philosophy with aliens

Sometimes I wonder how different our philosophical arguments would be if our language were different. How many arguments might never have happened, or how many puzzles might not even be puzzles, if only for the use of different words?

I imagine an alien language where every perceptual word has a suffix to identify who the perceiver is. In some cases, it would be completely redundant. For example, I might say “I heard an explosion-me”: the suffix -me would indicate that I am the experiencer of the explosion. Or “What is your feeling-you about the situation”: the suffix -you would indicate that you are the one experiencing the feeling.

But this would force the speakers to acknowledge that every perceptual word has an experiencer, even if it’s a hypothetical one. You couldn’t just talk about “The scream in the city”, you would have to either say “The scream-me in the city” (meaning the scream that I heard) or “The scream-they in the city” (meaning the scream that people in the city heard), and it would be made completely clear in the words of the sentence that these are two different things.  There is a difference between talking about the scream that you heard yourself, and the scream that you think other people heard because they told you about it.

Think of the impact this kind of grammatical feature would have on social interaction. On gossip. On philosophy. It would literally be impossible to ask the question, “If a tree fell in the forest, would it make a sound?”  Because you would have to say either a sound-me, a sound-you, or a sound-they, or…. what? A hypothetical sound that is not heard by anyone?  Perhaps a “sound-no”?  Even then, the question becomes trivial: of course the tree makes a sound-no, and of course that is different from a sound-me or a sound-you.  The fact that you are calling it a “sound-no” makes the entire question a moot point. It’s not a “puzzle” any more: the language itself makes it clear that it’s a non-issue.

Consider another alien language, where words are not allowed to soak up different, alternative meanings the way that they are in our cultures.

In our culture, the word “believe” means two things. It means “to be of the opinion that something is true”: I believe that the moon is smaller than the planet Venus.  It also means “to have a deep and imperturbable confidence in something”: I believe in myself.

Can you imagine a race of aliens with a language that never allowed that kind of ambiguity, coming to our planet and looking at our philosophical arguments and religious wars. How absurd we humans must seem!  A religious person thinking how “sad” it must be for atheists to “not believe” in anything, and an atheist thinking how ridiculous is it for a theist to believe in something without any evidence… and all of those argument made nonsense by the fact that they are simply using what should be different words in the first place.

Yes, I often wonder what it would be like to have a conversation about philosophy with aliens, and what questions that we have been struggling with for centuries might suddenly simply disappear.

Aliens Talking