Talking to the Aliens

Andrz Kukla. Extraterrestrials: A Philosophical Perspective. Lexington Books, 2010.

In this short and highly technical monograph, retired psychology professor Andre Kukla examines the possibility of communicating with extraterrestrials. Firstly he critically examines the various arguments for and against the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence and finds the sort of arguments from large numbers used by both sides wanting. Astronomers tend to argue that "ghee whiz the universe is so big and is so full of stars that there must be other intelligences out there" while biologists tend to reply "ghee whiz, there have been so many species on earth and only one has developed intelligence, so intelligence must be very rare". Kukla argues that these are both invalid arguments, based on a single case. The reality is that we cannot say whether or not life or intelligence is widespread or not.

He then tackles the question as to whether hypothetical aliens would share our science or not, and again comes to the conclusion that we just don't know. Nor do we know whether they would even our most basic mathematical ideas. We simply don't know how much overlap between their science and ours there might be, we don't even know that if they shared the ability to communicate with us through radio, their understanding of radio and the means to produce it would be the same as hours.

In the final and most difficult part of the monograph argues that even if we grant all the most optimistic interpretations about the extraterrestrial intelligence, if, as is argued by Noam Chomsky and his followers, human language is based on some evolved neural substrate, then we could not ever learn their language. This would be true whether or not the pre-diaspora ancestors of modern humans already spoke a grammatically rich language, or something more primitive. A language with a completely different evolutionary history could never be learned by human beings. -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson. Originally posted on-line, January 2010

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