SETI in the Matrix

In Dec 2005, Seth Shostak, from the SETI Institute, wrote an article that distances SETI from Intelligent Design. I highly recommend this article, as it helps us see how a scientist goes about trying to detect non-human design.

As Shostak sees it, ID is simply about trying to prove the existence of God and magic with complexity and then forcing children to learn this argument:

Finding evidence of complexity (the Nixon physiognomy) in a natural setting (the spud), and inferring some deliberate, magical mechanism behind it all, would be a leap from the doubtful to the divine, and in this case, Norm feels, unwarranted.

Cliff, however, would have some sympathizers among the proponents of Intelligent Design (ID), whose efforts to influence school science curricula continue to swill large quantities of newspaper ink. As just about everyone is aware, these folks use similar logic to infer a “designer” behind such biological constructions as DNA or the human eye. The apparent complexity of the product is offered as proof of deliberate blueprinting by an unknown creator—conscious action, presumably from outside the universe itself.

Yet these criticisms clearly do not apply to The Design Matrix, meaning that I find this part of his article to be irrelevant. So let’s turn to something that is relevant.

Before we begin our consideration of Shostak’s argument, consider three important points.

First, he notes that “it’s true that SETI is well regarded by the scientific community.” Thus, his reasoning can be adopted.

Second, we should note that the “well regarded” approach of SETI does not involve some rigorous definition and discussion of intelligence prior to scanning the skies.

Third, the “well regarded” approach of SETI has no independent evidence of any aliens who could or would send such signals.

Many people insist we must first rigorously define and explore ‘intelligence’ before proceeding to any design inference. They also insist on independent evidence of the designers. The existence of the well-regarded SETI shows that such demands have always been unreasonable. It would be nice if we had such information, but SETI shows it is not needed.

With that context laid down, let us turn to Shostak’s argument. He writes:

In fact, the signals actually sought by today’s SETI searches are not complex, as the ID advocates assume. We’re not looking for intricately coded messages, mathematical series, or even the aliens’ version of “I Love Lucy.” Our instruments are largely insensitive to the modulation—or message—that might be conveyed by an extraterrestrial broadcast. A SETI radio signal of the type we could actually find would be a persistent, narrow-band whistle. Such a simple phenomenon appears to lack just about any degree of structure, although if it originates on a planet, we should see periodic Doppler effects as the world bearing the transmitter rotates and orbits.

Our sought-after signal is hardly complex, and yet we’re still going to say that we’ve found extraterrestrials.

Thus SETI actually lowers the bar. Surely “intricately coded messages, mathematical series, or even the aliens’ version of “I Love Lucy” would be far more powerful evidence than some narrow-band whistle. So how is it that SETI detects design with such a low bar?

Shostak explains as follows:

Well, it’s because the credibility of the evidence is not predicated on its complexity. If SETI were to announce that we’re not alone because it had detected a signal, it would be on the basis of artificiality.

Very good. To detect design, we don’t need to rigorously define intelligence, address where the designers came from, nor come up with independent evidence for the existence of the designers. Neither do we need to find something that is hopelessly complex. We need only look for something that suggests artificiality. But what would signal artificiality? Shostak tells us that two factors are involved.

First, we look for something that does not seem to be adequately accounted for by natural processes:

An endless, sinusoidal signal – a dead simple tone – is not complex; it’s artificial. Such a tone just doesn’t seem to be generated by natural astrophysical processes. (emphasis added)

The signal is not only something that doesn’t seem to be generated by natural processes, but it doesn’t carry the features of things that are generated by natural processes – signs of Discontinuity (one of the four criteria in the Matrix).

In addition, and unlike other radio emissions produced by the cosmos, such a signal is devoid of the appendages and inefficiencies nature always seems to add – for example, DNA’s junk and redundancy.

That sort of bad engineering is easily recognized and laid at nature’s door.

Very good. So we look for something that not only doesn’t appear to be generated by natural processes (Discontinuity), but something that “is devoid of the appendages and inefficiencies nature always seems to add.” (another criterion – Rationality). What is interesting here is that Shostak uses the Rationality criterion to support the Discontinuity criterion).

From here, Shostak adds a second criterion:

Context is important, crucially important. Imagine that we should spy a giant, green square in one of these neighboring solar systems. That would surely meet our criteria for artificiality. But a square is not overly complex. Only in the context of finding it in someone’s solar system does its minimum complexity become indicative of intelligence.

Yes, context is very important. So is there some context that will help us detect design in life? What’s more, context is crucially tied to perspective. Without the right perspective, it’s not clear the context would ever be appreciated.

Shostak ends his article as follows:

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.

Nicely stated. Let me point out clearly that I did not read Shostak’s article prior to writing The Design Matrix. If I had, I would definitely have mentioned/used it, as my book discusses artificiality, organization, and “out of context” signals to help assess a biotic design inference. The approach that I take is not fundamentally different from that of SETI. This will become more clear in my next posting.

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