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  1. #1

    Could Alien science and epistemology be incomprehensible to humans?

    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. #2
    Registered User odo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by firerobin88 View Post
    Can anyone provide any websites, articles, or books that explore this concept?
    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.

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    Registered User odo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by firerobin88 View Post
    Perhaps a purely electromagnetic life form can arise in the interior of stars.
    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/s...hou-hast-made/

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    Registered User odo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by firerobin88 View Post
    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.
    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/...its-short.html
    Last edited by odo; November 18th, 2011 at 04:21 AM.

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    Registered User odo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by firerobin88 View Post
    Or perhaps dark matter, whatever it is, is alive.
    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/

    Quote Originally Posted by firerobin88 View Post
    incommensurably radically different Alien consciousness, mathematics, perception, cognition and science.
    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. #6
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    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. #7
    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.

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    Live Long & Suffer psikeyhackr's Avatar
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    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.

    psik

  9. #9
    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.

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    Registered User odo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by winterkill View Post
    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.
    Exactly. That chapter was previously published as "Wang's Carpets", the story that I mentioned above.

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    I like SF. SF is cool. Steven L Jordan's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by suciul View Post
    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
    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?

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    Registered User offog's Avatar
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    "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. #13
    >:|Angry Beaver|:< Fung Koo's Avatar
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    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/mar..._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/dan...or_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. #14
    I like SF. SF is cool. Steven L Jordan's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Fung Koo View Post
    The universe allows us to exist, therefore it stands to reason that life just like us exists elsewhere.
    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.

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    >:|Angry Beaver|:< Fung Koo's Avatar
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    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.
    I don't mean like us as in humanoid. I mean cellular.

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