A Game of Stars: Active SETI, radical translation and the Hobbesian trap
Jebari, Karim Niklas Olsson-Yaouzis
Futures Volume: 101, pp. 46–54. doi.org/10.1016/j.futures.2018.06.007
Among scholars dedicated to Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence (SETI), the risks and possibilities of actively contacting extra-terrestrials (Active SETI) have been widely discussed. Yet, some fundamental philosophical problems concerning the possibility of translating an alien language have hardly been raised in this context. The proponents of Active SETI assume that, abswould an extra-terrestrial intelligent (ETI) entity choose to contact us, they would use radio signals to convey a coded message that would be possible for us to decode and translate. Furthermore, they argue, were we to transmit a message, then this message would also be possible to translate. However, any interstellar message would, for obvious reasons, be conveyed without context and without the possibility of meaningful interaction over timescales relevant to us.
According to the most influential research program in the philosophy of language, the meaning of an utterance is derived from its use in a context and is not intrinsic to the utterance by which it was conveyed. Therefore, while radical translation, i.e. learning an unknown language, is possible, it requires contextualized interaction. Only then can semantic behavior be observed, and utterances linked to meaning. Thus, merely an exchange of signals cannot produce meaningful communication. If this claim is true, there are important game-theoretical consequences of interstellar contact. An informal game theoretical analysis of this scenario, A Game of Stars, is described. This analysis suggests that the lack of communication may lead players into a Hobbesian Trap, where fear impels the players to a risk dominant strategy, potentially resulting in mutual destruction. Our conclusion is that interstellar contact is an underestimated existential risk. If true and given the relative ease of contacting an ETI given the knowledge of its location, information about the existence and location of an ETI would be very dangerous to spread. Thus, knowledge of an ETI and its location would constitute an information hazard.