So, as anyone who knows me in the real world outside of the show knows, I am a huge fan of cats and dogs and basically any sort of pet. Growing up I was always afraid of animals, so as an adult now whose fear of animals has dissipated, I find that I really enjoy their company. And one thing that has always intrigued me is what sort of language or thought processes do animals have? If we could somehow tap into animal language, would there be a way to communicate with them? Or are animals so different in their cognitive abilities that it is a ridiculous notion, and so my only real way of knowing if my cat likes the tiny vest I put her in are the scratch marks up and down my arms.
Ludwig Wittgenstein said “If a Lion could speak, we could not understand him”. The basic idea here, and again I am woefully low on my understanding and knowledge of Wittgenstein so I hope a listener will be able to set me straight if I get this wrong, is not that if a Lion could communicate as a human we could understand them, for instance if a Lion said “I enjoy laying in the sun” we could very well understand what that sentence means. Rather the argument here is that the Lion and humans could not possibly understand each other, because their modes of communication and way of looking at the world are so wildly different that there is no possible method to translate the two frames of reference. The lion and humans can’t communicate because they relate to the world around them in such vastly different ways that communication at that point no longer makes sense.
This hints at something that philosophers have been discussing for a long time, namely that language is not merely a matter of putting words into an order to make a sentence, but rather language and our biology, consciousness, and the world around us are intertwined in ways that make really getting to the bottom of where language comes from quite difficult to pin down. Further complicating the issue is that of how we actually obtain knowledge about the world in the first place, something that is seemingly required before language can effectively occur between two beings. At the very least, the recognition of a self and some other self seems to be necessary for language between the two. For now, lets just take it that the idea of language is much more complicated than you may have first thought, and a lot of extremely smart people have spent their entire careers trying to make sense of this very human activity.
And yet, just a quick Google search brings up people on the internet who claim that for a quick couple of hundred dollars they can communicate psychically with my cat, or talk directly to the positive or negative spirits that inhabit my home, or people who have said that they talk to aliens using telepathy. One of my favorite TV moments of all time comes from a paranormal show where they are interviewing a guy about Bigfoot, and the music becomes tense as he talks about the animal standing up in front of him in the woods at night, this 8 foot tall behemoth in the evening mist, opens it mouth to bare its teeth, gnashing wide, and says “Hellllo?”. Completely ruins the tension of the moment. My fiancé still calls me sometimes on the phone just to give me a quick “Hello, how are you” in Bigfoot voice.
Does the idea that communication with animals, Bigfoot, demons, angels, or aliens is possible with humans make any sense at all? Would Bigfoot give a growl, or have his own language as others have claimed, or potentially be so far removed from humans that language occurs via some other methods? What about in the case of aliens, who may not even have the same biology as us? Why do we assume that they will talk the same way we will, maybe speaking a different language but ultimately communicating in a way that is intelligible to a thing with our sort of biology? If Wittgenstein didn’t think we had a chance with Lions, who at least live on our plane of existence and planet, what chance do we have with energy beings, or light bringers, or demons, or demonic blobs? In this episode, I hope to delve into the mystery and weirdness surrounding communication with the paranormal, and try to understand just how communication with these sorts of things might work.
EPISODE 4: The Language of the Paranormal
For most of human history the first real instance of communication with something outside of the normal realm of human experience was with those beings called Gods, either for good or bad. In the Bible those who spoke to God are considered prophets, chosen people whose pious nature allowed the almighty to converse with them either directly or through his messengers. And yet in the modern day, it isn’t very hard to find a person who claims to have spoken directly to God. There is a very interesting article on this by Professor Tanya Marie Luhrmann from Stanfords anthropology department on this issue, which I will post on the facebook page. Her research has found that quite a large portion of the evangelical populace has reported feeling, seeing, or hearing something in response to prayer. Gallup reported in 1999 that about 23% of American’s had either heard a voice or had a vision in direct response to prayer.
Now, I am not trying to discount anyone’s personal convictions here on faith, and if you want my take on the presence of a soul or whatever you can head back to episodes 1 and 3 where I touch on the issue. However, let’s just say that I don’t think we can really know either way at this point, so I am firmly planted in the middle. Pascal’s wager is probably a good one here, I don’t know if there is a heaven or hell, but just to be safe I will try to live my life as a good person. But it is interesting that God seems to be a lot more chatty nowadays then back in the beginnings of the Church. It used to be that God spoke only to those who were truly divinely inspired, and those people who spoke to God became revered as Saints. Even more interesting is the disagreement between particular faiths on the matter. As a Roman Catholic growing up, I was taught that God would not speak to you using language, but through the workings of nature around us. If you prayed for a sign from God, perhaps the sun would burst through the rainclouds, or you would hear a gathering of songbirds as you went outside that morning. But not directly with language, and never physically or telepathically in the way of the Saints and prophets. Perhaps this new outspokenness is due to the democratizing influence of the Reformation, where a church without the need for special training or study to attain a personal connection with God allows for more people to attempt to speak to him or her. However, it could also be that this is due to the more intense sorts of faith that these personal churches seem to inspire, oftentimes not necessarily for good. I think anyone who hasn’t seen the documentary Jesus Camp should absolutely watch it, it is chilling if you aren’t of the particular mindset where attending such a camp would be an option for you.
God seems to be a bit more outspoken nowadays than he once was, but how can we know if it is really God or the good talking to us, and not a Devil or demon, or a really bored telepath for that matter? Famously there have been cases where God seems to be talking, only to tell us to do absolutely horrific things. One famous instance of this is that of the Lafferty Brothers Dan and Ron, who in 1984 murdered their brother Allan’s wife Brenda and their daughter Erica. They murdered here because of a revelation from God, who told Ron that required the removal of those who did not believe in the truth of the brothers prophecies. From radical Jihadis to the Lafferty boys, these individuals become so wrapped up in their religious convictions and convinced of the rightness of their instructions that they may go on to murder or acts of terrorism. If God is really talking to people at a rate of 23% of the population, how can we be absolutely sure that it is a good force and not a bad force trying to trick us into making a horrific mistake?
Interestingly, there are again a LOT of websites that suggest they know exactly how to do this sort of thing. One website that I found lists 3 major qualities to the voice of evil, these being 1) It contradicts God’s commandments, which makes sense I guess. I probably would have figured that one out as well, although I am a little doubtful that a powerful negative being would be so easily outmaneuvered as to forget about that list of 10 things every person is supposed to follow. And at the same time, aren’t there cases where God requires us to break the commandments? Certainly not all of them, but what about thou shalt not kill? There seem to be plenty of cases in scripture and the history of the church where that one isn’t so important. Although to be fair, I think the vast majority of the religious persons I know in my life would argue that it is never justifiable to break that particular commandment.
The second case is that it creates anxiety rather than peace. But again, we can just look at the Lafferty boys horrific crime to see a case where they were and continue to be complete at ease with the murders they committed, because after discussing the issue with God and thinking it through they decided that it was truly a divine instruction. And the third clear giveaway for the voice of the devil is that it is accusatory, or negative in its tone. Ok, fine, that one is pretty clear cut I imagine. But out of those three, we have managed to find some wiggle room in the first, and dare I say most important, two. So how are we ever supposed to know?! Let’s just say that if you think God is talking to you, and he is commanding you to do something that maybe is a little out of the realm of the normal playbook, go talk to a priest or pastor, or even to a trusted friend. Just get a second opinion, even if it is during confession where the priest is by divine law forgiving and absolving you.
That still doesn’t help us answer though the issue of how exactly it is that these divine or demonic forces can communicate with us in this very language heavy sense. If God or angels or demons, or ghosts for that matter, are communicating with humans, how does that jive with some of the most common arguments about where these spiritual beings exist? Now, I think that with these arguments for God, although they are interesting, Aquinas again has a pretty solid argument to go against the skeptical view, one that I think is pretty solid unless we make a pretty big assumption to begin with. Again, he said that God is the supernatural, or that outside of the laws and realms of the natural world. It only makes sense that the thing which creates natural law should operate outside of it, so God potentially isn’t limited to the sorts of arguments made here. Fair enough, if a supernatural being exists (and there is that big assumption I mentioned earlier!), then potentially they do not abide by the laws of nature. But those lower beings, that maybe are still preternatural and so above the current understanding of humans, such as angels or demons or ghostly apparitions, SHOULD abide by some set of natural laws laid down by this supernatural force. So we will be sticking to discussing these things for the next discussion!
If ghosts or demons can talk to us, then how is it that they are communicating? One of the most common science-ish explanations I hear often, and one that I think again gets very close to using a scientific like explanation to explain a magical event or property is that of alternate dimensions or planes of existence. The argument goes that potentially these non physical entities simply exist on another plane of existence, or in another dimension, one that wraps around our world in a way that allows for communication or transfer through zones where the space between worlds is significantly thinner than in other places. The scientific explanation goes that this would be something like a wormhole, a space in the fabric of our universe where two disconnected points in 3-D space are interconnected by their placement next to each other in a higher dimension. This sort of freaks people out, so lets try to dissect it quite simply. One of my favorite explanations for the idea of higher or lower dimensionality is that of the Flatland, or 2-dimensional world versus our 3-dimensional world. Imagine if you were able to see the 2-D world from your 3-D vantage point. You have access to height, something that the 2-D inhabitants don’t have. So while they are stuck moving about only in the length and width dimensions, we can also move out of their plane of existence to a space above the flatland that they cannot comprehend. Furthermore, because they have evolved in the 2-D space, their minds are set in 2-D relations, and so it is not simply that they cannot understand the 3-D world because they have yet to be exposed to it, but because it is not in their biology to do so.
What kind of trouble could we get up to in a 2-D world as a 3-D person. Well, imagine that there is a 2-D criminal, sitting within a 2-D jail. The jail is composed of 4 lines, connected together to form a square, with the dastardly 2-D criminal sitting within the cell plotting his escape. Now he may try to break apart the lines, or have a visitor bring him a 2-D cake with a vat of line dissolving acid, or trick the 2-D caretaker into smuggling him out with the 2-D laundry. But one thing he won’t think to try, can’t even comprehend to try, is something that we could do for him. Imagine the 2-D world as rug on the floor, and we are a 3-D person off to the side for now. If we were to step onto the 2-D world, how would we appear? Well, first off only a 2-D slice of our bodies would be visible, in the case of the rug potentially it would be the outlines of our shoes. Even more terrifying for the 2-D inhabitants of flatland, our outline would appear to disappear and reappear randomly as we moved about the flatland surface, with each step up causing us to disappear, and each step down causing us to reappear. Even more perplexing for the inhabitants of flatland, we could remove objects or persons from the flatland by lifting them up, essentially removing them from their own dimension and into our own, before placing them back down. This is how we could very easily remove the flat criminal from his jail, by not destroying the lines or moving them about, but by actually removing him from his dimension for a moment and reinserting him back in outside of the jail.
The same sort of argument is made with beings like angels or demons or ghosts. Potentially they exist outside of our dimension, maybe in the dimension that we would consider to be time, or possibly in some other parallel universe that can be accessed through regions where the two meet. Now it is important to alter our idea of a dimension and a parallel universe, something that is mucked up quite a bit in the paranormal literature and online community. A dimension is by definition something that exists like the 3-D or 2-D world, potentially having some affect on the physical manifestations in these other worlds, but still linked to them in some way by the ability to decompose a higher dimensional object into a lower dimension. That’s a mouthful, but a simple example works here. A cube is a 3-D object, but can be decomposed into a 2-D representation by placing the 2-D pieces that make up a cubes sides onto a 2-D plane. So in other words, you can unfold a cube into a 3-dimensional cross, by imposing the rule that defines 2-D space, namely that all geometric figures must exist on the same 2-D plane. The same can work for a 4-D object, which would be composed of some arrangement of cubes in the 3-D world, folded down from the 4-dimensional space. Parallel universes on the other hand are more fluid, much less clear in how they envelope or exist in regards to our universe for example. I don’t think they is any reason to believe that parallel universes actually exist, although they might. However, I would imagine that a parallel universe is just that, parallel, and so will not or should not intersect with our own universe in any significant way.
Regardless of whether or not this makes sense scientifically, does the idea of communication between these dimensions hold any water? First off, it supposes that our minds have some ability to traverse through these dimensions. Maybe our minds are the sort of thing that exists as a stamp on our dimension, having some affect on the physical bodies we now inhabit, but ultimately is a thing that is existing simultaneously in some higher or lower spiritual dimension of existence. In the example of flatland this would be like us existing in the flatland as only the outline of our shoes, when in reality the vast majority of our physical body exists in the 3rd dimension as slices of 2-D space. In the same way perhaps our consciousness exists in some higher dimension, but appears in this dimension bound to physical body that is a mere imprint of ourselves in this world. So communication with our consciousness between beings in these other dimensions is, maybe, sort of, possible if we take all of that heaping pile of assumptions as true.
But the issue still remains, even if we could send information through the dimensions to reach other beings, would we be able to communicate to them? I think the discussion of flatland hints at one of the biggest problems for this sort of communication. Language at its most basic seems to be the communication between two organisms. If we use this very loose definition, then any organism that sends out signals to others around it are technically communicating. For instance, bacteria secreting a signaling molecule when hit with sunlight are communicating with other bacteria, causing their biology to turn on certain genes and begin responding to the input of sunlight. But that isn’t usually what we mean by language, but rather just bulk communication. It is not hard to suggest that a skilled horse trainer is communicating with the animals that she trains, but it IS not necessarily the case that a horse psychic is using language to communicate with his clients animal.
Human language has been separated from animal language by a number of different properties historically. These include semanticity, duality of patterning, displacement, discreteness, arbitrariness, and productivity. Semanticity means that certain signals or words have different meanings. Duality of patterning and discreteness mean that words are made out of smaller units with no intrinsic meaning (e.g. each letter doesn’t mean something, but put together they do!) and language is also composed of small pieces that are repeatable but can be put into other combinations to make an almost infinite possibility of meanings (also known as productivity!) Displacement suggests that language is capable of explaning ideas or things outside of the immediate vicinity. And finally, language is arbitrary, in other words there is nothing intrinsically sensible about the words we use to mean different things.
However, there are historical examples in nature that seem to show animals having some of these abilities. For instance, bee dances are used to tell other bee’s where a source of nectar is, something that seems to show displacement since the hive is not in the vicinity. However, bee’s don’t show any of the other features in their dancing. Further we see some communication in animals closer to home, like our dogs and cats, who seem to respond to certain verbal or nonverbal cues. However, while these animals can seem to understand some single and simple words or phrases, they cannot communicate language back to us, or use language to discuss things that are not immediately available to them.
Alright, so what exactly is language? This is an extremely ripe philosophical topic, one with a huge history and some extremely great work out there on. I cannot even begin to summarize the work that has been done on this topic, but I think it makes sense if we try to eek out some understanding here by trying to think about what it is we actually do when we communicate. First off, we need something to communicate about, although some philosophers believe that language may be an innate part of human experience. For instance, if we were a mind confined to a box, with no physical inputs of any kind, would we begin to dream? Would we have thoughts or feelings? Or would we simply exist? Some believe that we would eventually come up with some sort of internal language, one that would allow us to begin making thoughts or patterns in the world. However, I am not so sure of that.
Ok, so lets say we need things to communicate about. These would come in as physical inputs, through our sensory apparatus. These sensations would then be translated into the brain, and if we were a mere animal we would almost immediately act on them. However, since we are humans with consciousness, these sensations can be thought about, we can form opinions on them, we can begin to find ways to communicate our sensations in more abstract terms than that of other organisms. And we could communicate with our minds about our surroundings and our thoughts that we have formed because of these surroundings. Language in this way may be intrinsically linked to the biology of the organism that is communicating through the language. In other words, if we were a species that did not have the same sorts of sensory apparatus, or different biological makeup of the brain, or existed in another dimension, our language systems and the way that they relate to biology would be fundamentally changed. This would prohibit communication between us and other dimensional beings, simply because our biology is so different that the way in which we communicate through language would be unintelligible to another species. Besides the physical limitations of communicating with a being that does not have or never had a physical form, does it seem likely that they would have adapted to communicate in the same way as a thing with a physical being?
Well, science seems to think that one way would be through mathematics. They argue that even if aliens do not possess the same sorts of biology as us, surely they would use the same sorts of mathematics? That is the hope for insta nce of CETI, who use binary code and other pictograhical methods shot into the stars to try and communicate with aliens. But even this may be fraught with problems if aliens don’t exist in our dimension as some have claimed. Think back to flatland for a second, would they necessarily have the same sort of mathematics as us? In flatland you would only really be able to understand 2-D things, and so the basics of our mathematics may no longer make any sense. Although numbers to count objects may be there, all of geometry and the rules of nature appear to act intensely different in the flatland, and so communicating even through what we consider to be fundamental facts of our universe may no longer make sense. Imagine how differently a person in the flatland would recognize the falling of an apple in the 3-dimensional plane. They would only see the apple as it hit the ground, making contact with the 2-D world of the flatland. However, we can observe and describe the fall in a 2-D way, but using an entirely different set of standards. Communication therefore is not possible without an extremely difficult translation process, and this is just for something as simply understood as gravity!
So what is going on with some of these cases where people claim to have talked to aliens or Bigfoot? Albert Ostman for instance claimed to have been kidnapped and talked to his Bigfoot captors, using words like “Sooka sooka” or “ook”, and other sounds that you usually only hear in Nintendo games where they don’t want to pay for voice actors. Others claim that Bigfoot communicates via tree knocking and howling. While tree knocking seems like a potentially interesting, although easy to fake, method of communication between Bigfoot in the wild, the idea of them communicating via language in any important way is insane. No other animals use language in this way really, and that’s primarily because their biology does not allow for communication in the same way that human biology does. I think the best and most hilarious use of this was on the Simpsons episode where Homer becomes a food critic. He is writing a review, and Santa’s Little Helper is in the kitchen with him, and he says “The food was…..” and he looks at the dog and he barks “Rough!”. Homer says “you’ve been pitching that all night!” so the dog looks at him and says “Chewy?”
Other famous cases include talking to aliens or other interdimensional beings. One very interesting theory I have seen out there is that what telepathic communication truly consists of is the transmission of impressions or other sorts of stimulation, non verbal but which can be put together in the telepaths mind to come to understand a certain meaning or message. This is often used by supposed telepaths or empaths to describe how they come to know about a haunting or the ideas of some multidimensional being. However, this still does not sidestep the issue of how can communication occur between beings that are different biologically so that we do not have the same sensory apparatus systems, for instance what sort of suggestion would be sent to us from a being that can see time at all simultaneous points, or can you imagine a way where you could communicate the sense of touch or smell to a being without the ability to feel or smell things?
Will I ever know if my cat likes her tiny vest, despite how hilarious she looks frumpled into it? Probably not, and it may just be something that I will have to live with. It doesn’t make sense for people to psychically communicate with animals, because it assumes that animals will even have the same mind states and communication methods that humans do. Even worse for things not of this world or dimension, and so I think an encounter with something truly paranormal will likely be much closer to the absolute fear of the 2-D criminal in being plucked from his jail cell, then a nice chat with an inter-dimensional being through some translation device.