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?
First, SETI relies heavily on analogy with human designers to predict the existence of a specific phenomenon that does not currently exist. This is why SETI is a search – it is searching for something that does not currently exist. And SETI proponents would also acknowledge that, thus far, the search has come up empty and there remains no evidence for ETI. It is this willingness to engage in an open-ended search, for a specific, predicted phenomenon, along with the willingness to acknowledge they have no positive result, that makes SETI look like science. But, of course, there are those who search for Bigfoot or ghosts who could make the same claim to doing science.
Intelligent Design, in contrast, does not rely heavily on analogy with human designers to predict the existence of a specific phenomenon that does not currently exist. ID is engaged in no search for such phenomena. ID simply argues that a variety of known biotic phenomena are better explained by design and seeks to make this argument with enthusiastic criticism of natural explanations. As such, ID proponents never seem to acknowledge that their inference was a “false positive.” In fact, you get the impression that just about everything in biology is supposedly designed and these conclusions are constantly being supported by attempting to tear down new natural explanations and/or data. As such, ID, unlike SETI, comes across as advocacy for a conclusion.
The second fundamental way in which ID and SETI differ is that the latter does not have to contend with a designer-mimic. After outlining clues for the design of life, my book makes a very important point:
In previous chapters, I have outlined various clues that might lead one to suspect life was designed. Such facts about life alone would be very strong indicators of Intelligent Design if there was no designer-mimic that could also take credit for the appearance of design. The existence of the blind watchmaker as the designer-mimic prevents us from progressing from these early suspicions of design to a solid conclusion of design.
SETI can derive much mileage from Analogy and Discontinuity precisely because there is no designer mimic that could explain a message transmitted from outer space. But in the world of biology, a designer mimic (random variations and natural selection) exists and this prevents us from moving beyond the realm of suspicion. In fact, the whole reason I bring in the criteria of Rationality and Foresight is because these help us tease apart a blind watchmaker from an intelligent watchmaker. Yet this is grist for another blog entry. The point here is that Analogy and Discontinuity, by themselves, are much weaker when it comes to detecting biological design than it is when detecting signals from outer space. When it comes to biology, we have an evolutionary process that allows us to see design as adaptation (analogy being greatly weakened) and a history of discovering this process to account for things once considered discontinuous.
In summary, let me rewrite Shotak’s conclusion to make it more accurate:
In short, the champions of Intelligent Design make two mistakes when they claim that the SETI enterprise is logically similar to their own: First, SETI is engaged in a search for a predicted and undiscovered phenomenon, while ID is engaged in advocacy for its own interpretation of known phenomenon. If SETI was indeed similar to ID in these regards, instead of searching the skies, it would be coming up with various arguments to support the contention that pulsars are really signals from ETI. Second, SETI does not have to contend with an evolutionary process that mimics a designer, as the criteria of Analogy and Discontinuity are robust when applied to a signal or message received from outer space. In contrast, biological phenomenon are known to evolve, and random variations, along with natural selection, are known to exist. Since biological evolution can look like a designer, the SETI criteria are much weaker in such a context.