A discussion with aliens about knowledge and truth, with a dose of irreverence.
|Sitting next to my girlfriend at a table in the crowded café, I drink my coffee, trying to act nonchalant as I notice all the people staring at us and murmuring. Across from us sits the reason for all the attention: the two little green men who, just a few minutes ago, emerged from their UFO and walked up to us without any trepidation whatsoever. With their hands grasping the edge of the table and their large, black eyes barely peeking over it, they look like children—children with extremely large heads.
I put down my drink and open the conversation. “Well, I suppose I should introduce myself. I’m Aaron, and this here is my girlfriend, Stephanie.”
Stephanie smiles and waves at our guests, who look at each other excitedly. One of them hops off his chair and swaggers over to her in his glossy silver spacesuit. Even though he’s standing and she’s seated, his eyes are still only level with her chest, and he eyes her tank top without any effort to be subtle. “Hey, beautiful,” he says in a high, nasal voice. “Are you an alien? Because your body is out of this world!” In response, Stephanie lightly slaps him on the side of his face. He looks rather surprised at this development. “Amazing! Such sharp wit never fails with our females!”
“For one thing, I’m not a little green woman,” Stephanie points out the obvious. “More importantly, though, I’m not available.” He still seems confused, so Stephanie gives me a kiss, hoping to convey the message visually.
“But I thought you said you were just friends!” he defends himself.
“No, she’s my girlfriend,” I clarify, but then I realize the source of the misunderstanding. “Sorry. That is a rather misleading term, isn’t it?”
“Indeed, but we still should have been aware. Our English skills are not as strong as we believed them to be, apparently. Forgive me, fair lady,” he apologizes, to which Stephanie nods. Don Juan then returns to his seat, dejected. “How boorish of me to have not even introduced my colleague and myself yet,” he notes. “I am !*@#&^$%, and he is &^$%#*@!. We come from the planet *$^%!#@&.” I couldn’t begin to write those names in English, and I didn’t even want to try to say them, fearing that someone would think I’m choking and rush over to perform the Heimlich maneuver on me.
“Uh…I think we’ll call you No. 1 and him No. 2,” I decide after a quick deliberation, and they accept.
At this moment, two girls pass by our table. “Hey, freaks, don’t you know when Halloween is?” remarks one of them, and they both titter as they exit the café, continuing to stare at the little green men and laugh as they walk on the sidewalk past the window near our table. However, the ditz’s insult—specifically, her use of the word “know”—reminds me why these aliens are in our company in the first place. Amazingly, their civilization, which had mastered interstellar travel, couldn’t understand the concept of the human word “know.” I guess I had always taken that word for granted, as it never occurred to me that anyone would have trouble comprehending its meaning.
“I have to say I’m a little surprised that you wanted to come to such a busy place to talk to us,” Stephanie comments. “Why here? Why not somewhere more secluded, where there aren’t other people around to make fun of you?”
“Well,” begins No. 2, “we are trying to get out among the populace to show humans that there is more to us than just abductions and rectal probing. Those activities have given us such a bad reputation, but what choice do we have? It is difficult to learn anything from you through other means. Most members of your species are so unpleasant to talk to.” He nearly falls off his chair as he cocks his huge, bulbous head in the direction the two girls traveled after they left the building. After regaining his balance, he asks the rhetorical question, “But what right do we have to expect anything more from creatures who use only 10% of their brains?” So it’s not just humans who fall for the “ten percent” myth? Perhaps it was a smart-aleck alien who circulated that rumor in the first place. In any case, I decide not to let them learn the frightening truth that we humans do, indeed, use 100% of our brains.
I bring the discussion back to the topic of the day. “So, you want to know– I mean…learn about the word ‘know’?” Their bodies perk up and a smile appears on their faces, communicating their answer clearly and eliminating the need for a verbal response. It figures that, out of the billions of people on this planet, Stephanie and I are the ones who get stuck with the task of explaining a word so complex that we’re taking an entire philosophy course on it at school. “Okay. There are two basic types of knowledge. At least some languages on Earth contain separate verbs to differentiate types of knowledge, but English isn’t one of them. In any case, the first is called knowledge by acquaintance, which means that you’re aware how. For example, you know how it feels to be happy or sad, or you know how to perform an action, like walk or talk. You can only know something, in this sense, through personal experience. It’s subjective knowledge that you can’t explain to others. You just…know.”
The little green men enjoy this revelation, briefly conversing with each other in their own language before returning their attention to us. “We understand,” affirms No. 1. “Now, please tell us of the other type of…knowledge you mentioned.” In less than a minute, I had explained half of what there was to understand about the word “know”! And I’m taking a yearlong class on it? Either I’m an extraordinary teacher or they’re extremely quick learners!
“Well, the other variety is called knowledge by description,” I continue. “In this case, you know that something is true. For example, I know that the sky is blue; that’s an objective fact that everyone can agree upon.”
I can immediately tell that our students are not as content as they were after my previous explanation. They converse between themselves yet again, and then No. 2 airs their concern. “How can you ever ‘know’ something for a fact? Who is to say what is true?”
“I suppose there are some things we claim to know but can’t be sure of,” Stephanie admits, “but anyone can look out the window and see that the sky is blue!”
“No, it is not,” declares No. 1. “The sky has no color.”
Upon hearing this claim, I look out the window, above the trees. Sure enough, the clouds have moved in and obscured all traces of blue. “Oh, come on, you understand what she means,” I attest. “The clouds may be gray and colorless, but the sky behind them is blue!”
“I understand precisely what you two mean,” No. 1 responds, “but you are still not correct. The sky just appears blue to you because the atoms in your planet’s atmosphere scatter certain wavelengths of light, causing the entire sky to appear in those colors because that particular light enters your eyes from all directions. If Earth had a different atmosphere, or no atmosphere at all, then the sky would not appear the same way.”
“In that case, we know that the sky appears to be blue,” Stephanie amends
“But if all you know is how something appears, do you really know anything at all?” No. 2 questions her. “Besides, your planet’s sky does not appear blue to our eyes, as they are sensitive to a wider spectrum of light than yours. We see colors you cannot even imagine. We know those colors in the sense that we are acquainted with them, but there is no way for you to know from a description, as all adjectives are subjective. Each of us may know a particular color as blue and consistently identify it as such, but can we state for certain that our two species—indeed, even two individuals within the same species—see that color the exact same way? No claim is absolute; the light of truth does not shine the same for all individuals.”
“Perhaps,” I acknowledge, “but there are different ways to define what constitutes knowledge and truth. You’re saying that something is true only if it corresponds to our objective reality: that’s called the correspondence theory of truth. The problem is that not all beings observe and sense the world in the same way, so there would be many truths. There’s another theory called the pragmatic theory, though, which states that the truth is verified by society, not individuals. If a proposition is socially useful, then it’s rational to accept that proposition as true. And if society changes, the truth can change with it.” I grin as I glance over at Stephanie, who appears quite impressed with my display.
Our visitors, on the other hand, still aren’t convinced. “Do we not encounter the same problem, though?” queries No. 1. “How do you define social usefulness? Does knowing whether the sky is blue have any practical applications?”
“I don’t think so,” I answer.
“So it is not socially useful to believe that the sky is blue, nor is it socially useful to believe that the sky is not blue, but the sky must either be blue or not blue, right? Which is the pragmatic choice?”
“I suppose you have a point,” I yield, sighing. “I guess the only thing I know for sure is that I’ll never know anything for sure.” After thinking about what I just said, I correct myself before the highly logical aliens get a chance. “Okay, so I know one thing for sure. But beings who are epistemically aware like you and me–”
“Stop,” requests No. 2. “What is that word you just said?”
“Do you mean ‘epistemically’?”
“Yes. We have not learned that word.”
“Well, epistemology is the human study of how and why we know; therefore, beings who are epistemically aware like you and me are constantly questioning what we consider knowledge in the pursuit of truth. We’ll never reach that point of final and ultimate truth, however, since knowledge is, literally, as endless as the Universe itself. I can’t think of anything more to say; I’m sorry we couldn’t supply a more satisfying explanation for you.”
“No need to apologize,” says No. 1. “If nothing else, you have given us more insight into the human mind, which we desperately needed, since the human behind can only teach us so much. The Grand Council will be pleased with our findings.”
We leave the café and walk the aliens back to their spacecraft, which they landed in the playground of the nearby park. Amazingly, despite being in the middle of a large city, no one had taken much notice of it—probably because it blends in with the “outer space” theme of the playground.
The little green men open the hatch and climb into their seats. “As a show of gratitude, we invite you to join us on *$^%!#@& in the near future as the honored guests at a great feast,” says No. 1, the member of the pair whom I had earlier referred to as Don Juan. “Stephanie, do you, by any chance, have a sister who would like to join us?”
“I have two,” Stephanie reveals, but immediately afterward, I see her mentally kicking herself for telling them that.
They can hardly contain their excitement. “Wonderful!” exclaims No. 1. “And I am sorry if we said anything to offend you or your species. For beings that use only 10% of your brains, you are pretty smart.”
Stephanie and I wave as the hatch closes and the spacecraft lifts into the air, vanishing from our sight within seconds. Then she turns to me and asks, “Was that a compliment?”