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“SETI and Intelligent Design”


Seth Shostak, at the SETI Institute, has an interesting online article criticizing ID here. His main charge is that ID has no business looking to SETI for support. Why? Because whereas ID looks for complexity in biology to detect design, SETI in fact looks for very simple signals to detect design, namely, radio signals with narrow bandwidth transmissions (not long, complex sequences of prime numbers as in Carl Sagan’s novel Contact).

But in fact, my criterion for design detection applies to the very signals that Shostak’s SETI Institute is looking for. Yes, as narrow bandwidth transmissions, the signals are simple to describe. But they are difficult for purely material processes to reproduce by chance. So we have simplicity of description combined with complexity in the sense of improbability of the outcome. That’s specified complexity and that’s my criterion for detecting design. It’s the same reason we detect design in the 1×4×9 monolith in 2001, A Space Odyssey. The structure is easily described; yet it is hard for natural processes to produce such rectangular solids by purely undirected material forces.

Moreover, as a good friend and colleague has pointed out to me, Drake and Sagan weren’t thinking merely in terms of narrowband transmissions in 1974 when they sent a message in the direction of the globular cluster M13. See the graphic at the top of the following page: http://www.geocities.com/CapeCanaveral/8505/SETI.htm. This example also illustrates how a designer can communicate details about oneself.

I was on Shostak’s radio program a few years back debating Massimo Pigliucci. Perhaps he should have me back. I’ll recommend that he expand SETI to include SEXCI (the search for extra-cosmic intelligence).

Arecibo Interstellar Radio Message Sent To M13 On November 16, 1974

Wm Dembski: So we have simplicity of description combined with complexity in the sense of improbability of the outcome. That’s specified complexity and that’s my criterion for detecting design. Would pulsars fall in that category? They have that simplicity of description but what would we say about their probability? IOW if we used the EF with pulsars would they get kicked out before the design inference was reached? Also if the greater the complexity = the smaller the probability does it hold that the smaller the probability the greater the complexity? Making a 30' jump shot isn't complicated yet it is near impossible for some people... Note to PMOB1- I also have a 10" ap (1125mm fl) plus 2- 4.5" aps (910mm fl) (one is computerized) Joseph
DaveScot, Dead on. And while Shostak expects a mere monotone from "out there," look what we've already found "in there:" astounding complexity. One of the things I got from astronomy was the realization that earth, and everything on it, is in the same deep space I see in my 10-incher. pmob1
Dave – Let me try to explain the reasons why a simple carrier *may* indicate the presents of ET. First - As far as we know the only possible way to create a monotonic carrier of a very narrow wavelength is by specific, intentional purpose. There is no natural event that can do it. It must be created with electronics equipment. We may be wrong in that theory but a good scientist is always ready to have a theory proved wrong. This assumption allows us to filter all wide band signals and look for only narrow band signals. Second: Because of the extreme distances between possible ET planets and ourselves the power that must be put into a signal must be focused into a very narrow signal. If it were required to also carry information it would necessarily become defuse and less likely to reach its target. This implies that any ET signal would be narrow band. Third: Because any ET signal should be narrow band and not carry any other information other than ‘I’m here’ we can think of it as a beacon advertising its presence – nothing more, nothing less. Fourth: The whole idea of SETI is to search for an intentional, narrow band beacon pointed directly at our star. The reason this is so is because any other possibility would not be detectable by us. It’s true that ET may also have their equivalent of TV transmitting the ET version of I Love Lucy but we would not be able to hear it. Dave – It’s a difficult thing – to build the equipment necessary to detect ET, and almost surly destined to fail and Dr. Shostak is correct when he say’s that the search for ET and the search for ID are very different endeavors ZekeTheElder
It seems to me Shpstak is making an ET-of-the-gaps argument when saying an empty carrier coming from a planet would be confirmation of extra terrestrial intelligence. He's positing that because there is no known natural mechanism on a planet to generate a carrier that it must be ET. This is an argument from ignorance plain and simple. I would also bet dollars against donuts that if such a signal is discovered someone will very quickly dream up a natural mechanism to explain it. In fact Shostak's argument is stupid on the face of it. Why would ET go to the effort of producing a carrier and not put any intelligence on it? That's patenty absurd. It's called a carrier because it carries. What a carrier carries is intelligence. An empty carrier points to a natural phenomenon. To put it politely, Shostak is dissembling. SETI has always been a target for skeptics to say is a waste of taxpayer money. Shostak is worried that being associated with ID would be the kiss of death - the final straw that broke the camel's back. He's dissembling in a frantic effort to put ID at arm's length. The plain fact of the matter is that biological ID is looking inward searching for signs of non-human intelligence while SETI is looking outward for the very same thing. The difference is we found something looking inward while looking outward has been fruitless. DaveScot
This just in from a colleague:
Just noticed an article by Seth Shostak at the SETI Institute (SETI and Intelligent Design), pretty lame, to my mind, but it’d be worth knowing about. Shostak says that, “In fact, the signals actually sought by today’s SETI searches are not complex, as the ID advocates assume. … 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.” In other words, if they find something unexpected, something that they know can be produced by intelligence and that they have no naturalistic theory to explain, they would be able to detect Intelligent Design.
William Dembski
But there is a "monotone" in biology that both ID and Darwinism try to explain: the uniform propensity for life to reproduce itself. That's why ID and Darwinists don't study rocks. Second, Shostak qualifies his "simple" target signal as "organized and optimized" and then denies that this implies "intelligent." We know he doesnt' mean "self-organized" since he distinguishes his target from what he (erroneously) referred to as the "self-organization" of DNA via evolution. Go figure. Maybe there's a giant tortoise out there supporting one of Shostak's worlds. It can make a sustained monotone. It's optimized and everything but, in the end, really not that bright. pmob1
I don't know who Shostak's trying to fool. A carrier with no intelligence on it isn't going to convince anyone it's ET on the horn. Somebody will dream up some natural process that could do it. The chief scientist of SETI@home said in a recent interview he expects we'll pick up on some ET communications not meant as cosmic beacon. DaveScot
Reading all of Shostak's comments (http://www.space.com/searchforlife/seti_intelligentdesign_051201.html) is actually helpful for confirming ID's claim that SETI is looking for the same thing. I expand more on the issue here (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Intelligent_design#Dembski_responds_to_SETI_critique), but in short it seems that the substance of his critique is based only on ignorance or prejudice. Otherwise he would realize that he was saying the exact same thing as Dembksi in Part II of The Design Revolution. dbergan
He attributes DNA to self-organization. How wrong can that be! Benjii
I think "specified improbability" might be a better term than "specified complexity". Then the SETI people can't claim they aren't using some form of ID. Logan
You may be looking at a checkmate in the relevance of complex specified information to general design detection with this SETI business, Bill. I eagerly anticipate your next move! ;) David crandaddy
I hope "SEXCI" doesn't offend the delicate senses of propriety around here. I'm not sure how much more they can take. DaveScot

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