September 24, 2005 | David F. Coppedge

Is Archaeology Like SETI, or is SETI Like Religion?

Archaeologists have their Rosetta Stone, but so far, SETI investigators have no artifacts.  Still, Douglas Vakoch wrote for Space.com, archaeologists and anthropologists can teach SETI researchers how to prepare for encountering “exotic cultures with strange languages.”
    Vakoch recounted the interest in this angle at an anthropology conference last year:

One of the best-attended sessions of that meeting consisted of papers from leading scholars who pondered the daunting challenges of reconstructing alien civilizations – at interstellar distances….
    “The approaches we take as archaeologists in our search for peoples from another time and place may well offer some useful analogy to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence,” suggested archaeologist Paul Wason, one of the participants.  “Our work is conducted without the benefit of direct contact with living beings,” he observed, which is akin to SETI’s attempt to detect intelligence around distant stars.
    But how can analogies help us anticipate contact with extraterrestrials?
    For starters, by providing a case study of Homo sapiens encountering an alien intelligence, Wason explained.  “The meeting of Neanderthals and sapiens may be a good example for analogy—for it was a meeting of two different kinds of consciousness,” he added.
    But be forewarned as we start to draw lessons for SETI from such encounters, Wason urged.  The analogy may be humbling.
    “It may be that in such a comparison of us with ETI, … we are the Neanderthals,” he said.
  (Emphasis added in all quotes.)

Yet how can SETI be compared with anthropology or archaeology, when the latter have bones and artifacts, but SETI has (so far) found nothing?  Vakoch asks if such speculations are premature without first obtaining proof extraterrestrial life exists.  He ends with quotes from psychologist Albert Harrison, who thinks there is value in contemplating such an encounter:

“Planned efforts to communicate beyond Earth should force us to step back and look at the big picture,” said Harrison, a professor at the University of California at Davis.  “Deciding what might be important for another civilization forces us to move beyond our pathologically narrow time span and develop a long term perspective.”
    Even if we never make contact, Harrison observed, we might reap significant benefits by pondering these issues now.
    “Determining what we should say and who should say it could be a useful self-study that fosters self-contemplation and encourages consensus,” Harrison noted.  “These deliberations should encourage us to think about what makes us human, where we are going, and how we conceive of our place in the universe.”

And that’s it for this addition of SETI Thursday on Space.com.  Since Vakoch ends with that, one might assume an implicit Amen.

Does anyone need further proof that SETI is a religion? (See Michael Crichton’s allegation, 12/27/2003 link).  This psychologist, enamored with dreams and visions of contact with aliens, believes these super-beings will be able to help us answer the big questions of life, questions typically addressed through philosophy or religion.  Not only will they teach us wisdom, but we will learn to bow humbly before their eminence.  Even if they never show up, we can gain wisdom by contemplation of their existence.  Next thing you know, Harrison will have us all repeating some mantra, like seti, seti, seti, to help us meditate.
    Harrison and his fellow believers are converging on Fantasyland from both directions.  From the past, they misinterpret the bones of Neanderthal Man by relegating him to racial inferiority (see 09/23/2005 commentary).  From the future, they expect that beings will have evolved by natural means far beyond us, like gods.  A system that relies on myths and legends, teaches morality (e.g., humility and contemplation), tries to answer the big questions of philosophy, and encourages charitable giving to support the priesthood and infrastructure necessary to support them is indistinguishable from a cult.  SETI has come full circle.  Attempting to replace belief in a Creator God, they have become, to borrow Maxwell’s wordcraft, an enterprise to “curry favour with beings who cannot exist, to compass some petty promotion in nebulous kingdoms of mist.”  (See 08/10/2005 commentary; try re-reading Maxwell’s entire poem with SETI in mind).

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