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Royal Support for ID: UK Funds SETI Project

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The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is predicated on a notion familiar to theorists of intelligent design: that it is possible to distinguish intelligent causes from natural causes. SETI researchers aren't looking for pulsars, black holes and other natural objects that may produce radio waves. They are looking for "unnatural" signals produced intentionally, from minds like ours longing to communicate across space.

The ID link to SETI was expressed almost a decade ago in Illustra's films Unlocking the Mystery of Life and The Privileged Planet, and has been discussed occasionally on this news site. Ironically, though, most SETI supporters are ardent Darwinians. They just don't get it. They call ID religion, but find its principles very useful for detecting intentional design from the intelligence of aliens.

The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) lists some goals of the UK SETI Research Network (UKSRN):

UKSRN (http://www.seti.ac.uk/www.seti.ac.uk) covers a broad spectrum of research topics, including potential methods for detecting signals, the linguistic challenge of deciphering messages, the probability of an extraterrestrial civilization interacting with Earth and the longevity of civilizations.

The UKSRN believes the time is right to renew SETI searches, because computer technology has improved the prospects for filtering signals out of haystacks of data. Also, telescopes are now better equipped for scanning targets quickly, using interferometry and high-speed networking.

But while data collection is essential, what really matters is the design inference -- detecting intentional communication:

Dr John Elliott of Leeds Metropolitan University is a researcher on the nature of communication: how language structure can be identified, and methods for subsequent decipherment and dissemination. He has analysed over 60 human languages, which cover all the different types of systems, as well as non-human communication, such as robots and dolphins. Elliot believes that by understanding our analytical capabilities for communication, we can develop strategies for extra-terrestrial message discovery and understanding.

Researchers may not succeed in deciphering an alien message. Some medieval manuscripts remain undeciphered to this day, despite decades of trying. Still, we know a message when we see one. Elliott is driven by the possibility that there is "something unique to communication phenomena, irrespective of the source, that makes them distinguishable from other signals in the universe" -- basically, they are purposeful orderings of natural materials, rather than the outcome of natural laws acting on particles. Those marks are detectable even if we cannot decipher the message.

Elliott is clearly no ID advocate per se, yet he acknowledges that intelligent causes are special:

"By looking beneath the surface veneer of the arbitrary sounds and symbols used, we can 'see' the language machine itself: its mechanisms, constraints, and evolutionary forces of efficiency and compromise that shape it. By understanding these structures, it should be possible to glean information on the intelligence of the message author," said Elliott.

Notice that he is not looking for the mutations or selective history of what produced an alien brain. He is looking for information -- a message -- sent by an intelligent mind. This is why SETI differs from mere astrobiology. An astrobiologist would be content to find bacteria on another planet. SETI looks for something far more specific: a message carried across space to us, bearing information.

In Unlocking the Mystery of Life, William Dembski shows that information is basically equivalent to small probability and specification. Using Mt. Rushmore as a backdrop, Paul Nelson explains that when those two things are present (low probability and specification), it's evidence of intelligent design. Those criteria define SETI's research goals as well.

The article describes how some of the researchers would find evidence of an alien civilization interesting, whether or not aliens are trying to send a message. Aliens might have modified their host star, for instance, to conserve energy. This kind of search might be called "celestial archaeology." But the conundrum still haunts those efforts: did the aliens build their structures using intelligent design? (Archaeology is another science that depends on the design inference.)

By building structures ourselves, we, too, are in effect sending a cosmic message. Any alien detecting the effects of our civilization -- say the Voyager spacecraft, now approaching interstellar space -- would be justified in concluding it to be a product of intelligence. If it would be absurd for aliens to dream up a theory that the spacecraft "evolved" out of interplanetary dust, it would surely be just as absurd were SETI researchers to find an alien civilization and attribute it to natural causes. SETI researchers are ID advocates in spite of themselves.

Image credit: Illustra Films.