo

    Fung Koo >:|Angry Beaver|: <

    Joined:
    Oct 31, 2007
    Messages:
    2,420
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    71
    I don't mean like us as in humanoid. I mean cellular.
     
  16. Steven L Jordan

    Steven L Jordan I like SF. SF is cool.

    Joined:
    Nov 23, 2010
    Messages:
    454
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    26
    Not at all. But based on the universality and inviolability of those rules, the circumstances that allowed complex life to evolve on this planet are exceedingly rare, and in fact may not be even closely approximated anywhere else in the universe.

    A recent book by John Gribbin argues the point: "There may be more habitable planets in the Galaxy than there are people on planet Earth. But 'habitable' doesn't mean 'inhabited'." He describes the cosmic events that made Earth special and argues that ours is almost certainly the only intelligent civilization in the Milky Way. (Alone in the Universe: Why Our Planet is Unique; description from Scientific American Dec. 2011)

    I take the same stance in my novel Verdant Pioneers.
     
    Last edited: Dec 3, 2011
  17. Fung Koo

    Fung Koo >:|Angry Beaver|: <

    Joined:
    Oct 31, 2007
    Messages:
    2,420
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    71
    What is your reaction, then, to the experiments conducted by Mark Hanczyc in that TED talk I posted?

    I agree, the precise conditions of the Earth are very probably exceedingly rare. However, because of those physical laws, there are certainly numerous environments with a molecular liquid substrate wherein a complex process of "life-like" chemical reaction loops can operate. Given the existence of "extremophile" life on this planet, it stands to reason that the inviolability of those laws is not quite as harsh a limiting factor as we might suspect. Hanczyc shows that "life" is just a chemical reaction loop a little further along a spectrum of such complex chemical reaction loops. What is goldilocks for our loop might not be goldilocks for other loops.
     
  18. s271

    s271 Repudiated Ursus

    Joined:
    Oct 9, 2005
    Messages:
    412
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    51
    Considering that big part of modern human science incomprehensible not only to most of humans, but also to scientists outside of their respective areas of expertise, it's highly likely that even more advanced alien science will be incomprehensible in some parts, at least for a relatively long time. As the science going deeper and deeper specialization is also grow, and it's becoming increasingly likely that whole possible areas of research will fell out of scope of human science, or science of human descendants.
     
  19. Steven L Jordan

    Steven L Jordan I like SF. SF is cool.

    Joined:
    Nov 23, 2010
    Messages:
    454
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    26
    I haven't had the chance to watch the video; but I could ask if he had taken into account all of the aspects that influence life development, for instance, the radiation that our magnetic field conveniently screens out of our atmosphere. That one tiny little detail could effectively make life development impossible.

    At any rate, an experiment is a proof of theory; it doesn't establish whether or not the actual outcome has, in fact, happened elsewhere.
     
  20. Fung Koo

    Fung Koo >:|Angry Beaver|: <

    Joined:
    Oct 31, 2007
    Messages:
    2,420
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    71
    Kepler 22b - the 'new Earth'

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/...e-oceans-and-continents-scientists-claim.html

    ---

    Absence of evidence is not evidence for a theory -- this isn't an argument of faith. The best we can say is that there is no evidence either way that life exists elsewhere. That said, it seems a more reasonable hypothesis to suggest that life could exist elsewhere since it exists here rather than to say that here is nearly unique in an infinite universe. And now we have a planet we know is at least a bit similar to our own.

    There are sure to be more.