Wednesday, April 8, 2009

SETI and Intelligent Design

SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) is a scientific organization that searches for signs of intelligent life in outer space. SETI has received support from such reputable agencies as NASA, National Science Foundation, Department of Energy, US Geological Survey, Jet Propulsion laboratory, et al. In an essay on the SETI Institute website, Senior Astronomer Seth Shostak attempts to distance SETI from Intelligent Design research.
According to Shostak, “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.”

What planet is this guy from? How could a scientist seriously compare the complexity of DNA with the Red Spot storm on Jupiter? And is he serous about organized complexity not being enough to infer design? It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in English, for example, to tell the difference between random letters on a paper, and an essay that was designed by an author. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in geology to tell the difference between natural geological formations, and designed monuments like those on Easter Island. It is apparently just in biology where organized complexity doesn’t count.

Shostak continues, “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.”

Shostak’s answer is that SETI looks for artificial signals, not for complex signals. He says, “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.”

This argument is just smoke and mirrors. First, although the artificial is not always, complex, complexity is often the hallmark of artificiality. For example, when the Rosetta Stone was first discovered, no one mistook the complex scripts for erosion or natural scratches.

Second, if SETI did find highly complex signals from outer space for which natural explanations proved to be statistically improbable, you can bet your last dollar that they would claim to have found signs of extra-terrestrial intelligence.

Third, the point of comparison is the fact that both Intelligent Design and SETI scientifically study evidence for design. The fact that the evidence for design in biology may be different than the evidence for design in astrophysics does not make either one less scientific than the other.