One of the things I’ve pondered a few times on this blog is our ability to recognize another intelligence, such as an extraterrestrial intelligence. On the face of it, this seems straightforward. Do they form societies, use technology, manipulate their environment, and overall show signs of intelligence?
Except an alien intelligence may be so different from us that their versions of these things might not resemble ours in any recognizable fashion. On top of that, there is the issue that non-human animals probably don’t recognize just how superior humans are to them in terms of intelligence. The evidence for that intelligence is simply too far out of range of their models of the world. Our vehicles probably look like a type of animal to them, our buildings like natural structures, etc.
If we run into a species far more intelligent than us, it seems like there could be a danger that we wouldn’t even recognize what we were seeing. Their technologies might seem like natural phenomena to us, just as ours do to Earth animals. We may simply be too far out of our depth to recognize what we’re seeing.
Unless there is some distinctive trait that separates what we consider to be intelligence from what we don’t. People have proposed a number of traits over the years: tool use, societies, morality, theory of mind, etc. The problem is that there are non-human animals that have these traits to one degree or another. The difference between us and them in terms of these attributes appear to be in extent rather than a sharp categorical break.
Except, perhaps, for abstract or symbolic thought. If there is one thing that humans have that non-human animals don’t, it’s the ability to think it terms of symbols. What’s a symbol? A word is a symbol. When we look at, say, the color red and call it “red”, we’re using a sound to symbolize a sensory perception.
But our ability to use symbols goes well beyond this. We can use symbols for other symbols, or for collections of symbols, and we can do so in a nested fashion, and even recursively to any arbitrary extent we need to. Consider the word “democracy”, which symbolizes a large multi-layered collection of symbols, which eventually map to a wide variety of social activities.
The ability to think symbolically is what allows our species to operate far beyond our original evolutionary niche. It’s what allows a hominid species that came into being on the African savanna to conquer the world, travel to the moon, and send probes throughout the solar system, to understand general relativity, quantum mechanics, and the big bang.
If you think about it, we can’t understand any of these things the way we understand walking around the block. Walking around the block is something we can experience directly, viscerally, general relativity isn’t. We can only understand those things using mathematics, itself a logical collection of symbols, or using metaphors that eventually relate to things we can understand directly, such as a large stretched fabric with a heavy ball on it to symbolize how gravity works.
Symbolic thinking may well be the secret sauce of sapience, of human level intelligence. I’m not aware of any evidence for it in animals, except in the most primitive manner such as distinctive monkey screeches to warn of particular types of predators. Even among archaic humans there is scant evidence for it. It’s only with the rise of homo sapiens (technically homo sapien sapiens) that we start to see pervasive evidence of it, with things such as ceremonial burials, cave paintings, non-utilitarian jewelry, and similar artifacts. Evolutionarily, it’s a very recent development.
And yet, within 100,000-200,000 years of its rise, a blip in geological time, it’s given rise to a civilization powerful enough to alter the climate of the planet. One that, if it can avoid destroying itself, may eventually conquer the solar system and even some day reach the stars.
So recognizing an extraterrestrial intelligence may simply be a matter of recognizing symbolic thought.
Of course, we can’t rule out that there may be higher forms of cognition to come, that symbolic thought might only be a stepping stone to something even more sophisticated. But if so, symbolic thought should enable us to recognize it, and model it, as we always do, into terms we can understand, that is, in terms of what a hominid that evolved on the African savanna can understand.
But the fact that we do have to map everything into our original niche might also signal the possibility of profound species level biases or blind spots. There may be things that an alien that evolved in, say, a gas cloud can understand directly that we can’t, and vice-versa. But if both of us have symbolic thought, we may still be able to understand each other’s unique insights abstractly, that is, symbolically, even if we can’t do so viscerally.
What do you think? Does symbolic thought have the pivotal role I’m seeing? Or are there other attributes we could use to recognize a coequal or superior intelligence?