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I am writing about my own fictional cluster of solar systems where one planet had many environmental circumstances that lead to the majority of the planets species evolving to be blind and rely on sound and echolocation. On this planet one intelligent species eventually formed a civilization and I have been building how their society might work and their cultures but I have hit a bit of a wall. I want this species to become spacefaring but I have no idea how they might be able to do so. How would a blind species that can only hear and feel interpreted space and stars? How would they be able to navigate in space at all if they cannot see any type of light?

My question is: How would a blind intelligent alien species ships be made? Assume that they are on an earth like planet so they will have similar take off restriction as us. How might their ship interface be like?

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    $\begingroup$ Related: Blind alien, spacetravel? $\endgroup$ Aug 15, 2022 at 15:39
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    $\begingroup$ " Is there a counter part to sonar that can be used in space?" Yes: Radar. $\endgroup$ Aug 15, 2022 at 15:41
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    $\begingroup$ You might want to read Andy Weir's "Project Hail Mary". $\endgroup$
    – Dan Hanson
    Aug 15, 2022 at 15:47
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    $\begingroup$ Please define 'blind'. There are many, many ways to detect radiated energy, they vary by frequency and acuity. There are only two ways to perceive things at a distance - sound and sight. Space is silent. Without sight, how would a species even know there was a 'sky'? It is not a matter of 'How would a blind species interpreted space and stars?' it is a matter of 'COULD they?' $\endgroup$ Aug 15, 2022 at 15:58
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    $\begingroup$ By listening to radio telescopes? $\endgroup$ Aug 16, 2022 at 3:42

11 Answers 11

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If every species on Earth were blind, they could still sense temperature changes between day and night, the timing would be too coincidental to be random, they would still sense rain, winter, summer, and those cycles. They would develop theories, religious at first but increasingly scientific: You can block the sun and rain with shade. Not just by finding it, but by creating it, or carrying the shade maker with you -- a parasol. Obviously, the sun is a special kind of radiation, with sharp "shadow" boundaries, and is unaffected by wind, like rain.

Eventually they would figure out it is radiation, and could develop means of detecting it and other radiation. Whether their equipment is haptic (by touch or position) or audio, they would find stars, moons, perhaps planets. It wouldn't be easy, but they could.

And the idea that light occurs in frequencies, just like sound, would be their obvious analogy. Just like we humans have developed means of perceiving and generating both light and sound beyond our perceptive abilities: ultrasound, infrasound, infrared, and ultraviolet, X-rays are form of light.

We even use the same exact math for sound waves and light waves; at least up until special relativity kicks in. And there is no reason to think their math isn't up to the task.

And most of our understanding in cosmology has nothing to do with the perceptible light of stars -- We use instruments for light well beyond our senses to understand stars. Even the James Webb telescope and it's stunning images is an infrared telescope, the "photographs" we see are translations into our visual range of radiation at frequencies well below our visual range.

Don't rule out the intelligence of your aliens; they'll figure it out. Just realizing there is a Sun would be a major revelation, on a blind planet, but still, I think, an inevitable conclusion.

Edit: P.S. Look at the Starship Enterprise. They seldom "look out the window", they rely almost entirely on their viewscreen. A blind race would similarly rely on touch screens and synthetic sonar audio (like dolphins and bats use sonar to "see" in the dark) representations of what their external "cameras" and sensors show. They'd have no problem navigating. Yes, there is no sound in space, but they can translate light into synthetic sound, just like we translate the infrared pictures of the James Web telescope into frequencies within our own limited range of vision.

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    $\begingroup$ Here's a paper about a system that turns camera images into haptic feedback. $\endgroup$
    – Wyck
    Aug 16, 2022 at 3:55
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    $\begingroup$ @JustinThymetheSecond No, because both sound and light are both properly described by sinusoidal wave forms. This has nothing to do with visualization; congenitally blind people can learn the mathematics of sinusoids and trajectories just fine. The only reason humans use visualization is because vision is our primary sense, so we try to cast everything as visualizations. A congenitally blind race with hearing as their primary sense would automatically put everything in terms of sound, pitch, volume and frequency mixtures, or touch and vibration. Intelligence is more versatile than you imagine. $\endgroup$
    – Amadeus
    Aug 18, 2022 at 16:55
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Imagine an alien pilot in the middle of a spherical chamber. The chamber is covered by millions of tiny speakers. Some of those speakers - perhaps a thousand - emit sounds. Each of those speakers represents a star in that direction. Its volume, frequency and timbre represent various properties of the star like distance, mass and spectral class. A language encoded in melodic overtones of each sound encodes the name of the star.

A human in that chamber would only hear a terrible cacophony of noise. But not so the alien with its superior hearing ability and its brain specifically evolved for making sense of it. It can isolate every single source of sound at once, and its mind can turn them all into a clear 3d representation of its interstellar surrounding.

When the alien hums the name of a star, speakers from all direction blurt soundwaves at the alien. A human in the chamber would think that something on the ship just exploded. But what they actually heard was an explosion of knowledge. In less than a second, the alien just learned everything the ship's database knows about that star system. What planets and moons it has, the history of its exploration and the current economical and political situation in it.

"But is that really possible for a lifeform to evolve like this?" ... thinks the lifeform whose retina currently absorbs the light waves emitted by a rectangle of millions of tiny red, green and blue lights, forming patterns its neural network interprets as "letters", which form "words", which forming "sentences" representing abstract ideas which it visualizes.

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    $\begingroup$ @JustinThymetheSecond Even our language is biased towards vision. We speak of our minds "visualizing" a thing even though we can do it with our eyes closed. A sound-based being could certainly form a mental conception of shapes like a sphere, they would just have a "sonic cortex" to do so instead. Things like shapes and location are physical realities, not artifacts of vision, and they will exist and be perceivable regardless of whether you're using sound or light to detect them. $\endgroup$ Aug 18, 2022 at 19:04
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    $\begingroup$ We don't even have to venture into sci-fi to get a glimpse of how this might work. Check out this decade-old demo from MIT that tracks location of speakers in real time (and isolates their speech) using nothing but 1020 microphones as sensory input. By contrast, each of our eyes has more than 100 million rods - surely a being who uses sound as a primary sense would have a similar magnitude of sonic sensory inputs to work with. $\endgroup$ Aug 18, 2022 at 19:08
  • $\begingroup$ @ cincodenada We talk about 'visualization' because the visual cortex is one of the most dominant features of our brain. We can not escape its dominance. Assigning our concepts of vitalization onto a species that can not visualize is just anthropomorphising in the extreme. $\endgroup$ Aug 18, 2022 at 22:35
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    $\begingroup$ Your debate leads nowhere. I removed the word "visualize" from the answer and phrased that part differently. $\endgroup$
    – Philipp
    Oct 22, 2022 at 14:47
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    $\begingroup$ @Amadeus In that context it makes sense. $\endgroup$
    – Philipp
    Oct 22, 2022 at 17:20
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There is sensing, and then there is imaging.

I think the concept of being 'blind' is locked in to imaging things with a lens onto a surface like a retina and or a piece of film that preserves the spatial relationship of what is being imaged - maybe not perfectly in the case of an astigmatism or other aberrations but basically maps things in 1 to 1 way. If we have two such sensors separated we can get some idea of depth perception and an idea of how far away something is. Or if a person has only one eye, perhaps from experience has an intuition of how far away something is from previous experience.

However to form an "image" you don't need to have a lens, or have the photosensors all located in a nice 2D array like a retina, or CCD or CMOS camera. if do something clever you can reconstruct and image with pretty much much any kind of sensor, usually by chopping signal spatially, or understanding the field of view of the sensor and moving the sensor around, then doing some kind of mathematics to reconstruct the signal. The mathematics in animals being analogous to having some type of brain processing the image biologically. Early televisions for example sometimes only had one sensor and used a spinning disk.

If we look at the signals from other animals with some kind of 'eye' like a compound eye like a human and fly looking at the same object, it could be a pretty different representation from our human perspective. The human seeing one image, the fly a lot but both using a brain to utilize the information input. Or perhaps consider a scallop that has a lot of "eyes" essentially photoreceptors along the edge of the shell.

So the 'image' for different animals could look quite quite a bit different. Frogs for example have their retina wired in way where the edges of objects are highlighted which is good to tracking a moving object. The pupils of carnivores and herbivores are usually oriented in different ways. Driven by the evolutionary needs of hunter vs prey. Some need high resolution like a hawk, other animals maybe a general indication of where light of motion is coming from.

But I think you can take a few cues from how earth plants sense, and then extrapolate how they might "see" the world in a way that is useful for them. The biggest differences being probably the speed of processing the image, and how fast the plants move.

Plants on earth - actually have pretty sophisticated sensing. The orient to the sun, and they have different types of chlorophylls, or absorption mechanisms. - blue light helps tell them where to orient their leaves. The ratio of blue to red light helps let them know how closely other plants are growing near them since the reflected light from surrounding leaves is a different color than non reflected sunlight. They also have circadian rhythms. They can sense gravity - useful as buried seed to orient which way to grow the shoot up out of the soil, and the roots down. Plants sense chemicals and may even communicate with each other chemically. Or at least respond to a damaged plant nearby. They can have a tactile sensor - like the hairs on venus fly trap sensing bending or vibration, or perhaps when a vine grows in a helix up a pole.

A lot of these senses are focused on the immediate environment of the plant, so what would drive the plant to want to be able to sense things farther away? What pressure would drive the plants to respond faster to stimuli?

But the idea of plants seeing has been around since Charles Darwin's son, and in the past 5-10 years it seems like the idea is making a comeback - but perhaps they just don't image like an eye with a lens.

From this Scientific American blurb, you might be able to get some ideas.

Recent work also shows that some plants, such as the cabbage and mustard relative Arabidopsis, make proteins that are involved in the development and functioning of eyespots—the ultrabasic eyes found in some single-celled organisms such as green algae. These proteins specifically show up in structures called plastoglobuli, which are famed for giving autumn leaves their red and orange hues. “This discovery suggests that plastoglobuli in plants may act as eyespots,” Baluška says.

Other observational research reveals plants have visual capabilities we just do not understand yet. For instance, as reported in 2014 in Current Biology, the climbing wood vine Boquila trifoliolata can modify its leaves to mimic the colors and shapes of its host plant.

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  • $\begingroup$ These sensors in plants would give the plant the ability to perceive light and dark, shadow and sun. Even a sudden transition from light to dark - something suddenly coming in close proximity. No visual acuity necessary. $\endgroup$ Aug 18, 2022 at 15:50
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They probably wouldn't. The way you're describing blind seems as if they have no sense of any spectrum of light at all, which would mean they also wouldn't sense infrared and wouldn't be able to tell thermal differences. Although we may say that's our sense of touch, heat is still carried by light.

Even basic vehicles would likely never be invented on such a world; a bicycle is a simple vehicle but even that would pose significant problems. A small unexpected change in terrain could easily dismount a rider, and the faster one moves that becomes more likely to happen as well as more difficult to detect with echolocation. If you want them to invent something like a car then they would likely need to reach the computer age first so they could make machines that are capable of radar telemetry, which would make them having their industrial revolution much more difficult. A train would be somewhat easier to make for them since it would rely on a track and wouldn't require echolocation. But if they're doing that then you have to take into account that they make a lot of noise and that would disrupt their primary sense, so they would likely not even use internal combustion since it's quite loud. Even machines we use which are quiet by comparison could be loud enough to disorient a species which evolved sound as their primary sense; like how you can flip on some devices and hear a high pitched ring like tinnitus, or hear the thrum of a motor as it spins. All computers use a crystal to determine their clock speed, this species wouldn't even be able to easily use piezoelectric devices because as that crystal vibrates it also creates sound due to that vibration.

If, by some miracle, they invented vehicles and propulsion systems for them that were silent or soundproofed they could hypothetically reach the space age. But their space age would probably use something like a space elevator rather than a rocket since it wouldn't be as loud (side note: space elevators also don't need to achieve escape velocity since they're not ballistic at all). After overcoming all of those nearly impossible obstacles it's easy enough to figure out how to navigate though. They would have to have devices that sense light at that point, so they could just point something like a radio telescope around until they found something interesting. NASA has released sound clips of what the different planets sound like by converting their EM signatures into audio, there's no reason they couldn't do something similar with a spectrograph since, as another person pointed out, sound and light waves are largely the same mathematically. Except with their version it would probably play the inverse of what we would see, with the tones generated representing the black lines on a spectrogram rather than us seeing a rainbow with some spots missing. They could use infrared to determine how hot an object was so they didn't fly into a sun, and then determine if any planet had the same or similar EM and spectrographic sounds as their own for determining habitability. In order to determine distance they could use the doppler effect, which they would know of since it exists in both light and sound. Determining the size/ mass of a celestial body would probably be difficult though, but you would need that for understanding another planets gravity and atmosphere so that one could safely land a craft, even a probe.

I imagine if you were sitting in a craft designed to be piloted by sound you would probably hear something like old-school 56k modem noises instead of seeing displays anywhere. Modems take sine waves, chop them up, and reshape them in order to convey information. The term modem is actually a portmanteau of modulate and demodulate, describing the process these sound waves are converted into information. Using a process similar to that, they could effectively understand their sensor readings just efficiently as a human could by reading it on a panel; perhaps even having multiple audio streams playing at once in different frequencies and they simply choose what to listen to like you might listen to a specific person in a crowded room or read from a specific point on the display.

So far as how do they discover space exists, that one seems obvious to me too (if there's sunlight on that planet). Aurora Borealis actually creates an audible sound as the suns radiation interacts with the earths magnetic field and creates a vibration. This phenomenon is something that was largely dismissed as local 'old wives tales' up until relatively recently when it was recorded and sparked study into it. But for a species that relies on sound rather than light, they would probably notice it much much earlier and might even have a religion based around it. After all, they're hearing the sun and effectively the giver of life for their planet so it's plausible it could be interpreted as the voice of god by a primitive civilization.

Edit: Didn't think I had to explain this, but I seem to be mistaken. Every living thing in our biosphere emits some spectrum of light and cannot survive without it. You can measure the EM field of a person, and the electromagnetic spectrum IS light, meaning we emit light. Birds sense EM fields and navigate using that; pit vipers have sacks within their heads which allow them to effectively have "heat vision"; plants tend to grow in the direction where sunlight is coming from. You could remove the eyes of a rattlesnake or pigeon and it would still have some sense of different light spectrums. OP specifically states that this is a world where evolution took a different path and seems to imply (at least to me) no photosensitivity of any kind.

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Aug 19, 2022 at 2:30
  • $\begingroup$ But who builds the space elevator? $\endgroup$ Oct 22, 2022 at 13:01
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We do actual spacecraft ops almost blind. Even star trackers don't generally record pictures, just the coordinates of a few reference stars. Accelerometers, gyroscopes, magnetometers, Sun and Earth sensors, radio ranging, and Doppler measurements are not visual.

And humans are almost blind anyway. We can only see a tiny part of the electromagnetic spectrum. One project I've recently been involved in is SEXTANT, a demonstration of space navigation using x-ray pulsars.

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  • $\begingroup$ By that measure we're almost completely insensate since every one of our senses is limited to specific ranges. I get what you're saying, but fortunately we don't compare our senses against the ranges our equipment is capable of to determine whether we have senses at all. $\endgroup$
    – Corey
    Aug 18, 2022 at 3:21
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If they are blind, mayhap they developed as a subterranean species. Hence could have some advantages over humans in traveling in confined spaces like spaceships. Although disadvantages besides the obvious, like severe agoraphobia. Which would impede the discovery of space flight. Though that said, and underground existence is harsh and would breed hearty minds for survival. There would be those that viewed the void above and accepted it's challenge.

One would surmise without eyes heat reception would be a secondary sense that would be developed. Touch or otherwise, infrared radiation would be the gateway into the electromagnetic spectrum where they would be able to start detecting objects in the void. Jumping from IR to Radio they would have be able to detect other celestial bodies in the beginning.

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The sense of hearing does not have to be the only way. In the same way that magnetotactic bacteria or other species can utilize molecules that respond to the Earth's magnetic field, it can be possible for your alien to discover some chemical or molecule that's extremely sensitive to the curvature of space and time. This would enable it to be aware of masses that wiggle or move in space. The ripples caused by such masses (stars, black holes, planets, asteroids or even other entities that humans have never discovered because we don't have the sensory capabilities), can be detected by your alien's extremely sensitive cells, which don't have to be like our cells. They can be of a sub-atomic nature or even much more massive than the earth...which means your alien could be a giant that's as big as our solar system.
Their ships can either be covered with sensors that detect the ripples or the ships could even be composed of multiple aliens, like how these slime molds assemble. Their take-off restrictions don't have to be like ours. They can simply get into a much larger creature and mind control it. So if your alien is like an ant that's too small to break out of the surface tension of water (gravity of planet), it can get into the body of a frog and control it to get out of the water. As an example. Even intelligence can be thought of differently.

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Translate sensors for the blind

The problem is approached as a person who can see vs a blind person. That creates a wrong image. From a sharks perspective we would be blind, yet we can navigate under water. We even have large submarines going at respectable speeds at depths where vision is moot. We translate what sensors we have to something we understand.

If you have a spacefaring civilization you can be certain they have researched into translation. Much like we translate spoken words to vision (written words) or touch (braille), they would translate a multitude of sensors into something understandable. We do it all the time in the real world. Plenty of deep space pictures are made with the electromagnetic spectrum we can't see.

If you think that space still is beyond the imagination of a blind person, even with translation, I would say it is beyond the imagination of normal humans as well. Space is unbelievably big with unbelievably big and powerful objects and events. This is spaced out by unbelievable distances of empty space. We just make it understandable by simplifying it and some math or results.

A blind person would do no other thing. They would translate their location into simple terms they understand thanks to technology, supported by astrophysics math. They then make decisions that are performed by computers.

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We know a lot about space that we cannot see - such as the surface under the clouds of Venus. We invented radar, and translate the radar results to a visible image on a screen. So we see what is not visible.

Sound move in the same way as light (although the longer wavelength yields lower resolution.) So these aliens "see", but not by utilizing light. Echo location gives them a mental image of their surroundings, with a resolution limited by wavelength.

Such intelligent aliens surely invented equipment for improving their seeing. Amplifiers lets them "see" a bit further. Their telescopes. Using ultrasound might allow zooming in on smaller details. Their microscopes.

They would notice that the atmosphere ends, limiting what they can "see". But their scientists might discover radar just like we did. And instead of visualizing with a screen, they would visualize by converting the signals to sound.

A spaceship might use radar for seeing planets, "visualizing" by running the signal through a system of speakers. With several small speakers, they can synthesize phase and direction matching what the ship radar "sees".

Optical instruments can detect stars too far away for radar, and "visualize" in a similar manner. So, eyeless aliens can navigate space just fine.

They might evolve eyeless if their atmosphere isn't transparent to light.

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When you say blind, do you mean blind to only the wavelengths of photon energy that human eyes are sensitive to? Or are they blind to the entire electromagnetic spectrum. -- Because if they only could rely on sound/echo location... I think space navigation is out of the question for them. They would need some kind of way to detect energy waves-- something from gamma down to x-rays or visible light to humans, or all the way low frequency like 'radio' waves. We make HUGE radio wave telescopes here on ear h to peer way way way back to the early universe letting us literally look back in time and 'see' what was happening billions of years ago.

Interesting question. But if they truly were limited to sound, i think the entire 'intelligence' part may come into question since they surely would be able to use other energy waves and build devices to convert that into something they could then 'hear'? -- odd idea, what a unique world that would be i can only imagine.

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  • $\begingroup$ As it’s currently written, your answer is unclear. Please edit to add additional details that will help others understand how this addresses the question asked. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center. $\endgroup$
    – Community Bot
    Aug 18, 2022 at 5:12
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As a 'frame challenge', this question seems to me to fall into the category of 'What is the sound of one hand clapping?". No matter how much thought, concentration, or focus is put into the answer, the answer just does not take any substance.

The question is very premature. Without understanding how this society preserves and communicates abstract ideas, learning, and scientific illustration, it is impossible to give any notion of how they would design an interface between the complex operation of a spaceship and the operator. How does this society preserve a representation of reality in their mind?

A species that has always been blind, and that has never had any contact with any species that HAS sight or visual experience, or that has never had any evolutionary experience with visualization, would also have no printed form of communication, no drawings, no concept of perspective, no system of scientific or mathematical representation or symbolism in any form that even approaches our complexity.

Most attempts at an answer would, I suspect, fall in to the category of 'anthropomorphism' -

noun The conception of animals, plants, or nature in general, by analogy with man: commonly implying an unscientific use of such analogy.

But the category of 'animals, plants, or nature' also includes 'alien sentient species'.

Most answers involve a translation or projection of our 'seeing' or 'visualizing' world into the world of the blind, allowing the blind to make 'adaptations' to understand or interpret our visualized 'seeing' construction of reality. But in this civilization there would be no 'seeing world' to translate. They would not, could not, even in the remotest sense, have any concept of the world as we understand it. None of the visual constructs that we use to represent our world would even be contemplatable by them. Their minds would be totally different, their symbolism for thinking and abstract reasoning totally alien. There would be no ability to 'visualize' anything.

Their minds would be totally different from ours, and operate in a totally different manner, with totally different structures. There would be no evolutionary similarity between the minds of this species and our mind. Nothing in the history of evolution of this species has any instance of 'visual perception', that would necessitate any brain area or structure that would lead to any form of the mind being able to 'visualize' the world. The entire concept of 'visualization' and 'visual recreation of reality' would be non-existent in the mind. And there would be no mind structures that evolved to even simulate it.

For instance, without sight, there is no mathematical symbolism. No representation of numbers, equations, mathematical concepts such as the 'integral' sign. Trying to envision how this society would operate in any engineering/scientific manner is pure conjecture, it is so beyond anything humans can even conceive of.

Even such a concept as a 'straight line' as we form it would be, in a non-visual species, not even remotely close to how we 'visualize' it. In fact, it would not even be 'visualized' in this species. The visual area of our mind has cells specifically purposed to detect and record instances of 'straight lines' in the visual field and incorporate them into the general zeitgeist of our thoughts and perceptions. When we see a straight line in the visual field, these cells are triggered and pass the event up the chain of processing. These cells are primitive and pre-historic, pre-human in fact. They are so ingrained and integrated in our information processing and thinking, at such a basic low-level neurological level, they form the basis of our interpretation and understanding of our written language and of mathematics. Any species that has never had, in their evolution, any experience with visualizing straight lines would not have these structures, these cells, and this concept. Yes, it is true we can impart in the non-seeing person our neurotypical concept of a 'straight line', but that is only because as a visual species we HAVE developed this concept of a 'straight line', even in the blind. If there were never a way to visualize a straight line in the first place to this species, there could be no method by which this visualization could be imparted to the non-seeing. That is, we can communicate to the non-seeing the concept of a straight line ONLY because, as a visual species, we have formed the concept, and we have formed the mind structures to handle such a concept. Even the blind are born with the brain structures to encompass the concept. This species could not incorporate or integrate the 'straight line' experience and concept into their thinking the way we do.

Before any answer to 'how could this species interface with a spaceship' can be answered, therefore, one would have to know exactly how this species represents reality in their mind. Otherwise, any answer is just conjecture - projecting how we, as a seeing visual species, perceive and think about the world, onto this species whose brain structure, thinking, conceptualization, and symbolic representation would be completely unrelated to anything human.

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  • $\begingroup$ I agree with you that a species without sight would have a radically different perception of the world, but I think you're falling into the very pit you describe by asserting that they would have "no mathematical symbolism", and I don't think the concept of a straight line is inherently visual, shapes are generalizations of physical reality, not visual reality. There are many ways a nonvisual species could record and represent concepts and perceive shapes, especially if they have as many sensory and mental resources dedicated to sound and touch as we do to sight. $\endgroup$ Aug 18, 2022 at 19:29
  • $\begingroup$ For that matter, even within human history, the earliest forms of writing (clay tablets, wax, inscriptions on bark, etc) all involved texture differences that a sufficiently advanced sonar sense could certainly read. Or if you want an example of divergent systems: multiple human cultures have used knotted strings to record and communicate. While it's true that writing really took off once papyrus and the like showed up, I don't think it's far fetched to suppose that a sonar-based life form would come up with a papyrus analogue that retains sufficient texture, and even takes advantage of it! $\endgroup$ Aug 18, 2022 at 20:04
  • $\begingroup$ @ cincodenada Porpoises are highly intelligent, yet can only communicate by sound. Even though they do have sight, although that sight has very limited range under water, there is no evidence they have a symbolic mathematical ability. How do you record a calculus theorem without writing it down so you can see the entirety? The beginning and the end? A 'knotted string' is not going to solve differential equations. It can do arithmetic, but not math. $\endgroup$ Aug 18, 2022 at 22:42

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