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?

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.

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14 responses to “SETI and ID: The Two Differences

  1. But is random mutation and natural selection a designer mimic?

    When has either or both been observed to design something from scratch?

    Also how do we know that there aren’t any natural phenomenon that can mimic an artificial radio signal?

    BTW the design inference extends beyond biology.

  2. Hi Joe,

    But is random mutation and natural selection a designer mimic?

    I think so.

    When has either or both been observed to design something from scratch?

    When has an intelligent agent ever been observed to design life from scratch?

    Also how do we know that there aren’t any natural phenomenon that can mimic an artificial radio signal?

    We don’t. Yet there is no candidate for such a process.

    BTW the design inference extends beyond biology.

    Are you talking about the weather and/or geology?

  3. So “you think” random mutation and natural selection can be a designer mimic, yet you don’t have any evidence for them designing anything from scratch.

    Got it.

    Intelligent agencies have been observed creating spoecified information/ information rich processing systems, from scratch.

    As a matter of fact agency is the only causation of specified information that we have observed.

    And seeing that natural processes only exist in nature and therefor cannot account for its origins- which science has said it had- then what do we have?

    Also “The Privileged Planet” and Walter Bradley’s writings show that the design inference extends to physics, chemistry, astronomy and cosmology (at least).

  4. 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?

  5. 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.

  6. Show me the Maths!
    In the end that’s what it boils down to the Author said
    “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”
    Now I haven’t read a great deal of ID, just a few blogs, but the detail is always missing. The only math I’ve seen any ID’st link directly to ID is all about complexity. Over at Uncommon Decent most believe that ID is simply a tide mark get over a certain level of complexity (500K) and the only explanation is a designers hand.
    One for Joe, the Author talks about how SETI doesn’t have to deal with the issue of designer-mimic, I disagree. When pulsars were first found the discover wrote LGM ( little green men) on the trace paper. Can you show the rest of us using ID maths how to rule out design? Please use Published ID material only it should be easy.

  7. Kengee,

    Show me the maths for your position.

    Do you have anything but the complete refusal to allow/ accept the design inference?

    Anything at all????

  8. Hi Kengee,

    Show me the Maths!
    In the end that’s what it boils down to the Author said
    “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”
    Now I haven’t read a great deal of ID, just a few blogs, but the detail is always missing.

    That doesn’t detract from my point at all. All I am showing is that the basic logic of ID and SETI are very similar, as both attempt to indirectly detect design, without independent evidence of the designers, by coupling Analogy with Discontinuity. And if SETI ever does find their signal, they will announce it as evidence of ETI without any math.

    The only math I’ve seen any ID’st link directly to ID is all about complexity. Over at Uncommon Decent most believe that ID is simply a tide mark get over a certain level of complexity (500K) and the only explanation is a designers hand.

    Er, this is not UD. In fact, I’m not very well liked over there.

  9. Fancy that Joe G not wanting to answer the question, well I stated my position. It was that SETI was not like ID. That it did have to deal with designer mimics and i gave an example Pulsar’s. What part of that didn’t you understand.
    SETI is different to ID in that it looks for well defined artificiality. Strong signals signal’s after a fourier transformation may indicate an artificial non Earth origin signal.
    More importantly it is actively looking for positive evidence. It uses well structured protocols to rule out know sources and as a result has at this stage has found nothing, except a few possible.
    ID on the other hand doesn’t activity look for positive evidence has no method of ruling out false positives. More importantly still to the best of my knowledge no one has ever used any sol called ID maths to show a positive and a negative result in the real world even though you guys say the world is full of them. This famous divide between micro and macro evolution somehow eludes your maths ( no I will not buy someone’s book ,if you have examples then show us).
    BTW SETI first aim is to find a likely candidate as yet is hasn’t. Spot the difference there.
    On lookers
    SETI software like SETI at home uses Fourier Transformations to isolate candidate signals. For those interested I offer two web links there are betters ones around and great maths and theory but you have to pay for them.
    http://direct.xilinx.com/publications/xcellonline/xcell_48/xc_pdf/xc_seti48.pdf
    http://www.arachnoid.com/signal_processing/index.html
    http://www.boinc-wiki.info/The_SETI@Home_Analysis_Algorithm
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fourier_transform

    Now Joe G I’ve given you what you asked for now please give me what I asked for. Don’t let the above distract you. You and others have said that ID can be applied to physics here is an excellent opportunity to show how ID can prove that the radio signals we get from pulsars are of natural origin.

  10. Hi Michael, it sure isn’t UD cause I can post here LOL.
    The easy answer is many don’t think SETI is good science either. 20 years ago SETI was seen as a career killer. While ID does and probably always will suffer from people making the leap to the implications very quickly, the real problem with ID so far is not the conjecture but the method by which most want to prove it. The general approach is to trying to falsify evolution, and mostly strawman versions of it at that.
    So while most are quick to spot the clear religious motives of ID’s supporters, they are just as quick to notice that no one has even come up with a research program like SETI and yet many in the ID camp are claiming victory. Having only just come across your blog I’m willing to wait and see if you are going to offer one.
    The internet is a wonderful thing, if IDist are really being discriminated as they say in not being able to publish their research then they should just publish on their blogs. Most IDist seem to have five or six.
    SETI now has a measure of respectability in the science community in my view because they have used good scientific process. They have sound protocols in place and while they are enthusiastic about their search and they believe they have strong reasons to believe ET is out there, None of them is claiming success.
    So just like SETI had to beat off the UFO nuts and come up with a research program, so ID needs to separate itself from its religious roots, clearly define itself and come up with a research program that has good scientific underpinnings and wait thirty years. ID at the moment if far more about politics then it is about a scientific explanation on how life came to be as it is.
    Then if you ever do find strong positive evidence and that evidence is excepted by the scientific establishment then you can even start teaching it in schools.

  11. Hi Kengee,

    It would help if you could take 15-or-so minutes and read the entries on the frontpage of this blog. I mention this simply because most of the points you made above have already been made in those entries.

  12. Hi Mike,

    I didn’t realize until tonight that you had extended our debate. I figure I owe you a reply.
    Yes, the fact that SETI is a search for something that we do not know exists, while ID says we have already found it; and the fact that there is already a non-design explanation for life’s evolution, while there would be no such explanation for SETI’s hoped-for signal, are both two important differences between SETI and ID.
    I do not think this means that SETI is science and ID is not. I think it means that ID has a greater burden of proof. Whether or not it has or can meet that burden is being debated.
    I think there is enough evidence to at least make ID a reasonable hypothesis for the origin of life. And I think you have identified the correct research program for either strengthening or weakening that hypothesis. Whether or not enough evidence will ever be found to declare ID a “scientific certainty” (an oxymoron?), remains for the future to decide.
    I’ll be checking in from time to time to see how you’re doing. Be well.

  13. Hi Bilbo,

    I hope your checking in is not too infrequent. Your arguments/questions are too thought-provoking and would be missed.

  14. Since I’m limiting my time on the internet, I’ll try to give your blog first priority.

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