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The dialogue between two aliens who found a book on Earth

November 10, 2014
Image: Toy Story aliens from Amazon.com

Alice and Bob are two aliens. In their interstellar journey, they pass by Earth and there picked up a book. Some time afterwards, they meet to discuss their new acquisition.

Alice:
So, have you had a chance to look at that Terran artifact that we got?

Bob:
I have. It has many fascinating properties. I and my colleagues have studied it quite thoroughly, and although there are obviously still more discoveries to be made, we can make some certain statements about this object.

Alice:
Great! I was looking at it too, and I wanted talk to you about what I found. The alien artifact is clearly a book, and it's got an... interesting... message.

Bob:
Well, it's made of many thin sheets of cellulose fiber, upon which appears characters that consist of a carbon black mixture. I suppose you can call this configuration of materials a "book" if you'd like.

Alice:
Um... yeah, sure. It's made of paper, and the letters are in ink. Of course. But really I'm interested in its meaning.

Bob:
"Meaning"? I don't know what you mean.

Alice:
You mean that you haven't found the message of the book? I thought you said you looked at the book, and studied the writing on it.

Bob:
No, I mean that your question is nonsense. What is "meaning"? We certainly haven't found anything like that in this "book". The object is as I have described it: thin sheets of cellulose fiber, upon which there appears characters consisting of a carbon black mixture. That is all our empirical investigations have found. "Meaning" is not an component of the object, as far as we know. And, although this is a minor point, I must correct your usage of the words "letter" and "writing". The body of professional typographers to which I belong have decided that the technically correct typographic designation for these markings is "characters".

Alice:
Well, okay, whatever, but you haven't actually read those "characters"?

Bob:
Again you're not making any sense. What do you mean by "read"? The characters are characters. Although we have now studied them in great detail and can say a great deal about them, the best way to describe them remains "characters consisting of a carbon black mixture".

Alice:
How could you have studied them and not know how to read them, or their meaning? Look, you see here at the beginning of the book, where the letters "I" and "n"...

Bob:
...Characters.

Alice:
Whatever. Where the characters "I" and "n" appear together, making the word "In"? That combination of characters has a meaning, of being contained by something, or near the center of something, or surrounded by something. And the next word is "the", which is...

Bob:
Wait a minute. "Word"? "meaning"? what do those words mean? This sounds like more nonsense. All you've shown me are just characters.

Alice:
Yes, but the characters form words, which form phrases, which form sentences, which form paragraphs, then...

Bob:
Wait, wait, slow down. That is a lot of entities you've brought up just now that I'm not sure can be empirically verified. So you say that characters form "words"?

Alice:
Yes! Like the words right here, "In", "the", and so forth.

Bob:
You've merely pointed to a set of five characters. Of course you can have sets of characters. You can group the characters however you'd like. But they're still just characters. Where is the "word"? We typographers have not found anything like that in our study of this object.

Alice:
A group of characters IS a word. And each word has a meaning that can be determined in conjunction with its place in the sentence, which...

Bob:
Okay, let me see if what you're saying makes any sense. So, if I show you a character, you can tell me what "word" it belongs to? And what "meaning" it has?

Alice:
Yes.

Bob:
What about this character over here, this "I" character?

Alice:
That? That is the word "I", which means the self, the first person, the one who is also the speaker or the writer of that sentence.

Bob:
But clearly that is the character "I". Where is the "word"?

Alice:
The character IS the word.

Bob:
How could this be a "word" when it is clearly a character? I thought you said that "words" were groups of characters.

Alice:
This happens to be a one-character word.

Bob:
Well, isn't that convenient for you. I see no empirical evidence for any of this. And you say that this "word" is a character but also a "word", that it has "meaning"?

Alice:
Yes, of course. "I" is a particularly important word, with a very important meaning. It can refer to the author of the book, or it can be used in a rhetorical device to address a hypothetical person, or used by a character in a fictional story. You have to look at the context to figure it out. In an abstract sense, a lot of the literature in this book is about the relationship between the "I" and the...

Bob:
Enough. This is all nonsense. "I" is a character, but it is also suppose to be a "word", which has a "meaning", which can also be one of many different "persons"? I, as an empirical typographer, cannot accept such untypographical statements.

Alice:
But can't you clearly see that the characters form words?

Bob:
"Words"? I have no need for such a hypothesis. Everything you've mentioned, everything you've brought up, are only characters. You have no evidence that there is anything else.

Alice:
Look, if you'd just learn to read, you'll see that this is a book of profound truth and meaning. You have to recognize the meaning of each word and learn to use them in the context of a sentence, and build up your ability to interpret the writing all the way up to its full literary context, taking the author's intentions into account. It all makes sense once...

Bob:
You simply see many characters in this object, and in your wishful thinking you have concluded that there must be some "meaning" to them all. You therefore construct these convoluted system of "words", "sentences", "paragraphs", and on top of that, "rhetoric" and "literature", which is all suppose to express some "meaning" that reflects on some "truth" expressed by some "author"! And yet you can provide no empirical evidence for any of it. The reality is that we have investigated the characters in this object and they are now very well understood. There are no "words" to be found in them. Any such ideas are the products of a gullible mind, the yearnings of the untypographic individuals given to delusion. Such thinking is the opium of the masses.

Alice:
You have to begin by learning to understand the meaning in the words. That's how you learn to read. Once you start, you'll see that it all makes sense.

Bob:
So you have to buy into this "meaning" business to see that there is "meaning"? That's circular reasoning. Your argument is invalid.

Alice:
Look, let me read you some passages from the book. You'll see that there is in fact meaning to be found in the object. Watch. I'll read this passage, and you'll see that the characters here become words and sentences and have meaning. Listen: "... these are written so that you may..."

Bob:
Your cultic "reading" rituals are not evidence. All you were doing was to scan your eyes over the characters and making corresponding sounds with your mouth. In fact, upon studying your "reading" rituals, it becomes totally obvious that you're failing to understand the typography of the characters, which is the only underlying entity that actually exists. There is no "meaning".

Alice:
What do you mean?

Bob:
I mean that your so-called "reading" is merely you responding to the typography of the characters. For instance, through our intensive empirical study of this object conducted at the millimeter scales, we have found that each character takes on two forms: an upper case form and a lower case form. For instance, the "t" character is lower case, and its upper case form is "T". Furthermore, we have found that after a "." character, the next character is always in the upper case form. There are other such laws of typography we've discovered - for example, a "q" character is always followed by a "u" character. All of this is verifiable through empirical observations. All you're doing when you're "reading" is employing these laws to look at the characters and making the corresponding sound with your mouth. At the bottom, it's only typography, and because you fail to understand typography you imagine that you're "reading".

Alice:
Look, of course things like clean writing, punctuation, and spelling are important, but you're missing the point here. To read the book means to get its meaning out of it.

Bob:
Then why is it that when I see you "read", I only see you employing typography when I break it down to what's really going on? Or let me put it this way: could you still "read" if the laws of typography were different? For example, if "T" characters looked like ";" characters, and the characters all ran together without any space between them?

Alice:
Of course not. I'm not being anti - typography. I obviously employ it in reading the book. I'm saying that there's meaning behind it all.

Bob:
Yes, you are being anti-typography. You're clinging to your "meaning" instead of recognizing that all of your "meaning" comes from the characters arranged according to typographical laws.

Alice:
So you're completely rejecting the idea of any meaning in the book?

Bob:
I am only holding to beliefs which have been empirically verified. Of course, there is still a possibility that your "meaning" exists, although there is no evidence for it. But if it does exist, even that meaning will be found by typographically examining the characters. For instance, one of the issues at the frontier of typographical research is the similarity between the "1" character and the "I" character. Some typographers suspect that there is even a difference between the "I" character and the "l" character, which would open up the possibilities for discovering new typographical laws. We cannot be certain yet, of course. This will require exciting new studies at the sub-millimeter scales. It may be that your "meaning" will be discovered at these sub-millimeter scales or in these new typographical laws, although I see no reason to expect that to happen.

Alice:
But that's not what's meant by "meaning" at all. The meaning of any object is found outside the object itself. Meaning is what's meant by the author of the book, what's intended for the readers of the book to understand.

Bob:
There you go again with your circular definitions. "Not what's meant by meaning"? What does that even mean? The fact that you're not excited by the prospect of progress at the typographical frontier gives me reason to believe that your "meaning" is antithetical to typography, only brought about by your ignorance of typographical matters. The truth is that there is no outside "meaning". The object is exactly what you'd expect it to look like if it was blindly created only from the laws of typography.

Alice:
Okay, so what are all these characters in the book for then? Why do they exist? What's their reason for being?

Bob:
There is no ultimate, outside "meaning", but there is perhaps meaning to be found in the beauty of the laws of typography, in exploring its depth and appreciating that they are all meaningless. We've found this meaningless "book", and it is up to each of us to choose to give it meaning. I think that's actually far more beautiful and profound than trying to discover some "meaning" that's thrust upon us. It may be depressing to think that there is no ultimate purpose or "meaning" in this object, but we can't let that depression beat us. We find our meaning in fighting against that depression and finding our own meaning - in standing against the meaninglessness of it all. I make my own meaning.


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The trends in science as evidence for Christianity against atheism (part 1)
Another post, from the table of contents

Show/hide comments(4 Comments)

4 comments on “The dialogue between two aliens who found a book on Earth”

  1. Heh. I wonder how you came to be in possession of this transcript - and translation, presumably, as these aliens can't possibly be expected to speak English...

    I think Bob misremembered one of his typographical laws, though. A "q" is always, not never, followed by a "u". (Well, almost always.)

    (This raises an important question. Why in the world would these two, when discussing such ridiculous matters, put so much effort into cryptography??)

  2. Yup, Bob doesn't understand the true typographical laws as well as he thinks he does. He's also wrong about a "." character always being followed by an upper case letter.

    As for cryptography - well, this is one giant cryptography problem in one sense, no?

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