Copyright 2005 Rick Harrison
SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) & ID
Perhaps nothing has captured the imagination of the peoples of the world more universally than the search for extraterrestrial life. ET never ceases to fascinate. Even here in the debate between intelligent design (ID) theory and neo-Darwinian (accidental) evolution two key questions/objections have arisen that are linked to ET:
(1) Why would SETI scientists accept so little evidence for the existence of other forms of intelligent life as a single monotonous electromagnetic pulse or a green square stuck in the middle of a planet in space, when neo-Darwinian evolutionists reject the far greater indications of intelligent design in the complex logically programmed systems of human genetics and microbiology?
(2) If ET could be the designer of life, why then doesn’t intelligent design theory qualify as science as opposed to religion?
In an attempt to rebut the first objection, SETI scientists and neo-Darwinian evolutionists (correctly) say that the kinds of criteria SETI and ID theory currently use are completely different; SETI uses artificiality while ID theory primarily (but not exclusively) uses specified functional complexity. Chief SETI astronomer Seth Shostak points out that the objection as phrased by some ID proponents falsely assumes that SETI is searching for a complex signal, when it is in reality searching for an artificial signal, one that could be supremely simple in form, even a monotonous, droning pulse.
By “artificial,” SETI scientists merely mean something that nature is known not to do in a given context. Artificial things don’t need to be complex, and technically, they don’t even have to be precise, so long as science can affirm “Hey! Nature could not have done that.” In theory, really stupid forms of alien life on other planets could fool around with the resources of their world minus any real scientific expertise and inadvertently produce a very simple signal of some kind that SETI could pick up and identify as indicating alien life simply because it wasn’t something nature could generate in that region of the cosmos. The same goes for smart aliens generating the same kind of signal on purpose. Simple still works for SETI as long as it is a type of signal or observable indicator that science knows could not have originated spontaneously in nature.
Although SETI has recently opted for an artificiality-based (as opposed to a complexity-based) search criterion, SETI would acknowledge the valid implications of intelligence should a message from space containing high levels of specified functional complexity be received. If SETI were to receive a complex signal from deep space such as a symphony of Alf von Beethoven, a complex engineering blueprint, or a simple unambiguous linguistic message with recognizable meaning, transmitted on wavelengths that nature can spontaneously produce signals on, then SETI scientists would still be obliged to accept the specified functional complexity embodied in the message as evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence (assuming hoax could be ruled out).
Certainly if a large computer program was transmitted from space that produced a transparent 3-D video display of the human body, showing precise reenactments of all the bodily processes down to the molecular level, SETI scientists would consider it evidence for intelligence at the originating end of the transmission, once again assuming hoax could be ruled out. SETI scientists, and presumably all others, would acknowledge that high levels of specified functional complexity are, if not outright proof, very suggestive evidence for intelligence, despite the fact that they have, for their own reasons, opted not to look for this kind of evidence in the search for ET.
There are practical reasons why SETI is looking for a droning simple pulse on the wavelengths nature doesn’t use instead of a complex signal across the entire spectrum of wavelengths. SETI has shifted to the artificiality criterion for extreme long distance searches because they believe complex signals become unaffordable to ET at ultra-long distances. Why spend scarce resources looking for something ET is not likely to elect to send? While this makes perfect sense for management of the SETI budget, it does not negate the value of other kinds of legitimate indicators of intelligent design.
We could use complex message criteria to search for ETs within our own galaxy, however. Paul Horowitz, one of the now famous geniuses in the history of SETI, informs us that there are no such practical limits up to a thousand light-years distance.
…if we had a couple of 600-foot dishes, well within our capability on Earth, and they were spaced a thousand light-years apart, could we transmit with a dollar’s worth of energy a signal that could be received above the noise at the other end?
At five letters per word, galactic telegrams cost a dollar per word. That’s an amazing fact. It’s a fact that interstellar telegrams are cheap. If you want to think of why, probably because the sky is very quiet at radio frequencies. Nature doesn’t know how to make twenty-centimeter waves very well. And therefore, with modest-sized pieces of technology we can communicate.
Thus, the capability to send and receive complex signals to and from space is in fact within the range of modern Earth science and technology, and has been for many decades, up to the thousand light-year range. ETs living within that range (or having traveled to be within it) could therefore transmit complex signals to us and we would recognize that intelligence was implied by the functional complexity embedded in those messages.
The thousand light-year range of search would seldom exceed the exterior boundary of our own Milky Way galaxy, estimated to be on average 1,000 light years thick, and 100,000 light years in diameter. So, why aren’t we doing that search for complex signals at least within our own galaxy if it is possible?
Science apparently considers the Milky Way area pretty well exhausted of potential for intelligent life. Drawing such a vacant neighborhood conclusion about our own galaxy would seem to entail an awful lot of work. There are approximately 200 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy alone (approximately 50 billion galaxies in the universe). But somehow science seems to have come to that opinion. And we haven’t been economically and logistically positioned to construct a massive grid of 600-foot electromagnetic wave transmitter dishes on trillions of planets at thousand light-year intervals all through the other 50 billion galaxies of the larger universe.
Perhaps ET has similar limitations. On the practical side of things, then, it makes perfect sense that SETI has begun to look for simpler artificial signals that could be power-boosted within a range of affordability sufficient to get them outside the originating galaxy and streamed across the universe to billions of other galaxies. This does not contradict the fact that science recognizes that certain thresholds of functional complexity serve to establish intelligence in the signal originator, for we Earthlings are sending, or at least we have sent, complex signals into space with the intent of reaching intelligent extraterrestrial life forms.
In 1974, scientists from Cornell University broadcast the first deliberate message to space. It contained, in a mathematical code, a crude picture of us and basic information about our chemistry…
Carl Sagan describes the message this way: “What is said fundamentally was: Here’s the Sun. The Sun has planets. This is the third planet. We come from the third planet. Who are we? Here is a stick diagram of what we look like, how tall we are, and something about what we’re made of. There’s four point something billion of us, and this message is sent to you courtesy of the Arecibo telescope, 305 meters in diameter.”
Clearly, the history of SETI has involved the use of complex messages on the outgoing side of things. This establishes that should a radio frequency message arrive from space carrying complex functional information (symphonies, language, science, math, digital renditions of art or cultural artifacts, etc.), even were it to be broadcast on a frequency nature herself tends to use, science would admit it was of intelligent design.
In a seminal 1959 paper by Cocconi and Morrison: “Searching for Interstellar Communications,” a paper seen by some as providing the first scientific foundation for the SETI endeavor, Cocconi and Morrison proposed using the hydrogen line frequency (1420.40575177 MHz) for searches for ET signals from space. The Hl frequency is a naturally occurring frequency, not an artificial one. However, there are reasons ET might elect to use it. It has the advantage that it can penetrate Earth-like atmospheres with little interference.
At the foundational level, both enterprises, SETI and ID theory, are looking for signs of intelligent life, albeit in somewhat different ways. The criteria acceptable to science for that general purpose, practical and political concerns aside, have to be the same else a contradiction is invoked. Although SETI organizations are currently looking for very simple signals, the point that the theoretical SETI enterprise makes in favor of ID theory is that science would recognize certain levels of specific functional complexity in signals from space as signs of intelligence should they be received. ID theory proponents have pointed out the logical inconsistency in science not recognizing similar and far greater levels of functional complexity discovered embedded in the magnificently complex systems of life?
As an interesting aside, SETI’s move to simple artificial signals may have something to do with national security considerations as well as economics and logistical feasibility. This likely has to do with a concern that we not reveal too much about our scientific, military, and industrial capabilities to potential enemies from space. In addition to concealing information that might allow intergalactic predators the ability to “size us up” as possible cosmic mugging victims, the simpler signal though scientifically legitimate will appear evidentially ambiguous to the lay public. The Defense Department can therefore plausibly deny ET contact to the public when such a signal is received from space—at least for a time. This keeps the public out of the Pentagon’s hair just long enough that the military can evaluate possible ET threats before naďve and premature ET enthusiasts start sending ET electronic valentines, beer fest invitations, and messages revealing far too much about the level of scientific, industrial, and military development of our world, thus inviting an intergalactic invasion by projecting our weaknesses.
Such a policy would make practical sense. However, it provides yet one more opportunity for the Marxist-influenced atheists who dominate modern science to play word games with the public when they comment on SETI’s relevance to the intelligent design theory debate. Marxists would happily collude with the Defense Department in contriving to move complex SETI signal searches to a secret function exclusively within the Defense Department. SETI is a very popular subject. Marxists would prefer to avoid having to simultaneously admit the validity of the design inference in such a popular venue, while also being forced to concede that since ET isn’t home, God seems to be our best candidate for the designer.
Should the simple droning artificial signal presently being monitored for by SETI occur, any number of delaying tactics can be employed by the government in public exchanges while the ET signal track is turned over to the Defense Department for immediate analysis. The simple droning signals would normally only be used by ET civilizations located at extreme distances. No need to hurry to set up a defensive strategy in those cases. However, receipt of complex signals would indicate potentially much closer points of origin. The complex signal space messages would need immediate attention due to shorter reaction time windows. The distraction and delay of public debate driven by compulsively single-minded ET peaceniks would be a luxury we could ill afford in those contexts. A policy of temporarily treating simple space signals as ambiguous, thus delaying public release, and denying the existence of complex space signals completely allows the Defense Department to preserve the capability for the rapid flexible response necessary to protect the Earth.
Thus, SETI’s move to a search for simple space signals doesn’t mean that the complex signals are not valid indications of intelligent origin. Science would acknowledge the indications of intelligent origin implicit in complex signals if such signals were received.
Conversely, the artificiality concept currently employed by SETI researchers can also be used by ID theorists as a valid indication of intelligent design in biology. Artificiality and complexity are actually very hard to separate in both cases. In both contexts, the presence of one will very often imply the presence of the other. High levels of complex functional design (outside of biology) don’t often spontaneously occur in nature, thus objects found that possess such attributes would normally be assumed to be artificial, and in many cases, certainly in the space context, placing something artificial into space implies the preexistence of a complex technological civilization.
In nearly all cases, and probably all we can scientifically imagine, even for the type of simple artificial signal SETI is looking for to have been generated, extreme specified functional complexity must nonetheless have existed as a prerequisite for the signal’s generation in three different forms: a) the advanced science of the extraterrestrial civilization, b) complex technology sufficient to send the signal, and c) the complexity of ET’s living bodily systems (the biological complexity prerequisite to intelligence). Minus biological intelligence, science, and technology, an artificial signal outside the parameters of what “dumb” nature could spontaneously produce would not have been generated at all.
For the purpose of science making inference to intelligent design in biology or intelligent origin of signals from space, the two criteria, functional complexity and artificiality, are not so vastly different approaches as some SETI scientists remarks would suggest; they are in fact closely related and almost always occur together.
SETI and ID are conceptually similar in other ways. An acceptable SETI signal is presumed to be a behavioral work product of ET, and a functionally complex biological design creation is presumed to be a behavioral work product of the designer of life. They ask the same question: “Is intelligence the source of this product?” In this sense SETI and ID are not looking for two different kinds of things at all.
Science would in fact accept as evidence of ETI any message on any frequency whose structure corresponded to extreme complex specified functionality of any kind: the blueprint for a space shuttle for example. In pointing out the functional similarities between genome functions and computer and machine programming languages, ID scientists are applying an artificiality criterion. The only difference is that the ID application of artificiality in regards to genomic systems is done at the conceptual level, whereas SETI primarily applies artificiality at the physical object level. However, if SETI staff detected a radio signal from deep in the cosmos that clearly represented a computer programming language they would be obliged to consider it as having originated in an intelligent source.
Artificiality is in fact detectable in the linguistic structure, syntax and semantics of DNA and in the Boolean logic of gene regulation networks. The latter essentially equate to a wiring diagram of an electronic circuit board, and the former are simply a translatable system of code similar to computerized industry’s machine control code. Accidental processes do not construct coded languages with translation systems and Boolean logical networks. It just doesn’t happen. These kinds of conceptual systems are known to be artificial.
The bottom line is that both the unsurpassed functional complexity of life and the artificiality of the DNA language and Boolean logic of biological processes make life the prime candidate for intelligent design of unknown authorship in human experience. Both criteria, artificiality and functional complexity, are scientific criteria (not religious) as indicated by their presence in the full list of different types of indications of intelligent origin acceptable to SETI.
The default assumption, based upon both the functional complexity and artificiality criteria, must therefore be that complex life is artificial and originates in an intelligent source. This must remain true until it can definitely be shown that living systems can arise spontaneously from a random mixing of physical elements minus any assistance from intelligent purposive agents, and that there was ever such a significant event of random mixing of physical elements in the history of our universe.
Demonstrating that life tends to self-organize over vast amounts of time due to the influence of life-friendly natural laws and physical constants is not a demonstration of the random production of life. It is the demonstration of a guided or directed process, a process that an intelligent designer of life might have used.
Although the historical strategies of SETI and intelligent design scientists in the use of inferential criteria may not have overlapped as a matter of historical fact, across the full range of theoretical options SETI and ID pull from the exact same pool of alternative types of evidence and inferential criteria. Simplified into the two major categories, we are talking about artificiality or specified functional complexity. This is as it must be, for SETI and ID purport to be giving evidence for precisely the same thing: intelligence as the source of a body of empiric observations.
At the bare minimum, SETI reveals that there can be a legitimate science focused upon the detection of intelligence via indicators resident in physical phenomena. This, of course, is the essence of intelligent design theory. Why isn’t intelligent design theory recognized by evolutionary science as a scientific approach when it does not require God as the designer of life, makes no religious claims whatsoever in many of its present formulations, and uses the same inferential system as SETI research?
Although SETI astronomers, astrobiologists, cosmologists and all the other branches of science, allow for the possibility of extraterrestrial life, neo-Darwinists dismiss the ET-as creator-of-mankind option out of hand when ID theory wants to invoke it. Why? Apparently they think ID theorists are not offering it in good faith. But the ET alternative is a simple scientific fact that has nothing to do with worldviews, personal politics, or religion.
A theory must be evaluated purely on the merits of its propositional content, not on the psychological profile of those proposing it, or of those receiving the proposal. A person with inappropriate motives can propose a good theory. Theories must be evaluated on their content alone, not on the hypothesized motives of those who propose them.
Francis Crick, the co-discoverer (with James Watson) of the double helix molecular structure of DNA, and chemist Leslie Orgel hypothesized in their book, Life Itself, that extraterrestrial intelligence was the source of Earth’s life, if only in intentionally disseminating microorganisms in our direction. (See Astrobiology's Web site at http://www.astrobio.net/topic/origins/origin-and-evolution-of-life/francis-crick-remembered/) One of our most distinguished scientists, Alan Guth, has proposed the possibility of super-advanced civilizations designing whole “baby” universes. Neither of these theories was dismissed as nonscientific merely because ET was involved as the originator of life on Earth or another planet, or because one or more of the authors might have had an ideological motivation for proposing the theory (Crick was an atheist).
NASA is still spending substantial amounts of money on ET-focused research, as is the National Science Foundation, both of which funded the recent project to expand the search catalog of habitable stellar systems for the SETI follow-on project, Project Phoenix, at the University of Arizona. Project Phoenix is not a whimsical afterthought of a harebrained idealist with no credentials. It involves the University of Arizona and University of California Berkeley. It adds 350 dishes, a hundred-fold increase in search capacity, and integrates the Arecibo observatory and the Lovell Telescope in England. Agent Mulder couldn’t ask for a better project! Even Scully would admit that SETI is a scientific endeavor, and that the ET hypothesis is science not religion. Why then is the hypothesis of ET involvement in biology automatically dismissed as religion?
The possibility that some extraterrestrial civilizations may be scientifically advanced far beyond our level has been admitted since the 1960s! Famous astronomer Frank Drake, the father of SETI, estimates there are 50,000 detectable intelligent civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy alone (despite the fact that we don’t seem to be looking there with all available methods). This clearly implies that the ET-as-designer-of-life hypothesis is both rational and scientific in principle. This entails that ID theory in its most general and generic form (minus any religious elements) is a proper scientific theory as well.
The Astrobiology Magazine article, “Francis Crick Remembered,” makes an interesting observation: “Crick and Orgel wrote in their book Life Itself, ‘an honest man, armed with all the knowledge available to us now, could only state that in some sense, the origin of life appears at the moment to be almost a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have had to have been satisfied to get it going.’ ”
When an atheist hypothesizes that the origin of life on Earth required intelligent assistance it is a properly scientific theory; but when a Christian proposes the same thing it is religion. There is something very wrong with this picture. The public is being taken for a ride. Ironically, atheists are corrupting the integrity of science under the banner of protecting that integrity. They are attempting to preclude the admittance into science of any theory that opens the door to a challenge to their atheistic belief system.
They may not be consciously aware that an ideological bias has affected their scientific work, but so it has. Guth and Crick proposing ET as the source of life on a planet is good science, but Dembski and Meyer proposing the same thing is automatically religion? Come now! How flagrant does the politicization of science have to be before we have the courage to stand up call for corrective action?
One can counter that the two theories are not exactly the same, one specifies ET (Crick) while the other only affirms an intelligent designer generally, while allowing that it might be ET (Dembski and Meyer). And ID theory says the initial construction of life anywhere would have required intelligent design, while Crick is only saying that arrival of living microbes from space solves the dilemma of how life might have arose on Earth, while leaving unsolved the problem of how it arose in other locations in space. Presumably those who highlight this latter difference would want to allow for the possibility that chemistry might be different on other planets, allowing for a plausible accidental production of life, despite the fact that the same is not plausible here.
But even if such a planetary chemistry were actually discovered it would not prove ID theory to be a non-scientific theory; it would just show ID theory to be wrong as a universal rule. We should note also that finding another planet where simple microbial life might have accidentally arisen does not prove that the entire tree of complex life on Earth arose by accident.
Crick, by the way, did not propose dumb aliens as the source of his directed panspermia, the intentional dispersal of living microbes into space; he proposed intelligent ones capable of space science. The general structure of Crick’s theory and ID theory are then very much the same: the explanation of life on Earth requires an intelligent source.
While it is true that the scientific versions of ID theory do not obligate including God as an alternative that the theory itself provides for, they do change the intellectual landscape of the larger discussion about religion in venues outside of science. They show that life is not an accident. They show that evolutionary science does not rule out the existence of God. And they inform us that, at least for the present, the source of the element of intelligence necessary for the origin of life remains unknown to science.
This means that at present God has not been shown to be superfluous to the explanation of life within the larger philosophical arena of intellectual thought that includes but is not limited to science. This has the effect of taking away much of the strength of the traditional atheist-materialist argument against God from science.
And that, dear friends, is precisely the reason why atheists and materialists in scientific circles want you to believe that even God-neutral versions of intelligent design theory are not properly scientific theories. Having improperly dismissed ID theory, they can say that science can find no perceivable pathway for God to have played a role in the origin and evolution of life. This, despite the fact that science still cannot explain either the origin of life or any of the macroevolutionary events that originated major new life forms.
SETI Links (from the author’s UFO Web page)
NRAO Green Bank, WV https://science.nrao.edu/facilities/gbt/
NRAO Home Page http://www.nrao.edu/
Harvard's (Professor Paul) Horowitz Group SETI Programs: http://seti.harvard.edu/index.html
Harvard Microwave SETI: http://seti.harvard.edu/seti/index.html
Harvard Optical SETI Project: http://seti.harvard.edu/oseti/
History of Harvard's SETI projects: http://seti.harvard.edu/seti/harvard_seti.html
Andrew William Howard's PhD Thesis on Optical SETI Research at Harvard University http://frank.harvard.edu/~howard/thesis_official.pdf
Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory/NASA Astrophysics Data System http://adsabs.harvard.edu/
SETI@home University of California at Berkeley http://setiathome.berkeley.edu/
SETI@home FAQs http://www.faqs.org/faqs/seti/at-home/questions/ (Drake Equation, Fermi Paradox, how to set up SETI@home on your home computer…)
Shadowlands AstroFAQs http://theshadowlands.net/astrofaq.txt (Drake Equation, Fermi Paradox)
Soviet attempts to contact ET, Project Blue Book pages 1178-1249: http://www.bluebookarchive.org/page.aspx?PageCode=NARA-PBB86-1178
Columbus Optical SETI Observatory http://www.coseti.org/morris_0.htm
Bournemouth Optical SETI Observatory http://www.coseti.org/www.boseti.org/
SETI League SearchLite Journal Issue #1, Vol. 2, Winter 2014 http://www.setileague.org/srchlite/vol20no1.pdf
Back issues of SearchLite Journal in PDF http://www.setileague.org/srchlite/index.html
SETI League home page http://www.setileague.org/
SETI League Reading List http://www.setileague.org/articles/publists.htm
SETI Related Periodicals http://www.setileague.org/general/magazine.htm
SETI & Space Related Hearings
Extraterrestrial Intelligence Research: Hearings Before the Subcommittee on Space Science and Applications of the Committee on Science and Technology, U.S. House of Representatives, Ninety-fifth Congress, Second Session, September 19 & 20, 1978. http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015081118021;view=1up;seq=5
 Thomas R. McDonough, The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence: Listening for Life in the Cosmos (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1987), 168.
 http://imagine.gsfc.nasa.gov/docs/ask_astro/answers/980317b.html, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Web site.
 See the NOVA online Web site at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/universe/tour_ggs.html.
 Ibid, 122.
 Horowitz, himself, has suggested using a wavelength that nature seldom uses, but that is, at least ostensibly, for purposes of reducing the power level required to override natural interference, not because artificiality is the only criterion that would indicate intelligent beings were the source of the message.
 Melanie Mitchell, Complexity: A Guided Tour (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2009), 282-285; Marcello Barbieri, The Organic Codes: An Introduction to Semantic Biology (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003).
 Margaret C. Turnbull and Jill C. Tarter, “Target Selection for SETI: A Catalog of Nearby Habitable Stellar Systems,” University of Arizona, Steward Observatory.
 Edward Ashpole, The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (London: Blandford Press, 1989); Michael D. Lemonick, Other Worlds (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998); Robert Jastrow, “Cosmic Evolution,” Natural History, vol. 77, no. 1, 37-38.