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?

First, SETI is making an assumption that there is nothing terribly unique or special about human intelligence.  Not only would it feel audacious to think so, but we require this assumption to proceed with the search.  This is because SETI uses human intelligence and behavior as a proxy for the sought after alien intelligence.  For example, since we have developed radio technology and are obsessed with communication, it is assumed these human traits also exist in aliens.  If they didn’t, SETI could not even get off the ground.

This working is assumption is rooted in Analogy.  So it is the Argument from Analogy that provides the guidance for the investigation.  Yet the assumption and analogy deepens, in that not only does SETI assume there are other human-like intelligences that communicate with radio technology, but that there are some that are looking for other intelligences by trying to get their attention.

So far, we can see that the search is rooted in a subjective intuition that uses an assumption, rooted in Analogy, to anticipate the existence of a specified pattern – a persistent, narrow-band whistle.  What’s more, the criterion of Analogy is coupled to the criterion of Discontinuity, as this persistent, narrow-band whistle would also represent something that could not be explained by our current understanding of natural processes.

While SETI’s 40-year search has a track record of complete failure (not being science, its subjective working assumption is unfalsifiable, after all), what if this whistle is found?  Given the coupling of Analogy and Discontinuity, I would consider it evidence for ETI.  However, it would simply be cause to tentatively propose the existence of ETI, cause to suspect its existence as plausible.  In essence, the narrow-band whistle would be similar to the vague Face on Mars from the 1970s.  A higher resolution analysis would be needed.  We need a detailed Face on Mars.

As explained in the last posting, this higher resolution analysis would entail the search for some message or pattern in the region of the whistle.  The message itself would simply be an attempt to deepen the criterion of Analogy and Discontinuity.  That is, while a persistent, narrow-band whistle would be both analogous to intelligent causation and not well explained by natural processes, a fortiori, a message would be even more analogous to intelligent causation and arguments for natural causation would become unreasonable.  In other words, SETI would have detected the design of another mind without having a single shred of independent information about the designers.  Instead, working assumptions about the designers were provided by Analogy (using humans as a proxy) that was boosted by coupling it to Discontinuity.

In summary, I, along with many other skeptics, do not think SETI is science, largely because of its inherently subjective rationale.  However, since we can and do make discoveries without science, this is not really an argument against SETI.  SETI’s rationale, while subjective, is not whimsical or unreasonable.  And if they succeed in detecting design in the skies, they will have proven what is already known by yours truly – you don’t need independent information about the designers to infer design.

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34 responses to “SETI Explained

  1. I might be mistaken, but I don’t think the motivation for doing research is the determining factor of whether one is doing science. I think it’s the results that matter. For example, one might have a dream of a snake biting its tail, and be motivated to hypothesize the benzene ring.

  2. I personally think the search is a mistake. I think that it is highly probable that if we encountered an alien race, it would be a negative experience. Any race that would develop the technology for finding us in the vastness of space is probably highly advanced, competitive, aggressive, and expansionist. We would end up the losers.

  3. You might be right, Alan, but were we doing science?

  4. Did humans evolve from knuckle-walkers? Maybe, maybe not.

    IOW who knows?

    The premise can be summed up:

    With all that time and the resources it’s simply a matter of numbers.

    Trial and error with an almost infinite number of tries and you get humans.

    We are comforted by the fact that evolution occurred.

    Also given the design inference I would expect life on other planets.

    To think we would be the only ones in this whole universe is arrogance.

    But anyway with SETI how is their search any different than the search for fossils- ie Shubin’s alleged prediction (recently demolished) about a transitional form?

    The Drake equation- superseced by the equation in “Rare Earth” which has been superseded by the equation in “The Privileged Planet” tells us what to look for to find technologically advanced organisms.

    Then there is the detection process- differentiating the signal from the noise.

    That wouldn’t be any different than forensic science and archaeology.

  5. recently demolished?

    LOL. Getting your news from ENV / the disco institute?

  6. Recently demolished- yes that is a fact supprted by the scientific data.

    Ya see Rich Shubin et al., were under the assumption they were looking for a transitional based on faulty data.

    Had the new found tracks been found before they went looking for Tiktaalik they wouldn’t have been looking where they did.

    You don’t look for transitionals after the transition has been made.

    Maybe you do….

  7. Joe, you should really get your biology from biologists:

    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/01/casey_luskin_embarrasses_himse.php

    All IDists can do is try to twist others effort to fit their epsitomologically sterile conjecture.

  8. PZ Meyers?

    You reference PZ Meyers?

    I wouldn’t trust him for the time of day.

    He is a strawman maker if there ever was one.

    But anyway he didn’t even address the issue I raised.

    If you read “Your Inner Fish” (I have), you will read that Shubin et al., were looking for something in paticular and in a specific location because they thought that is where the transitional form should be given the data.

    The new finds says they were looking in the wrong strata.

    And it isn’t my fault that neither you nor PZ understands that fact.

  9. Okay Joe. Before you tell people what the weather is, you might want to look out of the window. What are the odds of flying off randomly somewhere and finding a transitional you’re looking for?

  10. “You don’t look for transitionals after the transition has been made.” This is great, and perhaps highlights your fundamental misunderstanding. All species may well be transtitionals to another. Including ourselves. Will I find no signs of humans in the present, as our transition has already happened? Is a transition a one day event?

  11. Hi Joe,

    Did humans evolve from knuckle-walkers? Maybe, maybe not.

    IOW who knows?

    If humans did not evolve from knuckle-walkers, then why is the human body so similar to that of a knuckle-walker?

  12. Michael:

    If humans did not evolve from knuckle-walkers, then why is the human body so similar to that of a knuckle-walker?

    Common design- but we ain’t all that similar.

    I have been studying kinesiology- the study of human movement- basically the way muscles attach to bones and are controlled by nerves.

    There isn’t any genetic data which demonstrates changes in the genome of a knuckle-walker can rearrange that network to give rise to an upright biped.

    How can we even test the premise?

  13. Rich,

    I will say it again-

    Shubin et al., (this is all in the book which I will get tomorrow if the library still has it) said that their find was in the right location- strata and geography- wise- because the data had another transitional form in strata about 385 MYO.

    Therefor the next step should be in strata a little younger.

    Tiktaalik was found in strata 375 MYO- and in the assumed correct part oif the world.

    Yet in actuality there was no reason for them to even be looking there because the transition they were trying to find evidence for had already happened.

    IOW you haven’t read the book so you don’t have any idea what I am talking about.

  14. Rich:

    What are the odds of flying off randomly somewhere and finding a transitional you’re looking for?

    Shubin et al., did not fly off randomly somewhere.

    IOW Rich this proves you did not read the book and you think that your ignorance can refute what I am saying, which is based on what Shubin stated in the book.

    And just so that we are clear-

    what I am saying has nuthin’ to do with Luskin nor the DI.

    It has everything to do with what was said in “Your Inner Fish”, coupled with the new find in Poland.

  15. Joe,

    So when is came to designing humans, why did the designer take the “knuckle-walker” blueprint and borrow so much from it?

  16. “Shubin et al., did not fly off randomly somewhere” – Yes, I that was my point. But you’re suggesting the null hypothesis, there was no intentionality to their find. In which case, it was presumably random.

  17. “There isn’t any genetic data which demonstrates changes in the genome of a knuckle-walker can rearrange that network to give rise to an upright biped.

    How can we even test the premise?”

    If only we could find a monkey that can walk (rollerscate / ride a scooter/ waterski) to falsify your hypotheis! To the Lab, Evos!

  18. Michael,

    How much did the designer(s) borrow?

    Perhaps the designer took the human blueprint and made knuckle-walkers.

  19. Rich:

    If only we could find a monkey that can walk (rollerscate / ride a scooter/ waterski) to falsify your hypotheis!

    A monkey who can do that is still not an upright biped.

    Also about Shubin- you are wrong and do not get to tell me what I am saying.

    They said they went to a specific spot, looking in specific strata to find a specific speciman- the transition.

    Yet the transition took place millions of years before.

  20. Okay Joe, what are the odds of getting it wrong, flying off somewhere and finding a transitional anyway?

    How long do transitionals last for?

  21. Transitionals last for as longs as evolutionists need them to last and no longer than that- that way it can shift with the tide so to speak.

    As for odds- we see transitionals in similar environments- tropical, streams and rivers.

    So if I wanted to find a fossil fish that could do that sort of thing- crawl from stream to stream- I would look for that kind of ancient environment.

    And I would say that their dating of the strata of Tiktaalik had a lot to do with its features- IOW circular reasoning dating- meaning the find was the transitional form he was looking for and he “knew” that form had to appear in newer strata than the earlier more fish-like transitional, so here is the form and the form set the date.

  22. Hi Joe,

    How much did the designer(s) borrow?

    Massive amounts. Consider, as just one example, facial muscles. Consider this figure of chimpanzee facial musculature:

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2100197/figure/fig01/

    Now, I have decent knowledge of human anatomy and by using this knowledge, I was able to identify most of the muscles in the chimp face. So why did the designer design the human face using mostly the same muscles as used by a chimp?

    Remember Joe, according to you, “Intelligent agencies have been observed creating specified information/ information rich processing systems, from scratch.”

    Since a designer could have designed the human face from scratch, explain why its musculature is so similar to that of a knuckle-walker.

    Perhaps the designer took the human blueprint and made knuckle-walkers.

    Why? To make it look like humans are related to chimps?

  23. [originally posted in wrong thread)

    Joe G:

    Michael,

    There isn’t any need to re-invent the wheel every time you need something round.

    From scratch would be the first case and not necessarily every case.

    But anyway you said the designer(s) borrowed massive amounts- but things like musculature could be epigenetic, and some underlying physics can account for similarities in running, swimming, flying, and even eating.

    IOW given a similar head I would expect some similarity in musculature just given what is required to operate such a structure.

  24. Hi Joe,

    There isn’t any need to re-invent the wheel every time you need something round.

    Sure, but “something round” is something simple. In contrast, the musculature of the human and chimp face is rather complex. Complex means more opportunity for variation (as the CSI advocates point out) in design.

    From scratch would be the first case and not necessarily every case.

    Fine. So did the designer design the chimp face from scratch and then borrow this design when designing the human face?

    But anyway you said the designer(s) borrowed massive amounts- but things like musculature could be epigenetic, and some underlying physics can account for similarities in running, swimming, flying, and even eating.

    Actually, I think humans and chimps share a common ancestor and these similarities are explained by descent. Yes, epigenetics and physical constraints could come into play as ways to channel evolution. But I’m trying to better understand your proposal of common design and you have yet to explain why the musculature of chimp and human faces have so much common design.

    IOW given a similar head I would expect some similarity in musculature just given what is required to operate such a structure.

    You are not dealing with the amount and degree of detail behind this similarity. Once again, I used knowledge of human anatomy to accurately label most of the chimp face muscles, despite the differences in head shapes between the two species. It looks like the complex human face was patterned after the chimp-specification. Why is that?

    Of course, we need not stop here. Shall we explore the placement of organs in the chimp and human. In both cases – Above the diaphragm – esophagus behind trachea, heart between two lungs and it shifted to the left; Under the diaphragm -> liver on the right, stomach on the left; spleen over on the far left, behind the stomach, pancreas also pointing to the left, behind stomach; cecum lower right quadrant, travels up, across, and down. Why is the organ placement so similar?

  25. So chimps “look like” humans and therefor we shared a common ancestor?

    Again is there any way to test the premise that mutational accumulation led to the differences observed while keeping some similarities?

    Similarities can be explained by common design and convergence.

    Also the chimp face could be patterned after the human face- again no need to keep re-inventing facial structures.

    A design based on archetypes would explain similarities.

    But anyway:

    Unified physics theory explains animals’ running, flying and swimming

    That is one reason for the similarities.

  26. “Transitionals last for as longs as evolutionists need them to last and no longer than that- that way it can shift with the tide so to speak.

    As for odds- we see transitionals in similar environments- tropical, streams and rivers.

    So if I wanted to find a fossil fish that could do that sort of thing- crawl from stream to stream- I would look for that kind of ancient environment.”

    That’s completely what transitionals are and is exactly what happened in the book. “lets so where there might have been streams” – oh wait, that’s everywhere.

  27. OT @ Bilbo

    Best of luck with the dancing. Whilst often disagreeing, I have always appreciated your open and honest contributions at TT and elsewhere.

  28. Convergence, Common Descent or Common Design?

    Not a surprise from a Common Design perspective…

  29. Hi Joe,

    So chimps “look like” humans and therefor we shared a common ancestor?

    Sure. They look like they share a common ancestor because they do share a common ancestor. The alternative is that they were designed to look like they share a common ancestor.

    In the end, both sides rely on “looks like” arguments. But, of course, people try to convince themselves they have something more solid.

    Again is there any way to test the premise that mutational accumulation led to the differences observed while keeping some similarities?

    Who knows? Is that level of detail needed in order to infer common descent? To infer design?

    Similarities can be explained by common design and convergence.

    Convergence is an evolutionary explanation. If humans don’t share a common ancestor with chimps, then what is their recent common ancestor? Squirrels?

    As for being explained by common design, that isn’t much of an explanation given that you cannot explain WHY chimps and humans share so much common design. Apparently, the explanation is exhausted after the words ‘common’ and ‘design’ are typed.

    Also the chimp face could be patterned after the human face- again no need to keep re-inventing facial structures.

    So WHY design an animal face by borrowing from a human face? What was the design objective behind this?

    A design based on archetypes would explain similarities.

    Is there any evidence of an archetype that specifies the liver should in the upper right quadrant of the abdomen rather than some other location in the abdomen?

    But anyway:

    Unified physics theory explains animals’ running, flying and swimming
    That is one reason for the similarities.

    Yes, such constraints would factor into front-loading, as a designer would have the knowledge of that such physical laws would help constrain and guide the blind watchmaker. But that doesn’t explain the level of detail on things that are not dictated by physical law – the specific facial muscles and the location of specific organs.

  30. Rich,

    Tiktaalik was found after the transition was already made.

    There isn’t any evidence that it lived before, which is a requirement of a transitional.

    However if the transition happened more than once and after Tiktaalik’s arrival, then it could be part of that.

    Otherwise it gets a place amongst the various other mosaics.

  31. Michael,

    1- You don’t know that humans and chimps share a common ancestor because you don’t know if the transformations required can be achieved by accumulating mutations nor any other mechanism.

    2- The most recent common ancestor to humans would be a human.

    That is all the evidence says- humans give rise to humans.

    We don’t know of any body plan and complex protein machinery creating mutations.

    We know that selection helps conserve- sexual selection helps maintain the status quo.

    Why do chimps and humans have a lot in common?

    The same reason Dodge vehicles have a lot in common with Chrysler- the same reason all cars have many similarities.

    The same reason all PCs have many similarities.

    The same reason all plug-ins have many similarities.

    The same reason I can go into a house that is built by the code and find all the studs and weight-bearing walls.

    A similar face would require similar musculature for it to function.

    And sometimes there are only a few, or possibly only one, solution.

  32. Joe,

    1 – I don’t claim to “know” humans and chimps share a common ancestor; I find it to be the best explanation that accounts for the data. As for your point about mutations, I make the distinction between common descent and its mechanism. The evidence can clearly point to common descent, even if the precise mechanism or pathway remains unclear. This is essentially the same reasoning in a design inference, where one can posit design as an explanation, without having a clear account of the mechanism for implementing the design. If you insist on a detailed mechanism for the evolution of humans, you should be willing to provide a detailed mechanism for implementing the design of humans.

    2 – “That is all the evidence says- humans give rise to humans.”
    Then there is no evidence that they were designed, unless you think every fertilization event is a design event.

    As for your appeal to common design, it comes across as a set of talking points rather than a thoughtful explanation. You still have not explained WHY humans and chimps share so much common design. You need to consider the facial musculature in humans in more detail – it exists for communication purposes. But consider this excerpt from the study (linked to above):

    One of the major differences found in the present study between P. troglodytes and humans was the firm fusion and, often, intimate infiltration of the superficial fascia into some of the muscles, such as the deep head of the occipitalis muscle, the zygomaticus major muscle, and the depressors anguli oris and labii inferioris muscles. In these muscles, the superficial fascia was firmly blended with the muscle fascicles and slowed progression of the dissection. This is very different from the relationship between the superficial fascia and musculature in human faces (e.g. Stranding, 2004) where the superficial fascia typically lies only loosely on top of the muscle. Whereas the present study has revealed a generally greater anatomical similarity in the facial muscles between chimpanzees and humans, it has long been held that chimpanzees do not have as varied a facial signalling repertoire as seen in humans (e.g. van Hooff, 1972, 1973; Preuschoft, 2000). It is possible that the differential arrangement of the superficial fascia over the face may affect the ability of the facial muscle in question to contract in P. troglodytes, potentially reducing the resultant mobility of the facial mask in any given region. Further investigation into the histological arrangement of the fascia with the muscle fascicles is needed in order to answer this question, however.

    In other words, the very similar facial muscles in chimps don’t serve the same objective/function as they do in humans because they are bundled together more extensively. So here we have an example of “common design,” where chimps have effectively the same facial muscles on a differently shaped head, yet they don’t function the same because of the way the fascia is tweaked.

    The more closely we look, the more the common design argument falls apart. Not only is there is no explanation for why there is so much common design, but it turns out the function (the reason designers design) is not even the same because a superficial difference. Anyway, this is way off topic from the original blog entry, so perhaps I’ll fire up a new entry about this topic.

    Joe, one more thing. When I consider your position as a whole, I am struck by the perception that you demand excessively robust and detailed explanations from evolutionary theory (1), yet are content with superficial analogies when it comes to design (2). It would seem that a fundamental inconsistency is in play.

  33. Michael,

    I want to respond to that last part fisrt-

    Joe, one more thing. When I consider your position as a whole, I am struck by the perception that you demand excessively robust and detailed explanations from evolutionary theory (1), yet are content with superficial analogies when it comes to design (2). It would seem that a fundamental inconsistency is in play.

    My position is not being taught in school. The other position is.

    And it appears that both have at least the same level of data.

    Also common design does not mean that every little detail is the same- just some parts- IOW it explains the same thing as Common Descent and convergence- the similarities.

    The heads and faces are not the exact same so I would also expect differences along with the similarities.

    And the bottom line is no one can account for the transformations required to go from knuckle-walker to upright biped.

    How can we test that premise objectively?

    And how does your appeal to Common Descent how is it not a set of talking points?

    BTW I have designed and function- maintaining the same function for commonly used parts- is not a requirement.

    I can use one part for one function in one design and the same part for another function in another design.

    That is the point- I didn’t need to re-invent another part for a different function.

    I can use wheels for gears or for transportation.

    However you are correct and my apologies for taking this down a different road.

    I just wanted to point out that the reasoning that “prevents” ID being science should also “prevent” the theory of evolution from being science.

    Back to SETI and we can take this up another time

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