December 3, 2005 | David F. Coppedge

SETI vs. Intelligent Design

Intelligent Design proponents have often pointed to the similarity between what they are doing and what SETI is doing.  For example, SETI is attempting to detect evidence of intelligence in coded signals from space, and design biologists are detecting evidence of intelligence in the DNA code.  Seth Shostak, Director of the SETI Institute, decided to challenge that comparison in the weekly SETI report on Space.com.  He started with a comparison of his own: ID people are no more to be taken seriously than the comedian who found a potato that looked like Richard Nixon’s head.  But then he got serious; isn’t there a double standard, if SETI is accepted by the scientific community and ID is not?
    First, Shostak argued that the signals SETI is searching for are not all that complex.  A code or message is not a requirement; a valid candidate might just be a “persistent narrowband whistle” of no known natural origin.  Still, why would SETI be able to deduce intelligence with far less complexity than the high complexity found in DNA?  Here, Shostak made a surprising statement: such a simple, narrow signal from space would constitute better evidence for intelligence than the DNA code:

Well, it’s because the credibility of the evidence is not predicated on its complexity.  If SETI were to announce that we’re 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; it’s artificial.  Such a tone just doesn’t 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, DNA’s junk and redundancy. (Emphasis added in all quotes.)

He admitted that the pulsar first thought to be evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence in 1967 did not convey information, but then says that it was profligate in its signal, broadcasting all over the spectrum.  This, he claims, shows that it was a signal no alien would produce; it would be too “wasteful.”  In cells and sea lions, on the other hand, nature produces things full of “Junk, redundancy and inefficiency” he claimed.  To him, this proves they were not artificially engineered because they are not “optimally built.”
    A second error in the comparison, Shostak continued, is in overlooking the importance of context.  SETI researchers would be justified in inferring artificiality if they found a large green square on an earth-like planet (instead of in a group of stars), just like archaeologists are justified in inferring hominid tool-making if rock chips are found in a cave.
    In summary, Shostak disavows the comparison between SETI and ID research on two counts: (1) SETI is not looking for messages with evidence of intelligence, but only for simple artificial signals; (2) SETI is looking for artificiality in the context of places where such “very modest complexity” would be unexpected and not otherwise observed.  The last word: “This is clearly nothing like looking at DNA’s chemical makeup and deducing the work of a supernatural biochemist.”

We have to hand it to Seth Shostak for tackling an argument head-on without too much mocking.  Will his arguments stand up to scrutiny?  You decide.  In the first place, looking for a simple signal is just the first pass filter.  All the SETI literature has been replete with claims that eventually humans want to converse with the aliens and learn from them.  Jimmy Carter spoke for the earth in writing, “We hope some day, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilizations.”  That’s also why our messages to them have been very complex: from the Arecibo message, to the Pioneer plaque, and especially to the Voyager records – loaded with information, telling them as much about ourselves as the bandwidth allowed.  Finding a “persistent narrowband whistle” would most certainly instigate an intensive follow-up search to first confirm the artificiality of the signal, and then try to discover more complexity in it.  Shostak and the world would certainly not be sufficiently convinced to get off at the whistle-stop and say, “well, we found intelligent life, so let’s move on to something else.”  Look at how the alleged canals on Mars sent scientists and the public into a frenzy to get more data and learn more about a possible Martian civilization.  The confirmation of extraterrestrial intelligence would surely demand more complexity in the signal, just as it did in the SETI-dominated movie Contact.
    As to Shostak’s second argument that an artificial signal would be efficient whereas life is profligate and wasteful, who is he kidding?  This is a red herring wrapped in circular reasoning.  Like most of the SETI crowd, Shostak is an evolutionist.  He assumes life evolved, and he assumes evolution is a wasteful process without design, so when he finds what (to him) looks like wastefulness and redundancy, he only argues his assumptions.  This is the old dysteleology (bad design) argument, but it is rather presumptuous to tell the Designer “if you were really so smart, you would have done it my way.”  In the first place, Shostak obviously has not been listening to the molecular biologists who are in such awe of the efficiency and robustness of biological machinery that they are racing to imitate it (11/19/2005).  (Artists may try to imitate junk, but not engineers.)  In the second place, the “junk DNA” he speaks of is rapidly being redefined as more about its essential functions is being uncovered (10/20/2005, 09/08/2005, 07/15/2005).  In the third place, he presumes he knows what the aliens would do, when maybe, to them, sending a wideband message might make more sense than a narrowband one.  In the fourth place, he assumes human intelligence is not profligate, redundant and wasteful.  Ever seen government regulations?  So not only is he presumptuous and uninformed over the particular claims of this argument, it is an irrelevant argument anyway: SETI would certainly follow up any sign of “artificiality” with a massive search for more complexity containing a message.  He argued that the ID claim that “complexity would imply intelligence, is also wrong.”  But this misrepresents the claims of ID (see next paragraph), and will come back to bite his own assertion in the end.
    Shostak also misleads his readers by making a false distinction between artificiality and complexity.  This equivocation also begs the question about design vs. evolution.  The ID literature has made it clear that it is not just complexity that makes a design inference valid, but specified complexity.  If an “artificial” signal were found with enough complexity beyond what could be produced naturally, it would be specified by definition, even if it were a persistent lowband whistle.  After ruling out chance and natural law as sources, both Shostak and the ID community would conclude that an intelligent design inference is warranted.  So the distinction disappears.  Both sides also agree that specified complexity depends on context; a little complexity, like a cairn on a trail, is sufficient to make a design inference in the mountains, whereas much more specified complexity would be required to declare a forger guilty.
    And what is “artificial” anyway, if not designed by an intelligence?  Shostak is not being consistent here, because to him, artificiality evolved: it has its roots in non-design.  How could artificiality (i.e., purposeful action of a designer) evolve in the first place?  At what point did purpose and intent (i.e., free will) diverge from chance and necessity?  A beaver is intelligent, but is hauling a piece of wood for the purpose of making a dam equivalent to sending an intelligent signal bearing information?  Is the guard crow sending intelligent communication when it caws the warning signal to the flock?  Suppose an alien planet had frogs that croaked with a persistent narrowband whistle in the radio range; would SETI be ready to ask them about the meaning of life and how to survive global war?  Clearly a different category of communication is being sought here.  SETI goes beyond astrobiology.  It would not be content to find bacteria on Mars; it wants evidence of purpose, intent, intelligence and free will – beings capable of harnessing nature to send information-bearing messages that would never occur by chance or natural law.  Humans do this all the time: smoke signals, skywriting, petroglyphs, writing with a stick in the sand, or beaming bits into space.  How can Shostak make a design inference based on artificiality (extraterrestrial intelligence, the kind that intends to communicate with us) without first assuming the very criterion he wants to deny to advocates of intelligent design?  And without coming up with some sort of criterion for minimum specified complexity, how can he distance himself from the comedian who finds a potato that looks like Richard Nixon’s head?
    Finally, let’s have a little fun at Seth Shostak’s expense, with all due respect.  One of the persistent harangues against intelligent design is that it “brings science to a halt by claiming a designer did it.”  According to this view, ID scientists are lazy and prone to jumping to conclusions.  They don’t want to be diligent in performing the rigorous work necessary to find natural explanations for complex phenomena (see 11/21/2005 end of main article).  This is not true, because using the Dembski Explanatory Filter, intelligent causes are always a last resort after natural and chance causes are eliminated.  But let’s put the shoe on the other foot for a change.  Dr. Shostak, Jill Tarter et al.,wouldn’t it be the lazy way out for a SETI scientist to infer intelligence for a persistent narrowband whistle?  Surely a naturalistic explanation must be out there.  You must keep trying, ad infinitum, till a natural cause is found.  If you infer intelligence was the cause, you are just giving up.  You are failing to perform the rigorous analysis necessary to do science; you are bringing science to a halt.
    Nice try, Dr. Shostak.  Think about this some more and try again.  And while you’re at it, tell us how your own intelligent message-sending capacity evolved, or how it can be distinguished from chance and natural law, if nature is all there is.

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