I came across this story today that seemed illustrative of issues I’ve been thinking about for awhile. The gist of the piece is that it’s entirely possible — maybe even likely — that alien civilizations are trying to contact us, but the quantum information they are sending us would be impossible to decipher even if we received it. Here’s an excerpt:
Scientists say they would not only struggle to understand any alien news — but they would not even know if it came from them at all. The “quantum gibberish” theory could also be true in reverse — dashing hopes of E.T. ever phoning home. Prof Arjun Berera, a theoretical physicist at Edinburgh University, said: “In principle, it should be possible to detect a quantum signal coming from an astrophysical body or even an intelligent signal from an extra- terrestrial civilisation.” But he added: “Quantum states you think of as very delicate, and if there’s any kind of external interaction, you destroy that state.”
The first thought that came to mind was — is this so different from efforts humans make to connect with each other? I return again to Nietzsche’s aphorism that “in all talk there is a grain of contempt.” The words we use to express our most personal, deepest expressions need to find a common linguistic form to be understood. So we default to saying, for example, “I love you,” knowing that the words cannot accurately express the very particularly feelings being evoked.
To conquer this state, we turn to poetry. It is only in poetic language that we become capable of matching our thoughts to feelings. Yet this creates a new problem, as Harold Bloom accurately expressed: to read poetry is to misread. We read poetry with our own hearts and because of this, we translate the words with our own feelings rather than that of the writer. This is in line with the column I wrote last week about Proust. Poetic efforts to describe love inevitably become expressions of our inner state. In attempting to describe these feelings, something very different is uncovered.
Psychotherapists advise us to not waste our time trying to figure out what other people mean or to engage in mind-reading. The only way to conquer the problem of other minds is to engage in direct, clear communications, even with all of the limitations of words. I generally accept this positions, but also need to point out that not even trained therapists can avoid the trap of sending signals instead of speaking directly. Sometimes matters being discussed are impossible to approach head on.
All of which brings me to a throwaway line in that Sun article … the mention of “E.T. The Extra-terrestrial.” That movie, which just turned 40 this summer, is the purest love story ever created, because the two creatures linked in the powerful way possible: they share each others’ feelings.
There is no need for words when that type of fictional connection exists. Both creatures feel the same things: the same fear, the same hope and disappointment, the same affection. There’s also no need to have the kinds of awkward conversations we all avoid. Elliot and E.T. fully understood each other even when they weren’t speaking.
I have no idea if there are aliens out there trying to send us messages or if we’ll ever create the quantum decoder necessary to understand what they say. My fondest hope for humanity is that we do all we can to better understand one another, that we embrace our inner poet, to make our words more deeply felt, that we attune our empathy, so that we begin to feel each others inner states a little more fully, and that we have the courage to bridge the remaining gaps whenever necessary, knowing full well that the words we speak are imperfect tools.