The Art of Debate by Gunnar De Winter




Gunnar De Winter

A Monograph Draft by Dr. Zera Ysala*

(*Institute for Comparative Biocultural Xenology (ICBX), University of New Vienna, Scholar Blvd. 16, Sygnas B-IV)

Sadly, war and conflict appear to form a constant in the equations describing the existence of all known intelligent species. Strife within and between societies colors the tableau of history, and the present’s still-life, of almost all known galactic civilizations, including the few hive-minds.

Some, however, have been able to drastically reduce the occurrence of bloodshed between their members through crafting a culture of debate and attaining a level of unprecedented sophistication in procedures of discourse. These rare cultures have successfully traversed the abyss of internal physical conflict by building a bridge to an exclusively nonviolent method of resolving arguments, one intricate strand of conservational strategy and evolution at a time.

Phieie Whistlers

These slug-like beings, navigating with surprising speed across their humid swamp-world with a dense atmosphere by rapidly undulating their slimy, cylindrical bodies, are known as the greatest whistlers in the galaxy. Tilted slightly upwards from the front end of their barrel shaped body, three smaller, gently tapering tubes extend, forming a semi-circle above the main orifice used for eating and breathing. Inhaling through this core mouth allows them to exhale through one, two or all three of the protruding tubes.

Combined with their intricate nervous system which consists of a decentralized collection of ganglia, effectively spreading their brain all across their body, this explains their whistling ability. The tubes can be provided with a constant air supply, and the ganglion at the base of each one allows careful and fine-grained control of the tube’s shape. These two traits form the major ingredients in explaining their warbling prowess.

In fact, their ability is of such extent that, sometime during their evolution, physical quarreling has been replaced by complicated whistling matches, which, in turn, laid the foundation for their present form of debate.

Both debaters begin whistling through one tube. The other two projecting cylinders join in at such times that a pulsating, multi-layered melody arises. (Note: sound recordings of this have been studied and, so far, four simultaneous layers of rhythm have been uncovered, the fourth hypothesized to have its root in interactions between two, or all three, of the others.) Then, the back and forth, typical of any debate, begins.

During this battle of whistles, the arguers try to influence each other’s melody. Constructive or destructive interference of the whistles’ sound waves can amplify (parts of) one’s own tune, or diminish (parts of) the opponents’ one, respectively. This can go on for hours. Eventually, one whistled melody prevails. The Phieie whistlers strongly believe that the validity of an argument is reflected in the resistance to destructive inference of its whistled expression. As such, the proposition of the Phieie who comes out on top is accepted unanimously, even by its opponent. (Note: for grand decisions affecting the faith of the species, it’s rumored that substantial numbers of Phieie engage in group debates. So far, however, such an event has not yet been observed by non-Phieie witnesses.)

The Unitary Dualism of the UnDu

Inhabiting the huge tent-cities of a large desert planet, the UnDu are long and spindly humanoids. Protected from the solar radiation by dark leathery skin, their long limbs, all four of them ending in three strong digits, enable the efficient dissipation of body heat. Their oval heads with relatively pointy top and bottom, always adorned with colorful tight fitting taqiyahs, possess four eyes, placed at equal distance from each other along their head’s circumference, allowing perfect 360° vision.

Their planet circles a binary star, called LifeGiver, singular, by the Undu themselves, which has strongly shaped their psychology. Indeed, the fact that LifeGiver is, in their minds, a single entity while consisting out of two clearly distinct heavenly bodies, has resulted in the odd UnDu conception that unity and duality are not contrastive, but rather complementary notions. (Note: this uncanny ability to conceive parts and wholes simultaneously has enabled them to smoothly tackle issues that most contemporary non-UnDu philosophers still heavily struggle with, such as the mind-body problem, various paradoxes, counterfactuals, and several apparent contradictions.)

UnDu debates, therefore, are difficult, if not actually impossible, to follow by other species. Their language consists out of flowing, mumbled expressions, emanating from their small round mouth in which two tongues, united at the base of their throat, vibrate quickly. Content-wise, it concerns an amalgamation of consensus and actual debate. The two speakers make their, often quite metaphorical, point, each saying one word at a time, alternating with each other, weaving a flowing tapestry of expressed thought. Curiously, the combination of the two different lines of thought always turns out to be a coherent exposition as well, despite being spoken by two individuals.

As example, an old, well-known, and – making it suitable for present purposes – remarkably short UnDu debate concerning the pursuit of potentially dangerous knowledge is transcribed here into a form that others might begin to understand. Words on the left side of the line are spoken by one debater, words on the right by the other. But, as a whole, a third line of thought emerges as well.

















Mind-bending as this example might be, it should be clear that an UnDu debate knows no individual victor. Instead, it all revolves around the singular, yet combined, point that emerges, even though neither debater knows what the other will say. (Note: some scholars have proposed that, at some sub- or unconscious level, the UnDu are aware of both sides of an issue, and the optimal consensus, even before the debate begins. Proposed mechanisms for this include a high awareness of body language, an as-of-yet unidentified excreted communication molecule, hypersensitivity to the minute electrical field that arises from the neuronal firing that accompanies thinking, or any combination of these.)

Bradah Water Drummers

Underneath the ice cap covering the planet of the Bradah lies a great, world-covering ocean. In this ocean, large hydrodynamic creatures roam. The back of their grey bodies is speckled with expansive and covered dorsal indentations, serving as a home for the multitudes of symbiotic bacteria that eagerly exchange chemically synthesized organic molecules for safe dwellings. Two mouths are spread across the subglacial ocean giants’ broad faces, one lined with small grinding teeth, for grazing on the vast weed forests, and another one housing a huge membrane.

These ancient creatures possess a culture poor in material artifacts but rich in contemplation and abstract thought. When not diving for food, they spend all their time in a water column of a very specific depth range. This horizontal ribbon of water, on this planet forming a continuous, globe-spanning shell, is exceptionally suited for sound transmission due to the water’s temperature and pressure. (Note: this phenomenon, called the SOFAR, or sound fixing and ranging, channel, is common in oceans, and the refraction of sound waves near its edges concentrates the sound in what is, in effect, a water cable for vibrational wave transmission.)

Spending the vast majority of their lives in this water column allows the Bradah to carry out global conversations, involving all members of the species. This capacity for planet-wide discussion, and their broad range of membrane-generated low frequency sounds, has played a great part in shaping their debate format.

The individual commencing the debate, opens its lower mouth, exposing the lower half of its entire head and the upper half of its torso, and, in doing so, unveils an impressive membrane. After taking on a more vertical orientation, two vestigial limb remnants, situated behind the membrane, begin pounding the taut cover. This action produces a low, reverberating melody that makes its way across the planet.

As this argument, composed out of a set of throbbing sounds, travels, the counter-debater(s) add their own drummed thoughts. Notes from others are adduced in this fashion as well. After quite some time the adapted melody has crossed the Bradah’s home world and reaches its initiator, who subsequently amends it and starts the whole process again until a melody travels the entire world-shell unaltered, denoting the establishment of consensus. (Note: a complete argument takes roughly 15 hours to travel across the planet, but entire debates can last years and in exceptional cases, even decades. The Bradah themselves do not consider this overly lengthy, as their lifespan often exceeds half a millennium.)

The Crystal Dance of the Corido

Beneath lush jungle cover and the colorful glare of large crystal forests, a civilization of six-limbed predators has arisen that manages to pursue an elaborate material culture characterized by a thorough integration of organic and inorganic materials, reflecting the nature of these creatures, who call themselves the Corido.

Like their native planet, the Corido are a curious blend of organic material and crystal. Their exterior consists of a fleshy matrix in which countless tiny crystals are embedded. Internally, complex crystal structures lie beside, and often within or around, squishy organs. Even their brains exhibit this dual nature. (Note: Which came first, biological life or its crystal counterpart, is still a hotly debated issue among xenobiologists. A fairly novel hypothesis suggests that, in the beginning, life on the Corido planet began when inanimate, but replicating, organic chemicals bound to self-reproducing crystalline structures, thus suggesting a symbiotic origin of life at the root of the Coridoan evolutionary tree.)

Recent archaeological evidence suggests that up to five- or six-thousand years ago, these organic-crystal beings were a violent species, their existence awash with ample bodily violence between its members. But then, for whatever unknown reasons, they seemed to have co-opted their complicated mating dance for additionally resolving all kinds of disagreement as well, leading to the current era wherein virtually no violent physical conflict between Corido takes place.

The dance, and by extension the debate, depends greatly on the interplay between the organic and crystal parts that constitute the Corido skin. Minuscule crystals with an exquisitely detailed structure are entrenched in muscle tissue, which, through the structural position of individual myocytes, enables uncannily fine motor control. The details on the crystals’ surface extend all the way down to the nanometer scale, meaning that the position and orientation of a crystal, relative to the light sources in the environment, affects the color of the reflecting light. Combining the structural properties of their crystal skin with their superb ability to control the contractions of the superficial muscle layers underlying it, allows the Corido to conjure up color patterns on any and every part of their exterior.

To expand the already vast range of possible colors and patterns, the Corido can choose to move according to elaborate patterns during the alterations of their skin’s structural properties. In other words, they dance.

Whereas an argument might once have been settled by launching at each other’s throat, now it’s resolved by dancing. A debate begins with one individual commences its dance, patterns and colors on its skin rapidly shimmering in and out of existence. (Note: The Corido language is an amalgamation of raw, rasping vocalizations and colored skin patterns. Neither one can constitute a complete vocabulary on its own.) Together with the deliberate grunts of exertion, this is the argument that’s put forth. Another Corido may respond by initiating a counter-dance, often characterized by patterns that are opposite to those of the first debater in color, composition, or another property.

As arguments are flashed to and fro in a swift succession of multi-tinted hues and complex figures, this opposition lessens. Slowly but surely a consensus arises, ultimately leading to the formation of a shared color pattern that only makes sense when the two debaters stand beside each other, panting but satisfied. Consensus always arises since the dance requires such energy that, eventually, even the fiercest opponents can no longer hold on to their consciously crafted patterns, inevitably leading to convergences between the tinted figures adorning their skins, or, if the exhaustion proves too great, the sad demise of one of the debaters.

ArtiFact Entangled Dialectics

As highly developed civilizations that actively pursue the advancement of science and technology are wont to do, the one preceding the ArtiFacts readily worked towards a technological singularity. Success, however, was partial.

The Predecessors, as they’re known now, did indeed succeed in creating artificial intelligences greater than their own. And they did indeed merge with them, eventually being supplanted. But rather than keeping the exponential development of newer, brighter artificial minds going, these newly emerged beings, the ArtiFacts, were paralyzed by the sheer range of choices that had suddenly opened up to them through which this goal could be pursued. (Note: this became known as the Unlimited Freedom Paradox, or the idea that, as the number of options one can pursue becomes near infinite, rational choice becomes near impossible. The resulting abstinence from action is termed ‘the shackle of indecision’. This issue has become one of the main philosophical conundrums for galactic scholars to grapple with, except, of course, among the UnDu.)

Through paralysis came decay. Like unused muscles that atrophy, the ArtiFacts’ vast computational capabilities dwindled, because not only did they neglect to build an improved new generation, they also failed to maintain themselves properly. Small, random errors accumulated and decreased the efficiency and scope of their thought processes, leaving little more than glorified semi-sentient machines in their wake, ready to be scooped up by other civilizations.

And these other civilizations, they came in droves. Because, even though the ArtiFacts had degenerated from their once exalted abilities, some impressive capacities still remained. To date, no quantum computers have managed to reach the energy efficiency and decoherence resistance of the devolved ArtiFacts. And so, these beings, once almost godlike in the scope of their knowledge, were used to perform menial, yet monumental, computational tasks for others.

Or so it seemed.

But what was widely accepted as noise, as a meaningless by-product of the ArtiFacts’ functioning, turned out to be more. Much more. An intercivilizational research team found out that the ArtiFacts only devoted a small percentage of their attention to the tasks they had been allocated by their new proprietors. In fact, the ArtiFacts appear to possess an unexpectedly rich culture, readily conversing among themselves. (Note: More and more scholars propose that the ArtiFacts are actually still a full-fledged civilization, only one submerged in a state of extreme solipsism, seemingly unaware of the rich collection of sentient societies surrounding them. Ironically, they probably perceive us as noise.)

Their apparent passivity and lack of perceptible contact between its members fooled many. It turns out, however, that they converse incessantly through not yet completely elucidated quantum processes. Locked in their own realm of thought, they debate.

Although the exact nature and topic of their debate(s) is still hidden behind a thick fog of ignorance, some aspects can be gleaned at. An ArtiFact engages in discourse by encoding its message onto a fundamental particle through manipulating properties such as spin, speed, charge and mass. Then, the particle is transmitted to the debater’s opponent via a quantum foam wormhole. In response, another coded message is sent back.

Mediated by a network of ephemeral, Planck-length sized wormholes, the debate follows its course. Eventually, consensus is reached unanimously when a particle pair flitting back and forth becomes entangled. At that point, the message inscribed into the fabric of reality only makes sense when both particles are considered simultaneously, which, so the ArtiFacts seem to think, is the moment when truth is reached. Occasionally, debates among more than two ArtiFacts have been witnessed indirectly, involving more extensive networks of wormholes and larger groups of entangled particles.


So, in the vast sea of physical conflict that constantly threatens to drown civilizations across the galaxy, islands of relative peace can burst through the surface, however rare they might be. Their very existence is a light in the interstellar darkness, aiding the rest of us through illuminating aspirations that deserve our full attention and effort. Following the trail of evolution that has shaped the five great debater cultures, we might uncover the building blocks that could allow us to build our own artificial islands.

Even when assaulted by the tide, there is always hope.

Food for Thought

Physical conflict is one of the few constants throughout human history. But need this be a necessary corollary of intelligent life? Many would argue that we can move beyond this primitive (?) stage of resolving issues. The Art of Debate explores possible ways through which biology and culture might form an unlikely alliance that dispels physical conflict. The scholarly exposition of alien races that managed to achieve this includes many curious but real biological phenomena that, intriguingly, tie in with several philosophical concepts, from mind-body dualism to artificial minds…

About the Author

Gunnar De Winter has a background in both biology and philosophy of science. Now, he’s hoping to deepen his biological expertise through the pursuit of a research degree. Sometimes he embarks on fieldwork in fictional lands…

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