If an alien could speak, could we understand it?

    Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstractpeer-review


    Wittgenstein famously remarked ‘if a lion could speak, we could not understand him’ because a lion’s form of life is so alien to ours that we cannot seriously claim to know what the lion means by what the lion says. Wittgenstein believed that the meaning of language is inseparably connected with the lives of the language speaking community, and so whatever our words mean, they mean things which pertain to our experiences, understandings, values, and perceptions. To see the meaning of a sentence is to see the world from the perspective of the speaker, and to the extent that we do not see the world as lions do is the extent to which we and they cannot mean the same things by the same words. Wittgenstein’s general point is broadly agreeable – of course a lion cannot speak about love and loss as we do because what we mean by love and loss is distinctly human in its social and cultural context – but the thought that nothing could be said between us and a lion, not even about food or the environment, is a much tougher bullet to bite. This paper does not endorse a specific view or provide a definitive answer to whether we could speak with lions, it instead uses Wittgenstein’s remark to explore the communicational challenges which could arise if humans and intelligent extra-terrestrial life were to interact. There is a tempting intuition that aliens will be intelligent enough to work out our languages if they are intelligent enough to travel to earth, and some imagine this taking the form of AI which can decipher human languages by downloading and analysing vast amounts of digital media, whilst others imagine aliens having a telepathic ability to read and input thoughts into our minds. We will see that Wittgenstein gives us good reason to reject these kinds of intuitions, and we should therefore avoid becoming complacent in the belief that aliens will bring the solutions with them. The paper concludes that the erroneous nature of these intuitions is indicative of us not simply looking at the wrong place, but in the wrong way, when it comes to predicting and resolving challenges which may arise with human and alien communication.

    Original languageEnglish
    Publication statusUnpublished - Dec 2022
    EventGlobal Perspectives on Exophilosophy - Leeds Trinity University , Leeds
    Duration: 10 Dec 202210 Dec 2022

    Academic conference

    Academic conferenceGlobal Perspectives on Exophilosophy


    • Wittgenstein
    • philosophy of language
    • aliens
    • communication
    • exophilosophy


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