April 15, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

SETI and other Pointless Gimmicks

Astrobiologist Paul Davies sure knows how to ask interesting questions, and ruffle feathers in the process.  His new book about SETI, The Eerie Silence, reviewed by Leslie Mullen in Astrobiology Magazine, defaced some long-standing notions.  But are his suggestions any improvement?
    Davies thinks the Voyager record was a “pointless gimmick.”  He thinks that SETI has been described as a religion.  He argues that it is probably useless to look for life in radio signals.  Yet he thinks we should expand the search for alien intelligence in marks of intervention in our DNA, or in neutrino beams, or in interstellar waste dumps.
    At times he seems to be talking like an intelligent design advocate masquerading as a materialist.  Mullin quotes him:

To a physicist like me, life looks to be a little short of magic: all those dumb molecules conspiring to achieve such clever things!  How do they do it?  There is no orchestrator, no choreographer directing the performance, no esprit de corps, no collective will, no life force – just mindless atoms pushing and pulling on each other, kicked about by random thermal fluctuations.  Yet the end product is an exquisite and highly distinctive form of order.  Even chemists, who are familiar with the amazing transformative powers of molecules, find it breathtaking.  George Whitesides, Professor of Chemistry at Harvard University, writes, “How remarkable is life?  The answer is: very.  Those of us who deal in networks of chemical reactions know of nothing like it.”

Most of the extrasolar planets found so far are gas giant planets like Jupiter, and are not likely to have life as we know it.  Davies says there is nothing in the laws of chemistry or physics to indicate life is inevitable, or even a cosmic imperative.  He notes there is no mathematical regularity to life, revealing some underlying basic law of nature.  Instead, “the chemical sequences seem totally haphazard.”  And yet, life has its own sense of order, since re-arranging those chemical sequences can upend the whole system.
“So the arrangement is at once both random and highly specific – a peculiar, indeed unique, combination of qualities hard to explain by deterministic physical forces,” he writes.

But in the next sentences, he is talking about some “law of evolution” accounting for the origin of life as well as its development into physicists like himself.  At one moment Davies describes SETI as a religion, but then says the discovery of ETI would be hard on traditional religion.  He deplores the silence on the one hand, but then calls it a “golden silence” to consider how precious it would mean life is.  Whether or not Davies’ beliefs are coherent, they represent a mind struggling honestly with stubborn realities of physics, life and intelligence – and questions that the “eerie silence” are keeping in front of astrobiologists.  Mullins ends, “By stretching our minds to try to envision all the possibilities in our search for aliens, not only may we one day find what we seek, but in the process we also will learn about many other deep and enduring mysteries of the cosmos.”

Learn to question glib statements.  Consider that last platitude by Mullins.  Is it always a good thing to stretch your mind to envision all the possibilities of things?  Stretch your mind to consider all the possibilities of pigs flying.  Did that do you any good in the deep and enduring mysteries of flying porcines?  Some minds stretch so far they break.  Some minds stretch in the wrong directions; they consider useless mysteries that do no one any good.  Some stretch to imagine evil things.  Was it good for Eve to consider the possibilities of disobeying God?  Come now; stretch your mind wisely.
    The article is worth reading to get a sense of the schizophrenia of the modern mind.  Knowledgeable scientists like Davies cannot deny the complexity of the cell and the seeming “magic” of life’s organization, but they desperately want to hang onto their materialism.  Between his irrational leaps into fantasyland (looking for alien footprints in our DNA, and failing to see it would require I.D. to do so, etc.) Davies is a little more realistic than many astrobiologists about the complexity of life.  His statements in The Privileged Planet are memorable.  Add to those his memorable quotes above, which should be printed on billboards, distributed at school board meetings, and thrown into the faces of the Darwin Party hacks who say intelligent design is not science.  Look at what Davies said!  Life is so organized for function, there is no law of nature or possibility of chance to produce it.  There is nothing like it in regular chemistry.  A high-level, well-recognized astrobiologist said this, not someone affiliated with the Discovery Institute.  What are we to make of this?  Are we to retreat with Davies into the non-explanation that this is just some peculiar state of affairs, a “a peculiar, indeed unique, combination of qualities hard to explain by deterministic physical forces”?  That’s indistinguishable from the Stuff Happens Law.  Remember, explaining something with the phrase “stuff happens,” or its cognates (it emerged, it arose) is the antithesis of scientific explanation.  It is an admission of defeat, disqualification, dropping out of science.  It is a tacit admission that other players need their time at bat.  Let the world hear.  Materialistic science has no answers to the origin of life.  It is time to admit the bankruptcy of materialism and let the debate include those who have been excluded – those who add design to the equation, which makes all the difference, and clears the fog from the mysteries of life.  Are we to let the SETI materialists pursue their quest endlessly, while their critics are forced to disprove a universal negative?  Talk about stacking the deck.  Time to reboot the game and re-initialize the rules for fairness.
    Would that Davies would read Signature in the Cell and face up to the fact that he has no way out; there is no chance explanation, law-of-nature explanation, or combination of the two that can produce life without intelligent design.  He knows the science behind this well enough to concede the facts to Meyer.  Is he brave enough to cast his lot with the despised I.D. people?  Pray he does in time, like former atheist Anthony Flew, who died this week (see Uncommon Descent).  Flew had to admit after a lifetime of teaching atheism that the evidence for intelligent design was compelling.  Follow the evidence, then follow the implications.  Yes, there is intelligent life out there, just not what you were seeking, Paul.  Ask your namesake.  You can even find the footprints in your DNA.

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