The faith dogma of the scientists who support the SETI program – almost all of them physicists and engineers – is that we can come to understand each other because science and mathematics are universal: aliens will write 2 + 2 in many different ways, but it will always be 4 , and the law of universal gravitation will always go with the inverse of the square of the distance, whatever the language used.
Of course, this optimism bordering on euphoria is not shared by those who do not come from the hard sciences. As early as the mid-1960s, University of Chicago historian William MacNeill unnerved physicists and astronomers by openly doubting the ability of human beings to decipher any signal of extraterrestrial origin : “our intelligence is very much imprisoned by words and I do not see that we can imagine the language of another intelligent community that does not have many points of contact with ours”. And when they answered him by waving the flag of the universality of the laws of science and mathematics, MacNeill replied that he doubted that “his mathematics was commensurate with our mathematics.”
The underlying problem that those who search for extraterrestrial civilizations rarely face is that, even if they want to prevent it, they cannot stop anthropomorphizing them. The clearest proof of this fact is that they transfer our culture to the rest of the universe protected by the universality of science . For example, the Nobel laureate in Physics Steven Weinberg states that by translating the scientific works of aliens into our words we will see “that we and they will have discovered the same laws”. This is a belief that has been well established for a long time, more specifically since the 1960s, when the physicist Edward Purcell asked himself: “What can we talk about with our distant friends? We have much in common. We have mathematics, physics, astronomy…”. In other words, we will be able to harmonize their science with ours.
But let’s not get carried away by enthusiasm because this belief is based on a priori: as scientists from all nations on Earth accept the validity of the same set of laws, they extrapolate -without demonstrating- that behavior to the rest of the inhabited planets of the planet. universe. The underlying problem of those who are convinced that we will be able to interact with aliens is much deeper than the way aliens write E = mc². How will we determine if they have a scientific language and practice? If it is already difficult to distinguish what is science and what is not in daily practice here on Earth -a problem that in philosophy is known as the demarcation criterion-, how can we do it with a culture with which we do not we have nothing to do? But let’s be optimistic and imagine that we can transform alien science into something we can recognize as our science. What is left for us? Of course not a universal science but a form of knowledge made in the image of terrestrial science . Psychologist Douglas Vakoch, president of the organization Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence, warns that when two scientists differ in their biology, culture and history, their models of reality can be considerably different: “The bottom line is that no intelligent species can understand reality. without making certain methodological choices.
Science does not constitute that universal language, that point of union between civilizations that many scientists believe it to be. The path of science is not unique; we have traveled one developed within the Judeo-Christian culture , but it does not have to coincide with that of other civilizations. Our scientific revolution, says David N. Livingstone, professor of geography and intellectual history at Queens University Belfast (Ireland), was not a uniform phenomenon but a very complex historical process. It was a local knowledge that became universal thanks to the fact that it was standardized, protocolized, which imposed certain practices over others. For example, in Mozambique, the Mbamba people have been able to identify among the hundreds of behaviors of the so-called honey-bird, those that the little animal uses to take them to where the beehives are. But for this they have not carried out any type of scientific study, nor have they been based on the hypothetical-deductive model used by Western science. They have reached this ethological result by another way. If this happens on our planet, how strange will it not be on another?
This almost religious devotion of physicists and engineers to a universal science often smells like burnt horn to philosophers of science like Nicholas Rescher. When asked about this, he dismisses it by adding that it is parochial thinking to believe that there is only one natural world and only one science to explain it. Rescher considers the universe to be singular but subject to many and very diverse interpretations, and identifies three conditions that must be met in order to claim that alien science is functionally equivalent to our own. First, that their mathematics be like ours; second, they must be interested in the same kinds of problems as we are; and third, they must have the same cognitive perspective on nature as we do. What Rescher is saying is that science is not something infused, that comes like manna, rained from the sky and without connection with our way of being, but that it is anchored in the way we perceive the world, the cultural heritage -which it is the one that ultimately determines what is interesting- and its ecological niche -which decides what is useful-.
For Rescher, the natural sciences as we know them are a human creation correlated with our intelligence. What we know of physical reality stems from our biology, our cognitive development, our social and cultural heritage, and our unique and species-exclusive experiences. We have no reason to assume that aliens possess the same biological attributes, cultural traditions, or social outlook. Therefore, human science is incommensurable with alien science. If they develop it, it will be their kind of science, not ours: it will be a totally different way of knowing. Rescher does not deny that the real world of scientists does not exist and that science produces unique knowledge about the structure of reality; what he does not accept is that we can equate human science with a science created by radically different beings.
The coup de grâce to this naivety of the universality of science is given by the historian of science George Basalla: “What scientists are not aware of is that science is a young company, with only five centuries of life compared to the five million years of hominids. Our ancestors survived and spread across the planet without the help of science… it is absolutely not a necessity for the survival of our species.” And if science hasn’t powered most of human history, why do we think it’s a form of knowledge that we can find anywhere in the universe?