Episode 89 – “To Serve Man”

If a race of creatures from space showed up on our doorstep, what should we do?  What do we normally do when we are confronted by individuals or groups who we don’t know?  What should they do? How should they treat us? There are many questions we can ask about such interactions, questions about how we could understand and characterize such creatures, and related questions about how we ought to act (and how they ought to act) in our interactions with them.

“To Serve Man” raises at least two questions: First, if we were visited by intelligent creatures from another planet, how would we, or even could we, figure out what they believe and desire? Second, if we were powerless against such creatures, due to their vastly superior intelligence and strength, would they still be morally obligated to treat us justly? The first is a question in the philosophy of mind. The second is a question in moral theory.

What kinds of things have beliefs, desires, plans, and goals? Clearly, most humans, from a certain stage of cognitive development on, have beliefs and desires. Rocks, pumpkins, and sandy beaches do not.  So some living things have them, and some do not. Do living things other than humans have them? What about dogs, cats, or dolphins?  Are there non-living things that possess beliefs and desires. What should we say about computers that have artificial intelligence? Do they possess beliefs when they are powered up? And what would we say about aliens, if we visited them, or if they were to visit us? How would we know if they have beliefs and desires, and if they do, how would we figure out what are those beliefs and desires?

The aliens in “To Serve Man” have visited us, arriving by flying saucer. That they are intelligent beings, equipped with beliefs and desires and other mental states, seems pretty clear, since their technology is far superior to ours, and they’ve use that technology to travel to earth. They’ve also adapted their technology for the purpose of communicating with us in our natural languages. The fact that these beings, the Kanamits, can engaging in open-ended conversations with us provides strong support for the attribution of mental states to them. As Daniel Dennett argues, when the only viable strategy for predicting the behavior of a system is to attribute beliefs and desires to that system, to take what he calls “the intentional stance,” toward them, we should take such systems to possess beliefs and desires. The Kanimits pass the Turing Test.

What are the Kanimits thinking? They claim that they are here to lend a hand, to alleviate world hunger and improve our quality of life. They also set up an exchange program, so that earthlings can visit their planet, and more Kanimits can visit earth.  Other then interpreting their avowals and their behavior, the only thing to go on is a copy of a book in their language, which American intelligence agents attempt to translate.

Early in the twentieth century, philosophers became increasingly interested in the nature of language. The spur to study language came from advancements in logic. They came up with a theory of human reasoning that made it possible to study the structure of language. Philosophers hypothesized that all human languages share the same logical structure. The differences in languages are a matter of “surface grammar” rather than of “depth grammar.” That lead to the investigation into the nature of meaning. How do words, sentences, and languages acquire and transmit meaning? One way to investigate this is to think about translation. What makes a word or sentence in one language such that it expresses the same meaning as a word or sentence in another language?

In second half of the twentieth century,  philosopher and logician Willard Van Orman Quine sharpened the question by introducing what he called the problem of radical translation. How would we translate a language which is completely isolated from our own, where there has been no cultural contact, no shared words and no prior attempt to understand what any words or utterances? How should we begin to formulate hypotheses about what count as words, phrases, and sentences in another language and then how can we decide between competing interpretations of those words, phrases, and sentences?  Radical translation is the task faced by the government intelligence officers when they attempt translate the Kanamit book. They first translate the title as “To Serve Man.” What the translators fail to appreciate at the time is that there are competing hypotheses about that title means.

That brings us to our second question. Given their vastly superior strength and intellect, what can we demand of the Kanimits in terms of how they treat us? David Hume introduced a thought experiment that hardly differs from that of “To Serve Man.” He wrote:

Were there a species of creatures, intermingled with men, which, though rational, were possessed of such inferior strength, both of body and mind, that they were incapable of all resistance, and could never, upon the highest provocation, make us feel the effects of their resentment;

Just replace “men” with “Kanamits” and consider the creates intermingled with the Kanamits to be human beings, or “men.” Hume draws the following conclusion, about what “we,” the Kanamits would be required to do:

… the necessary consequence, I think, is, that we should be bound, by the laws of humanity, to give gentle usage to these creatures, but should not, properly speaking, lie under any restraint of justice with regard to them, nor could they possess any right or property, exclusive of such arbitrary lords. Our intercourse with them could not be called society, which supposes a degree of equality; but absolute command on the one side, and servile obedience on the other. Whatever we covet, they must instantly resign: Our permission is the only tenure, by which they hold their possessions: Our compassion and kindness the only check, by which they curb our lawless will: And as no inconvenience ever results from the exercise of a power, so firmly established in nature, the restraints of justice and property, being totally useless, would never have place in so unequal a confederacy. (3.18)

Hume distinguishes between kindness and compassion, which we would hope that the Kanimits would exhibit, from the demands of justice, which, Hume says, would be “totally useless” to the Kanamits, since we would be powerless to object to any way in which they treat us. As Serling concludes, the evolution of man could take us “from dust to dessert, the metamorphosis from being the ruler of a planet to an ingredient in someone’s soup.”

Returning to our actual relationships to other creatures, the creatures who are not members of our society, such as cows, pigs, chickens, and fish, are subject to our “lawless will,” since it there is nothing that can bind us to such creatures by a law or convention of justice. We might very well bind each other in laws governing how we treat such creatures, but that is a different matter altogether. That prospect wouldn’t come as much comfort to Mr. Chambers, as he is headed to the slaughterhouse.

Further Reading:

Dennett, Daniel C., “Intentional Systems” The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 68, No. 4 (Feb. 25, 1971), 87-106.

Hume, David, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1777) Section 3, “Of Justice”

Minksy, Marvin, “Communication with Alien Intelligence” in Extraterrestrials: Science and Alien Intelligence (Edward Regis, Ed.) Cambridge University Press 1985. Also published in Byte Magazine, April 1985.

Quine, Willard Van Orman, Word and Object, MIT Press, 1964.

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