Communicating with Aliens:

the Psychological Dimension of Dialogue




19 Jan 2000

Where might one look for strategic clues to enrich any communication process with aliens -- extraterrestrial or otherwise? Who are the people most skilled at communicating in unforeseen contexts and ways?

Possibilities include Sun Tzu's Art of War, Miyamoto Musashi's Book of Five Rings (or its western fencing equivalents), martial arts, the game of go, or the like. Modern Asian management texts exploit such classical insights in a variety of interesting ways (see Gao Yuan, 1991; and summary table). Such disciplines combine vigilance with subtlety in the dialogue process. Misplaced rigidity or insouciance in the assumptions about the role and skills of the person encountered are then matters of life or death.

It is ironic that "fencing" is used as a metaphor to describe some approaches to dialogue, but that the art of fencing, with its nine types of thrust (and matching parries), has not been mined for clues to more fruitful dialogue. The same might be said of "jousting" -- indeed aliens might approach dialogue with humans within a framework equivalent to a joust. Ironically debating societies, as well as debates between presidential candidates, tend to follow a jousting model -- as do certain theological debates.

In the best encounters between well-matched opponents in the martial arts (such as aikido) the annihilation of the other is not the objective -- as with dialogue at its best. How the adversarial process is transcended is a matter of art rather than science -- for which there is little insight. How strange it would be if the aliens had evolved dialogue as humans have evolved martial arts -- so that the best human negotiator / communicators were effectively "yellow belts" endeavoring to deal with "black belt" alien communicators. Clues from dance and musical harmony have also not been explored.

One way to reframe the approach is through an exploration of process reality.


Process dialogue

It would be naive to assume that some people were not highly skilled at living in a process reality. Such people would not be dependent on static categories and snapshot takes on processes. Some sense of this can be obtained by contrasting people whose identity can be satisfactorily captured by still photos -- with those who can be better captured on video, or with those who cannot be so captured at all. What would be the nature of an encounter with such a person?

The challenge would be that the "person" might have a sense of identity as a process. It would then be a case of a static identity encountering a dynamic identity -- a rock in a river. But for those locked into static category thinking, such a process identity would effectively be undetectable -- or only minimally detectable.

Another approach is to question whether aliens would necessarily be restricted to three dimensions, especially if they can travel effectively through space-time. The possibility that aliens, as four-dimensional beings, would experience humans as humans might experience two-dimensional "flatlanders" has been most recently explored by Clifford Pickover (1999; reviewed in New Scientist, 23 October 1999).

The communication implications for the higher dimensionality of cognitive space have been explored by mathematician Ron Atkin (1981; reviewed in a separate document). This work provides vital insights into the nature of incommunicability, even when there is no language barrier.

The challenges of the mathematics of language have been explored by V V Nalimov (1981), with an epilogue on how humanity's use of language might be perceived by aliens (pp 203-5). His probabilistic view of the world is reviewed separately. His effort to integrate a multi-disciplinary understanding of the many dimensions of language notably stresses the semantics of rhythm as offering a means of direct access to the continuous stream of consciousness that could be an experience of process reality (pp 186-193).

In contrast to the linear mode, which might easily be assumed to be that through which humans would communicate with aliens, he argues that rhythm "allows one to record the phenomenon in an essentially briefer form than it is described and signified, without resorting to abstraction". Rhythm in its outer manifestation is understood through rhyme, consonance, assonance, alliteration, or refrains.

But inherently and essentially:

"...rhythm is something much more significant; rhythm probably means the dissolving of word meanings, their merging into a continuous, inwardly indissoluble stream of images. In other words, rhythm provides an opportunity for non-Bayesian reading of the texts... in a rhythmically organized text, everything happens otherwise. Rhythm here is a governing essence welding separate groups into integral wholes.

The text is organized so that the words do not limit one another but, on the contrary, have their meaning broadened, smoothly flowing into one another and merging into one stream...A formal mathematical study of a rhyme, no matter how delicate and subtle it is, does not reveal the image of the poem. It is not the rhyme which tells but the words interlacing thanks to the rhythm and catching the gliding image...Being "inside", where there are no discrete symbols, everything is in everything, where the continuous stream of images is being "read" unconsciously and extra-logically."

How would a group of such process people function in a collective encounter -- a process dialogue? Would the encounter be meaningful to someone locked into a static identity? Would it only be poets or musicians that had some hope of engaging in such dialogue? How would meaning be processed, if not through static categories -- ascribing meaning to a sequence of snapshots?

Incorporating another non-textual dimension, another approach to understanding the language of pattern-shifting in process reality can be obtained from insights into the 4,000 year-old chanted hymns of the Rg Veda of the Indian tradition (as discussed elsewhere). A very powerful exploration of this work by a philosopher, Antonio de Nicolas (1978), using the non-Boolean logic of quantum mechanics (Heelan, 1974), opens up valuable approaches to integration.

The following themes are explored in the de Nicolas study:

The unique feature of the approach is that it is grounded in tone and the shifting relationships between tone.

It is through the pattern of musical tones that the significance of the Rg Veda is to be found:

"Therefore, from a linguistic and cultural perspective, we have to be aware that we are dealing with a language where tonal and arithmetical relations establish the epistemological invariances... Language grounded in music is grounded thereby on context dependency; any tone can have any possible relation to other tones, and the shift from one tone to another, which alone makes melody possible, is a shift in perspective which the singer himself embodies.

Any perspective (tone) must be "sacrificed" for a new one to come into being; the song is a radical activity which requires innovation while maintaining continuity, and the "world" is the creation of the singer, who shares its dimensions with the song." (de Nicolas, p. 57)

De Nicolas contrasts this perspective with that of conventional western languages governed by vision:

"Thus, in a language ruled by the criteria of sight, vision may mean the sum of perspectives from which a fixed object can be seen, plus the theoretical perspective of the relationships holding amongst different perspectives of the object, plus the mental acts by which those perspectives, relationships and visions are performed. In any event, the invariant object is the condition for the variations in the meaning of vision. The object is the condition for the variations in the meaning of vision.

The invariant object is, therefore, not a reality, but a theoretical precondition (phenomenal or noumenal) for a whole system or method for establishing facts. Therefore, it is no wonder that when people speak of transcendence, within this framework, they are mostly forced to speak in mystical terms of things unseen or unseeable, either in terms of religious experiences, or in terms of modern physics. In a literal sense, in the latter two cases, speech is about no things by the same criteria of the speech used to designate things."

Whereas in a language governed by sound:

"In a language ruled by the criteria of sound, perspectives, the change of perspectives and vision, stand for what musicologists call "modulation". Modulation in music is the ability to change keys within a composition. To focus within this language, and by its criteria, is primarily the activity of being able to run the scale backwards and forwards, up and down, with these sudden shifts in perspectives.

Through this ability, the singer, the body, the song and the perspective become an inseparable whole. In this language, transcendence is precisely the ability to perform the song without any theoretical construct impeding its movement a priori, or determining the result of following such movement a priori. Nor can any theoretical compromise substitute for the discovery of the movement of "modulation" itself in history.

The human body would then be asked to lose the memory of its origins; a task the human body refuses to do by its constant return to crisis. It is up to the philosophers to discover the language ruled by the criteria of sound, rather than presuppose a priori that the only language universally human is the one ruled by the criteria of sight."

(de Nicolas, p. 192)

In considering the challenge of a rhythm-based mode, Nalimov points out that rhythm is "archaic, alien to our culture, legally preserved only in poetry and only sometimes breaking through in other texts" (p. 190). But he notes that amongst such non-poetic texts one might discover "bifacial ones, i.e. those having simultaneously logical and rhythmical constituents" (p. 191), amongst which he cites Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1951).

Nalimov argues:

It is written by a professional logician, and one of its constituents is, indubitably, precise logic. But I am sure many will agree that it is also rhythmical, and this accounts for its magic effect. However the source of the rhythm is not rhyme of any sort but rather a paradoxical character of the propositions.

The text of the Tractatus consists of sequence of enumerated paradoxes, and it is their structure which is unusual....Instead of using logic, he weaves a lace of words that makes the reader ponder not over what is expressed by words (strictly speaking, they lack meaning) but over what lies behind them if their meaning is expanded infinitely.

His words do not prove his idea; rather they makes us think of what there must be in the mind of the person who proved capable of penetrating the problem to its very core...In European philosophical literature Tractatus occupies a unique place as a result of its 'alien' nature. This also accounts for the acutely negative attitude of positivists towards it." (p. 191-2)

The use of such structured contradictions is explored in the exercise in Part III as a means of setting up a framework of cognitive preparedness for unforeseeable patterns of dialogue with aliens.

From a static perspective, the challenge is to build up larger patterns of insight in a dialogue. From a dynamic perspective, it would be the flow pattern that would carry larger meaning -- rather than a carpet or a map, an evolving dance or musical composition (like "generated music"). Group improvisation in music is an example that is being studied for organizational creativity (cf Jamming, John Kao).

Perhaps some sense of a dynamic identity is associated with those who are known especially for their style or charisma -- for which there are various related terms in other languages: élan, baraka, sprezzatura. When deliberately cultivated, as the art of the courtier, the elusive quality can be described as follows:

Sprezzatura: the well practiced naturalness, the rehearsed spontaneity, which lies at the center of convincing discourse of any sort, and which has been the always-sought but seldom well-described center of rhetorical "decorum" since Aristotle first tried to describe it. (


Process riders

But it would also be naive to assume that those capable of carrying their identities through such process thinking are necessarily benevolent in their attitude towards the well-being of static approaches. Within the dynamic, they would have an ideal "place" in which to hide -- a "non-place".

As with frequency-hopping encrypted communications, they would be everywhere but nowhere -- the new approaches to widespread, invasive, electronic surveillance provide powerful metaphors of this. Like web "spiders", they could effectively "ride" the dynamics in which static identities participate. Rather than being the "substantives" of which reality is normally understood to be composed, they would be the "verbs" through which its dynamics are expressed.

The psychology of multiple personality points to some of the challenges since the integrated personality, to the extent that it "exists", is then expressed through a variety of sub-personalities that may or may not communicate with each other to any degree. An integrated personality might then be understood like an alien riding a complex vehicle. Many people are only partially understood through some aspects of their personality, even when they cannot be said to suffer from multiple personality disorder.

The challenge of how an alien might perceive the average human as psychologically unintegrated (and constrained to lower dimensionality) is dramatically articulated by psychologist Ronald Laing in describing an interview with a schizophrenic patient (see elsewhere). Each facet or personality then is rather like one of a number of moving feet on which the the entity as a whole navigates through reality.

This suggests a way of thinking about "aliens" -- those who are not linked into conventional society [cf lien as the French for "link", also as in hyperlien]. A lien is a legal right to hold another's property until a debt is paid. A community, in the light of static thinking, is a pattern of bonds or links -- the checks and balances of civil society. But from a dynamic perspective, there are flows and processes that sustain the community -- for which only the skeletal structure might be usefully described by "links".

The identities sustained by the dynamics alone are effectively "aliens" -- unrecognizable from a static perspective. In folk traditions they might be readily recognized as spirits and the like -- hidden fairies contributing coherence to the forest. The religiously inclined might refer to them as angels or demons.

In part, they would only live through the dynamics between the static identities. The "demons" would be of special concern as malevolent riders of those dynamics -- "dark riders". What identities live through processes of overpopulation, starvation, disease, injustice, pollution and violence -- or globalization itself?


Communicating with aliens

For those puzzled by the lack of communication with extraterrestrials, the possibility that their identities may only be associated with dynamics opens avenues of reflection. In this sense aliens could even be omnipresent in our civilization through the dynamics between static identities -- as verbs. How does a substantive communicate with a verb? Note that the question of the "grammar" of process organization has been explored at MIT by Thomas Malone and others (1998).

From such perspectives there is the possibility that aliens would have a radically different attitude to subject-object relationships. That there is much to be discovered in this respect has been explored by philosophers, notably Max Deutscher (Subjecting and Objecting), and those concerned with convergence between physics and consciousness. At a time when physicists are comfortable with multiple parallel universes, it may be that aliens have an entirely different way of reframing their relationship to space-time. Work is needed to anticipate such extreme possibilities (for one example see Judge, 1996 and 1996).

Nalimov in his In the Labyrinth's of Language (1981) argues that from the standpoint of cybernetics, language may be understood as a form of independent living organism that, once it has emerged, continues to develop, following its own specific line of evolution. Aliens may take this understanding further, such that their "individuals" are in unforeseen ways considered subservient to their language or are essentially understood as continuing expressions of it.

From this perspective the language, like the culture of a human civilization, is the carrier of identity with which the encounter must necessarily take place if it is to be meaningful. Such an organism necessarily has a longer lifespan than the individuals who are the vehicles of its manifestation.

As noted above, the limited literature on the strategy for communicating with aliens is focused primarily on mathematics and numbers on the unexplored assumption that this would be fundamental to intelligence anywhere. The mathematical language advocated stresses what amounts to static concepts of numbers (1, 2, 3, etc). However, if aliens were more identified with dynamics, their focus would be more on one-ing, two-ing, three-ing, etc -- more closely associated with the biodynamics of cell-division, and other generative or destructive processes, or even dance.

Or possibly their focus would be on music, as dramatized in the Spielberg film Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)? How might a maths based on flow and pattern be experienced with kinesthetic insight? Many animals, including bees, live and express themselves through movement -- no wonder that we pretend that they cannot communicate "intelligently". Humans may be judged in the same way by aliens -- and by many animals.

A further reason for lack of communication might simply be that human understanding of dialogue is profoundly boring to a galactic society. For aliens living through dynamics, the almost total absence of co-creation in dialogue would render communication with humans virtually meaningless. Just as from a static perspective, "watching grass grow" is an experience to be avoided. So, from a dynamic perspective, for an alien, "moving icecubes around in patterns" in human dialogue until they melt would be equally alienating.

Next: Part III - Distinguishing patterns of assumption in dialogue with aliens

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