Matthew Wright on Intelligent Aliens

One of my favorite blogs is Matthew Wright’s Matthew Wright. A post illustrating nicely why I enjoy what he writes is the “Are we so arrogant to suppose [intelligent] aliens will be like us?” appearing yesterday.

In the present post I respond (1) positively to what Wright says before answering the question his title poses and (2) negatively to his negative answer.

1. First, what Wright says before answering the question his title poses: He observes, then, that at the time, decades ago, when Winston Churchill, Arthur C. Clarke, and the British Interplanetary Society were thinking about the question of intelligent alien life,

[T]he question was whether there were actually extra-solar planets at all. And if there were, did they host life? But it had a twist – one we don’t often realise. The questions were also posed around the unspoken assumption of ‘one planet, one intelligent alien species’.

A bit further on we find him observing and then ruminating as follows.

[W]e have a sample size of precisely one [that of evolution on the earth], so it’s risky to generalise. Who says that a planet will produce just one intelligent species? Maybe every species on a planet emerges with human-scale intelligence. Or maybe none evolve.

We can see therein that Wright knows how to use logic to free us from the limits of our unspoken and unexamined assumptions and bring all of the available theoretical possibilities out into the open. He has, for example, set before us, as one logical possibility deserving consideration, the universal affirmative proposition (lightly revised) that:

All species emerging on a particular planet are species having human-scale intelligence.

Now, elementary logic teaches us, let us take note, and Wright is evidently aware that alongside any universal affirmative proposition there are to be found universal negative, particular affirmative, and particular negative propositions having the same subjects and predicates. Thus he also sets before us, as another logical possibility deserving consideration, the universal negative proposition (also revised, albeit not so lightly) that:

No species emerging on a particular planet are species having human-scale intelligence.

Granted, he did not spell out the particular negative proposition contradicting his universal affirmative proposition, but we can do that for him quite easily.

At least one species emerging on a particular planet is not a species having human-scale intelligence.

Nor did he spell out the particular affirmative proposition contradicting his negative affirmative proposition, but we can, once again, do that for him quite easily.

At least one species emerging on a particular planet is a species having human-scale intelligence.

We can further advance his cause by taking note of the conjunction, in reverse order, of the last two propositions:

At least one species emerging on a particular planet is a species having human-scale intelligence and at least one species emerging on a particular planet is not a species having human-scale intelligence.

In asking, however, who it is who says that a planet will produce just one intelligent species, he himself is the one who brings to light yet another possibility, the conjunction

At least one species emerging on a particular planet is a species having human-scale intelligence and at most one species emerging on a particular planet is a species having human-scale intelligence.

So far, so good.

2. But only so far, for I think that, when he goes further and answers his question negatively, he goes too far. I part ways with him when he tells us that

I figure that once we do find alien life, it’ll be like nothing we imagined. And that includes the nature of any intelligence. Just as we’ve often imagined ‘aliens’ as being, in effect, mirror images of ourselves, we usually also suppose that ‘their’ intelligence will express itself like ours – inquisitive, actively seeking to expand the boundaries of knowledge and exploration – but will it? Who says ‘their’ intelligence will be like ‘ours’ at all? It might be so different we don’t even recognise it as such, or view the products of their intellect as a ‘civilisation’.

for, in setting forth what he takes to be the possibility that alien intelligence will be unlike human intelligence at all, he has actually set forth an impossibility. To make that evident, I will first ask that you recall the following, necessarily true principles of the theory of identity:

The Principle of Reflexivity: For any existent, x, x is identical to x.

The Principle of Symmetry: For any existent, x, and any existent, y, if x is identical to y, then y is identical to x.

The Principle of Transitivity: For any existent, x, any existent, y, and any existent, z, if x is identical to y and y is identical to z, then x is identical to z.

To instantiate:

The Principle of Reflexivity: Matthew Wright is identical to Matthew Wright.

The Principle of Symmetry: If Matthew Wright is identical to the blogger blogging at the Matthew Wright blog, then the blogger blogging at the Matthew Wright blog is identical to Matthew Wright.

The Principle of Transitivity: If Matthew Wright is identical to the blogger blogging at the Matthew Wright blog and the blogger blogging at the Matthew Wright blog is identical to the author of the sci-fi novella, Missionary, then Matthew Wright is identical to the author of the sci-fi novella, Missionary.

Now, I will declare without hesitation, that if a purportedly intelligent being, alien or indeed non-alien, is incapable in principle of grasping the truth of those three principles and of their instantiations, then it is impossible for that purportedly intelligent being to be a genuine intelligent being. (I say, “in principle,” because life presents many de facto circumstances, such as variously caused cases of unconsciousness, that may prevent an intelligent being from grasping such truths.) Any and all intelligent beings will be beings that will be capable in principle of recognizing the truth of our three principles and of untold many others.

Until next time.

Richard

About Rchard E. Hennessey

See above, "About the Author/Editor."
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2 Responses to Matthew Wright on Intelligent Aliens

  1. Hi, it’s nice to be the centre of your attention, but I think you’ve over-analysed my post.

    • Perhaps. But perhaps not. I’m quite serious about the use of the tools of logic to generate awareness of all pertinent possibilities; thus my enthusiasm for what you did re the number of species having “human-scale” intelligence on a given planet [or perhaps not on any given planet]. And I’m also quite serious about the capacity that intelligent beings, of whatever provenance, have for knowing and understanding the real. And so too about a corresponding incapacity: no intelligent being can be capable of knowing that, say, some existent is not identical with itself, for that could only be known to be the case if it could be the case. And it can’t.

      And then there is the little not quite unintended promotion of your novella. I suspect that that will be worth many times what you have paid for it.

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