In a far distant future. The Earth has become uninhabitable to all life. Too hot for plants to respirate and grow. An advanced alien race stumbles upon our burned-out cinder of a planet. Signs of a once-great culture abound. While excavating one of the tall surface ruins an explorer finds a box. In the box is two large books. One is the “Bible” and the other is “The Lord Of The Rings”. Next to it is a small note on very brittle paper. The note reads “One of these books is a work of fiction”.
Could an alien intelligence understand what kind of literature these books are?
For a mind to wrap around this situation a few assumptions must be made. You cannot answer this question without anthropomorphizing your hypothetical aliens. You have to make certain assumptions about the aliens that would come from your own projection of what intelligence should look like.
An alien race that has earth-like religion in its history will obviously see the Bible as a religious text. The stories in Bible drive you towards a certain morality, and a person who is not familiar with it can tell, on first reading, that the Bible is telling you some things are bad and some things are good.
An alien race with no concept of a tri-Omni god is likely to see God as a tyrannic alien being. They will probably come to earth to investigate God, and not humans.
One could assume that the aliens are highly human – not only in terms of appearance etc. – but in terms of having a spoken language, a script, and most importantly, we’re assuming that fiction and stories exist across all races in the Universe and that humans are not the only ones with that gift.
Do the aliens understand English? Probably not. They would then take these objects with them and hand them over to the alien historian. They are an advanced race, having mastered intergalactic travel. They would have evolved way beyond books into something hi-tech. It depends on how much they’ve evolved, but they probably view these books (and note) the way we view cave paintings. Hopelessly ancient.
Right then, the alien historians and maybe alien linguists get together and try to fathom the script and the language. Personally, I think two books and one-note may not be enough to do so – but I’ll leave that for true historians and linguists to answer. My point here is that in the absence of any context, it may not be easy to figure out what these are and proceed to deconstruct the language from thereon. It may be a couple of novels. It may be a textbook of anthropology. It may be a religious text. It may contain information on how to revive planet earth and its civilization, which may be lying asleep in deep subterranean vaults a la Magrathea. Who knows?
Let us assume that the aliens can figure out the script and the language. The anthropomorphic assumption kicks in again. “Hobbits had hair on their feet.” Do they know what hair is? What are feet? When we say Gandalf rode on a white horse, do they know what a horse is? It is after the earth has ended so they haven’t seen one. Neither book describes a horse in great detail. Or trees, rivers, houses, birds, clouds, clothes, bread and other commonplace things. Again we assume that these things exist in the alien civilization, and are equally commonplace and have similar uses (meaning they cut trees, ride horses and eat bread) – else the aliens shall spend a considerable amount of time figuring out what it is that is being said.
I would think that they would definitely know that The Lord of The Rings was fiction and that The Bible was something else. Just based on syntax and structure.
- LOTR has a clear storyline, colorful language, suspense, and other things that the very dry Bible often lacks
- The Bible clearly seems as though it’s been written by multiple authors and probably translated and retranslated, which is why the text seems so simple and stilted
- The Bible contains footnotes, songs, many stories told multiple times from different perspectives, conflicting messages, and spans all of the human existence. There’s just so much information that doesn’t add up to a narrative. It’s clearly not a novel.
If they had any concept of religion, then I think they could identify the Bible as a pseudo-historical religious text. If they did not, they would probably consider it to be a meticulous work of meta-fiction.
Alien physiology shall play a major role in the interpretation of the two books (and note). Do the aliens “eat”? Do they breathe, and will they choke if there’s no oxygen? Do they die? All these factors will play a part in how they decipher the books (and note).
Then comes some deeper philosophical stuff about their society. Do they have morals? Do they have property rights? Both the Bible and LOTR have some moral message – Don’t kill others, don’t steal, being evil is bad, etc. Will this make sense to them? Do they have wars? Do they have multiple races and the associated conflict? (Elves vs. Orcs, Devas vs. Asuras, etc) Do the aliens understand the concept of fiction? Do they have a concept of storytelling? Do they lie? Do they have a religion? Do they have atheists? Do they violently argue about the existence of god on internet forums? We’re assuming a great deal about the aliens methinks.
If this thought experiment is to prove the hypothesis that aliens who are presumably far removed from our world and hence independent arbiters will prove that the Bible is fake/fabricated or some such, my guess is that they will never get to that.
But who knows their intelligence might allow for instant translation and prove to be very simplistic. With a good solid suspension of disbelief, one can imagine any species capable of interstellar travel will be intelligent enough to identify both The Lord of the Rings” and the “Bible” as works of fiction.
They will also realize that The Lord of the Rings is a wonderful, self-consistent work of fiction filled with good moral examples while the bible is a terrible, self-contradictory work of fiction filled with a few good moral examples overshadowed by a tremendous amount of sociopathic and psychotic behavior.
Assuming they have critical levels of literary inclination and a terrestrial bent for philosophy and morality, they will shove the Bible away as a churlish work of fiction, inchoate in its narrative and body, jarred by weak characterizations, and marred by a phony, implausible plot. The Lord of the Rings, on the other hand, would receive critical acclaim – the ET Bookers perhaps – and would be judged a mature work of fiction, worthy of becoming a prescribed text on literature in the ET universities.
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