Rescher, there would be no common foothold and the problem of interpretation would be immense. Stressing the parochial nature of our science, Rescher (ibid.: 182) concludes that: ‘Given intelligent beings with a physical and cognitive nature profoundly different from ours, one simply cannot assert with confidence what the natural science of such creatures would be like.’
Even with a common cultural heritage, for example, Western Christianity, there is room for widespread divergence and communicative failure. A shift to an extraterrestrial setting, argues Rescher, would amplify the diversity found on Earth. This raises serious problems with regard to proposals for communicating with ‘scientifically advanced’ ETs. The concept of ‘advanced’ is problematic: to be more advanced it would have to be a variety of our sort of science. Given differences in formulation, conceptualization and orientation, Rescher (ibid.: 188) sees the possibility of a similar science and technology as ‘extremely remote’. To be more or less advanced presupposes a uniformity of objectives; we can say that they are more advanced than us if they do the same things that we do better or more fully. The concert pianist is better than the child beginner because each one is travelling in the same direction, aiming at similar objectives against a uniform standard. But, says Rescher (ibid.): ‘we can scarcely say that Chinese cookery is more or less advanced than Roman, or Greek pottery than Renaissance glassware.’ A science of alien beings, concludes Rescher, is bound to be different to ours, with a very small probability that they would have our scientific posture. There is no sense in speaking of them being more advanced or backward if they are not travelling on the same journey. ‘It is thus farfetched to suppose that an alien civilization might be scientifically more advanced than we are’ (ibid.: 174).
Rescher’s argument clearly reduces the likelihood of communication with numerous civilizations, but does it rule out the possibility altogether? They may, for example, do things that we would regard as advanced science, such as harnessing the ocean’s energy, or deriving energy from cold fusion, but do it in the context of a religious or aesthetic belief system which is completely beyond our comprehension. Yet our scientists may learn something from it. Moreover, even if we accept that being more or less advanced requires a uniformity of destination, this still leaves plenty of scope; they might not recognize our criteria for being either backward or advanced, playing the game by different rules, but they may be more advanced in some activities but not in others; they may be advanced in techniques of space flight, more advanced because their spaceships carry more weight, move faster, and so on. Dialogue with a society within which certain practices are recognized as more advanced than ours need not be ruled out; the more advanced in certain activities can develop skills in communicating with the backward, as teachers communicate with infants and children. Rescher assumes that we could not know if they were more advanced. But they might and they might also know what they had left behind – Kuhn-loss – as their science developed. Cicero might not be able to comprehend quantum electrodynamics, but neither could a child. Put them both in an environment where quantum
electrodynamics was an accepted part of the prevailing belief structure and a good teacher should be able to instruct both of them. To be sure, the finest developments in, say, medical technology might not be appreciated by beings with a radically different physiology, but we could still appreciate measures they took to extend their life-spans. Moreover, a civilization composed of immortals, whose historical records indicate that mortality was defeated, by means of intelligent intervention, 10,000 generations ago, would clearly be recognized as being more advanced than us. They may have a very different concept of physical duration, and not see immortality in any way linked to medical science, but our medical science might well learn from it, just as contemporary science is capable of benefiting from developments external to it. We might not have the same physical environment or a similar physical structure or even the same cultural and scientific traditions, but we can still detect scope for our scientific advancement in their different systems and struggle to learn from them.
A restricted view of learning from advanced extraterrestrials was presented by Alfred Adler who maintained that:
Something tangible might indeed be learned from an extraterrestrial civilization, but this would have to be within the realm of our present knowledge and capabilities, or else we could not comprehend its meaning. Being in this realm, it would be something we would sooner or later have discovered for ourselves, without outside help.
According to Adler, we could learn very little from contact. But this is based on a very naïve view of learning. As long as the gap is not too wide – and we have set it so as to exclude Type III civilizations – it is possible for the very advanced to find or construct a set of meanings which would enable the very backward to learn, as we do when teaching children.
Consider a contemporary scientific problem: do tachyons exist? They have not been observed, but according to some scientists they are entities which never travel at less than the speed of light. Consequently tachyons, and theories of communication by means of tachyons, have been ruled out by many scientists as their existence would be contrary to Einstein’s theory according to which nothing can exceed the speed of light. Yet tachyon theory is derived from an extension of Einstein’s special relativity theory in 1905. Einstein’s theory describes a mechanics of material particles which never travel faster than light. But the theory can be reformulated with particles of another very different kind – with no upper limit to their velocity, only a lower one. Thus if tachyons are supplied with energy their motion would actually decrease. If such particles exist, they could travel at optimum speeds of 100,000 times that of light, and an exchange of information across the entire universe could be completed in less than one hundred years. But they have not been observed and, more signifi-cantly, we have no idea as to how they could be transmitted or received.
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