Tomislav Janović, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy and the Department for Communication Science, Center for Croatian Studies of the University of Zagreb, Croatia. His interests range from philosophy of mind and philosophy of science to ethics and communication. He has worked for the Croatian Ministry of Science and Technology’s Division of Research Projects, at the Institute for Anthropology in Zagreb (as a Junior Research Fellow), and at the University of Zadar, Croatia (as a Senior Lecturer in philosophy). He is author or co-author of scientific articles in peer-reviewed journals and books, and he is currently working on a project on evolutionary naturalism and the problem of moral knowledge.
If an extraterrestrial intelligence should have the technological capacity to decode or at least receive an interstellar message, then it is highly probable that its society would be based on a reasonably high degree of cooperation among its members. Cooperation, in turn, is hardly conceivable without an ability to understand and express emotions and intentions – ability indispensible for setting off a communication process, even in the absence of a common code. This is the role of empathy – affective understanding of other minds. As a psychological mechanism underlying complex types of cooperative behavior, empathy might thus be a psychological universal – a fairly widespread characteristic of intelligent life. In standard communicative situations on Earth, empathy is essential to both of the participants in the communication process. To optimize this process with respect to the resources employed, the sender is typically required to foresee what the receiver already knows. That is, one usually wants to structure a message so that only the necessary information get explicitly encoded, leaving everything else – the potentially redundant part of the information content – implicit. However, in case of interstellar communication, even an impoverished message, leaning heavily on the common context, might fail to get across. Overestimating decoders’ decoding potentials – being too optimistic about aliens’ cognitive abilities or the commensurability of their representational system with ours – may prove fatal for our project. In order to forestall this risk, I propose, and try to justify, the following guideline: if our communicants are incapable of understanding the informative intention behind our message they might still be able to understand our communicative intention – the intention to reveal our presence as intentional beings. For it is much more likely that they will be able to empathically recognize such an intention than to interpret a signal embodying an explicit representational content.