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Alien Scientist: The Alien You And Me

Author: Stephen Marshall, Issue: February 2006, Topic: Alien Scientist

Imagine waking to materialise in an alien landscape that is at first little more than an incoherent mass of colours, incomprehensible sounds and unaccustomed sensations. Your mind whirls trying to grasp your strange new environment, where you cannot be sure any more which way is up or down, where unidentified objects seem to move about in apparently capricious, unprecedented ways, and where cause and effect are as yet alien concepts. To have arrived in this world, you can imagine having left the safety and creature comforts of some mother ship, and are now having to survive in a new kind of outer space. Or put more simply, you have just left your actual non-metaphorical mother, and for the first time exposed to the alien air and light of your new habitat.

From before birth, a new human is the centre of its own world. Inside the womb, the knowable world is not only an all-surrounding cosmos but is physically an extension of the self. One can imagine that there is no distinction, in a baby’s initial experience, between oneself and the rest of the world: between what is ‘me’ and what is ‘not-me’. It takes some time and experience to work out that the outside world exists separately from oneself, being full of objects which have independent existence, behaving according to some external but nevertheless discernible laws.

From the realisation that ‘I am not all there is in the world’, there is still quite a distinct conceptual step to recognising that ‘I am not the centre of the world’. This is the start of a yet longer conceptual journey that leads us to understand that not only am I not the central focus of the universe, but neither is my family, home town, species or planet.

At some point, having noticed that the this exterior world is filled with other objects, an infant starts to classify those other objects into things that are animate agents, and things that are inert. Although not strictly a scientific observation, one could say that some objects obey the laws of physics more than others: a plate or toy pushed off the table will fall to the floor and stay fallen, whereas a cat pushed off the table will tend to leap away, get back on the table, or willfully resist being pushed off in the first place.

Of the animate objects we recognise in the world, we can further distinguish people – such as one’s family – from pets, wild animals and creepy-crawlies. To recognise other humans as persons implies certain assumptions, such as that other persons have minds that think, just like oneself. So, as one goes through life, one learns that it is useful to assume that other people are not zombies or humanoid automata, but are sentient beings with the equivalent of another ‘I’ installed inside each one.

To ‘me’, ‘you’ is the fundamental badge and first degree of alien-beingness; and the person denoted by ‘you’ is the first alien. You are an alien being in the sense that you are not me, but (unlike an ‘it’) you are another being, like me. I look at you, looking at me with your alien eyes, and think about you, and your inscrutable alien mind inside, thinking about me.

In fact, not everyone recognises other people in quite such a familiar, reciprocal way. In How The Mind Works, Steven Pinker points out that autistic people seem not to relate to other people in the ‘normal’ way, but may regard them as just another part of the landscape. For example, they may touch, smell and walk over other people as if they were part of the furniture. This behaviour might conventionally be regarded as ‘lacking in social skills’, but it goes deeper than having a lack of social nurturing, to the way the mind itself is ‘wired’. If you are ‘mind-blind’ – not recognising other people as sentient being like yourself – it would be perfectly rational to treat other people in a way not much different from other objects. In such a case, one might find oneself looking around the room one is in (as the psychologist Alison Gopnik has suggested), perceiving bags of skin draped over chairs, and stuffed into pieces of cloth, making unpredictable and incomprehensible noises and motions.

This kind of view could give us an insight into how an alien would view our ‘normal’ world, or how alien our view of an extraterrestrial world would seem to the natives. Either way, one might say that recognising and getting inside the minds of others is the first step to understanding the alien.

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