Skip to comments.SETI and Intelligent Design
Posted on 12/02/2005 8:35:59 AM PST by ckilmer
|SETI and Intelligent Design
By Seth Shostak
posted: 01 December 2005
06:37 am ET
If youre an inveterate tube-o-phile, you may remember the episode of "Cheers" in which Cliff, the postman whos stayed by neither snow, nor rain, nor gloom of night from his appointed rounds of beer, exclaims to Norm that hes found a potato that looks like Richard Nixons head.
This could be an astonishing attempt by taters to express their political views, but Norm is unimpressed. 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 creatorconscious action, presumably from outside the universe itself.
What many readers will not know is that SETI research has been offered up in support of Intelligent Design.
The way this happens is as follows. When ID advocates posit that DNAwhich is a complicated, molecular blueprintis solid evidence for a designer, most scientists are unconvinced. They counter that the structure of this biological building block is the result of self-organization via evolution, and not a proof of deliberate engineering. DNA, the researchers will protest, is no more a consciously constructed system than Jupiters Great Red Spot. Organized complexity, in other words, is not enough to infer design.
But the adherents of Intelligent Design protest the protest. They point to SETI and say, "upon receiving a complex radio signal from space, SETI researchers will claim it as proof that intelligent life resides in the neighborhood of a distant star. Thus, isnt their search completely analogous to our own line of reasoninga clear case of complexity implying intelligence and deliberate design?" And SETI, they would note, enjoys widespread scientific acceptance.
If we as SETI researchers admit this is so, it sounds as if were guilty of promoting a logical double standard. If the ID folks arent allowed to claim intelligent design when pointing to DNA, how can we hope to claim intelligent design on the basis of a complex radio signal? Its true that SETI is well regarded by the scientific community, but is that simply because we dont suggest that the voice behind the microphone could be God?
In fact, the signals actually sought by todays SETI searches are not complex, as the ID advocates assume. Were not looking for intricately coded messages, mathematical series, or even the aliens version of "I Love Lucy." Our instruments are largely insensitive to the modulationor messagethat 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.
And yet we still advertise that, were we to find such a signal, we could reasonably conclude that there was intelligence behind it. It sounds as if this strengthens the argument made by the ID proponents. Our sought-after signal is hardly complex, and yet were still going to say that weve found extraterrestrials. If we can get away with that, why cant they?
Well, its because the credibility of the evidence is not predicated on its complexity. If SETI were to announce that were not alone because it had detected a signal, it would be on the basis of artificiality. An endless, sinusoidal signal a dead simple tone is not complex; its artificial. Such a tone just doesnt seem to be generated by natural astrophysical processes. 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, DNAs junk and redundancy.
Consider pulsars stellar objects that flash light and radio waves into space with impressive regularity. Pulsars were briefly tagged with the moniker LGM (Little Green Men) upon their discovery in 1967. Of course, these little men didnt have much to say. Regular pulses dont convey any informationno more than the ticking of a clock. But the real kicker is something else: inefficiency. Pulsars flash over the entire spectrum. No matter where you tune your radio telescope, the pulsar can be heard. Thats bad design, because if the pulses were intended to convey some sort of message, it would be enormously more efficient (in terms of energy costs) to confine the signal to a very narrow band. Even the most efficient natural radio emitters, interstellar clouds of gas known as masers, are profligate. Their steady signals splash over hundreds of times more radio band than the type of transmissions sought by SETI.
Imagine bright reflections of the Sun flashing off Lake Victoria, and seen from great distance. These would be similar to pulsar signals: highly regular (once ever 24 hours), and visible in preferred directions, but occupying a wide chunk of the optical spectrum. Its not a very good hailing-signal or communications device. Lightning bolts are another example. They produce pulses of both light and radio, but the broadcast extends over just about the whole electromagnetic spectrum. That sort of bad engineering is easily recognized and laid at natures door. Nature, for its part, seems unoffended.
Junk, redundancy, and inefficiency characterize astrophysical signals. It seems they characterize cells and sea lions, too. These biological constructions have lots of superfluous and redundant parts, and are a long way from being optimally built or operated. They also resemble lots of other things that may be either contemporaries or historical precedents.
So thats one point: the signals SETI seeks are really not like other examples drawn from the bestiary of complex astrophysical phenomena. That speaks to their artificiality.
The Importance of Setting
Theres another hallmark of artificiality we consider in SETI, and its context. Where is the signal found? Our searches often concentrate on nearby Sun-like star systems the very type of astronomical locale we believe most likely to harbor Earth-size planets awash in liquid water. Thats where we hope to find a signal. The physics of solar systems is that of hot plasmas (stars), cool hydrocarbon gasses (big planets), and cold rock (small planets). These do not produce, so far as we can either theorize or observe, monochromatic radio signals belched into space with powers of ten billion watts or morethe type of signal we look for in SETI experiments. Its hard to imagine how they would do this, and observations confirm that it just doesnt seem to be their thing.
Context is important, crucially important. Imagine that we should espy 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 someones solar system does its minimum complexity become indicative of intelligence.
In archaeology, context is the basis of many discoveries that are imputed to the deliberate workings of intelligence. If I find a rock chipped in such a way as to give it a sharp edge, and the discovery is made in a cave, I am seduced into ascribing this to tool use by distant, fetid and furry ancestors. It is the context of the cave that makes this assumption far more likely then an alternative scenario in which I assume that the random grinding and splitting of rock has resulted in this useful geometry.
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, were on the lookout for very simple signals. Thats 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 DNAs chemical makeup and deducing the work of a supernatural biochemist.
It has thoroughly debunked the concept of a big bang beginning by acknowledging that there are many blue shift situations whereas a big bang would require an expanding universe with only red shifts!
The universe is a swirling mixture of multiple vectors thus some objects will move towards each other while others move away in an expanding framework. Thus, red and blue shifts would be observed.
ID is just as valid as any conceptual theory and probably fits the current, factual information better than other more traditionally held theories
Completely wrong. ID can not be supported by experimentation and observation nor can it predict phenomenon. Thus, it utterly fails to be a valid scientific theory.
The difference is that we can find concrete evidence through SETI, but not through ID.
Our of curiousity, what is the "concrete evidence" that points to extraterrestrial intelligence?
there is the kicker.
there is no "concrete evidence"
similiarly atheists will say : show me your concrete evidence for God. (But exclude everything in the natural universe as evidence of a creator.)
While the Big Bang is still an hypothesis, SETI has done nothing to bunk or debunk it. M31 is blue-shifted, but it is relatively nearby and is allowed to blue-shift.
It's like saying, "Show me the forest, but don't use the trees as evidence."
Please reread the article - especially the conclusion. ID claims that naturally occurring complexity must be artificial since it is complex - a circular logic fallacy. SETI is looking for a signal that has a simplicity and efficiency that can not be observed being produced by any natural source. This indicates a possible artificial source. The evidence builds if it can be reproduced or a mechanism could be constructed for reproduction.
I gather that one argument for ID is that the odds of random events leading to the creation of life are so long as to be unsupportable. However, the odds of any series of events leading to any situation are equally long.
Close except that the formation of DNA, cellular systems, or even orbital mechanics and quantum events are not "random."
They follow very detailed, exact laws of the chemical and physical interactions that determine chemical reactions, protein structures, and physical events.
Simple example: salt is not formed and its structure determined by sodium and chloride atoms just randomly bumping into each other and sticking together in a random fashion. The many laws that describe ion dissociation, electron valencies, bond mechanics, etc. determine that one sodium and one chloride bond at a specific angle.
They would see our narrowband carriers. :-)
You should consider brushing up on your Astronomy 101.
On the contrary, apparent complexity leads to the reasonable inference that a designer may be involved in its production.
ID = Agnostic Creativism..
SETI = Gnostic Fantasy..
Evolution = Dialectic Material Psuedo-Science..
I was thinking something similar, but we use so much of the broadcast spectrum and, since the Earth would appear to be a point source, I imagine there would be all kinds of overlap of the different bands and frequencies from all the radio sources, as well as possible attenuation from interstellar media. So my first thought is the spectrum would look fairly broad and incoherent in the radio region and then taper off where the spectrum goes to shorter wavelengths. Would there be specific, narrow band emissions that would not overlap?
While you've pointed out some circumstances that must exist to permit the occurance of certain constructs, I don't believe you have made clear that the existence of those circumstances did not occur through random and unplanned events.
It's good enough. ID and SETI too. Great way to slide into the weekend. I'm hauling out the ping machine ...
Quite so. Well stated :)
I'm not sure I understand your statement. Are you bringing to question that the laws themselves of chemical and physical determinants for reaction and molecular structure occurred through random events? Or, perhaps, that the earliest protein precedents of RNA/DNA resulted from random organic compounds coming together in an "planned" event?
I suppose so -- and I suppose also that they'd be narrowly focused S-band type signals sent from blowtorches like Goldstone, Madrid, and Canberra.
The question is: how likely is it that one could pick up such signals, even from big, powerful sites like those, at a distances on the order of light years?
I'd think it would be hard enough to detect extremely weak signals sent to us on purpose, much less incidental signals directed to (say) some alien version of Pioneer 10.
Leaving aside questions being batted about in this thread, what's your personal opinion of the likelihood of ever seeing such signals, assuming they were sent?