January 25, 2018 | David F. Coppedge

Can SETI Avoid Intelligent Design Implications by Rebranding?

A SETI leader thinks the label has outlived its usefulness and does not reflect what SETI scientists actually do.

Jill Tarter, a 35-year leader of the Center for SETI Research (part of the SETI Institute), wants to ditch SETI – the name, at least. According to Space.com,

At a recent meeting of the National Academy of Sciences’ Committee on Astrobiology Science Strategy for the Search for Life in the Universe, held here at the University of California, Irvine, Tarter explained that the phrase “search for extraterrestrial intelligence” generates an incorrect perception of what scientists in this field are actually doing. A more appropriate title for the field, she said, would be “the search for technosignatures,” or signs of technology created by intelligent alien civilizations.

“We need to be very careful about our language,” Tarter said during a presentation at the committee meeting on Jan. 18. “SETI is not the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. We can’t define intelligence, and we sure as hell don’t know how to detect it remotely. [SETI] … is searching for evidence of someone else’s technology. We use technology as a proxy for intelligence.

“[The acronym] ‘SETI’ has been problematic in history, and we should just drop [it] and just continue to talk about a search for technosignatures,” she said.

As reported often here since 12/03/05, SETI is de facto intelligent design science. Its practitioners are to a large degree atheistic naturalists, believing that everything, including life and intelligence, emerged from a physical big bang. They are often adamant in their denunciations of creationism and intelligent design. And yet, curiously, their mission has depended on the ability to differentiate intelligent causes from natural causes, which is the core aim of intelligent design. Can they escape the conundrum by rebranding their work? What could cause a ‘technosignature’?

Through a convoluted chain of reasoning, with detours into the mystical realm, Tarter tries to equate technology with nature:

Science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke wrote that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” which would mean that alien technology could be as mysterious and unexplainable to humans as technologies that appear in science-fiction TV shows and movies. That opens up a dauntingly large range of possibilities for what technosignatures might look like. What if an alien civilization were communicating via a mechanism that Earth-based scientists haven’t discovered yet? Would humans immediately recognize these “magical” technosignatures, or would we not see them as unnatural?

Tarter said she prefers to focus on a slight alteration of Clarke’s prediction written by the futurist Karl Schroeder: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from nature.

If advanced civilizations have reached technological nirvana, she says, they will have no wastage and “appear natural” to us. She advocates, therefore, looking for civilizations that have “not yet reached that level of sophistication.” Insufficiently advanced technologies will be wasteful, like that of humans, she thinks. Maybe we could find fellowship at that level.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from nature.

Tarter, whose work inspired the main character in the movie Contact, says that old SETI looked for direct communication. New SETI tries to identify ‘technosignatures’ by eavesdropping on internal communications of aliens. One way to do it is to identify planets that appear to have modified their natural environments. An example she points to is the recent interest in a possible alien megastructure around Boyajian’s Star. Further investigation by the Breakthrough Listen project falsified those hopes, finding a natural explanation.

So is there a difference between old SETI and new SETI? Basically, Tarter has encapsulated technology within nature, saying that it may look designed by intelligent beings because it is mysterious to us. But this explanation begins to unravel when you reflect these ideas back on herself. Is she intelligent? Did she uses intelligent causes, or natural causes, to propose the philosophical ideas in this article?

The rebranding proposal is self-defeating. If alien technology that leaves technosignatures is not caused intentionally by intelligent minds, then our own human minds reduce to natural causes, and nothing we do has any purpose or direction. Technology just ’emerges’ magically. Stuff Happens.


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