June 3, 2006 | David F. Coppedge

Researcher Denies SETI Is a Religion

Apparently irritated by charges that SETI research is like a religion (see, for instance, the article by novelist Michael Crichton mentioned in our 12/27/2003 entry), David Darling of the SETI Institute has issued a response.  On Space.com, his title was direct: “Of Faith and Facts: Is SETI a Religion?”  The answer was a forthright NO to people like George Basalla (U of Delaware, emeritus) who claimed in his new book Civilized Life in the Universe (Oxford, 2006) that in the absence of any positive evidence, SETI relies more on a kind of religious zeal than anything else.  Basalla attempts to draw stark distinctions:

Religions are characterized by two factors: worship—in other words, some system of devotion directed toward one or more omniscient and supranatural beings—and faith in the absence of material evidence.  SETI qualifies as a religion on neither of these counts.  Unless I’m very much mistaken no SETI researcher offers prayers to the subject of his or her quest (although it would be fascinating to know what spiritual traditions might have grown up among the civilizations of other stars).  And any faith that’s involved in SETI is only the kind of non-religious “faith” that any scientist adheres to—faith in the scientific method, the equipment she uses, the all-important peer review process, and so on.  As I’ve mentioned, we already have material evidence for intelligence in the universe: it consists of the brains you’re using right now to assimilate these thoughts.  Unlike a religion which relies on pure faith that a god exists, we don’t need faith that intelligence and technology exist.

Other intelligences that we already know about, Darling said, include dolphins and great apes.  Darling draws a parallel between the hunch that other scientists had 40 years ago that extrasolar planets exist, not confirmed till recently:

If we were to follow Basalla’s line of reasoning, the search for extrasolar planets also qualifies as a kind of religion.  Shouldn’t we simply have given up after four decades of looking?  Surely that’s enough time to have found something if it really existed?  Isn’t continuing beyond that a sign of misplaced faith and over-optimism?  Fortunately the quest did go on and we’re now reaping the rewards—new planets by the bucket-load.

He admits, though, that SETI has not detected anything, so the comparison is only in the spirit of the early researches, and its confidence in the physical theories that expected to find extrasolar planets.  “SETI researchers know their limitations,” he says, in the spirit of Murphy’s Ultimate Law: By definition, when investigating the unknown, you do not know what you will find.  “We are … like Columbus sailing into uncharted waters,” Darling ends.  “We don’t know what we’ll find.  But,” he adds with positivist flair, “the quest is extraordinary, exciting, abundantly worthwhile, and true to the methodology and spirit of science.”

Give this to J. P. Moreland; he will have a field day with the faulty analogies, false dichotomies and straw-man arguments, to say nothing of Darling’s junior-high philosophy of science.
    Science in our culture is like the celebrity everyone wants his or her picture taken with, wants to name-drop and pretend is a close friend.  But does hanging around with scientists, using scientific equipment and engaging in peer review qualify as science?  Darling and the other SETI Institute darlings like to shmooze with the scientists in the green room, but they cannot publish a peer-reviewed paper about aliens because they don’t have any.  They might get peers to review an article about the detection limits of this or that instrument, but such documentation could not support the belief that extraterrestrials exist, any more than describing the physical characteristics of a fine-mesh net establishes its ability to capture ghosts.  The reference to peer review also begs the question whether peer review qualifies something as scientific, or grants credibility (see 02/05/2006).  Even theologians and historians engage in peer review of a sort but don’t call their work science or faith.
    Darling commits a blatant association fallacy by comparing apes and dolphins and human brains to alien intelligences.  We know about apes, dolphins and our fellow humans – whose brains are all DNA-and-protein based – but not anything demonstrable about alien intelligence, other than an endless chain of speculations tickling the imaginations of science fiction writers, cartoonists and Discovery Channel animators.  Darling’s bravado leans on the bruised reed of materialistic evolution.  He presumes Earth intelligence evolved, then transfers that assumption to outer space – ignoring the possibility that brains, dolphins and apes were created.  He unjustifiably extrapolates their presence here as evidence they could have evolved out there.
    There’s nothing wrong with looking, but the existence of alien intelligence cannot even begin to be discussed scientifically till there are data in hand.  Even then, however, detection of unknown intelligence will not prove it is natural or arose naturalistically (see 05/11/2006, “is the universe natural?”).  If he wants to shore up the scientific respectability of SETI, let’s see some boundary conditions, a null hypothesis, criteria for success and failure, and willingness to consider alternative hypotheses – including creation.
    Most egregious is Darling’s depiction of religion, a classic either-or fallacy.  He paints religion in the starkest of terms: mind-numbed devotees, going through worship rituals and prayers, exercising blind faith in things contrary to evidence.  Apparently he has not debated the likes of Gary Habermas or Josh McDowell, who accept Christianity precisely because of the facts, and certainly have more hard data in support of their “faith” (read: confidence) than has the SETI Institute.  What confidence, by contrast, can SETI researchers have in their compass, the Drake Equation?  It’s a series of unknown factors that can yield any number from a hundred million alien civilizations to zero.  Informed guesses don’t count, either, argued Michael Crichton: “If you need to state how many planets with life choose to communicate, there is simply no way to make an informed guess.  It’s simply prejudice.”
    Darling, Shostak, Tarter and the rest of the SETI gang are free to look and believe, pray their Drake Equation rosaries and worship the Spirit of Charlie, who brings forth intelligence from particles.  As long as there are people willing to put money in their offering baskets and build their dish-shaped cathedrals, hey – it’s a free country.  But like Crichton warned, even if SETI research has some heuristic value, “that does not relieve us of the obligation to see the Drake equation clearly for what it is—pure speculation in quasi-scientific trappings.”

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