The Danger of Words: Maurice O’Connor Drury and the Pretence to Knowledge.

The following is a talk given to the Metaphysical Society of Trinity College Dublin in November 2012. The photographs of landscape show the area around Rosroe Co. Galway where Ludwig Wittgenstein lived and worked during the summer of 1948. They were taken by the author in August 2016. 

By Robert CB Miller BA (1970)

I should like to thank The Metaphizz for inviting me to speak and for paying my expenses – a combination of generosity and rashness hard to beat.

In thinking about this paper, I thought I could either do something easy or something difficult to earn my crust. I decided on the latter – so I have eschewed a detailed description of Drury’s friendship with Wittgenstein. It would only have been a digest of material which, if you are interested, is much better read in full. It is to be found in Drury’s own articles: Some Notes on Conversations with Wittgenstein and Conversations with Wittgenstein. They are both to be found in Recollections of Wittgenstein (OUP 1984) edited by another of Wittgenstein’s pupils, Rush Rees. Drury’s articles take up about a third of the book. Another source is the excellent paper Wittgenstein’s Pupil: the writings of Maurice O’Connor Drury by Professor Hayes of Limerick University (

What I propose to do is to give a very brief out line of Drury’s life and friendship with Wittgenstein. I will follow this with an equally brief outline of some of the main arguments of Drury’s book The Danger of Words.

I will then set out some thoughts of my own on one of its main themes – that our knowledge is limited and that one of the roles of philosophy is to contain the excessive ambitions of science. These have the virtue of being themes which can be found in Wittgenstein and, in a somewhat different form, in the writings of Noam Chomsky and Colin McGinn.

Drury and Wittgenstein

3,%20Dr%20Maurice%20O’Connor%20(‘Con’)%20DruryMaurice O’Connor Drury was born in Exeter in 1907 into a family with Irish connections. He was educated at the grammar school in that town and went to Trinity College Cambridge in 1925 to read moral and mental science. He graduated in 1931 with a first class degree. He intended to become an Anglican clergyman and attended the High Church training college of Westcott House where he spent a year. Under Wittgenstein’s influence he gave up this ambition and became a medical student at TCD.

Although Wittgenstein persuaded Drury to become a doctor rather than a clergyman, it was not because Wittgenstein opposed religion or Christianity. They often discussed religion and the New Testament and, I think, Wittgenstein valued Drury’s knowledge of New Testament scholarship.

During the Second World War Drury served in the Royal Army Medical Corps in Egypt and in ‘North Western Europe’. On demobilisation in 1946, he became a psychiatrist at St Patrick’s Institution. Both before and after the war Wittgenstein visited Drury in Dublin on several occasions. In order to work without distraction, he stayed in a bed and breakfast at Redhill near Arklow and at a cottage near Killary Harbour in Connemara which belonged to Drury’s brother. Drury became a consultant psychiatrist and remained at St Patrick’s until his death on Christmas Day 1976.

One of his sons, Professor Luke Drury, is currently President of the Royal Irish Academy.

Drury saw Wittgenstein for the last time on Cambridge railway station in 1951 a few weeks before the latter’s death. Wittgenstein was living with Dr Bevan at the time and despite his frailty came with Drury to the station. Drury writes:

“Just before the train pulled out he said to me, ‘Drury, whatever becomes of you, don’t stop thinking.’ These were the last words I ever had from him.”

I think Wittgenstein’s remark would make a good motto for all of us who are not, and are not planning to be, philosophers by profession.

The Danger of Words

The Danger of Words was published in 1973 by Routledge and Kegan Paul in the series, Studies in Philosophical Psychology, edited by RF Holland of Swansea. It reproduces six lectures. In the preface,   Drury introduces them as ‘colloquial in style’ and written for ‘special occasions’ and with specific audiences in mind – evidently fellow doctors and psychiatrists.drury's book

Drury states that the lectures illustrate the effect that Wittgenstein had one of his pupils. He explains that behind every scientific construction there remains the inexplicable and that philosophy makes it clear that scientific inquiry must come to an end with what cannot be explained.

In Chapter 1, Words and Transgressions, Drury urges clarity in the terms used in psychiatry and outlines five fallacies to which psychiatry is prone. For example, he points to the danger of thinking that because one has given a technical term to something it has been explained. Theories, he argues, against which no evidence could count are vacuous and have no place in science. He gives the example of Wittgenstein in discussion with Bertrand Russell explaining that a statement that an undetectable hippopotamus was in the room is without meaning. In Chapter 2, Science and Psychology,  Drury distinguishes between two types of psychology:  that of the novelist and that of the academic psychology. He contrasts the scientific psychology which attempts to ‘reduce the vagaries of human thought to a mechanical process of cause and effect’ with that of the insight into human nature of Aeschylus or Simone Weil. He quotes Wittgenstein: ‘Belief in the causal nexus is superstition.’

Chapter 3, Concerning Mind and Body, consists of an analysis the mind / body problem using the work of Professor Eccles as an example. He argues that the attempt to identify perception with any physiological process is mistaken. The mind, he claims, has no particular place in nature. We will return to this theme later.  In Chapter 4, Hypotheses and Philosophy, Drury argues that nothing is finally established in science and that all scientific theories are subject to revision. And he gives the example of evolutionary biology as a science which has become over-ambitious – again more about this later.

The fifth and final chapter, Madness and Religion, is perhaps the most remarkable. Drury asks whether we can distinguish between madness and religion. And he gives examples of people experiencing religious ecstasy who were evidently suffering from treatable mental disorders.  He wonders whether the fact that Joan of Arc could have been treated with modern drugs means that her experiences can be dismissed as mere psychotic episodes. His answer is a decisive No. He writes:

“Every death-bed can be a religious experience both for him who is dying and for those who had loved him and watch beside him. Every mental illness can be a religious experience both for him who is afflicted and for those that loved him. Conversely every religious belief and practice where it is deep and sincere is madness to those who trust in themselves and despise others.” (p136)

Wittgenstein thought that the modern belief in progress02_Rosroe2016 was flawed and that advances in science often left really important questions unanswered or misunderstood. In Culture and Value, he writes:

 What a curious attitude scientists have -: “We still don’t know that; but it is knowable and it is only a matter of time before we get to know it!” As if that went without saying.[1]

One of major themes in The Danger of Words is that there are limits to human knowledge. Drury argues that it is the particular role of philosophy to examine critically the assumptions of scientists and to suggest gently that sometimes they are attempting the impossible. Philosophers should urge scientist to state clearly what they mean and to limit their statements to what they can actually demonstrate. This allows Drury to meet the familiar criticism that no progress is made in philosophy.

There are things which we may be able to discover. Thus we (or rather scientists) may be able to isolate the genes which give language to human beings. It may be like looking for a needle in a haystack but luck or huge labours (or both) may uncover the facts. There is no reason why this should not be the case. Scientific progress is possible and is perhaps to be expected. We will for example discover whether or not there is or was life on Mars.

And here I want to adapt a distinction made by Noam Chomsky and Colinchompers McGinn between PUZZLES and MYSTERIES.[2] They distinguish between PUZZLES which have possible solutions and MYSTERIES which do not. (Philosophers who have adopted this distinction have been called unkindly ‘Mysterons’.)  One can imagine what the solution to a PUZZLE would be like. A space craft lands on Mars and makes the necessary observations. Even where a solution may not be possible because the evidence has been destroyed, we know what sort of theory would count as a solution. Thus the evolutionary biologist, RC Lewontin, has argued that we can never know how human cognitive abilities evolved as the evidence does not now exist.[3]

Consequently PUZZLES can be divided into two sorts Insoluble PUZZLES (I-PUZZLES) and Soluble PUZZLES (S-PUZZLES). Plainly the discovery of whether there is life on Mars is an example of an S-PUZZLE. The evidence is available and all we have to do is to collect and interpret it. The case of the origin of human cognitive abilities may be an example of an I-PUZZLE because the evidence which would lead to a definitive theory no longer exists and cannot be discovered or recreated.

Of course in some cases what are supposed to be I-PUZZLES may turn out to be S-PUZZLES, when a new experiment is devised which can adduce the necessary evidence to move a PUZZLE from ‘I’ to ‘S’ status.

MYSTERIES are different for in their case it can be demonstrated (or at least argued) that no possible evidence or discovery can decide or could have decided the issue. This marks an important difference between MYSTERIES and I-PUZZLES. Of course, it is possible that what at some time was thought to be an I-PUZZLE may turn out to be a MYSTERY and vice versa. For practical scientific purposes it may not make much difference, but it marks an important philosophical distinction.

It may be that we are so constituted that we cannot conceive of any satisfactory solution to the mind body problem. This idea seems defeatist. Surely no limit can be put to scientific and philosophical progress. Much progress has been made, why should not this progress continue indefinitely?

One obvious retort is that the increase in our knowledge is limited by our character as animals. Take the example (due I think to Chomsky) of a rat. It is so constituted that it cannot understand arithmetic. Similarly there may be domains which human beings are incapable of understanding. That this could be the case can be illustrated by some examples of where it is evident that human understanding is limited and human faculties are constrained. The most obvious is our understanding of quantum mechanics. Richard Feynman said:  “…nobody understands quantum mechanics” – we just cannot comprehend fully something being at two places at the same time and entanglement over huge distances.  Another example is our inability to envisage a four dimensional space. Although if the Victorian mathematician,02_Rosroe2016 Charles Hinton, was right we can gain some idea of what it would be like, by memorising the different colours of the six faces of small cubes which themselves constitute a larger one.[4]  The technique should be used with care – it was rumoured that one person attempting it had been driven mad. Again we cannot see in the infra red or in the ultra violet, and think what a small fraction of the electro-magnetic spectrum we can see. These examples suggest that human faculties are limited – and they raise, at the very least, the possibility that human knowledge has limits which cannot be exceeded.

As we have seen the theme of the limits of human knowledge runs through The Danger of Words and I want to focus on the example of Professor Eccles‘ book, The Neuro-physiological Basis of the Mind,[5] which is discussed in Chapter 3, Concerning Mind and Body. Professor Eccles’ argument, I suspect, can be replicated in many of the modern textbooks on neuro-science you can find on the shelves of Hodges Figgis. Colin McGinn claims that the relationship between body and mind is a MYSTERY but I intend to show that Drury explains with some precision why it is a MYSTERY and indeed what kind of MYSTERY it is.

Drury describes Eccles’ programme:

“[Eccles] [is] going to investigate the whole field of the nervous system. Not only the structure and organisation of neurones and their synapses, but also the ‘working of our brains’, ‘how liaison between brain and mind could occur’. He [is} going to investigate ‘the process of perception’…”  (p70)

Drury outlines Eccles’ description of the operation of the nervous system, how ‘receptor organs’ receive stimuli which are then transmitted to the brain where they form ‘percepts’ – experiences in a private ‘perceptual world’. Drury explains how this description involves Eccles in a radical subjectivism. The observer can know nothing of an external world as he only receives ‘percepts’.  Eccles’ attempts to avoid this difficulty by an appeal to evidence that other people have similar experiences as ourselves. But this takes us no further forward; we have no reason to believe that these other people exist.05_Rosroe2016

Drury then seeks to find a way out of the dilemma. He points to Eccles’ use of the term ‘investigate’ as the key to dissolving the problem. He points out that we cannot investigate the means of scientific investigation: sight, touch, hearing, memory and language, for their efficacy is presupposed in any scientific investigation. He begins Chapter 3 by quoting Lichtenberg:

“What an odd situation the soul is in when it reads an investigation about itself, when it looks in a book to find out what itself might be. Rather like the predicament of a dog with a bone tied to its tail – said CGL, truly but a little ignobly.” (p57)

How can we investigate the means by which we investigate? It is a logical impossibility – we can use a telescope to view the stars or distant objects on earth but what we cannot view is the telescope itself.

It follows that while Professor Eccles’ science is now far out of date, Drury’s attempt to unpick the confusion it contains is timeless and perhaps more relevant today than it was in the 1970s. And attempts to investigate consciousness as if it were just another feature of the brain are bound to fail. Nor is it the case that more exacting research, more and better scanning equipment, would succeed. As Drury explains:

 “…I am saying that however much we learn concerning the physiology of the eye and the optic tract this will never explain how seeing is possible.” (p71)

Of course, it is possible to investigate the organs of sight, hearing, memory, and language. There is very little that physiologists do not know about the eyes and ears and how they work, how they fail and if and how such defects can be remedied. And, perhaps to Drury’s surprise, there has been extraordinary progress in linguistics. But again there has been progress in the equivalent of our knowledge of the physiology of eyes and ears, syntactic structures, the form of any possible language and the physical production and reception of speech. But when it comes to the unprompted production of language we are at a loss.[6]

Drury’s next step is to attack the apparent obvious distinction between ‘inner’ and ‘outer’. The neurological pathways from ear to brain can be investigated scientifically by the usual methods. But then the nerve impulse is said to ‘enter’ consciousness. But ‘entering’ implies crossing a threshold. Here Drury comments:

“But in this sense, the common everyday sense, of ‘entering’ you cannot speak of anything entering consciousness. For consciousness has no boundary, no threshold which can be observed. If it had then there would have to be a third form of consciousness which was conscious of both what was conscious and what was not yet so. This is obvious nonsense. Consciousness is not just one of the many things we are conscious of: the mind has no particular place in nature.” (p75/76)

Drury provides an inoculation against these very natural ways of thinking which lead us into error and confusion. But surely, we protest, the mind must be something and it must have a place somewhere or other. But consciousness or the mind is used to determine where things are and consequently it can have no place itself. Consciousness is not one of the things of which we are conscious. If there were but one tape measure in the world its length could not be measured.  In a discussion of behaviourism in the Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein writes:

“…but surely you will admit that there is a difference between pain behaviour accompanied by pain and pain-behaviour without any pain?” Admit it? What greater difference could there be? – “and yet you again and again reach the conclusion that the sensation itself is nothing” – Not at all. It is not a something , but not a nothing either!” …. the paradox disappears only if we make a radical break with the idea that language always functions in one way, always serves the same purpose.” (PI 304)

06_Rosroe2016In other words, cries of pain and descriptions of their character and location (stabbing and in my toe) are not the same as reports of behaviour or (to bring the argument up to date) brain activity. It makes sense to locate a pain as in my toe, it makes no sense to attempt to locate the sensation of the pain.

How do Drury’s arguments apply to McGinn and Chomsky’s distinction between PUZZLES and MYSTERIES? Chomsky and McGinn believe that MYSTERIES are insoluble because of our biological constitution. If we had bigger, better and different brains we might be able to solve the mind body problem. In the same way that a bigger smarter rat might be able to do simple arithmetic or ponder the square root of 4, so if we had bigger and better brains we might be able to resolve the MYSTERIES that currently perplex us.

But Drury’s argument about the character of the mind-body MYSTERY is quite different from those of Chomsky and McGinn. It is not our biological constitution which is the root of the problem but its logical structure. In other words, whatever our biology the problem would remain the same – and a Martian whatever his exotic biology would face the same dilemma that we do. A logical problem is universal and would be the same for Martians as it is for us. Martians can no more investigate their faculty of investigation than we can ours – all this of course pre-supposing that Martians have a faculty of investigation.

We can perhaps now divide MYSTERIES into two as we divided PUZZLES – I-PUZZLES which were insoluble because the necessary evidence is unavailable and S-PUZZLES where it is and where hard work and good luck may result in a solution. MYSTERIES bifurcate into B-MYSTERIES which result from our biological constitution like a rat not being able to count, and L-MYSTERIES which are irresolvable because of their logic.

Next and broadening our focus I will review briefly two other egregious examples of scientific projects which appear to have ambitions above their station. No doubt there are many others. In the Danger of Words, Drury seeks to limit the pretensions of both what would now be called neuro-science and evolutionary biology. In the nearly 40 years which have passed the claims of both have burgeoned. We have followed Drury in reviewing some of the pretensions of neuro-science. I will now tackle, first neo-Darwinian evolutionary biology, and second the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence. And I will try to turn, in Wittgenstein’s phrase, latent nonsense into patent nonsense.

First neo-Darwinian evolutionary biology.

Neo-Darwinian Evolutionary Biology

Drury’s criticisms of evolutionary biology focus on the fact that in some cases evolution appears to have a trajectory which is not explicable by natural selection.  He gives the example of the atrophied femurs of whales which weigh just two ounces. Drury asks why does it weighs two ounces rather than, say, 20? (p104/105). Whether or not Drury’s strictures (or rather those of Professor Martin who he quotes) are just I do not know. But I believe that Drury was right to be sceptical of the pretensions of evolutionary biology.

What Darwin Got Wrong, Jerry Fodor, Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, theory of evolution, natural selectionTake Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini’s recent book, What Darwin Got Wrong, which was published in 2010.[7] They argue that the neo-Darwinist process of natural selection by random adaptive mutation is inadequate to explain many instances of biological evolution. They give the example (and there are others) of the parasitic wasp, Ampulex Compressa. Some wasps lay their eggs in other insects and on hatching the larvae eat the insect in which they have been laid. But Ampulex Compressa paralyses and then controls its prey, a cockroach, with two stings at precise intervals in specific different parts of the cockroach. This first zombifies the unfortunate insect and then allows the wasp literally to ‘ride’ the cockroach into the wasp’s nest which the latter has prepared. The wasp then lays its eggs which when hatched use the cockroach as a source of food. Fodor and his colleague comment:

“The ways in which this behavioural sequence could have gone awry are indeed innumerable. Not even the most committed adaptationist neo-Darwinians suppose that all kinds of alternatives are blindly tried out by the ancestors of the wasp and that better and better solutions were progressively selected, and that this optimal solution was finally retained and encoded for in the genes. …. What, then? No one knows at present.” [8]

Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini also claim that adaptive natural selection contains a serious logical flaw. This is because of the ‘selection-for’ problem.  The problem is that certain characteristics of an animal may be coextensive with the features which give it an adaptive advantage. The theory of natural selection cannot distinguish between features which give it adaptive advantage and those co-extensive properties which do not. In ordinary science it is possible to explore counter-factuals which would determine which was the adaptive feature rather than the free rider. But this for the most part is impossible in evolutionary biology. It follows that natural selection as a theory cannot generate predictions. Indeed it becomes vacuous with successful adaptations being defined in terms ecological niches and ecological niches being defined in terms of successful adaptations.

There are other flaws in some parts of evolutionary biology

One strategy of evolutionary biologists is to give a series of ‘Just So Stories’ (as in Kipling – How the Camel Got His Hump) to explain possible evolutionary pathways for the development of human cognitive abilities.Kipling It is enough, it is supposed, to give a plausible story (or stories) of how a process of incremental natural selection might have produced the result in question. But the description of a possible process disguises the fact that the actual process is unknown and may always remain so. The relevant evidence more than likely has been destroyed and no longer exists.

The result of believing that incremental natural selection is beyond dispute and the ONLY mechanism for evolution, is to limit possible accounts to those which accord with this supposed fact. The result is that attempts to develop, for example, an account of the development of human language by incremental natural selection are forced into a particular mould. Thus Chomsky’s view that human language was result of a mutation in a single individual about 75,000 years ago is ruled out by many evolutionary biologists on the grounds that it can’t be true because it conflicts with the fact of incremental natural selection. A good example is to be found in the Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution where this assumption is made in many, if not most, of the essays it contains.[9]  Often Dobzhansky’s famous statement ‘Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution’ is repeated as a justification for such dogmatism.  This is what Drury has to say:

“But …when a hypothesis has become generally accepted and shown its usefulness, it forgets its humble origin. It begins to masquerade in the logical status of a fact. Something we can’t query. Something which is the reality behind the phenomena. Something which has enabled us to see behind the curtain of sensation. And so the hypothesis which is our useful creation, dazzles our view of things. We fail to see much that the hypothesis doesn’t include; we extend the limits of our hypothesis into the regions of phantasy.” (p100)

On such wobbly foundations rest much of evolutionary biology.

I turn finally to the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence.

The Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence

The Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has become a recognised minor (and just respectable) branch of cosmology. Thus last year the Royal Society held a conference on the consequences of contact with aliens and there are regular announcements that ‘contact’ is to be expected within a few decades. Sir Patrick More recently opined that alien intelligence will be found within the next sixty years. And the SETI Institute has attracted much enthusiasm. Paul Allen, one of the founders of Microsoft, has contributed over $30m for the SETI Institute’s radio telescope which has been named after him. It is planned that it will survey 1 million stars for messages from ET.

SETI research has even inspired what almost amounts to a new secular religion. Thus the late Professor Allen Tough, a well-known SETI expert, speculated on the amazing results that could flow from contact with aliens:

“We might gain new insights and knowledge about deep, major questions that go far beyond ordinary practical day-to-day matters. Topics in an encyclopedia-like message or closeup dialogue could include astrophysics, the origin and evolution of the universe, religious questions, the meaning and purpose of life, and answers to philosophical questions. We might receive detailed information about the other civilization (which might be deeply alien to us) and about its philosophies and beliefs. Similar information could be provided about several other civilizations throughout our galaxy, too. We might even receive a body of knowledge accumulated over the past billion years through contributions by dozens of civilizations throughout the galaxy.” [10]


Something, I think, has gone very badly wrong. Here is a scientist, one of many in the same field, who is greatly exaggerating the consequences of a discovery – and it is a discovery which has yet to be made. Indeed, as we shall see the problems in understanding ET and any messages we might receive from him are insurmountable.

The search has two aspects. First, attempts to discover intelligent life by searching the electro-magnetic spectrum for messages and translating any received.  Second, attempts to send messages to aliens which they will be able to understand. I want to focus primarily on the former, although as we shall see the latter is deeply flawed for the same reasons.alien

Would we be able to understand any message received from aliens? It is assumed that we would be able to distinguish between a signal generated by an exotic natural process and a message sent by an alien civilisation. We would also have to distinguish between a message that was intended for us and one intended for others – or indeed that it was not the unintended bi-product of some other process.  But if we assume these difficulties out of the way, would we be able to decipher any messages received? SETI enthusiasts regularly assume that this would be a relatively easy matter – perhaps like the deciphering of the German Enigma codes at Bletchley Park during the Second World War.

But in this case the code breakers knew that the encoded language was German and that the messages would be about military matters. More important they shared with those sending the encoded messages all the human conventions and concepts which make human language possible, not to mention the innate biological structures. It is significant that where unknown languages have been deciphered it is only because versions of the text in the unknown language have been found in a known language. In the case of the Rosetta Stone there were three versions of the text one in Egyptian hieroglyphs, one in Egyptian Demotic and another in Greek. This latter version provided the key by which the hieroglyphs were deciphered. It is interested that in cases where languages have not been deciphered it is because no equivalent in a known language has been discovered.

Without a common frame of reference we would not even know what the alien message was about. It has been proposed that the facts of science and mathematics must be universal and hence could operate as a Rosetta Stone establishing such a common frame of reference. But mathematical and scientific concepts would have to be expressed in a language and without being able to understand it we would have no means of grasping what mathematical and scientific principles were being expressed. Hence science and maths could not be the key to deciphering the alien language as for them to have that role we would have to understand the language in which they were expressed.

11_Rosroe_slipway2016It is also unlikely that mathematical and scientific constants and relationships would have the same significance for aliens that they do for us, or indeed that their conception of science is similar to ours, or indeed that they have anything that we would recognise as science.  The mistake is to fail to realise that science depends on human concepts which are most unlikely to be universal. Further as we have seen science and scientific investigation depend on human faculties. It may be that a non-human ‘science’ is an oxymoron. Similarly easy talk about alien ‘civilisations’ is misplaced. For civilisation depends on a wide variety of human concepts: law, choice, responsibility, art and freedom, for a short selection.

Another difficulty is presented by what may be called the ‘Channel problem’. All human languages are produced sequentially using sound (or sound equivalent) in a single stream. But there is no reason why non-human languages should be so limited.  Television usually involves two streams or channels, sound and moving pictures. Often other channels are added – sign language, music, and news and stock market tickers.  And notice that in television transmissions both channels have to be properly co-ordinated for the message to be understood and that very often any one channel is largely incomprehensible without the other. Alien languages might employ multiple channels and we would have no means of separating them or determining how they were related to each other. Suppose we only received one channel with the other(s) unknown to us. While it may be easy enough for us to distinguish the different channels in human communications such as television, it would not be so easy to do the same for alien communications. Indeed it would be a probable insoluble problem in its own right. And what if the alien message had 363 channels?

It follows that the meaning of any message received is likely always to remain unknown and unknowable.

Similar difficulties would stand in the way of aliens understanding the messages we send to them. In November 1977 Professor Charles Drake and Professor Carl Sagan used the Arecibo radio telescope to send an FM radio message aimed at the M13 star cluster which is 25,000 light years away. The former it will be remembered invented the famous equation that can be used (on varying assumptions) to estimate (or rather guess) the number of currently communicating ‘civilisations’ in the Milky Way. Since the message was sent it has been disclosed that it was never a serious attempt to communicate with aliens but a mere test of the equipment. Further by the time the message reaches its target, star cluster M13 in 25,000 years time, it will have moved away.


The cottage in which Wittgenstein stayed has been demolished and replaced with this building. Note the plaque on the left hand side.

Still it is worth analysing as an example of the type. Other similar messages have been sent to nearby stars and most are expected to arrive in the middle of the current century. The Arecibo message consists of a binary string with 1679 binary digits. The number 1679 was chosen as it is the product of two prime numbers 23 and 73 selected to show the number of rows and columns. Encoded in the message is information about DNA, mathematics, crude images of human beings, the relative size and position of the sun and planets. But there is no reason to suppose that aliens could understand the conventions that for us link images to things represented, or indeed binary digits.

Why should any group of aliens have these concepts or indeed anything that we would recognise as a concept? This point was made unintentionally by a UK Ministry of Defence spokesman who speculated humorously that UFOs might have entered UK airspace for reasons of tourism. Everybody laughed. But the statement is no more ridiculous than Stephen Hawking’s warning that we should not advertise our presence to aliens for fear of provoking an attack. The anthropomorphism is the same. For both tourism and aggression are human concepts applicable to human beings.  And again, why should we believe that aliens have these concepts or that they would be applicable to them?

Speculation about aliens is a good example of how our concepts can fail to grip – or to use Wittgenstein’s phrase, we run up against the limits of language. We can only use human language and human concepts to analyse living entities which are human or animal like. But by definition aliens are not human or animal like and consequently our concepts will be inapplicable if not useless. We have some inkling of the nature of the problem when we wonder whether we can rightly say of a beetle that it feels pain, or that a dog feels remorse. I leave it to you to imagine what sort of understanding we could have of creatures which do not share our 600 million year evolutionary pathway. Indeed, in speculating about the possible existence, lives and ‘civilisation’ of aliens we cannot fail to fall into confusion.


To conclude, one of the effects of recognising the limits to knowledge is that it makes us wonder at the things which are inexplicable and must remain so always. As Drury says – every time we regain consciousness after sleep it is a miracle. He describes the role of the philosopher as follows. It is, he says:07_Rosroe_slipway2016

“To insist that people say only just as much as they really know; that when, as happens in every generation, new advances in knowledge are made, they are not taken to be more important than they really are. You ask what is the value of such scepticism, such agnosticism, such carping criticism? One value only. It keeps wonder secure.” (p113/114)

Drury then tells a parable:

“You are sitting in a room and it is dusk. Candles have been brought in that you may see to get on with the work in hand. Then try to look up and out to the garden which lies beyond; and all you can see is the reflection of the candles in the window. To see the garden the candles must be shaded.

Now that is what philosophy does. It prevents us from being dazzled by what we know. It is a form of thinking which ends by saying, don’t think – look.” (p114)


[1] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, translated by Peter Winch, Basil Blackwell Oxford 1980, p40e.

[2] Colin McGinn, Problems in Philosophy, Blackwell, 1993.

[3] Richard C Lewontin, The Evolution of Cognition: Questions We Will Never Answer, in An invitation to Cognitive Science: Methods, models and conceptual issues, Cambridge MA, MIT Press, 1998, pp 107-131.

[4] Charles Hinton, Casting out the Self, 1904.

[5] Professor JC Eccles, The Neuro-physiological Basis of the Mind, 1953.

[6] Mark Baker, The Creative Aspect of Language Use and Nonbiological Nativism, in Ed. Peter Carruthers, Stephen Laurence, and Stephen Stich, The Innate Mind: Foundations and the Future, (OUP, 2007).

[7] Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, What Darwin Got Wrong, London, 2010.

[8] Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, op cit., p89/91. Another parasitoid wasp, hymenoepimecis agryraphaga, stings its prey, a spider, so that it spins a web of a type that it never spins otherwise and is strong enough to hold the cocoon of the wasp’s offspring.

oxford language evolution[9] Ed. The Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution, OUP, 2012

[10] Allen Tough, ‘An Extraordinary Event’ in Ed Allen Tough, When SETI Succeeds: The Impact of High-Information Contact, Foundation for the Future, 2000, p 3.

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