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.
And that, not complexity or a lack of complexity, is the core claim of ID -- that one can distinguish the natural from the artificial or intelligently made. If SETI claims that such a distinction can be made scientifically, then the idea that one could distinguish the natural from the artificial in biology is not unreasonable. Despite what this article claims, both SETI and ID are doing the same thing.
SETI assumes, without any existing evidence, that extraterrestrial intillgence may exist. In order to find evidence of such ET intelligence, they look for evidence of signals which have characteristics that would distinguish the artificial from the natural. ID assumes, without any existing evidence, that a creator of some sort may exist. In order to find evidence of such a creator, they look for evidence of pheonemna or features of life or the universe that would distinguish the created phoneomna from the natural. Both start with no evidence and propose finding the evidence by looking for created features among natural features. So without the whole complexity red herring, the difference is? Either you can differentiate the natural from the intelligently created or you can't. Either both are science or neither is.
Thank you. It's a matter of perspective and a perspective of matter. ;-)
As others have pointed out, there is no possible set of evidence or data which ID cannot fit.
In the spectrum of ID advocates you find people like Michael Denton, who assert that evolution is 100 percent naturalistic and has no deviations from the description given by mainstream biology. You have Behe, who accepts common descent, but believes God has intervened at some points. You have young earth creationists who believe that all variation is simply a matter of juggling existing alleles.
In short, there is no theory or hypothesis behind ID which limits the range of expected phenomena. There is nothing that is even potentially unexpected.
It would be difficult to detect such signals hence the size of the radio telescopes and networks combined with the large amounts of computing assets marshaled by the SETI project.
However, the last article I read stated that close to 1200 signals had been detected that can not be attributed to any known natural source. Which could mean that there are natural sources yet to be discovered or understood to account for these signals....or that there may be a few of those 'alien Pioneer' craft being noisy.
SETI has made a number of advance predictions about the sort of as-yet-undetected signal that would reflect intelligent creation rather than natural origin (e.g. the distinction between a broad-spectrum and a narrow-band signal described in the above article). ID has made a number of after-the-fact assertions about already-known natural phenomena (e.g. the claim that the probability of existing macromolecules forming is unreasonably low, even over an entire planet and billions of years).
The difference is equivalent to that between painting a target on a wall and shooting a bullet through the bulls-eye and shooting a bullet through a wall and painting a bulls-eye around the hole.
I am in the middle of a software test. Sigh. Will answer all posts this evening. :-)
That's a bullseye
That's no fun! You should've done your impression first and then let us guess. Still, I'd say you nailed it.
Also known as the "Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy"....
But at least SETI pushes the technological envelope. Just looking out there we are bound to see something interesting, like pulsars.
Not curious at all. They are complete opposites.
SETI is an investigation that states quite explicitly that they do not know the outcome. SETI is an investigation.
By contrast, ID has zero scientific results, zero output, zero measureable scientific work product, but already has come to several very profound "conclusions".
10 years ago when ID was first proposed, we might have (IMHO generously) called it a working hypothesis. After 10 years and zero output, it can no longer be called even that.
Real science, like just about everything else, requires work. You have to produce something. ID has produced nothing.
This is why ID is essentially a liberal philosophy. At the core of conservative philosophy is hard work. Lower taxes are conservative because it allows hard work to be rewarded. Free market economics is supported because it allows hard work to be rewarded. Property rights are supported because it allows hard work to be rewarded. Etc. Etc.
Real science is hard work, just ask any of the practicing scientists on this forum.
And the work product of ID after 10 years: ZERO.
Both start with no evidence and propose finding the evidence by looking for created features among natural features. So without the whole complexity red herring, the difference is? Either you can differentiate the natural from the intelligently created or you can't. Either both are science or neither is.
Not really.SETI looks for signals that can be differentiated from known natural sources that have features of an efficient, regular or simple artificial source. These are compared to known characteristics of artificial sources, their ability to be reproduced from technology
ID points to complexity alone as evidence for a claim of an "artifical" source of design plan. It ignores the evidence of chemical and physical laws producing a multitude of complex systems.
SETI observes signals, experiments to understand if the signal could come from a known artificial source, predicts possible signal characteristics and mechanisms to produce such a signal. The requirements are specific:
Any signal less than about 300 Hz wide must be, as far as we know, artificially produced. Such narrow-band signals are what all SETI experiments look for. Other tell-tale characteristics include a signal that is completely polarized or the existence of coded information on the signal.
Narrow-band signals, say those that are only a few Hertz or less wide, are the mark of a purposely built transmitter. Natural cosmic noisemakers, such as pulsars, quasars, and the turbulent, thin interstellar gas of our own Milky Way, do not make radio signals that are this narrow. The static from these objects is spread all across the dial. SETI faq
ID simply says it is complex thus it is artifical. Why? It's artificial because it is complex. That's not science - that's fallacious logic.
A good way of stating an important point - I'll have to remember it.
ID is just as valid as any conceptual theory and probably fits the current, factual information better than other more traditionally held theories
Where to you liberal fundamentalists dream this stuff up???
Of course you would expect some blue shifted objects under the big bang. The obvious example is the Andromeda galaxy, which is blue shifted because it is moving towards us (actually, the Andromeda and Milky Way galaxies will collide in the distant future). This effect is a consequence that the universe is not in absolute lock step: there are fluctuations and eddies. And fluctuations and eddies are exactly what you would expect from the big bang.
Indeed the variations in the observed mass distribution of the observable universe and in the cosmic microwave background are consistent with the levels of quantum fluctuations from the early big bang.
And, ID is not a theory at all. It was once, maybe, a working hypothesis. However, the total scientific output of ID is zero, so it cannot qualify as any kind of actual theory.
BTW, is ProfSci a professor of Scientology by any chance??
You misrepresent ID. It purports that random chance could not have created complexity with order.
SETI is looking for a signal that has a simplicity and efficiency that can not be observed being produced by any natural source.
You mean simplicity and efficiency like that found in our own DNA? When the human genome was mapped, scientists were stunned by the lack of complexity, finding far fewer combinations possible than was believed necessary to create the diversity of human life.
Now that's funny.
Do you think SETI is searching for unorganized signals?
SETI isn't a theory. It is an institute pursuing a hypothesis through experimentation and observation. The hypothesis includes the ideas or assumptions that if extraterrestrial life exists and if has a technology to broadcast signals then SETI should be able to eventually detect certain narrow band signals with certain characteristics.
I think the mistake that opponents to a Creator make is failing to grasp the full scope of the arguments that demonstrate the foundation for belief in the Creator. It is more than the complexity of creation at a purely biological level. The argument for a creator falls into human pychology, philosophy, art, mathematics and more.