ETs, ID, and Folk Psychology - Evolution News & Views

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ETs, ID, and Folk Psychology

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SETI advocates, who tend to hang out with the Darwinian materialist crowd, hate intelligent design. Yet they also find it very useful.

The whole premise of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) is the ability to distinguish intelligently caused signals from natural patterns in whatever form they are observed: radio waves, optical beams, or even (as Paul Davies has suggested), artifacts left on our planet -- perhaps even in our DNA. That's a perfect fit with the definition of intelligent design: certain phenomena in nature are best explained as the result of intelligent rather than undirected causes.

The "I" in SETI is the giveaway -- intelligence. Our uniform experience with intelligence allows us to distinguish designed effects from natural phenomena. It's not only SETI's methodology; it's the reason for the search. We want to discover beings like us, beings with intelligence, intentions, and purposes for their actions -- beings who are trying to communicate. SETI, therefore, must reluctantly join the showcase of bona fide sciences that are ID-based, such as archaeology, biomimetics, criminology, computer science, cryptography, economics, engineering, forensics, operations research, robotics, and some schools of psychology.

Try as they might, SETI advocates cannot extricate themselves from the web of arguments for ID. Look at a recent press release from Penn State, "Finding ET may require giant robotic leap." John D. Mathews, a professor of electrical engineering (whoops, there's ID again), tried to extricate a foot from one sticky strand (radio searches), only to touch two others -- robotics and folk psychology. There's no escape.

Using his design-saturated mode of thinking as an engineer, Mathews argued that robotic searches are more likely to be successful than radio searches. Here's the robotics strand:

The basic premise is that human space exploration must be highly efficient, cost effective, and autonomous as placing humans beyond low Earth orbit is fraught with political economic, and technical difficulties.
(Count the ID sciences there: computer science, economics, engineering, operations research, robotics.) From this strand, Mathews extends a limb and touches another strand: folk psychology. ET must think like us:
If aliens are out there, they have the same problems we do, they need to conserve resources, are limited by the laws of physics and they may not even be eager to meet us, according to Mathews.
Look what he's doing. He's trying to do mind reading on aliens. This is sometimes called "folk psychology" -- the attempt to predict and explain the actions of other sentient beings, like why the driver next to you is honking, or whether a certain look means "he loves me, he loves me not."

Whether folk psychology should be classed as science or pseudoscience is the subject of a long-standing, colorful debate (see the article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). That debate need not concern us here. Suffice it to say we all use folk psychology every day, and it is based on design thinking; we infer our fellow human beings have reasons, however flawed, behind many of their actions.

Mathews, using ID-based folk psychology, tries to predict what alien intelligences will do. They will want to conserve, so they won't waste resources on methods with low chance of success. His brashness as a folk psychologist is almost comical:

"If they are like us, they too have a dysfunctional government and all the other problems plaguing us," said Mathews. "They won't want to spend a lot to communicate with us."
Mathews suggests a stepwise approach to a robotic SETI, ending up in a set of self-replicating exobots that can expand outward across the galaxy. Stir in a little more folk psychology, and you get his success scenario:
"Our assumption in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence is that ET wants to be found," said Mathews. "But who has energy resources to spend trying to wave their metaphorical hand across the galaxy?"

He said it is more likely that one of our exobots will intercept a signal from one of theirs if we are to make first contact.

Poor SETI, there's no shaking off intelligent design, is there? If our robot contacts theirs, the products of our ID will make contact with the products of their ID -- something the robots would be designed to recognize as unnatural, in other words as intelligent design. SETI is ID all the way down.

Photo credit: Allen Telescope Array, SETI Institute, brewbooks/Flickr.