Re: SETI If ET Were Visiting Earth

Richard Burke-Ward (
Sun, 11 Jul 99 20:22:26 +0000

Dear Eric, all,

This is a bit long, I'm afraid - I *still* haven't learned how to express
myself concisely...

I think your comments are very well observed - and certainly may offer
one model for visitation phenomena. I'd like to add a couple of
observations, however.

The only way we could imagine getting around such profound sensory,
cognitive and cultural mismatches would not just be observation followed
by attempts at mimicry of behaviour and communication (the Goodall
model), but a profound and intense processing effort to unpick the
workings of the culture concerned sufficiently to ensure that active
*mis*communication did not occur. Goodall did not just observe the
chimps, she collated and processed information about them, hoping that a
statistical approach would overcome at least some of the shortcomings of
an anthropomorphic observation process. This is the basis of ethology - a
kind of Skinnerian approach to culture, a way of removing the biases
introduced by the act of observation. The processing may happen in a
human brain, or according to some scientific / ethological (and therefore
human-cultural) paradigm - but there is a re-coding process, a form of

And without that, we'd get it horribly wrong. If Goodall had merely
observed difference, not tried to interpret what she saw, she would
possibly have been badly damaged - or badly damaged the chimps. For
example when a chimps does what looks like a 'smile', they are showing
aggression or fear... Send the wrong signals, and who knows what might

My reason for pointing this out is to reinforce your own point. By
comparison with trying to understand ETI - or ETI trying to understand us
- chimps are dead easy. It's more like us discovering that termites are
definitely intelligent - the same ones we regularly wipe out - but we're
stymied as to why, how that intelligence operates or permeates their
culture, or whatever: all we see is the emergent manifestations of
intelligence, the mechanisms defeat us.

The reason is anthropomorphism (or the ETI equivalent). This was your
main point, of course - but I think it's worth trying to unpick how ETI
might solve the problem - or how we might, because after all, any
communication requires two partners.

We may be no different from other creatures on this planet in a
qualitative sense - but we are most certainly more complex in almost
every imaginable way. Our interconnectedness, or neurological
organisation, or manipulation of the ecosystem, indeed the ecosphere...
We may well be the most interesting thing on the planet - but are we
*sentient* in any sense that a radically different being might comprehend
or wish to interact with? Challenge number one. Time to gather huge
amounts of data and begin to search for patterns. Now, if we are lucky,
and if ETI is here, then it may have done this before, perhaps many
times. Perhaps there are handbooks for different clades of intelligence...

[In fact, if we follow through the implication I sensed in your note -
that we are in the process of being observed, or the first tentative and
limitable forays into contact are being made - then it is highly likely
that we are *not* the first. Because the coincidence of them appearing so
hard on the beginnings of the radio age is wildly implausible. So either
a listening post in the neighbourhood detected our early radio and sent
out some form of FTL signal which produced an FTL contact fleet (in which
case we get FTL thrown in), or else they have been here incomprehensibly
large amounts of time - hundreds of millions of years are an eyeblink.
Either way, it seems improbable that we would be the first beings they
have ever encountered. So there's a good chance of a manual...]

...but even so, I think the problem comes with the searching for
patterns. Just acquiring data in a form which is relevant to our sensory
and cultural modalities rather than theirs is a huge problem. How does a
being which cannot sense pressure interpret sound waves? They will have
machines which can detect it - but short of signs of a volcano erupting,
it's all going to look like noise. And human vocalisation will just be
part of a far more general cultural buzz. I suspect that in the end you'd
figure out that a species would not invest all this energy in modulating
short-range air-pressure-waves without there being some function to it.
But what about body language? If you have one tentacle, a series of
retractable ambulatory pods you extrude as desired from your main body
sac, you eat by osmosis, and you communicate exclusively by smell, what
chance do you have to figure out human body language, the main system we
use to modify and enhance the meaning of our communication? You would
have no points of reference. Again it might be done - but then you run
across the real problem with whole processing phase, which is...

How do you understand what you have observed? You can correlate, quantify
(or guess, or assign the problem to an expert, or use telepathy, or
whatever they do instead of human collective science) - but ultimately
you have to *interpret*. Which means re-code, translate. Now, there are
concepts which are pretty much untranslatable even from Chinese: you can
*define* 'chi' easily enough, but people look blank when you have
finished - because effectively all you have done is define an area of
language which does not correlate with your own (definitions available on
request!). So you can define the concepts function within the context of
the other complexes of functions which together perhaps define some part
of a culture.

There are several morals:

1) When does this process make contact a safe option? How long before you
are sure?

2) ETI (or we) may *think* they (we) understand when actually we do not.

3) Contact may necessarily be slow from their side as well as ours. If a
light comes out of the sky playing the 'Close Encounters' theme tune,
truth is, we can play it back, and then we're stuck - what next? Well, if
you're the one playing the tune and some version comes back but with
timing / tone / volume / whatever completely off (by your frame of
reference), then you may immediately shrug and think, 'oh well, back to
the drawing board...' How do they know when they are getting it right?
And what chance would they have to prepare step two before doing step
one? That handbook may be pretty rudimentary.

4) Basically, how to be sure you are right unless you try? How to be sure
that it's safe to try?

I guess what I am saying is that contact is probably a pretty scary
business for both contactor and contactee. And the commodity which is in
shortest supply of all is certainty - because you can only know what
*you* know, which means it's already structured in a pattern which may
not correspond with the patterns you are trying to observe.

I don't think these problems are insuperable - but do our cultures stand
still long enough to be pined down with enough certainty for ETI to feel
safe to act? which leads me to...

5) ...a little hobby horse of mine... the best possible strategy *may* be
to wait for the civilisation you are observing to contact *you*. That way
you know two sides are working at the cognitive barriers, you know that
at least one section of the species you are observing has both the power
and the will for contact. Your passive stance minimises the risk that
your presence will be misinterpreted. And above all, their actions give
you a kind of primer to help your efforts at communication.

Of course, if I'd been waiting 100 million years, I might get a little
bored, and maybe tease people into thinking about it. A light in the sky
here, a strange shape in a forest there... Hmmmm....


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