aleph would not even be able to conceive of writing a Web site for itself, so I am undertaking that job for it. My name is Kelvin. I am an exobiologist at the Free Technological University of Mars. I was tapped to communicate with aleph by virtue of my previous experience with Solaris, another very difficult alien to communicate with.
So far as we can tell, aleph is an intelligent being with no sense of subjectivity. It is incapable of understanding what it means to say "I". It could not say, "I went to the store," because it has no comprehension of "I-ness." Instead, it would say, "The store was went to." If asked, "By whom?", it would simply fall silent, as if you had uttered a nonsense sentence.
Since it has no name for itself, we labeled it "aleph", as connotation-free a name as we could think of. aleph has no gender, since it reproduces by fission, much like an amoeba. In fact, it looks more like an amoeba than anything else in our experience. Its surface is amorphous, and it moves waving portions of its surface to expel air behind it, rather like a manta ray. It hears and "speaks" by vibrating areas on its surface.
aleph is a native of a gas giant orbiting 70 Virginis, a star about 40 light-years from Earth. This planet's combination of high gravity (23g's) and high temperature (185 degrees F) resulted in the evolution of amorphous beings which swim around in the upper reaches of the planet's atmosphere.
Needless to say, communication with aleph is difficult and disconcerting. One must avoid the words "I" and "you", and since they will not be understood. Since it has no concept of self, it cannot have any concept of the selves of its human interlocutors, either. It speaks about itself by referring to changes in its environmentand it understands its environment as being that which is both "internal" and "external" to itself. It might be not totally inaccurate to say that aleph experiences bodily sensations roughly the way we experience changes in a room around us.
One possible insight into aleph's subjectivity is through Julian Jaynes' theories on the subjectivity of early human beings. In The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976), Jaynes theorizes that early human beings had brains whose right and left hemispheres were neurologically distinct from each other. In practical terms, this meant that the left hemisphere's directives were perceived by the right hemisphere as coming from outside the person's mind, rather than from within a "self." Early humans, according to Jaynes, continuously heard (and obeyed) orders that seemingly emanated from outside. Jaynes theorizes that the left hemisphere's orders were quite naturally interpreted as coming from a personal "deity" which watched over one and told one what to do.
In Jaynes' impressive, and controversial, formulation, early humans had no sense of "I" as we now know it. They were, in Jaynes' own terms, automatons, with no perception of independent volition. (They had such volition, but since it came from the left hemisphere, the right hemisphere perceived it as external orders rather than internal decisions.)
I wonder if aleph's sense of subjectivity "feels" something like this. Perhaps aleph perceives its thoughts, ideas, and sensations as emanating from somewhere "outside" it (though this begs the question of where and what its "inside" might be.) An interesting corollary to this theory is that aleph may perceive the speech of outside beings somewhat the way it experiences its own. It could be that when aleph hears an utterance, it is not always sure whether it was said by itself or by someone else. The distinct sense of separation, of boundedness, felt by human beings may be quite alien to aleph's experience.
Interestingly enough, aleph's species appears to be quite sure that superior and all-knowing beings exist in the universe. (We are not quite sure whether they perceive this being as singular or plural.) What is to many human beings a source of doubt and contention appears to be accepted as axiomatic to aleph's species. Perhaps this arises from the fact that aleph's species has always perceived intelligences "directing" them what to do at all times.
It is not at all surprising that aleph's species has developed a science and technology entirely unlike our own. Since they are photosynthetic, they have not needed to develop an extensive agricultural technology the way humans did: each of aleph's compatriots is its own food factory. Comparatively recently, however, the species developed a way to store energy in a way that can be consumed independently. This greatly reduced the need for "unproductive" time spent gathering energy in the upper reaches of the atmosphere, and touched off the equivalent of an Industrial Revolution for aleph's species. aleph's compatriots are now able to dive deep within the planet's atmosphere in search of rare elements. We are not quite sure whether they are interested in extraplanetary travel. The "human" motives of greed and curiosity are either absent from their makeup, or exist in ways we have not yet recognized. They also have a far larger planet than our own to explore. Not only does it have more surface area, but they occupy it in three dimensions! Preliminary satellite counts show that there about 100 billion creatures like aleph, and roughly twenty times more creatures unlike it.
On Earth, aleph is able to move around quite easily, since its gravity is only 1/23rd of its home planet's. Our atmosphere, while thinner than what aleph is used to, is dense enough to permit it to fly without difficulty. aleph can extract energy from our sun, but carries "batteries" as supplements. After some experimentation, we were able to recharge aleph's batteries for it.
Conversation with aleph is peculiar and frustratingrather like talking to a very intelligent computer with some very large gaps in its understanding. One conversation I had with it went like this:
Kelvin: What was Kansas like?
[aleph recently visited Kansas. aleph shows great interest in plants, perhaps because they, like, it photosynthesize. It flew to Oregon some weeks ago and spent six days wrapping itself around various trees and vibrating.]
aleph: Kansas was warm and friendly. Its solar side ripples. [aleph has a very weak grasp of the concepts of "ground" and "surface." By "ripples" aleph is perhaps talking about heat.]
Kelvin: What happened in Kansas?
aleph: A lot of flying happened, of x and z types. [aleph's species has an elaborate language of describing motion in three-dimensional space, which we have translated in terms of xyz coordinates.] Many creatures moved on the solar side and vibrated. Many clustered and thoughts were spoken. [Crowds tended to gather wherever aleph landed, and aleph conversed with many human beings.] Things were said about homeworld, many of which were interesting. [aleph may be talking about the fact that the things it is learning cause it to interpret its memories of its homeworld in new ways. aleph is evidently perpetually surprised by its own ability to come up with novel thoughts.] Talk about the little beings.
Kelvin: What is meant, little human beings, or little other things?
aleph: Little human beings.
Kelvin: They are human beings which were recently formed. Little human beings grow until they reach the size of the other human beings.
aleph: How are little human beings fissioned?
Kelvin [after a pause]: They are not fissioned. Instead, the opposite happens: two human beings coalesce. From that, a little human being grows inside one, and comes out when it is ready to survive by itself.
aleph: The trees have an enormous amount of water moving through them. It is caused by osmotic pressure driven by evaporation from the leaves. Trees are a wonderful thing.
[aleph changes the subject a lot. It may be because competing areas of its intelligence come to the fore in unpredictable ways. It is also talking about osmosis as if it had figured it out itself. Actually, one of our biologists explained osmosis to aleph--but it has a hard time distinguishing between its own ideas and those of others.]
Kelvin: Do you find talking a wonderful thing?
aleph: "You" is difficult. Talking is a good thing.
How an intelligent being can use language at all without subjectivity is still a mystery.