Diary of an Iron-Clad Chomskyan

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Chomsky, Pancomputationalism, UG and Space

"Chomsky has often said that if a Martian visited Earth, it would think we all speak dialects of the same language, because all terrestrial languages share a common underlying structure. But if aliens have language, would it be similar to ours? That's the big question."

Douglas Vakoch, President, METI (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence, NASA).

Chomsky has long argued the case that the same basic grammar underscores all languages, meaning that alien visitors would find it hard to spot differences between our various tongues.

At a workshop entitled ‘Language in the Cosmos’ at the International Space Development Conference in Los Angeles last week, Chomsky argued that if there is a universal grammar on Earth, the same theory can be applied to languages from outer space – maybe one day we could even find ourselves shooting the breeze with an ET-like creature stranded on our pale blue dot.

Presenting separately, Jeffrey Punske from Southern Illinois University and Ian Roberts from the University of Cambridge, highlighted ‘Merge,’ a Chomsky-borne theory of combining individual words and repetitions to form new sentences, as the key to understanding any new alien language. "To put it whimsically, the Martian language might not be so different from human language after all," said Chomsky.

The daylong workshop, 'Language in the Cosmos,' was organized by METI and took place in Los Angeles, California, on May 26, 2018, as part of the National Space Society's International Space Development Conference (ISDC) 2018. For decades Noam Chomsky, the father of modern linguistics, has talked about the 'universal grammar' that connects the varied languages we find on Earth.

"Chomsky has often said that if a Martian visited Earth, it would think we all speak dialects of the same language, because all terrestrial languages share a common underlying structure," said Douglas Vakoch, president of METI. "But if aliens have language, would it be similar to ours? That's the big question."

At METI's workshop, two of the presentations - including a paper co-authored by Noam Chomsky - were optimistic that extraterrestrial languages might have a 'universal grammar' with virtually the same architecture that we find on Earth.

"That's a radical shift for SETI scientists, who have scoffed at the idea of creating interstellar messages inspired by natural languages," said Vakoch. Past radio messages targeting possible extraterrestrials were typically encoded with principles of math and science, which were hoped to be universal.

Other papers from the workshop showed that even carefully built messages, such as the Voyager Golden Record, can easily be misinterpreted. Wells-Jensen showed through a series of puzzles presented to college students, how wildly the assumptions of humans and aliens might diverge from one another.

The workshop closed with a presentation by David Peterson, inventor of the Dothraki language found in HBO's 'Game of Thrones' television series.

This was the third time that METI held a workshop at the ISDC. In 2016 METI gathered experts to explore the nature of intelligence in the universe, and in 2017 the workshop focused on two interrelated questions: "Can extraterrestrials already detect us?" and "How can we weigh the risks and benefits of sending intentional signals?"

ISDC 2018 showcased science, business development, cutting edge space development concepts, education, and even the science fiction that inspired the dreams that are becoming reality. Speakers included space development giants like Freeman Dyson, Jeff Bezos, JPL's John Casani, SpaceX's Tom Mueller, SETI's Frank Drake, ESA's Jean-Pierre Lebreton, science fiction writer David Brin, and many more.

Samuel S. Mandal