Tag Archives: SETI

SETI and ID: The Two Differences

After considering SETI from a higher resolution perspective, let’s again turn to the comparison of ID with SETI.  Seth Shostak argues the two differ in two crucial regards:

In short, the champions of Intelligent Design make two mistakes when they claim that the SETI enterprise is logically similar to their own: First, they assume that we are looking for messages, and judging our discovery on the basis of message content, whether understood or not. In fact, we’re on the lookout for very simple signals. That’s mostly a technical misunderstanding. But their second assumption, derived from the first, that complexity would imply intelligence, is also wrong. We seek artificiality, which is an organized and optimized signal coming from an astronomical environment from which neither it nor anything like it is either expected or observed. Very modest complexity, found out of context. This is clearly nothing like looking at DNA’s chemical makeup and deducing the work of a supernatural biochemist.

Shostak is correct in noting there are two ways in which SETI and ID differ, but these are not them. Yes, SETI is looking for very simple signals, but as we have seen, should they succeed, it is unlikely that many people, apart from the enthusiasts, will embrace such ambiguous evidence as evidence for ETI.  The SETI people would have to focus more closely on the region that emits the simple signal in search for something that is unequivocal – something the human mind would recognize as a message.

As for the second difference, the ID people don’t infer design from complexity; they too look for artificiality; they too look for something organized and optimized that is out of context. That’s why they propose various molecular machines and codes that cannot be explained by natural processes.

Since Shostak fails to clearly distinguish ID from SETI, what are the two ways in which they differ?
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SETI Explained

Let’s consider the methodology that SETI employs to detect the existence of design.

First, SETI builds on two scientific facts: 1)The universe contains an immense number of stars and 2) Intelligent life, capable of producing technology, evolved on this planet.

This foundation is then used to ask a question: Since intelligent life exists on this planet, and the universe contains many stars, many of which could have their own planets, might not intelligent life exist on other planets?

The scientific answer at this point is, “Maybe, maybe not.”  In other words, “Who knows?” Of course, if one is going to go to all the trouble and search for alien intelligence, one probably has some reason to believe ETI does exist.  This reason is supposed to come from the Drake equation.  But as Michael Crichton pointed out, the variables of the Drake equation are subjectively determined.  Thus, the Drake equation does not tell us anything about the objective world around us.  In fact, this excerpt from SETI’s senior astronomer, Seth Shostak, should clue you that the Drake equation is just window dressing:

Why do we think that E.T. is out there in the first place? It’s simply a matter of numbers….it’s likely that the number of planets is an order of magnitude larger, or 10^23, which is the number of grains of sand on all the beaches of Earth. That’s a lot of real estate, so if you think that Earth is the only grain of sand where anything interesting is happening, one has to admire your audacity.

In other words, there are so many planets out there that it would be audacious (!) to think we are the only intelligent beings that exist.   That’s the whole argument.  Appealing, yes, but also quite subjective.

While the question at the heart of SETI is rooted in scientific fact, the search itself is not science in action.   This explains why so very few actual scientists even bother with SETI.  However, unless one is a proponent of scientism, this fact alone does not invalidate the search.  After all, science is not required to make discoveries about the world.

So how does SETI actually set out to search for ETI?

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SETI, ID, and Science

Let us continue to consider SETI and its relation to both ID and science.  There is a simple fact that is often overlooked in these discussions – SETI has failed to come up with a single positive result.  This is important.  It means that even if one thinks SETI is science, we can still argue that without independent evidence of the designers, science has a) never detected design and b) never seriously proposed design as an explanation for any given phenomenon.  So as it stands today, SETI fails as a counter-example to my position:

Without independent evidence of the designers, science has no method to evaluate and determine whether or not something was designed.

But let’s dig a little more deeply.  Since SETI has yet to come up with a single positive result, we must rely on our imagination to anticipate the reaction of the scientific community.  So let’s again consider Seth Shostak’s description of SETI’s method:

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Michael Crichton: “SETI is not science”

Michael Crichton explains why SETI is not science:

Cast your minds back to 1960. John F. Kennedy is president, commercial jet airplanes are just appearing, the biggest university mainframes have 12K of memory. And in Green Bank, West Virginia at the new National Radio Astronomy Observatory, a young astrophysicist named Frank Drake runs a two week project called Ozma, to search for extraterrestrial signals. A signal is received, to great excitement. It turns out to be false, but the excitement remains. In 1960, Drake organizes the first SETI conference, and came up with the now-famous Drake equation:

N=N*fp ne fl fi fc fL

Where N is the number of stars in the Milky Way galaxy; fp is the fraction with planets; ne is the number of planets per star capable of supporting life; fl is the fraction of planets where life evolves; fi is the fraction where intelligent life evolves; and fc is the fraction that communicates; and fL is the fraction of the planet’s life during which the communicating civilizations live.

This serious-looking equation gave SETI an serious footing as a legitimate intellectual inquiry. The problem, of course, is that none of the terms can be known, and most cannot even be estimated. The only way to work the equation is to fill in with guesses. And guesses-just so we’re clear-are merely expressions of prejudice. Nor can there be “informed guesses.” If you need to state how many planets with life choose to communicate, there is simply no way to make an informed guess. It’s simply prejudice.

As a result, the Drake equation can have any value from “billions and billions” to zero. An expression that can mean anything means nothing. Speaking precisely, the Drake equation is literally meaningless, and has nothing to do with science. I take the hard view that science involves the creation of testable hypotheses. The Drake equation cannot be tested and therefore SETI is not science. SETI is unquestionably a religion. Faith is defined as the firm belief in something for which there is no proof. The belief that the Koran is the word of God is a matter of faith. The belief that God created the universe in seven days is a matter of faith. The belief that there are other life forms in the universe is a matter of faith. There is not a single shred of evidence for any other life forms, and in forty years of searching, none has been discovered. There is absolutely no evidentiary reason to maintain this belief. SETI is a religion.

One way to chart the cooling of enthusiasm is to review popular works on the subject. In 1964, at the height of SETI enthusiasm, Walter Sullivan of the NY Times wrote an exciting book about life in the universe entitled WE ARE NOT ALONE. By 1995, when Paul Davis wrote a book on the same subject, he titled it ARE WE ALONE? (Since 1981, there have in fact been four books titled ARE WE ALONE.) More recently we have seen the rise of the so-called “Rare Earth” theory which suggests that we may, in fact, be all alone. Again, there is no evidence either way.

Back in the sixties, SETI had its critics, although not among astrophysicists and astronomers. The biologists and paleontologists were harshest. George Gaylord Simpson of Harvard sneered that SETI was a “study without a subject,” and it remains so to the present day.

But scientists in general have been indulgent toward SETI, viewing it either with bemused tolerance, or with indifference. After all, what’s the big deal? It’s kind of fun. If people want to look, let them. Only a curmudgeon would speak harshly of SETI. It wasn’t worth the bother.

SETI – Context Matters

As we have seen, the science of archaeology and forensics rely extensively on our knowledge about humans, so they are not analogous to ID.  But what about SETI?  We have no extensive knowledge about ETI.  We don’t even know if any exist.  That’s the whole point of SETI – a search for the existence of ETI.

While SETI is an investigation that formulates a hypothesis and tests its hypothesis, I do not consider SETI science anymore than I consider a search for Bigfoot to be science.  And recall that I have argued that just because we are talking about an investigation that generates testable hypotheses does not mean the investigation is science.

Yet as Bilbo says, “even if Mike wouldn’t consider SETI to be science, I think most scientists would.”

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But What About SETI?

In the previous posting, I argued that science needs some independent information about the designers before it can use an intelligent cause as part of an explanation.  For as I noted, the science of archaeology and forensics rely extensively on our knowledge about humans.  But there is one exception and Bilbo raised it:

Further, if SETI ever received the wished for radio signal, that would be considered sufficient evidence of a designer, even though we had no other independent evidence for one. And even if Mike wouldn’t consider SETI to be science, I think most scientists would.

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More Face Lessons

A high resolution photo of a Face on Mars would be good evidence for design. This would be especially true if we had several photos from different angles, each one convincingly showing a face. But why would it be evidence for design? What is the thinking process that would lead us to this inference?

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Similarities Between SETI and the Design Matrix

When it comes to inferring design, there are actually several points of significant similarity between SETI and the approach that I advocate in The Design Matrix

1. Neither SETI nor TDM expend much effort on precisely and rigorously defining “intelligence” before proceeding with the investigation. Instead, both extrapolate from our experience with the only known example of intelligent agency – us. This is because we have a wealth of information, both subjective and objective, about human designers.

2. Both SETI and TDM attempt to infer design without the luxury of having an independent base of knowledge about the proposed designers.

3. Both SETI and TDM eschew the purely negative approach, but can incorporate a negative approach as part of a larger investigative analysis without becoming a “gaps” argument. For example, when Seth Shostak argues, “Such a tone just doesn’t seem to be generated by natural astrophysical processes” and Steven Novella says, “finding an anomaly that cannot be explained by known natural processes,” they are appealing to discontinuities. But they are not claiming we should infer an intelligent cause based solely on this discontinuity/negative argument.

4. Both SETI and TDM bundle negative claims into an overall approach that includes a positive claim. For example, Novella writes, “The second, however, is positive – finding that the signal has markers of technological intelligence, as best as we can infer from our solitary self-example.” The positive claims draw upon analogy and what we know about design and designers. In The Design Matrix, the positive approach is split into three points of emphasis – Analogy with what is known to be designed, signs of Rational design, and hallmarks of Foresight.

5. Both SETI and TDM use what I call ‘inductive gradualism.’ That is, clues are gathered as part of an open-ended investigation as we attempt to probe whether the possibility of design is plausible and the plausibility of design is probable. As such, both SETI and TDM would require patience, an open mind, intellectual honesty, and a sensitivity to the clues.

6. Neither SETI not TDM amount to science, while there are many proponents of SETI and ID, respectively, who would disagree with this.

All of this tells me that the approach I advocate in TDM is indeed reasonable.

Of course, there are significant differences between SETI and TDM. I’ll consider these in the next installment.

SETI in Odd Places

One of the most common objections to a design inference in life is the belief that we must first have independent knowledge and evidence of the designers – their identity, their motivations, their psychology, and their methods – in order to infer design. I call this designer-centrism. It would indeed be nice if we had this independent knowledge about the designer(s), but there is no good reason for thinking it is necessary. For example, Paul Davies doesn’t think it is necessary:

“If ET has put a message into terrestrial organisms, this is surely where to look,” said Davies.

A computer could be used to find obvious attention-grabbing patterns within these stretches of DNA, he said. If a sequence of junk units of DNA were displayed as an array of pixels on a screen and produced a simple image “the presumption of tampering would be inescapable”.

Yet why would such a presumption of tampering would be inescapable? What is the reasoning process that would lead us to this conclusion? I propose it would be just as I described in my book:

Or consider the example of a message in the DNA from Chapter 6. Th e discovery of written text in the DNA might trigger a design inference even among the most extreme of skeptics because it would simultaneously satisfy both criteria. The text itself would be strongly analogous to things human beings produce and such text would unlikely have been spawned by non-teleological processes…..The key is that an analogy to designed things is coupled to a discontinuity with non-teleological processes. They are two sides of the same coin.

More Matrix and SETI

Seth Shostak is the Senior Astronomer at the SETI Institute. We have seen that his description of SETI contains several points that converge with the approach that I take in The Design Matrix. Let me now make this even more clear with a posting by Steven Novella, who is a neurologist at Yale University School of Medicine.

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