If I would put you in a closed room with a computer containing terabytes of alien written symbols. Those aliens are from another dimension where the physical laws are different and our understanding of the world and needs do not apply. Given as much time and computing power as you want, how far would you be able to go in your understanding of their language and way of living?

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    Closer to home: What do computers understand of our world?... What does a robot with light sensor eyes understand? Personally, I think our own knowledge of a physical world would help in your scenario. But all the specific identifications could be as uncertain as precious stones in the Bible... Jan 17, 2018 at 11:08
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    Yes, that's another way to frame the question. In NLP you can generate vector representations from symbols alone (unsupervised learning). My question could be: how far can we go with this approach ? Unsupervised learning is only making use of co-occurrences of symbols in a large volume of text. How far can simple co-occurrences take us? Jan 17, 2018 at 13:49
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    Since there is no way to actually come up with an answer on a factual basis and we couldn't decide which answer is right, are you looking for the best-looking opinion?
    – user6726
    Jan 17, 2018 at 15:38
  • Interesting viewpoints / references to relevant articles or books. I'm more looking for a discussion than an answer. The answer bringing the more arguments would win. Jan 17, 2018 at 15:46
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    @user3091275 Unfortunately that's not what the Stack Exchange model is good for.
    – curiousdannii
    Jan 17, 2018 at 21:17

3 Answers 3


As for understanding their language, it depends on what you would consider "understanding". Given sufficient training data, we may be able to devise rules of its grammar, without knowing what any of it refers to. This is pretty much how most language models work for us at the moment. You might talk to your phone and tell it, "Make an appointment with Dr. Smith for tomorrow at noon". Your phone would follow through, and may mark "Dr. Smith" as the person with whom you have the appointment, but it would have no conception of what a person is. Given your scenario, we will never get to the stage of comprehending their language to understand their lived experience in any capacity. The idea is further explored in Searle's paper Minds, Brains, and Programs.

What's missing in your scenario is covered in the topic of the symbol grounding problem.

However, not all is lost. Given a suitable corpus of their language, we may be able to figure out their formal mathematics. By that, I mean, the kind of mathematics that Russel & Whitehead got around to formulating in Principia Mathematica. As a result of that, we may understand some of their mathematical proofs, and that may include theorems not yet proven by humans so far.

  • Thanks a lot for your answer! I really like the thought of being able to relate to a completely alien language through mathematics ! I am still processing the content of the links you provided. Jan 20, 2018 at 12:03

What we mean by understanding a thing is fitting it into our understanding of the physical laws of our universe, so the answer is: no way. If you could go any way in your understanding of this hypothetical alien language, it would show that there was after all something in common between your and the aliens' understanding of the physical world. Thus, you cannot understand.

There is a fictional working out of this idea which, though it is not scientific, is nonetheless worked out by a brilliant scientific mind. See Fred Hoyle's The Black Cloud. On his deathbed, the protagonist scientist who has tried and failed to conform his thinking to that of the alien's idea of what the world is like, conjectures that he might have succeeded if he had been a newborn, who had not yet learned anything about humans' ideas of what the world is like. (I would be less optimistic.)


It's absolutely impossible to find out if the something is a language or not, if we don't have even a tiniest clue. If you're, say, John, and in some galaxy you find some stars situated so that they look like to make the the shape of the word "John", you can never know if it was intended or it was just a coincidence. We cannot know if the patterns on the Andean textiles are symbols of their ancient script, we cannot know, if the patterns of the sunspots are messages from an alien race... Without a clue or feedback nothing can be identified as a language, for languages can be immensely different.

  • No, people have explored this topic in some detail already. See this for example: math.dartmouth.edu/~carlp/PDF/extraterrestrial.pdf
    – prash
    Jan 20, 2018 at 9:44
  • @prash - OK, but that's the case of extremely rare fortune, there's the other side described by Stanisław Lem in his sci-fi novel His Master's Voice. Moreover, an alien language can be in the media absolutely imperceptible by humans or their machines.
    – Yellow Sky
    Jan 21, 2018 at 5:25

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