This is an excerpt from the book series Philosophy for Heroes: Knowledge. You can get a copy here.
Concepts and, therefore, language are primarily a tool of cognition—not of communication, as is usually assumed. Communication is merely the consequence, not the cause nor the primary purpose of concept-formation—a crucial consequence, of invaluable importance to men, but still only a consequence. Cognition precedes communication; the necessary precondition of communication is that one have something to communicate.
—Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology
The basic properties of language are now known to us. We also have examined the different categories of languages. We know what we have to look for and can begin to actually use language. But what is the value of language? Why is it so important?
The Foundation of Knowledge
As we have already established, learning an audible (or generally, communicable) language is not required for the origination and use of (simple) concepts. We can implicitly grasp what material objects are (there is a reason that babies learn through “grasping,” i.e., “touching” objects—and chewing) and create concepts within our inner language. But whenever we must consciously realize a logical step (in thought or on paper) in order to draw further conclusions from it, a form of communicable language is indispensable. The simplest example would be the system of numbers. While we can intuitively grasp perhaps five, six, or seven elements without counting them, with the language of mathematics we have a tool and its hierarchical structure and recursive processes equip us to examine extremely large and complex problems.
Think about your favorite piece of music, hum it, note by note, verse by verse. Simple, isn’t it? Now imagine the whole piece of music completely in your mind, not just note by note or verse by verse. Try to remember a book that you have read. Simple, isn’t it? Now try to imagine the book in its totality in your mind.
The average person can be conscious of a handful of elements at the same time. Without the use of images and concept hierarchies, which tie together a complex situation—which ultimately constitutes the essence of language—we quickly reach the limits of our own powers of concentration. The concretization and organization of our thoughts permits us to think about these concepts explicitly and consciously, and to delimit them grammatically using definitions. It also allows us to use them in connection with other concepts in combinations of potential unlimited complexity—in other words, to construct a hierarchy of knowledge. We walk from one concept to the next connected one without having to worry about keeping both in our mind.
Without language, thoughts and reflections of higher complexity are impossible. If we did not have language to begin with, effectively, we would first have to invent it since language is really the organization of knowledge into categories using entities and their relationships.
Did you know?
There are a few extraordinary individuals in any number of fields who can memorize long series of numbers, notes, and facts. Some make use of mnemonics, in the form of hierarchies, concepts, images, and optimizations (in other words, language!); others are often referred to as savants. For some, the brain area that deals with math is more strongly connected than usual to the brain area that handles visual information. They can see numbers as geometrical shapes or as colors, making calculations or memory exercises easier. → Read more in Philosophy for Heroes: Continuum [Lode, 2017]
The Theory of Mind
What is an example of a fourth order of intentionality?
THEORY OF MIND · The theory of mind refers to the cognitive skill that makes it possible to understand that another individual may have beliefs and desires that are different from one’s own.
The difference between thinking and speaking also becomes clear when being asked to repeat what someone has said; a listener will rarely do this verbatim, but will instead express what he or she understood to be the thought behind the utterance. Simply said, if thinking and speaking were identical, neither effort nor any special ability would be needed to bring the two into agreement. [cf. Zimmer, 2008, p. 167] This is the ability to understand that another individual may have beliefs and desires that are different from one’s own, i.e., to see the need to share something you already know in order for others to know it, too. Apes may lack this ability, which may constrain their ability to acquire language—as is the case with very young children before their theory of mind abilities have developed. [cf Mithen, 2007, p. 23]
Did you know?
What about the case where a person simply wants to share something by speaking? An example is the bonding of parent and child. Without a theory of mind, the parent would have no model of what the child knows or does not know, and would tragically assume that the child already shared the parent’s knowledge. While the parent could still display an emotional reaction, it might not be expressed with the conscious idea of letting the child know that he is loved. We, having this ability, take it for granted, but it is no trivial matter at all. That being said, people have different preferences. Some might prefer words, others might prefer actions as a sign of friendship or love. In that regard, there could be a theory of emotion, too. Without it, we might not be aware that the other person does not necessarily feel the way we do (or even knows how we feel). → Read more in Philosophy for Heroes: Act [Lode, 2018]
“While a mother ape ‘knows’ how to crack nuts open with hammer-stones, she cannot appreciate that her infant lacks that knowledge. So she has no incentive either to ‘explain,’ by gestures or calls, how it is done or to manipulate her infant to do it. If one assumes that another individual has the same knowledge and intentions as one’s own, there is no need to communicate that knowledge or to manipulate their behavior. […] If I know what I think, then I am termed as having a single order of intentionality; if I know what someone else thinks, then I have two orders of intentionality; if I know what someone else thinks what I am thinking, then I have three orders of intentionality—and so forth. Whereas humans routinely use three or four orders of intentionality in their social lives, apes might be limited to two orders at the most.” [Mithen, 2007, p. 117] This is the reason that language plays such a big role in our lives but not in the lives of apes.
Female cats show a behavior that very much reminds us about the “theory of mind”: they bring living prey to their kittens so that they can practice the hunting and killing of animals. While the mother does adapt to the abilities of her kittens, no deliberate teaching can be observed. She does not seem to try to understand her kittens in other situations than the hunt. Thus, the behavior has to be explained in a different way than with humans [cf. Cheney and Seyfarth, 1992, pp. 223–24].
Language as Communication
What are the three most significant obstacles in our communication with others?
An exchange of knowledge between two minds can occur directly through demonstration, as with apes learning the use of tools from one another through observation. The limit of this approach, of course, is that the teacher must always be present. If we want to point out to someone a food source located elsewhere, without language, there remains no other choice than to lead him to it ourselves.
The solution to the problem of needing an ever-present teacher is to create an abstraction, replacing the sensory perception (e.g., leading the person to the place) with an image. Besides describing it with spoken language, we could, instead of leading someone to an apple tree, point in the direction of the tree and give our counterpart an apple that we picked there. We could even dance like honey bees to tell which way to go. They communicate information to other bees in the hive, such as the distance to a nearby meadow, in which direction they must fly, and how much nectar can be found there. Another example can be seen with ants that mark the way to food sources with chemical scents—likewise a valid language, as the scent and its dispersion are a type of image representing the food source and the path to get there.
Thus, the first step in communication is that the participants find common ground. It needs to be clear which image represents which concept. In doing so, the foundation is laid by means of common experiences. The aforementioned “pointing” places an object and the person in relation and conveys this information to our counterpart in a clear, comprehensible form. Figure 2.8 shows the process of a conversation. Lisa has seen Peter in a crowd (sense data, sense perception, integration) and now illustrates this information in the form of text in a letter to Klaus. Klaus reads the letter (sense data, sense perception) and infers from the image (the text, i.e., the integration) that Lisa has seen Peter. Formally, communication can be defined as follows:
COMMUNICATION · Communication is the attempt of an entity A to translate knowledge (whether real or invented) of a situation through language into images and linguistic auxiliary structures, so that another entity B can translate the series of images and linguistic auxiliary structures into knowledge of a situation perceived by A, without itself having obtained immediate sense data from the entities participating in the situation.
Unfortunately, there will be obstacles to our communication. The argument often arises in discussions, that everyone lives in his or her own world of experiences, and so we could not objectively communicate any concepts with our language. Is it possible that our sense data depends on our own personality or physical makeup and that every person can see the world only subjectively? Also, language has undergone changes over time and will continue to do so in the future. Thus, are we really allowed to say that we can communicate objectively?
Let us take a step back and concentrate on the core issue: Communication by means of language is ultimately the attempt of two conscious beings to become aware of the same entity and its condition (or, a situation comprising many entities and their conditions and relationships). To accomplish this, the following prerequisites have to be met:
- We have to share the same concept hierarchy and definitions.
- We need to be aware of cultural differences.
- We need to be aware of physiological differences (sense organs, brain, etc.); and
- We need to be able to trust our conversation partner to be willing to understand and tell the truth.
But finally, we need to have different perceptions of reality. While we could still exchange words with each other and look like we were communicating, we would not communicate anything (new). A society where differences are not appreciated does not communicate despite everyone talking.
Differences in Concepts
What is the importance of corresponding definitions in a discussion?
A popular assumption is that the same words convey the same meanings. This is generally only correct if both conversation partners belong to a common language network, i.e., that they define their terms either among themselves or through close acquaintances.12 The most obvious evidence for this is the fact that different languages predominate in different regions of the world. The greatest influences on our language are thus our direct communication partners, with whom we share common experiences. The less directly communication occurs, the fewer commonalities we have experienced through our cultures, the more difficult communication becomes—even if we speak the same language.
Without shared terms, problems occur especially in those subjects where we also do not have a direct, shared relation to reality. For example, a concept like “mind” has a culturally influenced history with a very specific meaning and interpretation, unlike the concept of “hand,” which has changed little over time. [cf. Zimmer, 2008, p. 232]
If we cannot rely on a common language network, we need to create such a common basis. Particularly when communicating with unfamiliar people, be it in open discussions of any kind, through writing, in a conference, or on the Internet, it is, therefore, important to relate our own, learned definitions to our counterpart at the outset and to ask for and agree on common definitions. There are of course dictionaries and legal texts which attempt to create a common standard for all people living in the domain of a particular language, but these also contain inexact or even conflicting definitions which can quickly lead to misunderstandings, especially in philosophical and political discussions.
Before we run hot-headed into a discussion about, e.g., God, democracy, equality, or freedom, we must ask our discussion partner for the corresponding definitions.
There are also strictly hierarchical language networks, which are established and maintained through marketing by large companies and which often take a somewhat different form, since they are oriented toward economic power rather than communication between individuals. But, in this case, for the most part, only single terms (mainly trade names) are introduced into our language. Apple’s “iPhone” has the same name everywhere; this label was assigned from the top down while there are many different designations for “smartphones” in general.
Even if we have learned all the definitions and the whole concept hierarchy of another person, our culture could still influence our thought and make mutual understanding difficult. Can we translate one concept from one language into another if we have significantly different cultural values?
When comparing our culture with others, we see what significant influence it can have on our thinking. In cultures where you cannot rely on structures of mutual trust that have been growing over centuries, abstract logic is valued differently. For example, illiterate rice farmers in West Africa were posed the following problem: “All men of your tribe are rice farmers. Mr. Smith is not a rice farmer. Is Mr. Smith a member of your tribe?”
Their answer was: “I don’t know the man in person. I have not laid eyes on the man himself. […] If I know him in person, I can answer that question, but since I do not know him in person, I cannot answer that question.” [cf. Scribner, 1977] After the simplest kind of education, essentially consisting of memorization, there will be no more responses like that. At that point, people can interpret it as an abstract problem and solve it deductively without involving their own experience. But with unschooled, indigenous peoples, language merely serves as a communicative tool about the concrete, the obvious, and only that which is immediately accessible to personal experience. [cf. Zimmer, 2008, p. 265]
We have to note here, though, that the farmers do not necessarily think illogically. They might have simply a more comprehensive view on the subject, and their terms are less sharply defined because of their way of life. Also, we can assume that it is of great significance to the farmers who belongs to the tribe and who does not, so they do not want to rely on hearsay and instead choose to evaluate it personally. In addition, the first sentence—“All men of your tribe are rice farmers”—is probably not taken as an absolute by the farmers—as opposed to scientists in the realm of mathematics. What exactly one understands with the word “all” can be very different. “All”—in the sense of the person who poses the question—means “all all,” i.e., everyone without exception. For the rice farmers, “all” might simply mean “all who I know” or “all who I see.” Maybe you can become a member of the tribe by marriage. Maybe there are relatives outside of the village. Or maybe there are tribe rituals only through which you can become an official member of the tribe.
To conclude, before we judge another person’s cognitive or linguistic abilities, we also need to be conscious of differences in culture. In most of the cases, we have to assume that—even in the case of very illogical looking answers—the other person, based on his available information, culture, and values, thinks logically. To actually translate a language, we not only have to try to match others’ words and definitions to our own, but also we have to understand the world view of our conversation partner. If we judge another person based on his statements without regard to his culture, we might lose the best ally we have in our conversation partner: if we attack another’s very cognitive faculty of logic, what other means are left for us to explain our point of view in a way the other person can comprehend?
How do languages differ in terms of expressiveness?
As we clarified in the introduction, the foundation of language is relatively simple, and its complexity stems mostly from the use of optimizations. Thus, we can assume that there has been an evolution of language, so (modern) language itself represents a (highly developed) cultural artifact. We can conclude that we also think with a different level of effectiveness depending on our language and the environment we use it in. If we can condense complex statements about relations into a short, pithy sentence, then the information can be memorized and mentally worked with more easily. Correspondingly, it could be difficult to translate the optimizations of one language into the other.
Differences between languages regarding their expressiveness concern only the length, accuracy, and clarity of their sentences.
Why can no (complete) language prevent you from expressing a certain idea?
We are free to think about the limits of our language. But as soon as we try to take hold of our swirling thoughts and shape them into a communicable form, we necessarily fall back on our repertoire of terms and the grammar of our language. And conversely, in fields where our language already provides us with complete expressions, it is easier to think and express our thoughts. Thus, our language influences our thinking insofar as it takes more time and energy to think about things our language was not designed for.
This leads us to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which states that our thought process and therefore our world view are (strongly) influenced by the grammar and vocabulary of the language we use. [cf. Zimmer, 2008, pp. 188–189] As a consequence it is claimed that a language cannot be translated directly into another without error. As we have seen, however, more complex contexts are universally expressible in any language, provided that the language is entity-based. In addition, in case of doubt, we can always redefine a missing or differently defined concept in the translation or explain the differences.
SAPIR-WHORF HYPOTHESIS (WEAK VERSION) · The weak version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that our language influences our thoughts, making it easier or harder to think or express certain ideas; different languages influence thoughts in different ways, so different languages contribute to different styles of thinking.
SAPIR-WHORF HYPOTHESIS (STRONG VERSION) · The strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that our language determines our thinking; different languages make certain trains of thought possible or impossible in the first place. There is no general translatability of languages.
What the hypothesis ultimately deals with is the question of the relationship between concept and definition. A text obviously loses information in translation if it deals with measurements; for example, colors naturally depend on cultural perception, the allocation of color names to measurement values. With certain colors there are ways to calibrate these terms, as with the “color of blood.” But other colors in the spectrum may not be available in the respective language culture, such as the rare and expensive purple during antiquity (which is why it is connected with nobility). We still find this very characteristic of the languages of primitive cultures; in the case of the Pirahã, there are no words for specific colors, but instead comparisons like “it has a color like blood,” or wood, grass, etc.
Terms for concepts, on the other hand, can always be translated. The requirement is simply that the culture, in its use of language, acts realistically and does not see, for example, dogs and cars as being the same concept. If the concept in question is not yet understood in the other language, or if special cases are disregarded, then we can rewrite this concept on the basis of the existing definitions of more general concepts and so effectively define the missing term for the first time. There will not be a term for ultraviolet radiation in cultures lacking the applicable scientific background, and for a culture which has not yet discovered gas as an entity, a cup full of hydrogen gas is apparently “empty.” Here, we would have to take existing concepts like “light” or “breath” and create the more specialized concepts of “invisible light” (ultraviolet light is invisible) or “fiery breath” (hydrogen gas reacts with oxygen).
While different languages can make expressing ideas more or less difficult, no (complete) language can prevent you from expressing a certain idea at all.
Also, if we compare complete and consistent languages, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis apparently does not apply. To be sure, a consistent language is less powerful; in contrast, in a translation from a complete language into a consistent one, we are dealing with a concrete fact, for which we also define new terms, if necessary, and expand the language. The same holds true in reverse; the complete language can indeed describe incorrect facts, but since it is complete, it can also describe the correct case in particular. So there are at most quantitative differences. A language which provides a greater spectrum of names for colors helps us to remember color perceptions for later. [cf. Zimmer, 2008, pp. 196–97] A larger vocabulary serves as a mnemonic device for our memory and our mind to categorize information. If we translated the name of a color into a language with a less expressive color range, we might not be able to capture the measurement with the same accuracy.
We have now resolved the questions of communication concerning ourselves, our own knowledge, and culture. Proceeding a step further, in the following section, we confront the question of whether and how we can communicate with other forms of intelligence that might possess different sense organs (or “sensors”) and “nervous systems” such as animals, extraterrestrial life forms, or computers.
Other Forms of Intelligence
Without a common language, how could we communicate with one another? What would be the limitations involved?
The question of whether and how we could communicate with other forms of intelligence is not merely a question of the modern era or of science fiction. Over the course of their biological and cultural evolution, humans repeatedly have been confronted with other forms of intelligence. We came into contact with other tribes during the Stone Age, negotiated with Neanderthals, and cultivated relationships with animals (particularly wolves and subsequently dogs). In the modern era, we added apes, computers, and extraterrestrials13 to the list, and we are only now beginning to communicate with whales, elephants, and dolphins. Especially with elephants and dolphins, scientists discovered a highly evolved form of social intelligence: elephants and dolphins grieve about deceased relatives, whales “sing,” and dolphins take turns using “words” when communicating with each other. [Ryabov, 2016]
But what is the prerequisite for communication? We have described a so-called one-way communication, i.e., we simply express the image of our thoughts by a systematic vocalization. If we want to communicate with other intelligent beings, a two-way communication is required—our conversation partner has to be able to translate the image (our vocalization) back into concepts and respond accordingly. That requires that both conversation partners have a similar view of the world. For example, if we notice a fire, shouting “Fire!” might not be enough. Yes, we correctly identified the threat and translated the idea correctly into a proper statement. But we might still not be communicating with others if they do not share our language or if they use the word “fire” with a different meaning.
Somewhat more abstractly conceived, in the formulation of our thoughts, we do nothing other than encoding them using known definitions. Each of our words symbolically stands for an extensive body of knowledge, and behind each word, there may be a long chain of dependencies and definitions. With the use of a term such as “perception,” we assume that our counterpart knows its definition, as well as the definitions of concepts like “property,” “identity,” “sensor,” etc.
How do we now proceed with two-way communication if we cannot refer back to a common basis of terms? How do we speak, for instance, with a dolphin, which lives in a completely different environment?
The idea is that we attempt to establish a common basis for our definitions. We can best achieve this through common experiences. At its core, a definition is the direct or indirect coupling of a word with reality. We show the dolphin a rubber ring and sound a tone intelligible to the dolphin (noun: “rubber ring”). We throw the ring and sound another tone (verb: “throw” or “fly”). Dolphins even possess the capability to correctly interpret pointing to objects without previously having been taught the signal. Even somewhat more complex commands which involve a number of objects (e.g., “Bring the toy to the bucket”) can be communicated to and understood by a dolphin in this way. We can also observe this type of understanding of another person’s intention in the development of children. The older the child becomes, the more far-reaching his understanding becomes, as well as the capability to conceptually couple remote objects with one another. [cf. White, 2007, pp. 68–74] Step by step, we can convey current observations of the properties of entities (nouns), changes in properties (verbs), modes of change in properties (adverbs), etc., all through some form of demonstration. Depending on the capabilities of the conversation participants, we can thus talk with each other “completely normally.”
If we are to communicate with another intelligent being, fundamentally we need to find a common language or build one from the ground up; the simplest possibility would be to pinch our counterpart on the arm, to point to the thing to which we are referring, and call out the name of its concept.
Can we show that we can communicate with other intelligent beings and that merely technical barriers, time, and limited language capabilities stand in the way? Could other beings ever really understand what we mean?
Suppose our counterpart, due to eyes constructed differently than ours, sees red as green and vice versa. In a conversation, we get into a heated argument about the color of a flower, in which each of us believes to be seeing the “correct” color. An issue such as this is readily invoked by opponents of the assumption that objective communication is possible. How can we suppose that every person possesses the same structure in his or her head for comprehending colors, shapes, or abstractions? Depending on the individual brain, different types of information are stored in different brain regions which differ from person to person, [cf. Calvin and Ojemann, 1995, pp. 224–30] so how can we meet on the same level at all?
The image which we form from our thoughts and communicate with our counterpart can be perceived by her, so long as we have a common channel of communication (e.g., sound waves, light for symbols or text, cables for telecommunication, etc.). Ideally we learn all terms commonly, e.g., we pinch another person on the arm and point to a tree. We might possibly have entirely different brain structures and sense organs, but as long as we both perceive the same object or share the same situation, using our individual qualia (the conscious experiences of our perceptions) we can learn definitions that, although different, point to the same concepts.
Our definitions can be different because we recognize or understand only a part of the underlying concept. But we can amend them without contradiction (because we both refer to reality) by communicating with the other person. For example, a dog could help us searching for a missing person. We both share the common concept of a person, but we identify someone by different means. Instead of showing the dog a picture, we give the dog a piece of clothing of the person. A deaf-blind person might categorize a dog by the fur and body shape while seeing persons focus on appearance. They have different qualia of the same thing, yet can identify and communicate it correctly once they have learned the common term. So, communication over our sensory and mental boundaries is possible if we learned the concept together.
It is important to note, of course, that this formation of concepts does not take place automatically. If we develop the wrong concepts, i.e., if we abstract incorrectly, then we may form contradicting definitions of the concept. But if we make no mistakes, we are inherently able to form correct definitions. If this were not possible, we could not argue against it (fallacy of the stolen concept). Argumentation requires the objectivity of communication. If we argue against the objectivity of communication, we contradict ourselves by our very actions.
So, even if our sense organs and brains are built completely differently, we can conclude that in principle, we are able to communicate with all concept-forming beings, presumably including computers. In the example of red/green-vision, we would simply point to a tree. We couple the spoken word “tree” with “green” and with the qualia (our image of the tree). Regardless of the differences in our sense organs, we both could have the same understanding of the appearance of a tree despite our different qualia. Even if our individual qualia of green objects are ultimately different, we still create similar qualia for all green objects.
Even more obvious is the aforementioned Pirahã language, wherein there is no term for color, but simply comparisons or relations, e.g., “a color like blood” or “a color like grass.” Objective communication can be built in this way. Essentially, the point is that colors are measurements and not fundamental properties of an object since there is no property of “green-ness” inherent in plants. Instead, the reflected light can be gradually measured and categorized, but the formation of a concept of a “green entity” in this way would be pointless.
But what should we speak about with other intelligent beings? There may be no common reference; they may perceive plants, animals, air, water, fire, and the heavens quite differently. To start with, we say that concept-forming beings possess the capability of abstraction; for instance, even if these intelligent beings were to perceive the sun only through fluctuations in the ultraviolet region of light, we could group these fluctuations with our own term “visible light” under a common meaning. The measurement would be different, the definitions would be the same.
But what if there is absolutely no common ground for communication? What if the other intelligent being is so different that that being possesses no sense organs (or at least not the same type as ours)? We could imagine a supercomputer buried deep in the Earth, connected only by a cable to the external world. Can we “speak” to this computer? Yes, if only to a limited extent. Essentially, this computer does possess “sense organs,” namely sensors which interpret electrical signals which someone from the surface provides. The common basis of communication would be everything related to these signals; particularly this would be physical and mathematical formulas and problems. Of course we could convey only with difficulty how, for example, it feels to walk barefoot through damp grass on a sunny spring morning, just as the computer conversely would have difficulty explaining to us what a memory overflow “feels like.” The only common points of reference about which we could converse would be electrical currents or information theory. The question also arises whether this computer can possess self-awareness at all if it has no actuators at its disposal with which it can influence—and thus literally experience and grasp—the world and, therefore, itself.
In popular culture, a depiction of computers communicating can be found in Colossus: The Forbin Project, in which two computers of different construction have developed a common language for higher concepts using commonalities in logical terms. Despite what the film portrays, the mere exchange of mathematical regularities as the basis of such communication would not suffice. A simple transmission of a series of prime numbers could be quickly filtered out of the noise of other protocol information and decoded by the receiver. But if both computer systems otherwise possess no common knowledge about elements of reality, then the communication remains on the level of the common ground of communication: data. Mathematicians could exchange views this way, but for a communication about more complex concepts, both would have to possess knowledge of, e.g., physics, and world maps, but above all about self-reflection, their own mortality, their own “construction plan,” morality, values, history, philosophy, and so on.
Keeping that in mind, what would the solution for both aforementioned computers look like? They could map each other’s sensory information and existing data of the real world in the form of geographical coordinates of certain cities or satellite pictures. But what the computers cannot do, and indeed no one can, is to take a basic insight such as “A = A” and then follow truths about the world with no empirical knowledge about the world.
The Arecibo Message
If two parties had only one thing in common in terms of communication, what would it be?
While we have not had contact with extraterrestrials so far, we can still assume they exist and send radio messages into space. When communicating with them, we can presume at the outset that they have dealt with similar concepts in a common reality. If both parties built signal stations pointing into space, they certainly have a lot to talk about. NASA designed a message in the 1970s, the so-called “Arecibo message” (see Figure 2.9). It served as a study in the requirements of formulating communication with alien intelligence. It was transmitted in 1974 in binary format over radio waves in the direction of a cluster of stars 22,800 light-years away.
The message begins with a binary encoding of the numbers 1 to 10, logical components for understanding the remainder of the message. Following that is a list of the atomic numbers of biochemical elements essential to life: 1: hydrogen (H), 6: carbon (C), 7: nitrogen (N), 8: oxygen (O), and 15: phosphorus (P). This encoding then is used to represent the molecules of which our DNA is composed. The four elements on the left and right represent the structural component of the double-strand DNA, while the four elements in the center represent the four letters (A, T, C, G) which encode our genetic information. For example, adenine (C5H4N5) consists of four hydrogen atoms, five carbon atoms, five nitrogen atoms, zero oxygen and zero phosphorus atoms. In the next section follows the spatial configuration of the DNA as a double helix, as well as the estimated number of DNA base pairs possessed by humans—again binary encoded. All of this information conveys the complexity of the human organism. In the next section, besides a binary representation of the human population on Earth, the shape and physical size of a human is represented—a considerable challenge in communication with an alien life form, as we have no common gauge at our disposal. In which unit of measurement should we convey a dimension like length? Absent the commonly held experiences mentioned earlier, only the communication channel itself remains since both sides know the wavelength of the message. After a representation of the solar system with an emphasis on the Earth, there follows lastly a graphic illustration and diameter of the Arecibo radio telescope transmitting the message. Again, the wavelength was used as the only available gauge of measurement as a reference to define its diameter.
If we share no common basis for communication with our counterpart, the communication channel itself can be utilized as a basis. In the case of the Arecibo message, scientists used the wavelength of the signal as a reference point.
The special format of the message was chosen so that we could both convey information and make it easier for a potential observer to detect the signal amid the ambient radiation. Here, we must consider the fact that we believed we had already detected evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence, due to radio signals. In 1968, we discovered a regular, rapidly repeating, and highly precise radio signal emanating from a star system. But after further research, it was discovered to be a neutron star which produced the signal by its high rotation speed. In the universe, some things look artificially created but are instead the result of repeated complex processes.
An interesting consequence of all these considerations is that it could be possible to write a “perfect book.” That is, a book which in principle any person could understand completely, even without any background knowledge. It would provide, in one heavily illustrated chapter, an introduction to the language, an explanation of grammar and verbs, and then—like this book—lead into a discussion of the objectivity of language and philosophy. Beyond that, how “expressive” such a book could be naturally depends on the extent of commonly held experiences between the author and readers.
Like the radio waves of the Arecibo message, a book held in the hand offers at least a small indication of a common reality: the author creates with it a common point of reference with the reader, a type of common universe to which he can refer. A comparison like “as large as the printed version of this book” gives the reader a clear standard of measurement, and printed illustrations provide visual mappings of the real world.
How can you establish trust in communication?
Even if we share our definitions and concept hierarchy, and even if we are aware of cultural and translation issues, communication could still be impeded: our counterpart’s sense perception could be distorted by hallucinogenic drugs, psychiatric illness, optical illusions, etc., or he could simply be not willing to tell us the truth. If we talk to our future selves, for example by keeping a journal, then we can trust ourselves. Without further stipulations, however, communication with others is dubious. While we indeed can examine our counterpart’s mental condition by investing a lot of effort, it remains unsettled whether a statement made by our counterpart represents the truth—we simply must trust him.
We can establish this trust by ensuring that our counterpart has a stake in truthful communication, whether due to selflessness or long-term-oriented thinking. Such a condition would occur if we could either assume that we would be able to contact this person again in the future (and in some way punish them for lying or show our appreciation for their honesty), or if there were an institution functioning to detect lies, enforce the truth, and publicize the honesty (or lack thereof) of each person (possibly done by the government through contract law, a community of reputable truth-lovers, or by a private verification organization like the Better Business Bureau).
You can establish trust in conversation by ensuring that a participant can benefit from telling the truth and must face consequences when lying.
Similar to scientific experiments, wherein we must keep an eye on the test conditions and limitations, such knowledge obtained through communication always depends on our confidence in the source. Were we to find out later that our counterpart lied to us, was hallucinating, used different concepts, or himself fell victim to a lie, we may once again have to reevaluate all knowledge gained from this source and knowledge we derived from that knowledge. Without an institution or system that allows us to trust the word of others, we would have to rely (like the aforementioned Pirahã tribe) on a purely empirical language and provide explicit sources instead of relying on hearsay.
Did you know?
The reason both proper citations and copyright are so crucial to knowledge management and accountability of the author is that they create the trust necessary for objective communication. The most successful trust network is the scientific community. It allows you to use and trust the results of anyone involved. → Read more in Philosophy for Heroes: Continuum [Lode, 2017]
Language in Society
[O]ne should imagine thirty or more hominids gathered together: males, females, and infants; those of high status and those of low status; individuals with different personalities and emotions; those with resources to share and those wishing to consume some food. Emanating from the site would have been a variety of calls, reflecting the diversity of activities, how these changed through the day, and the varying emotional states of individuals and the group as a whole. One might have heard predator alarm calls; calls relating to food availability and requests for help with butchery; mother-infant communications; the sounds of pairs and small groups maintaining their social bonds by communicating with melodic calls; and the vocalizations of individuals expressing particular emotions and seeking to induce them in others. Finally, at dusk, one should perhaps imagine synchronized vocalizations—a communal song—that induced calm emotions in all individuals and faded away into silence as night fell and the hominids went to sleep in the trees.
—Steven Mithen, The Singing Neanderthals—the Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body [cf. Mithen, 2007, pp. 137–38]
Without this “proto-language”—music or singing respectively—our ancestors would never have been able to get together in large hunting groups. As individuals, we are different and complex. Without means to find common ground with music or direct communication, we could never have solved our inner and outer conflicts peacefully. In smaller groups, apes prove that bonding without language is possible, after all. They practice mutual grooming as a sign of friendship. The time needed for grooming serves as a common investment in the connection between the two individuals. Although apes do have the ability for vocal expression, they do not have the ability to focus this “language” in the same way that they can with grooming a single individual. Without a theory of mind, they cannot value the individual experiences you could chat about. We, on the other hand, have in a way replaced our fur with our eardrums, in that we foster our friendships by telling stories and singing together while we have our hands free for our everyday work.
Our distant ancestors did not have means to expand their knowledge as a group. Of course, they could learn from and experience the world on an individual basis; but without a possibility to preserve knowledge (aside from skills that can be demonstrated directly) for the next generation, every generation had to start at the beginning and literally reinvent the wheel again and again. While you can certainly use existing wheels as a model, the techniques for creating one requires a teacher with a theory of mind.
When we reached the threshold of a higher order of intentionality and then were able, for the first time, to amass knowledge by communicating words—first orally and then later in writing—there was an explosive growth of what each generation was able to learn. Every new generation was able to acquire their insights on top of the insights of the previous generation and very soon, humanity had access to thousands of years of the mental capacity of others. Concerning our biological evolution, we are at the very edge between the possibility to just amass knowledge on our own and the ability to acquire the knowledge of others. It took a long time until we were physiologically able to communicate in a reasonable fashion. But as soon as this level was reached, our horizon expanded multifold within a very short span of time.
The invention of language has exponentially increased the intellectual possibilities of humankind. Only thoughts conceived in language are communicable and can be stored; all others decay after a few seconds. Thus, language helps us in thinking—by concretizing, specifying, fixating, and stabilizing the presumably simultaneous swirling and bubbling of our manifold intertwined concepts; by sharpening them into usable terms; and by organizing combinations of these concepts with grammar. [cf. Zimmer, 2008, p. 205]
What makes communication beneficial, and why?
Each person holds a monopoly on his individual experiences so that the more individualistic the society, the more we profit from two-way communication. The Internet immediately provides a quick glance into this resource of global exchange. It is comparable maybe with the former Apple CEO Steve Jobs’ famous quote relating to how computers have empowered our minds in the modern world:
I think one of the things that really separates us from the high primates is that we’re tool builders. I read a study that measured the efficiency of locomotion for various species on the planet. The condor used the least energy to move a kilometer. And, humans came in with a rather unimpressive showing, about a third of the way down the list. It was not too proud a showing for the crown of creation. So, that didn’t look so good. But, then somebody at Scientific American had the insight to test the efficiency of locomotion for a man on a bicycle. And, a man on a bicycle, a human on a bicycle, blew the condor away, completely off the top of the charts. And that’s what a computer is to me. What a computer is to me is it’s the most remarkable tool that we’ve ever come up with, and it’s the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds.
—Steve Jobs, Memory and Imagination Lawrence 
Only our very individual experiences make communication useful. The more similar we become to each other (in terms of our individual experiences), the more shallow our conversations can become, with less new information being shared.
We are all different and everyone has a unique story to tell. We interpret language differently and that is why in conversations, we should always try to first find a common ground. This openness towards others is what opens our soul to a fruitful discussion. This is the second building block on your path from a student of philosophy to a teacher and ultimately a leader.