Jan 07 2009

SETI vs Intelligent Design

Blogging for the Discovery Institute, Michael Egnor repeats the already debunked canard that the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is analogous to the search for Intelligent Design (ID) in nature. This time he is responding to a recent blog entry of mine on SETI. He doesn’t actually respond to any of my points – he is just using my entry as an excuse to repeat the SETI false-analogy.

Egnor writes:

One is struck by SETI supporters’ speculative extravagance. The most cogent critique of SETI, in my view, is that it is akin to an article of faith. There is absolutely no evidence for the existence of extraterrestrial life. SETI is surely a shot in the dark, perhaps literally, but I do believe that it is a worthwhile scientific venture. Methodologically it is certainly science, even good science. The reception of signals with specified complexity or the discovery of artifacts apparently crafted by intelligent non-human agency would be clear evidence for extraterrestrial intelligent agency. Carl Sagan’s example in “Contact” is entirely valid. The reception of a signal repeating prime numbers would be very unlikely to have a non-intelligent natural source, and the most reasonable scientific inference would be that it was generated by extraterrestrial intelligent life.

Apparently Egnor did not do what I just did prior to writing this entry – Google “SETI” and “ID”. If he did, the very first entry is an excellent article from 2005 by SETI researcher Seth Shostak deconstructing the SETI-ID analogy. Seth writes:

In fact, the signals actually sought by today’s SETI searches are not complex, as the ID advocates assume. We’re not looking for intricately coded messages, mathematical series, or even the aliens’ version of “I Love Lucy.” Our instruments are largely insensitive to the modulation–or message–that might be conveyed by an extraterrestrial broadcast. A SETI radio signal of the type we could actually find would be a persistent, narrow-band whistle. Such a simple phenomenon appears to lack just about any degree of structure, although if it originates on a planet, we should see periodic Doppler effects as the world bearing the transmitter rotates and orbits.


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.

Seth makes an excellent distinction between “complex” and “artificial.”  Sometimes simplicity is more a sign of intelligence than complexity. But these types of states derive from a deeper logic – one that Egnor and his ID buddies completely miss. It is, in fact, the core fallacy of ID.

What Seth is saying is that we have prior knowledge of the kinds of radio signals that nature is capable of producing. Natural radio signals have a signature – they are inefficient, which operationally means that they are spread out over a wide spectrum. So far, this has always been the case. There is no known natural process that produces a narrow band transmission. Therefore, SETI is searching for such a narrow-band signal.

But there is a flip side to this that Seth did not discuss – not only do we have knowledge of what kind of radio signals nature can produce, we have knowledge of what kind of radio signals can be generated deliberately by an intelligent race that has achieved radio astronomy (namely us). We can therefore say that a known marker or signature of technologically produced radio signals can be an efficient narrow band.

This is key – SETI is searching for signals that not only cannot currently be explained by nature, but have a positive feature known to be a marker of intelligent artifice. Mere complexity is not enough – and for SETI screening purposes is not even in the equation.

Presumably, however, if SETI did find a candidate signal that had the markers of artifice and lacked a natural explanation, we would then take a closer look at the signal and look for encoded information. If we found it, how would we know if the information is the product of natural processes or deliberate intelligent artifice?

Well – we would go through the same process. Is there anything known in nature that can account for the information, and if not does the information contain any positive evidence or marker for artifice? One such marker of technological intelligence is mathematics. This is what leads to Carl Sagan’s idea that something like a series of prime numbers would be a possible intelligent tag in an ET signal.

We are using, here, ourselves as the only known (to us) model of technological intelligence. We make the reasonable inference that other technological intelligences would share in common with us (at least to some degree) mathematics and science. At least our respective civilizations would have independently tried to understand the same math and science – and it is reasonable to assume this would have led to some common understanding. It is likely, for example, that we would both measure the speed of light to be the same, and that on planet Vulcan (or whatever) 2+2 still = 4.

SETI, therefore, combines two criteria in its search for intelligence. The first is negative – finding an anomaly that cannot be explained by known natural processes. The second, however, is positive – finding that the signal has markers of technological intelligence, as best as we can infer from our solitary self-example.

Now, getting back to ID, Egnor writes:

Of course, if signals or artifacts that appeared intelligently designed were discovered in space, the scientific vetting of this data would include testing the inference that the artifacts arose by natural unintelligent means. That is, the design inference would be tested against the inference to natural unintelligent causation. This of course has been done in SETI; there have been instances (e.g. pulsars) in which signals that raised the question of design were investigated and found to have a natural unintelligent cause.

Yet, in SICI, the inference to design has not been vetted, and in fact, investigation of the obvious evidence for design has been ruled out in many established scientific circles. Why the widespread scientific resistance to SICI, which has produced abundant scientific evidence for design, but not to SETI, which has produced nothing of scientific value?

As usual, he is profoundly confused. (SICI, by the way, is his attempt to coin a new phrase – the Search for IntraCellular Intelligence – gag).  He is confused about how SETI works, as I described above. And also he is confused about the history of biology and evolution. SETI is vetted (partially) by ruling out natural causes. How would ID be vetted? He says it has not been – but in fact it has.

There is a natural explanation for the information we find in living organisms – that explanation is evolution. ID proponents and creationists, despite their best efforts, have not been able to hold back the flood of evidence and solid scientific reasoning that points to organic evolution as the source of biological complexity.

What is the evidence Egnor refers to for design in nature? He doesn’t bother to give even a single example. I can presume, however, that he is referring to so-called irreducible complexity (IC), the notion that some structures in biology are too complex to have evolved. IC, however, has been given a fair hearing in the court of science and was demolished. Purported IC structures and pathways have been shown not to be evolutionarily irreducible. ID proponents also ignore the many explanations for how complex structures may evolve – such as through gene duplication and coaptation.

In practice, and very much unlike SETI, ID is reduced to making an argument from ignorance (specifically the god-of-the-gaps argument). They argue (falsely) that evolution cannot explain certain aspects of life, and therefore that is evidence for ID. They are therefore restricted to the negative type of evidence I discussed above – ruling out a natural cause. And they fail at that. In fact all they do is assume what they endeavor to prove – that evolution does not explain life.

But more importantly from the point of view of what counts as legitimate science, ID has no positive argument to make for design. SETI, at least, can point to positive markers for technological origin. What are the positive markers for ID? There are none. ID proponents try to twist the negative criterion to make it sound like a positive marker (referring to IC or specified information) but it is still negative – meaning that it is based on the alleged inability to explain aspects of biology.

ID proponents cannot posit a positive marker for ID in nature because they refuse to make any statements about the designer. The designer, operationally, is omnipotent and unfathomable. We cannot say what a designer would do, or what a designed biology should look like. ID, apparently, can choose to make biology look like whatever we happen to find in nature. And therefore, ID makes no predictions about what we should find, and is therefore not falsifiable.

In other words – it’s not science.

Also – we can take Seth’s statement of the difference between complex and artificial and apply it to biology (as Seth briefly does himself in his article). From what we know so far it seems that inefficiency is a general marker of natural systems, and “narrow band” type efficiency is a marker of deliberate artifice. The information in DNA is not efficient. It’s a mess. It’s exactly what we would expect from a naturally self-organizing system. It does not reflect the elegant simplicity or efficiency of artifice.

I am not proposing this line of evidence as strong evidence for evolution by itself. But for what it’s worth – this one goes in the evolution column, not the ID column. Of course, if we look closely at DNA across species, we see the most powerful line of evidence for evolution – a branching pattern of relatedness that closely follows morphology.

In place of a cogent defense of ID (because one does not exist), Egnor give us only his tired standby:

The answer, I believe, is that the implications of SICI are unacceptable ideologically to many scientists, who are philosophically materialistic and hence unwilling to examine the evidence for design in biology from an unbiased perspective.

ID proponents would have you believe that the consensus of scientific opinion, hashed out over decades of transparent debate based upon a continuous stream of evidence, is the result of ideology. Meanwhile, the minority cultish beliefs of the Discovery Institute, which cannot hide their overt religious basis, is not ideological.

Egnor cannot manage a coherent argument, and utterly fails to grasp basic logic. So instead he resorts to endless whining about materialist ideology and bias.  At least he provides useful instruction as to the poor logic and tortured arguments of the the ID crowd.

26 responses so far

26 Responses to “SETI vs Intelligent Design”

  1. sonicon 07 Jan 2009 at 5:58 pm

    Two difficulties-
    1) you seem to assume there is a difference between natural and intellgent. (self-refuting)
    2) If the SETI people did find a broadcast of ‘I Love Lucy’ (or something like it) coming from a planet, would they assume that this complex signal was made by unintelligent sources? (confusing what they are currently looking for with what would be considered knock-out evidence)

  2. Michael Hutzleron 07 Jan 2009 at 7:41 pm

    The most obvious fallacy lies in the simple statement, “There is absolutely no evidence for the existence of extraterrestrial life.”

    It is a subtle fallacy as it excludes the evidence. There is evidence for life. The fact that all of the evidence to date is terrestrial life just means you exclude it with the qualifier. It is effectively a tautology in the negative. It doesn’t sound as good if you say, “We don’t know anything about life we haven’t seen, yet.”

  3. petrucioon 07 Jan 2009 at 8:50 pm

    There WILL be a difference between natural and intelligent in most cases, though there could be a lot of gray shades in there. I know everything is natural underneath, I’m not sure if this is what you mean, but it seems irrelevant in this context.

    And yes, the shades of gray implies that it’s also possible that we have already looked at an intelligent signal and dismissed it. It must be unambiguous.

    And ‘I Love Lucy’ from another planet would probably still be encoded efficiently in narrow band, so it’s unlikelly to be missed. So I don’t see where you are trying to get there.

  4. tooth fairyon 08 Jan 2009 at 12:38 am

    “Meanwhile, the minority cultish beliefs of the Discovery Institute, which cannot hide their overt religious basis, is not ideological.”


    i got in toruble at work for laughing so loud at this.

  5. Mark Entelon 08 Jan 2009 at 12:42 am

    This was a very interesting post if only because I never knew before exactly what sort of data SETI was searching for. Crazy cool

    As to Egnor’s claim of ideological myopia, this is completely belied by the actual history of science. It is not so long ago that vitalism (in whatever specific form) held sway over the opinions of Man.

    So, ‘materialism’ grew out of a dualist framework because that dualist framework failed to explain new observations. And yet, conjectures such as ID still invoke the same arguments & hypotheses that, while useful & reasonable at one point, have failed to keep step with development of our understanding & observation of the Cosmos

    The phrase I most often hear Steve use to refer to this sort of situation is “pre-scientific” thinking. That need not be an insult. Perhaps proto-scientific would be a better term.

  6. Skepticoon 08 Jan 2009 at 1:45 am

    You’re right Steven that this has all been explained before, but when did creationists ever pay attention to all these patient rebuttals to their nonsense.

    btw, there is another reason why SETI is science while ID is not.  As I wrote in SETI, archeology and other sciences, the ultimate reason why ID is not science, is what they do with the information. With ID, determining design is the whole purpose of the endeavor. Intelligent Design is inferred.  Check. Done. Finished. 

    With SETI, determining design would be the beginning of the process. If SETI do make contact, all efforts would immediately be diverted to learning something about the intelligence, finding where it came from, learning something about the source planet, translating the message, ultimately making contact if possible.

    With science, determining intelligent design is the start of the process – it’s the confirmation there is more to study. The difference between this and ID, where determination of design is the end of the process, couldn’t be starker. The totally empty, vacuous and useless nature of ID, compared with the endeavors of science, is what is most striking about this comparison with science that the twits like Egnor want to make

  7. Gated Clockon 08 Jan 2009 at 1:58 am

    All right, I’ll do it.

    “Egnor is a SICI”

  8. sonicon 08 Jan 2009 at 3:50 am

    If everything is natural, then it is not possible to make a distinction between natural and intelligent.
    If the distinction is between intelligent and unintelligent, then it should be so stated. To do otherwise invites illogic and unclear thinking.
    If a machine came out of the sky and the machine consisted of millions of parts and was very complex, people would assume it was made by an intelligent source. The idea that intelligent=simple is silly.
    SETI used to look for complex coded messages (Carl Sagen was not lying). They didn’t find any. They need funding, so…

  9. terrenceon 08 Jan 2009 at 4:05 am

    I wonder how big the installed base of ID@home users is?

  10. terrenceon 08 Jan 2009 at 5:01 am

    You are correct that it is very difficult to tell a non-natural signal apart for noise. This is why basically every physical-layer data transfer protocol ever created contains a sync pulse of some sort so that the receiver can tell where one frame ends and the next begins. Listening for the sync pulse in order to find and home in on the real signal has been done successfully before, if in a more earthly setting.

    “If a machine came out of the sky and the machine consisted of millions of parts and was very complex, people would assume it was made by an intelligent source.”
    True, but the machine’s perfectly cubical casing would be just as dead a giveaway.

    “SETI used to look for complex coded messages (Carl Sagen(sic) was not lying).”
    [citation needed] Seriously, sonic, Carl Sagan explaining SETI to a TV audience? That makes your information at least 12 years old and considering the palp that’s on TV, I think it’s probably fair to describe SETI as complex in that setting. But then again, so what? I would be more worried if SETI weren’t refining their methods.

    “The idea that intelligent=simple is silly.”
    The ‘=’ sign you use there is misrepresenting SETI; nobody is claiming that all simple things represent intelligence or that all intelligently designed shapes are simple. Clearly, however, there is some overlap. If SETI thinks that that is the best place to look for intelligence, perhaps even basing this on the knowledge and experience they have gained in that search, I certainly shouldn’t be second guessing them. Actually, screw that, I’m going to second guess them anyway. *looks around* Observation: there are more geometrically perfect shapes sitting near me than there are in the same area outside my door. Conclusion: I think they’re on the right track.

  11. sonicon 08 Jan 2009 at 5:56 am

    I make no claim for a “non-natural” anything. This is the thinking that I am saying is faulty.
    The SETI people can look for intelligence in anyway they feel appropriate. But if a complex, irregular shaped space craft lands, I don’t think they will be saying, “Look a sign of unintelligence!” (Whereas the very regular pulse of a pulsar…)

  12. Steven Novellaon 08 Jan 2009 at 9:27 am

    sonic – I don’t think anyone said that certain kinds of complexity would not be a sign of intelligence. The point was that complexity itself is not enough, and that if we look deeper what we are really looking for are signs of artifice, which is not necessarily complex. Artifice might manifest as elegant simplicity, or as unnatural efficiency. Or it may manifest as technological complexity.

    I assume that if we found an efficient signal we would then explore further to see if there was any complex information hiding in the signal. If not, then it would still be intriguing but, not as much as a signal that contains the “encyclopedia galactica.”

  13. superdaveon 08 Jan 2009 at 12:17 pm

    @Mark Entel
    I 100% agree with you. So many people seem to forget that many of the ideas of the supernatural came before science, had their chance, and failed.

  14. Dave S.on 08 Jan 2009 at 2:07 pm

    He’s also confused about pulsars. They were not part of the SETI program. The SETI program is the deliberate search for signals from ETs. Bell and her co-workers weren’t deliberately looking for any such thing.

    And isn’t it odd how IDers consistently point to Sagan’s fictional account of SETI is his book Contact, rather than the actual program?

    Like the watch on the heath, what points to design is artificiality, not complexity.

  15. dlmccaslinon 08 Jan 2009 at 2:55 pm

    The problem with comparing SETI to ID is also a problem of intent. SETI “suspects” that something may be out there, and they’re looking for it. ID “presumes” that they are right, and they don’t even bother looking for evidence. Even if we find out that SETI was a big waste of time, at least it is a test of a valid hypothesis, and not just a blind grab for any evidence that proves your belief in mythology to be correct.

  16. sonicon 08 Jan 2009 at 4:32 pm

    Steven- I agree completely with those comments.

    Dave S. – dlmccaslin,

    Read about the history of pulsars and some interesting current thought-

    From the person who discovered pulsars-

    “Were these pulsations man-made, but by man from another civilization?”…
    “It is an interesting problem….. if one thinks one may have detected life elsewhere….. how does one announce the results responsibly?”


    For a current discussion about pulsars (and the possibility that they are in fact our ‘first contact)


    “Pulsars have been found to exhibit a large number of interesting and quite intricate behaviors – behaviors that (though this may be called post hoc reasoning) fit much more easily with a model of an ETI beacon carrying information than they do with any natural-origin model that has been proposed. Astronomers and astrophysicists have been pushed to the limit as they contrive more and more intricate neutron star models to explain what they are seeing, and for some behaviors they have no explanation.”

    I still don’t know what is meant by ‘artificial’. Is that ‘not natural’.
    Is the consensus here that intelligence is somehow not natural as in ‘supernatural’?

  17. petrucioon 08 Jan 2009 at 11:57 pm

    “I still don’t know what is meant by ‘artificial’. Is that ‘not natural’.”

    If you point a gun at someone’s head and pull the trigger, would it be fair to say he died of natural causes? Nuff said.

  18. Humes Razoron 09 Jan 2009 at 4:29 am

    The key difference is obvious in the very first word of “SEARCH FOR EXTRA-TERRESTIAL INTELLIGENCE”. While the SETI Intstitute doesn’t claim to do anything more than _search_ for signs of intelligence on other worlds the Discovery Institute claims to have already _found_ signs of intelligent design in biology and no standard of evidence, logic or intellectual honesy is too low to back up their purely religious position.

  19. Eric Thomsonon 09 Jan 2009 at 5:54 pm

    Dave S nails it:
    And isn’t it odd how IDers consistently point to Sagan’s fictional account of SETI is his book Contact, rather than the actual program?

    It is really strange. I have been in serious arguments with ID folks and they pull out Sagan as somehow representing what SETI is as practiced. It’s very telling.

  20. sonicon 11 Jan 2009 at 8:39 am

    Regarding how SETI is actually done–


    “Of course, irrespective of whether we’ve set up our equipment for messages or not, we fully expect that any aliens interested in transmitting would accompany their broadcasts with a lot of information. Why bother otherwise?”

    “Every SETI researcher values sensitivity. But the price paid for “integration” is that complicated messages would be averaged out too and lost. About the only sort of information that would survive integration would be a really slow, pulsing signal — something like Morse code sent by a beginner. Project Phoenix could find such lethargic messages if they were sent at 1 bit per second or less.”

    The problem for SETI is in the equipment. They would love to find complex coded messages (as they would expect to find being sent by intelligent sources), but the technology we have available now lends itself to a search that ‘throws out’ the complex coded message. To say that they wouldn’t look for such a message, or that such a message wouldn’t indicate intelligence, or that they are not looking for such a message is false.

    I would say the guy died from a bullet wound. This is a natural thing to have happen.

  21. Dave S.on 11 Jan 2009 at 9:27 am

    SETI and Intelligent Design

    December 1, 2005
    by Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer, SETI Institute

    If you’re an inveterate tube-o-phile, you may remember the episode of “Cheers” in which Cliff, the postman who’s stayed by neither snow, nor rain, nor gloom of night from his appointed rounds of beer, exclaims to Norm that he’s found a potato that looks like Richard Nixon’s head.

    This could be an astonishing attempt by taters to express their political views, but Norm is unimpressed. Finding evidence of complexity (the Nixon physiognomy) in a natural setting (the spud), and inferring some deliberate, magical mechanism behind it all, would be a leap from the doubtful to the divine, and in this case, Norm feels, unwarranted.

    Cliff, however, would have some sympathizers among the proponents of Intelligent Design (ID), whose efforts to influence school science curricula continue to swill large quantities of newspaper ink. As just about everyone is aware, these folks use similar logic to infer a “designer” behind such biological constructions as DNA or the human eye. The apparent complexity of the product is offered as proof of deliberate blueprinting by an unknown creator – conscious action, presumably from outside the universe itself.

    What many readers will not know is that SETI research has been offered up in support of Intelligent Design.

    The way this happens is as follows. When ID advocates posit that DNA – which is a complicated, molecular blueprint – is solid evidence for a designer, most scientists are unconvinced. They counter that the structure of this biological building block is the result of self-organization via evolution, and not a proof of deliberate engineering. DNA, the researchers will protest, is no more a consciously constructed system than Jupiter’s Great Red Spot. Organized complexity, in other words, is not enough to infer design.

    But the adherents of Intelligent Design protest the protest. They point to SETI and say, “upon receiving a complex radio signal from space, SETI researchers will claim it as proof that intelligent life resides in the neighborhood of a distant star. Thus, isn’t their search completely analogous to our own line of reasoning – a clear case of complexity implying intelligence and deliberate design?” And SETI, they would note, enjoys widespread scientific acceptance.

    If we as SETI researchers admit this is so, it sounds as if we’re guilty of promoting a logical double standard. If the ID folks aren’t allowed to claim intelligent design when pointing to DNA, how can we hope to claim intelligent design on the basis of a complex radio signal? It’s true that SETI is well regarded by the scientific community, but is that simply because we don’t suggest that the voice behind the microphone could be God?

    Simple Signals

    In fact, the signals actually sought by today’s SETI searches are not complex, as the ID advocates assume. We’re not looking for intricately coded messages, mathematical series, or even the aliens’ version of “I Love Lucy.” Our instruments are largely insensitive to the modulation – or message – that might be conveyed by an extraterrestrial broadcast. A SETI radio signal of the type we could actually find would be a persistent, narrow-band whistle. Such a simple phenomenon appears to lack just about any degree of structure, although if it originates on a planet, we should see periodic Doppler effects as the world bearing the transmitter rotates and orbits.

    And yet we still advertise that, were we to find such a signal, we could reasonably conclude that there was intelligence behind it. It sounds as if this strengthens the argument made by the ID proponents. Our sought-after signal is hardly complex, and yet we’re still going to say that we’ve found extraterrestrials. If we can get away with that, why can’t they?

    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 – adead 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.

    Consider pulsars – stellar objects that flash light and radio waves into space with impressive regularity. Pulsars were briefly tagged with the moniker LGM (Little Green Men) upon their discovery in 1967. Of course, these little men didn’t have much to say. Regular pulses don’t convey any information – no more than the ticking of a clock. But the real kicker is something else: inefficiency. Pulsars flash over the entire spectrum. No matter where you tune your radio telescope, the pulsar can be heard. That’s bad design, because if the pulses were intended to convey some sort of message, it would be enormously more efficient (in terms of energy costs) to confine the signal to a very narrow band. Even the most efficient natural radio emitters, interstellar clouds of gas known as masers, are profligate. Their steady signals splash over hundreds of times more radio band than the type of transmissions sought by SETI.

    Imagine bright reflections of the Sun flashing off Lake Victoria, and seen from great distance. These would be similar to pulsar signals: highly regular (once ever 24 hours), and visible in preferred directions, but occupying a wide chunk of the optical spectrum. Not a very good hailing signal or communications device. Lightning bolts are another example. They produce pulses of both light and radio, but the broadcast extends over just about the whole electromagnetic spectrum. That sort of bad engineering is easily recognized and laid at nature’s door. Nature, for its part, seems unoffended.

    Junk, redundancy, and inefficiency characterize astrophysical signals. It seems they characterize cells and sea lions, too. These biological constructions have lots of superfluous and redundant parts, and are a long way from being optimally built or operated. They also resemble lots of other things that may be either contemporaries or historical precedents.

    So that’s one point: the signals SETI seeks are really not like other examples drawn from the bestiary of complex astrophysical phenomena. That speaks to their artificiality.

    The Importance of Setting

    There’s another hallmark of artificiality we consider in SETI, and it’s context. Where is the signal found? Our searches often concentrate on nearby Sun-like star systems – the very type of astronomical locale we believe most likely to harbor Earth-size planets awash in liquid water. That’s where we hope to find a signal. The physics of solar systems is that of hot plasmas (stars), cool hydrocarbon gasses (big planets), and cold rock (small planets). These do not produce, so far as we can either theorize or observe, monochromatic radio signals belched into space with powers of ten billion watts or more – the type of signal we look for in SETI experiments. It’s hard to imagine how they would do this, and observations confirm that it just doesn’t seem to be their thing.

    Context is important. Crucially important. Imagine that we should espy a giant, green square in one of these neighboring solar systems. That would surely meet our criteria for artificiality. But a square is not overly complex. Only in the context of finding it in someone’s solar system does its minimum complexity become indicative of intelligence.

    In archaeology, context is the basis of many discoveries that are imputed to the deliberate workings of intelligence. If I find a rock chipped in such a way as to give it a sharp edge, and the discovery is made in a cave, I am seduced into ascribing this to tool use by distant, fetid and furry ancestors. It is the context of the cave that makes this assumption far more likely then an alternative scenario in which I assume that the random grinding and splitting of rock has resulted in this useful geometry.

    In short, the champions of Intelligent Design make two mistakes when they claim that the SETI enterprise is logically similar to their own: First, they assume that we are looking for messages, and judging our discovery on the basis of message content, whether understood or not. In fact, we’re on the lookout for very simple signals. That’s mostly a technical misunderstanding. But their second assumption, derived from the first, that complexity would imply intelligence, is also wrong. We seek artificiality, which is an organized and optimized signal coming from an astronomical environment from which neither it nor anything like it is either expected or observed. Very modest complexity, found out of context. This is clearly nothing like looking at DNA’s chemical makeup and deducing the work of a supernatural biochemist.

  22. clgoodon 12 Jan 2009 at 12:37 am

    ID and SETI have plenty in common! They’re both religions!

    I’m going to miss Crichton.

  23. jclinchon 12 Jan 2009 at 12:28 pm


    “ID and SETI have plenty in common! They’re both religions!”

    They are not. Bertrand Russell once defined faith simply as the substitution of emotion for evidence. Michael Crighton opined that faith is “the firm belief in something for which there is no evidence” and concludes that SETI is therefore religion. They are both wrong.

    Confusingly, these terms – faith, belief, religion – are often used interchangeably when people use them colloquially. For these purposes, faith is belief with a religious content (not merely a conviction). But belief with no evidential support may have no religious content, as I hope to demonstrate.

    The definition of science has been long disputed but I think that “a description of the world, in principle falsifiable, that has some predictive power, based on observation or experiment” is as good as any.

    On the question of SETI, SETI is not impelled by an article of faith that there are detectable extra-terrestrial intelligences, but by the rational belief that there might be – and this belief is reasonable enough to justify the speculative quest for evidence. The appearance of any positive evidence would be a truly momentous occasion but even the persistent absence of evidence goes to support another scientific idea – the “Rare Earth” theory. Not to have bothered at all would provide no evidence for the Rare Earth idea or its antinome. The quest, designed to elicit evidence in support of a testable hypothesis, is fully justified in attracting the term “scientific”.

    On the broader point, if Mr Crighton were right, any strong evidence-free belief would be sufficient to satisfy the definition of religion. To take one example, to some people string theory provides a very good candidate for reconciling quantum mechanics and relativity but there is no foreseeable way that such a theory could be tested. There may be an argument that this means that the theory is more in the nature of philosophy and not science, but it would be preposterous to describe it as religion, however firmly the individual believed in its explanatory power.

    For if Crighton and Clgood are right, anything people believed but could not prove would be religious. A belief that the universe is finite; or that the speed of light may one day be exceeded; or that consciousness has a purely physiological basis would all fall within the province of religion.

    The definition of religion is even more slippery than that for science but I say that a much better defining characteristic of religion, properly understood, is a belief in a supernatural explanation for the Cosmos or its content. That’s probably insufficient (would it include Taoism?) but it is certainly better than the way-too-broad “belief in something for which there is no evidence”.

    But SETI is firmly science, Clgood.

  24. RickKon 13 Jan 2009 at 11:55 am

    “SETI is religion”

    Not true.

    (1) there is evidence of technological intelligence evolving in the material world on a planet;
    (2) we don’t know whether that planet is unique, so…
    (3) it is a valid hypothesis that technological intelligence evolved elsewhere.

    Also, we have already HAD a “hit” – an example of an apparently artificial signal – when we discovered regular pulses in 1967. We did not stop there and say “it’s Little Green Men, the search is over”. We assumed a natural cause and did some good science to explain that LGM1, 2 and 3 were actually neutron stars (pulsars).

    So science looks at a complex or elegant biological feature and asks “how did this evolve?”, or more generically “what is the natural, material explanation for this?”

    ID assumes an intelligent designer, then looks for examples of “design” and spends effort arguing against natural, material explanations.

    Finally, alien intelligent life would exist in the material world (where science operates), the Intelligent Designer does not. ID advocates supernatural causation. The supernatural world is the realm of religion.

  25. Weekend Homework « The Design Matrixon 16 Jan 2009 at 5:33 pm

    […] January 16, 2009 by Michael Okay, I have a weekend homework assignments for anyone who has read The Design Matrix. In my last entry, I looked at Seth Shostak’s article about SETI and uncovered some remarkable points of convergence between SETI and The Design Matrix. After reading Shostak’s article and my blog entry, now go and read Steven Novella’s essay, SETI vs Intelligent Design. […]

  26. More Matrix and SETI « The Design Matrixon 19 Jan 2009 at 10:30 am

    […] with the approach that I take in The Design Matrix. Let me now make this even more clear with a posting by Steven Novella, who is a neurologist at Yale University School of […]

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