Thursday, December 19, 2013

Stanislaw Lem and the the possibility of communicating with aliens - a brief critique

I suspect everyone finds some writers to be beyond serious reproach.  I suppose for some people, that's quite a lot of writers.  For me, there are only a few.  Stanislaw Lem is one of them.  Lem is the writer I sometimes want to be - but only sometimes.  There is a bleak cynicism to his writing that I don't care to emulate and I know that he became a technophobe - I have a feeling that his life in some ways mirrored his fiction with the impossibility of real communication between people.  In Solaris, he wrote, "If man had more of a sense of humor, things might have turned out differently."  I believe that could be adapted.  "If Lem had more of a sense of humor, his books might have turned out differently."  Even where his books are funny, they're not fun.  He wasn't that kind of writer.  I don't hold this against him, not by any means, however.  Fun wasn't important to him as a writer.

He is almost unique in sci-fi writers in having come up with an idea that actually bears scrutiny.  Unlike almost all sci-fi writers, who are generally an ideal of the moment kind of guys, writing about whatever techno-philosophical idea is in vogue at the moment, Lem really has legs.  He writes about the difficulties in communication between humans and aliens.  In his books, first contact fails.  We just don't have anything to say to one another, nor a vocabulary to describe it.  I have no idea if Lem was influenced by Wittgenstein, but all of his characters violate the final words of The Tractacus Logico-Philosophicus - "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."  The characters speak, but there is no content, because of the lack of shared experiences between species.

Moreover, I find in his work this very Orwellian idea that communication between humans is fraught with peril.  Between people who don't mean what they say because they're lying, people who don't say what they mean because they're ignorant, and people who don't say what they mean because they're incompetent . . . how do we talk to each other, again? 

I also find all of this a backhanded critique of Master Kong's assertion that the first question is always the rectification of names.  Before we speak, we've got to be sure our words mean the same thing.  In Lem, they often do not.

In other words, what Lem addresses is well-worn ground.  People from the ancient days to our own have questioned the efficacy of communication and the uses of communication.  And we think we can talk to aliens?  It is to laugh.

That said, I think I found a weakness in Lem's work and it is in the rectification of names.  What do we mean by communication?  I think it's possible that we will never share stories around a campfire, but I don't see the impossibility of successful feedback driven modes of informational exchange.  I think it's possible that we'll do something and, based on what we do, the aliens will do something and we'll be able to learn about the aliens thereby - if nothing else, what they do when we do what we do.

I think, furthermore, that we have a fair bit of experience dealing with things that have non-human forms of communication - like fire.  No, hear me out.  Fire has many of the characteristics of life.  It can grow, it eats, it produces waste, it can expand itself, diminish, all kinds of very life-like traits.  It is not sentient but we can engage fire.  We can lessen it's fuel and see what it does, change its fuel, cut it off altogether or rekindle it.  This kind of engagement is not considered communication merely because we have a predisposition to imagine that fire isn't alive because it doesn't bear sufficient similarity to ourselves.

I admit, this is Marxist inspired.  We learn about things according to what we can do with them - but I will add as we shape them, they shape us.  

For instance, the domestication of dogs.  The current theory holds that humans and dogs sorta . . . grew together.  Unlike almost any other animal, humans didn't decide to tame wolves and turn them into dogs.  A symbiotic, language-less relationship developed between wolves and humans - humans followed wolves to find game, the wolves fed off of our leavings, and this became a successful mode of behavior that created a positive feedback loop.  It was a kind of communication, wordless and inhuman, but substantial and real - each side learned from the other, though they certainly learned different lessons.

I don't see why this isn't possible with even very alien aliens.  (Though I will hold that it could be extraordinarily dangerous.  Wolves don't have planet destroying technologies and there's a fifty-fifty chance that the first aliens we meet will have such technologies, I feel.)  Through our mutual interactions, no matter what they are, because what we do effects the aliens and what they do effects us, that is a kind of communication.  Even if, as in Solaris, there is no set pattern of repetition - if we do A, B does not follow - even that teaches us.

I also reject the idea that we can't think non-human thoughts - or at least approximations of non-human thoughts.  This came to me, specifically, today.  I was laying down, thinking, and I started thinking about the way that computers use fuzzy logic.

To a human, fuzzy logic is, well, fuzzy.  It involves the participation of a set in multiple values.  In many ways, it is the native human method of thinking.  We understand that a person with an average height is somewhere between short and tall, that a thousand dollars is somewhere between being broke and being rich, in a unity of thought.

Computers, on the other hand, can't really do this.  By their design, all computers do nothing more than boolean operations.  Our native understanding of in-between states is not boolean.  Most people don't have any real experience with boolean algebra, after all!  Likewise, the specific interactions of human brains do not appear to be boolean logic gates.  There is simply no reason to imagine that human brains operate according to the mechanisms of boolean operations.

Yet, computers can approximate this knowing-ness that we humans possess organically through fuzzy logic databases interpreted by those boolean operations.  The process contextless data according to the programmed dictates of logic gates.  That's it.  Yet . . . there is communication.

It is fair, at this point, to point out that computers are human tools invented by humans for humans.  Absolutely.  I'm not saying that talking to an alien will be so simple, but use this to illustrate the point that naive human intuition can in some ways be understood by the quite non-human reasoning of boolean operations.  While admitting it's an approximation, and admitting all language is an approximation, I continue to assert it's better than nothing.  Which is, I think, the point of divergence from Lem.  

In short, I think that the people studying Solaris learned quite a bit.

However, this is a very . . . nuanced criticism of Lem's work.  Mostly the guy just blows me out of the water. 

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